Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Dark Days in Tabasco and Veracruz

Last time I made it to the coastal city of Coatzacoalcos, but at the cost of an injured knee. Now things are about to get worse.

Sunday, January 4 (Day 912 of the Great Adventure)—Rest in Coatza

Coatza (KWAT-zuh) is a good enough city if you can get get around. But it sprawls Texas-style with long city blocks. With an overuse injury on one knee and soreness in the other, I made a rule: no biking anywhere in town. If I had to go somewhere, I would walk.

It limited my options. The centro was quite a hike away, and I never got there. The first morning I found a nice looking cafe just a few blocks from my hotel. They had pricey breakfasts, decent coffee and semi-reliable wifi. More importantly it was a change from my dreary hotel room. I actually went back later in the day with my laptop and sat there working.

I also made a plan. I couldn’t afford to risk more injuries. One way to prevent them is to reduce the amount of weight I carry—in other words, chuck some gear. I had already paired my kit from the early days of my Adventure, but I carried a pile of camping gear that I hadn’t used once in Mexico. It had to go.

I’d toyed with shipping it home as far back as San Miguel. Back then I worried I might still need it, but now I knew I could find a cheap hotel virtually anywhere in Mexico. I just had to figure out the details. What does it take to ship a box from Mexico to the US?

My friend Cintain gave me the info I needed. Short version: it’s gonna cost you.

The Mexican postal system suffers from a few flaws. For one, it’s slow. The post cards I’d sent from San Miguel a month ago still hadn’t arrived at their destinations (they ended up taking five weeks). Secondly, and more importantly, things have a habit of disappearing. Especially expensive looking things, and especially expensive looking things that have to go through customs, as all international packages do.

I have no idea if a bivy, an air mattress and a few odds and ends would look “expensive” or not, but I didn’t want to find out. Cintain urged me to use a private service like FedEx. Pricey, but reliable.

An afternoon storm rolled in off the Gulf so I didn’t get to go box-shopping just yet. Instead I discovered that the restaurant across the street was a sushi place (!). Once I found that out the storm didn’t bother me.

Also across the street was a small coffee shop. It was only open at night, so after dinner I took the laptop over and tried it out. Their menu bears a beautiful statement about the Slow Food movement. I didn’t try the slow food, only the slow coffee, which was excellent.

"Its symbol is the snail, emblem of lentitude."

“Its symbol is the snail, emblem of lentitude.”

Once they closed I went back to the hotel, iced my knees, and slept.

January 5 (Day 913 of the Great Adventure)—Boxing Day

I wanted a cheaper breakfast, and stopped by a small open-air place. It was the right choice. I had my first order of motuleños, an open-face stack of tortilla, ham and fried eggs with all sorts of delicious stuff poured over it.

Photo by Andrew Dunbar via Wikimedia

Even more important, the place put a bowl of salsa macha next to me. I would put this sauce on everything if I could.

Salsa Macha. Photo via Tom’s Kitchen (click for the recipe).

After that it was time to hunt down a shipping box. This is one of those things where every store you go to doesn’t have it, but they’re really sure which other store will have it, and then the cycle repeats.

Eventually an Oxxo employee sent me to a big-name supermarket/department store. I thought he was saying they sold boxes, but as I walked past the bag check (yes, you have to check bags at these stores in Mexico) I noticed piles of flattened boxes waiting to be recycled.

“Pardon me,” I said to the bag check man in Spanish. “Are those for sale?”

“No,” he said.

“Can I have one?”

“No.”

“I need a box to mail something.”

“How big?”

I held up my bivy sack, which I’d brought along for exactly this reason. “Big enough for this.”

“We don’t have any that big.”

I pointed. “What about that one right there?”

“Which one?”

“That one.”

He wandered over to it. With some more pointing and coaxing he identified the one I meant.

“Can I see it?”

He handed it to me. It was big enough.

“Can I have this?”

He shrugged.

“Muchas gracias.”

I got it all packed up. Once full the box weighed nearly 12 pounds, which is 12 pounds less weight on every pedal stroke, for 40,000 strokes a day. Hell of a workout.

(Hell of a price, too. I chose the slowest FedEx shipping option and spent about US $100 for the privilege. But hey, I got a tracking number.)

I wouldn’t actually ship it till the next morning, though, and spent the rest of the afternoon doing client work and resting my knee. For dinner I decided to walk toward the main drag, only to discover one American fast food restaurant after another. Coatza is an up and coming oil town, plus a major port. Eating American food is a sign of success.

I gave in and went to Little Caesar’s. This was a family favorite when I was a kid, and eating there brought back memories. I won’t lie, it was tasty. But by the time I was done I felt queasy; it didn’t help that they had only soda to drink, no bottles of water.

A young local man and his mother sat down at the next table. They struck up a conversation and we chatted for a while. They helped me learn to pronounce “Coatzacoalcos” correctly. As they got up to leave the kid suddenly turned back to me.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“The pizza here… does it taste like it does in the United States?”

I thought about it, and said truthfully, “It’s exactly the same.”

He grinned a giant smile that I’ll never forget, thanked me, and headed out.

I finished the night back at the Slow Food cafe, where the staff were happy to see me. They kindly warned me that tomorrow they would be closed, and I had to tell them that was fine—I’d be gone by then. The knee had improved, and I’d planned a very gentle route. Or so I thought.

January 6 (Day 914 of the Great Adventure)—The Longest Road

Yesterday’s motuleños were so good I went back to the open air breakfast place. The tarpaulin roof whipped in the strong stormy wind and napkins fluttered off the tables.

In a further bad omen, the local laundry place had suffered from a power outage. They had managed to wash my clothes, but not dry them.

The lady helpfully suggested I could come back in the afternoon.

I shook my head. “Give ’em to me wet.”

So I shipped my FedEx box, put on soaking wet bike shorts, and kept the other wet clothes carefully separate from my laptop inside my saddlebags.

My plan was simple. Today there was a powerful west wind, one that could help propel me forward, but it wouldn’t last long. In fact, the forecast said that once the wind shifted it would be a headwind for weeks. If I went now I had a free ride.

Or close to a free ride, anyway. Even with a tail wind and a lightened load, the knee was weak. So I planned a very short riding day, just 40 miles to a town called Benito Juárez. I felt confident the knee could go that far without re-injury.

Things started out okay. The wind kicked up behind me. I had to cross a river to get out of Coatza, and as I approached the bridge a police officer waved and shouted for me to pull over. I did, but he had other people to deal with. I guess he expected me to wait for him. Instead, in what has become an alarming habit, I just shrugged and biked onto the bridge anyway. He didn’t seem to notice.

After the river were miles of hills. I took them slow and dismounted anytime they got steep. The knee was alright. But my heart sank a little when I saw the turnoff for Agua Dulce. I’d been looking forward to that town for over a year. No particular reason, but look at the map. It sits 10 kilometers off the main road in the middle of nowhere. The name means “Sweet Water” and it’s surrounded by jungle. I figured it would be cool to check it out. But I couldn’t confirm if it had any hotels, and I couldn’t risk 20 km of extra riding if it didn’t. With a heavy sigh, I passed the turnoff and continued on.

(Also around then I crossed the border from Veracruz to Tabasco. I’d now come all the way from the Louisiana town where Tabasco sauce is made to the Mexican state it’s named after, which made me smile. And crave a poboy.)

That was about when the storm hit. For most of the rest of the day I’d be biking in heavy rain. I kept a close eye out for Benito Juárez. I couldn’t confirm a hotel there either, but at least it was on the main highway. I figured there’d be something.

But it wasn’t finding lodging I needed to worry about, it was finding the whole town. It must have been located slightly off the highway, with no real signage. I sailed right past and never even saw it.

When I discovered this, turning back against the west wind was not an option. My knee was getting sore again, but I pushed on, mile after mile, aiming for the next town: Cárdenas.

The farther I went the slower I pedaled. Instead of 40 miles it was 70. I barely even used one leg, trying to favor my strong side. It was after dark when I got there.

Que romántico. Photo by Andre.

Que romántico. Photo by Andre.

The Love Hotel

Unlike the other towns, Cárdenas has plenty of hotels and they’re all listed on Google. I was in a bad way, however, and chose the first decent looking one on the highway. (I actually mixed it up with a highly reviewed one I’d seen on Google, located two blocks away.) The hotel was happy to accept me, but I wasn’t their usual clientele.

Here’s how this place works:

  • You drive your car straight into your suite. The whole ground floor is a parking structure, with at least 3 dozen mini garages in it. You pull into any garage slot that’s open, close the door behind you, and walk up the stairs to your room. You never even see the staff.
  • The rooms have an automated payment device inside. You pay after you’ve claimed a room. The options are “overnight” and “4 hours.”
  • The rooms are actually really nice. But they have a clear focus. Giant glass-walled shower/sauna, oversize bed, total privacy.
  • The hotel has a kitchen, but room service only. You never leave your suite or see anyone else in the hotel. Ever.

If that sounds like a sex hotel to you, you’re right. But it’s a whole species of sex hotel that we don’t have in the U.S. There are no prostitutes prowling the grounds (you’d never even see them). The whole place is optimized for married businessmen and their mistresses.

So checking in was a riot, or would have been if I wasn’t in pain and half drowned. I’m sure I’m the first customer who ever arrived by bicycle. I insisted on going to reception (once I found a parking attendant), which no one ever does. It’s up a small staircase behind a locked door in a concrete hallway, with a bulletproof window. Then I asked to look at a room before paying, which is probably also a first. So they walked me into one of these garages and showed me the deal. And then, because good things come in threes, I returned to reception and paid in cash rather than using the automated device in the room. It was a confusing time.

The parking guy explained the room service deal to me. But I didn’t really want to sit in my mistressless love nest and eat an overpriced steak. So after I showered—and tracked grit and sand all over the suite—I changed into some fresh, wet clothes and limped into town for food.

This is what I got:

"en estilo Hidalgo." Never again Hidalgo!!

“En estilo Hidalgo.” Never again Hidalgo!! Photo by Andre.

It didn’t look any better in person than it does in that photo. I overrode a nagging instinct and ate my dinner. Hours later, with an ice pack on my knee, I would spend a lot of time in my romantically lit, luxuriously tiled bathroom. 73.7 miles.

Map. (The first few blocks are off due to one way streets.)

Total traveled this leg: 73.7.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4,244.7.

Next time I’m grounded—and not for just a day or two. Until then, check out other tales from the road or support the Adventure by getting the video logs.

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