El Tajin to la Costa Esmeralda

    The morning dawned pale and humid in the wide, grassy field outside of el Tajin.  I felt sticky and lethargic, and as I knew that the ruins would not be open to visitors until nine in the morning, I felt no particular rush to sit upright and begin packing my equipment.  However, only a few minutes after I had awoken and lay there in my half daze, staring up at the misty sky, the sound of a loud motor began to grow nearer to my site.  As I leaned towards one of the clear screen windows of the tent, I saw that a huge tour bus was pulling up and reversing to park only several hundred feet from my tent.  Oh great, this was just what I needed, like having an audience to watch me as I drag myself out of my tent in my not so glamorous morning state.  Well, at least I had shaved my head before I left the US.

    As several more tour busses began to pull up and park parallel to the first, nearer and nearer to my tent, it became somewhat less enjoyable to continue lying in my tent as the hundreds of tourists pouring out of the busses loitered around staring at my odd little casita.  So it was up and at em, and shortly I had dressed and packed my things.  Since I would be exploring the ruins, I opted to wear cotton clothing rather than my “sporty” synthetic cycling outfit, so as to not look too out of place.  I rolled my bike towards the front gates shortly before nine and found a security guard to ask where I could safely leave my bike.  He pointed to a spot nearby and told me that he would keep his eye on it, and as he brandished his ominous rifle, I felt that the bike would probably be safe here.  I squeezed through massive groups of school children and waited patiently in line for the ticket booth.  Once I had my little ticket stub, I headed over to the gates just as they were allowing visitors and passed through.  At first, I waded amongst the hundreds of children as a tour guide barely in earshot rambled on about something or other about the park, but then I decided that rather than stand here and desperately attempt to understand what he was saying, I would go off on my own.

    I skirted the side of the tour group and passed forward towards the ruins, strolling farther into the hazy, muted silence beyond the guide.  Up ahead, the grounds were deserted and I rather enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity to truly admire the ancient structures surrounding me and stare pensively as I dreamed of the ancient civilizations and how this place might once have been.  The ruins were quite expansive and I found myself wandering around for quite some time, always searching for the perfect picture angle and taking the time to bask in the inspiration around me.  The next two hours dwindled away there in el Tajin, but at last I had looped through the compound and saw that it was almost time for the Voladores show out by the front gates.  Although I wasn’t sure exactly what the show was, I knew that it had something to do with men in traditional garb performing some kind of acrobatics from atop a pole several hundred feet high.  When neared the performance area, I passed by a small tourist information stand and the young ladies there told me that the show wasn’t actually for another half an hour.  The two girls turned out to be incredibly helpful and I enjoyed spending some time recounting my journey to them, of which they were quite fascinated.  Then, before the show started, I figured that I would head over to one of the nearby food kiosks for a quick meal and found a little canopied area and some tacos.  As I sat and ate, a cute little niña who looked like she was possessed, writhed around on the floor near my feet, dramatically muttering something in spanish over and over again, in between glances over to me to see if I was paying attention.  I rather enjoyed the diversion as I sat and ate, and too be honest with you, it was more entertaining than the show which I was to see thereafter.  

    When I finished my lunch, I returned to the Voladore spectator area just as the show was beginning.  Five men in bright tunics with little fringed caps perched high atop the edges of a tiny platform at the top of the towering pole while one of them stood hunched in the center playing a small, faerie-like flute.  I gathered amongst all of the other tourists to wait and see what incredible spectacle was to come, and as I did, another man in one of the tunics passed through the crowd collecting donations.  Like a responsible viewer, I threw several pesos into the hat and waited for the show to get fully underway.  As I sat and waited and waited, the sweat soaking through my shirt in the balmy noonday heat, I hoped that the performance would soon commence so that I could begin making some progress for the day, at least enough to hopefully reach Xalapa on the following evening.  Finally, after about twenty minutes, the man collecting donations had approached everyone and the show began.  The Voladores atop the platform gently slipped backwards from their tower, feet coiled in a long yellow rope, arms outstretched to their sides, and slowly spun ever lower around the pole.  I waited for the acrobatics to begin and some kind of breathtaking climax… but it never came.  The four men just continued to slip towards the ground torturously slowly while the one atop the platform continued playing his flute.  Finally, the reached the floor below, and that was it, the show was over.  Hunh, I think I just got swindled…

    So anyway, as you can see, I don’t particularly recommend the show, a bit overrated in my opinion.  Anyway, it was time to go, so I went and grabbed my bike and headed for the road.  I decided that since Papantla appeared to be only a few short miles away on the map, I would just keep my cotton clothing on until I reached the town and then change once there.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be a big mistake, as I soon saw a massive hill rising to my left, and a moment later spotted a sign with an arrow pointing directly towards it in the direction of Papantla.  I thought to myself, perhaps the road will simply skirt around the hill, but no, it insisted on going straight up.  I plodded along, seriously struggling, and literally pouring down sweat, my shirt completely saturated and stuck to my skin.  Alright, so wearing those clothes was a big mistake, and I was going to have to find a place to wash my only two outfits very quickly once I reached Xalapa.  Oh, how arduous was that hill, and finally, as I thought that I was approaching the halfway point of the climb (although I wasn’t sure since the road snaked around the summit) I could take no more!  I dismounted from the bicycle and pathetically pushed it up the steep incline.  Wow, now I really realized just how ridiculously heavy the beast was.  It was actually almost more difficult to leverage all my weight into pushing the bike than it was to just pedal.  But my legs were sore and my knees needed a break in order to continue riding farther that day.  So on I went.  And yes, as you’ve probably suspected, once I rounded one of the side winding loops of the hill, I saw that the road was actually carved through the summit of the current hill and continued ever higher into an adjacent hill which had been concealed from below.  Up ahead I spotted a sign and thought to myself, at last, I must be near Papantla!  But once I got near enough to read it, I saw that it in fact had the names of two completely different towns and pointed towards the only route ahead.  I began to panic – what if I had come al this way up for nothing!  What if I had read the sign back at the foothills incorrectly and Papantla had been straight ahead!  In the smoldering afternoon waves of heat it was difficult to be sure of anything any more, and I simply longed to see the little town and be done with the miserable hill.  I saw a motorcycle approaching around the bend before me and flagged him down to ask whether this was the right way or not.  As he stopped and I questioned him, he indeed agreed that I was headed in the right direction and I breathed a sigh of relief.

    Much to my satisfaction, the town really was just over that last crest, and once I had managed to reach the other side, the road began to descend gently and I began to see the little houses at the periphery of the village.  A few moments later I was riding down tiny, windy streets with bright buildings build almost right up to the pot-hole pocked pavement.  I careened along slowly, looking for the signs that would most certainly point me in the direction of the Centro and finally spotted one.  Sadly, it pointed up a hill to my right, after I had already been crusining downwards.  And these were no ordinary hills, the town was cozily perched into the steep mountainsides, and I opted to again dismount and instead push the bike through town, especially since the narrow passes were not quite so accommodating for both a wide-load bicycle and an automobile.  But I was almost there and felt slightly more relaxed now that I was in the urban center.  As I neared the busier section of the town, I stopped dead in my tracks.  What was that I smelled?  A bakery, my weakness!  And not just any ol’ bakery, as there are tons in Mexico, but one which exuded an especially sumptuous aroma.  I found myself irresistibly drawn in and moments later had leaned up my bike and was inside with my little metal tray and tongs, heaping all kinds of little buns, cookies, and other baked goods onto the tray.  Once I was satisfied, I headed over to the register, payed the mere thirty pesos for the massive bag and returned to the street.  I pushed myself further up the hill and at the crest, I saw another street off to my left, and down below, the zocalo.  Yay!  I had made it!

    And what a fantastic place it was, like a relaxing, social oasis of indulgence.  People strolled about casually, ice cream carts with little bells pushed along the streets, and brightly colored tiendas wrapped around the square.  A high terra cotta colored church loomed off to the side of the square while wide, leafy trees within the plaza provided amble shade and small bands of musicians turned out pleasing tunes to complete the atmosphere.  Yes, this was a welcome sight after the past few days of arduous riding and not particularly lively towns that I had passed through.  Unfortunately, I had already set my goal for the day and had to be halfway down the Costa Esmeralda by nightfall.  So I sat, enjoyed my bread, had a small cup of ice cream and a bottle of water, then reluctantly began to lead my bike back to the street out of town.  After asking a few different people along the way for directions out to the main road, I finally found it and began to journey back to the coast.  Fortunately, since I had climbed to such a high elevation over the past few days, the remainder of the journey was mostly downhill.  However, not all downhill.  At times the road would suddenly skyrocket upwards and weary legs would just spin incessantly as I put the bike into low gear and tugged along.  At one point I reached the peak of one such hill and stopped for a large, chilled bottle of water.  The quaint restaurant was empty at that hour of the early afternoon, but as I walked in, I saw that there were no walls on three sides and the dining room looked out over the entire wide open verdant valley down below, almost to the coast.  A cool, floating breeze wafter by, cooling me as I sat briefly to recuperate.

    When I returned to my bike, I forged ahead over hills and under forested canopies.  Yet, not long after, I saw a sign for Gutierrez Zamora and knew that it would not be long now.  I reached the outskirts of the town and continued riding, not wanted to stop and lose my momentum.  After crossing the wide rive on the far side of the town, the road ahead began to flatten out and I hoped that this was the beginning of the coastal plain leading out to Costa Esmeralda.  I passed over several more small bridges fording tiny creeks, and after some time I began to spot sporadic stands of tall palms.  This particular form of flora had a distinctive coastal look to it and I quickened my pace in anticipation.  At long last, the palms went from a sporadic sighting to a long endless string stretched along the horizon.  No doubt this was it.  I saw the sign off to my side welcoming me to Costa Esmeralda and ached to see the ocean and stop for a real meal.  At the first turn off towards the water I pulled off the main road and only several hundred feet ahead saw the white sandy beaches.  I pushed the bike through the impeding sands until I was at the top of the dune and then laid it up against a small wall.  The mystically delicious azure blue waves in front of my lapped gently against the beach and disappeared endlessly off in the distance.  Ah, paradise!

    As I practically dragged my bedraggled carcass towards the sparkling waters, like a desperado towards a oasis mirage, I was hailed by two smiling gentlemen not far down the beach.  One appeared to be somewhat older while the other, about my age.  I began chatting with them and they told me that they had seen me riding earlier in the day.  I told them about my trip and that I was headed to Xalapa.  They told me that they too would be headed that way on business, and offered me a ride in the back of their truck!  Oh what sweet sweet temptation!  I knew that the road to Xalapa would be an incessantly hilly and steep route and considered it for a moment.  Then finally, rationality and the desire to reach civilization (and a shower and washing machine) conquered my pride and I accepted.  A few moments later we were headed to a small roadside restaurant along the beach strip for a quick bite.  Afterwards, they helped me load my bicycle into the back of their spacious wooden fenced truck bed, laid out some blankets for me, and we were off!  I can’t even begin to describe how incredible it felt to lay back there, with the tarp canopy over the railing pulled back halfway, rustling in the wind as we sped towards the cool hills of Xalapa.  Yes, this was the way to travel, Mexican’s have got it figured out.  You can save the boxed in, oppressively air-conditioned, smooth riding luxury cars for the US – I’d rather be alive and out in the open air, on the way to new and enchanting places.


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