Day 38: Poza Rica, MX to Papantla, MX

We got an early start checking out of the hotel, and found another hotel with a nice diner for breakfast along the main street in the center of the city, near the Sherwin-Williams store. After breakfast, we chatted with the guys at the store for a bit, and they helped us out with directions to get out of the city.

We rode the short 12 miles to Papantla, and found a very nice hotel on the edge of town. After checking in and resting a bit, we rode to the town of Tajin, the home of one of Mexico’s many archeological sites. Although only 5 miles away, the ride was up and down a very steep hill.

The Tajin site was structured much like many US National Parks, with a very modern visitor center and museum at the entrance. We bought our tickets and proceeded straight into the ruins. The culture of the site was neither Aztec nor Mayan, but was what is called the Veracruz culture. See the video and photos below; you can read more about it here. After walking around the site for a while, we got some lunch at the visitor center cafe, which had a very filling meal at a very reasonable price (unlike most US parks).

On our way back to the hotel, we took a short detour to explore the downtown Papantla area. We walked back into town in the evening to get some taquitos for dinner.

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Day 37: Naranjos, MX to Poza Rica, MX

More hilly terrain today, but still pleasant riding. We stopped for lunch in Tuxpan, which is another somewhat larger city. The main road through the city ran along a riverbank, which was a pretty area, and seemed to be the main drag for tourists, with several upscale restaurants overlooking the river. We settled on a place called El Nuevo Veracruz that was a little more upscale than we had wanted, but they accepted credit cards, which is not as common a practice in the smaller towns. They had a lot of fresh fish choices, and the portions were good and filling.

We noticed in the road signs on the way into the city that sometimes the name was spelled Tuxpan, and sometimes Tuxpam. This is probably due to the internal cultural differences in language and spelling, between the Hispanic and indiginous heritages. Or maybe it’s like Pittsburgh vs. Pittsburg?

We followed a fairly major highway the rest of the day; fairly hilly but not too bad. We planned to ride all the way to Papantla and take a day off tomorrow, but we decided to spend the night in the city of Poza Rica and have a short ride to Papantla tomorrow. We happened across a Sherwin-Williams store here in the city, so we stopped in to say hi to them and get a recommendation for a hotel. One of the guys there led us to a hotel a few blocks away on his motorcycle. It ended up being a kind of shady-looking place, but it was fairly clean, and very inexpensive, so we stuck with it. We found some dinner at a place down the same street, where I got a cheeseburger and fries. Back at the hotel, we watched the Steelers beat the Ravens on Monday Night Football.

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Day 36: Tampico, MX to Naranjos, MX

We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant, where the buffet included pancakes and other American-style options. We walked the few blocks towards the Sherwin-Williams store. Despite having found it yesterday, for some reason, we completely missed it today and ended up about twice as far down the street as necessary. A young man approached us and offered to help. He spoke English pretty well; he wore a shirt with the Best Western hotel logo on it; he said he was working there while working his way through university for an engineering degree. He helped us backtrack our way up the street to the Sherwin-Williams store, where the local staff there was waiting for us. We answered questions for two different newspaper reporters and took photographs.

We asked them about the best way to make our way out of the city on our bikes. They explained that normally, we would have to follow the main highway out of town, which would take us across a large bridge over the river. However, they said that another section of the river bank was just a few blocks away, and that we could take a boat across, which would save us about ten miles of riding and lots of time and traffic headaches. They said it was a sketchy part of town, though, and it might be hard for foreigners to charter a boat without getting ripped off. So, they offered to come along and help us make our way across.

One of the staff gave us a lift back to the hotel in her car. We retrieved our bikes from the basement parking garage, and rode the couple blocks back to the store, where about three of them were lined up waiting for us in their cars. We make a parade for a few blocks to the river bank, and they made the arrangements for the charter boat for us, and paid for it as well. We said our thanks and good-byes to most of them, as a couple of them joined us on the boat for the short ride across to the far shore.

As we crossed the river, we crossed from the state of Tamalipas into the state of Veracruz. The first town on that side of the river was known as Tampico Alta, or as we might say in Northeast Ohio, “Tampico Heights.” The terrain got somewhat more hilly today. We stopped for sanchwiches for lunch in a town called Ozuluama.

We checked into a reasonably-priced hotel in Naranjos, then headed into the downtown area to find dinner. Unfortunately, being a Sunday evening, not many options were open, and we wandered for a while until we finally found a small place open that had sandwiches available.

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Day 35: Manuel, MX to Tampico, MX

Well, here we are in the very posh and modern Hotel Inglaterra in Tampico, Mexico, arranged for us by the local folks from Sherwin-Williams. I had hoped to catch up on uploading photos and other blog information tonight, but the computadora here in the hotel’s business center does not seem to want to recognize the memory card from my camera. Rest assured, though, we’ve had an enjoyable and relatively uneventful few days of riding here in Mexico. Since our first evening in San Fernando, we’ve stayed in the towns of Soto La Marina and Manuel. Tampico is the first major city, and the first one in which we’ve seen modern chain stores, both Mexican and American (Home Depot, Sam’s Club, Applebee’s, TGIFriday’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King). After Ray and I walked around the city near out hotel a bit to try to find some good vegetarian options, we settled on the Subway just outside our hotel! To our dismay, the coffee in the small cafes that we’ve eaten is so far is usuall instant, but finally today, we had some good “real” coffee in an upscale cafe called Victoria, in the public square just across the street from the hotel.

Tampico is a large city, and the last 15 miles of our 50-mile ride today were spent dodging urban traffic. The roads so far, though, have been mostly very nice. Many of the highways in this part of the country have gone through the process of “modernizacion,” with a wide, smooth shoulder, which has made for fast and pleasant cycling. The only major exception was a couple of miles of in-progress construction that we had to ride through yesterday on the way to Manuel. It started out as a couple miles of rough chip-and-seal surface, followed by a mile or so of dirt, gravel, water, and mud. It has been relatively flat terrain so far, except for a few moderate rolling hills in the middle of yesterday’s route. We’ve also been fortunate that it’s been overcast and uncharacteristically cool in this region, as well as in our last couple of days in Texas.

A couple highlights of Mexico so far were our best meal, a lunch of fish stew at a small cantina about halfway between Soto La Marina and Manuel. The matronly proprietor explained that she used no frozen vegetables, and the fish was caught fresh from the nearby Laguna Verde. The other highlight was that night in Manuel, when we set out to find a place for dinner. We stopped in a small cantina that had a sign promising “pescada frita” (fried fish), but the kitchen was closed by then. By chance, two traveling salesmen from the Modelo Brewery (makers of Corona) were at the bar, and struck up a conversation. They insisted on buying us round after round despite our protests of “No mas!” until we finally politely exited and managed to find a hearty sandwich stand down the street.

While walking around the city today, we strolled through the very large open-air market, which looked like the place to be for any kind of fresh food, as well as goods of all kinds. We also scouted out a couple of local bike shops; these are usually very small places that just handle repairs for the very low-end Huffy-style bikes that most people use for transportation. We talked to an employee at one shop, and when we told him that we worked for a bike shop in Ohio, he said, “You probably see a lot of nice stuff there. We only get crap here.” We also found the local Sherwin-Williams store; they were closed at this time, but it was good to find where it was, since they are expecting us to stop by tomorrow morning for a photo session.

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant. The waiter told us about how he had worked as a painter and drywaller in the Columbus, Ohio area a few years ago.

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Day 34: Soto La Marina, MX to Manuel, MX

Very pleasant riding today; fairly flat for the first part, some hills in the middle, then flat again for the end. We’ve been lucky with the weather, because the cloudiness which as brought the occasional rain has kept the sun and heat at bay. We stopped at another roadside cafe for some fish stew for lunch. While eating, we talked to a local man, who said that he had spent some time working in Columbus, Ohio. In town in the evening, we got some large sandwiches, or “tortas,” for dinner.

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El Sol de Tampico

The newspaper El Sol de Tampico ran this story on us on Sept. 26, 2008, the day before we arrived in the city of Tampico, Mexico.

Day 33: San Fernando, MX to Soto La Marina, MX

We found a small cafe in town where we had taquitos for breakfast, and had more taquitos for lunch at a roadside cafe about 25 miles later.

A few recurring things I have noticed so far in our first two days in Mexico. First, the only chain-type business that I noticed so far are the PEMEX gas stations. I realized today that all of the gas stations in Mexico are this one brand, because of the country’s nationalized oil industry.

The second recurring theme is the mini-super stores, like the first one we stopped at for lunch yesterday. These are small family-owned convenience stores, usually operated out of a very small building, sometimes in the front part of the family’s home. They sell very basic snacks and beverages, including soda, water, and beer; the brand of beer they carry is usually a prominent feature of the outside paint job of the building. There is typically not much fresh food; sometimes bananas or other fruit. Sometimes these stores are referred to as “aborrotes;” Ray said that name is related to  “general store” or “groceries,” which would imply a wider selection of products, but I never saw any big difference between these and the ones that called themselves a “mini-super.”

The third recurring thing I noticed were the small auto tire repair shops, known as “vulcanizadoras.” These are often set up in small open-air shacks, even less pretentious than the mini-supers. Some vulcanizadoras can even be found in stretches of highway in the middle of nowhere, but they are always easy to identify by the half-buried tire place on the edge of the higway with “vulcanizadora” crudely written in spray paint. In every city and small town, even the smallest of unincorporated villages, you will find at least one, usually more than one, vulcanizadora and mini-super.

Another thing you will find along the highways, in every town both large and small, is groups of speed bumps as you approach and go through the populated areas. They are called “topes.” Ray thinks the name is related to the Spanish word for “turtle,” and that they may be using that word because of the turtle-like shape of a speed bump, or maybe because of the fact that you have to slow down to go over them (or maybe both reasons). You get ample warning as you approach them, with signs stating “Zona de Topes” and “Topes a 150 mts” for example. I imagine that these were put in place to protect the local residents from speeding traffic, as there are usually few sidewalks along the roads, and the people are often traveling by foot along the sides of the roads. I bet that they are very tedious to drivers, though. It’s a mixed blessing for us as cyclists. On the one hand, it’s good for us as well as the local pedestrians to not have to worry about the traffic speeding by as fast when we’re going through a congested area. On the other hand, they are a pain, because we have to be careful and go over them very slowly; they could do a lot of damage to a bike, especially a heavily-loaded touring bike.

The highway conditions during the past two days have been much better than we expected. Usually there is a very smooth, wide shoulder on the side of the road to bike on, whether the road is just one lane in each direction or two. It seems that with Mexico’s expanding industrial base, they’ve been working on many highway modernization projects, which has been a boon to us. Often, as we approached a small city, the newer highway would branch off to loop around the city, like what we would call a “bypass” in the US, and the original, smaller road would go straight into the city, like what we would call the “business route” in the US. Often, the newer bypasses were not yet pictured on the road map that we were using.

No matter what the road conditions were like, we found the drivers in Mexico to be pretty respectful of us as cyclists; no worse than most places in the US; usually better.

Unfortunately, for about the last 20 miles of today’s route, we were stuck in a section of highway in the middle of the modernization process. For a few miles, the pavement was a very rough chip-and-seal surface. Then, it turned to gravel, and for a while, to dirt and mud. Our bikes, bags, shoes, and legs had a good coating a gray and brown by the time we checked into the Hotel Hacienda. After getting ourselves cleaned up, we walked up the road to explore the town a bit, and found a local place for dinner with fried fish and french fries. A pretty hard thunderstorm hit while we ate, but passed by the time we were done eating.

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