Adventure, Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, Travel

Bicycling to Mexico’s Great Pyramids

Last time I explored the city of Mérida, where a 13 year old gave me a lesson in spirituality and a local artist joined me for a bike ride.

Now it’s time to push on—for the final leg of the Mexico ride. With literally thousands of miles behind me, just three more days will take me to my endpoint in Valladolid. And on the way I’ll see some of the most famous pyramids in Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 5 (Day 944 of the Great Adventure)—The Yellow Town

I made a last minute change of plans. A major highway stretches from Mérida all the way to Valladolid, and I had planned to stick to it. But I heard great things about the town of Izamal, supposedly one of Yucatán’s prettiest, and I decided to go out of my way and see it.

I had a late start, around 12:45 in the afternoon. (I took so long getting ready that hotel staff moved my bike back into a storage closet after I’d already wheeled it out.) But with only 40 miles to go, I wasn’t worried about time.

The ride out of town mimicked the route Martín and I took for our joy ride days earlier. I remembered the fresh squeezed orange juice he’d brought along and got a hankering. Luckily Mexico has fruit stands just about everywhere, and soon I had a fresh 1-liter bottle in my rack.

Choosing the path less taken was a good call. Instead of a cuota (freeway) it was a country highway with jungle on both sides. There was a threat of rain but never more than a few drops, and traffic was blissfully light. Along the way I passed through Mayan villages. The people there would either gawk at me in surprise or pretend they didn’t even see me, depending on their mood, but if I waved and said good afternoon they’d always return the greeting.

Izamal is great! The entire town is yellow. Every single building is painted the same shade—thankfully it’s marigold and not, say, butter or lemon color. Other than white trim and some red-tile roofs, you can’t find another color within the city limits. I have a feeling that if a homeowner breaks ranks they face a forcible re-paint.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

There was still plenty of light left, which was good because I had no idea where I was staying. I headed straight for the town center, rattling along on the faux cobble streets, but when I got there hotels were the last thing on my mind.

Instead, I stared up at a yellow and white palace sprawling across the top of a pyramid mound. The was the convento, the monastery at the heart of Izamal. If you can imagine slicing off the top of the Great Pyramid and dropping a medieval church into it, that’s pretty much literally what happened. The old Mayan temple had simply been replaced by a Christian one.

The Convento overlooks two squares, and I circled both and then explored out through the town streets. I found two very low-budget inns that could put me up (one with a nonstop barking dog and one with more mosquitoes than intact bathroom tiles). After that was a hotel that was blatantly vacant but which I was told was “completely full,” and one at the very edge of town that was out of my price range.

Despairing, I decided to take one more pass down the main road to see if I’d missed anything. That was when I found the Posada Ya’ax Ich, and immediately fell in love. The posada is actually a private home, with two guest bedrooms for rent. It was spotlessly clean, incredibly comfortable and had the first strong wi-fi signal I’d seen since Xalapa. I had a great conversation with the owner Elena and her sister Soco while Elena made up my room. Later I would meet her son Andrés as well.

Elena told me which of the three restaurants in town I should go to, and I mounted up one last time. (To be fair, there are actually four real restaurants in town, but one of them is super pricey and set up mainly for receiving tour buses.) My eyes dazzled: with the light of sunset on ochre buildings and polished streets, I thought I’d fallen into a bronze casting of a colonial scene.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

Dinner was tasty, eaten in under the arcade surrounding the main plaza. I had my first taste of dzikil-pak, a Mayan dip made from toasted pumpkin seeds (amazing). It rained for a spell, and I enjoyed the cool air before the last ride back to the posada.

41.0 miles.

Map.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

The Convento. Photo by Andre.

February 6 (Day 945 of the Great Adventure)

Morning came and I got up early. I had exploring to do. Andrés served a great homemade breakfast and Elena said I could leave my things in the room while I looked around.

Before long I was climbing the steps to the Convento, finding a giant courtyard with arched arcades on all sides. Each of the corners of the courtyard once housed a shrine, and the arcades were built to shelter religious processions from rain as they marched from one to the next. These days the shrines stand empty, for no reason explained at the site.

I didn’t spend long at the Convento, however. I was more interested in something else I discovered during yesterday’s hotel hunt: a giant pyramid right in the middle of a city block.

This one wasn’t cut off halfway to put a church on top. It’s gigantic—200 meters to a side—and rises in multiple levels up to a tiny stone platform stories above the city. Most of Mexico’s pyramids are cordoned off in archaeological parks far away from development, but this one is part of the neighborhood. One on street the lineup is literally: house, oil change shop, restaurant, house, pyramid.

Photo by Andre

First stairs up to the pyramid. Photo by Andre

I found the stone stairs that lead up to it—nestled in a break between yellow homes—and started up. The climb was intense; a series of steps led up to a large plateau, big enough that there were trees growing on it and a local family enjoying it like a park. Just past their picnic the stairs continued up the pyramid proper. I waved to them and up I went.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

Second staircase up. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

The pyramid itself. Photo by Andre.

According to legend, offerings left at this pyramid were once collected by a red macaw who carried them up to the heavens. I’m not sure if mine will ever be collected, but I paid my respects and placed a few coins as gifts. If not a macaw, perhaps the next kid who climbs up will find a use for them.

Then I gazed out over Izamal, all yellow and white. From here I could see that the town is the original Mayan city, following the same streets as 600 years ago. It was obvious now that the Convento was once a much higher pyramid, looming directly over the town center. It would have been a twin to the one I stood on, and together they made up the heart of a once city-state.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

Climbing the pyramid. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

View from the top. Photo by Andre.

There were other pyramids, too, according to the map, but each of them is in the center of a city block, houses and shops literally leaning against its stone sides as a convenient foundation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with a pyramid in your backyard. I suppose that like all growings-up it must seem boring at the time.

Jim Morrison and the Road

Soon enough I was back on the road, headed toward Pisté—the nearest town to Chichén Itzá, Mexico’s most famous pyramids. I noticed a cocina economica (tiny restaurant) in the first village along the way. I didn’t stop but it put the idea in my head, and every time I coasted through a village after that I looked around hopefully for another one. No dice.

The hours passed by, listening to music or podcasts or just enjoying the jungle road. I got about three fourths of the way to Izamal before my tummy began rumbling in protest, and at the last real town I turned off the road and hunted around. Sure enough, a doña was willing to serve me some chipotle chicken and rice. I shared the only table in her kitchen with several construction workers, who had matching mustaches and all seemed more interested in football than asking a foreigner any questions.

After that it was a short, sweet ride in the late afternoon air. Golden light cut through the forest. Because my spiritual experience in Mérida had been inspired (indirectly) by Jim Morrison, I had downloaded a few of his albums. Previously I wasn’t really familiar with his music, and it seemed surreal to hear it in the peaceful Mayan jungle. The songs were as trancey as I’d been told, and reminded me of all the things I missed about New Orleans.

But every good buzz has to come to an end, and by late afternoon I crossed the toll road and entered the sprawl of Pisté. Everything that Izamal is, Pisté is not: it’s ugly, noisy, busy (for such a small place) and has no colonial town center that I could find. I suspect it exploded when Chichén Itzá, just a few kilometers down the road, became a major tourist site.

I was headed toward a cheap hotel, but first scouted the road to Chichén, clearly marked and even closer than I thought. After checking in and taking a shower I headed out for dinner, at an outdoor market alongside the busy main road of town.

The night ended peacefully. I had made a pledge to those who backed my journey that I would make offerings for them at the great pyramids. Now, one by one, I unpacked stalks of copal incense carefully bundled in my toolkit, and clipped pieces of red ribbon with my boot knife. As I tied a ribbon around each incense stalk, I said the prayers that had been requested by my friends, binding them to the offerings in knots.

It was a beautiful night.

45.7 miles.

Map.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

February 7 (Day 946 of the Great Adventure)—The Last Day

Another early start. This hotel owner wasn’t as understanding as Elena, and I had to get all my stuff out of the room before I headed out to see the pyramids. I left it in the owner’s living room, then biked up the road. I wanted to be in the gate as soon as they opened at 8 a.m., and would save breakfast for later.

Even at 8:01, an entire tour bus managed to offload in front of me, but soon enough I had my ticket. I’ve actually been to Chichén once before, ten years ago. It felt good to revisit this place now that I’d come all the way on my own body power. To the various guides at the entrance I was just another tourist though, and I had to endure sales pitches in multiple languages to get through the gate.

Chichén Itzá was the capital of the Itzá people, one of the most powerful Mayan nations in the days before the Conquest. But it wasn’t the Spanish who knocked the Itzá off their throne; they had declined as a civilization long before smallpox or gunpowder. Even so, this city—the one I was walking into—had become such an important ritual center that it remained a destination for pilgrims long after its fall. Supposedly, emissaries from other Mayan civilizations would arrive here in large processions, walking through the ghost city to visit the oracle who still dwelt there.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The main draw of Chichén today is its largest pyramid, nicknamed El Castillo (the Castle). The railings of its staircases are carved stone snakes that run from the top to the bottom, where giant feathered serpent heads leer with gaping stone mouths. The main staircase was made with incredible precision: at the winter solstice, when the run rises, the shadows on the stairs look like serpents wending their way down from above.

That’s not the only engineering marvel. I was surprised to see none of the tourists clapping their hands. Standing in front of the staircase I took out my camera and recorded a short video for my supporters showing what happens when you clap in front of the temple.

“Excuse me,” said a Belgian after the video was done. “What was that you just said?”

“Oh,” I laughed. “Yeah, when you clap your hands here, the echo comes back sounding like the call of a quetzal bird. The quetzal is sacred to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. This pyramid is his temple.”

The Belgian was floored. Soon, he and his girlfriend were clapping as hard as they could, and twee twee twee came the echoes back. I’ve heard recordings of actual quetzal birds played just before the handclaps, and they’re almost indistinguishable. The Maya (with possible help from the Toltecs) knew what they were doing.

This news spread to more tourists, and more, all of them wanting to know why we were clapping. Soon about fifty people were applauding in front of the pyramid and a cacophany of birds answered back. Smiling, I walked away.

El Castillo isn’t the only sight, though. The preserved ruins of Chichén are a Vatican-like city of temples and palaces. It’s bigger than most of the surrounding towns, and you could walk there for hours. Not far from the main pyramid I found a giant platform decorated with thousands of stone skulls, each one representing a sacrificial victim killed at the site. This is the monument that stands out most in my memory from 10 years ago.

I also strolled through the ball court, where warriors once played a soccer-like game with their lives on the line. Standing in the middle of the stadium, one of the tour guides demonstrated the “whisper effect.” A word whispered in the middle of the field echoes down the walls and can be heard everywhere. Then he had about 30 German tourists shout something in unison, and the sound of their cry resounded through the stands. It must have been a hell of a ball game.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

In bygone times, the Chichén Itzá’s cenote (underground lake) was as much of a draw as the pyramids. In fact, the Chichén in the name basically means “well.” The water source was the reason there was a sacred city in the first place, and it was also considered a ritual gateway to the underworld; Maya pilgrims would once have paid at least as much homage to the cenote as they did to the oracle.

These days that sacred pool is at the end of a long trail lined with merchandise vendors. Their stalls crowd both sides and they aren’t afraid to accost you with promises of “Only one dollar!” (none of the merchandise actually costs $1). I thought about it and said my prayers from afar. I’d be making offerings at a different cenote soon in Valladolid, and didn’t really need the extra headache.

That’s not to say the rest of Chichén is vendor-free. Now that the park was filling up the salesmen were out in force, lining all the trails that wander away from the Castillo toward other areas of interest. I decided to do what I’d come for while the doing was good. I found a shady, empty spot around the back of El Castillo, knelt, and said the prayers of my supporters. These were people who had helped make my dream come true, and whose own dreams I had carried with me for 1,700 miles.

As I finished placing the offerings, a call split the sky. An eagle swooped over the pyramid.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

From there on I wandered the ruins with a light heart. Toward the back of the site is a forested area with giant palaces crumbling amidst it; certainly my favorite spot. A different trail takes you to El Caracol (“The Snail”), a spiral-shaped tower once used as an observatory. Near the Caracol is a pyramid that’s a smaller replica of El Castillo, and a gigantic structure that has collapsed just enough to reveal that  its pyramid is largely hollow. All of it is breathtaking.

I didn’t dawdle as much as other tourists, and none of this was new to me. But it still inspired awe. And it marked a major accomplishment on my Adventure, reaching this sacred landmark and also reuniting with the place where I first fell in love with Mexico.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Last Road

By 11:00 I was back in Pisté. I found a small kitchen on the main road where a doña served breakfast in a sunny room. Again, there was no sense of hurry: this was my last morning as an itinerant cyclist, at least for the Mexico trip; why not stop and enjoy it?

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that's Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Ready for breakfast. And yes, that’s Nescafé there. Photo by Andre.

Eventually I got back to the hotel and found the landlady, extracting my things from behind her couch. And just like that, the last day on the road had begun.

The road to Valladolid took me right past Chichén Itzá once again. The jungle is so thick you can only see the entrance; not even the pyramid tops are visible from the road. I turned my eyes forward. Again I had chosen a country road instead of the toll road, though this one had plenty of tour buses to buzz past me.

Time went by. I was in no hurry, and the wind was a little against me. As I approached the halfway point, I noticed a little trail running alongside the highway, tucked away back in the woods. To my surprise the trail was paved, and I quickly switched over. (It turns out Yucatán roads often have a bike/pedestrian path somewhere nearby, though the pavement on this one was remarkably good.)

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The highlight of rolling down this trail was coming upon a small dog who got spooked and fled from me—but had nowhere to go except further down the trail. I ended up basically chasing him for a quarter of a mile. Eventually the path connected with the side streets of a village, and kids stared or waved as I rolled through.

Valladolid!

Valladolid was my home base on my first ever trip to Mexico. At the time it was a quiet, charming town without a lot of tourist buzz: large enough to have things to do, but not so big it was annnoying. As I entered the outskirts I was relieved to see that it hadn’t transformed, hadn’t tripled in size, hadn’t lost its charm. It was a lot like I remembered it, and for some reason that made  me happy.

I reached the town center, a giant central garden with a fountain and trees and iron fences and gates. It was as if I had just left yesterday. The Giant took a victory lap around the central square, then I pulled aside and recorded this video:

I couldn’t believe it. Later that night, riding in the dark just to enjoy the night air, it would suddenly hit me: I rode across Mexico. Everyone told me I would die, and here I was, alive and ready for 4,000 more miles.

But first a rest. I had booked an AirBnB in town based on simple criteria: pick the one with the coolest owner. That happened to be a British fashion designer who had built much of her home of out recycled wood and salvage. Once I got through congratulating myself I headed toward her house, some English tea, and the new adventure: find out where I’d live for the next few months.

28.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 115.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4757.1 miles.

Thank you to everyone who followed along so far. The Mexico leg is over, but the Adventure is not. Next time I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to since Valladolid and what I have planned for the future.

Until then, of course, feel free to peruse past road logs, get yourself a postcard (yes, I’m still in Mexico) or ask me anything about the ride. Anything except, “How does it feel to bike across Mexico?” because the answer is, “Boy are my knees tired.”

Thanks guys!

Thanks guys!

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

Palapas and Concrete Beds

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

Pirates beware! Photo by Andre.

Pirates beware! Photo by Andre.

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch stop. Photo by Andre.

Lunch stop. Photo by Andre.

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

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

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

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

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

Score.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great scenery. Photo by Andre.

Great scenery. Photo by Andre.

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

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

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

Yucatecan bicycle taxi. Photo via University of Arizona.

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

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

The place that turned me away. Photo by Andre.

The place that turned me away. Photo by Andre.

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

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

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

Motorcycle taxi. Photo by Sun-Ling.

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

Map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from the mezzanine. Photo by Andre.

View from the mezzanine. Photo by Andre.

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

Map.

Total traveled this leg:  113.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4641.5 miles.

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

The Sun-Drenched Streets of Campeche

Previously on Rogue Priest, I hopped islands on a beach road to reach the city of Campeche. Now it’s time to go behind the giant medieval walls and explore this colonial port of call.

Campeche. Photo by  Andre.

Campeche. Photo by Andre.

January 24-27 (Days 932-935 of the Great Adventure)—Campeche Days

The hotel room was the best I’d had. Twelve foot ceilings, colonial tiles, a wrought iron grille on the windows, and a view of the sunny courtyard. It didn’t last long though: each day I had to check with the front desk and see if they needed to bump me, making way for a guest paying full price. I never did get kicked out, but after two nights they moved me to a smaller room.

View from my hotel room (Thanks, Hotel Castelmar!). Photo by Andre.

View from my hotel room (Thanks, Hotel Castelmar!). Photo by Andre.

In four days in Campeche I almost never left the old city. Wrapped up in its ancient walls, the old city is maybe five blocks by eight and simply simmers with history. All the streets are cobbled, all the houses are pastel, and every structure is from the colonial days. There is a beautiful central plaza and at least one pedestrian walking mall.

Three of the four sides of the old city still have the original walls, or at least some semblance of them. In places they have been restored and even enhanced with mosaics of tiny pebbles or shells. Elsewhere it’s exactly as time has left it: battered by cannon and rain. The back end of the old city has one of the original parapets complete with cannon embrasures and a mini pirate ship where tourists and local teenagers snap pictures of themselves. Instead of a hungry army of pirates, a public market lurks just outside.

Parapet and gatehouse. Photo by Andre.

This is seriously how you get to the market. Photo by Andre.

Yucatán’s Lost Port

The pirate theme is not just a marketing tactic. Campeche was the first major port of the Yucatán, back when it was part of Yucatán and not the capital of its own separate state. The massive walls were built to repel raiders, and did their job well.

Yucatán’s main export was originally sugar. By the 1800s however rope, made from a plant called hennequin, was the bigger cash crop. That was a problem for Campeche: the hennequin plantations were far to the north, and soon opened their own port town, Sisal. (And yes, that’s why sisal twine is called that even today.)

The lost commerce was not Campeche’s only problem, however. Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, was determined to win a war against rebel Mayans, and they expected Campeche to help. The war lasted for fifty years. The rebels, sick of being serfs on plantations, successfully established their own independent Mayan nation deep in the jungle. They fought off Yucatecan/Mexican armies and marched on Mérida itself. The Mayans were just days from reconquering their entire ancestral homeland, when the first summer rains arrived and they went home to go plant corn.

(If you’re wondering how I know all this, you might enjoy this book. Thanks Alberto!)

The point is, the war was long, costly and divisive. Eventually Campeche split off from Yucatán which is why it has its own state even today. (The Mayan nation, on the other hand, was eventually destroyed.)

View of Campeche from atop the wall. Photo by Andre.

View of Campeche from atop the wall. Photo by Andre.

Climbing the Walls with Dr. Fun

It took me a little while to realize that you can actually go on top of the walls. I haven’t had great experiences with this—when I scaled a rampart in Thailand I found out it was a breeding ground for rats—but I rarely learn my lesson and quickly sniffed out the entrance. I’m glad I did. Campeche’s walls are reached by stairs at what was probably once a gatehouse and is now a museum. I entered its courtyard watched closely by a security guard and two women at a table. I expected an entrance fee but, unique in Mexico, they only wanted me to sign a guest book saying what country I’m from. Admission is free.

Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Campeche. Photo by Andre.

I went up on the walls several times during my stay. Only one section is accessible, but it’s great: a view of the Gulf, real battlements, even little cupulas for shade (it closes at sunset, which seems like a shame given what a great makeout place it would be).

The walls were never crowded, but I did meet one American couple there. When I mentioned my website, the man said, “Well Rogue Priest, I’m Dr. Fun.” Literally—he has a Ph.D. in Recreation Studies. They invited me to dinner at a seafood restaurant but I had a feeling it would be far too expensive and we’d get far too drunk. Our paths never crossed again.

Me with statues in Campeche.

Me with statues in Campeche.

Around Every Corner

You can tell a lot about a city by its approach to public art. The worst have none; the merely bad cities commission a few public pieces and vet the designs. The result is bland and often confounding. The best cities provide a theme or event and allow artists to interpret as they see fit. That’s how you get a city-wide sculpture garden, with something to discover around every corner.

Thus Campeche. Statues of human figures by a variety of artists were scattered through the streets and plazas and walking malls, always grabbing the eye and pulling you just a little farther along. Here’s an example:

Photo by Andre.

Photo by Andre.

The cuisine was also amazing. I didn’t have to go on my usual pizza hunt to find an alternative to tacos, because seafood was cheap and abundant. I had fish pretty much every night, and great salads or smoothies from a veg place by day. There was even a cozy, artsy little coffee shop just two streets from the hotel.

Walking mall in Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Walking mall in Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Needs More Americans

Campeche is among the most beautiful cities in the Americas, but the tourists there are almost all Europeans. That surprises me. I know not all Americans spend their whole holiday on the beach; we’re a people who love to explore. But most of us never seem to get over to this side of the peninsula, which is a shame. Dr. Fun and his wife rented a car and made Campeche their first big stop on a tour of the little beach towns. I think that’s a great plan and would recommend it for anyone planning a flight into Cancún.

I found myself a little in love with Campeche, so much so that I started looking at apartment listings and house prices. It was hard to believe I was living so large, in such a breathtaking place, when just a week earlier I was trapped in a hotel with ripped knees and a fever.

Clearly I could have stayed in this city much longer, but the road was calling. My end point was just a few dasy’ ride away. So next time I’ll take to the road toward Mérida—and discover a very different kind of Mayan pueblo.

Until then, check out all my road logs or become a supporter.

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To the Pirate Walls of Campeche

Last time I rejoined the Gulf coast, crashed a political rally, and got kicked out of a hotel. Now I continue my flight along beach roads and islands, headed toward Campeche.

Sunset in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

Sunset in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

Tuesday, January 20 (Day 928 of the Great Adventure)—To Isla Aguada

Breakfast was a quick affair at a diner on the main square. Soon I was loaded up and weaved my way out of town. Ciudad del Carmen is a city on an island, but I wasn’t crossing back to the mainland the way I came; instead I’d chase up along the barrier islands using bridges and coastal roads.

I made some poor navigational choices trying to get out of the city, and was impressed by the amount of traffic. After some factories however—including one with a Coca-Cola logo—it was pretty much just me and the iguanas. On my left side was the beach, endless miles of it, big turquoise waves rolling in from the sunny sea. Walls lined all of the beaches, made out of loose rocks stacked in rectangular mesh cages, probably to hold off high water. Lizards loved the mesh and scattered over the wall as I biked past. I didn’t see many swimmers, but I did notice one semi truck parked in the middle of nowhere, driver missing, just a few feet from a break in the wall. I like the way that guy takes his breaks.

Today’s destination would be Isla Aguada, which I translate as “Flooded Island,” not exactly a confidence inspirer. It was early afternoon when I reached the bridge from Carmen’s Island to Isla Aguada. It was a long, curving affair over turbulent seas, currents with different colored water coming from three directions and mixing into a froth. I paused to admire the sea halfway across.

After the magic of the bridge, the grit of the island was hard to believe. Isla Aguada is a hardscrabble place with few jobs and little money. The coastal road is the main drag, passing through a checkpoint just after the bridge where commercial trucks pay a toll. Other than that there isn’t much to see, though I did spot a seafood stand under a giant red tent, and stopped for some fresh caught lunch.

The seafood tent in Isla Aguada. Photo by Andre.

The seafood tent in Isla Aguada. Photo by Andre.

Then I checked out hotels. Given how badly my last beach day went, I wanted to stay somewhere nice and I was willing to spend a little more than usual to do so. I found the perfect place, a gorgeous suite with my own hammock and a private porch with a thatched roof, all for just $700 pesos. Just one snag: no wifi (which I found so hard to believe at this fancy hotel that I made the owner repeat herself). But I had no client work due right away, so I decided to accept the ultimate privation and go for a day without internet. (Well, mostly; my phone still worked.)

It started with a trip to the beach. This is a lot less exciting than it sounds. First you walk three blocks through a really poor town, the only tourist in the place. Then you reach the giant abandoned beach that has the ruins of old concession stands and wonder if it was converted to a naval artillery range. Reassured by spotting one solitary Mexican family on 11 straight miles of beach, you wade across pebbles and floating litter into turbulent, silty water. It reminded me of a beach in the Dominican Republic where some fish kept taking bites out of me, protected from retribution by the cloudy water. This time I suffered no such attacks, only the hands of a particularly wicked tide that wanted to drag me slantwise along the shore, toward the bridge and the foamy mixer of the open bay.

It was pretty fun.

I let the current carry me for a few minutes, covering a half mile of shoreline, then waded ashore and walked back, repeating the process several times. I also made offerings to the sea.

I spent late afternoon in my hammock and reading. I texted a lot with my friend Urban. Urban had become increasingly important to me on this trip. I’d made a deal to check in with him via text message every night, so that someone somewhere in the world knew I was safe. He had become something like my guardian angel, my Siri, and my mission control all rolled into one. And frequently he was my only sympathetic ear in a bad situation. Urban, if you’re reading this, thank you.

I asked the hotel owner if she could recommend somewhere for dinner. She mentioned a place with “really good pizza” just two streets away, and I set out to find it. After a recent string of impressive non-Mexican meals, I though I would try it. This is what I found:

Hot doog and soda. Photo by Andre.

Hot doog and soda, y’all. Photo by Andre.

The string was broken. 27.5 miles.

Map.

January 21 (Day 929 of the Great Adventure)—To Sabancuy

Morning confirmed a new trend: if you ask a restaurant whether they serve breakfast, they say yes even if they don’t. Even if they have no eggs and no breakfast dishes. Basically they’re just willing to serve you lunch any hour you want. This seems to be a quirk of Campeche and the Yucatán; I don’t think it would fly in central Mexico.

So it took some doing, but I eventually found a semi-outdoors meal counter that had eggs in the house. Some rancheros and a little Nescafé got me in good shape for the road. Not that I got moving early—I shot a video tour of the Giant for supporters and enjoyed the hammock a little longer. I didn’t get on the road till 2 p.m.

It was a short ride, though. More great scenery: strange currents criss-crossing offshore, copses of palm trees guarding the beach, a few closed beachside eateries, iguanas invisible until they moved, and so few cars that I biked on the wrong side of the road. To my left was open water, to my right was jungle.

Within about two hours that jungle had given way to a direct view of the lagoon protected by the island. It was the opposite of the open Gulf: sheltered, still, more green than blue, covered in marsh grass and bird life and small fishing boats. My destination for the night, Sabancuy, was somewhere out there.

By 4:30 I reached the turnoff. Leaving the Gulf behind I crossed the lagoon on a series of causeways—at least five—and approached the town. Its ancient church and small central square are the first things that greet you as you roll in. Rumors of hotels were scarce, but I navigated to a place mentioned in a couple online reviews. It looked nice out the outside shabby on the inside, and had wi-fi in the lobby only.

After a shower I got a delicious dinner of alambre at a local taco restaurant. This time I did have client work, so I sat in the hotel lobby tapping on my laptop till it was time for the hotel staff to close up.

Although not well known, Sabancuy has a claim to fame: sea turtles. The surrounding lagoon is their nesting ground, and a local university has a program to protect the eggs and bolster the species’ dwindling numbers. Anyone who visits there can volunteer to help, collecting eggs by hand and moving them to protected places. But this wasn’t turtle season, so I had to content myself with a beautiful sunset and the sounds of the lagoon at night:

(Supporters get access to all my videos!)

26.2 miles.

Map.

Shop in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

Shop in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

January 22 (Day 930 of the Great Adventure)—To Champotón

Shabby or not, the hotel had a cute enough little dining room, and for the sake of convenience I decided to eat there. I’m glad—the fruit plate that came out was amazing, the kind of mouth-watering fresh fruits that make me wonder why anybody buys sweets in the tropics.

I had still been icing my knees at night, and had no soreness to speak of. Today’s ride took about five hours and aimed at Champotón, a larger town right where the flat coastal plains give way to a more hilly region. It was my last day of constant, unadulterated beach views and I soaked it up with joy.

Beautiful church possibly in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

Beautiful church possibly in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

Champotón itself was a bit disconcerting. Maybe every town has its own attitude, or maybe it’s just luck of the draw on who you meet, but people here seemed surprised to see a foreigner and more than a little uninterested. That surprised me—it was (slightly) larger and more cosmopolitan than my last two stopping points. The heat had also gotten to me, and I was not eager to spend the entire afternoon following vague directions to questionable hotels.

So I took the first decent place I found. It was an old colonial building with a view of the sea and gorgeous grounds. Yet some strange contrasts: for example, the king size bed had a plush velvet bedspread but no under-sheet. Apparently you were supposed to lay directly on the bare mattress. (I chose instead to sleep on top of the bedspread, a spare blanket over me.)

I walked down to a string of seafood stands along the malecón, the owners vying for my attention and shouting their menus at me. The seafood was good and fresh and I washed it down with some house made agua fresca (fruit drink). 42.3 miles.

This hotel believes in tiles and mahogany but not bed sheets. Photo by Andre.

This hotel believes in tiles and mahogany but not bed sheets. Photo by Andre.

Map.

Friday, January 23 (Day 931 of the Great Adventure)—To Campeche

Owing to the heat and a headwind, yesterday’s 40 miles had been a bit of a slog. The wind shifted in the night, and the earlier I left the longer I’d get a tailwind before it died. But early is relative; after finding a breakfast place, eating way too much in their courtyard, and loading up the bike it was just after 11:00 a.m.

Today was one of those days where I took a longer route because it would be prettier. A main highway cut inland straight toward Campeche, but the winding coastal road looked a lot more interesting.

The first stretch looked almost like Ireland: sea cliffs on one side, the tropical equivalent of heath on the other, occasional thatch-roofed huts clinging to the hills in the wind. The road was narrow with no shoulder and plenty of traffic, also not unlike Ireland.

This is a real ad in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

This is a real ad in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

After a while the terrain got woodsy and hilly. I soared past wattle cottages and spooked chickens in the road. I stopped to buy oranges from a fruit stand in the village of Villa Madero. The vendor charged me double for what few bruised oranges he had left. Only after I parted with my pesos did I see shining ripe mandarinas at the fruit stand next door.

Winding roads eventually brought me to the fishing town of Seybaplaya, one of the most picturesque in Mexico. I rolled through the streets, weaving uphill on narrow lanes, and made a second stop for a snack and Powerade. Eventually I reached the top of the town and joined a lesser highway, still no shoulder, but much less traffic now.

It was the final run to Campeche. The approach is quite beautiful. The road is beachside, and you go through the outlying town of Lerma with its cute restaurants and nice houses. I stopped at one such restaurant hoping for a seafood cocktail… but they didn’t have them! I should’ve known it would be no good from the sign that read, “Mexican Grill” in English. I left without ordering.

Campeche itself is a sight. It’s a true city, but there’s no sprawl along the beach road, just a malecón and high end restaurants. I found my way to the old city—the historic downtown surrounded by giant stone walls.

For centuries, Campeche was the major port of Yucatán. It was also a frequent target of pirates. The city’s massive walls and big guns made it virtually unassailable, and despite several attempts the pirates never did manage to raid the city.

Those walls are still there today, carefully restored with a million slivers of stone forming mosaics on every surface. I passed through the wall and gawked. Historic Campeche is like being on a movie set, except everything is real.

Everything, that is, except the hotel prices. I wandered into a well-reviewed 400-year old building and hesitantly approached the desk. Just then I noticed a sign with the prices:

Single room…. $1150/night

“Oh,” I said to the concierge, laughing. “Nevermind. Thank you.”

“Wait,” he said. “How many nights do you need?”

“Two or three.”

He shrugged. “How about $550 a night?”

Ka-ching. This is the advantage of not booking in advance: if they have rooms they need to fill, they might give you a deal. I agreed and soon had been shown into the all-around most beautiful hotel room of the entire trip.

I showered, found food, and realized I might be here a lot more than two nights. 41.2 miles.

Map. (Note: The loop in the route is accurate. Is that cheating to include that? I don’t think so, that’s how I biked it.)

Total traveled this leg: 137.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4528.3 miles.

Next time I’ll explore the wall, the Mayan cultural museum, and the creepy but beautiful statues that haunt the alleys of downtown. Until then, become a supporter to get the video logs or check out past stories from the road.

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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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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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