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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Day 32: McAllen, TX to San Fernando, Mexico

We had a light breakfast at our hosts’ house in McAllen, then made the brief 8-mile ride further south to the border town of Hidalgo, TX, then to the border crossing. It was uneventful at first, as they didn’t express any desire to see our passports or anything. It was a good thing Ray was persistent in asking about the requirements and making our plans clear. If you enter Mexico and intend to exit back into the US, they don’t care much at all; you are just a “turista.” But, if you intend to exit Mexico into another country as we will, you are instead a “transmigrante,” and it’s a different story. We had to go to another office near the crossing, fill out some paperwork, and pay a fee which amounted to about 25 bucks. After that, we proceeded into the Mexican border city of Reynosa.

We headed down what looked like the main road out of town, but it started to look too desolate too fast, so we turned around, and asked for directions from somebody parking at a small hospital near the border. It turns out, we were on the right road to begin with, so we turned around again and went on. We came to a couple of different areas that were a part of the major population centers of Reynosa. There was a lot of traffic, and with the recent rain, the streets were pretty wet and muddy. Once out of town, though, the road became a fairly modern highway, with a clean, smooth, and wide shoulder to ride on.

About 15 miles outside of Reynosa, we stopped at a Mini-Super, a small convenience store, for some lunch. They made us mortadella (baloney) sandwiches, and we got Cokes to go with them.

As we approached the town of San Fernando, a man on a motorcycle rode up beside us and starting asking about where we were headed. We explained that we planned to spend the night in the town ahead, so he said that he was a local doctor, and would escort us into town and recommend a hotel. So, we had a private escort through the slight traffic into town, and up a short side street to a hotel that appeared to be owned by a friend of his. The rate was reasonable, so we checked in and got showered and relaxed a bit. It started raining pretty hard in the meantime, so we waited until it trailed off before heading out to find a place for dinner.

We asked for a recommendation for dinner from a couple of locals, and they both mentioned a place called Las Palmas. But, from the rain, many of the main streets were flooded to the point of being virtual rivers, and when we finally found the restaurant, there was no way to cross the street to get to it without getting soaked up to the knees. So, we proceeded up the street were were on, and found a decent-looking place around the corner on the same side. Check out the video below to see what I’m talking about.

Day 31: McAllen, TX

We decided to spend an extra day in McAllen in order to wrap up a few errands and get organized before crossing the border into Mexico. I finally got a chance to configure the Blackberry phone provided to us by T-Mobile and Sherwin-Williams. I boxed up my personal cell phone, along with a few other items that we had to send home, and Ray and I rode our bikes a few miles to the post office. A few blocks away was one of the local Sherwin-Williams stores, so we stopped in there to say hello and take some pictures. As we were talking to Liz, Raymond, and Laura from the store, who walked in but none other than District Manager Shane Weaver! We invited him to join us for dinner that evening, but he ended up having other commitments with customers.

We went for dinner with Curt and Francisco to a Vietnamese-Chinese place called Hop Tung.

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Day 30: Alice, TX to McAllen, TX

We got an early start as Ryan drove us from his house back into town, where we had a brief stop at the Sherwin-Williams store to take some pictures. We got some breakfast at Danny’s, a nearby diner, as we waited for the sun to come up, then continued on our way on Route 281 South.

There is pretty much only one town on the highway between Alice and the towns along the southern border, and it’s called Falfurria. We stopped there for lunch at a local diner called El Jardin.

The terrain was mostly flat again, and with a nice, wide highway with smooth pavement. It rained lightly on and off, but not enough to make the ride unpleasant; just enough to keep it cool, as well as give us a good tailwind for much of the way. Several motorists and truck drivers honked at us vigorously as they passed. At one point, we saw some very dark and forbidding-looking cloud formations, so we started to theorize that maybe they were trying to warn us of a tornado or something like that. But, the conditions stayed pleasant, so we figured they were just being friendly.

Our contact in McAllen was a man named Curt, whom we had found on He had previously e-mailed directions to us, which we followed once we reached the city of McAllen, and they led us perfectly to his house. Curt is originally from Cincinnati, and lived and worked for a few years in the Cleveland area. He now works as a city planner for the city of San Benito, Texas. Coincidentally, Curt’s housemate Francisco had just returned from Ushuaia, Argentina a few weeks earlier. He had been doing a fund-raising project to benefit blind people in the McAllen area; his goal was to run a marathon on each of the seven continents. He had been to Ushuaia on en route to and from Antarctica, where he completed his goal. Curt and Francisco provided us with a very delicious and filling meal of pasta alfredo with shrimp.

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Day 29: Jourdanton, TX to Alice, TX

Michele cooked us a great breakfast of eggs and soy chorizo, plus rich coffee, of course. Mark drove us in his pickup again to the southern end of San Antonio. We weren’t going to ask, but since we had mentioned that we had planned to go to Jourdanton the previous day, he was nice enough to drive us all the way down there to help us get a good start for the day. That was very helpful, as now we could still make it all the way to Alice, on schedule to meet the folks from Sherwin-Williams waiting for us there.

It was 104 miles of very flat terrain, usually with smooth pavement and a good, wide shoulder to ride on. We followed Route 16 south to Tilden, where we stopped at Wheeler’s general store for lunch. We cut east on Route 72 to Three Rivers, a small town dominated by the local Valero oil refinery. Then is was straight south on Route 281, through George West, until we arrived in Alice in the dark.

We called our local contacts from Sherwin-Williams, and within a couple of minutes were picked up by Ben Sanchez, the local store manager, and Ryan Tomayo, the assistant manager. Ryan drove us out to his home, about a dozen miles outside of town. We were followed by Shane Weaver, Sherwin-Williams’ District Manager for the area. At Ryan’s house, they had a grill all ready to get fired up, and we enjoyed steaks, beans, rice, and corn on the cob while we watched the Dallas Cowboys vs. Greean Bay Packers on TV.

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Day 28: Spring Branch, TX to Castroville, TX

Based on knowing that San Antonio is a very large and congested city, plus the recommendation of our friend Tom, we mapped out a route that took out around the city in a large loop on the western side. Unfortunately, this involved some more pretty tough terrain in Texas Hill Country. After only about 20-plus miles, we felt the need to stop for lunch in the tourist town of Boerne (pronounced “Bernie”); we found the Daily Grind Cafe and Bakery.

More Hill Country followed, and at one point we had to stop and look at a map with some men selling goods by the side of the road, to confirm that we were headed in the right direction. We stopped to use the restroom and refill our water bottles at the public library in the town of Lakehills. Further into Hill Country, we passed near Medina Lake in Medina County, although down here they pronounce it “me-DEE-nuh,” not “me-DIE-nuh” like we do back in Ohio. We stopped and talked to some motorcyclists at a bar to confirm that we were on the correct road. One particular side road turned into a gravel road, and then into a dirt road, but finally turned back into pavement.

We arrived in the city of Castroville pretty worn out, realizing that attempting to make the full loop from north of San Antonio, around the western side, and south to Jourdanton all in one day was too ambitious of a goal. So after grabbing a snack and beverage at a gas station, we decided to find a place to stay for the night. We had passed an RV campground about a mile back, so we went back there to check it out. They did not appear to have tent camping sites, although we talked to one couple who were staying in their RV, and they suggested that we talk to the owners to see if they might let us camp. The owners lived in a trailer on the edge of the campground, but after looking around and seeing that the place didn’t have showers, we decided to see what might be available back in town.

We asked a couple of people in town, and they both pointed us up the road to the Hotel Alsace, the only hotel in town. We rode the mile out to the hotel, but Ray went in to inquire and found that the rate was $140 per night. We got a brochure which listed several bed & breakfast inns in town, plus a city park that has tent campsites. We started calling each of them to see what they had available, but there was no answer at any of them.

As we sat on the steps outside the hotel, a couple in motorcycle gear came up and started chatting with us. They noticed our bikes, and were curious as to what kind of trip we were doing. We told them about our tour, about the long day we had just had, and how we were having a hard time finding a place to stay for the night. They suggested that we go down to the city park, and we should be able to check in for a camp site even though nobody there answered the phone.

As we got our bikes reorganized and made our way back towards the road, we saw the couple again in the hotel parking lot. They said that they decided to come back and invite us to stay at their home near San Antonio. We gladly accepted their offer. They introduced themselves as Mark and Michele, and said that they were avid cyclists as well. They had to ride their motorcycle back home, then Mark returned a short while later with his pickup truck to haul us and out bikes back to their house. Ray and I waited and got a snack at Sammy’s Restaurant.

Mark and Michele’s house is in a very nice neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio, very near Sea World. They provided a delicious dinner of bleu cheeseburgers to us and their other friends Ray and Felicia.

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Day 27: Austin, TX to Spring Branch, TX

The first part of our route out of Austin today took us into real Texas Hill Country, and they aren’t kidding when they say hills. We took Lost Creek Blvd. and Barton Creek Rd. through some very ritzy housing developments, up and down several very steep hills. This finally led us to the Oak Hill suburb on the soutwest side of the city, where we stopped at the local Sherwin-Williams store. We chatted and got photos with Store Manager Greg Ross and Assistant Manager Adam. We got some breakfast just up the road at Jim’s Restaurant, then headed out on US Route 290.

We passed through the town of Dripping Springs, home of Lance Armstrong. This appeared to be a formerly sleepy little town that is now booming with many new strip malls and housing developments. We took a shortcut off of the main highway on Route 165, which led to the town of Blanco and a very nice little cafe called The Deutsch Apple Bakery, where we had a delicious apple muffin and coffee snack. From there, we headed down US Route 281 South, which leads straight into the northern San Antonio suburb of Spring Branch.

We stopped by the brand-new Sherwin Williams store, just opened three weeks ago, and talked to Robert, the Assistant Manager. Also waiting for us there was a Blackberry phone provided to us by Sherwin-Williams and T-Mobile, for our use after we leave the United States. T-Mobile also provided us with a pair of backpacks containing some snacks and t-shirts.

We got in touch with our friend Tom, who happened to live less than a mile away. He met us at the store, and we followed him home, where he and his wife April prepared us a dinner of lasagna and cheeseburgers.

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Day 26: Austin, TX

We were enjoying the rest in Austin so much that we decided to take one more day off here to relax and decompress some more, as well as catch up on a few more errands. Mainly, I had to find a box to ship the Xtracycle back home in, so we found a UPS store further out in the hills on the western side of the city. They did not have any boxes big enough, however, but they directed us to a bike shop just up the road. We stopped next door at Austin’s Pizza to grab some lunch first.

The bike shop (Spin City Cycling) just happened to have received a bike frame in the mail that day, and had the box from it that looked to be just the right size, so they let us have it. We went back to the house and packed up the Xtracycle, as well as a few other items that we had decided we could live without.

In the evening, Alison, Ray, and I we met up with Johnny again for dinner at Mother’s Cafe.