With some sadness I finally left San Cristóbal de Las Casas and set my course for Tehuacán, Puebla where I was to meet up with Edgar. I was somewhat late in leaving as I had wanted to get my post written and uploaded, so I didn’t get out of town until about 1:30 PM, not exactly at the crack of dawn. But as I told the first hotelier in San Cristóbal, I’m not a “madrugador” or early bird. After a bit of random driving around on the outskirts of San Cristóbal, I finally found the autopista and headed toward Tuxtla. As we climbed the mountains that ring San Cristóbal, I also entered the seemingly perpetual fog that covers those mountains. Around me sprouted pine trees, with horses and cows grazing in meadows between them. Soon I was back on a steep downhill stretch with dire warnings about yielding to trucks with failed brakes. Fortunately I was not among them, and soon came to Tuxtla Gutierriez, and was pulled over for yet another “revision.”
But unlike a number of the others, this one was so clearly just for the amusement of the policeman that it was kind of comical. As I rolled down the window, he greeted me with a beaming smile. “How the heck are you?” he said chummily. (Or a pretty close Spanish variant.) “Good,” I replied as I started explaining my presence in the south of Mexico. “How the heck are you?” he repeated. “Where are you from?” he said, beaming, reaching into the truck to shake my hand like he had somehow just managed to pull over Madonna. “Do you want to see my passport?” I asked as I continued to explain my journey. “Nah,” he said, smiling. We chatted a bit more as I continued to explain what I was doing. He lapped up the details with the eagerness of a puppy at dinnertime and then he gave me the wave forward, curiosity apparently satisfied.
Fortunately I had taken advantage of his cheeriness to ask for directions around Tuxtla, as it appeared to be another case of the highway going straight through the middle of town, something I wanted to avoid. As it turns out, there is a “libramiento,” or ring road that goes around the city, and he directed me toward it. Unfortunately, said libramiento was under construction, with one direction closed, and thus extremely congested. As I sat in traffic feeling impatient, I tried to remind myself that I had been in many such construction-caused traffic jams throughout Mexico and that they normally didn’t last that long. I’d soon get through the one-lane stretch and then be on my way. Fortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and I don’t think it took me more than about 40 minutes to get through Tuxtla.
Once released from the city’s grip, it was fairly smooth sailing. I headed north on Highway 187 to Coatzacoalcos, though some amazing territory. Though the map seems to show otherwise, according to the signs the highway passes through the edge of the Parque Nacional el Ocote, which among other things includes an deeply lush rainforest ringed with some regal peaks, shrouded in clouds and fog. As I drove through this jungle I felt like I was driving through a National Geographic special program. Every bend revealed a new vista. Impromptu waterfalls cascaded along the side of the highway, and tropical birds flew across my path.
As I exited the park, I crossed Presa Nezhualcoyotl, the giant lake created by the damming of the River Grijalva in the 1960’s. The lake is enormous, the second or third-largest in Mexico, and its creation by dam and location in this mountain region guarantees that there are lots of islands creating a beautiful vista. The highway crosses only a small portion of it, but the glimpses I saw made me want to stop and ride through on a lancha.
The remainder of the drive was fairly unremarkable. After I passed Coatzacoalcos and Minatitlán, I headed north on Highway 145D, a road I had previously considered rutted and awful. But after my drive on Highway 199 from Palenque to San Cristóbal, with all the potholes, topes, and deslaves, the previously-awful 145D seemed like a smooth superhighway, and I made good time. Also, for whatever reason, it seems like the northbound stretch is in better condition than the southbound stretch. Moreover, the bits from Minatitlán south are the worst, and I missed those due to coming from San Cristóbal instead of Campeche.
After I hit the turnoff to Highway 150 west towards Mexico DF, it was about 7:00 or so. I wondered if I’d be able to make Tehuacán by nightfall. I was making pretty good time, but it was going to be uphill from here. I kept driving, pretty fast, but soon the potholes and ruts became harder to see, and I was running low on gas. So I pulled over to a Pemex in Córdoba. As in many Mexican cities, the outskirts of Córdoba are pretty sketchy or unattractive, and especially at night look sketchier than they really are. Here there was a Pemex, various vulcanizadoras (tire repair shops), some other nondescript places, and about 50 big rig trucks pulled over along the sides of the road. I bought a tank of gas from what must be the only queeny, gay Pemex guy in the country, and consulted my trusty Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook.
I basically had the choice to stay in Córdoba or drive another 20 KM or so in the dark to reach Orizaba. But I wasn’t going to go any further. And even Orizaba would be iffy. Between Córdoba and Orizaba the road starts to climb the mountains that surround Mexico’s central altiplano. Beyond Orizaba, the road becomes seriously steep, twisty, and ridiculously dangerous to drive at night. I literally wasn’t going to go there, but I did want to see whether the guide had any suggestions as to which city would be more interesting. When asked about hotels, Mr. Queeny Pemex said there were only motels, and it didn’t sound promising. Hmmmmm…
Fortunately, Lady Luck smiled on me yet again. According to the guide, there wasn’t a lot to see in Córdoba, but it did have a very charming plaza and a few nice colonial buildings surrounding it. In contrast, Orizaba was declared industrial with nothing worth stopping for. So I headed toward Córdoba’s centro, and wow! Was I a lucky guy. Lady Luck had blown me a kiss by putting Córdoba into my path.
Córdoba’s plaza is one of the more beautiful I’ve seen. It’s planted with an array of mature trees, including the now-blooming Flor de Mayo, with its lovely orange blossoms. It has palm trees, and then a number of other trees, all of which are lush and well-cared for. When I arrived, the plaza was full of people strolling about, clowns, and music. The plaza itself has beautiful lighting throughout, with street lights, uplights, and some lights in the trees. Sculptures punctuate the greenery and paving. Surrounding the plaza are beautifully lighted, colonial-style buildings with arcades. On one side of the plaza were several crowded restaurants under the arcades and some music venues.
I wandered over to the arcade, and there was a restaurant I could just tell would be great. It was full of Mexican families, and it had that air of a place that has become a local institution. Waiters seemed to know their customers, and everyone was having a good time. And my instinct was correct. I ordered what turned out to be an amazing sopa de mariscos, and a side of guacamole with a margarita. As I ate, dancers performed, and musicians came by and performed, including a boy of about 11 years, who sang in a beautiful voice, and also played an improvised kazoo. If I were some kind of musical talent scout, I would have signed him up right there, he was so good. Needless to say, he got a decent tip from me, though I was surprised that pretty much everyone else ignored him.
After dinner, I found a hotel with parking right next to the restaurant, the Hotel Mansur. It’s one of those places probably built in the 40’s and no doubt very luxurious in its day. Even now it was nice, and well-kept, and had a splendid view of the plaza. At 350 pesos with parking, it was a deal. The next day I got up and had another stroll around the plaza. Sadly, I was too tired to take photos the prior night, but I got some decent shots that day. The plaza was just as full of life as it was the night before, and as I strolled around, a couple of girls and a guy asked me if they could interview me. “Wow, another interview-a-gringo-for-your-English-class assignment,” I thought. “What sadistic teacher thought up this assignment in this tourist-light town?” But it turned out that they were doing some kind of high school project related to tourism and they wanted to interview me about my experience as a tourist, on video, in Spanish. So we did the interview, and then chatted a bit about the town. I asked them where I could get some high-quality coffee beans, and they pointed me toward Calufe, which has about five branches. And as I now know, the coffee is of excellent quality; I’d highly recommend it if you get the chance.
And thus Lady Luck had blown me another kiss on this very-blessed journey. Had it not been for the fact that I had to stop, I probably never would have gone to Córdoba, never would have had the great meal, music, nor had bought such nice coffee. In truth, there really isn’t much to see beyond the plaza and the restaurants and venues surrounding it. Yet in the roughly 18 hours I spent there, I had a really lovely time. The meal was great, and I enjoyed seeing the plaza, the church, and taking some photos. Will I ever go back? Probably not. Go a block beyond the plaza, and the city is pretty plain. There was a big earthquake in 1973 which destroyed a lot, and my unresearched guess is that whatever charming buildings there were got quickly replaced with something pragmatic, and unattractive. Nonetheless, I will hold fond memories of Córdoba, and suggest that if you find yourself there at dusk, it’s a great place to spend the night. Saludos!
P.S. As of this writing I have arrived in Tehuacán, where I am contemplating my next moves. Unfortunately, the end of this trip is beckoning.