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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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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