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

Mexico’s City of Sorcerers

Last time I threw myself against volcanoes and hills that tore me to pieces. Now it’s time for some rest, some holiday festivities, and a chance to explore Mexico’s most infamous magical city.

Shop in Catemaco. Photo by Andre.

Shop in Catemaco. Photo by Andre.

December 29, 2014-January 1, 2015 (Days 906-909 of the Great Adventure)—New Year’s in Catemaco

There’s no doubt that Catemaco has its secrets. The streets hold the same promise as certain out-of-the-way parts of New Orleans: the sense that you could disappear into another world, that the ramshackle houses hold more than they let on, that unseen eyes are aware of your approach, and that you, dear visitor, will never know a hundredth of what goes on there.

Not every neighborhood is like this. Much of Catemaco is a typical mid-size Mexican town. It has convenience stores, gas stations, cyber cafes, and all the usual shops. It’s not a rich city, but most of the area’s commerce is concentrated there—and it gladly leverages its sorcerous traditions to fuel a growing tourist economy. But just a few blocks from the centro, with its one colonial church and its tile-roofed restaurants, you can find lonely, quiet lanes that head toward the magic lake. Theirs is not the malecón with its sand beach, seafood stands and boats for hire. No, these streets cross without warning from residential lane to forested lakeshore. Under the gloomy trees are unmarked cottages made of sticks and thatch, piles of coconuts that were cut and then forgotten, scraggly, thorny brush crowding in on narrow foot paths. It’s all deliciously similar to the dirt alley that leads to our Vodou temple in New Orleans, and I have no doubt the local practitioners gather there.

Just beyond you can just see the silver water of the lake, and at its edge a few thatch-roofed seafood/beer restaurants. These are the haunts of locals, not tourists. I poked around, but in the light of day the only person present was an old man gathering sticks.

This is a microcosm of my experience with Catemaco. I would find hints and promises of mysteries to be explored, but could never quite get my nose in them. Not that I pushed too hard: I wanted to meet one (or more) of the sorcerers, definitely, but only if it came naturally. And above all, only if I felt in my heart that I had found someone sincere in their beliefs. I have no interest in tourist charm-stores.

There was one very overt magic shop just a block from my hotel. On its wall was a hand-lettered list of all the services performed: amulets, magic baths, spells for money and love, curse breakings, and about 30 others. They barely had room on the building for a doorway. I would glance in as I went past, often several times a day, but I never once went inside. I just got a strong, strong vibe that this was for show, that this wasn’t where I wanted to be.

In my world, it would be better to meet someone at a restaurant or in the market, by chance. Or perhaps stumble on an out of the way shrine and be noticed making an offering. Or even lock eyes with one of the old ladies at the mystical artifact booths by the square, and realize abruptly that she seemed trustworthy to me. These sorts of organic connections are, I find, much less likely to lead to a charlatan. They’re also more rare, and if you insist on waiting for them you can sometimes wait a very long time.

Thus, several days into my time in Catemaco I realized two things: (1) I wouldn’t learn anything about the magic traditions if I didn’t go into the tourist shops, and (2) I was okay that. I found a curious peace at the thought of not diving into yet another mystical tradition, if it also meant not having to deal with a bunch of sales pitches along the way.

Instead I tried to take Catemaco as it is. And it certainly is a spiritual place.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Lake

The lake is not just the reason the city exists, it’s also the reason its magical arts exist. Lake Catemaco and the mountain above it are reputed to be sources of mystical power. They certainly are breathtaking. The green mountain rises out of the mist and the jungle-covered hills like a grandfather swarmed by his grandkids. Whether the sky was cloudy or pure blue, the lake itself always seemed to be the same silver-mirror color. The surface would ripple in what little wind reached it, and never formed waves bigger than a canoe.

There are islands in the lake. One of these has a chapel and some old ruins on it; my priest radar pinged and I’m 100% sure sorcerers conduct their rites there. Others have nothing but forest. Three of these are home to three different species of monkeys (one species per island). One was seeded intentionally with a few members of an endangered species, and has become a preserve to replenish their numbers.

I strolled the lakefront one day hoping I could rent a kayak, but the only options are tour boats. Each boat seats about sixteen people, and they don’t wait to fill them up; as soon as you pay the man he casts off. I found the idea too depressing. All those empty seats, and nothing but the awkward bad-Spanish chit chat about where I’m from and what I do. I went to the shore of the lake and made offerings, but stayed firmly on land.

(Just as I was thinking of myself as the great explorer for getting to this out-of-the-way destination, I found out that my friend Ken Johnson came here years before me and paddled all over the lake. He brought his own kayak, of course.)

Cool building near the square. Photo by Andre.

 

Munching Snails

The lake is also a major source of food. While much of the seafood sold in restaurants—grilled fillet of fish, octopus with garlic, shrimp cocktails—comes from the coast 30 miles away, I kept seeing signs for tegogolos. It took me a while to find out what this is. It’s a word for the local species of freshwater snails that are pulled out of the lake everyday. Every street has one or more homes that sell them by the kilo; all the restaurants serve them as well. I decided to try them, of course, but first I wanted to find a good restaurant. The only way to do so was to try a few out.

The first contender was just steps from the beach where the tourist boats go out. Covered by a thatch roof, it was called Restaurante Buena Vista (“Good View Restaurant”) and indeed has a great view of the lake. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed. I spent one of my first afternoons there, eating some poorly prepared shrimp cocktail, some lukewarm tacos and, thankfully, a few beers. I’m really glad I didn’t trust these people to take my tegogolo V-card.

Across the street was second restaurant, similar in its thatch roof design and claims of fresh seafood. This one, however, had a view only of the busy main street, with no lake view at all. Its name was something to the effect of Restaurante Buen Sabor, “Good Flavor Restaurant.”

Wondering if there is such a thing as truth in advertising, I went there the next day. The meal they brought me was ridiculously good. Their shrimp cocktail was much fresher, and the octopus I ordered had that crisp just-done-enough-but-not-chewy quality that so few places master. I also noticed that in the evening, when the Buena Vista ran out of tourists and closed for the day, the Buen Sabor filled to capacity with Mexicanos. I went there several times and every single meal was exceptional.

So I’m sure I couldn’t find better tegogolos than at the the Buen Sabor, and that was where I tried them. They were… meh. Not gross at all, as you might worry snails would be. If you like oysters, imagine a tougher, chewier, slightly bitter version of those. (That description may leave you saying, “That doesn’t sound as good as oysters,” to which my answer is, “Right.”) They were cooked, I think, but the Buen Sabor serves them cold, covered in lime juice and chopped tomatoes with a hint of onion. They also give you muchos more limes so you can squeeze them over the snails to taste. With or without extra sour, I was not wowed. If they were, say, sauteed in garlic and butter and served hot they might be tasty. But that’s basically just covering up their natural flavor with other ingredients. Bottom line: not my thing.

The view from the Buena Vista really was good, though. Photo by Andre.

The view from the Buena Vista really was good, though. Photo by Andre.

Biding My Time

I was disappointed that I didn’t arrive in time for Christmas in Catemaco. In Vodou, Christmas eve is dedicated to the Petwo spirits (a nation of spirits all loosely associated with fire) and is celebrated with large bonfires and some sacred fire rites. I wanted to see if the local magic/spiritual traditions do anything similar. But I had fallen pray to sidequests: first the ghost towns of Real de Catorce, then a homestay with a family in San Miguel, and extended stays in Tula and Huamantla. I’d ended up spending Christmas in Xalapa, just three days’ ride away.

[Andre’s note: To anyone who considered joining for a segment of the ride, this wouldn’t have left you hanging. I got flexible with my rest stops and itinerary precisely because I had no one waiting to meet me up ahead. If there had been other cyclists, I would have kept everything exactly on schedule.]

I still had a chance to stay for New Year’s, however, and I was curious what it would be like in Catemaco. Until then, I had plenty of client work to catch up on, and a little exploring to do.

Places to work were limited. My hotel room had a balcony, which seemed like the ideal writer’s nook once I pulled a chair and table out there. The hotel wi-fi was iffy at best, however, and the signal was virtually nonexistent outside.

The centro had two potential work hangouts. Both were second-floor coffee shops with a view of the square and a robust menu of food, coffee and drinks. One of these had a thatch roof and hammocks to lay in, as well as its own book and handcraft store (la Casa de los Tesoros). The overall vibe was that of a giant treehouse. It also advertised organic wines and locally made chocolate. It’s exactly as heavenly as it sounds. The downside was it could get quite crowded and, of course, no one wants to spend every afternoon and evening sitting in the same cafe.

The other option was perhaps even better. It had a more reasonably priced menu and very strong wifi, and it was cozy though nothing like the treehouse. This would have been my #1 pick for serious work spot, with the other one as my hangout for evening reading, except for one snag: this place was only open at night.

Between these two places and using my phone as a hotspot at the hotel, I caught up on all my client work while in Catemaco. I also found an excellent Italian restaurant tucked away on the lake shore road, which made a nice change of culinary pace. For a small town, Catemaco is a good place to eat.

Inside the treehouse. Photo by Andre.

Inside Casa de Los Tesoros (the treehouse). Photo by Andre.

Side Trip

My knee was sore for days after my ill-fated arrival, but about three days in (and after plenty of ice) it seemed to be doing well. I decided to take a day trip along the shore, with no cargo on the bike, and see how I held up.

This area is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve found in our world. The surreal hills, like folds of a crumpled green blanket, positively glow with dew, mist and the flutter of creatures beneath the canopy. Traditional houses, with brightly painted walls and thatch roofs, peek out from clearings beside the road, with carefully fences to keep the chickens in. These are people who have smartphones, use the internet, and drive to work in trucks or on motorbikes, but continue to use traditional thatch roofs because they let the breeze filter into the home while keeping the sun and rain out.

I went some miles up the road and around a curve of the lake. People were surprised to see me but friendly, waving as I went past. A few wild dogs kept after me for a bit but dogs have long since ceased to worry me as a cyclist. I ignored their gnashing jaws and they lost interest soon enough.

Most of the road was hemmed in by jungle and hills on both sides. Once in a while I’d catch sight of the lake, glittering platinum as always, in a drop between horn-shaped peaks. The ride was uphill, but with no weight on the bike it was pleasant.

Finally, about two villages on, I got the best view of all. A small gate guarded a road that ran straight to the lakefront. The land there had been cleared—someone’s ranch, I suppose—and I could see homes, palapas and a dock on the shore below. That was as far as I needed to go. I committed that beautiful vista to memory, grabbed a video of it for supporters, and turned around.

Catemaco's centro as seen from the hotel. Photo by Andre.

Catemaco’s centro as seen from the hotel. Photo by Andre.

New Year’s Eve

The big night finally came. In the preceding nights there had been giant gatherings in the centro, with people wearing costumes and dancing in a big circle. These events emanated the unmistakable music of African drums, confirming my suspicion that the local traditions might be influenced by the African diaspora.

On New Year’s Eve, however, the square was oddly quiet. In fact, it seemed deserted, even an hour before midnight.

A party was happening at the treehouse, however. I’m lucky I arrived when I did, because not long afterward they locked the downstairs gate. I get the impression that most of the people upstairs were there by invitation. The staff knew me as a regular, however, and they seemed happy to let me stay (one even told me he would secretly leave the door unlocked for me when I had to step out to run to the hotel). I took a seat off to the side, ordered some wine, and—of all things—caught up on some reading on my laptop. The life of a solo traveler is not always a gregarious one.

Groups of people did filter into the square, but never very many. Beside the plaza was the pyrotechnic crew surrounded by an impromptu cordon. At midnight they began their volley: an explosion of fireworks that would give any Fourth of July a run for its money. The difference, of course, is that there are few regulations in back country Mexico. The rockets were launched just meters from where spectators stood, aimed loosely into the air over the plaza and a city that still uses thatch roofs. I spent at least as much time watching with fascination as burning shrapnel fell among the streets, the roofs, and even the groups of revelers below. To them, the incoming flames seemed to be a great game: children dodged and danced among them, laughing, while parents looked on with grins. With each new flaming shower a chorus of shrapnel went tink off the treehouse’s tin roof.

When the fireworks stopped most of the celebrations did too. One family stayed in the street below me, the parents chatting while the kids threw firecrackers, but the treehouse emptied out and so did the streets. That was New Year’s Even in the City of Sorcerers. Pretty fun, but pretty normal, too.

The next morning I would get up, strap everything back on the Giant, and bike down the malecón one last time, stopping to admire the silver lake before taking to the road.

Next time we’ll see if my knees are recovered enough for the mountains ahead. Until then, get yourself a postcard and check out my other road logs.

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

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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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Weird Moments and a Boat

It’s been a while since we did a Photo Friday so I’ve got a few pictures for you this time. I honestly don’t remember which pictures I promised to post in my video logs for supporters, so if you’re a supporter and one is missing just email me and I’ll include it next week. (If you’re not yet a supporter but you’d like to get these video logs, you can grab them here. They show a lot of the coolest places I’ve discovered… although some of them are just me talking to the camera about what’s going on in my life on this adventure. Full disclosure.)

First off, here’s a shot of the Gulf when I finally reached the beach after more than a thousand miles of desert:

Photo by André

Photo by André

The next few are not high photography but show some of the weirder moments along my trip. This one is the world’s worst design for a wheelchair accessibility ramp:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Good luck, wheelchairs!

This next one caught my eye as I cruised through a small village on the coast. It’s the sign on a snow cone shop:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That banner reads, effectively,

Blonde guy! Blonde girl! Come on inside!

The only authentic one with the registered trademark

I’m not really sure why they’re marketing themselves to blonde people. It definitely wasn’t the kind of tourist town that gets a lot of foreigners. Despite fitting the description, I declined to go inside.

This one is just cruel:

Photo by André

Photo by André

At first I thought it was one of those want-a-book-take-a-book libraries that some cities have. That got me super excited, both on a general “knowledge is good” level and on a personal “I’d like a new book to read in Spanish” level. But that’s not what this thing is at all.

Instead, it’s just a display of books. It’s completely sealed, with no way to open it and no way to get one of the books. This clear side faces a major plaza and the reverse side is a locked steel door. I guess it’s supposed to be an ad for some place where you can get books, but to me it’s like putting a chocolate cake in a jail cell and giving no one the key. Also it’s kind of a waste of readable books, right?

Photo by André

Photo by André

This is the menu at The Monkeys Cafeteria in Alvarado, Veracruz. Apparently their mascot is a monkey with a beer belly wearing a shirt that says YES… and giving the thumbs up. (They had a Santa version of him for their Christmas display as well.) The best part is where the menu reads, as if it’s a bragging point, “100% Mono Gil” or 100%% Gil Monkey. I guess that refers to the ingredients? If so this place is macabre as hell.

Last photo! This one is more “photo of the week” material. This is a boat in the town of Catemaco. It sits on the beach of the magical lake, renowned for its mystical powers and the source of the local tradition of sorcery. It looked so lonely and perfect sitting there:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Oh Mexico, te quiero mucho. Thanks for following along everybody. I have one more piece to finish up the series on inspiration as heroism, and then next week I’ll start posting road logs again.

Adventure on…

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