Mexico: Veracruz, and Lago Catemaco
Ok, so like a broken record I have mentioned that I am feeling like the only Gringo in all of Mexico. I knew going into the destinations I have chosen I would be in the minority, but after 2 months of it its starting to get a bit weird. There were a handful in Baja, though even Baja felt a bit empty as more and more people are scared to come to Mexico. Even Cabo lacked them, though I didn’t stick around long enough for a cruise ship to come in, the less time in Cabo the better, that place is not for me. Don’t get me wrong, the surrounding area is great, and if your looking to party Cabo is the place to be, but I despise Cabo. As for the mainland, its just me, and I am invisible. Well, I think I saw Jim Morrison down here, Mr. Mojos Risin, but otherwise its just me. Vendors don’t bat an eye when they see me coming which I love, little old indigenous ladies cross to the opposite side of the street as soon as they spot me for reasons I am unsure of, and I can walk down any street without anyone saying hello….I have tested it (again). If I walk down a street and say hi to every person who makes eye contact, they smile and say hello back 97% of the time. But then back in Xilitla I stopped to see what would happen, and it was silence…eeerie silence. So if you ever want to disappear completely and never be found again, just follow this map.
1 U.S. dollar = 13.335467 Mexican pesos
Miles driven to date: 2,400
Camping/hotel cost for this section: 410 Pesos (30.75 USD)
Camping/hotel total: 1200 Pesos (90 USD)
I was unsure what to expect of Veracruz, it seems to be a love hate thing from what I have read. Being on the Gulf of Mexico and such an industrialized city, many people are turned off by the many trucks and cars driving around, the oil platforms and ships all over the horizon, and the heat and humidity this city deals with constantly. At the same time it is a lively city, with a nice Zocalo area in the historical centro, with a passion for music, especially salsa. You can hangout at the open air cafes while music is played, enjoying the sites, though once again there were not a ton of people this time of year, but its still a city and still enough people with plenty going on. This I loved, the downside, I am no longer invisible. When I walk around restaurant owners go into their spiel trying to coax me in, as if I cant decide for myself. Vendors also try and push all kinds of crap ranging from plastic back scratchers, jewelry, kites, and fake rolexs. Luckily, that’s not enough to ruin the city for me, I found that I rather enjoyed it for my stay, though that could also be because I have decided to ditch the stealth camping, and live the hotel life. It is just way to hot to stealth camp, and there is nothing stealth about windows down, screens up, and a fan running.
My book says the daily high in July is 87, and humid, and they were correct. I was a bit worried as I read mid July was when hotel prices skyrocket in Veracruz, but I managed to just miss that being that it was only the beginning of July. I stayed at hotel Amparo which was only 150 pesos (11.25 USD) and located right around the corner from the Zocalo. The internet was terrible there, but I had garage parking (huge when all my stuff is in the van) hot showers, a fan, and this time a double bed….its gonna be tough going back to the Astro after spoiling myself like this.
Gringos spotted! This city also has a few gringos, I suspect European due to their dorky outfits and the fact that they were speaking dutch, yup nothing gets past me. I was so caught off guard when two walked out of my hotel with a lonely planet book in their hand, that I didn’t even say anything, I was shocked.
That must be how my dad reacts when he wakes up from his naps while hunting, only to see a giant buck slinking off into the brush while his gun lays on the floor of his tree stand. In my defense they didn’t say anything either, they probably read my blog and realize what an ass I am. Either way, I was slightly relived to get a bit more time to myself, as I was not mentally prepared for travelers. Due to the cheap hotel I stayed longer than I really needed, but I like the slow pace. I of course saw the sights, but also relaxed in the hotel room to avoid the heat for some reading or guitar playing …where I even snuck the amp in. The downside to the cheap hotel, aside from it not being the Ritz, is that it was more like a hostel. It was loud, the hallways echoed, and the rain would fall hard enough to set car alarms off outside all night. Yeah the rain, not thunder, it rained hard, but hey, at least it was cool in the evenings and I had ear plugs.
I enjoyed a meal or two sitting outside the cafes as people played their music, and spied on other people going about their daily lives. I also enjoyed the entertainment provided by the ice cream vendors. Apparently Guero is slang for “pale-skinned” or “blonde-haired person”, and it was often used in Veracruz back in the day. Sometime ago the ice cream guys, along with Beck, decided to use this to their advantage and cash in. So now, they sit outside their ice cream shops luring people in with the annoying “guero, guero, guero, guero, guero, guero, guero, guero……guera!” whenever people walk by. They must say it 1000 times a day, it is so ridiculous those poor bastards must say it in their sleep. Though I must admit they got me with this cunning ploy. Unfortunately I did not discover this phenomenon until the night before I left, so all I tried was the mamaya (might be a similar fruit to papaya, not sure) and fresa (strawberry), but both were great. Still needing to cool off I then headed to the rainforests of Mexico, yeah they have those here too, I told you this place is diverse.
One minor note for travelers, if your driving a multi lane road in the far left lane and have a straight or left turn arrow, and the lane to your right has a straight only arrow, assume they are going to turn left as well. I guess I am getting used to things here as I anticipated it before it happened, but would have t-boned the crap out of a woman had I legally gone straight while she took the left. I saw it in Mazatlan previously which is probably why I was prepared, this time I was going about 45 mph and planning on going straight, but instinctively took the left as I saw trouble coming, it would not have been pretty.
Catemaco sits of the edge of Laguna Catemaco, don’t let the name fool you, it is actually a lake, surrounded by lush green volcanic hills. You can take boat tours on the lake, one of the destinations is to Monkey Island, where monkeys from Thailand were brought in by the university for study. I skipped this as the tour guides feed the monkeys so they come close for pictures, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole studying them in the wild part. I also read that the place were I ended up camping has howler monkeys, so I was hoping to see some 1sthand in the wild. It seems most overlanders first experience with monkeys is at the mystical “Palenque Ruins” so I was slightly pumped that this random path I have chosen may produce an encounter earlier than I expected. The town itself has a decent enough centro, and an ok malecon which follows the lake, but is full of vendors hawking more junk, and slightly rundown. I heard it was a really nice place back in the day, but at night the rundown part is less obvious so I loved it. I decided to stay a few miles outside of town the first 4 nights and stayed at “La Jungle” for a whopping 80 pesos a night (6 USD).
The owners were nice enough, and spoke just enough English were we could combine our languages to chat throughout my stay, but at the same time they left me alone to do my thing which was nice. There was no internet, the showers were cold though I hear they have hot water, and there is a fresh mineral water pool, plus \2 water slides, haha what? Hey, what do you expect for 80 pesos, you gotta lure the people in somehow. Luckily it didn’t work so of course I had the place to myself, literally.
Ok, well the 1sttwo days there were actually two Canadians staying there who both spoke fluent Spanish, a first for me. It turns out one has been living in Mexico since the 60’s, and the other had bought land with her Mexican husband and was down making arrangements, so they might as well be Mexicans. They chatted with me about the trip, and told me about a nearby waterfall I should checkout, which sounded much better than those crappy cascades I provided a pic of in the last post. So off I went looking for this waterfall but missed the turn, so instead of going back I decided to follow a random dirt road to the top of a mountain for a better view of the lake, this is supposed to be an adventure after all, I then returned to camp a triumphant explorer. See, the downside of staying at a lake in the jungle is you cant really see the lake, the trees block most of the view, so aside from downtown Catemaco I hadn’t really seen much of it, which is why an adventure was in order. Of course I later found that at the bottom of one water slide there was a great view, and I suspect the cabanas also had nice views, but for us cheap campers, there was just trees, lots of nice shady trees. I grabbed a few pics from my new found view, and then took my guitar over to play a little while the sunset.
As I am playing a tour boat goes roaring by, and then stops about 100 feet from me. With the sun setting it was impossible to see which way the people were looking. The guide was either pointing out one of the volcanoes, or the stupid gringo playing guitar at the edge of the jungle, I will never know. Oh, and about those monkeys, I was told they do in fact hangout in the trees above where I camped, but I did not see any the days I stayed, oh well, there’s always Palenque.
Two days later the Canadians left, and knowing it was a Friday I wondered how busy the weekend would get. Around 5:30 I walked around to find everyone, and the place was deserted. The tiny restaurant was closed, and the two families who lived and worked there were no were to be found. Even their little kids who swam pretty much 24/7 were gone, it was only me. I went back to the van and played some guitar. Later as its getting dark some guy comes walking out of the woods by himself. We chat for a few minutes and I tell him its just me, I have no idea where anyone is. I deduce that his rapid fire Spanish is telling me that he had been camping with his wife, who found out she is afraid of spiders and forced him on the hunt for a cabana. Well, off he went cause even though they were all available, no one was their to let him in, and he knew he was in trouble if he didnt find her some shelter soon.
After days of relaxing at the lake, and doing more minor stuff with the van I decide to spend some time in the centro and made the drive into town. I grabbed a delicious meal at a sit down restaurant for 65 pesos (4.87USD), got my internet fix, and listened to the live “music” in the centro. I use the term music here loosely, as it was some of the most god awful sounds I have ever heard. The 1st band I cut some slack, since it looked like they were in their early teens, and one of the lead singers was probably 5. She was horrendous, but hey she was a little kid, and having a great time so you couldn’t help but enjoy it. She was one of those “I am super excited to be doing this and going to scream these lyrics at the top of my lungs” kind of singers….which really didn’t work for the rendition of La Bumba they did. Next up were the adults, so I figured it had to get better. Now I don’t know this for sure, but judging by the performance it was most likely the little girls parents, cause they were equally as bad. It was so bad that I couldn’t take it anymore, and this was a free show. I decided to head home, which was good since it was getting dark and the road through the jungle was riddled with potholes. Catemaco is very small, so I know where I am going roughly, but there are a lot of one way roads which are impossible to tell apart in the dark, so I follow other cars to make sure I don’t go the wrong way, as long as they are going in my general direction. I know where I needed to be but ended up about 10 blocks from there so I turn on the GPS. She sends me down some dirt road full of giant stones that I wasn’t even sure I could handle, so I shut her the hell up and continue on going my way, the mans way. The real problem was that there were people everywhere! There are always people walking on the streets in Mexico but this was ridiculous, is EVERYONE going to the centro for the free show, I thought these were every weekend, what gives? Well, after a right turn here, and a left turn there I find the road back to La Jungle, and am met with yet another of Mexico’s wonderful surprises, and realize where everyone is going.
A Mexican fair! Now I mentioned I am basically a kid when it comes to this stuff, and who doesn’t love a good summertime fair, so I pull a u-turn (how the hell do you spell u-eee) and park illegally on the side of the street, which I am not sure is even possible in Mexico outside of the major cities. My general rule is if I am the only one doing something has to be wrong, and I was definitely the only one parking here, but there is no way I am not checking this out! I am under the assumption that most fairs in the US have an entrance fee, not in Mexico. Sweet… things are already off to a good start, in I go with a stupid grin on my face that I cant seem to get rid of. I head straight for the food section, I am picturing crazy greatness like deep fried boston cream pie donuts or something equally as awesome, its Mexico after all. Well, for some reason there is not much of a deep fried thing going on down here. They had corn dogs, french fries, and bananas, so I got a banana. It was covered in milk and sweet cream, could have used some chocolate, but still good so I wasn’t complaining, but I really expected to have my mind blown. Otherwise it was breads, pizza, and some ice cream, pretty lackluster. The rides were as you would expect, of course no ropes so I could stand under the spinning ones and watch them come a few feet from tearing off my head.
I did almost get hit by a kiddie train as I walked around looking every which way but where that one was. Otherwise it was just a normal fair, not really that impressive, though some booths were rather strange as they sold random things like jeans. That was until I turned the corner and spotted the full service bar! No not grab a beer and get shitfaced while you watch your kids kind of bar, grab your Vodka, Gin, Rum, you call it, and get shitfaced while you watch your kids. There’s the Mexico I love. Unfortunately I don’t have any kids to set an example for, so I passed on getting shitfaced and headed back to the Astro. Ok relax mom, lets reword that, unfortunately I did not get shitfaced as luckily I don’t have any kids to set an example for. Boom, a mom and dad reference in one post, this is one of many reasons why I am their favorite kid.
Figuring I couldn’t top a fair, but not quiet wanting to head out yet, I set off the next morning for a different waterfall nearby that I had seen signs for when driving into Catemaco, and had also read a brief blurb on. Salto de Exipantla is a 150 foot tall waterfall, and almost equally as wide, plus only 20-30 minutes away. As I get to the end of the road where it is located I see the hoards of vendor booths surrounding the parking lot. If you haven’t noticed I am not a fan. Its a small lot but as I headed out early there were plenty of spots. Some guy is waving his rag directing me into a spot, so I pass him and go to one farther up to show him I am a big boy and know how to park on my own. I did ask him where the falls were so that when I gave him a few pesos I could at least pretend I paid for something worthwhile, even though it was obvious where I needed to go. Then one of the vendors comes over and tries to sell me some crappy plastic ashtray with a pic of the falls. No thanks, I don’t smoke, and live in a van, I don’t need that, but at least now I know what it looks like to decide if I want to see it. Funnily enough I saw the same ashtray with a pic of the lake later that day in catemaco, I guess they all buy their crap from the same place. A women then comes over trying to get me to eat at her restaurant, I tell her maybe later and she respectfully leaves. Then a second parking guys comes over and says he will watch my van for 20 pesos (only 1.50 USD). I tell him no thanks as its Sunday morning in a public lot, if anyone messes with my van it will be these guys for me not paying them, otherwise the area is perfectly safe. Well, he backs off a few feet but keeps lingering, so I know we are not done, even though I already paid his friend for his help. Keep in mind I haven’t even opened my door to get out yet as all these events are playing out, this is all from my stupidly leaving the window down. From now on when I see vendors its windows up and English only! So, I linger inside, put on some sunscreen, and eventually get out. The guy then says its 15 pesos to park in this lot. Ah, so 20 down to 15, but the reason changed… I don’t think so. Its clear this is a public lot and these guys are looking for free money, and see this gringo as an easy target. At this point I have had enough, it is only pocket change, but its the principle that drives me nuts. At least the vendors are working for their money, these guys aren’t doing jack. So I tell him no problem, I am leaving…which I can tell shocks him. I went to school in Buffalo NY, and have been on enough dates to Niagara Falls to know that I am not missing anything at this tourist trap, you probably shouldn’t have shown me the picture earlier. I jump back in the van and head out, as I don’t want to risk parking a short distance from the lot and walking in case they mess with the Astro. I see him talking to the main parking guy, and he doesn’t look happy. Now they lost the admission fee and any money I would have spent on food or drinks. So while it kind of sucks that I let those guys ruin this little side trip, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it originally, so headed off to plan B, a secluded beach on the gulf down a rough dirt road, which worked out much better and was more my kind of place.
Yup, the road is rough, no problem for most of the rigs on expo, and no problem for the Astro as long as I went real slow. It was fairly short, but a bit rocky. Of course if you had a rental, and were from New Zealand, you would have had no problem. I arrive at the destination and am greeted by a one armed man wielding a machete. We exchange some words and the next thing I know I am walking away from the beach and following him into the jungle. I am pretty sure I have previously said that this blog would be an example of what not to do on a trip like this, so don’t act so shocked. While my Spanish is not very good, I think we are looking for monkeys, but I would be lying if I said the thought that a gringo took his arm back in the 70’s and he has been extracting revenge on gullible gringos ever since didn’t cross my mind a few times. Occasionally I switch sides with him to make sure if I lose an arm its my left.
Well it turns out my Spanish doesn’t completely suck and I finally get to see a monkey in the wild…sweet, oh crap forgot my camera back in the car. Well, there will be plenty more of these guys later. This guy was pretty big, just lounging in a tree as he clearly doesn’t like the heat either, so wasn’t providing much of a show, but hey, its a freaking monkey! The guy then takes me back to where I parked and up on the old hotel roof for some awesome pics, then inside to show me the bats…hmm, I could have done without the bat part of the tour. He shows me the path down to the beach and tells me its 20 pesos. Now that is 20 pesos I will gladly pay, I got a tour, at least 30 minutes of free Spanish practice while we shot the shit, and I haven’t even seen the beach yet…he has earned his money. I tell him no problem and reach for my wallet, no no…you can pay later when you get back. Ahh, that is the attitude I like, this guy will get a tip. I head down to the beach and its beautiful, I will let the pics do the talking.
I return to Catemaco to enjoy a Sunday in the centro, where there is more live music, good food, and great atmosphere. As I sit on a cafe balcony overlooking the centro a little girl squeezes into the 10 inch space between my chair and the view, to see the sights. Now, it seems to me Mexicans in general don’t have much of a concept for personal space, earlier that day I sat on a bench reading the lonely planet info on my iphone. There was easily 15 feet from me to the nearest person and some guys walks less than 6 inches from me as he passes by…that happens all the time, its just something you get used to here. I slide over for her as its no big deal its what kids, let alone Mexicans do. I say hello, and let her do her thing as she seems a bit shy. She goes away and comes back a few times, slowly warming up to me. We chat a bit and eventually I cant understand her so tell her I only speak a little Spanish, but mostly English. This unleashes an incredible flurry of words as her entire face lights up. Her name was similar to Emily, turns out senorita Emily is learning English in school!
She is very proud of this, so we spend some time over the next hour exchanging Spanish for english as she points out all the “beautiful” parts of her city we can see from the balcony. She was very proud of her city, that she is learning English, and her hello kitty earrings, as she did the “move the hair over so you can see and pause bit for me haha. Eventually her mom comes and gets her and they head out.
Then a family takes the table her mom was at, which consist of a teenage girl, a girl in her early 20’s, and two older ladies. Its pretty clear that that girl in her early 20s cant keep her eyes of this stud, and the next thing I know the mom is sneaking a picture of me. Of course, she is not a very good stalker as her camera flash is blinding me, and there is nothing nearby that would warrant a picture aside from me. Great, I have gone from invisible to zoo exhibit. I go back to doing my thing as this is not the most attractive group of ladies I have seen. 15 minutes later I hear some yelling down below, I look down from the balcony, and there is senorita Emily, who dragged her mom back so they could say goodbye. Hast lluego senorita Emily, and adios Catemaco.