It was overcast and 30° when I left home. The weather had improved from two days of intermittent snow. I was actually headed for Daytona Beach Bike Week, although I left 10 days earlier than I normally do for Daytona because I planned to visit the Maya ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico before Daytona. The Palisades Parkway was icy in spots, although the weather cleared up and got warmer as I headed south. I left the interstate highway at the Gold Rock exit in North Carolina to use the Motel 6 and Shoney’s Restaurant that I've used before. I had chosen mostly interstates to get to Brownsville, TX, and also from Texas back to Florida after spending eight days in Mexico.
Just before leaving, I noticed the left fork leg was slightly wet with oil that apparently began to leak during the Crotona Midnight Run the previous weekend, which I rode quite regularly for many years. This year I rode the Gold Wing in it with temperatures well below zero. The leak got progressively worse after I started on this trip, and by the end of the first day, I had oil on everything. I lowered the air pressure in the forks and wrapped rags around the leg in two places to keep it from blowing up onto the tank bag, from running down onto the front brake, and from blowing on my clothes. I realized I would need to stop somewhere soon to get it fixed before reaching the rougher roads in Mexico. Other than the oil leak, the Gold Wing was in fairly good shape in spite of its more than 100,000 miles, with no more than normal maintenance.
Day 2 - It was 38° and cloudy when I left the motel. It cleared up around lunchtime, but it didn’t get much warmer. When the fork leak continued to get worse, I called it a day in Tallahassee where I hoped to find a dealer. I called the one listed in the phone book, hoping to get it done that evening, but he said he didn't stock fork seals for Gold Wings. So I called the Honda Riders Club for the location of other dealers on my route, and tried the one they told me about in Pensacola who also didn't stock seals for Gold Wings. I finally connected with the dealer in Fort Walton Beach who had the seals and was eager to do the work, so I made an appointment for the following morning at 9 AM.
DAY 3 - I slept well for the first six hours but couldn't get back to sleep after 3 AM. I got up at five and left at six. I figured the ride to Fort Walton Beach would take about 3 hours. My estimate was OK, but my memory of the time change to Central Time wasn't. I got there at eight instead of nine. Luckily they started a little early and finished the job by 10:00. I returned to the interstate and stayed with it for the rest of the day. I also didn't remember about the shortage of places to eat around the Lake Charles exit, and I ended up eating dinner at Popeye’s again, the same place I ate the previous year. I covered 650 miles in spite of the detour into Fort Walton Beach Honda and the two-hour "pit stop" for repairs.
Day 4 - It drizzled a little during the night, and I rode through some fog and light drizzle near Houston, and the weather got warm and hazy. The sun came out after lunchtime, which was nice enough, except for the strong headwinds that cut my gas mileage considerably. I came up behind an older 1100cc Wing traveling in the same direction. I was doing about 10 miles over the speed limit and was about to pass when I realized it was a police motorcycle, so I followed him for several miles instead, until he turned off.
It was 82° when I reached Brownsville a little after 3:00. I exchanged traveler’s checks for pesos at an exchange house, since it was already too late to catch a bank open. I got only $120 worth because I didn't want to carry more cash than that, and I wasn't happy with their exchange rate. I remembered from my earlier trip to Mexico that prices were very low, and I was able to use my Visa for lodging. I checked over the bike at the motel and added a little oil I that was carrying. I rearranged the stuff in my bags, studied my maps, and went out to buy some food supplies to use whenever I couldn't find an eating place that I trusted. I declined the property insurance for the bike because the cost for eight days was as much as I pay for an entire year of bike insurance in the US.
Day 5 - I was up at 5:20 and out by six for a quick breakfast at McDonald’s. The Mexican immigration procedure there took about 45 minutes. I had to visit four different counters to complete everything. They gave me the necessary sticker for the bike this time, in addition to a tourist card, which I didn't get in Ojinaga. A local uniformed sentry in Matamoros stopped me before I even got out of town. He acted real official and asked where I was going. He proceeded to give me directions that I hadn't asked for, and then he put out his hand for money. I reached in my pocket and handed him a shiny new 500-peso coin. He looked at it in disgust and said "Agh, that's a penny!" In hindsight, I think it was worth only about sixteen cents. I didn't have anything smaller than a 10,000-peso note (about $3.20), so I showed him that, thinking it would be better not to insult him further and possibly get into a longer delay. He smiled in obvious approval and snatched it quickly out of my hand. I would certainly run out of cash quick that way!
The streets in Matamoros had a thin layer of dirt on the surface that made it quite slippery in the early morning dew. Outside town I ran into a thick fog that I carefully felt my way through for about two hours. The temperature got to 90° that afternoon. At my second gas stop, I was quite sure I had been short-changed. I had already dropped a handful of coins in my pocket, and I didn't feel sure enough to challenge the guy. I figured it was 10,000 pesos. I decided to take my time to check my change closer after that. I learned later that they don't usually make change in Mexico. What you give the guy is what he keeps, or he asks for more.
I got lost in Tampico while looking for the ferry that I had seen on my maps, not realizing they had built a bridge since the map was printed. One thing I learned about Mexican maps was that they are frequently out-of-date, or just plain wrong. I was riding on a nice, smooth road through a park when a police car coming the other way signaled for me to stop. He could see I was American, and he assumed I was lost. No one speaks a word of English that far into Mexico, so I exchanged a few words with him in my "survival" Spanish. He figured that he had better lead me to the bridge, which he did, and I thanked him. He drove very fast through town, and it was a challenge to keep up with the guy. Again I wasn’t sure if it was done for money, and I didn’t offer any this time, but I thanked him, "Gracious por todo".
All of the roads were very rough, and every little town I passed through had at least two speed bumps that they call topes. Some towns had five or six topes and some of them were huge. I must have bounced over hundreds during my eight days in Mexico. Many vendors sell their wares at the topes because vehicles have to come to almost a complete stop. Motorists then become a target for high-pressure sales, which reminded me of the unsolicited windshield washers in New York City. I didn't recognize most of the food on the street, except for the cold pineapple juice and cold coconut milk. I was wary of the cold juices because of the ice. You can’t be sure where the water for the ice came from. I saw bananas and coconuts growing wild along the highways, and also cultivated on farms around Tuxpan, Poza Rica and Vera Cruz. I saw orange groves, pineapple fields, corn, vanilla and date palms, and I saw huge bunches of dates hanging from some of the trees.
The roads were especially rough around Tuxpan and Poza Rica. One of my favorite signs of the trip was “Tramo Peligroso.” I soon realized that it warned of danger ahead. I knew the word peligroso meant dangerous but my little dictionary didn't have a translation for tramo. I learned later it means "Dangerous Stretch". The word reminded me of trauma and it didn't take long to learn that whatever it was, the circumstances of not heeding the sign could be traumatic. A few times after seeing one of the signs, I would round a bend and see a completely washed out section. One time the macadam ended abruptly, before huge holes. Another time I hit a hole so hard that one of the plastic covers flew off the inside of the fairing, both mirrors turned down, and the instrument panel came loose. Adventure touring a Gold Wing does have its limits.
The front and rear suspension bottomed often. I made emergency repairs to the fairing with silicone seal that evening. I found that the bottoming problem was due at least partially to the mechanic in Florida not putting enough air back into the front suspension. After I pumped it up, it worked a lot better. In one spot between Tuxpan and Poza Rica, I followed a truck through a very rough section of road. As he was negotiating a series of deep holes, I could see his front axle cock as much as 30° one way, as his rear axle was cocked 30° the other way. I scraped the bottom of the bike three times getting through that section. I was often down to less than 30 mph for long distances.
I reached Poza Rica at 5:30 and spotted an old hotel with a garage. I stopped because it looked comfortable enough, and the 63,000 pesos were certainly reasonable, (around $20.00), but they took only cash. I asked the woman where I could find a place to eat, and she pointed to a house across the street. I knocked at the door there and the woman who answered, said she would prepare a meal with eggs, onions, tomatoes and peppers. It sounded good, but I asked her to go easy on the peppers, which I assumed were hot. Her teenage son set up a makeshift stand in front of the house where he sold refresca (cold sodas). I bought one with the meal and ate at a small homemade table and chair in their front yard - in the dark, near the edge of the busy road. I enjoyed the meal in spite of the meager trappings and the darkness. It was unique.
I rinsed out a few pieces of clothing in the room, in spite of washing most of my clothes in Brownsville. The temperature rose into the 90's that day. I sweat a lot. The clothes I washed the night before were also still damp, but I decided to ride with them anyway. I noticed the gas prices rose considerably since my earlier trip to Mexico, and the hotels weren't taking Visa, so my cash was depleting faster than I expected. I was also dehydrating fast, and I drank quite a bit from the gallon of fresh water I was carrying. Aside from money, I also needed to locate more drinking water. I watched a Spanish-speaking show on TV that night that I couldn’t follow. They spoke much too fast for my level, and the room had a noisy air conditioner. The bed was hard and lumpy. The noise from the street also continued all night, so I didn't get much sleep.
Day 6 - I had breakfast in my room from my provisions. It was foggy again when I left, which stayed with me until after 10:00, which was fine for me because it kept the temperature down. I saw more bananas, coconuts, pineapples and oranges, and I began to see a lot of sugarcane. I was surprised to learn how many people still live in adobe huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors. It seemed like a contradiction that the women and children from those same hovels look so clean and well dressed. The young girls are often dressed for school in very clean, pretty party dresses, while the boys wear sparkling clean white shirts and black pants.
I saw many men walking with large machetes in one hand and a water jug in the other. I assumed they were on their way to work in the sugarcane fields. The old cane trucks that I saw were all loaded to capacity with cane stalks. They would churn their way slowly out of the fields before struggling under the huge load as they headed slowly toward the processing plants, dropping many of the stalks in the road along the way. Road signs warned motorists of the slow-moving trucks.
The temperature climbed to over 100°. I was tempted again to stop and buy some cold juice, but I drank from my water jug instead. A few times I stopped to buy bottled soda, and I ate lunch from my bag. I carried hard salami, which kept fairly good in the heat, although it got shiny-wet on the surface from the oil sweating out from the heat. I carried a supply of granola bars and a large plastic bottle of lightly-salted peanuts for snacking. For breakfast I carried canned sardines, instant oatmeal, raisins and tea; and for an occasional lunch I carried canned soup and canned tuna.
The heat and terrible roads combined to make it my toughest day. The seat takes a greater toll on my butt in the extreme heat, and it gets very hot behind the fairing when the temperature rises above 100, especially in the towns. There was a lot of smoke from farmers burning off their sugarcane fields after the productive part of the stalks are harvested. I rode for miles along empty beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. The prettiest area I saw was around Lake Catemaco where it was hilly and picturesque. The apartments and condominiums in Vera Cruz are built close to the beach. The highway that I was following through Vera Cruz passes between the row of buildings and the sea wall. The first two gas stations I stopped at in Vera Cruz were closed for some reason. I had to search for one that was open because I was running low.
That evening I spotted a new motel along the highway near Minatitlan. I checked in after learning that a room with a double bed was only 45,000 pesos ($14.50). I thought it was a pretty good deal, but it was odd that I didn't get a key to the room. I put my things away and locked the door to leave briefly for a long distance phone call home. I went in search of a shop like a Western Union office that was displaying a “Larga Distancia” sign. Since I was running short on cash, and wouldn't be passing a bank until the next day, I asked about the price of making phone calls first, which was 27,500 pesos ($9.00) for three minutes. To talk for ten minutes would have come to over $30. I had a problem talking with the young girl at the telephone office who seemed frightened, maybe from a combination of my size, my poor Spanish, and because I was giving her a hard time about the price.
When I got back to the motel, the clerk unlocked the door for me. Just outside was a special garage bay for the bike, with a big curtain to conceal it from outside view. I thought that was pretty neat from a security point of view. I took a shower and looked for a place to plug my razor, but there was none, so I used the TV outlet. I realized from looking around the room that there were a few other things that made the room unique. A toilet paper roll was mounted on the wall next to the bed and drink prices and other prices of things I couldn’t translate were posted on the mirror. There was also a small turntable device in the front wall that was apparently used to deliver drinks and collect money without opening the door; and there were no windows in the room. As soon as I turned on the TV the whole thing became shockingly clear. It was a sex hotel with hard-core porno flicks on every working channel of the television.
Day 7 - I left before first light in a thick fog and heavy mist. The trucks were using windshield wipers and headlights. The roads were wet, although they were much smoother than they had been for two days. I got to Villa Hermosa a little before 9:00 and went directly to the bank. I mistakenly waited a long while in a teller's line before being redirected to another line to get approval for exchanging money. I wanted pesos for $160 worth of travelers' checks, and I wanted $200 against my Visa card. Asking for an amount in dollars, rather than pesos, against the Visa confused the girl a lot. When she finally got management approval for the Visa transaction, she directed me to the teller who began to peel off a huge stack of 100,000 peso notes, which would have come to more than $700. I finally got her to understand it was far too much, and how much I actually wanted. It was almost two hours before I got it straightened out. Reversing the Visa transaction was a big problem for them. At one point they told me to come back in three days, but I persevered. When I got home, I waited for my Visa statement to arrive to see if the earlier transaction got reversed. To my surprise, neither transaction appeared on the statement. As a result, I never got charged the $200 they gave me against my Visa.
The road to Palenque was in good shape. It was the first of eight Maya archaeological sites I visited on the Yucatán Peninsula. It's located in the State of Chiapas at the foot of a chain of low hills in the midst of a rain forest. Palenque flourished in the 7th century, and is unique in its beauty and technical perfection.
Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque
Palace at Palenque, built by Pakal the Great
The most interesting of the many buildings that I visited there was the Temple of the Inscriptions, which was built around AD 700. I climbed four tiers of stairs to the top of the sacrificial temple and saw the ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions from which the temple got its name. Maya priests are said to have cut out the hearts of their sacrificial victims at the base of the temple, and then they would run up the stairs carrying the still-beating heart to sacrifice it to their angry god at the top. It is believed that thousands of victims were sacrificed in this manner. Other buildings I visited included Pakal's palace, the ball court, the House of the Jaguar and the Temple of the Sun. I also took a short walk into the jungle where I saw the remains of several other ruins of buildings yet to be uncovered and restored.
I met a young couple from California who were there on a bus tour from Cancún. They gave me the name and address of a hotel in Merida where they thought I might like to stay. They asked how I was ever going to get across those temporary pipe bridges with a motorcycle. I had no idea what they were referring to. After spending a few hours at Palenque, I headed toward Francisco Escárcega where I planned to spend the night. That afternoon I came upon the largest Tramo Peligroso sign of my trip, just before the first of three ominous-looking temporary pipe bridges that had to be crossed. They were made up of several long, 8" diameter steel pipes laid side-by-side across the span in the direction of traffic. Several pipes were used for each truck wheel track, with a wide gap between the wheel tracks. When heavy trucks or busses crossed very slowly, the pipes would bend under their weight. I chose to ride between two pipes that appeared to be fairly close together but not touching each other. I kept both feet down for security. I wondered what it would be like in the rain, when the pipes are covered with slick mud, or if they spread too far apart for my tires. I could look down between the pipes and see water several feet below the bridge.
I found a big old hotel in Francisco Escárcega that was typical of Mexican hotels that I remember seeing in old western movies. The room was large and bare with two hard double beds, no pictures, and a big old-fashioned ceiling fan that originally had five speeds, but only one was still working - high. The mirror in the bathroom was leaning against the wall that it had fallen from. There was also no seat on the toilet, and no curtain for the shower, which allowed water to spatter all over the bathroom. There was no hot water either, although the cold water wasn't that cold, so I took a shower anyway. I rinsed out my jeans, shirt, socks and shorts before heading out to look for a place to eat. I ate breakfast and lunch from my supplies. I was ready to try some Mexican food. I found a bus terminal in town with a restaurant that displayed an easy-to-read menu outside. Most Mexican menus were a little too complicated for my level of Spanish. I chose bifstek ranchero, which I thought would be ranch steak, but it turned out to be like a thin beef stew. Of course it could have been the fault of my pronunciation when I ordered. It was spicy-hot and served with rice and refried beans. They also served flat, tasteless stuff that they call tortillas instead of bread. I enjoyed the meal except for the tortillas and the extra-hot spices. The food was so hot that I had to keep sipping soda between bites to relieve the burning. It was expensive by Mexican standards - about $7; but then it was at a bus terminal where you might expect higher prices. Speaking of expensive, I paid double for a small soda at Palenque that I would have paid anywhere else. Prices in the gift shops at Palenque were also quite high, so I didn't get much.
I checked the oil in the bike that evening and added a little. It was hot in my room all night, although the high-speed ceiling fan gave some relief. I was wakened around 11:00 by a bus outside my room with a defective muffler. After starting the engine, the bus driver proceeded to warm it up for 20 minutes outside my open window. The strong exhaust fumes permeated through the room.
Day 8 - I had breakfast in the room and left before six. It was warm and muggy as I headed for the ruins at Edzna. I found what I thought to be the right road, which turned east about where my map said it should, but it was a narrow, rough road that led through a small town past a large sugarcane processing plant. There were about forty workers milled around outside the plant, apparently getting ready for work in the fields. Almost everyone carried a huge machete in one hand and a jug of water in the other. They didn't look very friendly. I felt uneasy when many eyes turned my way as I bounced slowly over the topes. I was hoping it was the right road because I would feel even more uneasy returning that way. Sure enough, I got about a half mile out of town and the road petered out to a narrow, dirt wheel-track road. I met an old man walking alongside the cane field and asked him if it was possible to get through that way. He answered "Si", so I kept going. The road was actually a shortcut through the fields for the cane trucks. I finally made it through and located the road to Edzna after about four miles of churning through soft dirt.
I got to Edzna around 8 AM. No one else was there except the caretaker who took my money as I signed the guest register. I had the place all to myself. The potential danger involved in wandering around alone crossed my mind, but it didn't bother me much. Edzna is situated in a wide valley in the State of Campeche in the midst of a dense shrub forest. Although the Edzna site covers more than two square miles, it has not been fully excavated, as was the case with most of the Maya sites I visited. It is laid out like a large plaza with buildings around the perimeter and a small sacrificial altar at the center. The grass that covers the plaza is kept very neat. The most interesting and tallest of the structures was the huge pyramid-shaped Five-Story Building. The base of the Five-Story Building is about 200 feet on each side. It is believed that the priests occupied the first four floors. The temple, which makes up the fifth floor, stands 16' high and has a 20' roof comb perched on top. I believe the purpose of each roof comb on Mayan buildings had specific sacred meanings. The building, including the comb, is more than a hundred feet high. I climbed to the temple level and later visited the Great Acropolis, the House of the Moon, and a few other buildings.
|Roof Comb at Sayil|
The Great Palace at Sayil
Arch of Labna, Yucatán
Just before turning onto the secondary road that leads to the Sayil and Labna sites, I went through a huge arch that separates the Mexican states of Campeche and Yucatán. A single access road that appeared relatively new leads to both sites. The road then twists through a dense shrub field where thick vegetation grows over the road from both sides, making it extremely narrow and twisty for busses. It was still early for the bus tours, and there were only a few other visitors. The highlight of the Sayil site was the Palace, a large three-story building with terraces around the outside of each floor. The Palace has magnificent architecture with a pair of heavy columns adorning each of four entrances. The building features clustered columns around two other doorways, and a decorative frieze that extends for the length of the building, which contains masks of their gods, serpents, jaguars and other mosaic motifs. I also visited the Mirador, a large, weathered temple with a decorative roof comb. Many of the buildings at Sayil are badly weathered and crumbled. I saw live iguanas darting in and out of cavities in a few of the buildings.
Four miles farther east on the same road, I located the Labna site where the main attraction is the Arch of Labna. The inside opening of the entire structure is about 10' high, by 20' wide, and adorned with decorative mosaic, beautifully set into the front and rear of the structure and on the frieze. Decorations include many intricate mosaic patterns. The arch is flanked on both sides by rooms with entrances facing the front. Two stone reliefs of Maya thatched huts project outward from the roof like dormers above the room entrances. There was also a palace at Labna, and a large weathered Mirador temple with a tremendous roof comb. The buildings were grouped in a somewhat haphazard fashion around a large, well kept plaza.
The Campeche-Merida road bisects the Kabah site. The most well-preserved buildings at Kabah were on the east side of the road where I pulled in. Little is known of the history of this site, which lies about 12 miles south of the huge Uxmal site. It is believed that the Kabah site may have once been linked with Uxmal by an ancient ceremonial road. I explored the main palace known as the Teocalli, Palace of the Masks and the Temple of the Columns. The buildings at Kabah are huge, and the architecture is very beautiful, but many are badly weathered and partially crumbled. I bypassed the huge arch on the west side of the road so that I could spend more time at Uxmal, which interested me the most.
Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal, Yucatán
Governor's Palace at Uxmal
Uxmal is one of the finest Maya archaeological sites in all of Mexico. It's located in the same shrub-covered plain as the other sites I visited that day. It was the highlight of my entire Maya tour. The classic architecture and technical perfection of the buildings at Uxmal were amazing. The tallest and most spectacular of the structures is the 125' high Pyramid of the Magician which derives its name from a fictional legend claiming that a dwarf, with the help of his mother, a witch, built the temple in a single night. I climbed to the top of this exceptionally steep temple, which is as tall as a 12-story building. There was a heavy chain stretching from the ground all the way to the top for the safety of climbers. The steps are so steep that many climbers, including myself, use their hands on the steps, like with mountain climbing, as an alternative to holding onto the chain. The sacrificial temple at the top is decorated with several masks of the Maya rain god Chac, a common feature at many of the sites that I visited. Another is the figure of a priest's head protruding from the jaws of a huge snake.
I used the chain occasionally on my way down because my feet didn't fit on the narrow stairs, and I didn’t feel secure climbing down while facing outward into empty space on my heels alone. Many people climbed down backwards as I did, facing the temple and using their hands to steady them. I didn’t count the stairs, but I think there were at least 150. Some of the unique features of the pyramid are its oval base and the large stone cistern at the foot of the temple. The stone surface around the temple slopes toward the cistern to direct rainwater into it.
The largest of the excavated and restored buildings at Uxmal is the Governor's Palace. The architecture and workmanship of this structure may be the finest example of pre-Columbian architecture in the Western Hemisphere. About a dozen entrances providing access to as many as twenty-four inner chambers. Each chamber has a corbel-arch ceiling. A ten-foot-high mosaic frieze across the entire front of the building is richly decorated with Chac masks, serpents, thatched huts and many other forms and geometric patterns. A large, sculptured head with a feather headdress adorns the center of the frieze above the main entrance. It is estimated that more than 20,000 stones weighing an average of 100 pounds each were used in the construction of this huge mosaic frieze. The precision that is evident in the stonework of the entire structure is magnificent. On the terrace in front of the palace stands another sacrificial altar with a double-headed jaguar in the center. The huge altar appears to have been cut from a single block of limestone. Images and descriptions of all of the buildings can be found on the Internet.
Another exceptionally beautiful group of buildings at Uxmal is the Nunnery Quadrangle, located directly behind the Pyramid of the Magician. The four buildings in the quadrangle surround a 30,000 square-foot courtyard. Access is through a large corbel-arch entrance. The largest and oldest of the buildings is the Temple of Venus. Each of the four buildings has a tall frieze facing the courtyard, and each frieze is adorned with Chac masks, snakes, serpents, jaguars, monkeys, thatched huts and many geometric forms.
Many other buildings at Uxmal were badly weathered and have not yet been restored. Some have not even been uncovered from the heavy underbrush that surrounds all of the sites. A few of the partially restored buildings I saw included the ball court, the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of the Old Woman and the Temple of the Phallus, which derived its name from a row of sculptured phalli on the frieze, some of which serve as rainwater spouts. It may be many decades before excavation is completed at Uxmal. At least five tour busses were in while I was there. I would guess that several hundred people were visiting at the time. Uxmal was my favorite of the eight sites I visited. The temperature was in the 90's while I was climbing, exploring, taking pictures and trying to learn as much as I could in the few hours that I allotted myself. I could easily have spent the entire day at Uxmal. I saw several live iguanas while I was there, one of which was more than five feet long. They live in stone crevices around and under the buildings.
Inside the Dolores Alba Hotel in Merida, Yucatán
I passed the Dolores Alba Hotel in Merida twice before stopping to recheck my notes with the address that I was given. I finally pulled up in front of a place with the number. I was certain there must be a mistake. It was a high brick wall with big old double doors that made it look like a parking garage. A guy on the sidewalk asked if I wanted to go in. After hesitating for a moment, I replied "Si", so he banged his fist on the huge doors, which then opened slowly like they were motor-driven. I rode up across the narrow sidewalk and through the doors, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on some colorful flagstones in a pretty little courtyard directly in front of a reception desk while I was still on the bike. I felt awkward because I had never sat on my motorcycle in front of a reception desk before. I immediately turned off the engine and smiled timidly at the female desk clerk. I was actually inside an old three-story hotel. The reception area was in a separate small building. Each floor of the main building had balconies with iron railings that surrounded and overlooked an attractive open-air courtyard where several small cars were parked between the trees and plants. After a quick shower, I found the pool in another part of the hotel, and I took a quick dip. There was a refrigerator just outside my room with complimentary water in sealed bottles. My ground floor room was very reasonable: only 55,000 pesos ($17.75). It wasn't without fault though, because the shower drain was clogged and water ran over the floor; and the bed was actually a block of concrete with a very thin mattress. I had at least one pleasant surprise when I learned that all five speeds of the huge ceiling fan worked.
I got directions from the desk clerk for the “Larga Distancia” telephone office. I left on-foot after learning it was less than a half-mile. Walking on the very narrow sidewalk wasn't easy because it was filled with people. Whenever I passed someone I had to turn sideways to avoid bumping into him. When I met a couple holding hands, I stepped into the street. The walk to the telephone office took about ten minutes. I first asked the girl there in Spanish what time in the evening the rates were reduced. She answered in Spanish that she doesn't speak Spanish! I asked in English if she spoke English, and she looked even more frightened and blurted out a loud “No!” She said "Espere" and motioned for me to wait, and went through a side door into the shoemaker’s shop. A small, smiling Italian shoemaker came in carrying a tacking hammer in one hand and a ladies shoe in the other. He said in very clear English, "Can I help?" I asked him first, "She doesn't speak Spanish?" He smiled and said, "No, she is Mayan." He said that the long distance rates are always the same. I made my call and was shocked to learn that my five minutes with Lilli cost 75,000 pesos ($24). I paid the girl and returned to the hotel.
Before I left for the telephone office I had taken my "secret" wallet - a thin travelers’ check folder - out of a hidden pocket, and I put it in my back pocket, along with my regular wallet, which was a big mistake. I reached for it when I got back to the hotel to put it in a more secure place in my luggage, and it was gone. It had $300 worth of pesos inside, plus $110 in US cash. I had visions of delaying my trip to get another Visa advance. It could have really messed up my trip because aside from the delays, I would have kicked myself over and over again for the dumb mistake. My first thought was to go back to the telephone office and see if I dropped it there. I didn't have much hope, but I headed back anyway, wondering how I would ever communicate with the girl if the shoemaker's shop was closed for the day and he had gone home.
Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, Yucatán
When I got there I was relieved to find that he was still in his shop. I rushed in and said with both my palms facing upward and dismay in my voice, "I have lost all of my money!" The woman standing with him turned to me and said in a very contentious tone, "What? What? What are you saying?" I assumed she was his wife. I explained to him that I must have dropped my wallet in the telephone office. He asked how much money I had in it, and I told him. With a smile, he reached under the counter and asked if that was my wallet. I could hardly believe my eyes. I immediately reached in and took out a 100,000 peso note ($32), and handed it to him with profound gratitude. He smiled and said he would give the money to his wife. All the way to the hotel, I kept thinking about all the bad things I had heard about Mexico. Even during my call home, Lilli said she heard that bandits had held up a tour-bus that same day at one of the Maya sites in the Yucatán, and robbed everyone. She was afraid that I might have been among the victims. I learned later that it was along the entrance road to the Labna site where the heavy underbrush grows out to the edge of the narrow twisty road, and the vehicles have to wind their way through very slowly. I got back to the hotel and counted my remaining money. I thought there was another 100,000 peso bill missing; but if so, I forgave them in my mind, and prayed that it would bring them happiness for having returned my wallet.
I walked about seven blocks from the hotel to the center of town to get something to eat. I learned after arriving at the park that it was the last night of the unique Carnaval de Merida festival. The main festivities were taking place right in front of the huge church. It was very crowded. I ate something from a street vendor that looked, smelled and tasted very good. I sat at a small table next to the vendor's stand in the park and watched the festivities as I ate.
Group of the Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza
There was loud music and dancing girls at the festival in colorful costumes. Later I met a Cuban guy from Miami who recognized me as an American and asked if I needed any help understanding what was going on. He proceeded to explain the significance of the last day of Merida's Carnival and the Mardi Gras, which has to do with the burial of the devil, Juan Carnaval. I understood that they were celebrating his demise on this last day.
On another subject, I asked him how he made his long distance phone calls to Miami. I learned that I could have bought a special credit card that works in a few special telephones in the town square. The card can be purchased for the amount you wish to spend on the call, and it's inserted into the telephone. There is a timer to tell you how much time you have left. The final cost is only a fraction of the Larga Distancia prices.
Day 9 - I had tea and some raisins for breakfast in my room and decided to wait for the hotel's dining room to open so I could get a full breakfast. After packing and loading the bike, I went out for a short walk in the early morning coolness. About a block and a half from the hotel I saw a large patch of fresh blood on the sidewalk, about a foot wide by 2 feet long. Someone must have been either stabbed or hit over the head on the sidewalk during the night. When I got back, I had a large dish of fruit for breakfast, including banana, muskmelon, grapefruit and watermelon, with a main course of scrambled eggs and ham. Afterwards, I asked at the desk for directions to Chichen Itza, which was a mistake. The directions that the girl gave me, sent me west instead of east, and I was 45 minutes getting out of Merida.
Chichen Itza is one of the largest and best-restored sites in all of Mexico. It is probably the best-known Maya archeological site in Central America, which may be partly due to its proximity to the resort area at Cancun. Many tour busses visit Chichen Itza from there every day. The site was founded around AD 450, and was a sacred center of the Maya for more than 700 years. One of the most popular and favorite attractions is the Pyramid of Kukulkan, a very impressive square pyramid that is often used as an icon for Mexico. It stands 80 feet high, which is about 45 feet shorter than the Temple of the Magician at Uxmal, and it’s not nearly as steep, but it offers magnificent views of the entire area from the top of the temple. I climbed the 91 steps to the top, and rested for quite a while, taking in the sights from there before climbing down.
Not far from the Kukulkan pyramid is the Temple of the Warriors, a huge building adorned with large serpent columns, jaguar heads, snakes, and a well-preserved Chacmool, which lies in a semi-reclining position. The Chacmool is holding a bowl on its stomach for sacrificial offerings, usually the victim's heart. There are several Chacmool figures around the site, and there is even a Tomb of the Chacmool. It is believed that he was a temple guardian of some sort. Adjacent to the Temple of the Warriors is the Group of the Thousand Columns, which is believed to have been either a market mall or a place of assembly. No one is quite sure of its purpose. I’m also not sure how many columns are still standing in the group, but it’s certainly far less than a thousand.
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza is in excellent condition. The Maya apparently took this game very seriously. The object of the game was to get a large hard rubber ball through the stone hoop situated high on the wall. The hoop is mounted vertically as opposed to the present-day horizontal hoops used in basketball, and it's much higher. The ball could be hit with the elbows, hips, and knees, but not with the hands. It was never supposed to touch the ground. It is believed that the entire losing team was sacrificed to the gods after a game, while the man who got the ball through the vertical hoop was the winner and the hero, so they played with fervor and enthusiasm. Along the bottom of the court wall are projected reliefs of losing players being led off to the sacrificial altar, either at the Platform of the Skulls or possibly the one at the Temple of the Jaguar, which is on the opposite side of the plaza that makes up the Great Ball Court. An altar in the form of a large jaguar is displayed there. Many of the sites I visited had ball courts in various stages of restoration.
Platform of the Skulls at Chichen Itza
Other gory reminders of the barbaric ways of the Maya can be seen at the Well of Sacrifice (or Sacred Cenote), and at the Platform of the Skulls. It is believed that in times of natural calamities, especially droughts, living humans as well as precious objects were cast into the well to appease the gods. Many skulls and precious objects have been recovered from the well in recent times. The Platform of the Skulls is about 8' high and 60' square. Four rows of skull reliefs are sculpted around the face of the platform. Sacrificial skulls, and especially all of the skulls from battles with their enemies are believed to have been piled onto the platform. The most current “gifts to the gods” are believed to have been displayed on the ends of long stakes, which made up a palisade fence around the edge of the platform. Another smaller platform nearby, called the House of the Eagles, was believed to have been used for celebrations, possibly by warriors, before and after their battles or by dancing girls during their festivals.
A week earlier, I had stopped for lunch in Alabama on my way to Mexico and spoke with a guy who had visited many of the Maya sites. He said he thought one of the most impressive was Coba. Most people I spoke with never heard of Coba. My map showed a road going from the village of Chemax to the Coba site, but after finding Chemax, I had trouble finding the road. I learned later that the road I was looking for is used mainly by cows, as I was told by an old-timer who was passing by, or maybe that was a figure of speech he used to describe the road, i.e. a cow path.
I continued for more than 50 miles past Chemax looking for Coba, and I asking people in the villages for directions. In one village I stopped to ask a boy about 12 years old, who appeared to be on his way to school. I asked in Spanish and to my surprise he replied in English, "You need to go to the second town and there will be a road on the right for Coba." I told him that his English was very good. He smiled broadly and said, "Thank you. I hope you have a nice trip." His face was beaming as I left. It could have been the first time he had the opportunity to use the English he had learned, and he could hardly wait to tell his teacher about it. Later I stopped to ask a guy for directions who was walking along a lonely stretch of highway. He looked like an native American. He was carrying a huge machete in one hand, and a rifle slung over his shoulder with the other hand. He looked scary to say the least. He ignored me and kept walking and looking straight ahead. I finally located Coba in a dense shrub forest in the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. It's one of the largest Mayan sites ever discovered, but it’s far from being fully uncovered. Coba is believed to have been occupied for well over a thousand years, beginning sometime between AD 300 and 600. It was rediscovered near the end of the 19th century. Since then, more than 6,000 buildings have been identified, although only a very small percentage have been excavated and restored to any degree. Access to all of the buildings at Coba is by way of long jungle path.
Temple at Coba
A large pyramid, called the Church, stands near the entrance. I climbed to the top of the Church and looked over many square miles of jungle in every direction. About a mile to the northeast, I could see the huge, 138-foot Castle Nohoch Mul, which stands alone and protrudes above the jungle foliage. I followed the paths all the way to the weathered castle, and I saw many smaller buildings along the way. It was just a long walk in the heat from my point of view, and it was anticlimactic after seeing Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, which were much more interesting.
From Coba it was at least a three-hour ride back to Merida. I hoped to get back before dark, so I sped along, searching for an entrance to a new four-lane divided highway that I heard went from Chichen Itza to Merida. I spotted a sign pointing to an access road that I thought said Autopista. After turning off, I picked up speed on the access road and suddenly sped past a large commuter airplane discharging passengers. I then leaned onto what I thought was the main highway lanes, but I immediately recognized the telltale markings of a runway, so I did a big sweeping U-turn. Meanwhile, a guy came running toward me, swinging both arms wildly. I said in Spanish that the sign said Autopista! He screamed back at me, "Aeropista, Aeropista, no Autopista!" It was an airstrip. I sheepishly apologized and left almost as quickly as I came in.
After getting back to the hotel, I realized I had given a gas station attendant a 100,000-peso note instead of 10,000. I handed him what I thought was the exact change with a combination of bills and coins. Of course he wouldn't say anything, and I didn't notice it until later when I found it missing. I concluded earlier that my biggest problem of the trip was peso conversion. There is no consistency about where on the bill they put the markings, and they are currently in the process of changing the currency to where 100,000 pesos will become 100 “new pesos”. Some are marked the old way and some the new way already.
I took a shower and a dip in the pool when I got back. I must have walked more than five miles at Chichen Itza. I lost track of the number of stairs that I climbed. I had dinner alone at a small restaurant in town where my table was on a busy sidewalk. I recognized pollo frito on the menu as fried chicken, so I ordered that, and ate it while watching the people. It seemed as though everyone in the city was on the sidewalk. Their living quarters are probably too hot in the evening, so they take to the streets. Later I browsed the gift shops for a few things to take home.
Day 10 - I was up and ready to leave before six, but the night desk clerk didn't have change for my US $50 bill. I had arranged to pay in US dollars because I wasn't sure how my pesos would hold out on my return to the USA, especially after having accidentally lost or given away at least three 100,000 peso notes, (total of $100). I waited 45 minutes for someone to come and open the safe. The morning traffic had become heavy, although most of the traffic lights were in my favor, so I still got out of town in good shape.
It was quite windy but the temperature rose into the low 90's by afternoon. I stopped a few times to drink from the water that I stocked up on at the hotel, and once I stopped for a Pepsi at a roadside stand. I got shortchanged again at a gas station and argued successfully with the guy to get the 10,000 pesos he short-changed me. I usually tried to have the exact change so I wouldn't have to argue about it.
After 500 miles, I checked into the same sex hotel, mainly because I slept well on the new bed, and the price was right. The clerk tried to tell me something when I checked in that I just wasn't translating properly, or understanding. I asked him if it was a problem and he said no, so I simply forgot about it. I went out for dinner and ordered the "comida corrida" (meal-of-the-day). It was a mixture of several things including fish. It was good but not very filling, so later I heated a cup of soup in my room from my bag.
Day 11 - I got up early after a good sleep, and was loading the bike when the room telephone rang. It was the night desk clerk. I recognized the Spanish for "forty-five" and I told him that I already paid the forty-five last night (45,000 pesos), but that didn't satisfy him. We weren't doing too well on the phone, so I said wait a moment in Spanish, and I walked up to the office where three guys were waiting. I finally understood what he was saying - that my original forty-five was for only five hours, and I stayed all night. He wanted another 45,000 pesos for the rest of the night. Apparently I had gotten away with it the first time. It's apparently what the desk clerk was trying to tell me when I checked in the night before. I still wasn't sure how my pesos would hold out before reaching the border, so I argued with them about the extra forty-five. After seven days in Mexico I was getting much better at Spanish than when I came in. I knew only a hundred words or so when I started, but I picked up another dozen or so key words each day while I was there. I was pretty proud of myself when I managed to come up with the right words to present an argument, which was, "I am one person, not two; I was here for only sleeping, and not for sex; and I have only enough money to get to the border. It is also Saturday, and tomorrow is Sunday, and no banks are open for two days. If I give my money to you, I won't eat for two days." I offered to pay by Visa but they couldn’t take Visa. At one point, they wanted me to leave something like my clothes in lieu of money. I argued that my clothes wouldn't fit anyone there anyway. It took about fifteen minutes to soften them up, and when I thought my timing was right, I pulled out 20,000 pesos and offered that, which was less than half of what they asked. They looked at each other and mumbled a few words in Spanish before the guy accepted it. It was just breaking daylight when I got on the road. I was happy with the deal, which came out to be about $21.00, which was still a bargain. I rationalized that it was compensation for some of the money I lost from being hustled during my week in Mexico.
I figured this was going to be my toughest day of riding. On the way south I rode only 350 miles of this particular section in one day, and it was my toughest day even then. On the return trip I planned to cover more than 500 miles, which would put me into Tampico that night. By the time I reached the rough roads north of Lake Catemaco, it was raining. They must have had a downpour just before I got there because water was rushing across the road in a deluge of mud, rocks and water. I saw a pickup truck that had lost control and hit another pickup. The busses really fly as they dodge the potholes and the breaks in the road, which makes it treacherous to pass because they are more intent on looking for holes than they are in their rearview mirror. A few times I had close calls passing a bus or truck when they dodged a hole while I was halfway by, like my earlier days on the Alaska Highway. Some of the Mexican highway infrastructure is horrendous.
It rained lightly all the way from Lake Catemaco to Tampico. I finally took a chance that morning with the cold pineapple juice at the topes. It was delicious, and thankfully I didn't have any ill effects from it. I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant about halfway between Vera Cruz and Poza Rica, along the gulf. I ordered roast beef with a strange enchilada, which tasted pretty good. I asked the woman to go easy on the spices and she obliged. A few miles before reaching the Tampico Bridge, I went through one of several toll stations. The smallest bill I had was a 50,000-peso note. Toll attendants would usually fold the change a couple of times before sticking the little wad in your hand. This time, with my newfound wisdom, I paused to unfold the bills while I sat there and counted the change. Sure enough, it was 5,000 short. I turned and said loudly, "Hey, cinco mas", meaning five more. He handed over the other five with a nervous smile, which was around $1.50.
I rolled over the Tampico Bridge at 5:30 PM. I was tired and anxious to get into a good bed. I saw a large sign for the Bahia Motel and asked a young guy on the street how to get there. He said it was very far away, and it would take more than an hour to get there. He pointed uptown and said there is a very nice hotel called the Monte Carlo, only five minutes away. When I got there I realized it was the classiest hotel in town. I stopped the bike in front of the place and two uniformed attendants opened the double doors for me. I trudged in with my muddy rain suit and boots and stood dripping at a first-class reception desk in the lobby. They had a room, and the price was 55. I thought he meant pesos, so I put 55,000 on the counter. He said no it was 55 dollars. I said wait a minute, I think I have more on the bike. In pesos it cost 165,000. It's a good thing I argued with the guy in Minatitlan that morning, or I would have run short, even in US dollars. I also tipped the bellhop for carrying my bags, giving him all of my heavy coins. I put the bike in the garage overnight instead of the parking lot. I had a light supper from two different street vendors as I strolled trough town, which was packed and noisy with overcrowded sidewalks and music blaring from loudspeakers. It seemed like the entire population of Tampico was on the sidewalks.
Day 12 - I had a king-sized bed that was about eight feet wide with four pillows. It was the strangest bed I ever saw. It looked shorter than a regular king-sized bed, and a lot wider. I think four people would have fit comfortably in it. It reminded me of the movie, “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” It was cool in the room, so I slept well for about 6 hours. When I couldn't get back to sleep, I got up at 4:45, had breakfast in my room, and left before first light. The only problem was that as soon as I got out of town I was at the mercy of the holes and the unmarked topes in the dark. The roads had no white lines on the edges or in the center.
About five miles out of Tampico I made a wrong turn that led me through a small town. As I felt my way out of the north end of the town I ran out of macadam and onto rough, muddy dirt. I stopped and asked a few people walking if this was the right road for Matamoros. They nodded and motioned for me to keep going. It was raining lightly when I left the hotel, so I didn't put on my rain suit. I thought the main weather front had already passed. Wrong! I got hit in midmorning with a torrential downpour, and got totally soaked. It rained all the way into Matamoros, which made most of the roads very slick. I was a wet, muddy mess when I passed through US customs. I stopped for the day at 1:00, right there in Brownsville, so that I could clean up and dry my clothes. I called home, and also called a friend in Florida who had invited me to stop by on my way into Daytona. Since I was running a day ahead of schedule I decided to take him up on the offer, assuming that I could cover the 1,350 miles in two days. It should be a snap in good weather, but a chore if it rained all the way.
Day 13 - I got up at 4:15 and had tea, oatmeal and raisins before loading the bike. I spotted a Whataburger in Brownsville, so I stopped for a breakfast sandwich and orange juice. It was still dark, drizzling and 62° when I left Brownsville in rain clothes. It drizzled for the first five hours. Just as I entered the outskirts of Houston the skies opened up, and it poured. Cars were sliding all over the place. One girl spun out and hit two other cars only a few hundred feet in front of me on the busy expressway. Sometimes I could see for only about 200 feet. Another accident on the Houston beltway held up a mass of traffic for about 15 minutes. Later a guy in a pickup spun out directly in front of me. First I was following his taillights and suddenly I was looking into his headlights and locking the brakes. Besides the pouring rain, there was also a fierce crosswind. I got into some heavy truck traffic and got thrown around a lot. The wind currents around the trucks traveling at high speeds was so strong that my tires kept breaking loose sideways. The bike was doing a ballet as the tires would break traction one way and then the other. The deep furrows in the road and the slippery rumble knobs between the lanes didn't help.
After I left the beltway and got onto I-10, I tried three times to pass a truck but every time I got even with his front bumper, I was struck by a heavy blast of wind from his front end that would hit the bike so hard, my front wheel would break traction. I was finally able to get by when we went behind some trees, which temporarily blocked the crosswind. It poured steady for four hours before it eased up in the Iberville Parish of Louisiana where the long bridge crosses the Henderson Swamp. I called it a day in West Baton Rouge after 650 miles, which wasn't quite halfway. I didn’t get wet except for my gloves and a little on my seat where a seam in the rain suit must have had a pinhole leak. It was a tough day.
Day 14 - Expecting another long day of rain and slick roads, I got up at 2:55, after 6½ hours sleep. I packed, ate and left at 4:15 in the dark. It rained for about 2 hours and was overcast for another five, but the standing water was a little less. It finally cleared up around Tallahassee and got warmer. I stopped in Ocala to reserve a room for the following night. I had supper on the road before pulling into Ken Arnold’s driveway at 6:00. That evening we went to his weekly "Retreads" meeting where I met some of his biker friends. Ken was a retired New England expert enduro rider.
Day 15 - I was up at 6:15 and had breakfast at Ken’s home. I serviced the bike there and replaced the right-front brake pads while he went to a doctor’s appointment. We left together around 11:00 for Daytona Beach over some of his favorite back roads across Florida. FL Rte 19 was the highlight of the ride. It passes lakes, hills, orange groves and some really nice countryside. We visited most of the afternoon at the enduro sign-up area with old friends who were still riding the Alligator Enduro. It was Wednesday of Bike Week. I spoke with several old enduro friends and made a few new ones. When it clouded over and threatened rain, I headed for a motel I reserved in Ocala. It rained all night, which promised to make the enduro messy the following day.
Day 16 - I went directly to the enduro start area which was along the old US 1 near Bunnell. The entrance road was very muddy. There were a few cars and a pickup truck stuck in the deep ruts. I got around them and made it all the way in, but I don't think many people on two wheels, or even four, for that matter, got in after me. I heard they opened a different access road to get the rest of the competitors in. The enduro start had to be delayed an hour. Very few spectators showed up, most had apparently gotten discouraged by the weather and the condition of the entrance road. I left around noon and went to check out the bike shows and to buy a few T-shirts for my sons before checking into a motel in Jacksonville. I was already on my way home from Bike Week after a total of two days in and around Daytona, visiting friends.
Day 17 - I rode 325 miles to Surfside Beach, S.C. to visit with an IBM-retiree friend and his wife, and I spent the afternoon there and was invited to stay the night.
Day 18 - I left Surfside Beach at 6:30 AM and had a long and uneventful ride home on the interstate highways, covering the final 725 miles in just under 12 hours, which included lunch and a few gas stops. I couldn't praise the bike enough for its agility and reliability.
The Next chapter is: 12 The Three Musketeers