Two weeks in Veracruz: a travel diary
May 4, 2008
It's been more than 20 years since I've been to Mexico. I fell in love with the country the first time I went to Acapulco in 1975. My next trip was to Cancun in 1985. Cancun was still a small place and easy to navigate, so I rented a VW bug and made the trip to Chichén Itzá. Now I was going to visit an area where a Mexican friend of mine came from - Cempoala in Veracruz state. My wife insisted on going with me, even after I told her Mexico only allows one piece of luggage and it has to be a carry-on, no suitcases. She hemmed and hawed for about a week, then relented.
It was a long three-hour flight with yucky food, crying babies and no room to move at all, but we made it. Getting our passports stamped and visas approved went real well. We then proceeded through the customs, and the inspector stopped me. He insisted I go to the ticket line and buy a plane ticket. I finally convinced him we had no suitcases, only our medium-size handbags. It was obvious they didn't like me - I was the only one they searched for AK47s and rocket launchers.
After that ordeal, we headed for the buses at the far end of the terminal. At the ticket counter, I learned that no one speaks English. Unlike in Acapulco and Cancun where even the dogs and cats understand English, here they just looked at me with a blank stare. Fortunately, I know enough to get by on but it would be very difficult for someone who only speaks English to travel this part of Mexico.
The bus to Puebla leaves right from the airport, but it's not an ADO bus, it's a smaller bus with less leg room. That's really hard on my 6-foot 2-inch wife. We were glad to be on the bus and heading out of Mexico City. The landscape reminded me of Arizona, with lots of cactus and sand. We finally got to Puebla where the bus dropped us off at the central bus station. The other bus station is called CAPU or Norte and it's on the north side of town. We stayed at the Holiday Express Hotel on the 7th floor. The bed was as hard as a rock and the air conditioning didn't work. We had supper at the Presidential Palace hotel next door and it was very good.
May 5, 2008
The next morning, we got a taxi to CAPU. It has to be the largest bus station in North America. I bought us ADO bus tickets to Xalapa; buses leave every hour. The bus system in Mexico is really great. There's nothing like it in the United States - sorry, but Greyhound doesn't even compare.
After buying our tickets ,I couldn't figure out where to go to board the bus. I finally asked an elderly man in my broken Spanish and he told us to follow him. He led us down a hallway to one of the numbered gates and then said goodbye. That was really kind of him.
It was a nice ride and the bus was very clean and comfortable with plenty of leg room. After climbing up into the mountains, the landscape started turning green. We knew we were getting close to Xalapa when the traffic increased.
By the time we reached the bus station, we realized we had made a mistake by coming here. The bus station was easy to navigate so we made our way to the taxi stand. The ticket agent told us all the hotels downtown were full. So we picked up our bags, walked down one block and got a room at the Hotel Emperatriz. In our opinion, it was a dump. The next morning, we took a cab to the Salmones Hotel and found out that the hotels were not filled after all.
May 6, 2008
May 5th commemorates the Battle of Puebla, but is not celebrated here with all the fanfare of some of the other holidays. Our hotel room was on the third floor and had a balcony with a great view. The farmers were burning the fields and, because of the haze in the air, we couldn't see that far into the distance. No matter. We came all this way to see this noisy, hilly city, so off we went to explore Xalapa. Wow! Right away we realized it was not as bad as it first appeared. We found the zócalo or central plaza across from the big Catholic church. For such a big city, its plaza was clean. The people were friendly, and the hills reminded me of Tennessee, where I was born. There was symphony music coming from the building across the street.
We strolled up and down the streets, went to the mercado and stopped at a good coffee shop. They had real coffee, not instant Nescafe. For some reason, most everyone seems to prefer Nescafe and at many restaurants, that's all they serve. What a cultural experience! We were feeling a lot better about Xalapa and enjoying the sights and sounds of this new city, even the sounds of the roosters and car horns. We had Veracruz-style fish for lunch at the Salmones hotel. It was very good and not expensive.
After lunch, we called our Mexican friends who live here in Xalapa. They had just moved back to Xalapa after living in Athens, Tennessee for a number of years. They were fixing up their old house and hired a maestro to do the tile work, plumbing and electrical installations. The man was really good at his trade.
Marcelino met us at the hotel, we hopped into a cab and were on our way down cobblestone streets, around in a circle and then back up the hills to his place. Marcelino and Elvira's home is the typical Mexican cinderblock house that you see occupying the hillsides in Xalapa and all over Mexico.
It is a simple one-bedroom home with 110 AC power and a 40-amp fuse box with two 20-amp fuses in it. Elvira washes clothes on a cement washboard that drains into an open sink next. We climbed up on the roof and I took a few pictures of the beautiful hills behind their house.
For such a big city, Xalapa can be really beautiful. Yes, the traffic can be really heavy in lots of places. But in minutes you can be in a lovely park or in the hills that surround the city in every direction. This evening we watched beautiful birds fill their bellies with fruit, enjoyed the 72-degree breeze and got eaten up by mosquitoes.
May 7, 2008
This morning, Marcelino and Elvira showed up and we were off to Xico to see the waterfalls. The bus dropped us off across from a sign that said "Cascada de Xico."
There were no taxis, so we started walking down the cobblestone road toward the falls. We walked for more than a mile, taking our time and enjoying looking at all the flowers and fruit trees along the way.
After we arrived at the falls, Jo and Elvira stayed at the little restaurant at the entrance while Marcelino and I hiked down one of the trails to explore another waterfall back in the jungle. After taking a few pictures, we had a beer to cool us off and headed back to meet the girls.
After enjoying a nice lunch at the little outdoor restaurant, we spotted a cab waiting for us. It took us back to the little town of Xico and dropped us off on a deserted street corner where the driver told us to wait for the bus.
After about 30 seconds, a bus showed up and we were on our way to Coatepec. They were having a fair in Coatepec, so we jumped in a cab and went across town to the fair. It was so hot it felt like 100 degrees, and it wasn't long before we were exhausted. We went back to the hotel so we could rest up for tomorrow's adventure but Jo was so tired she couldn't get up to eat supper.
May 8, 2008
After breakfast, we took a cab to the bus station and got tickets to Papantla. It was a four-hour trip, but the ADO bus was very comfortable. The bus station in Papantla is small, and so is the town.
We got a taxi to drop us off at the Totonacapan Hotel. The hotel room air conditioner worked really well, thank goodness, because it felt like 100 degrees outside with the humidity at 98%. The hotel has an adjoining restaurant where we had lunch. Cream of mushroom soup, arroz rojo, chicken in adobo, and a quart size jug of papaya juice cost $7 USD.
Jo stayed in the hotel room while I looked for an ATM machine. Three blocks up the hill, I found one right across from the zócalo or central plaza. I promptly felt good about using an ATM machine in a foreign country for the first time. I know enough Spanish to get me through it. Fantastic, I thought. It's in English, so give me $200.00. It gave me two hundred pesos, not dollars. Big dummy! This is Mexico, so give me $2000.00. This time I got it right. At my age I have to remember every morning to put my pants on first and then my shoes, not the other way around.
After getting my money and exchanging greeting with the policeman guarding the ATM, I headed back down the hill where I had passed a mercado. There, I found a couple of sombreros for Jo and me for $5 USD.
That evening, we walked halfway up the hill to an internet café and sent the kids an e-mail to let them know we hadn't been kidnapped or robbed by bandidos. Kids always fear the worst and listen to horror stories from people who have never even been out of the town where they grew up.
We then walked up to the zócalo and sat and watched the people there. Kids were feeding the squirrels and the old man was selling the dried vanilla beans that Papantla is known for. Street vendors were selling ice cream and corn on the cob, and the taquerías stayed busy selling their tacos. So far, our stomachs have survived.
It was really hot, so tomorrow we planned to leave for El Tajin early in the morning.
May 9, 2008
El Tajin is only about five minutes from Papantla. Taxi drivers drive really fast - I'm not sure why. It must be their custom. It cost $4.80 USD each to get in to see the ruins. They were incredible, different from Chichén Itzá and, with the surrounding jungles, it made for good photos.
After an hour of sightseeing and taking photos, it was getting really hot so we headed back to the entrance where the bathrooms were. It cost two pesos to use them and we were each given enough toilet paper to wipe once, twice if you're careful.
That evening, we couldn't resist eating at a corner taquería that was always busy. I stopped there yesterday morning and took a good look at what they were cooking. The cook asked me in Spanish if I wanted something to eat. I was looking for eggs and toast so I said to him, "No huevos. He and his helper died laughing. As I walked away, it dawned on me what I said - "eggs" are a synonym for testicles. I won't make that mistake again! So this evening, we tried their tacos. Fantastic - at only twenty U.S. cents apiece. We stuffed ourselves - Jo had eight tacos. With two sodas, the total for both of us came to $3.20. USD. What a bargain!
That evening, Jo stepped up onto a curb and something in her leg popped. I helped her hobble back to the hotel room, which was close by. We had planned to leave the next morning to go to the beach, but now we had to decide what to do.
May 10, 2008
Jo's leg was still sore so the beach trip was off. I decided it would be best to let her rest for at least two days and then try to make it back to Xalapa. I asked the maids if they would do our laundry. They did a good job and asked for $2.50 USD. I gave them $5.
May 11, 2008
Jo's leg was doing better this morning so we had breakfast at a sidewalk café next door to the hotel. The owner was a talker and wanted to practice his English. He told us he had lived in Los Angeles for three years. After breakfast, I walked to the ADO station. I could have taken a cab but I really enjoyed walking down the side streets. It was a good thing I decided to buy our tickets a day early, because there were only two seats left and only one bus a day to Xalapa.
May 12, 2008
We took a cab to the small bus station and our bus finally arrived. I was the only passenger they patted down looking for AK47s and rocket launchers. The sombrero made me look like Clint Eastwood. I'm sure that's what it was.
The bus made its way out of town and it wasn't long before we could see the Gulf of Mexico. We drove along the coast and past Cempoala, the place that got me interested in Veracruz. When we arrived Xalapa, we went directly to Marcelino and Elvira's home. She was washing flowers she had pulled off a cactus plant, I think, and mixed them in with the scrambled eggs and onions. A little salsa, eggs and onions with flowers on a corn tortilla were very good. After eating, we took a ride in the back of Marcelino's small pickup truck thru the busy streets of Xalapa to Lupita and Neto's house. We were to spend the next few days there.
May 13, 2008
We had bread and Nescafe for breakfast. Around 9 a.m., Marcelino and Elvira showed up and off we went about ten miles back into the hills and jungles. The countryside is very beautiful and the property is expensive around here. I looked at a one-acre corn field for sale for $40,000 USD - too expensive for me. The farther out from town, the cheaper property got. That evening, we went to a nice seafood restaurant in Xalapa, which was very good.
May 14, 2008
This seemed like the hottest day so far, about 95 degrees. I thought Xalapa was supposed to be cooler than this. Marcelino and Elvira showed up with their pickup truck, five of us crowded into the back, and off to Naolinco we went. Marcelino must have taken driving lessons from the taxi drivers, flying up and down the hills like there was no time to waste. It's only a myth that Mexicans are supposed to be slow at everything they do!
We passed an army checkpoint and they waved us through. (They didn't know I was carrying AK47s and rocket launchers.) We got to Naolinco and it was hot, hot, hot. It is a neat little town and we had lunch there before we headed on down to Tepetlan.
It was about ten miles down the winding mountain road to Tepetlan, but we finally made it. Elvira's mother lives here and has a shop at the end of one of the small streets. The streets are clean and cement-paved, and the town is small with a zócalo in the center. A mountain stream with waterfalls flows past the town and, with the towering mountains in the background, it was really pretty.
Mama Mia (Elvira's mother) made us lunch and one of her sisters, who owns a bakery, had baked a cake for us that was delicious. Mama Mia is 73 years old and still going strong.
We looked at a house next door that was for sale. It was a six-bedroom two-story house for $25,000 USD. I just might buy it. We really had a good time but it was starting to get dark and we headed back to Xalapa.
May 15, 2008
When I got up this morning, I was feeling dehydrated from the heat. We jumped into the back of Marcelino's pickup and Jo got to visit Walmart. It made her day. There had been no rain the whole time we were there and it was really hot. We said our goodbyes to Marcelino and Elvira. You couldn't ask for better friends.
May 16, 2008
Lupita and Neto walked us down to the main road about a block from their house and we said our goodbyes. We took a taxi to the bus station where buses to Puebla were leaving every hour, got our tickets and we were on our way to Puebla. We arrived at the Norte CAPU bus station in Puebla and made our way back to the ticket counter. I bought two tickets to the International Airport in Mexico City. We then took a cab to the NH Puebla Hotel for a much needed rest.
May 17, 2008
May 17, 2008
We made it back to the Mexico City airport the next day and flew to Atlanta. From there, we took the Fastrak bus to our car and found it covered with small dents - from hailstones, no less. We drove back to Cleveland, Tennessee and were glad to be back home.
One week later
Jo decided she really likes Mexico and that six-bedroom house in the photos I took really looks good. We are planning our next trip and plan on renting a home for a least a year while we look around and enjoy Mexico. We have friends in Comitán, Chiapas. This might be our next adventure.