Yesterday, departing San Joaquin under crystal skies, I backtracked for 15 miles along the same fabulous route I’d ridden the previous day. Near the junction with Mexico 120, I pass a large quarry operation, harvesting white rock from the earth. Massive machines grind the stone to a fine powder that I assume is gypsum. Carried on a stiff desert breeze, the fine dust swirls to and fro like ghostly clouds from a Sergio Leone film.
I eventually arrive in Actopan, Hidalgo with the intent of grabbing a room. The recurring strategy has been to maneuver to the city plaza / center and begin the search for a hotel from there. Here I fail. A dreary numb town, Actopan only offered two establishments each with zero star accommodations. Bye.
Pulling my map, I see the capital (and largest city) of Hidalgo state is only 15 miles to the southeast. Setting new coordinates into the GPS, I set my course for Pachuca. Along the way, I notice several Auto Hotels scattered on the outskirts of the city. These are hotels like any other but instead of a parking lot, each room comes with its own garage door. Usually frequented by men with their mistresses they park under the radar during their occasional trists. Pulling into Pachuca center, I scored a room at the Hotel de los Baños for $26.51 with secure parking around the corner.
Today, I decided to spend an extra day here. Clean, vibrant, and graffiti free the city is beautiful with European impressions complete with artisan shops, boutiques, and cafés. My choice for breakfast this morning is a fine example of the refined atmosphere of this city. Just a few doors down from my hotel, Mi Antiguo Café has a small interior with only seven small round tables set upon shiny green and tan ceramic tiles. To the rear, a large copper machine produces coffee to order. A glass facade with an arched door provides an unimpeded view to the central plaza and a Neo-Gothic city landmark: The Monumental Clock. An efficient waiter dressed in a pressed white shirt with black tie and trousers provided attentive service. My meal was superb: scrambled eggs with diced bacon, fresh melon drizzled with honey and granola, one petite pancake, two fluffy rolls, and fresh brewed black coffee. All for less than $5.
In the afternoon, I began a 2 1/2 hour walking tour of the surrounding area. Navigation is a breeze. Lofty summits with unique visual aids (a cell tower, a statue of Christ, the Mexican flag) provide a convenient beacon home. It’s during this walkabout I decide this is the finest city I’ve yet seen on this trip. In all other towns, the infrastructure rapidly decays as the distance from the center increases. Not here. Buildings and shops remain vibrant and welcoming. This is a proud city. After some time, I’m getting winded. Ah, at 7,800 feet, the thin air’s sapping my energy. Time for an ice cream. Blueberry frozen yogurt in a sugar cone. Yum!
Ready for some culture, I walked to a foreboding stone complex that must have been a fort in a previous life. Within are three museums: Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo de la Photo, and a museum featuring lithographs from the mid-1950s. Each museum is rather small but I found the museum of modern art, all from the 20th century, especially nice. Admission to all is free.
Lastly, following are some observations and musings I’d like to share after my first ten days in Mexico. When I say no one, I mean less than 3%. Few is less than 10%:
- I seem to get taller the further south and east I go. I’m now averaging a solid seven inches over most men.
- No one wears sunglasses.
- No one wears glasses.
- The food is universally great. What happened to the United States? We have the richest economy with the cheapest food and still, we eat cartloads of shit. I’m only spending $10.50 / day and I’ve yet to have a bad meal. Here, the food is fresh, full of flavor, vibrant color, enticing aromas – delicious! Back home it’s bland and boring, loaded with fat, salt and sugar. Nothing distinctive or memorable. No wonder Americans are dropping like flies from heart disease.
- No one smokes.
- No one wears tee shirts. Especially those that are silkscreened.
- HSBC bank has a $2.50 ATM fee. All others are about double.
- No one speaks English. I’ve only met a handful so far and they all learned English while living in the U.S., not in schools. One gentleman worked crab boats in Alaska for ten years during the 1980s, another worked farms in Kentucky. The nicest was a young lady at the Hotel Rio in Rioverde who stepped out to say “goodbye” when she saw me loading my bike for departure.
- Men do not wear shorts.
- Few people wear sneakers.
- Milk is sold in cartons on grocery shelves and is not refrigerated.
- Unlike the USA where the flag is everywhere, here you can travel an entire day and not see one.
- Pemex sells only fuel. There are no convenience stores attached. Fuel is $3.71 / gallon for 92 octane Premium. The price is the same at all stations.
- You cannot find a pair of leather motorcycle gloves. Or gloves of any kind for that matter. Even in the humongous markets where you can find anything.
- There are frequent, absolutely useless pedestrian bridges here. Some are set on stick-straight rural roads in the middle of nowhere. There may be one ramshackle residence on one side and a dirt road on the other. But why can’t they just cross the road? There’s practically no traffic and one can see approaching vehicles for miles. Others span busy streets and highways in chaotic cities. Hey, these make sense! But in these cases, massive speed bumps on both sides of the pedestrian bridge slow traffic to a crawl. So everyone (even school kids), simply cross in front of the slowed / stopped traffic.
- There are absurd automotive sound systems with enough bass wattage to power the Large Hadron Collider for a year. These guys cruise by and the stuff on your nightstand vibrates to the tunes. The occupant’s ears must bleed! At least they’re not on their cellphones while driving.
- I’ve seen four levels of law enforcement – from low to high; Municipal, State, Federal, and Military. All cops drive nearly identical navy blue and white patrol cars and don navy blue uniforms. Soldiers are wrapped in camo green. So far, only the low peg on the pole (Municipal) has disgraced their brethren.
- Highway speed limits are almost impossible to obey. And if you do comply, you’ll most likely get blown off the road by other motorists. I’m not sure which committee of knuckleheads decided on what’s “safe” but they must have set the standards in a Model-A Ford. Two-lane state highway limits are usually either 37 MPH or 50 MPH. This on lightly used roads across the desert. And if there’s a bus stop, lone business establishment, or even a chicken coop with a hen that could escape and might cross the road, the limit drops to 25 MPH. Four-lane divided highways carry the same general restrictions with the upper limit occasionally posted at 68 MPH. I understand that large roadside grazers can be a hazard and caution is prudent. But the grazers are a problem at night, not during the day. Why not set dual limits?
- I’ve saved the best for last: the omnipresent speed bump. I hate these things with every fiber of my being. As if the whacked out speed restrictions aren’t bad enough, there are thousands and thousands of speed bumps everywhere. They’re even across the 4-lane divided highways!!! Generally, the smaller the town, the bigger and more frequent the bumps. Admiring the view? Don’t. Looking for a store and glancing from side to side? Better not. If these devil’s spawn catch you unaware, you’re seriously screwed. Designed to promote safety by dropping motorists to a snail’s pace, there is unquestionably no doubt they have the opposite effect. Being on a motorcycle, I’m extremely diligent and on a constant look out. And yet I’ve been surprised three times whereby a last second lock-up was the only thing that saved me. How effective are these at reducing accidents? None. On one day alone, I saw seven mangled dogs on the roadway. Despite the glacier speed limits and irrational frequency of bumps, these poor pooches were pressed under speeding wheels. Try pulling licenses from reckless drivers instead.