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

Too Dirty for Her Bed By Far

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

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map.

Breakfast in Frontera. I'm hooked on motuleños.

Breakfast in Frontera. I’m hooked on motuleños.

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

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

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

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

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

After lunch I asked Gisela if she had a bathroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GUERRO! GUERRO!” he yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t show you one,” she said.

“Are you out of rooms?”

“No, we have plenty.”

“Then…?”

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

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

Son of a.

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

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

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 113.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4391.1 miles.

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

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In the City Is a Jungle, In the Jungle Is a City

Previously I did time in the dark little city of Cárdenas and finally made it my next destination, Villahermosa. Now it’s time to explore another one of Mexico’s great cities, and the ruins of one of its empires.

Stone heads!! Photo by Andre.

Stone heads!! Photo by Andre.

Tuesday, January 13 – Saturday, January 17 (Days 921-925 of the Great Adventure)

Villahermosa is a city of contrasts. It’s the state capital, but not much happens in the centro; it’s a metropolis, but good luck finding internet; and despite these inadequacies it’s oddly expensive—easily on a level with San Miguel de Allende, the gringo haven. It does live up to the “hermosa” in its name though, with a gorgeous central plaza, winding tree-lined streets in the Zona Luz (Zone of Lights, the hip area), and lots of parks and public spaces.

Main plaza in Villahermosa, with fountains. Photo by Andre.

Main plaza in Villahermosa, with fountains. Photo by Andre.

My room at Choco’s Hotel was, well, weird. The only window opened onto the stairwell, meaning I had to make sure the curtain was closed at all times. It had a small writing desk at least, but the bathroom was hilarious. Here’s one of my video logs to prove it:

I didn’t spend too much time there. Most of the first day was sent dodging rain and looking for a coffee shop with good wi-fi. Café Havana, tucked on a pedestrian mall near the Centro, seemed promising, but I couldn’t get the signal to work and the waiter was unsympathetic. Café Punto del Cielo, a popular chain in Mexico, had a particularly striking setting: stone archways with walls of pure glass, a view in every direction—plaza on three sides and the river on the fourth. I tripped into this beautiful space excited to work there, but the barrista informed me their wifi was down. Back into the rain I went.

Café Punto del Cielo in the central square. Photo via Foursquare.

After exploring several phantom cafés that exist only in Google, I settled upon Antigun Café in the Zona Luz. This place also doesn’t have wi-fi, but I could at least get a phone signal there and decided to drain my data plan to get my work done.

During my wanderings I’d spotted a surprising number of Chinese restaurants, so tried one out for dinner. It was mall quality, but good enough with hot sauce.

Antigun Café. Photo via Skyscraper City.

Antigun Café. Photo via Skyscraper City.

Ilusiones

The next day was an exploration day. My main goal was the museum park of La Venta, an outdoor archaeological park with the remains of the Olmec empire.

On the way I made a few other stops. First I checked out the observation tower near the Centro—a stark East German looking structure that shoots up from a pedestrian bridge over the river. Every source I could find assured me it’s free and open to the public, but when I got there in person I found a locked cage gate over the doorway and a distressing number of ripped-out electrical wires visible inside.

The observation tower and bridge entrance, also seen from inside Cielo. Photo via Foursquare.

Next up was a small park I noticed on the map. It fascinated me because it has a lagoon with an island. Remember, even just open water in a Mexican city is a little unusual to me, Catemaco notwithstanding. I wanted to see this for myself.

Parque el Jícaro was kind of empty and lonely. The spot where it meets the street is mud rather than lawn. Beyond that, however, is a paved pathway that encircles the entire lake, with some fantasy architecture including steps that go down into the water. Humble houses ring the pathway, and the people there waved and said hello, a refreshing change from Cárdenas

View of the park. The photo makes the person sitting there look very sad, but in reality I think she was checking her phone. Photo by Andre.

View of the park. The person sitting there looks very sad, but in reality I think she was checking her phone. Photo by Andre.

The museum park lies across a much bigger lake. I could have taken a main street all the way there, but I chose to wander backstreets instead. Soon I turned down a dead-end street called Las Ilusiones, a name that would be right at home in New Orleans. With a name like that I had to see it for myself.

The street headed straight down to the big lake. It was a quiet, sleepy lane lined with upper middle class houses: big white cement affairs with walled yards and gardens. One even had a gazebo. The workers from one house sat at a card table outside, taking a break and playing some kind of game. They waved as I went by.

At first I thought this was it—it was just a vaguely yuppy-ish lane with a too-creative name. But oh no. I followed Las Ilusiones to the very end, the shore of the lake itself, wondering if the rich folks had a little beach. Instead I found this:

Photo by Andre.

Photo by Andre.

That’s right, the lakefront of this beautiful, wealthy neighborhood is used as a public trash dump. Illusions indeed.

Back up the lane I went, across a bridge over the lake, through a city park filled with more Soviet structures, and up to the gates of La Venta.

More totally-not-Star-Wars public architecture in Villahermosa. Photo by Andre.

More totally-not-Star-Wars public architecture in Villahermosa. Photo by Andre.

The Museum Park La Venta

If I understand the history correctly, La Venta is actually some distance outside of Villahermosa, and is a rich trove of Olmec treasures. But the archaeological site was threatened by Pemex oil drilling, and archaeologists had to evacuate the statues and artifacts to a safe place in a hurry. They established the park to both save the treasures and put them on public display.

I arrived about an hour and a half before official closing time, which meant no one wanted me there. The park was nearly deserted, and two museum staff followed me at all times to make sure I kept moving. They kept a respectful distance, but the message was clear.

The park is a forest. You follow wandering pathways through the jungle and come upon clearing after clearing, each one bearing an altar, a preserved tomb or a stone head. Museums take notem because this is ingenious. It creates the sense of true exploration. You always feel secluded and never know what will be around the next curve. Perfect.

Ignoring the hint from my two shadows, I took video after video, always thinking it was the last one but then finding something even more amazing a few minutes later.

Here’s the video log of a stone mosaic that looks like a puzzle in Illusion of Gaia:

The whole series of La Venta videos is effectively a virtual tour, available to supporters. Happily, La Venta also has a large population of tejones, a.k.a. coatis, a.k.a. LITERALLY THE CUTEST ANIMAL ON EARTH, as this picture proves:

Coati! Photo via Animals World.

And yes, I got a bunch of them doing coati stuff on video, also available for supporters.

La Venta is big, but even when I finished it there was more to see. I bought some fried plantain chips and walked along the shore of the lake, a herd of coati following me. (They didn’t seem too interested in the fried bananas, which means these scavengers from the raccoon family are healthier eaters than I am.) A footbridge along the lakeshore had another observation tower, and this one too was sealed shut:

I don't know why they make these things so ugly. All I can say is Mexico ♥ Modernity.

So damn ugly. All I can say is Mexico ♥ Modernity.

Still hungry, I began the long walk home. I stopped at a sushi restaurant for dinner, where I observed a solo female traveler (Mexicana, not foreign) doing exactly what I was doing: sitting alone, eating slowly, reading on her phone. I didn’t talk to her and she didn’t talk to me. It was like introvert sex.

Afterward I stopped by an Italian restaurant I’d found in the Zona Luz, called La Dantesca, where I grabbed tiramisu for dessert.

Another famous building in Villahermosa. Mexican government photo.

Rainproof Priest

The rest of my time in Villahermosa was relatively tame. I spend a lot of it working and a lot more walking around, even buying an umbrella to combat the rain (at “we know you need this” stormy day prices). I discovered another cozy café in the Zona Luz, this one with actual internet, but the owner had a habit of standing on my table to bring down imported Italian goodies for other customers.

I’d noticed some good-looking pizzas at La Dantesca, and went back twice more for dinner. It’s terrific, and I highly recommend it.

[Andre’s note: If it seems weird that I eat so much pizza on this trip, bear in mind that it’s one of the few non-Mexican foods you can find almost anywhere in Mexico. After enough tacos you start to crave something different.]

Throughout all this I kept a nervous eye on my bike, which was outside in the (gated) parking area of Choco’s hotel. He did fine and no one harmed him, plus I did some late-night maintenance to make sure he’d be in tip top shape come the next leg. Soon it would be time to get back on the road.

Next time the weather changes for the better and I strike back toward the Gulf Coast. This is the beginning of the final stretch into Yucatán. Until then, check out previous road logs or become a supporter.

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

Hotelstuck

Last time I crashed in a love hotel with a bad knee and a worse case of food poisoning. Now it’s time to decide if I can go on—and what my other options are.

January 7-11 (Days 915-919 of the Great Adventure)—Hotelstuck

The Rogue Priest is nothing if not stubborn. My alarm went off early, and I awoke in my romantic-but-kinda-creepy hotel room.

I had some problems.

My stomach churned. The room spun. My forehead was on fire, and I went from overheated to chilled through in turns. All I could think of was the awful ground meat from the night before.

The knee wasn’t so great either. But maybe it wasn’t as bad as it was yesterday afternoon? Maybe the rest and ice had helped? I convinced myself of that. It was definitely better.

I checked the weather. My tail wind was still blowing, offering an “easy” ride to Villahermosa. And a short ride. Half a day tops—for real this time. I didn’t have much time; by evening the wind would shift. It was push on or get trapped.

So I allowed myself a little more sleep, then began assembling my things. The idea of breakfast grossed me out, so other than water and a few bites of candy, I left the stomach empty.

My riding clothes were soaked and covered in grit from yesterday’s ride. Many of my regular clothes were wet too, a memento of the failed lavandería in Coatza. But by bit I bagged everything and got it into the saddlebags, then loaded up the bike. The process was rough: every two minutes I had to stop, lay on the bed, and breathe. No coach would’ve given me the green light to go out on the field.

Finally it was time to go. I drank some more water and laid around one last time. Then I went downstairs, got on the creaky bicycle—his chain still covered in grit—and opened my personal garage bay.

The road lay before me.

I walked the Giant to the shoulder. The wind blew strong. This was the moment of truth; hopping on, I put weight on the first pedal with my good leg, then tried the next stroke with the injured one.

“Aaugh!”

The bike glided to a stop. My feet touched the ground. I would not be leaving Cárdenas.

Instead I looped a few blocks away—limp-pedaling, of course—to the hotel I had meant to check into the night before, Hotel Madan. Even in those few blocks I got sprinkled on, rain from a sunny sky with giant clouds moving in. I was secretly grateful I would not be out on the road today; I had given it the best effort possible and could rest with a clear conscience.

Hotel Madan Cárdenas is a great place. Considering all the meh hotels I’ve been to, I was pleasantly surprised: large clean rooms, AC that works, wi-fi that works (!), a writing desk in every room, an on-site restaurant. It was great. Mostly though I just wanted to check in quickly and fall asleep, which did not stop the staff at the counter from showing me three separate rooms so I could choose which one I liked best.

Finally I was alone. Fever burning, I cranked up the AC, put on my driest and cleanest t-shirt, and climbed under the covers. On top of the 10 hours of sleep from the night before I now slept 7 more, getting up only to sip water.

In the evening I debated what my stomach could handle and found out that most of the simple things on the hotel menu—like hot oatmeal, or a waffle—were not actually available. I forget what I ended up with, but I ate it slowly and gratefully, iced my knee and went back to bed.

The wind shifted in the night and there was no longer a reason to hurry. I decided to rest as long as needed to get the knee back to 100 percent.

Cárdenas

Cárdenas is a small city with not much going on, and it has a vaguely depressed and dangerous vibe to it. [Andre’s note: months later I would meet a friend whose wife is from Cárdenas. He said that after 28 years living in Mexico City, the only time he ever had a gun pointed at him was in this pleasant little burg.]

Here are a few highlights:

  • I got pretty tired of the hotel restaurant. The surrounding neighborhood was pretty dead, however, and I became a fixture there morning and night.
  • Walking around was eerie, because people would stare silently at me. But I walked around a lot, because I needed to go out for big jugs of water.
  • I discovered that the “Hidalgo style” quesadilla restaurant wasn’t just one place. It’s a popular Tabasco chain. Every time I walked past one I would blanch, and I’d be seeing them for some time to come.
  • There was a power outage one night. It was the only disruption to the hotel wifi of my entire stay, making Hotel Madan officially the most reliable internet connection in Mexico.
  • Eventually I did find the bustling central jardín, the one area guaranteed to seem lighthearted and festive in any Mexican city. Here it was not. People stayed mostly to the bars, restaurants and low-end shopping spots along the edge, and the jardín itself was mostly empty. It was home to a too-modern clock tower and some closed eateries. Teenagers chatted and smoked, but families hurried by.
  • At the edge of the jardín was the creepiest thing I’ve seen yet: an abandoned carnival. Okay, it was probably just closed, but it was an odd place to explore. I wandered among the shuttered rides shooting a video, which supporters can access.
The centro in Cárdenas trying to look charming. Photo by Andre.

The centro in Cárdenas trying to look charming. Photo by Andre.

As my knee recovered I ranged farther and farther looking for anywhere fun in town, or even just a great restaurant. One day I stopped at an American chain pizza place alongside the freeway (I honestly forget if it was Pizza Hut or Domino’s). Next door was a KFC.

The food poisoning passed within 36 hours of the bad sope. The knee was much slower. Since Coatza I’d performed daily trigger point massage (thank you Amber!), taken anti-inflammatories and applied topical ointment. As it healed I also did light stretching. [Andre’s note: I now believe the problem was patellar tendinitis, which is not uncommon for cyclists.]

I wanted to get out of Cárdenas—it wasn’t the happiest place for me—but I refused to go until my knee was truly healed and ready for combat.

About five days later, it was. 0.6 miles.

Map.

January 12 (Day 920 of the Great Adventure)—To Villahermosa

Wow, did it feel good to leave. I said goodbye to the hotel staff, who were like bffs by now. Every day they’d watch me walk outside and look at the weather, gauging the wind, and they’d ask

if I was staying till the rain passed. I said “Si, más o menos,” but of course I was really waiting to heal. Now they watched as I mounted up and prepared to bike out under a sky of black clouds.

“It’s going to rain,” said the daytime desk lady.

I smiled. “I know,” I said. “It’s fine.”

And it really was—although as I recall, I never got a drop of rain that day.

I had already done some biking sans cargo around town, and the knee felt good. Now the bike was fully loaded. I was tender with my pedaling, and there was no pain.

The road rose to meet me. I began to crank out the 32 short miles to Villahermosa. 32 miles—a three hour ride, maybe two hours with that tail wind I’d missed. For someone who has the approximate endurance of drunken rodeo bull, it’s disconcerting to know I couldn’t make those couple of hours earlier.

The terrain was relatively flat. Out of Cárdenas I crossed a river that put me literally a stone’s throw from the state of Chiapas, a state I’ve still never been to. A couple hours later I rolled into the edge of Villahermosa.

I could tell right away that Villahermosa (“Beautiful Villa”) is a bit different from other Mexican cities. It seemed more spread out and maybe more modern, in the sense that most of it was built in the last century. It also has a variety of lakes, rivers and streams, something I’m not accustomed to seeing in a Mexican metropolis.

I worried the traffic entering the city would be unholy, but it was fine. I had done some research and chosen a hotel near the historic center, named Choco’s. (I’m unclear whether there is an eccentric Mexican woman named Choco, or if the hotel is actually owned by a chocobo.) I reached Choco’s on a healthy, intact knee and checked in. After a shower I went out in search of a sushi restaurant that appears on Google Maps but doesn’t actually exist. 32.2 miles.

Chocobo. Art by Silverbirch.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 32.8 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4277.5 miles.

Next time it’s giant stone heads, long tail raccoons and an explosive shower stall. Until then check out past road logs or become a supporter.

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Mexico’s City of Sorcerers

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

Shop in Catemaco. Photo by Andre.

Shop in Catemaco. Photo by Andre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Lake

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

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

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

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

Cool building near the square. Photo by Andre.

 

Munching Snails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biding My Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the treehouse. Photo by Andre.

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

Side Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gates of Veracruz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pointed this out.

“Oh, that’s out of date.”

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

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

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

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

Map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total traveled this leg: 112.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4109.3.

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

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This Is Why I Love Xalapa

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

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

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

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

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

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

Art & Literature

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

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

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

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

Bar de Poesía.

Bar de Poesía.

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

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

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

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

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

The tree in the Centro.

The tree in the Centro.

The Christmas Scene

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

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

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

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

Fun Facts

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

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

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

A public park in Xalapa.

A public park in Xalapa.

A trail in the same public park.

A trail in the same public park.

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

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

A Future Home

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

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

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

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

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

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The Prettiest Road in Mexico

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

Menu at the Aquellos Tiempos Cafe. Photo by Andre.

Menu at the Aquellos Tiempos Cafe. Photo by Andre.

December 19-20—Huamantla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The valley lake and the causeway. Photo by André.

The valley lake and the causeway. Photo by André.

Marshes in the lake. Photo by André.

Marshes in the lake. Photo by André.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freefall

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

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

Clouds where the earth should be. Photo by André.

Clouds where the earth should be. Photo by André.

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

Xalapa

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

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

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

Map 1 – 51.2 miles

Map 2 – 39.0 miles

Total traveled this leg: 90.2 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3997.1 miles

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

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