South from Tampico to Papantla


We’re preparing our post from a little coffee shop below the Cathedral off the main square in Papantla.  We arrived here a couple days ago after riding four days and 250+ kilometers from Tampico. Tomorrow will be our 20th day in Mexico, it’s amazing how fast it goes.

Here’s a recap of our travels from Tampico to Papantla:

We had a tailwind the first day on Sunday and we were able to go 80 kms in appoximately 4 hours.  We had to cross a giant bridge in Tampico over a river and the winds made it somewhat treacherous and we were both screaming expletives as we crossed over.  We got to where cars are supposed to pay a toll, unsure of whether we had to and a nice guard with an M-16 just waved us through.

Leaving Tampico

Windy bridge leaving Tampico

On Sunday afternoon we stopped to eat our lunch at a gas station and we were approached by a couple fellow Americans.  They were surprised to see us and we had a great conversation with Jeremy and Jared.  They were loaded up in their Landcruiser and headed for Costa Rica.  It was fun to swap stories with them about what they’d seen since crossing into Mexico and we hope to stay in touch with them as they are planning to hang out in Costa Rica for a couple months.

Pretty country outside of Tampico

The state of Veracruz countryside

We camped on Sunday in some tall grass off the side of the highway.  We were feeling done for the day as the shoulder had diminished greatly and the traffic had picked up.  We saw our chance for a good spot and just rushed our bikes into the ditch and up into the tall grass.  We weren’t sure if we’d be knee-deep in mud or critters but it actually turned out to be a dry spot well hidden from everyone.

Monday we got out early and headed into the hills.  There was a lot of truck traffic to contend with and we pulled over occasionally to let the chaos pass.  Trucks tend to pass us with plenty of space but the buses tend to be more rude and at times come within inches of us.  We passed through a larger town called Naranjos and frankly will never look back at it again.  It was a dirty filthy town filled with roadside trash and dead dogs.  The atmosphere reflected in the people’s attitudes as we pedaled through.  Debi was constantly leered at and it just gets so frustrating to see all the creepy men checking her out.  We restrain from responding to their gestures to avoid confrontation.  Machismo is a reality here and at times it’s worse than others.  We pedaled as fast as we could through the town and stopped to catch our breath and our sanity outside of it.  We don’t stop to take pictures in these situations.  We continued on into the hills with lots of steep winding roads and slow truck traffic.  It started to get rainy out and we were frazzled, so we pulled into a hotel and checked in.  We got our minds off the day with a good dose of television.  Whenever we’ve had TV here in Mexico it’s been superb.  There are multiple movie channels that show most of their films in English with Spanish subtitles.  We’re catching up on films from the 90s and caught an obscure Johnny Depp directed film recently called “The Brave”.  Who would have thought TV would be better here than back in the states?

Tuesday we stayed at the hotel until noon and shoved off after the rain had passed.  We managed to ride 53 kilometers and it was a terrific day.  The shoulder improved as did the terrain and we went through pleasant communities.  In the late afternoon we went through the town of Alamo which is bustling with the orange industry.  We passed processing plants that were just dumping oranges into truck after truck.  The smell of oranges were in the air and the people were super friendly and we got a lot of supportive honks and waves.  Sometimes trucks would pass us loaded to the brim with oranges and about 6 men on top of them.  We began passing discarded oranges on the side of the road in big moldy piles.  We stopped at one point and bought a few tangerines for the equivalent of 50 cents.  They were rich and juicy.

Statue in Alamo-dirty but impressive homage to the orange industry

Common sight in orange country, outside of Alamo

picking out tangerines at a roadside stand

we aren't the only bikes on the road-we see cycling vendors everywhere

We camped Tuesday night in an overgrown citrus grove.  It  was rainy and we found a spot where no one was living.  We set up camp and relaxed in preparation of the ride into Papantla the next day. Wednesday we got started early and we had to get through the city of Poza Rica to get to Papantla.  Before we rode into Poza Rica we stopped at a roadside taco stand and loaded up on little barbecued lamb tacos. We had read in our guide book that Poza Rica was a city dedicated to oil refineries and not worth our time.  The roads were filthy as we approached the city and our bikes started to sound like our chains were going to break from all the grime. Poza Rica now tops our list as the filthiest, most industrial, busy places we’ve navigated through.  The traffic was thick as we rode through a disgusting layer of mud.  At one point we got up on the sidewalk and Debi dropped her bike in the mud and her panniers were covered in crud.  It just added to the mud that was already on our legs, faces, and arms not to mention the diesel fumes we’d been riding next to.  We must have been a sight!

The skies cleared and the filth of Poza Rica fell behind us as we got closer to Papantla.  We ended up doing a 7 km climb up into the town that’s the steepest we’ve dealt with since Virginia.  We pushed our bike a good portion of the way.  We passed a mudslide at one point that took up half the road. The traffic was light as there was another route that everyone else takes into town.

We arrived in Papantla relatively unscathed and super filthy.  We had a short list of hotels and checked in at the Hotel Pulido for 200 pesos a night (15 dollars).  We picked a room on the second floor in this peaceful space. We’ve learned that bottom floor hotel rooms can be dank and musty due to the tropical environment here.  That doesn’t help us when we do our laundry and hope for it to dry.  We don’t mind carrying our bikes and gear to the second floor for a more arid space. The room is simple with a fan, double bed and smalll bathroom.  It’s cheaper to stay in a room without tv and a/c.

On Thursday afternoon we locked up all our gear in the hotel room and bused out to the ruins of El Tajin, a spectacular ancient site.  It felt mystical as we wandered through the ruins where at one time a civilization thrived.

we share the sidewalk with cows on the way into El Tajin

This is the most important archeological site on the gulf coast. The principle architecture dates back to 300-900 AD, the classic period.  It was accidentally discovered in 1785 by the Spanish who were looking for tobacco.  No one even knows who built El Tajin, it remains a mystery.

above the ruins

view of the ruins from under the trees

The most impressive and famous structure (it’s on all the license plates in the state of Veracruz) is the Pirimide de los Nichos.  It’s about 20 meters high, if you tally up the niches (small square like windows) there are 365 in all.  Their exact purpose is unknown and the structure was originally painted red with the niches in black.  It must have looked impressive.  There are still some bas-relief sculptures on site and they portray vivid images of human sacrifice.

Pirimide de los Niches

bas-relief imagery

Bryan at El Tajin

El Tajin was virtually deserted on this weekday and we were able to just sit and take in the scenery.  The ruins are surrounded by a lush tropical forest/jungle.

We took a break from El Tajin to watch a performance of the Voladores de Papantla outside of the ruins.  It involves 5 men, a leader who provides music with a flute and drum and 4 others.  They all represent the 5 earthly directions-the four cardinal ones (north, south, east, and west) and then one straight up from earth to heaven.  They begin their performance with a dancce around the pole and then they each ascend the pole and take their precarious positions on top.  The center man plays a flute drum combination as the other 4 wind the ropes around the top of the pole.  Once situated the Voladores fling themselves headfirst into the air in a spiral around the pole.  One man remains on top playing a rather hypnotic tune that the men spin to.  They make 13 revolutions each that symbolizes the 52 year cycle of the Aztec calendar.  The performance we saw is tailored to tourists but impressive nonetheless.  Traditionally this is done with a freshly cut tree and performed on special occasions.

The Voladores begin their dance

The Voladores climb to the top

Voladores in flight

We’ve been enjoying our time in Papantla.  We eat comida corrida a couple times a day for a few dollars.  The places we’re eating at here are making corn tortillas fresh for us as we eat.  Waitresses come to our table with piping hot tortillas every few minutes and we slowly stuff ourselves.  The zocalo (center) of town is quite lovely and  it sits next to an impressive mural illustrating the culture of the Totanac people.  These people still live in the city today and the men wear all white and sit in the zocalo.

Night time on the zocalo

Totonac mural

mosaic in the zocalo

Voladores perform in the center of Papantla too

In the zocalo

typical comida corrida

We’re preparing to leave tomorrow and get a move on to Veracruz before Carnaval begins.  Apparently, Veracruz has the rowdiest festivities in the country and we’re not really interested.  We were going to go up to the mountains before Veracruz to Xalapa, but we’ve decided we’d like to get back to the coast and on the beach.  Why kill ourselves in the mountains right now?  We’re going to save our strength for the mountains of the state of Oaxaca where industry is virtually nonexistent and the area encourages camping and hiking.  It’s filled with small communities that specialize in different crafts with a rich history.

We’ve now been traveling for almost 6 months and ridden over 3,000 miles.  It’s an  odd reality that we’ve created.  It’s difficult to feel settled anywhere as we just keep moving.  The landscape changes daily as does the cuisine.  When we think we have an area figured out it just changes again.  It’s a fascinating existence, exhausting at times.  We’re so happy with the choices we’ve made that led us to this point and road had become our classroom.  Teaching us lesson after lesson daily.

Thanks for following along and we’ll see you down the road.

Debi and Bryan.


5 Responses to “South from Tampico to Papantla”

  1. awesome to read your blog! I look forward to read each new post and check each day — often re-reading older blogs. Your writing makes me feel like I am there and your pictures…..well….are amazing!

    Keep pedaling….keep safe….keep posting….much love and keeping you in my thoughts!!!

    ride on!

    hugs T

  2. 2 Kate Cross

    Please stay safe. You both have so much to teach the world. You have my love and prayers for safe and knowledgeable travel!

  3. 3 Gretchen

    I’m just so proud of you and talk about you whenever I get the chance to tell your story. Love the pics of the ruins. I just started this book 1491 that Angelica gave me about the other history the Americas so seeing some pics of what I may read about is very cool. We are headed for FLA for a week. A little warmth. Love ya,

  4. 4 Galen and Sam

    We are so proud of you too!! I am going to try to call soon and catch up on the phone if possible. I look forward to reading your posts and miss you both!! Love you two

  5. Please pass the tortillas.

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