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

Palapas and Concrete Beds

Last time around I explored the stunning colonial streets of Campeche. Now I leave behind both the city and the shining Gulf of Mexico, cutting inland toward Mérida. It’s not easy, but I can feel how close I am to the end of the Mexico ride…

Pirates beware! Photo by Andre.

Pirates beware! Photo by Andre.

Wednesday, January 28 (Day 936 of the Great Adventure)—To Hezelchakán

I said goodbye to my now-familiar hotel staff, loaded up the Giant and rolled out of the medieval walls for the last time. I was in no hurry, having a short day ahead and wanting to enjoy the ride. The very first leg ran along the malecón (water walk) and blue waves loaded with seaweed lapped up against the stone wall. Looking north over the sea I could almost picture New Orleans 1,000 miles away, or Veracruz far to the west.

The malecón ended in a string of palapas (thatch roofed buildings) selling seafood. Several waiters waved menus at me, but I was still full from breakfast and pushed on. I made a short palapa video for supporters, music from the restaurants thumping in the background.

Once off the malecón the Gulf disappeared off to the left. It was nothing but highway through jungle and savanna up ahead. I said a final farewell to the water and pushed on.

I continue to learn a lot about how to make a bike ride more fun. For one thing, the shorter mileage days mean less schedule stress and more time to stop and explore. For another, when I see a roadside place that looks attractive, I’ve finally developed the habit of pulling over and checking it out. The spots I find my accident are often much more attractive than the ones I “planned” to stop at, so there’s no reason not to. That’s exactly what I did today, going right past a tiny cafe with a covered front porch, but turning around  quarter mile later and stopping in for a sandwich and a juice.

Lunch stop. Photo by Andre.

Lunch stop. Photo by Andre.

The scenery was pretty, but mostly wide open with a headwind. I spent most of the ride lost in podcasts and pedaling almost robotically forward.

My destination for the day was Hezelchakán, a Mayan town dating back at least to the earliest days of the Colonial period. It was essentially the only town I came through: the villages are located slightly off the highway, so that unless you turn off you never see them.

I didn’t have much of a plan for lodging and was essentially relying on luck and exploration. I had heard rumor of a place called the Hotel Margarita located near the center, but when I rolled in I saw no signs for it and not even anything matching the description (a “yellow building.” As the afternoon slipped toward evening I explored out in a wider radius, looking for any hotel at all. Eventually I spoke to some policía near the main road who had some advice for me. Knowing that there are major resorts in the area (with prices upward of US $1,000 per night) I made clear I wanted something “not too expensive.”

“Ah, a cheap place,” the policeman said. “I know where you need to go.”

He was terrible at giving directions, so I got out a piece of paper and made him write down the names and draw a little map. He pointed me to two places, but emphasized one in particular as “exactly what you want.”

Score.

I rolled into the exactly-right place, a posada consisting of a long row of rooms in a cinder block strip behind someone’s house. A young man opened the door and let me tour one: ripped up mattress on a concrete slab, no pillows, one bare light bulb, and a perfectly functional 40 year old TV set.

“Thank you,” I said. “I have one other place to look at, so I might return in 20 minutes.”

Or, as I thought in my head, please no please no please no.

With fingers crossed I rolled expectantly toward the policeman’s runner-up. Lo and behold, it was a yellow building with Hotel Margarita painted on the front.

The Margarita was no lap of luxury, but compared to the posada it was P.O.S.H. Cracked walls, busted screens and iffy running water were offset by an intact mattress, an actual pillow and enough light to see by. I paid the equivalent of US $11 and checked in.

Fun fact: hotel rooms in Yucatán include rings in the wall where you can sling up your hammock. Many Mayans use hammocks instead of beds.

Also, just because the hotels are a little basic doesn't mean they can't have stylin' bikes.

Also, just because the hotels are a little basic doesn’t mean they can’t have stylin’ bikes.

Not much happens in Hezelchakán. I wandered the centro twice: once in the daylight and once again after sunset, hoping some night life would spring up. (By “night life” here I’d be willing to include even a taquería with a particularly punchy owner.)

Instead I had a hard time even finding food, but eventually settled on a small restaurante in the husk of a colonial house. I peered in the hot window and chose carefully what to order, remembering past problems with meat that’d sat out too long. After dinner there was little else to do but turn in. 36.9 miles.

Map. (Note: The beginning is not exactly accurate—the map follows the closest road to the malecón. Also, I exclude my circular wanderings in Hezelchakán.)

Great scenery. Photo by Andre.

Great scenery. Photo by Andre.

January 29 (Day 937 of the Great Adventure)—To Maxcanú

I slept well in my concrete bed but my romance with Hezelchakán had come to its end. Breakfast was at the same restaurante. Dinner had been lackluster, but today the food was terrific—a testament to the value of arriving early in the day.

Tonight’s destination was another Mayan town, Maxcanú. Instead of getting back on the highway I took a rural road straight to the next village. I noticed that bicycle taxis, which were all over Hezelchakán, were not shy about heading out on the open road and creaking slowly toward the next town, doñas seated tacitly in the back. These Latin pedicabs would be ubiquitous from here onward.

Yucatecan bicycle taxi. Photo via University of Arizona.

I did end up on the highway for a bit, but actually took a longcut to stick to rural roads and good scenery. Along the way I passed some kind of eco resort. Small cabins for rent, nestled in the jungle, a restaurant and a big sign listing their amenities… the temptation was strong to just turn in there and call it a day. But that would leave me a lot of miles the next day, and I was enjoying the ride too much to stop. Onward I went, past limestone caves covered in the roots of giant trees, possibly the entrances to hidden cenotes.

If Hezelchakán had nothing going on, Maxcanú made it look like a cosmopolis. The place was simply dead. I spotted one hotel/restaurant in what looked like a beautiful colonial building, and approached the owner about renting a room. He looked up from watering his roses, pointed at the dark windows of long-shuttered hotel rooms, and went back to his chores. So much for the welcome mat.

The place that turned me away. Photo by Andre.

The place that turned me away. Photo by Andre.

A little asking around—and a lot of bicycling in circles—gave me three lodging options to choose from. One was almost a carbon copy of the concrete longhouse from yesterday. The second, a little posada that doesn’t appear on any version of the internet, offered conditions that were little better but were at least part of an actual home, with grandma herself in charge. At the third one I struck Mayan gold: a legit little hotel with simple but clean rooms, also attached to a home. I grabbed a second floor room, unloaded, and took a shower with sun-warmed water. (The place was called Posada Doña Bety, after the lady in charge.)

The entirety of Maxcanú seemed to be under a technological pall that blocked 3G/4G signal for my phone. The Doña Bety, of course, had no wifi, but I found a small cyber cafe off the main square, reachable only by climbing a metal fire escape staircase that sways in the wind. There, a 14 year old named Sergio allowed me to set up shop and catch up on my work while he played dubstep songs. We were the only ones there except when his brother Pedro popped in, and Sergio took an interest in my adventure. He seemed ready to pull out a bike of his own and join me, but Pedro managed to hold him back.

One thing that stood out was that instead of bicycle cabs Maxcanú seemed to favor moto taxis, which were basically the exact same vehicle but with a motorcycle smashed into the back instead of a bike. This was a step up from the moto taxis in Dominican Republic, which were literally just motorbikes with way too many people piled on them, but I couldn’t help but notice that the people sitting in the front scoop would basically be lauched into the air in the event of a collision.

Motorcycle taxi. Photo by Sun-Ling.

The one highlight of Maxcanú was a terrific taquería at a small public market just a block from the Doña Bety. They took good care of me, never bringing me exactly what I ordered but always making sure I had plenty of it. After dinner there and one more stop at the cyber cafe I headed back to my room and turned in. 36.6 miles.

Map.

Friday, January 30 (Day 938 of the Great Adventure)—To Mérida

In morning, phone still little more than a paperweight, I saw no reason to prolong my stay. Today the road would take me to Mérida, capital of Yucatán and another glimmering colonial city. I ate a quick breakfast with a couple mugs of Nescafé, said goodbye to Doña Bety, and rolled out.

The miles rolled by. For lunch I stopped at a kitchen in one of the villages (Chocholá). The woman here had no change for a $500 peso note and sent me to a grocery that promised to break the bill, but only after a very confusing Spanish conversation that basically translated as, “Bro, you need to buy something.”

Change (and extra water bottle) in hand, I returned to the kitchen where they served me a delicious hot pressed sandwich.

As I got closer to the city, I found myself on a big highway with a strong wind and no shade—but also no traffic, as a long segment of it was closed off to vehicles. This eerie, abandoned stretch came to a head as I passed under an overpass. The cement pillars holding it up were stained black from a fire, a small cross painted nearby. The under-bridge itself reeked of human poop. I struggled to put a reason to this creepy scene: a septic cleaning trunk exploded into a fireball? A hobo camp had a party that got out of hand? I decided to get off the Mad Max set while I could, and turned onto a side road with trees, shade and fresh air.

This course correction added a few more kilometers to my route but also took me through the town of Umán, which I really enjoyed. Traffic was lively but not dangerous, and instead of braving a freeway I rolled past business, parks and plazas. Thanks to traffic lights I moved almost as fast as the cars did, and a guy in the back of a pickup truck kept waving every time leapfrogged past each other. His smile put me in a good mood. The edge of Umán merged seamlessly with the sprawl of Mérida and soon I was in the city proper. I swooped into a city park for a break in the shade.

The last order of business was finding a hotel—this time with plenty of options. I checked out a promising option called the Hotel Reforma, but the rooms were meh and the prices steep even offering me a “discounted” rate. So I coasted onward to the Hotel Caribe, where the faux discount was a bit deeper and the rooms truly sparkled. Soon I was checked into a sunny little number on the top mezzanine overlooking a well-groomed courtyard. It was a gorgeous place to rest.

View from the mezzanine. Photo by Andre.

View from the mezzanine. Photo by Andre.

After a shower I explored the city and investigated dinner options but, as usual on my first day in a big city, I passed up local delicacies and headed straight to the local pizza parlor. 39.7 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg:  113.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4641.5 miles.

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