The two Mexicos

April 28,2022

So it seems to me there are two Mexicos. The tourist traps and the traditional. I do not mean to disparage, because apparently I am dependent on both.

The tourist traps are where many speak English, the prices are higher, and things are polished and politely delivered. The real, traditional Mexico takes more time to assimilate. Or better said, it takes some time before it finds you.

Much of Mexico is separate from the thrum of the commercial world. There is another economy at work here where people create their own living. These folk set up restaurants, butcher shops, grocery stores and such without need of franchises, nor advertisement aside from perhaps a hand made sign at the street. Their children or relatives are an part of the business, learning a trade

There are many restaurants in a rural village, cranking out meals from a hot plate or wood fire; serving to customers at tables arrayed on a dirt lot under a corrugated steel roof, or maybe it is a concrete patio under a roof thatched in coconut fronds.

Here they do not speak English; no need; there are no foreigners. In Mexico the minimum wage is less than 7 USD/day. So the meals are very inexpensive. But saving money is not what attracts me. It is the warmth.

When I crank my fully laden bike up to a restaurant and sit down for a meal, I am an odd duck. I find it easy to get into conversations with the locals. They want to know all about where I’m from and to where am I going, etc. I enjoy telling them that I have been riding my bike for three months to get here from the US. I also learn from them about their village, and lifestyle.

Overview of the trip

The Beast

The major freight train in Mexico is nicknamed ‘La Bestia’ (‘The Beast’ in English). Every Mexican knows the stories of people riding this train north to the US border. Without realizing it beforehand the course I took through Mexico intersected and followed this freight line in many places.

In Tamaulipas I spent some time with an undocumented Honduran who told me of his trip aboard this train. I was told by his Mexican friends that he was the only surviving member of the family he left behind in Honduras. Though curious, I did not ask questions about this.

Below is a professional documentary with more details about this mode of transport.

Local Industry

Though there is a busy petroleum industry, active naval bases, and a tourism industry along the Gulf coast, many people are farmers or fishermen. In places where the big industries are absent, the more informal commerce is quite apparent.

A young man, Jesus who manages a hotel in a rural setting was sharing a beer with me on the veranda. A pickup truck pulls up and we are interrrupted so that he can buy a 20Kg batch of cheese from a local farmer. He explained that he will take this batch of cheese to a nearby city by motorcycle and sell it to restaurants. He gave me a sizable sample to taste, just because I was curious.

The next morning his wife makes us coffee. I remark on the quality and she proudly explains that it is locally grown. She was pleased to offer me some ground coffee to take with me.

Apparently it doesn’t take much investment to harvest fish. There are oodles here. Maybe a net or a speargun is all that is needed to make an acceptable living. I don’t recall seeing a fishing boat larger than a row boat.

In Alvarado, Vera Cruz; I was having dinner in a spot overlooking a river mouth, when my acquaintance, a fisherman interrupted me to show me a few dolphins splashing about in the river mouth. He said there are also sharks sometimes, and crocodiles too, but further upstream. He showed me many pictures of the fish and crocodiles he has caught.

Alverado Fisherman

Out of Cash

Another story of getting much needed help from the locals

Into the Vera Cruz Jungle

Long Climb on Bad Road

After spending a night in the jungle hut, I was mentally prepared for the longest climb of the entire tour. The 5km ride around the Lagoon was a good warm up, followed by a gentle climb on well paved rural roads.

It progressively got worse as I repeatedly branched off of a better road onto a worse one. I sometimes get mistreated by the routes that my navigation app finds for me. This was one of those times. The good part was that as I got further up the climb the climate was better. It was raining lightly and cool.

I started to feel uneasy when it had been a long distance since the last evidence of civilization except for the tracks left in the rocky path, where the tracks are dirt bike or horse. No truck, not even a four wheel drive could follow this. I was off the bike and pushing through much of it.

A one thousand meter climb is well within my scope of a days work. Starting out at 300m, with a peak elevation of 1000m figured I had this one well under control. What I had not considered was the repeated rise and fall of the trail allowed for more climbing than I expected.

No need to panic. I had the equipment to handle these difficulties. I could spend a comfortable night in my tent if needed. All I really needed to do is take my time and avoid injury, which I did.

At some point later in the day, I saw three dirt bikes headed my way. One of the riders stopped and asked me if the path ahead was passable. This being the path I had already covered, I told him I thought a dirt bike would make it OK. He likewise assured me of my path forward.

What amazed me was that this far out I would occasionally see structures, like animal barns. I thought for a minute about the project of transporting the building materials over some distance on paths that would only support passage of motorbikes, donkeys, or horses.

Eventually the path became better, more like a fire road. I was really happy to find a pickup truck parked along side the path. In fact the road soon became much better. By the time I was back on paved road, I figured I had covered a total of 25km and 750m of climbing, over some very challenging paths.

The rest of the roll was a fast downhill back to civilization. I was happy to make it to a hotel in daylight. I slept well that night.

Boondocks of Tupilco

Heading out into a narrow spit of land beyond Sanchez Magallanes, Tabasco, I was warned that the road was pretty broken up, but passable by car. I figured it could not be as bad as other roads I’ve seen, especially if it was passable by car.

I rode on for a few tens of kilometers without any problem. There were lots of local restaurants, fruit stands, and the like. I figured that the road issues may have been overstated. Way out beyond the fruit stands and grocery stores, I learned otherwise.

Yes, the pavement ended, apparently washed out to sea. After studying the problem a bit I realized there was an alternative path through the jungle next to where the road was. There were two car tire treads in the dirt. Surely I could make it through this way.

The problems came where the path was covered by soft, deep, dry sand. If you’ve ever tried to ride a bicycle on a beach, you know the problem. The wheels bog down in the sand and it becomes difficult to steer or keep balanced.

If you encounter such a patch, you must stop suddenly or risk crashing. Crashing in soft sand is no big deal. It just takes time to restart. You quickly learn to ride slowly enough so that you can stop in time.

There were places where the locals had alleviated the issue by placing coconut husks in the sand, creating something like a cobblestone surface. Crazy as it sounds, this actually works pretty well.

But all in all I was not making good time. It was pretty clear that I would not make it to the next town before dark. No problem. I carry a tent now, and have some provisions which I could use in place of dinner and breakfast. Then to my complete surprise and joy, I came across what looked to me like a restaurant.

It was not until after I was seated and had ordered a beer and roasted sea bass, that I realized it was not a restaurant. It was a family vacation. The cool thing was that they insisted that I stay and eat. They had surplus and were very generous.

Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces were introduced to me. One of the nieces could speak English fairly well. She was shy about it at first, but warmed up to the idea, after she saw me stumbling to understand the Spanish.

Uncle Abilio (sp?) lived in Paraiso, which was the town I had hoped to reach that day. He offered to give me a ride, but I politely declined (only to wish later that I hadn’t). Abilio said that I was the first gringo (he didn’t use that word) he had ever seen in this place.

Fully fed and entertained, I headed out to find a place to sleep. Google Maps showed a hotel within range, though I have learned not to trust Google Maps to find a hotel in rural Mexico. The probability of it actually existing and being in operation currently is low.

I arrived after dark to find a few cinder block structures and someone tending a camp fire nearby. They told me there was no hotel. I showed them the marker on the map. They said it didn’t exist, but they were happy to have me pitch a tent nearby.

This was the worst night of my whole trip. The problem is, my tent is pretty warm inside. I tried sleeping on my air matrice without the tent, but the insects were unbearable. I eventually set up and climbed into the tent and smoldered through the night.

Campeche and Merida

The end of this leg of my TexMex tour is the town of Merida, a well run tourist town with a bus station. The bus will take me to Tuxtla, Chiapas where I will store the bike I was using and fly to Europe for the next leg of the tour. I have another bike stashed in Barcelona.

Campeche is the last point on the Gulf Coast for this trip

Rosibell

Rosibell is a Peruvian woman that I met in Lima a year or more ago. We have been talking about touring together in South America this Spring (which starts in September in the southern hemisphere). She speaks Spanish and a little Portuguese.

My plan is to go to Europe next month and do some touring on my better bike. I expect it will be a better weather there too. I will head for Chile in September and meet Rosibell then. She has a dog named Lucas who will join our tour.

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