Day 47: Ocosingo, MX to San Cristobol de las Casas, MX

We got an early start after eating breakfast at the hotel. We planned to buy our usual daily supply of water on the way out of town, but it was too early, and none of the stores were open yet. We had a little left over from the previous day, so we continued on our way.

The hills of the Chiapas Highlands were just as tough as yesterday. The inital 50km stretch seemed to be almost all uphill, until we were able to coast to our lunch stop in the city of Oxchuc. I thought I was ordering a fried chicken filet, but I ended up getting chicken stew, but it was good anyway. Ray got chicken with some mole sauce that was incredible. Before getting going again, we were able to stock up on water at a mini-super next to the cafe.

The climbing continued again, until finally we had a 5km descent into the village of Huixtán. It started raining, so we ducked under a bus stop shelter to keep dry. We noticed it was almost 3:00pm, about the same time as we had to make a decision yesterday. Just then, a pickup truck for hire pulled up, so we waved and jumped in, having learned our lesson. The rain stayed pretty steady as the highway climbed some more, then cleared up as we finally descended to the city of San Cristobol de las Casas.

We rode into the central area of town. We stopped into inquire about the rate at the first hotel we saw. It was a good deal, and looked to be a nice place, but while I was waiting outside, a buy handed me a pamphlet for a youth hostel a few block away. It looked nice, and the price was even better, so we decided to go look for it. On the way, it started raining again, but there were a lot of other hotels and hostels in the area, and we found one that was nice and cheap before we could find the one we were originally looking for.

This town seemed to be even more of a tourist destination than Palenque, as we saw many Americans and Europeans. The large number of hostels also makes it a great stop for cyclists, backpackers, and other travelers on a budget. The scenery in the city includes a lot of historic architecture from the Spanish colonial period. There is also a several-block area with many upscale shops and restaurants. We eventually found a nice but moderately-priced restaurant, and enjoyed a very good meal before heading back to the hostel. We stopped at a store and bought a carton of milk and a box of Frosted Flaked (a.k.a. “Zucharitas”) to eat for breakfast. We ended up getting a little lost on the way, and flagged down a taxi. He drove us about a block and a half to the hostel, so we ended up being closer than we thought!

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Day 46: Palenque, MX to Ocosingo, MX

The hotel had American-style breakfast options, so we ordered some pancakes and eggs, then checked out and headed down the road. Just a few miles south of Palenque is a Mayan archeological site, so we took the detour to go check it out. In the parking area for the site, one of the private for-hire guides approached us to offer his services. As we told him about where we were from, he mentioned that his brother lives in Kent, Ohio; he runs a translation services business there. Yet another small world incident. We didn’t want to spend too much time at the site, though, so we bought our tickets and went in on our own.

We had asked last night and this morning about options for lodging along this route. There are a few resort hotels south of Palenque near the archeological region, but no hotels or anything along the route until the city of Ocosingo, which is about the mid-point of Route 199. So, we had to do the best we could to make time to get to Ocosingo before dark.

As we proceeded down Route 199, the terrain became very steep and hilly. It was very beautiful, but very challenging. We stopped and ate pollo asado at a roadside stand about 25 miles in. Mid-afternoon, around 3:00pm or so, we stopped to take a break at a convenience store, and figured that we had about 30 miles to go until Ocosingo. Our choices were to keep going, or catch one of the microbuses that seemed to be passing on a pretty regular basis. I looked at my bike computer, and figured that we had averaged a little less than 10 miles per hour so far, so we decided that if we hustled, we could make it.

The steep hills continued unrelentlessly, and it started to look like a thunderstorm was coming as well, which made the daylight fade a little faster than we had expected. With about 19 miles to go, the rain came, and we stopped to take shelter at another convenience store. It was almost completely dark by now, and because of either that, or the rain, none of the buses or trucks that we flagged down were willing to stop.

We talked to the family who ran the store, and the owner had a pickup truck. We asked how much would he want for a ride into Ocosingo, and he said 300 pesos. A little steeper than we had hoped, but we had no other option, so we agreed.

During the drive of the final stretch to Ocosingo, the hills were just as bad, if not worse, than what we had pedaled all day, and we realized that we probably could not have made it all the way, even if it had not started raining. We might possibly have made it were it not for the stop to see the ruins, but it still would have been a close call.

We got dropped off near the center of town, and we found a hotel right around the corner. It was a bit more expensive than we would have liked, but we didn’t have the time or the energy to go exploring at the moment. We got cleaned up, had some dinner at the hotel restaurant, then took a walk around to explore the town and got a few taquitos to supplement our dinner.

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Day 45: Villahermosa, MX to Palenque, MX

After breakfast at the hotel, we asked for directions out of the city from the staff. We think they either steered us wrong, or else we missed something. We intended to head staight south from the city, where we would take Route 195 for a couple of days, which would connect us to the Pan-American Highway just east of Tuxla Gutierrez. We rode about 10 miles, and ended up near the airport, and realized we were on the wrong track. Our option was either to back track to the city and find the correct road, or continue east on our present route, and eventually take Route 199 South to connect to the Pan-American Highway.

I had looked at a couple of guide books for Mexico back in a book store in Austin, and one thing that stood out in my mind was that one of them mentioned Route 199, between Palenque and San Cristobol de las Casas, as being the road through the Chiapas Highlands that is notorious for bandits and kidnapping activity. I had planned all along that this is one road to be avoided.

We asked for directions at a nearby convenience store. The man we spoke to said that parts of our originally-intended route were closed due to flooding, and our only choice was to take Route 199 from Palenque. He said that it’s a much more scenic and interesting route anyway, and assured us that it was safe, as long as we only traveled during the daytime.

So, we continued east, and at some point crossed the border into the state of Chiapas, our fourth Mexican state. It was a hot day, and the road was narrow, made worse by more construction, with rough lanes and sometimes single lanes for about 10km. We finally arrived at the turnoff for Route 199, near the town of Catazaja. Ray arrived a little ahead of me, and started talking to a microbus (taxi van) driver about the route; during the conversation, the driver mentioned that he could take both of us the final 26km to Palenque for only 50 pesos. So we agreed, and loaded our panniers into the van as the driver tied them to the top of the van with rope. We had to wait a few minutes for some other passengers; when the van was full, we were on our way.

The driver took us to the center of Palenque, and dropped us off in front of a very nice hotel with an attached pizzeria restaurant. We checked in, showered, and ordered dinner, before heading out to explore the town. We saw more non-Mexican tourists in this town than anywhere else so far; most appeared to be Europeans. The town was pleasant, including the usual public square full of people and activity.

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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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