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

Too Dirty for Her Bed By Far

The last few weeks had been the low point of the trip, with a serious knee injury, food poisoning, and some not-so-welcoming towns. I was done exploring Villahermosa and wondered if the road ahead would be different. It should be all beaches and islands as I followed the coast to Campeche. Even the rain had stopped. I felt a new sense of hope and turned north.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

Sunday, January 18 (Day 926 of the Great Adventure)—To the Coast

Early morning found me in the parking lot of Choco’s Hotel, still covered in puddles. I frowned. Despite my thorough cleaning of the Giant’s gears and chains, he wouldn’t shift right. I had 50 miles ahead, and was eager to get moving, but it was six days to Campeche. If the derailleur (gear shifter) needed replacing, this was the time to do it.

But first things first. I ate breakfast at the hotel, emptied my room and loaded everything on the bike. Google showed only two bike shops in town, one of them a mere four blocks away. Off I went.

The mechanic at the shop immediately put my fears to rest. Neither of us understood any of the words the other one used, but we communicated perfectly. He said the problem would be solved if we just shortened the chain, and I strongly disagreed. (As always happens when I disagree with a Mexican bike mechanic, he quickly proved me wrong.)

Four minutes and a few pesos later I had a shorter chain and gears that shifted perfectly. As he worked he made small talk about famous racing cyclists, none of whom I recognized. (I even missed Lance Armstrong, though that was due to his accent.) My lack of racing trivia made him skeptical that I would reach South America.

Back on the streets I wove through heavy traffic, counting off the blocks so I’d know when to turn. A white-skinned guy with filthy blond hair spotted me and gave out a massive victory roar. I held my fist up and soared on. It’s weird, but he really picked me up. I guess it was just nice to know that someone else in this corner of Mexico understood the drive for adventure. White people are messed up.

The ride itself was a dream. 50 miles and no knee pain to speak of, plus the surroundings were sublime. Lush savanna gave way to coastal marshes, dotted with pockets of tropical forest. It was so green and the air smelled so fresh that I pulled over just to bask in it. The day was sunny and very warm, but I carried plenty of water.

Today’s destination was Frontera, a coastal town near the Tabasco/Campeche state line (frontera means “border” in Spanish). It’s situated at the mouth of a river, and I crossed the water on a high bridge just before sunset, again awed by the beauty of nature.

It was still light when I rolled into town and I picked out the least shabby of three hotels. There was no way to bring the Giant up the steep, narrow staircase to the hotel, but the owner promised me they had parking “just around the corner.” She grabbed the key and offered to show me the way.

Around the corner meant go two blocks, hang a left, and go another block. She unlocked a door big enough to admit a Caterpillar; beyond was a walled yard that could have easily housed an outdoor Wal-Mart. A few parking spots to one side had a roof, so I chained the Giant up there and made sure I had everything I needed. Clearly I wasn’t coming back till morning.

I followed the sound of music to a small pizza/burger place on the square (also on the second story—is this a thing?). I enjoyed a “Texas Burger,” which has all the fixings that we’d call a “South of the Border” burger in the States, and some deep-fried mozzarella sticks, a sight that brought tears to my eyes.

I got back to the hotel room early and put myself to bed. 51.1 miles.

Map.

Breakfast in Frontera. I'm hooked on motuleños.

Breakfast in Frontera. I’m hooked on motuleños.

January 19 (Day 927 of the Great Adventure)—The Island City

It turns out Frontera is an oil town, and morning brought a surge of oil workers in bright orange uniforms, probably finishing up some shore leave and getting ready to go back to a platform. Travel hint: if all the oil workers in town go to the same cafe for breakfast, try that cafe.

The road out of was beautiful again, though hotter and more miles than yesterday. I crossed the state border in late morning and discovered a one of a kind roadside shrine on a strip of highway flanked by marsh. Sometimes I would hear a horrendous sloshing in the marsh, and discovered that cattle ranching is just as big on the coast as it is in the desert—you just let the cattle waddle through the swamp to graze. Once, even a horse came splashing through the foliage.

Later I turned into the small town of Nuevo Progreso looking for lunch. This was not a town that usually gets visitors, and I couldn’t go 50 meters without someone yelling “GUERRO! GUERRO!”

The main street had no eateries but I discovered Gisela’s, an open air kiosk in a park. It’s the kind of place with no menu, just one plate of the day. Gisela apologized because today’s was chicken with a spicy sauce, and she was surprised when I excitedly ordered it. The real treat was fresh “agua de piña” (ice cold pineapple juice). I drank a liter.

After lunch I asked Gisela if she had a bathroom.

“Ah,” she said. “Here’s what you do. See that fruit stand over there? You go ask that lady for the key. Then you go into that collapsed warehouse and just walk on through. Don’t worry, just go all the way through. On the other side you look for the public market, and inside the market there’s a locked bathroom.”

I started in disbelief and she repeated the directions. I’m pretty sure the fruit stand lady had to repeat them as well. From the smell inside the collapsed warehouse, that’s as far as most hombres get, but I followed the treasure map and eventually did my business in a real porcelain toilet (sans flush).

Gisela at her kiosk in Nuevo Progreso, Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Gisela at her kiosk in Nuevo Progreso, Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Late afternoon brought cooler temperatures and I whisked on at high speed—much faster than the cars and buses, which were backed up in a traffic jam stretching for miles. This seemed odd out in the country, but eventually I found the cause. A rally was happening at the small town of Atasta, and had fully blocked the road.

I try to steer clear of political events in foreign countries. Rather than crossing the picket line I dismounted and walked around the edge of the crowd. When I was nearly to the other side, I finally caught someone’s attention.

“GUERRO! GUERRO!” he yelled.

The cry spread. Several hundred protesting Mexicans turned their eyes on me. I did what any savvy traveler would do: I put on a giant friendly grin.

Someone in the crowd let out a resounding, “VIVA MEXICO!”

I struck a pose, raising a fist in victory salute to the patriotic cry. Everyone in the crowd laughed and I got out of there.

After that the roads were clear. It was forest on both sides with a sparkling lake just past the forest. The pine trees and lake reminded me of Michigan.

It was basically dusk when I reached the shore of the Gulf, the first time I’d seen it in weeks. Out in the water were the twinkling lights of Ciudad del Carmen, a city on an island. A long bridge stretches from mainland to city, and I crossed that bridge in the dark, pausing to hear the gentle lapping waters and thinking of my night landing by kayak.

In town I had set my rights on a hotel that looked good online. I rolled the bicycle into the lobby and approached a painted young lady behind the counter (protected by elegant iron bars). I asked to see a room.

“I can’t show you one,” she said.

“Are you out of rooms?”

“No, we have plenty.”

“Then…?”

At first I thought the issue was that she was alone, and didn’t go alone to rooms with strange men. That’s a fair consideration. But after some back and forth, I think what she was telling me was this:

“To me, you look dirty, and if I let you go into a room you might dirty it up.”

Son of a.

I very carefully chose some Spanish words about how she looked, but bit them back. Instead I politely told her that I would look for another hotel. I then stretched out on one of the upholstered lobby chairs and pulled out my iphone, going through Google reviews and checking the location of each one on my map. She was visibly uncomfortable that I was there. I took my time.

Eventually I did find a better place, with much friendlier lobby staff. Ciudad del Carmen is a real city, if a small one, and has a beautiful centro. The thing about island cities is that they’re never spawled out, and are almost always better for it. I spent the evening exploring and had a burger at a local pub. 62.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 113.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4391.1 miles.

Next time it’s iguanas, beaches, and the sweetest little stretch of road of the whole trip. Until then check out my past road logs or become a supporter.

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

Into the Serpent’s Nest

Last time I spent New Year’s in a city of witches. Now it’s time to saddle up and hit the road again—and hope that my body can handle these jagged hills.

This area is so beautiful it's used to film jungle scenes for movies. Photo via Filmapia.

This area is so beautiful it’s used to film jungle scenes for movies. Photo via Filmapia.

Friday, January 2 (Day 910 of the Great Adventure)—To Acayucan

After breakfast and a final lakeside offering, I was ready to wheel out of the City of Sorcerers for the last time. Today, however, I had a soundtrack.

Two years ago my friend Zack Whitley (the same one who designed my business cards) moved to L.A., God rest his soul. But it made sense; he works in TV and movie production and I hear they do some of that out there. He is also a gamer, like me, meaning that if we get a chance we’ll gladly spend our free time playing make-believe with other grownups.

When Zack got to L.A. he promptly made friends with a bunch of other gamers—all also movie industry creatives. They weren’t content to just play a fantasy game every couple of weeks. Instead, they spun it into something more: they wrote stories, created artwork and even composed a soundtrack to their adventure.

That soundtrack was officially released just as I left Catemaco. Zack sent me a copy and asked what I thought. I said I was about to bicycle through some jungle-covered volcanoes and I would play it on the way.

“That,” he said, “Is the perfect place for this music.”

He was right. I waited till I was out of town so I wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of stop and go. The road south from Catemaco is a two-lane jungle highway with light traffic. As the forest closed in I put on my ear buds and pressed play.

Here’s a sample track, which I recommend you play before you read on:

The first track is a swirling crescendo that sets the scene for the saga that follows. It reminds me of Secret of Mana. It was to this backdrop that I recited my daily prayer to the road, which goes roughly like this:

O Road that I embark upon today,

Road that will take me to Acayucan, I pray,

I wish to tread gently upon you,

To be a good companion

And receive, I hope, good company in return;

To travel with a full heart and an open one,

Laying down blessings wherever I go.

O Road of my destiny:

I greet you,

I salute you,

I bless you.

May you be blessed!

Needless to say, hearing a movie score swell as I said these words is pretty damn cool.

The entire album is good. It definitely feels like the soundtrack to an adventure movie, but completely instrumental. The tracks force you to conjure the battles, the tragedies, the evil sorcerers in your own mind. Coasting through shady, misty tunnels of trees, it sometimes made the hair on the back of my neck tingle.

If you want to check out the album for yourself, head to The Vigilant Menagerie.

Painful Climbs

Not all was good on the day’s ride, however. That amazing scenery involved more of the extreme up and down I’d been experiencing since cutting inland. I would rise or fall 1,500+ feet in just a mile or two. Although my knees had rested up in Catemaco, they still weren’t at 100%. Soon I was back to soreness on every uphill pedal-stroke.

If I could reach Acayucan, my destination for the night, I’d be out of the crazy volcanic hillsides and the terrain would be more level. But it was a long 50 miles and I don’t remember much about the villages along the way. I do remember the mouth-watering smell of grilled chicken that inevitably accompanied them, and how I considered stopping for some at a little hamlet that clung to the roadside. Instead, wanting to simply be done with the ride, I gulped a sports drink, ate a snack and smiled at some curious-but-shy kids before hurrying on.

The land transformed. From the jagged forest ridges I emerged into a sort of elevated grassland, fenced off and turned into fields here and there with clusters of untamed jungle in the background. It was like a tropical version of Wisconsin. There remained plenty of hills, however, and by the time I approached Acayucan I was happy to be done.

Ice Packs and Za

Because of the mood I was in, I don’t think I was able to properly appreciate Acayucan. Effectively the county seat, it’s a bustling little city with a very orderly centro. I found my way along an onslaught of one-way streets (not always going the right way) to a hotel I’d chosen online, Los Arcos (“The Arches”). My mood extended even to this place: the Arches cost more than my typical overnight, and not until long after I was gone would I appreciate how good I had it. The wifi was strong, there was an actual writing desk in my room, and it included working (!) air conditioning.

Instead I focused on the basics. After stowing the bike and showering, I sought out a local pizzeria. It was advertised on the hotel menu, and looked better than your typical Mexican street pizza. Sure enough, I found it just a few blocks away and ordered a small pizza with pineapple and pepperoni.

It was so good—and I was so famished—that I followed it up with a second one.

That was about it for me. I got a milkshake from the hotel restaurant and picked up some ice for my knees. I spent the remainder of the evening reading on my bed and alternating which knee got the cold treatment.

At this point it should have been clear that I had really overdone it, but I felt I was past the worst of the hills. I also knew that Coatzalcoalcos, a coastal city, was just one short day away. If I was going to give the knee more rest days, I’d rather do it at the beach.

I made up my mind to continue on and fell asleep. 50.6 miles.

Map.

Also in Acayucan I found this spider on my bike shorts. It turns out that if you google a spider you can find find out a lot of things, but not how venomous it is. Can we get a Knowledge Graph for this?

Also in Acayucan I found this spider on my bike shorts. It turns out that if you google a spider you can find find out a lot of things, but not how venomous it is. Can we get a Knowledge Graph for this?

January 3 (Day 911 of the Great Adventure)—To Coatzalcoalcos

Morning brought less knee pain, but not 100% relief. Still, I had breakfast at an outdoor cafe and then mounted up. It was a foolish choice.

I was right about the terrain: the route ahead was far less hilly. There was little of the dramatic up and down of the past few riding days. But it wasn’t flat, either. The hills could take me up a thousand feet over a number of miles and often featured smaller, sharper rises, like bonus features on a bad DVD. These were hills that would have once been easy, but I could feel the strain in every pedal-stroke.

I began to really doubt my decision to go onward. I became worried for my knee and the prospect of a serious injury reared in my mind. But I was miles out already, and today was a very short day—less than 40 miles total. I kept going.

Eventually it happened. Ironically, I was past the very last of the hills. I had reached the coastal flats that lead out toward Coatzalcoalcos when my knee abruptly went from sore to wicked. Pain shot up on every stroke. I was hurt.

It wasn’t a good place to do it. Coatza sits on a point that juts into the Gulf, and it’s surrounded by marshes. I was on a long, remote highway that crosses that marshland like a causeway—no houses, no gas stations, no nothing. But it was nothing but tall green marsh on either side. Traffic was heavy, but in that grassy tunnel I felt very much alone.

I had few choices. It was 15 miles on to Coatza, and a lot more than that to go back. I began to sort of limp-pedal. I would pedal strong on one side with my good leg and just let the injured leg swing loosely on the other side. This worked to reduce my pain but it also slowed my pace significantly. The green marsh road seemed endless. I saw industrial sector of Coatza far in the distance but it never seemed to get closer.

Despite being beautiful, the road was unpleasant. The shoulder was in truly horrific condition and I really had to bike out in traffic. Traffic didn’t like that much. Mexican drivers are far more courteous and aware of cyclists than Americans are, but even so it was a lot of trucks barreling down behind me. They came in waves, so I would ride the lane during a quiet spell then rattle over to the shoulder to avoid the next surge. It wasn’t great.

Coatzalcoalcos

Back when I considered kayaking the Gulf Coast, this city was my destination. The final port of the voyage. So Coatza holds some special significance for me, but by the time I got there I was anything but triumphant. I actually considered rolling into the first love nest hotel I found, but I’m glad I held out. I’d already limp-biked 12 miles, why not go three more?

There was a final challenge, of course. Coatza is connected (and divided) by a giant freeway that’s the only way to get into the downtown. The main artery features a huge overpass—in other words, one last slog uphill. Screw that. I got off and walked the bike. On the way up the ramp I did have one good moment: I saw a man in his 40’s standing on the pedestrian walk and staring intently off at the trees. He had his camera out. I followed his gaze and, sure enough, there was a big beautiful iguana in that tree. I was in no state to get out my own camera, but here’s a picture of the sort of critter we saw:

Photo by Ken Johnson. Thanks Ken!

Photo by Ken Johnson. Thanks Ken!

Finally I was up the last hill and could coast toward a hotel. I’d looked up several that were central and didn’t look too expensive. As it turned out Coatza (like many industrial towns) is pretty spread out, so “central” is relative. But I wasn’t picky, and the one I checked into was pleasant enough.

Even with the setbacks, 40 miles is indeed a short ride and I’d arrived much earlier in the day than I usually do. I figured I might as well go see the beach and get a swim in before the hot part of the afternoon was over. (Walking didn’t irritate the knee at all; it was only the repetitive pedaling motion that did it. And stairs.)

The beach in Coatzalcoalcos. Photo by Andre.

The beach in Coatzalcoalcos. Photo by Andre.

Beach Time

Aside from being the end point of my would-be kayak trip, Coatza has a bigger significance—a mythical one. Supposedly, the pre-Hispanic natives of Mexico had a myth that one of their gods had departed over the sea and would one day return. When the Spanish arrived, so the story goes, some of the locals wondered if Cortés was the return of that god. Sound familiar?

Well that “god” is Quetzalcoatl, which is a name used by both a major deity and a famous king. One of them, either the king or the god, did indeed set out over the sea with a promise to return. And the place he left from?

Coatzalcoalcos.

(My understanding is that the -coat in both words is the same root which means “snake.” Quetzalcoatl is the Feathered Serpent and Coatzalcoalcos is the Place Where the Serpents Nest.)

I wanted to gaze out at the Gulf and picture the old king drifting over the horizon. It wasn’t easy; there’s very little that seems mythical about industrial Coatza with its giant seaport. Turning the other way, to the west, it was much easier to picture a lone kayak rolling in with an exhausted adventurer inside. (Perhaps with a strained back instead of a strained knee.) I wondered how different my life would be if I’d chosen to go by sea. I’ve really enjoyed the bike trip, but I wonder.

Industrial or not, Coatza has a huge strip of sandy beach along its whole west side. It wasn’t crowded: two young guys sat on a towel with a stack of beers, and one family frolicked in the waves. I could see other people here and there down the shore. I jumped in, played in the waves, and forgot about my knee for a while. And I recorded a video on the sand for my supporters (you can get access here).

An American Flavor

My original plan was this: swim, then seafood. Beachside eateries lined the shore, and I chose the one with the best patio.

But they didn’t have seafood. Kinda seems like bad policy.

I strolled down the malécon and checked out others, but they didn’t appear. They were what you’d expect: overpriced traps that only had customers because of the ocean view.

I turned inland and grabbed a couple cochinita tacos to tide me over. Later that night I tried the closest restaurant to the hotel, a local pizza spot. It couldn’t compare to the pie from the night before, but it filled me up.

After that I was done. There was a lot you could wish for in my hotel room—better wifi, AC that worked, a window to the outside instead of just a ventilation shaft—but that night it was all I wanted. I iced my knee and fell asleep. 38.3 miles.

Map 1. 25.1 miles.

Map 2. 13.2 miles.

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A Crooked Path to Catemaco

Last time I had a rough ride through Veracruz and a reprieve in Alvarado. Now it’s time to head toward Mexico’s famed city of sorcerers, Catemaco.

December 28 (Day 905 of the Great Adventure)—To Catemaco

Morning found me in my bargain hotel room. The mattress rested on a concrete slab, boards covered a hole in the hotel wall, and the blinds didn’t quite block out the view of passersby—or the morning light. Slowly I stirred, ready for the day ahead.

I ate breakfast at the Monkey Cafe in the central jardín, then got my things together. Today would be a 60 mile ride, not terribly long but involving serious hills. I would cut inland toward Catemaco, where Mexico’s most infamous brujos live. The terrain between Alvarado and there was a cluster of sharp ups and downs marked in don’t-do-it red on my topographical tool. It would be a challenging pedal.

First, however, I had to get onto The Bridge.

I say The Bridge because this is a huge highway span that connects Alvarado’s peninsula to the mainland across the bay. Accordingly, it starts from the heights above Alvarado, a hundred feet over my head. Getting onto it would involve backtracking several kilometers, all uphill, but I wondered if there was another way.

The map made it look like there may be. From one small neighborhood built in The Bridge’s shadow, it appeared that a footpath wound its way up from the city streets to the highway. (An eerily familiar situation, if you remember my time in Thailand.) I wouldn’t mind just pushing my bike up that path, if I could find it.

So off I went.

Alvarado gets few foreigners. But you could tell, as I turned into this neighborhood, that their street gets none. Every single person stopped their conversation and stared as I bicycled past. Men painting, women chatting, kids playing—the whole street went silent. I waved and gave a buenas dias, and it took them a minute to remember their manners and mumble one back.

Finally I got to the last alley, where it looked like the footpath should start. I turned down it…

…and nothing.

Just a dead end, a steep concrete wall with highway somewhere high above it.

Ah well. As I came back out of the alley, I cracked a grin. Literally everyone I had passed stood there waiting for me. They knew it was a dead end, of course, and wondered where the heck is this guy going? Unless I had a distant grandmother who lived in a house on the alley, they knew I was coming right back out.

I smiled and rolled up to the group of painters. “Pardon me,” I asked in Spanish. “Do you know if there’s a way to get through to the highway?”

They laughed, getting it. They told me I could just take the main road up, and I nodded. “I know, but I was hoping there’s a shorter route.”

One of the painters pointed one street over, vaguely in the direction of the elusive footpath. “You could take the stairs,” he said.

Stairs.

I thought about it briefly, but shook my head no. They said I could carry my bike up, but I pointed at the saddlebags. “It’s very heavy,” I said.

That was when they really went out of their way for me. I was prepared to take the long way around, but they gave me complicated directions to a shortcut. When I didn’t seem to follow these directions, one of the men flagged down a woman on a motorcycle.

“Hey,” he told her. “Can you show this guy where such-and-such street hits the highway?”

“Sure!” She motioned for me to follow her. I waved goodbye to my new friends and did an admirable job of keeping up with her, if I do say so myself. At stop signs she would try to ask me questions about myself over the sound of her engine, which meant she didn’t get many helpful answers.

Eventually she showed me the spot. Sure enough, such-and-such street doesn’t technically connect to the highway, but there’s just a metal barricade you can easily walk around, and the highway isn’t far beyond. I thanked her and we both went on our ways.

Getting up The Bridge was just the first uphill slog of many that day, and I was still fresh. The view as I went over was spectacular. I sang songs to the spirits and coasted easily through a military checkpoint on the far side.

View of Alvarado, Veracruz from the bridge. Photo by David Cabrera.

The terrain started out gentle—and extremely green. Open fields had been carved out of the jungle, and little farms crowded the highway. Even when I just stopped to gulp water or adjust my ear buds, a man came out of the nearest farmhouse to chat with me. It was a nice stretch of land.

The Rainstorm

The weather was a bit less inviting. Grey rain clouds chased up behind me or ahead of me for much of the day, threatening over and over but then moving on unspent. I actually felt drops at a gas station in a small town, but only long enough to interrupt my snack.

Still, the constant threat of rain makes the road a little more wearying. Every time you pass a restaurant or village you think, should I stop here till the rain passes? But it’s not actually raining, so you push on even if you need a rest, hoping to make the next stop before the clouds break.

That’s exactly what happened when the torrent finally came, about mid-afternoon. I had just passed up a shrimp cocktail and a beer at a little palapa when I felt the rain. It seemed light at first, and I pushed on, but soon I had to pull over and stow my electronics. The verdict was in: I was getting soaked.

As I’ve written before, rain on a bicycle is not actually uncomfortable (it can be refreshing) but it comes with problems. The brakes barely work; you and your machine get covered in grit; you’re less visible to drivers; the water gets in your eyes. I really don’t mind if I go through a short rainstorm, but it gets old quickly.

This one sort of split the difference. It came fast and heavy, then let up a little but kept falling. On the plus side, there was almost no traffic. I guess everyone stopped for shrimp cocktails but me.

This was when the terrain got wild. I noticed I was going uphill a lot more, but in the rainstorm I kept my head down and eyes forward. It’s only when the rain let up that I coasted to a stop to drink some water. And that’s when I saw it.

Gems of Brown and Green

I had just come to a break in the jungle. There was a clear view of the hills beyond. And they weren’t hills; they could have been painted for a fantasy storybook. Everything was awash in fog, and there in a hole in the clouds loomed tall brown cliffs built of endless jagged facets, each one the green of moss, like chocolate-tinted emeralds above me. It reached to the heavens, and with nothing but fog beyond, the top of this range seemed to be the end of the earth itself.

A thrill washed through me.

I stood there some minutes, simply admiring creation. Then the fog closed back around those cliffs, and it was nothing but me and the jungle and the long, grey road. I drank my water and continued on.

Brutal Biking

The rain had slowed my progress, and from there on the hills would slow it even more. The area had been formed by volcanoes, its ups and downs scars from past upheavals. There was nothing gentle about them; the road ascended at crazy, unsafe angles and my lot was to muscle over each one.

I tried to remember how many hills the topo tool had flagged red on my route, and count them off as I summitted. It was hopeless. There was nothing but hills out there. My body wore down, my knees throbbed, and afternoon slipped toward evening.

There were towns along the way. I passed through Santiago Tuxtla, nestled in a valley, at that golden hour of late afternoon. The clouds had parted and everything glistened like silver and brass. I sang songs and hurried through the town center, only to throw myself against another massive hill on the far side. I passed hotels going up that slope, but didn’t stop.

It was only 8 kilometers to the next town but that meant eight more peaks, like biking over dragon’s teeth. It was sunset when I reached San Andrés Tuxtla, a small city, the last one before Catemaco.

There I had a difficult decision. My knees were on fire. I was drooping out of the saddle, having used more energy in these 50 miles than in some 80 mile days, and I hadn’t had a proper lunch. Right next to the road as I came into town was a hotel. All I had to do was check in and I’d be done for the night.

But that meant so many things: not reaching Catemaco. Having to do more of this cycling tomorrow. Not getting to use tomorrow for work (overdue) and exploring (yes please!).

My stubbornness kicked in. I was going all the way. But I did need energy, and I swooped into a convenience store where I got chocolate covered almonds, something carby, and a Gatorade. I must have looked undead stumbling in there. I shoved the food in my mouth like a goblin, and in 60 seconds I was gone.

A little of my energy came back, but San Andrés was a big city. It was nearly dark by the time I got through. By the outlying village of Sihuapán, almost more like an outskirt, I was cursing myself for not just taking the hotel.

Darkness settled upon the road and now those hills and curves held a new menace. I had all my lights on, but had to keep a close eye on the rear view mirror to make sure I wouldn’t be run down. If the whole day had been physically exhausting, my choice to continue in the dark now made it mentally exhausting, too.

Somewhere in those bleary hours I passed very close to the great volcano that created this shattered land. I never saw it, but I know its contours well.

At long last I found myself cruising into the outskirts of Catemaco. I had reached the City of Sorcerers! There was a blissful downhill stretch (the city is at the edge of a lake) and then I hit the centro. Huge crowds milled about enjoying music and snacks. It was packed, something I hadn’t expected.

Which led to one final snag of the evening. The first hotel I tried was completely full. I’d never had this happen in Mexico before. I tried a second one, and was told the same thing.

Suddenly it occurred to me that New Year’s Eve was just around the corner and I might not be the only one who wanted to spend it in Witchcraft City. What if the whole town was full?

Fortunately it wasn’t. I was shown to a room at the Hotel “Berthangel” (Bertha the Angel?) that was perfectly fine. It had a balcony with a view of the centro, which made it loud as heck, and the wi-fi wasn’t great—but it’d do.

I was so tired I didn’t even go in search of food. I grabbed a seat at the hotel’s second floor restaurant which sold only two dishes: hamburgers and hot dogs.

“Which do you recommend?” I asked.

Definitely the hamburger,” the waitress said.

She wasn’t kidding. The burger was fine, and the french fries were so good I wasn’t sure what country I was in. She brought me a succession of miniature bottles of beer, and an hour later I was sound asleep. 61.7 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 61.7.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4,171.

Next time I get to explore the city firsthand and see if I can rustle up any of these famous sorcerers. Until then, check out my other road logs or get yourself a postcard.

 

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The Gates of Veracruz

Last time I fell in love with the city of Xalapa, even while spending Christmas alone. This time I leave my new love affair behind, making hard for Veracruz.

The skyline of either Veracruz or Corpus Christi. Photo by André.

The skyline of either Veracruz or Corpus Christi. Photo by André.

December 26 (Day 903 of the Great Adventure)—To Veracruz

A little geography is in order. Up till now my Mexico adventure has been inland; no saltwater since I turned west in Texas. But after San Miguel de Allende I’d been heading east, aiming back toward the Gulf of Mexico. Xalapa is in the mountains just above the coast, only an hour’s drive by car. It’s substantially longer by bicycle.

My goal as I rolled out of Xalapa was to reach the city of Veracruz, a port city, which would give me my first glimpse of the sea in months. I’d grab a hotel in Boca del Río, a beach resort area just outside Veracruz proper. As you can imagine I was pretty excited about this idea—I even expected to take a rest day in Boca to enjoy the beach.

From the start, however, I was feeling low. Something I’d written had hurt a friend of mine. It was unintentional, of course, but I regretted it. I had a heavy heart that day.

The ride itself was pleasant enough, but it was no downhill roller coaster. I still get tingly thinking about the mad race down the mountains to Xalapa. At 5,000 feet above sea level I expected another exhilarating drop, but this 5,000 feet stretches over a much greater distance, not steep at all. And less than halfway through I’d be at elevation 0, back to normal biking.

Still, the section out of the gate was nice enough. I found my way out of town, still not spotting a single slum, and zipped down mountainsides with the scent of flowering trees. [Andre’s note: I didn’t know it, but it was just as I left Xalapa that I pedaled my 4,000th mile.]

Once down on “flat” land the pedaling got harder. It wasn’t flat at all, of course, but hilly, and mostly deserted. It suited my mood. I labored over ridges in the hot sun, certainly noticing the difference from the cool highlands. The route involved several river crossings. The first one, still in the mountains a bit, was a green abyss below me, breathtaking to look into. I readied my camera for the next one, but it looked no different from any brown, silty river in the world.

I had decided to go all the way from Xalapa to Boca del Río in one day, counting on the downhill to make it easy. With the unexpected terrain, a late start, and half-hearted pedaling, it was sunset before I reached the city.

It turns out Veracruz is a fuming port town, and I entered on the main highway. The heavy traffic wasn’t my only pain, however. Apparently emotional dark clouds run in pairs. I had sent an apology to the friend I’d offended, but at the same time I was dealing with trouble on the love front. I remember stopping every five minutes or so, stepping off the highway, and checking my phone for the latest message. Certainly not how I’d pictured my triumphant arrival at the beach.

I reached Boca del Río well after dark. I hadn’t made any hotel reservations, preferring to see my options in person as usual. But now it was late, and anything charming about the beaches and resorts was lost on me. It was just ominous buildings with neon signs and traffic speeding by. I chose one that had a low price advertised on the sign (low by beach standards) and walked in.

15 minutes later, having gulped water and checked out a decent-seeming room, I prepared to pay. The manager told me the price… which was half again what the sign said.

I pointed this out.

“Oh, that’s out of date.”

I glowered. My mind filled with the Spanish words for So you’re a liar. Then the words for No problem, I’ll just take the sign down. And then my mind groped about for the words I really wanted: Either you give me the price or I break ALL of these windows. 

But past those windows was the long busy street lined with overpriced hotels, the one I’d already ridden up and down three times. He could see I was exhausted, and how late it was. The smug son of a bitch had me.

“Fine,” I said, and paid him his inflated price. I then rolled the Giant into my little one-night vacation rental, big enough for a family of six, feeling more alone than ever. All I wanted was to eat and then veg out online.

The wifi didn’t work, of course. But the restaurant had wine. 69.3 miles.

Map.

The main church in Varado still lit up for Christmas. Photo by André.

The main church in Varado still lit up for Christmas. Photo by André.

December 27 (Day 904 of the Great Adventure)—To Alvarado

I got up in the morning already knowing that I wasn’t staying for the “beach day” I’d planned; it wasn’t worth the price and I didn’t like the vibe of the highly developed resort area. I figured I would find better beaches up ahead.

But I thought it would be silly not to at least walk down to the water and see it before I pushed on. I ate a decent breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then strolled across the street.

To understand the awfulness of Boca del Río, let me offer a visual. Ia beautiful beach. Now imagine that all the hotels want to be close to it, so they all build along it. And there must be a road for traffic to reach the hotels, of course. So imagine this: the road is between the hotels and the beach.

That’s right. Every hotel opens onto a four-lane divided highway full of fast, noisy vehicles. And these fast, noisy vehicles zoom past every inch of sandy beach, meaning you’re essentially sunning yourself on a freeway. It’s tasty.

After waiting six minutes for a a break in traffic I scampered across the road and down to the beach. The sand is dingy and pebbly, and giant piles of rocks stick far out into the water at regular intervals. I walked along one of these rock piles and made offerings to the sea, whom I had sincerely missed.

I also marveled at how much the Veracruz skyline looks like that of Corpus Christi. Corpus was far behind me now, 700 north as the gull flies; but both are Gulf cities, both are primarily oil/port towns that dabble as vacation spots, and although Veracruz was warmer they’re hard to tell apart.

After taking a short video of the beach—in which I’m sure I looked far too unenthusiastic—I crossed the highway (another six minutes) and gathered my things and set out.

I took heart as I considered my route. I’d be following the Gulf coast now, right along the sea. At first the roads were crowded with resort traffic, then I passsed a giant shopping center and slogged up a highway bridge over an inlet. But I made my escape. First the active resorts, then the resorts under construction, and finally even the gravel pits were behind me. It wasn’t exactly beach on my left, jungle on my right—more like dunes on both sides—but it was nice.

I took a longcut, going out of my way to stick to the coastline. I’m glad I did. Soon there was little traffic and I entered a beach town. The Blonde Guy, Blonde Girl ice cream shop beckoned as I stopped to gulp some water. From there on the biking was good.

The state of Veracruz is different from inland Mexico. A few things stand out:

  • Palapas, or thatch-roofed buildings, are everywhere. Palapas are usually open-sided and they’re used as pavilions, as outdoor eateries, or the same way Americans use porches, for enjoying the evening breeze.
  • Everything from the way houses are built to the types of food available reminded me more of the Caribbean than central Mexico.
  • Speaking of which, chicken was now the main dish advertised most places. In the central highlands—rancher territory—you can’t go a half kilometer without a sign for grilled steak. Here, the aroma of grilled pollo filled the air along the roadsides.
  • People gave me a lot of weird looks. For whatever reason, in most of the highlands people took me in stride: a güero on a bicycle was unusual, but not Twilight Zone unusual. In rural Veracruz people stared in perplexity, as if Santa Muerte herself were riding by.

A second town, farther along the road, marked the edge of a Mexican naval base and a turn in the road. I followed along, popping through yet another village and a little crafts shop at the crossroads with the main highway. I became very taken by the beautiful terrain, even with the sand pits and potholes along the way. It was around here that I took one of my favorite video logs of the trip, bouncing down the sandy road, which you can see by becoming a supporter.

It was nearly sunset when I reached Varado, my destination for the night. Varado is sandwiched between the open Gulf and a major lagoon, water on two sides. It’s also, of course, on a giant hill. Just as my spirits were lagging a Mexican woman sitting outside a house waved and blew me a kiss. Her relatives cracked up laughing, as did I. It was a joke, but she had me beaming.

I passed up a roadside hotel and chose to go all the way into the centro and look around. It paid off. After a cruise down the malecón (waterfront walk), I found the central jardín and a little hotel just off of it. This place was a real flophouse, but the kid at the front counter was friendly and the price was good. Oddly, surrounded by friendly faces and paying a fair price, I felt far happier sleeping on that hard mattress than I had at the beachside resort the night before.

My night was rounded out by some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten and a stroll through the jardín, still lit up in outrageous neon colors for Christmas. 42.9 miles.

Map. (It’s off by one block at the very end. I actually took Joaquín Martínez.)

Total traveled this leg: 112.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4109.3.

Next time a rainshower refreshes my soul, volcanic mountains tear up my knees, and if I’m lucky I just might make it to the City of Sorcerers. Until then, become a supporter or check out the other road logs.

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This Is Why I Love Xalapa

Last time I ascended a stunning mountain road and then rocketed down the slope to the jungle city of Xalapa. This time, I fall promptly in love with the place—even as I feel more alone than ever.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

December 22-25 (Days 899-902 of the Great Adventure)—To Veracruz

There was something thrilling about being in a real city again. A few of my stops were big-ish, like San Miguel, and Tula’s downtown certainly looks like it belongs in a sprawling metropolis, but Xalapa is a whole different caliber. As an example, my first night there I struggled to choose between three sushi places.

(Solution: I didn’t choose; I restaurant hopped.)

A street in the Centro area. Skateboarders loved this spot.

A street in the Centro area. Skateboarders loved this spot.

But I would soon discover that Xalapa isn’t just a big city. It’s a beautiful big city. It’s as if someone took the best climate, the best architecture, the best food and the best culture scene from all the other cool places and put them together. It’s hard to explain what’s so great about Xalapa, but I’ll try:

  • The climate is perfect. It’s in an area that’s warm and humid, but it’s situated 5,000 feet up a mountain so it never gets uncomfortably hot. It’s surrounded by cloud forest, so the air is fresh, clean and cool. Flowers and trees are everywhere
  • There are more public parks, and better ones, than I’ve seen anywhere in Mexico. These range from small statue gardens to typical Mexican squares to sprawling nature walks. Many streets are divided boulevards with landscaping in the middle. And you feel like you’re in the forest at all times (because, well, you are) with trees providing canopy between buildings.
  • Xalapa is known as the Athens of Mexico. It’s one of the oldest cities and had some of the first schools of the Colonial period. It has continued to be a hub of higher learning, the arts, and music through today. Even just the street musicians are a caliber above the rest of Mexico, much like those of New Orleans compared to the rest of the US.
  • As far as I can tell there are more coffee shops per capita than any city in the world. I even saw multiple tea houses, a rarity in Mexico.
An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

There are probably some downsides to Xalapa, but I had a hard time finding them. Getting around might be tough: it’s as hilly as you’d expect for a mountain city, with lots of narrow winding roads. That could also make biking difficult, and I didn’t try out the public transportation. On the other hand, taxis were abundant and cheap.

Similarly, as with any city it’s probably only as nice as your wallet allows. But that’s what struck me: I wandered far and wide and never found a slum. I’m sure one exists, but it seems to have less poverty than most Mexican cities. Plus prices seemed overall reasonable. I was able to get plenty of cheap meals at nice little restaurants, including a Japanese noodle shop and an Italian kitchen.

Two women chatting at my favorite Italian restaurant in Xalapa, Trattoria Giovanni.

Two women chatting at my favorite Italian restaurant in Xalapa, Trattoria Giovanni.

Art & Literature

One thing I noticed the first day, Monday 12/22, was that I was treated like a normal human being. In much of Mexico, foreigners are treated like something of an oddity. We’re either an annoyance to be dealt with or we’re just a walking bag of money. Here, I was regarded as one more face in the crowd. I didn’t get any special treatment, which is how I like it.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

This attitude also extended to the local art scene. I walked past a building full of art studios, and paused as I realized these were actual studios, where artists work on their fine art—not tourist shops. I strolled past adverts for classes in sculpture, painting and drawing. There seems to be a true arts scene in Xalapa.

Likewise I could hardly choose a street to go down without tripping over a book store. Bookstores themselves aren’t unusual, but this many of them is. Once I found myself on a street where no less than three used bookstores occupied the same block as a second-floor bar called Bar de Poesía. Strong literary scene? I’m guessing yes.

Bar de Poesía.

Bar de Poesía.

What really struck me was how the arts were woven into everything. They weren’t confined to one neighborhood, but seeded throughout the city. On the second floor of one old house I spotted a coffee shop that also offered economy breakfasts, pizzas in the evening, and dance classes twice a week.

This is the cafe, "Casa Nadie." The name is a reference to a famous Mexican novel.

This is the cafe/cultural center, “Casa Nadie.” The name is a reference to a famous Mexican novel.

It might seem strange not to go to a museum in a city like this, but I didn’t have to. Everywhere I went I felt the pulse and hum of living art. This is something very few cities can lay claim to. New Orleans certainly can. I’m told Paris can, too. Xalapa is in some good company.

(Oddly, there were very few other foreigners in the city and from what I’ve read it doesn’t have a big ex-pat community. So if you’re looking for a “hidden gem” or “the next big thing,” get there before Lonely Planet does.)

The tree in the Centro.

The tree in the Centro.

The Christmas Scene

Part of the romance of my stay was undoubtedly the Hotel Salmones. It’s not an expensive hotel but it has a historic building and I loved my room. With a carpeted floor, white walls and dark wood trim, it looked like somewhere a writer would live in the 1930s. It had an actual writing desk, hard to find on this journey. To complete the air of faded luxury, there was even a burn mark from an iron in the floor.

This hotel put me just one street over from the centro. There, a giant cathedral loomed over a small square facing a government palace. The square was taken over by a towering Christmas tree, an expansive nativity scene, and a small night market. American Christmas carols blared over one loudspeaker while cumbia blared over another.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

I passed this scene many times a day, and I’ll admit some loneliness. At one point, probably on Christmas Eve, I saw doñas carrying big covered platters on every side street, undoubtedly hurrying to dinner with their families. The holiday came and went, and I was far from everybody I love.

Fun Facts

I also learned some cool trivia about Xalapa. For instance:

  • It’s sometimes spelled Jalapa. Either way the initial sound is an H as in Harry.
  • Jalapeño peppers come from Xalapa. They were first cultivated here, and the name jalapeño literally just means “from Xalapa/Jalapa.”
  • People from this city are also called Jalapeños!
  • Despite being over an hour from the coast, Xalapa is the capital of Veracruz. You’d think the city called Veracruz would be, but no, that’s just a big dirty port town.

This is also one of the first places I saw Yucateco (Yucatán style) restaurants, which made me feel a lot closer to the end than I was, and one of the first stops where I could easily order wine at most restaurants (beer is much more common), which made for a couple of long lazy evenings.

A public park in Xalapa.

A public park in Xalapa.

A trail in the same public park.

A trail in the same public park.

A hut in the same park. Yes, open to the public.

A hut in the same park. Yes, open to the public.

A Future Home

I truly hope to return to Xalapa someday. After the Mexico bicycle ride I plan to do a writing sabbatical, and I’d intended to spend it in the Yucatán. But I’d only been in Xalapa two days or so before I started contemplating coming back instead. Even if I don’t do that, I can’t imagine that I won’t live in this city at some point in the future. Only time will tell when that might be.

A playground in Xalapa. Yes, the dragon is a slide. Its tail winds through the whole playground and eventually becomes a jungle gym.

A playground in Xalapa. Yes, the dragon is a slide. Its tail winds through the whole playground and eventually becomes a jungle gym.

Instead of the three days I planned, I extended my stay to four because of how it lined up with the holidays (at least, that’s what I told myself). I’d much rather be in my familiar room at the Salmones for Christmas than out on the road somewhere.

That road is calling, however, and next time I’ll set back out for the city of Veracruz, the glimmer of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything beyond. Until then, become a supporter and get a post card or check out my other road logs.

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

The Prettiest Road in Mexico

Last time I swatted weevils in a string of valleys and reached the town of Huamantla. This time, I prepare for the final ascent to the mountain city of Xalapa—and the prettiest road I’ve seen.

Menu at the Aquellos Tiempos Cafe. Photo by Andre.

Menu at the Aquellos Tiempos Cafe. Photo by Andre.

December 19-20—Huamantla

Free as my life may seem at times, I do still work and my clients always come first. Unexpected work cropped up and, since I was in a comfortable enough stopping place, I took two days to finish it before moving on. The best place to get wi-fi at the Hotel Azucena was in its 50’s style diner, where I got to know the staff while spending hours typing away. I did try out their chocolate milkshake and I have to say it was perfect. Although Mexico does fruit smoothies really, really well, milkshakes tend to disappoint (whether called licuado de chocolate, chocomilk, or malteada). By American standards they come out thin and soupy. But someone in the nostalgically named Cafe Aquellos Tiempos (“Those Times Cafe”) knew what they were doing. On the other hand, the first time I ordered a cappuccino it arrived as little more than steamed milk. I made a face and the waiter understood immediately, remaking it with a good sense of humor. For the rest of those two days every time I walked into the cafe the staff teased me about what kind of cappuccino I wanted.

Other than that my time in Huamantla was uneventful. It’s known as one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (Magic Cities), just like Real de Catorce although for totally different reasons. It deserves the title, with a beautiful central jardín and lots of streets worth exploring. Its big claim to fame, however, is the annual Huamantla Fair. During the fair the streets are covered in elaborate “carpets” made of colored sawdust and flowers. They make more than four miles of these carpets the night before the big event, then march a religious procession over them.

One of the carpets at the Feria de Huamantla. Image by Rosalba Muñoz RomeroLia via Wikimedia Commons

That all happens in August, not December. The highlight of my stay was successfully requesting a beard trim in Spanish.

Sunday, December 21 (Day 898 of the Great Adventure)—To Xalapa

Xalapa was still a daunting 90 miles away, and I was determined to cover it all. Normally I’d break up this kind of run over a couple days, but the map showed no good towns to stop at. The geography didn’t help: I’d be climbing up over the last ridge of Mexico’s central mountains, then tipping over the peak for a race to the city. That last downhill run would be a thrill, if I could get that far.

I was in for a treat, however. This turned out to be the most beautiful road of my whole ride to date. An unfriendly wind gave way to a light cross breeze early on, and the terrain transformed continuously. The vast plains outside the city soon vanished and I entered a valley filled with a silver lake. The road was nothing more than a causeway, my bike and I a mere speck surrounded by mirror in all directions. On my left I could just spot an island with a rocky hill and its own stand of trees: the perfect place, I thought, for someone on a meditation retreat.

The valley lake and the causeway. Photo by André.

The valley lake and the causeway. Photo by André.

Marshes in the lake. Photo by André.

Marshes in the lake. Photo by André.

The outcropping in the marsh. Currently it's used for grazing cattle. Photo by André.

The outcropping in the marsh. Currently it’s used for grazing cattle. Photo by André.

Once across the lake I passed through a small town and turned onto a new highway, this one rising through chalky white hills covered in vicious green shrubs, the thorns of the desert swelled to tree-worthy proportions. Now and then, whenever they could find real soil, more hospitable vegetation filled in; lush tendrils hung down from secret ledges and draped the road above me.

Atop the white hills I stopped for a quick lunch. My venue was a simple gas station, but it was perched beside a vivid, sparkling, steel blue lake, still surrounded by bright white rock. It looked deep, cold and fresh, what they’d call a tarn in Scotland. (If Spanish has a word for it I have no idea what it is). A young guy stopped and chatted with me, showing me his own bike. I asked if he rides far and he named a town quite a ways off, and I nodded approvingly. It’s common to meet others with bikes, but not common that they enjoy riding long distances. He wished me well and cycled off.

Atop the white hills it was upland plains. Verdant cattle ranches tucked between round knobby rises in the land. The wind played behind me now, and stands of trees were less rare. I stopped under a line of them, ancient and now encroaching on the highway, for a water break.

I continued my new habit of listening to podcasts. I had finished Serial and gone through a fair number of Philosophy Bites episodes. I had high hopes for a new one, Modern Day Philosophers, which is comedians getting together to talk about famous philosophers and their ideas—but it was bad. It’s neither funny, nor particularly philosophic, and comes across more like the conversations you have on your couch when you’re stoned. Luckily I found Stuff You Should Know, one of the best podcasts yet.

Listening to these podcasts has really added something to my ride. I get to learn things and use my mind while I pedal. But I like cruising in silence, too. The time on the bike is meditative for me, and reflective; some of my best ideas come to me after hours of biking in solitude. So I’ve learned to strike a balance, using podcasts to feed my mind and using silence for the kind of discursive meditation that leads to new ideas. It’s consumption and creation in turns.

The last uphill miles were among the hardest. Lots of steep hills close together. But it also became completely wooded. Everything behind me was arid, blocked by mountains from the Gulf weather, but here I was in the cloud zone. Shady, humid and fragrant, I tried to imagine what it was like for the Aztecs or the Toltecs, ranging up from the desert, to stumble into a place so lush. No wonder they conquered it.

(Nowadays the forest hides ranches and small homes. Many are surrounded by mossy stone walls, and whole logs act as footbridges over ravines.)

I’ve developed a new habit. It’s hard to use CycleRoute.org, my topographic tool, on a mobile; instead I snap photos of my laptop screen the night before. As a result of this new practice I knew exactly when I had topped the last ridge, when I was at the height of the pass, 8,200 feet above the sea. Behind me was every highland struggle I had faced, and ahead was nothing but pure downhill. From here on there would be no more mountain ranges for the entire rest of Mexico. At that moment, just to my right was a shrine to Guadalupe. It reminded me of another mountain crossing that now seems so long ago.

Freefall

The descent was incredible. The forest parted and, on the first curve, I could see nothing but grey clouds to the east. It was as if the entire world dropped off. Somewhere underneath that mist was the coast, the distant city of Veracruz, and the closer city of Xalapa. But here, it was as if I was running on the edge of the earth, and nothing but an endless fall awaited me.

Two roads descend to Xalapa, a straighter main highway and a more winding country road. I tried to stick to the country road, but they cross each other several times. Traffic, although light, often pushed close together on the narrow two-lane roads. On the uphills they nudged gently around me, and on the downhills they gave me space—which I needed, swinging into the lane on the curves and letting gravity do the work. I wondered, on my first big drop, why everybody was riding their brakes and going so slow. Then I realized they weren’t: I was moving as fast as traffic.

Clouds where the earth should be. Photo by André.

Clouds where the earth should be. Photo by André.

These roads passed through several small towns, one of which seemed like it would be a nice place to stop, but I was too in love with the roller coaster ahead. I kept on, momentum from the downhills carrying me easily over most of the occasional upward slopes. Happiness is a downhill bike ride.

Xalapa

At some point I jumped the track over to the wrong road. I’d intended to enter Xalapa from the west, a straight shot to the Centro. Instead I plunged in from the north, all the way across town. Xalapa is a stunning city: I found myself on long boulevards shaded by mighty tropical trees, woven with walking paths on all the medians. Some of these boulevards were slightly uphill, and it actually felt weird to having to pedal again. (Although my hands were grateful: I’d leaned into the wind, fingers poised on the brake handles, for so long that my wrists were numb.)

Crossing the city wasn’t bad but, as is often the case, the most adventurous stretch was saved for last. As I neared the central historic district I found myself on stone-paved streets packed bumper to bumper with traffic, each block steeper than the one before it. When the lights turned green the cars, buses and trucks rocketed forward in great surges of machinery. Your Rogue Priest moved from one hole to another in this mix, often occupying “lanes” in between columns of traffic. One local bus that scooted past me had spikes on its wheels, which struck me as a bit unfair. The traffic turned away one block before my street, leaving me to face the final descent alone: a potholed street so steep my body weight fell forward toward the handlebars. Keeping the brakes half clamped, I hunkered low in the saddle and made it.

The bottom was busy again. I turned left into a tunnel underneath a park and emerged from the other side on a perfectly normal, somewhat quiet downtown street. A few blocks later I was at my hotel for the night, the Salmones. 90.2 miles.

Map 1 – 51.2 miles

Map 2 – 39.0 miles

Total traveled this leg: 90.2 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3997.1 miles

Next time I discover that Xalapa is more or less the city of my dreams—and I’ll take you on a tour to show you why. Until then, check out my other road logs or become a supporter.

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