Deeper into the Aztec World

    As I rode over the high arch of the Puente Tampico, I looked back across my right shoulder at the expanse of the chaotic little city that spilled out to the edges of the Panuco River on the near horizon.  I knew that the gently flowing water far below marked the border between the southern edge of Tamaulipas and the northern tip of the long Caribbean state of Veracruz, and as I turned ahead once again I felt the irrepressible optimism that a world of beauty, excitement, and mystery lay beyond approaching riverbank.

    The day had begun as a somber, steamy day, but as time wore on the sun began to burn away the hazy mist and light streamed out across the road.  As though crossing some invisible climatic frontier, the land around me almost instantly burst into rolling, verdant hills.  Finally, I was leaving behind desert-like Tamaulipas and entering into the more inviting the region of the central Caribbean coast of Mexico.  Although a few weeks earlier I might have found the near hundred degree temperatures to be intolerable, my temperance for heat had grown as I rode yet nearer towards the equatorial Americas.  Alongside the road small stands selling watermelons enticed me and, as is often the case, I passed several, but when the time was right I felt my bicycle gravitating towards the near side of the road.  A petite and sweetly soft spoken old woman greeted me once I had leaned up my bike and strolled over.  She sliced a generous wedge of the bright red and green melon for me and asked if I’d like cayenne pepper on it.  Well, of course I’d never had it this way, but as is the entire purpose of such a voyage, I surely wanted to try.  The sensation was quite refreshing as I bit into the juicy wedge and the spices  tickled my palette.  A few other gentlemen pulled over to join us and we chatted for the next several minutes.

    After the brief break from the midday sun, I thanked the old woman, compensated her generously (especially since she her amiable nature was such a departure from the reception I had usually met in Tamaulipas) and was once again gliding along the wavy road south.  The day passed quite uneventfully, but as my altitude gently climbed and I rode along the crests of the hills, I found myself bristling with satisfaction while I gently laughed and smiled to myself at the beautiful landscapes that stretched out before me (this happens to me sometimes when my serotonin levels get too high – some kind of chemical imbalance ;).  Then, as I teetered along the edge of the roadway while a convoy of trucks whizzed by, I spotted a tangled, rusty wire lolling out of the bushes.  But I was too late, instantly it snagged my foot and a moment later, like a coiled snake, the wire was pulling out of the underbrush and had a metallic clicking sound followed my back tire.  I looked down and the tangled wire had begun winding itself around my gears, chain, and rear spokes.  Although the traffic was still pouring past, I had no choice but to tighten my grip on the break levers and abruptly stop my bike right there on the edge of the road.  I could feel the rushes of warm air as huge truck beds roared past me and waited until the line of traffic had moved beyond.  With no near shoulder to move to and the bike at this point incapacitated, I climbed off of the bike, turned around, and straddled it for balance, and faced the rear tire.  The wire had managed to work itself into every nook and crevice of the back end of the bike, even wedging tightly in between the break pads and tire.  I knew that I wouldn’t have much time before the next wave of traffic, so I rapidly unzipped the pouch hanging from my bike frame and dug for my multi-tool.  Once I had it opened and ready for action I aimed it for the nearest protruding loop of wire and began chopping away at the tangled mess with my wire cutters as fast as I could.  I felt like I was trimming a unruly rose hedge and after over a dozen slices and pulling the smaller segments out from the bicycle apparati, I finally began to make some headway.  Several cars zoomed by me and I could feel their scorn as they surely thought to themselves how foolish I was for just stopping my bike right there on the roadway.  But after a frustrating drawn out battle, I had eventually freed my steed from the rusty serpent.

    I turned, jumped back into the saddle and soon after was rolling along as usual.   It wasn’t long thereafter that I again began to feel the brunt of the early afternoon sun and decided that lunch under the shade of a roadside taqueria was in order.  After stopping at one, which appeared to be abandoned once I walked inside, and then another, with a cook snoring away in a chair on the far end of the little open air dining room, I looked to the other side of the street and saw a canopied comedor (small restaurant) with several cars parked out  front.  I pushed my bike across the road and leaned it against one of the restaurant’s pillars.  A nearby empty table beckoned to me, and as I slumped down into the chair I mentally begged the waitress to come over and offer me something to drink.  A few moments later my wish came true and I was gulping down a massive, chilled, and perspiring bottle of Ciel water.  As the cool droplets dropped down onto my knee I languidly glanced at my skin and saw that I was coated in a glistening layer of tropically induced moisture.  I reclined lazily in the plastic chair and not long later was working my way through a meal of lightly fried sliced chicken breast and moist, thick cut french fries (not really what I had wanted, but hey, these types of communication errors happen sometimes in places with no menus).  As I finished and asked for the bill, I discovered that I was five pesos short apologized profusely to the waitress.  I offered to go to an ATM to get cash, but she told me that the nearest one was at least thirty miles away in Naranjos and that what I had would be enough (to be honest with you, the meal was way overpriced in my opinion, and I wouldn’t have stopped there if I’d known).  Now cashless and with a piece of plastic that was all but useless outside of the sporadic larger towns that lay hours apart from one another, I knew that I would need to reach Naranjos by nightfall – at least if I wanted anything else to drink that day (wretched, wretched Paul, why did you let yourself finish all the water?).  So Naranjos it was and, fortunately freshly hydrated, I embarked on the long haul ahead, hoping that I could make it my nightfall.

    The rest of the day melted away and I was soon quite parched and ready to reach the town and hopefully find a place to rinse off.  As I neared Naranjos, I stopped at a couple of gas stations to inquire about showers and at the second one they were able to tell me that the Pemex on the near border of the town had one.  The sun had now begun to burn orange as it approached the nearby hills and I crested the last hill and found myself rolling down into the village.  I pulled over to the Pemex which immediately greeted me and after fielding the questions of the several gas station attendants and security guard (who, as with most of the military and security personnel, brandished a large rifle across his chest), they told me that it was fifteen pesos to use the shower.  Well, of course, wouldn’t ya have it, I was still broke and there wasn’t no ATM in this joint.  They pointed me in the direction of the local bus station a mile down the road and I begrudgingly rode away down the hill towards town – constantly thinking to myself that I would be riding back up this hill again in just a few minutes, which at the end of a long day is far more daunting.  But so was life, so I arrived at the bus station, got my cash, crossed the street to buy a few small snacks for dinner and breakfast, and slowly made my way back to the Pemex station.  Once there I was anxious to relinquish myself of my sheen of grease and rolled my bike around to the rear of the building to jump in the shower and clean up.  Afterwards I asked the security guard where I could put my tent and quickly thereafter was erecting my small tent on a plot adjacent to the station.  The guard turned out to be quite a friendly fellow and informed me that he would keep an eye on my tent while I slept and also offered to draw me a small map of the shortcut to get to Poza Rica in the morning.  I then sat on a log alongside my tent, prepared my feast of peanut butter and jelly tortilla rolls and finally crawled into my tent, popped in my ear-plugs to drown out the noise of the nearby road and was drifting away.

    The following morning I was up bright and early and as I lay on my back looking up at the lightly cloudy but bright morning sky I heard someone whistle outside of my tent.  It was the guard and his shift was about to end at seven A.M. so I hopped up and listened as he explained my route to me.  Although I decided that his directions were slightly off, I got the jist of it and once I was packed and ready to go I ambled back out onto the roadway and rode swiftly through the town.  It took my body some time to loosen up from the morning soreness of the previous day’s long ride but I was eventually making good headway and I was again winding up little hillside roads and looking out across small valleys clustered with brightly painted little concrete box houses wedged into the foothills.  As the path ahead began to flatten out, I fortunately noticed the subtle sign for my turn off to the short cut and, after a short stretch, a roadside vendor was holding up some tightly packed plastic bags and beckoning to me.  Naturally, I had no idea what he was selling, but I was hungry and ready for some reprieve from my morning’s exertion so I pulled over and decided to sample his wares.  It turned out to be fresh cheeses and I bought one of the little vacuum packed pouches and sat down under the little palm canopy stand to snack on the mozzarella-like cheese (which was deliciously “al dente”).  After the snack, some light conversation, and a bottle of water I was soon riding through endless rows of stout, glossy leafed orange trees.  Looking to the hills in the distance, the trees spiraled around in thick, poetic strips.  It was a lovely backdrop for a ride, and not long later I was passing yet another one of the many military checkpoints of Mexico and emerging into the lush little village of Alamos, apparently the orange capital of those parts (and not, in fact, Naranjos, as I would have expected).  I stopped in the town for a light lunch of a chicken burger and lemonade – not really one of my favorite meals so far, but I didn’t want to spend too long searching around for a place to eat if I was going to reach Poza Rica in good time.  

    When I pedaled towards the outskirts of the South side of town, orange trucks piled high with the bright fruit tugged by and young orange pickers sitting around the rear rails yelled jokes and encouragement to me as they passed.  In those moments I laughingly thought to myself that the light and boisterous attitude of the Veracruzanos was surely one that I was quickly beginning to love and was such a refreshing and welcome change after emerging from my almost two weeks of isolation in Tamaulipas.  The vistas along the road were also charmingly choreographed, with the curved groves of orange trees lined up alongside those of banana trees and then corn stalks, crawling up the hillsides.  It was all the better that I had such good feeling to surge me forward, as the ride quickly turned into slalom-like uphill stints.  I frequently found myself in my lowest gear, sitting upright and spinning my legs quickly in order to slowly ascend the looming hills ahead.  But I was making quite satisfactory progress and before long I had moved past the rows of tiny banana tents that flanked the road and was emerging onto the wider, busier roads of Poza Rica.  I had considered staying in the city for the evening, but as it was still relatively early and el Tajin was not far, I decided that I would make the ruins my final destination for the evening – especially since I had read that it was an industrial town and not particularly appealing.  Once I had battled the traffic passing the city, which actually wasn’t too terribly bad, I saw an large and clean Oxxo station and thought I might investigate the shower situation before I grew too far from urban civilization.  As it were, I had a spot of luck, and not only did they have showers, but it was a wonderfully clean private bathroom near the back of the large gas station, tucked away behind a little leafy courtyard.  The cool water felt divine against my skin as I washed off and then had a quick shave to alleviate the rather scruffy look that I had developed (I’ve discovered that strangers are far more receptive to a traveler with a presentable appearance than otherwise).

    Clean, freshly clothed, and restocked on water for the evening, I hopped back on my faithful mule and made for el Tajin.  I had asked around while passing Poza Rica and been told that there was ample camping available outside the ruins, and that although they closed to visitors at five in the afternoon, they would reopen at nine in the morning.  A few miles down the road I took a wrong turn down a side road and ended up in a tiny neighborhood off the main way and decided that I would stop here and grab a quick bite to eat.  Much to my pleasure, I found a perfect little open air patio taqueria with a delicious spit of el pastor roasting out front and decided that this would be the perfect spot.  Moments later I was smiling on the inside as I chowed down on un orden (generally four, sometimes five) of el pastor tacos.  After dinner I was back on the road and spotted a fruit stand with some rather ripe looking options and again pulled aside for some snacks.  A sizable bunch of juicy red grapes and two soft, plump pears seemed to be just the ticket, so I strapped the bags of fruit to the top of my cargo and was off again.  I had again managed to underestimate the distance to my destination, and although it wasn’t too far, it was up some pretty sizeable hills.  Not that this would have otherwise been a problem, but I was just about ready to call it a day, and on top of that, with the thick humidity and still ninety something degree temperatures as the amber evening wore on, I soon found myself sweaty and sticky again after my recent shower.  Oh well, c’est la vie!

    Eventually, however, I saw the gates for el Tajin looming to my left and turned to pass through.  A short ride down the entryway and I began to pass numerous tents and open air stands which had all closed down for the night and were covered over with tarps.  I found one gentleman finishing up packing his kiosk and asked him where I might camp and he directed me to a field behind the little stores.  It was a huge field and, of course, it looked like I was going to be the only gringo setting up camp there for the evening.  So I did, and when I was done, I sat down outside my tent to enjoy a yummy pear and the bunch of grapes, spitting the seeds out into the smoldering heat of the night after each grape.  Life felt good, real good, and I knew that over the past two days I had closed one chapter of my journey and just begun to turn the first page of a wonderfully lush new and exciting chapter – beginning tomorrow with the fabled ruins of el Tajin.


1 Response to “Deeper into the Aztec World”

  1. 1 Manny
    December 10, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    I live in Utah, but originally from Puerto de Veracruz, saludos amigo!

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