Day 18 – Apizaco to Papantla

Woke up this morning and neither of us was particularly well-rested. I’d climbed into my sleeping bag and liner last night because our hotel room was so cold, and halfway through the night, Kay had to give in and grab his sleeping bag, too. It was ridiculous. When we woke up this morning, neither of us wanted to shower (too cold) so we packed our stuff and hit the road. This was perhaps our earliest start yet – we were out of the hotel at 8AM and on the road by 8:20.

Today’s goal was to get to El Tajin to check out the ruins. We figured we’d probably have to drive here today, and then check out the ruins tomorrow – IF they’re open on Christmas. Early in the day, it looked like we’d gotten an early enough start that we might actually be able to check out El Tajin this afternoon. But that changed when we started having road trouble.

We were traveling north on 119, and shortly after leaving Zacatlan, we ran into our first honest-to-goodness Mexican detour. 119 was completely closed – there was an ambulance parked across the road blocking it, and a guy with the obligatory machine gun waving people to a nearby dirt road. Some guys were putting up signs at the start to tell people how to detour, which didn’t really help, but luckily Kay caught sight of a truck driving around a curve that looked like it terminated at a random person’s house, but actually went on past into a cornfield.

This was the beginning of our 30-40 minute detour. We found ourselves riding along a red dusty dirt road through cornfields and a small village in the middle of nowhere. A young guy (I say kid, although he was probably in his late teens) was spraying down the road into the village with a hose – I presume to keep dust down. Unfortunately, this had the effect of turning the red dust to a muddy slime, which made me nervous, because I’ve had some bad encounters with mud. (Read: Acadia/Pachaug in Rhode Island – my bike still has some mud on it from that trip.) A large section of the road had been watered down actually, and neither of us could figure out where it all came from.

For a dirt road, it was actually pretty good. There were a few ditches and bumps that were easily avoided on our nimble motorcycles. We were amused to discover, however, that even the dirt roads in the middle of nowhere have topes. This is such a Mexican thing.

It quickly became apparent that nobody really knew where the detour was supposed to go. We followed a line of cars that was following a line of traffic eventually terminated in several parked vehicles. There was a guy standing in front of the parked vehicles waving people to the left, so we went that way. A few twists and houses later, we found ourselves in the middle of some fields and the lead car in our caravan encountered a car coming from the other direction, which essentially told us to turn back. So now we had to turn around and find a different dirt road that would lead back to the main road.

We discovered that all roads led to the blockage. What we’d thought were parked vehicles before were actually a bunch of cars waiting to pass through a section of the detour. It looked to me like there was two-way traffic on the dirt road, but it wasn’t large enough to accommodate the two-way traffic, so some of the vehicles were moving and others were backing up. As soon as the blockage appeared to clear, though, a guy with a horse trailer full of horses turned out of the line and parked across the road, completely blocking it. WTF?

Kay rode up to where the horse trailer was blocking the road to try to figure out what was going on. He found that beyond the horse trailer, a semi-truck had tried coming up a steep grade and then backing down it again. The trailer went askew and the truck was effectively stuck on the slope, blocking traffic in both directions. Kay figured that we could scoot around behind the horse trailer in a ditch, between the horse trailer and the truck in front of him, and past the semi blocking the slope.

Kay was right.

Around the horse trailer we went. Between the trailer and truck, with plenty of room for our panniers. Down the slope next to the semi (although I went VERY slow because it was a somewhat steep grade, and Kay’s bike slipped on a rock halfway down and wobbled a bit, making me nervous). At the bottom of the grade was a very shallow stream across the road (like 2 or 3 inches of water) – our first river crossing of the trip! Then we had to go around another bus that was parked in the road (again, plenty of room for our motos although cars couldn’t pass) and past the long line of blocked traffic back to the main road.

Success!

Left to my own devices, I probably would have sat there a lot longer, waiting for the blockage to clear. I still think of myself as being a vehicle just like any other car or truck on the road – I think of myself as taking up the same amount of space, but really there are a lot of places we can go that cars can’t. Today was a prime example of that. And it was FUN!

We left the rest of the cars sitting there and resumed our trip toward El Tajin. Within a few miles, though, we ran into another problem – there was a sign for the town we were trying to reach next on the route, and then the signs for the town disappeared. All we could see was a pay road to Mexico City, or a pay road to a town much further north from El Tajin. The free road to the intermediary town was nowhere to be found.

We went a way down the free road toward Mexico City, and quickly discovered that it went in the wrong direction. Kay spotted a row of stands along the side of the road and we decide that we should turn around there – and while we were at it, we’d grab lunch. This turned out to be a great call.

Our Lunch Stop

We got enchiladas from one of the women making things fresh, made-to-order while we waited. We sat at some picnic tables on wooden benches next to a lake under a shady canopy and waited while our food cooked, smelling the wonderful smells of fresh foods and being occasionally accosted by women trying to sell us wooden spoons. If you ever need wooden spoons (that have probably been hand-made) – this is apparently the spot in Mexico to get them. We kept trying to explain that we were on motos and there wasn’t room, but they kept trying to sell them. At one point, a woman came by selling folding wooden chairs. I was half-tempted to buy one just to have the fun of trying to find a place to carry it.

The enchiladas had a surprise component that looked slightly like a green pepper that had been grilled (while Kay thought it was avocado) but turned out to be cactus! Kay figured it out, and we looked at mine and it was definitely cactus. I really liked the flavor – it was like a much more intense, brighter green pepper with a hint of something almost vinegary. Kay wasn’t a fan, and tried unloading his cactus on me.

Cactus and grilled meat!

After lunch, we tried again to find the road to the next town on our route (Huauchinago). We found a tiny, pitted road leading past a cornfield that Kay is convinced was the right one, but neither of us wanted to spend all day traveling it, so we opted for the Cuota (paid road) to Tuxpan. Saw another sign where the paid road terminated for Huauchinago, and tried getting onto it – only to discover that the road was closed for construction. It was like being back in New England, in Maine – “Can’t get theah from heah.”

Luckily, though, we spotted a sign for a town further down our route and got back on the correct road. The rest of the afternoon went by smoothly, although we found ourselves back on slower, twisty roads over the mountains. At one point Kay looked at the GPS and found that we’d descended over a mile from the elevation we were at when we left Mexico City, and it was getting WARM! (It was quite cool in Mexico City, with lows in the 30s at night – too cold for camping.)

Zacatlan... we think

Sometime during this stretch, Kay was in the middle of a sentence and then I couldn’t hear the rest of what he was saying. My headset disconnected. I tried re-connecting it, but it wasn’t responding at all – it seemed to have turned itself off. I rebooted it, and after a bit of fussing, was able to reconnect to Kay again. But almost immediately it turned itself off. I assumed at this point that the battery was dying, so I tried reconnecting to tell Kay that, but didn’t get a chance. We pulled over at a gas station to reconnoiter and figured out that it was, indeed, dead. Dunno why his was still good (and his lasted until the end of the day – a couple of hours later – without dying).

Unfortunately, after our dirt road detour in the afternoon, and the misleading signs after that, it was a little after 4PM when we rolled into Poza Rica, the big town on our route to El Tajin. We figured that El Tajin probably closed at 5PM, so it was time to find a place to spend the night and try to hit the ruins in the morning. Kay had found us an actual honest-to-goodness Mexican camping ground, so we could avoid paying for a hotel tonight… and after a little poking around, we managed to find it. However, it was a depressing gray gravel yard surrounded by a thick stone wall, directly adjacent to a main road. No grass, no peaceful camping sounds – just dreary gray stone and traffic noises. Which was somewhat surprising as it was an adjunct to a high end hotel ($1220 Mex / $100 US).

I used my veto power to say no (“this seems like a really depressing way to spend Christmas Eve”) and Kay was nice enough to humor me. (I think he was afraid of another meltdown like last night.) At this point, it was nearing 5PM, the sun would be going down and I hadn’t had a chance to check the ‘net and was waiting to hear back from some clients… so we had the task of finding a hotel with internet for the night.

Kay suggested we drive out of Poza Rica where we might find a cheaper hotel along the road, and we stopped at pretty much the first hotel we saw coming into Papantla, the next town down (and the one that is pretty much adjacent to El Tajin). The hotel had internet and seemed nice – was a bit pricey at just over $40 but it was getting dark and Kay didn’t want to put either of us through the stress of running around town pricing hotels, so we took it. It’s not the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in (and, in fact, is more expensive than the really swank one we stayed in while we were waiting for Kay’s bike in Mexico City) but Kay says it “has character.” Our bikes are parked right in front of our room, literally, in a gated courtyard, and it was cake to unload our stuff into the room.

Then began our nightly ritual of trying to find food. We asked the proprietress where we could find a restaurant, and she sent us into Papantla centre. Papantla is another one of the endless colorful Mexican towns we’ve passed through today, but as it was around 5:30 at this point, practically everything was closed. Kay and I took turns driving around the city, looking for likely prospects, but we only found a few small spots and none of them had parking. This, is a walking town.

We were switching back to my turn to lead and pick a direction when we rounded the corner to the smell of cooking meat, and a guy with a big grill in the street cooking chicken. We backed our bikes into a parking spot on the corner (motos win again for squeezing into a spot that cars couldn’t occupy!) and the grill-man brought his little daughter over to see our fancy bikes.

We followed him back to the grill, and Kay pointed and said “un pollo, por favor!” The guy asked us how we’d like to have it prepared, basically asking if we wanted some sort of spicy finish on it (I didn’t catch that part, but Kay did, and let me choose… to which I almost invariably reply “sure” because I think it’ll be interesting, so we had spicy chicken.)

Between the two of us, we managed to polish off an entire spicy chicken (sans one wing) with rice and tortillas. Kay discovered that if you combine the spicy chicken with some rice in a tortilla, it was the perfect blend of flavors and really elevated each of the individual components. Plus, then it wasn’t so spicy and we could actually eat more of it. While we were nomming the chicken, I noticed a sign for “choco-flan” – and being a girl, and craving chocolate at this particular time of the month, I asked for it. It turned out to be a piece of moist chocolate cake with a slightly odd flavor, and a flan-like custardy-icing-topping. Totally hit the spot. Dinner was a complete success.

Tomorrow’s plan is to get up early and try to hit El Tajin early before it gets too full of tourists and Mexicans trying to sell us things. I was skeptical as to whether they’d be open on Christmas, but Kay asked the proprietress of the hotel and she seemed to think it was dumb for us to have asked. “Yeah. Duh.” (Not literally, but that was what we got from it.) Hopefully we won’t have anymore headset problems, and then we can start heading south.

So for us, it’ll be Christmas in El Tajin! A Merry Christmas to all of you folks who are reading, wherever you are.

4 Comments

    1. Thanks, John! It was definitely a unique Christmas, but Christmas in Mexico just isn’t the same. Still, we had fun and it turned out to be Christmas here, too, after all!

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