Day 44: Cárdenas, MX to Villahermosa, MX

The route was all highway again today, for a short ride into the city of Villahermosa. We made our way to the Hotel Camino Real, which had been set up for us again by the good folks at Sherwin-Williams. It was probably the nicest hotel of all on the trip. After checking in and getting showered, we took a walk around the area, and got some lunch at a cafe.

Nearby was a Sanborn’s, which is one of Mexico’s largest chain stores. I imagine it’s like what Woolworth’s used to be in the early 1900’s–a small department store with an attached cafe and bar. We stopped in to get a good cup of coffee. After that, we walked down the street of the hotel, which appeared to be the trendy night life area, with a lot of night clubs and such, but it was still mid-day, so not much was open. Back near the hotel, we stopped in another Sanborn’s which was inside the shopping mall that was attached to the hotel. Later we had dinner in the hotel.

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Day 43: Cosoleacaque, MX to Cárdenas, MX

After the usual taquitos for breakfast, we headed out again for today’s all-highway ride. I got some pancakes for lunch. Along the route today we crossed from the state of Veracruz into the state of Tabasco, our third Mexican state.

The hotel we found in Cárdenas was not close to the town square; this, plus it being Sunday, made the dinner options limited, so we got take-out pizzas (two-for-one special) from the local Pizza Hut. But, at least with Sunday, we were able to enjoy American football on the TV.

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Day 42: Cosamaloapan, MX to Cosoleacaque, MX

We got some breakfast taquitos at a typical cafe in town, then headed out on the highway. By now, I’ve gotten the hang of eating in Mexico. All of the food we’ve had has been at least good, usually very good, sometimes fantastic. The only problem, other than Ray not always being able to find vegetarian options, is the amount. But the key to the diet of the touring cyclist (or anybody with a big appetite) in Mexico is the tortillas.

Any place you go in the world, you will find that what is plentiful is readily available. In the US, we have plenty of good, clean drinking water, so we give it away with meals without a second thought. In Mexico, they don’t give away water, but the one thing that they have plenty of is tortillas, and they will give you as many as you want. So, whether you are at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, no matter what your main dish and side dishes are, grab the tortillas and make yourself some taquitos. It will add the calories and belly-filling power that you need to your meal.

Along the highway, we stopped in the morning at a roadside vendor and bought a bottle of fresh pineapple juice. Only 15 pesos (less than a dollar-fifty), and quite cold and delicious.

We had planned to stay in the city of Minatitlán tonight, but over the past few days, we’d seen news reports of that city being flooded, so we stopped in the outlying suburb of Cosoleacaque. We found the usual style of hotel, then ventured out to find dinner.

As we wandered up the street, we noticed some people gathered in a side street. It looked like some kind of street fair, but we weren’t sure if it was a public event or not. Thinking it might be a good place to find food, we turned in to check it out. As soon as we got to the entrance, the people urged us to come in, and right inside, a family had set up their own group of chairs to gather around. They invited us to join them, and explained that it was the Fiesta de Santa Teresita de Jesus, a festival in honor of the patron saint of their town.

They immediately offered us a plate of food, which was some fried chicken with a side of rice. Later, they brought out the heavier artillery, which consisted of boiled pig’s feet, raw turtle eggs (their favorite delicacy), and of course, beer. One of them gave me his straw hat, he said, “so you look more like one of us.” We spoke with what appeared to be the two heads of the family, two gentlemen named Constantin and Ramón Jorge. Constantin spoke some English, so I tried my best to carry on a conversation with him in English and broken Spanish. They both repeated the same thing that we had heard throughout our travels in Mexico, “American, Mexico, North American, South America, Central America…it does not matter. We are all brothers.” We were truly grateful for their sentiments and their hospitality, and for feeding us and treating us as their own family, and this evening will be one of the best memories from this trip.

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Day 41: Veracruz, MX to Cosamaloapan, MX

After breakfast at the Holiday Inn, we started to make our way out of the city. We stopped at a Sherwin-Williams store that we happened to pass, but they were busy and we did not have the opportunity to talk with them. There were some contractors waiting for their colleague outside the store, so we asked them for recommendations for the best route out of town, but it turns out they were contractors from Spain, and were not familiar with the area! One of them had a detailed city map, though, so we looked at it and found what we needed.

The main streets took us out of Veracruz and through a suburb called Boca del Rio. Once beyond there, the road became fairly quiet, although very narrow. About 50 miles in, we turned off of the main road onto a smaller road that was very flat and ran through a very marshy, swampy region. The villages all through this region were experiencing flooding problems, and it was very sad to see the conditions they were dealing with as the water surrounded their homes. There was one small city called Tlacotalpan along the way that looked like under more normal conditions, it was a very nice city and would be a nice place to spend the night.

As we approached the village of Carlos A. Carrillo, a pair of men in a red pickup truck flagged us down and asked if we would do a TV interview. One of the men held a small (not TV-grade) video camera, as the other held the microphone and asked me questions about our trip. I did my best (not very well) to answer in a combination of Spanish and English. When he concluded the interview, the man with the microphone recommended that we spend the evening at the hotel that he owned in Cosamaloapan. He did not tell us the name of the hotel, but said it was in the central area of the city.

When we got to town, we started looking around for the hotel. We passed a Construrama, a Mexican home-improvement store chain. They were having a big sale event, and to attract customers, they had about a half-dozen young women dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts dancing outside the store entrance. It was a strange sight, something you would not see in the US; kind of like a cross between a Home Depot and a Hooters!

A bit later, we passed the local middle school, and some of the kids were hanging around waiting for their rides home. When they saw us, they gathered around and wanted to talk to us and get our autographs. Even though they didn’t know us, I guess they figured since we were gringos on bikes, we must be doing something special, and might even be famous.

As we further explored the downtown area, we found a suitable nice but inexpensive hotel, but it was not the one owned by the “TV” interviewer from earlier. After we got showered and headed back out to find dinner, we did end up seeing the red pickup truck parked outside another hotel. We got pizza at a local joint right on the main public square.

As we ate our pizza, I noticed how the plaza, and all of the nearby streets, were filled with people out enjoying the evening, having food, coffee, or drinks, listening to music, and just having conversations. The children were running around playing, without having to be attached to their parents with a leash. This appeared to be a working-class, medium-sized city, probably the Mexican equivalent of something like Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. But it seemed like no matter where we went, whether it was a very affluent area or very depressed village, we saw this kind of activity every day. We commented how we in the US think that we have it so much better, but this kind of thing is what we don’t see enough of in our cities, because people are afraid to be out in the evenings, or they don’t think there is anything to do.

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Day 40: Palma Sola, MX to Veracruz, MX

The roads this morning were hilly and somewhat narrow again today, but then turned to more open and smooth highways later in the day. We stopped for lunch at a place outside the city of José Cardel, because they had a sign advertising a breakfast special. The waiter told us it was too late for breakfast, but I guess we looked sad, so he said he would have them make it for us.

We proceeded on a freeway leading towards the city of Veracruz, and saw a sign with a symbol indicating “No Bicycles Allowed” (a bike symbol with the red slash through it), but we knew of no other route, so we continued anyway. We passed by some police at a toll gate, and they didn’t care, so it we were alright. We have passed through several toll gates during our riding in Mexico, but they never required us to pay the toll. Usually, they would just tell us to use the pedestrian walkway to the far right to get around the toll gate area before we continued riding.

We also passed many military checkpoints, usually at least one per day. The first time, Ray asked them if we needed to stop, and they just laughed and waved us through. So from then on, we would just ride through and give them a friendly wave, and they usually did the same.

In addition to the military checkpoints, we’ve seen many police cars patrolling the highways on a regular basis, similar to how often you’d expect to see police and highway patrol in the states. They’ve been from the various city police and state police forces, as well as the Polizia Federal.

The highway leading into Veracruz became more and more congested. We decided to take a different highway that indicated by the signs that is lead to the port area. We figured we would get to the port, and then it would be easier to just follow streets along the coast until we got into the city. That section of highway was more hilly, though, as well as very windy, and the wind was blowing sand across the road and into our faces at times. When we reached the actual port, the highway ended there, and we were not allowed to go into the port area. So, we had to back-track just a bit to get back onto the main highway.

We were looking for the Holiday Inn where the local Sherwin-Williams people had made a reservation for us. The main highway ended at the high but very narrow bridge that led into the city center. We wanted to avoid the narrow lanes on the bridge, so we tried to take some side streets around it, but the neighborhood started to look not very safe, so we went back to the bridge and took our chances on the road. We stayed on the sidewalk for most of the bridge, and when we finally got to the end, it left us right in the historic city center plaza, and lo and behold, the Holiday Inn was right there in front of us!

They let us wheel our bikes into our room, and after we got cleaned up, we set out to explore the city on foot. The city is very modern, and there were a lot of people out enjoying the plaza and waterfront area. There seemed to be a lot of tourists, but not Americans, rather tourists from other parts of Mexico. We went back to the hotel for dinner.

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Day 39: Papantla, MX to Palma Sola, MX

We stopped at a small cafe for breakfast on our way through Papantla. They had pancakes, and I ordered them with ham, and they ended up stacking the ham and pancakes up like a sandwich. It reminded me of a McGriddle, but was very good. I also ordered what they called a “chocomilk,” which I assumed was just chocolate milk, but it was kind of in-between milk and a milkshake; they blended the milk with some ice. They served it in a small fountain glass with the metal mixing cup on the side, like the old-fashioned soda fountains in the US. I also noticed that they had a bunch of bananas up on the shelf behind the counter, and I thought it would be nice to eat one. For some reason, both Ray and I had a hard time getting the server to understand that I just wanted a plain banana. She kept asking if I wanted it in a fruit salad, or fried, or what?

The riding route was hilly at first, but flattened out later in the day. The road was narrow and winding for a while, and sharing it with semi-trucks was kind of nerve-racking. We stopped for lunch at a small town before the city of Nantla. They had several seafood options; I chose the shrimp stew. It was good, but not as good as the fish stew from a few days ago. The lime juice in the broth gave it an aroma that kind of put me off.

After riding near the Gulf of Mexico ever since we entered the country, today we were finally close enough to actually see the Gulf for the first time. We enjoyed Gulf views along much of the road all afternoon, as we passed many resort style hotels. Unfortunately, we also passed through a construction zone, with a very rough and narrow road for a number of miles.

The town of Palma Sola seems to cater to beach tourists from other parts of Mexico. We found a nice hotel, although we had to take a second-floor room, which made lugging the bikes up a little more difficult than usual. We explored the town a bit, stopping in to chat at another small bicycle repair shop. The owner told us that he owns a total of three bike shops in the area. He said “I own my own house; it’s not a great house, but it’s MY house. This is not a great living, but it’s a good living. Bicycles are my passion; I never want to do anything else.”

We got chicken sandwiches and fries at one of the local cafes.

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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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