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

Mayan High Life Pt. 3—The Twelve Hour Breakfast

Last time I offered a little glimpse of what days and nights were like during my time in Valladolid. But as time went on, they seemed to get wilder.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Party at Seven

Mario, our local chef-cum-poet extraordinaire, has a knack for creating great parties. Generally, if Mario was planning something everyone wanted in. But one plan seemed to go too far:

A breakfast party.

“Picture this,” Mario said. “We start at dawn. I cook. At seven sharp there is an amazing breakfast laid on the table. And together we share it, and the party starts.”

This proposal earned no shortage of groans. For the banda I ran with, it was just too early of a start. But Mario was relentless. Originally the idea was an overnight party—in one of Alberto’s cenotes, no less—with breakfast cooked over a fire the following dawn. Alberto ruled that it was too complicated, and the idea foundered.

At first I didn’t like the idea of an early wake up, either. But in New Orleans we start our Mardi Gras at 5 a.m. Friends force themselves out of bed to meet for a hasty breakfast and the assembly of the costumes. The great holiday ends at midnight, so by 7 a.m. the Faubourg Marigny is alive with revelers. It’s worth the bleary eyes.

Thinking of this, I asked Mario why he wanted a breakfast party so bad. And why so early?

“For the experience! Think of it, Andre: the sun is barely up, the day is not yet hot, the streets are silent. It’s a time we always miss, bunch of drunks that we are, but this one day we’ll get to see it, to experience it, and we’ll celebrate being alive.”

(Mario actually talks like that.)

I was in. “I don’t have a cenote,” I said. “But I have a pool. And an outdoor kitchen. Choose a day.”

And so the breakfast began.

Mario and I had a week to campaign our friends to actually wake up on time. No one wanted to, and almost no one gave a firm commitment. Mario promised to bring enough food for 12 people, and joked that we’d have to eat it all ourselves. Meanwhile, my contribution was a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream for the coffee, which I discovered was kept behind protective glass at the supermarket and required a secret code to purchase.

We shouldn’t have worried. On the day of the party, the guests tumbled in half-asleep and miserable, but quickly perked up at the smell of food. They brought with them fresh juice, treats, and the ingredients for morning cocktails. “Is there milk for the coffee?” someone asked. I slid them the Bailey’s.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

By 8:00 the seats were full, and people came and went all day. After breakfast we sat in bliss and chatted; after chatting we swam. The conversation ranged from philosophy and fate to sex, which to Mario are faces of a coin. When the debate got too intense I cooled it down by pushing Alejandra in the pool. But it was good, easygoing conversation. A party under the sun is just more humane than a party at night.

Swim, snack, chat, swim snack. Eventually someone gathered up ingredients and fixed another meal, and others made beer runs. “Get your glasses!” called Mario. “Get ready for the countdown!”

“What countdown?”

“We started at seven,” he grinned. “It’s about to be seven again.”

The assembled company murmured in disbelief. It was the twelve hour mark of our breakfast. Mario counted down the seconds and we toasted on the hour.

The party continued even longer, but when the sun went down the mood changed. Not for the worse or the better. It just changed.

I decided to rest, but the pool party got wilder. At one point I stepped inside for a call from a friend back home. I guess the guests missed their host, because a few lined up by the window and taunted me with full moons. The guilty parties will of course remain nameless.

By nine or ten, the moment was lost. People found their reasons to make an exit. Many weren’t tired out but were just ready for a new venue. For my part, I closed the door and relaxed, happy.

The Last Supper

The breakfast was far from the only party Mario threw. The greatest was also the last: the closing of his restaurant Naino. He was tired of not making a profit, and the tourist season was over. While everyone else thought it was a tragedy, Mario responded with his usual fatalism. It wasn’t meant to be; there was no point in fighting it; the only thing left to do was go out in glory. And so began the Last Supper.

I figured the name was just a joke, but it quickly became clear that this would be a thoroughly Biblical event. Mario was to play the part of our Lord and Savior. Per his invitation text:

“The next day Naino shall be crucified. Three days later it will make a brief reappearance and then ascend to the heavens, at the right hand of Mario.”

Costumes were encouraged, particularly togas and robes. I didn’t have a toga but I did have a checkerboard cape from my Chess Master costume at Mardi Gras. Striding across town in this outfit got a lot of Mayan double-takes.

The admission fee to the dinner was supposed to be $150 pesos, but Mario neglected to collect it, leaving Manda and me to be his muscle. I also tithed a fair selection of wine, as our messiah had thus far failed to turn water into a liquor license.

The Last Supper by da Vinci

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Holy Cross

Despite the good times, I often abstained from parties. Once, when Naino’s kitchen closed and the tables were slid aside for the dancing to begin, I made my way to the door amidst booing and pleading from my compatriots. I believe in living in the moment, but the truth is I do precious little of it. I live more in my plans and my dreams, and a hangover does not help me accomplish them.

Still, I was anything but a wallflower during those months. There are more Valladolid stories than I can possibly tell. At one point I was invited to give a talk on my Adventure to the local community, complete with a Spanish translator. I made friends I haven’t even mentioned here: Denis, the jolly hotel owner and local maven; Allan, the quiet old genius who lives outside of town; and Harriet. Harriet approaches life as a puzzle that can be figured out. She tornadoes into a room with the charm of a New England ladies’ club and the booming voice of a naval commander. Once, at a fundraising breakfast she organized, I teasingly complained about the long speeches. “You know what, Andre?” she cheerfully replied. “Fuck off and die.”

At the end of my Valladolid time, I still had one mission left to accomplish. For 1,700 miles of cycling across Mexico I carried a card inscribed with the names of all the supporters who made the trip possible. (“Follow that Dream,” the card read.) I had pledged to leave it at a shrine of Guadalupe in Valladolid. The problem? There were none. I could spot household shrines through doors and behind gates, but no public ones.

My last week in Valla, I rode the Giant out to the villages. On the  city outskirts I spotted one of the ritual crosses of the Maya. A hundred years ago, when the Maya rose up against Mexican landowners, they formed their own Christian cult around a holy cross that could speak and issue commands to its followers. Even today, the villages have simple wooden crosses dressed in beautiful hand-embroidered garments as if the cross itself were a person.

I stopped at this particular holy cross, its pediment crowded with candles. Leaving the bike aside, I knelt down.

All the candles were of Guadalupe.

Reverently, I kissed the ground and offered the card. “Follow that Dream,” it still said, just barely, the words blurred by moisture and sun and months of riding in a bike bag. I set the card behind the candles, in this place where Mayan, Mexican and European tradition come together.

As I stood I saw a local mother and her two kids on the trail behind me. She held them back to let me do my devotion in peace. But when I met her gaze, she smiled warmly. So did I.

I had finished my mission of riding across Mexico. In the future, I’ll pick up at the same place and head farther south—through countries even more dangerous, on roads even more busted, with even less idea of what I’m doing.

But for now, I focus on my career. At the end of May, a friend from the US came down to visit. I left the Canada House and Valladolid in early June, and we spent some time on the beach before I headed to Xalapa to write.

So where am I now? That’s a story for next time.

For more reading, check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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

Mayan High Life Pt. 2—Yucatán Nights

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Valladolid looks quiet but there’s a lot going on. Last time I introduced the crazy cast of characters I managed to fall in with. Now it’s time for some misadventures.

Writers Are Boring

Most days were tame. Writers are boring artists: we don’t hop around stage and cast spells like musicians or actors. We don’t even put on a show of furious brush strokes. Furious laptopping just looks like you’re unbalanced, too angry over someone’s comment on Youtube. I spent many days quietly typing at home.

But I felt out of place in the Canada House. There were four bedrooms and just one of me. I mostly lived in the back building, but I preferred to work up front in the outdoor kitchen, surrounded by nature. As a result I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. It felt odd having such a huge place to myself.

I wrote four stories I had dreamed up crossing Mexico. The first is about a woman in Laredo, who needs money for her son. She seeks out a magic man that lives in the desert, braving the threat of drug traffickers to find him—only to find out he’s in with the narcos, and requires a sacrifice.

The second one was conceived amidst the ghost towns of Real de Catorce. It follows a desert pilgrimage to the sacred mind-altering peyote. And a third tells of an old woman, an herbalist, who leaves her village and her adult children to seek her fortune in the big city. The big city, unfortunately, does not want her.

The last is a tale set in Xalapa, but it’s not done yet. It also doesn’t fit. While the others are all magical realism, this one is about love.

I wrote other things besides. I started to sit on the street, like an artist with a sketchbook, and write about what I saw.

One road in grabbed my attention. It’s a tiny lane off a major city street, but you’d think you’re in the country. It has trees, a low stone wall built by hand, a thatch roofed cottage, chickens. I mentioned my infatuation to Manda and she lit up. “Do you mean the street off Calzada de los Frailes? Second corner from Alberto’s, isn’t it? It’s rather like a storybook.” Artists think alike.

While I was writing, one of the street’s residents came up and introduced himself. Soon he brought two cups of coffee from his house and got bread from a passing vendor, and we practically had a picnic. He told me he’s a recovering alcoholic. He said he’s gone sober to win back his wife. Later, he confided that his coffee mug contained beer.

The paradox of writing is that to do it well you need to be reclusive, but sitting in your home alone deprives you of fresh material. Everyday I went out and walked around. I observed and made notes. But, deep in my inner world of ideas, I hardly talked to anyone. I ate alone and preferred restaurants where I knew no one. As the wait staff became friendlier I wouldn’t want to return. This hermitage may sound rude or lonely, but it only improved the quality of my work and, most days, my happiness.

Yucatán Nights

In the evenings I was more social. By day Yucatán’s an oven, but after dark there are cool breezes. It’s a joy to sit outside a cafe or bar. Some nights we would go to Alberto’s—his Valladolid residence is a shuttered bakery—and we sat in folding chairs on the plaza outside his door. Families gathered in the plaza at night, and some upstanding citizen had donated a circus carousel for the kids (it was almost election time).

“Wow, what a nice gift to the city,” I said.

“Come on!” yelled Alberto. “Do you know that music plays all night? I’m taking out a hit on that thing!”

We also got a new arrival. Arianna, a professional musician from California, had fallen in love with Valladolid. Now she was scouting possible places to live. Arianna is a person who can talk to anyone, and she relishes doing so (she also has game with both men and women).

She really widened our friend circle. Mexico is a country of clear class divisions, and foreigners are automatically slotted into the upper caste. I can easily make friends with locals who are business owners, hold college degrees and know English. Working class Mexicans, however, sometimes view me with suspicion. Not so when Arianna walks up flashing her smile.

It was through her that I met Rosalía, a 30 year old Maya woman who is unmarried, works 10 hours a day and lives with her family. Unmarried at 30 is unusual in Mexico; no kids is even less common. Both are conscious choices she has made so she can save up money and open a business with her brothers. She is both a dreamer and a hard worker, a dangerous combination.

Soon she invited us to dinner at her house. We shared beer and pizza while her brothers grilled us about life in the US. Arianna’s Spanish made mine look good, but we managed to trade stories in a mix of languages. Slowly they seemed to accept that, although we have more money, we are basically not that different—and we’re at least not stuck up about it. It was the first time they’d ever had a foreigner in their home.

The next day Rosalía apologized fiercely.

“Why?” I said.

“Because we drank so much! You must think we’re drunks!”

I smiled and thought of the pool parties at Canada House.

The Fatal Chef

Valladolid has some good restaurants. There’s Fallo’s Seafood, where the 5-foot tall owner leaves his shirt open to show off his chest hair while making shrimp cocktails. There’s Yerbabuena, which serves the best breakfast in town, and where my waiter Carlos struggled to accept that he could speak to me in Spanish instead of using his perfectly practiced English. A hundred steps from my front door was Family Restaurant Oasis, more like a bar with a full menu, where the food is awful but the botanas (free snacks if you order beer) are worth the stop. In the evenings I would go to Conato for great food and solitude; Casa Italia, for great food and the risk of running into people; or the most fabled eatery of them all, Naino.

Naino was the restaurant of our Portuguese poet-chef, Mario. Originally he ran it like a standard restaurant with a menu. “I got bored,” Mario told me. “And I had customers get rude if we were out of something. So I took their menu away.” His eyes glittered.

The new deal was simple: you paid 120 pesos and Mario brought you three courses (sometimes four) of whatever he felt like. It was a hit, and rocketed him to the most popular restaurant in Valla. But that didn’t make it profitable. For one thing, 120 pesos is a low price for the kind of fine dining he provided. For another, the city resolutely refused to give him an alcohol license. (Valladolid is controlled by twelve ancient families and is notoriously conservative.) Undeterred, Mario launched a “bring your own” policy with no corking fee and frequently sold illegal cuagamas (40 ounce beers). But every wine bottle brought from the corner store was 150 pesos in missed revenue.

For Mario, the fun wasn’t in making money. It was in creating experiences where people truly let go and enjoyed themselves. There are many terms I could use to describe the man: a fatalist, a sensualist. But I think the best description is that he’s Mario. And Mario came up with ever more extravagant ideas for parties.

One of those ideas was the twelve hour breakfast. But that’s a story for next time.

Until then, check out my book or show your support. Thank you as always for reading.

 

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

Mayan High Life Pt. 1—The Right Group of People

Valladolid

Valladolid

In the last entry I finished my ride across Mexico and reached beautiful Valladolid. But that was months ago. What was it like living there? Valladolid itself is a small colonial city, but my life there was much wilder than I could have expected. Here’s a first look into that time, and all the people I met.

When I arrived in Valladolid I didn’t have a clear plan. I knew I wanted to live there and write long term. “Long term” meant a few months, a novelty after biking to a new town every few days. But first I needed a place to stay.

For the first few nights I booked a room with Manda, a British fashion designer who came to Mexico to teach design. She ended up hating the job but loving the country. For three years she followed Mexican teenagers photographing their amazing Colombia-inspired fashion. (Her book about the teens is stunning, by the way.) But I knew none of that. I’d chosen her house simply because it was the coolest looking place on AirBnB.

Manda's book

Manda’s book

Soon I made friends with her two dogs, Prince Harry and Chaparro, and her cat Lord Freddy. In the mornings we’d all sit together on the back patio. Manda and I sipped English tea and ate home-made granola (“muesli” in British parlance). In the afternoons I’d work on the computer while Manda made entire dresses or her next piece of home décor. I tried to teach Manda how to make coffee, but with only a pot to heat the water and no filters, I quickly switched back to tea.

I couldn’t dawdle around, though; I needed to find a place of my own. Showing up without a plan is new for me. Not knowing where I’d be living or how long I’d be there was uncomfortable, but strangely relaxing.

Carnival

My arrival in Valla coincided with the height of Mardi Gras season back home. A New Orleans friend told me scoldingly, “I remember someone sitting around my bonfire two years ago and saying he’d never miss another Mardi Gras again.” She called in that oath, and I didn’t need much convincing. Flying was bizarre after so much cycling, and I stared out the window in a trance as we crossed the entire Gulf in hours. Then I hit the Big Easy, saw my friends, and had an amazing Carnival. (Our costume theme was Games, and I went as the Chess Master, with a black-and-white jacket I painted myself.)

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

As a side-effect this trip reset my tourist visa, so when I returned to Mexico I had six more months to play with. Meanwhile Manda had a lead for me: two Canadian friends were getting ready to fly north for the summer, and needed a house sitter badly.

The Canadian House was jaw-dropping. It’s an entire compound arranged around a central garden with a giant pool and a waterfall. The front house is a palapa (thatched roof cottage) and the back is all modern.  It wasn’t a true house sitting gig—I paid rent to stay there—but it was a good deal. It hit it off with the owners and before long I literally had the keys to paradise in my hand.

Valla Days Feb-June 2015 530_rs

“My” pool.

The Guy with the Pool

Before they left, the owners told me, “You should have guests over. Use the house. Use the pool. Enjoy it.” Manda knew everyone in town and introduced me around. I’d like to think I would have made friends on my own, but it didn’t hurt being the guy with the pool. Valladolid is close-knit and I quickly got to know all the local characters, most of whom had stayed in Canada House at some point.

María José is an environmental consultant who moved from Mexico City because she loves the Yucatecan jungle. She owns a small farm in one of the Maya villages, where she’s learning to raise stingless Mayan bees and helps the villagers build up tourism.

Ariane is the owner of Dutzi boutique, an outspoken German and the “other” fashion designer in town. She and Manda are good friends. I first met Ariane on Manda’s patio, where she burst in the door rebuffing one of Manda’s guests: “Look, I can’t talk about ‘oh what part of Germany are you from,’ I’m not on vacation, I just worked twelve hours!” I liked her immediately.

Other regulars included Pelucas, a Spanish artist who can’t keep a straight face; Mario, a Portuguese chef with a poetic streak who served small plates at his restaurant Naino; and Alejandra, the owner of the town’s best tequila shop. Alejandra is an adventurer in her own right, and taught me how to sound like a tequila expert (I am not one).

A cenote. National Geographic photo.

The Fearless Cenote Hunter

One character I kept hearing about took forever to meet. That is Alberto, better known as the Cenote Hunter. Cenotes are the breathtaking underground lakes that lie hidden everywhere under the Yucatán, most completely sealed from the surface. But sometimes there are openings, making them natural wells and much sought-after swimming holes. Many villages have a communal cenote, for their own use or for tourists; most churches and town centers are built right over one, as they were the original water source; and every resort, tour company and rich foreigner wants to own one. Alberto single-handedly carved out a new industry, talking to Maya locals and hunting out cenotes in the jungle. He buys and sells them, and has inspired many imitators.

No sooner did I meet Alberto than I was invited along on a cenote expedition. Alberto is a whirlwind: you cannot make plans with him, but any given morning he might call you and tell you to be ready in 15 minutes. “Where are we going?” I’d ask. “Come on, there is a beautiful cenote I want to show you! Let’s go!”

Whenever feasible the expeditions are carried on bicycle. I got the call and met Manda at her house. We teamed up with Alberto, all on bikes, with both of Manda’s dogs chasing along behind us. The goal: a cenote named Mukul about 18 km away.

“Are you sure the dogs can run that far?” I asked Manda.

“I brought water for them, they’re tough boys, aren’t you my tough boys?”

About 12 km later one of the tough boys was riding in my bicycle basket and the other one had long since abandoned us.

"Who is the dog, and who is the master?"

“Who is the dog, and who is the master?”

Mukul was beautiful. We left the bikes on the roadside and waked a mile through the jungle to two holes in the ground. “Watch that hole,” Alberto said, pointing. He tossed a rock down the other. WHOOSH! About 20 turquoise blue birds exploded out of the depths, spooked by the falling rock, all flying right past my face.

After the bird show we entered the underworld. Mukul’s descent is a mere 100 feet of wobbling ladder, followed by a log staircase that Alberto’s business partner built. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “They almost never collapse.”

The cenote at the bottom was vast. We stood on a natural ledge overlooking it: a cavernous lake extending far into the dark, lit only with a little sunlight from the two holes above. Trails glittered across the black water, caused by mineral dust floating on top. It gave the effect of pathways left by faeries hoping to lure us to their world.

18 km is a short bike ride for me, but in 100 degree weather (with a four-legged passenger) it’s not easy. Plunging into the dark, cool water was like medicine. More friends showed up while we swam, and then the wine bottles were opened.

“I feel like we earned this wine,” Manda said. “It tastes better this way.”

By this time I already knew I had fallen in with a special group of people. I still didn’t know how long I’d be in Valladolid or what I’d do next, but I knew I made the right decision staying there. I just had to make sure I buckled down and got my writing done—but that’s a story for next time.

For more reading check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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

The Sky Opened Up in Mérida

Last time I kicked it in atrocious hotels, while enjoying miles of jungle scenery and small Maya villages. Now it’s time to explore Mérida, the capital of Yucatán—and a place that promises some unexpected experiences.

Saturday, January 31 – Wednesday, February 4 (Days 939 – 943 of the Great Adventure)

My days in Mérida went by fast. Like a few other favorite stops, I stayed longer than I planned. And just as in the others, one of the highlights was the food.

I have an ability to sniff out great places wherever I go. The first one was easy to spot, because of the long lines of locals waiting for a table. It’s called Restaurante La Chaya Maya and offers some of the best Mayan food you’ll ever find. It’s so popular that they had to open a second location two blocks away, and the lines still stretch out the door during comida (the big late afternoon meal). Luckily, I still eat on an American schedule so stopped in around 6:30 one evening, when there was no wait at all. Mayan food consists mainly of pork prepared with a variety of amazing sauces, served in anything from an oversize tamale to a smothering of red onions soaked in lime juice.

(This is also where I first had chaya, a local green sometimes translated as “tree spinach” and delicious when cooked.)

Chaya. Photo via Zoom’s Edible Plants.

Another place caught my eye only because of the atmosphere. I was on a quest for a coffee shop and this place looked more like a diner, but something made me look twice. It turns out Cafetería Pop is a local landmark, the inside dominated by an oversize line drawing of three unhappy men. When I finally went in, it was heaven: the food was good and the silence was golden.

As far as I can tell, Pop is where Mexican men come to read the paper and get away from the world. It could only be more grandpa if it smelled like aftershave. I sank into a seat at one of the orange tables and read over my coffee and huevos, no one speaking to anyone. Blissful.

Image via Cafetería Pop.

(I never did find out what the deal is with the old guys on the wall. I asked twice but my Spanish couldn’t handle the answer. As best I can interpret, I was told, “They’re three disco stars who used to come here to dance.” I’m sure that’s right.)

Café Chocolate. Image via Yelp.

I did find my coffee shop, in spades. The one I liked most is Café Chocolate, where I could sit in overstuffed arm chairs at antique hardwood tables and write in perfect silence. But the one I went to most often—for its convenience and its strong wi-fi—was Café Bolero. This place would have the ambiance of a lesser Starbuck’s except that it has a large outdoor terrace, partly open air and partly covered by a roof high above. It was sort of a mini-plaza squeezed between the cafe and a religious bookstore. It was a good place to do client work for hours on end.

This is where I was sitting when a downpour hit Mérida one evening. I made sure to move under the roof, and continued working. But when I looked up I saw a homeless man stumble out of the rain, into the shelter of the plaza, so soaked he trailed a river behind him. I watched as he went into several stores, probably asking for help, and was driven out by an angry manager. My first thought was (of course): please don’t come talk to me.

And he never did. He looked toward the cafe terrace a few times, but had probably been run off before. So he forsook the shelter of the plaza and stood in the rain on the sidewalk, throwing water at himself and screaming up at the sky.

I became angry at myself, and at my desire that he leave me alone. It suddenly seemed despicable. Abandoning my coffee and computer, I crossed the plaza to talk to him.

“Pardon me,” I said. I had a $200 peso note in my hand, but he didn’t know that yet.

“My watch,” he said. “I’m looking for my watch.”

I nodded as if I understood. I didn’t; I can’t pretend to know whether he was mentally ill or just looking to get attention. And I wasn’t going to get pulled into delusional talk.

“I don’t know where your watch is,” I said. “But I thought this would help.”

I put out my hand, not making the bill obvious, and we shook hands. He discovered the money and his demeanor changed, and for a moment no one was crazy or not crazy. Then he filled one hand with falling rain and pushed it on my head and made the sign of the cross. It was a better blessing than most.

“Thank you,” I said.

He didn’t try to draw me into conversation. I returned to my laptop, the cafe staff watching uncertainly; he sat down under the shelter of the plaza. I was still there when he left. He stepped out into the rain, turned and looked at me, smiled and waved, and then disappeared. I waved back.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Riding with Martín

Every Sunday there’s a large crafts and arts bazaar that spreads in the plaza outside my hotel, and down the street toward the centro. I deftly wove through the crowd as I came and went, avoiding sales pitches and cookie-cutter artesanías. But somehow I caught a glance of the t-shirt vendor—and stopped in my tracks.

T-shirt shops are usually the lowest of the low in tourist goods. In New Orleans they range from “I’m with Stupid” and “Thing 1/Thing 2” pairs to the truly elegant “I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street,” an essential for any gentleman’s wardrobe.

Mexico’s souvenir t-shirts can be slightly better, featuring sugar skulls and Aztec gods; similarly trite, with yet another Frida Kahlo; or they can be indistinguishable, with the same Homer Simpson faces and frat bro slogans translated into Spanish (or not). But they’re all identical from shop to shop and city to city. I categorically ignore these vendors.

Until I tripped past the one in the Hidalgo Plaza. These t-shirts weren’t cookie cutters. They featured original artwork, with a sort of pop postmodern look to them. You could describe it as Mexican-cultural-heritage-meets-Portland-zine.

The vendor was a young man with dark rimmed round glasses, looking every bit the part of the revolutionary Latin intellectual. I had no doubt he was also the artist, and after passing the stall several times I asked his name.

“Martín,” he said.

Martín and I hit it off. I bought one of his t-shirts (featuring two indigenous shamans in deer headdresses shaking rattles) and he was very interested in my journey. He does some cycling himself, sometimes several hundred kilometers or more to do beach trips with his friends. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride the next day.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Martín's t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

Martín’s t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

The next day we met up, taking a few minutes to look over each other’s rides. The first stop was a public market, where Martín treated me to a liter of fresh squeezed orange juice for the road; then a friend’s house to see if we could pick up a third rider (the friend was out). We crossed a highway and headed toward the outlying villages surrounding Mérida.

Our destination was a trail Martín had only heard of, never ridden on. An older man in the village knew where it was and offered shaky directions. I thought my Spanish just wasn’t up to snuff, but once out of earshot Martín turned to me and said, “Did you get any of that?” We went in the direction he had pointed and intuited the rest, pretty soon finding the trail head.

The trail was a rock and dirt affair through a section of forest. My bike isn’t really made for off-roading, but with high quality tires and no gear to carry he did pretty well. We had no particular destination, just a shared desire to go somewhere we hadn’t been before.

Out in the middle of the woods we stopped for a bit. Martín smoked and I stared at the sun through the leaves. We talked about what creatives talk about: dreams, careers, women, what is art and who can call themselves an artist; and women again. (Martín’s prefers to say he is only a student, and that it will take many years for him to be ready to say he’s an artist. I grinned and asked if he really believed that or if it was just good marketing.)

Martín is originally from Monterrey, and he dislikes it about as much as I did. He came to Mérida to make a career as an artist, because it’s a more cultural city. It’s also cheaper and has a large tourist industry, which has allowed him to make his entire living from his t-shirt sales. He creates the designs himself, starting with historic images and photoshopping them to something eye-popping or whimsical. He also prints them himself, with his own screen printing studio in his apartment.

His girlfriend is Argentinian (“she won’t eat the meat in Mexico, it’s not high quality enough”) and also an artist. Together they’ve been driving to other tourist destinations in Yucatán to suss out shops that can sell his t-shirts.

After our bike ride Martín and I went to another public market and got lunch. He suggested that after I finish the Mexico trip, I should consider living in Mérida, not Valladolid.

“There’s nothing in Valladolid!” he said.

“That’s kind of why I want to go there,” I said.

Still, he had a point. Mérida has more to offer creatives, and now I had a friend there. He promised he could introduce me to more people, and even offered to help me find a place to live.

I have to admit, he got me thinking about it.

(You can find Martín’s t-shirt catalog on Facebook or his whole portfolio here; he hopes to offer international orders soon. If you ever visit Mérida, stop at the Parque Hidalgo during the Sunday Market and check them out in person.)

Listening is the Spiritual Education of Humanity

One evening I got dinner at an open-air cafe on the central plaza. The usual parade of “ambulantes” wandered by: women begging for money, girls selling candy, boys with roses, vendors of every kind hoping to tempt you with an impulse purchase. This can happen in any city in Mexico, but it’s frequent in Mérida and I learned to tune it out.

As I was eating, a boy of about 13 years approached my table. He had an assortment of leather bracelets and cuffs.

“Excuse me—” he started in Spanish.

“No thanks,” I said. I was reading while I ate.

There was a pause. Sometimes you have to say no two or three times before a vendor leaves you alone. But I didn’t expect what came next.

“LISTEN.” It was pronounced in clear, commanding English.

I looked up and blinked. “Excuse me?” I also changed to English, looking the kid up and down.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Because listening is the spiritual education of humankind.”

My mouth fell on the table. As I sat dumbstruck, he proceeded to speak with the voice of Moses coming through him. His English was far from good—he pronounced it slowly, carefully, and didn’t always put the words together right. But his confidence never faltered. In this halting way, he delivered a sermon.

He said, essentially, that I don’t have to buy something from him, but I should listen to him, and look him in the eye, and recognize him as a human being. He said that our problems come from people not listening to one another, and that whoever learns to listen begins creating a better world.

My friend Cole likes to say that sometimes, you meet someone who just might be a god in disguise. I almost looked around to see if anyone else could see this kid.

When his talk was over I asked him to pardon me. Then I asked his name and told him mine. And this was the moment of truth: he had my attention, would he go for the sale again?

No, this kid had dignity. His sermon wasn’t a pitch, it was truth, and he wasn’t going to sour it. We shook hands and he continued on his way.

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: "Turn off the TV, Light up your mind."

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: “Turn off the TV, Light up your mind.”

An Awakening

There is one part of my time in Mérida that I can’t explain. It’s a spiritual breakthrough. There was a moment of revelation that came one night as I sat reading on the rooftop terrace. I can say that the experience involved a polytheist journal and Jim Morrison (and no drugs). It was as if the moon became brighter and a voice spoke from the sky.

I’m not ready to talk in detail about this experience. For days it left me feeling different, moving and acting like a better version of myself, much like my Vodou initiation did. And still, months later, these words are echoing with me:

“In order to Meet the gods, you must Be the gods.”

I intend to write an essay specifically about this experience, and will release it here when it’s ready.

Onward

Mérida was nearly the end of my Mexico journey, but I felt no need to rush on. Even so my time there was too short. Martín invited me to come see his studio and meet his girlfriend and friends, but it never happened; I was too busy with work. I hope to see him again one day.

Next time I’ll saddle up and begin the final few days of riding—the days that will bring me into the heart of Yucatán, to the famous pyramids of Chichén, and to my destination, Valladolid.

Until then consider getting a postcard here or check out past road logs.

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

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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Ask Me Anything, Mexico, Travel

Is There Anything Besides Nescafe in Mexico?

Pixi asked:

“Out of curiosity, how often did you find places that had coffee that was not Nescafé on your trip? I was under the impression that was pretty rare.”

This question made me smile. I have consumed a lot of Nescafé.

I poked fun at this a few times in the road logs, and Pixi was with me for the first three Nes-tastic days. If you’ve never had the pleasure, Nescafé is an instant coffee product (made by Nestle) which dominates the Latin American cheap-coffee market. It’s pretty bad, and it was the only coffee Pixi and I experienced for that first week, even at restaurants.

Café de olla (definitely NOT Nescafé). Photo via Fumi Chronicles.

Answer: It depends. In Mexico, anytime you’re in a city it is easy to find “real” coffee (which is to say coffee not made from powder, but often still as bad as a bad diner). On the other hand, in villages or on the road it’s almost always Nescafé. The exception is when a place has café de olla, common in the central highlands, which is brewed in a pot with spices and way too much sugar.

However, even in the cities if you go to a cheap open-air place it could be Nescafé and there are actual coffee houses with super good coffee… so you have options.

To be clear, Nescafé is probably no worse than any other instant coffee powder. But in the US, even the cheapest truckstop wouldn’t hand you a spoonful of instant coffee, whereas in Mexico most cheaper places are basically someone’s front living room and they’re giving you whatever their family uses.

I got used to it pretty quick. I’ve had some friends say that they would just skip coffee altogether if they couldn’t get “real” coffee, but those friends are clearly not coffee addicts. Plus, I like doing things the way the locals around me do them, and being a coffee snob in a small desert village is probably not a great way to make friends.

Do you have  question? Ask me anything.

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