Cigars and chocolate – from Veracruz to Tabasco

16 Jan 2020 – 22 Jan 2020

Hola again. You left us at the last blog post licking our wounds on a campsite just outside Veracruz. Here we are…

We’ve travelled a good few miles in Mexico since then, bumping and shaking our way across the top of hundreds of topes that come upon you with, and mostly without, warning. Those are the Mexican versions of sleeping policemen that dot every road in a bid to slow down speeding drivers. And very effective they are too.

And so normal travel blog service has been resumed and we will try very, very hard not to harp on again about the thievin’ curs who are currently besporting themselves somewhere in the world with all our stuff. Do spare some sympathy though for the unfortunate travellers who cross our paths and who, Ancient Mariner-like, we can’t resist grabbing hold of and fixing with glittering eyes to tell our tale of woe.

Well at least we’ve got a good story out of it while they got our chairs, clothes, tools…….ENOUGH!!

As for our travels so far, we ended up spending nine nights in Veracruz while we were waiting for the van to arrive into port. We used the time to plan our route for the next few months.

Stuart in planning mode

We strolled along the harbour front to watch the local boys dive for pesos and shells …

…and along the beach where vultures were swooping down to pick up dead seagulls…

…and it was bathtime for this lady’s chihuahua.

Some days it was just too windy to walk very far.

Usually at lunchtimes we would head across the road from the hotel to Tacos David for suckling pig tacos in a broth and a glass of cold cold horchata made of rice milk and flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon.

At night time we would go to zocalo, the main square in the city, where there was usually great music and fantastic dance shows.

Zocalo was always a lively, buzzy place. In the time it would take to eat a fish taco and drink two cervezas, we would have been approached by a parade of street vendors asking you to buy something – cakes, nuts, a lantern, cigars, painted bookmarks…you name it. It was on offer. But it was all very chilled out and hassle free. A polite ‘no gracias’ and they moved on. We did buy a lantern though because did I mention that our’s was stolen. (YES YES YES YOU DID BUT ENOUGH!)

Go on if think you’re hard enough

We did do some of the tourist ‘musts’ in the city. We visited the fort of San Juan de Ulúa where Cortes landed in 1519 and there started the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

And we had lecheros in the city’s Grand Cafe de Paroquia where the waiter first pours black coffee into to your glass then clinks it with a spoon to summon another waiter to pour out steaming hot milk from a height like so…

We have heard since that Veracruz has a reputation for being a dangerous city. Certainly the police and army presence was very obvious and our first sighting of an open back truck whizzing by manned by two black masked machine gun bearing officers was a shock. It was a common occurrence though and it’s slightly disconcerting how quickly you became immune to it. We’d scarcely pause in conversation while passing armed soliders in full fatigues on the pavement. Well maybe not completely immune. The burly machine-gun armed security guard emerging from the lingerie section of Walmart in Veracruz did give me a start.

Once we had our van sorted and re-stocked, we headed 100 miles south to Catemaco and to a little campsite called La Jongle.

It is appropriately named because it is set within rainforest overlooking Lake Catemaco and we slept or at least tried to sleep to a soundtrack of macaws and howler monkeys.

If the site looks familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve seen either Medicine Man with Sean Connery or Apocalypto with Mel Gibson. The family who own the campsite rented out their land as sets for both films.

It poured rain the whole time we were there so we stayed only one night. But it was a good base for a visit to the factory where they make Mexico’s most famous Te Amo cigars. The workers scarcely glanced up at us as they focussed on stripping out the stalks from the tobacco leaves in one section…

…and, in the next section, handrolled them into shape.

And next door to La Jongle, the nature reserve at Nanciyaga provided an opportunity for an unexpected beauty treatment.

Me: Smooth away my laughter lines please
Her: Laughter lines? Nothing’s that funny

Planning our route to the cocoa plantations of Tabasco, we asked the campsite owner for advice on a good place to stopover en route. It was unnerving to hear that she considered that the town midway along our route would not be safe for us. She has friends living there and she told us a bit cryptically that things weren’t very good there at the moment and we should steer clear.

So to bypass it, we decided to do the 200 mile drive to the city of Villharamosa, setting off early in the fog…

…and as there were no convenient campsites, arriving early evening to a hotel offering unlimited porn. (See our instagram post on Tabasco for more details!) And when we weren’t watching telly, we used our hotel as the base to go north to the cocoa plantations of Comalcalco. We visited the beautiful Hacienda La Luz…

cocoa beans roasting in the sun

and then stopped off at the Cocina Chantal de Nelly Cordova for some typical Tabascan-cuisine.

…..where we learned the valuable lesson – try a teeny bit of the salsa verde piquante before slathering it all over your meal such that you can’t focus for the fire in your gob.

Before leaving Tabasco to travel further south to the state of Chiapas, we clocked up another Mayan ruins visit at Comalcalco. Them’s Mayan fingerprints in the brickwork apparently….

We met some igunas and a very friendly Mexican woman who was truly baffled at why we had shipped our van from the UK to Mexico and wanted to know more about it. Oh yes, the perfect audience to offload our tale of woe. We’re word perfect by now.

Next post is about our route to Palenque and on to Oaxaca.

A hard week – van ransacked but back on the road

7 Jan 2020 – 16 Jan 2020

Ready for inspection

I regret writing that instagram post bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t allowed go to the Customs inspection at Veracruz port with Stuart.

 I posted it minutes after Stuart disappeared off in the car with our shipping agent Luiz, leaving me sitting in the office somewhere in the Veracruz city outskirts to wait for their return. It hadn’t been mentioned before we arrived that there was only a permit for one to attend at the port so apologies but Señora had to stay behind. If I had known, I would have stayed in the hotel.

Shipping agents Claudia and Luiz

Having a severe attack of FOMO..” .I posted petulantly, annoyed that I was missing out on seeing the inspection firsthand and then – as I imagined – experiencing the relief and excitement of driving out of the port in Molly, free to go on with our travels. 

But it was nothing like that for Stuart.  Instead of excitement, he had the sickening experience of seeing firsthand how thieves had thoroughly ransacked our campervan and stolen so much of our stuff. Except my shoes….they left behind a pair of orange sandals from Zara. And some books, DVDs and cooking stuff. 

The pilfering wasn’t obvious to Stuart at first. When he arrived at the docks and opened the van, everything looked in order at first glance. Then he spotted that the fake wooden panel he had built to hide all our stuff had been smashed and the padlock cut open. And then he saw that the padlock securing the cupboard under the seat was missing. 

Before shipping the van, we were advised that we could store personal stuff on the van while it was in transit from Southampton to Veracruz but it was at our own risk, not insurable, and for safety, everything needed to be locked away and completely out of sight. So that’s what we did. Everything we needed or wanted for the trip, and were not going to use for our week’s holiday in Mexico City, was packed in boxes behind a padlocked door or padlocked under the seat. Nothing was in view so we thought we were pretty safe. More fool us. 

Waiting for release

The pilferers were a determined bunch and clearly had plenty of time to cut through the padlocks and wrench off cupboard doors to sift their way through every box and crevice in the van, open up every Eagle Creek bag of clothes and take what they wanted. Then they shoved what they didn’t want back into the cupboards so anyone looking in the van window would think there was nothing amiss.

When the two Customs officers finally arrived for the inspection, Stuart had already had two hours of sorting through our things and bit by bit was realising what had been taken. Sitting in the agent’s office, his ‘whatsapp’ messages kept pinging through to me, listing everything. 

I’m not going to list them all but here’s a sample. Our camping chairs had gone. Then there was the quilt and sleeping bag we bought for our first big van trip. They were sold to us with the promise that they roll up small, are really light but they could keep you toasty warm in the Himalayas. We’ve never been that far but they certainly proved their worth to us when we were in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The list went on… Stuart’s fishing rods, all his tools for the van (a collection amassed since he was a young lad with a Honda motorbike), our hiking clothes and boots (the good stuff we bought for walking in the Peak District) …..the ‘whatsapps’ kept coming. The front of the radio, even the clip to hold your sunglasses on the sunvisor for goodness sake!

And just when you start to feel immune, one hits you in the craw. It looked like they had taken the beautiful wooden Sami cups sent to us as present by Rita and Anders, friends we had met in Sweden on our last travels. When we had revamped the van for this trip, the wooden cups added a finishing touch. 

When the Customs officers finally arrived to carry out their inspection, Stuart was ordered to empty everything from the van onto the dockside so each item could be photographed and sniffed by the dog. By the time he got back to the agent’s office, he was looking really strung out and fed up. And we still had no van as it was going to take another two or three days for the paperwork to be processed. 

So what’s wrong with my sandals then?

We used the waiting time to restock on the essentials. Walmart had most things including an £8 duvet which will do just as well as our fancy Himalayas one. Then it was back into the centre of Veracruz to the Talisman DIY store to get replacement tools. The assistants proved very patient and understanding at our halting attempts to explain what we needed.  They were also far too polite to laugh out loud at Stuart’s request for a ‘spanner piquante’ instead of ‘pequeno’ .

Spicy spanner anyone?

And finally, finally we got our van back this morning. Before making our way to a campsite south of Veracruz where we are now, we made another visit to Walmart to stock up on food. 

And that’s where we met fellow Vdub owners Omar and his lovely Mum Rosa when he parked his van beside us. 

So now we have our van back and bit by bit discovering the full extent of what was taken. These guys clearly spent a lot of time in Molly figuring out exactly what they wanted and discarding what they didn’t want. So what’s wrong with my orange shoes anyway?  

It’s a strange thing but when we come across something in the van they didn’t steal (like the Sami cups from Rita and Anders – we found them thrown in the back of a cupboard!) we are thrilled and strangely grateful to the thieves that they kindly left it behind for us. What’s that feeling I wonder – some off shoot of Stockholm syndrome? 

Yep, it’s been a challenging start to our road trip but at least, we now have Molly back and, subject to a few bashed internal doors, she’s in pretty good shape thankfully.

Mexico City – the holiday bit before our road trip

30 December 2019 – 7 January 2020

Mariachi at Xochimilco floating garden

So the clock has started ticking on our 9 months away in Molly our campervan – well almost. As I write, Molly is tucked in among enormous trucks and tractors on a ro ro ship sitting just outside the port of Veracruz. If it’s not too windy again, the ship may dock tonight. Once off loaded, she will be in the hands of Customs and, depending on how suspicious they are about the marmite and cod liver oil tablets on board, we may have her back and be on the road within a couple of days. Here’s hoping.

So in this limbo period when we are still hanging around in a hotel in Veracruz, here’s a look back at how Stuart and I started off our travels. It was with a week’s holiday in Mexico City, shared with my two daughters Ciara and Regan.

Still life with Ciara, Regan and cervezas

We left London on 30 December 2019….

Leaving London

…arriving just in time to ring in 2020. We hadn’t booked anywhere so were lucky to find a Thai restaurant with a free table to ring in the New Year…

…complete with props for happy snaps.

Our first impressions of Ciudad de Mexico or CDMX (as it’s officially called) is that this city of 21 million people is much more chilled out and manageable than we expected. But maybe that was because it was still the Christmas holidays and the city wasn’t as busy as usual. Or maybe it was the heavy police presence – which is quite startling to see. Whatever, we felt safe walking everywhere and also taking the Metro (which we took a few times and found easy to navigate). That was once we figured out that plastic doesn’t work on the Metro so we always needed small change to pay the standard fare of 5 pesos (about 20 pence) for fares.

Mostly though we relied on Uber to get around because it was so cheap. One local trip we took cost the equivalent of 68 pence. And longer trips like our pick up on arrival from the airport to our airbnb or our 20 minute journey out of the city to the Frida Kahlo museum cost less than a fiver.

Palacio de Bellas Artas

Where we stayed ..

We stayed in an Airbnb in the Roma district which, on balance, was fine though not exactly as the wording promised. Or maybe it was exactly as the wording promised. The blurb talked about the third ‘bonus’ bedroom on the roof giving ‘unprecedented access to nature’. Translated that meant there were a stream of bugs crawling under the bedroom door. At about 4.30 am, Ciara bailed and picked her way down the scary spiral staircase in the dark to sleep on the sofa in the living room. And there she bedded down for the rest of the week.

Seeing the sights in CDMX

We started off our touristy blitz in the Centro Historico where it was still Christmas time, complete with ecologically-sound fake ice…

Ice skating in CDMX
Ice skating in Zocala – the main square in CDMX’s Centro Historico

….had a wander around the lavishly decorated Cathedral Metropolitana…

….watched the Aztec dancers conduct what looked like a cleansing ceremony…

…and then strolled downtown stopping off along the way to visit one of the city’s institutions La Ideal Bakery.

There was a huge selection of cakes, bread and biscuits on show. We copied the locals, picked up a tray and tongs…

…and picked out a modest selection from the vast array on display.

The floating flower gardens of Xochimilco

We took the metro, bus and train to the floating flower gardens of Xochimilco. These waterways were used as flower and vegetable gardens by the Aztecs. Now gondala rides along the canals are a big tourist attraction and the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We haggled for a two hour ride, thought we had a deal, then found ourselves being punted back to shore just over one hour later. Hey ho. It all goes with the tourist territory. We persuaded our boatman to give us a bit more time but actually, an hour probably is enough time enough to enjoy the experience of bumping along in a boat traffic jam boat…

floating market

….listening to the passing mariachi bands…

….buying snacks from passing traders (here’s Regan with elote, that’s corn on the cob, drenched with lime juice and chilli powder) …

…and enjoying the wildlife and weirder sights along the canal banks.

Doll trees along the canal bank

A trip to Teohiuatcan

From the Airbnb website, we went on Alejandro’s excursion to the temples of the sun, moon and snake of Teotihuacan, about an hour away from Mexico City. Here he is…

His family home is nearby and as a young boy he played inside the temples before they were protected as historic sites and laws were enacted to stop the kids trading their pre-Hispanic jewellery and carvings for sweets and pesos. It was well worth doing the trip with him. He knew to get us up the temple steps early in the morning……

The view from the temple of the Moon

….before the rush hour started when, by Alejandro’s account, it can take two hours shuffling in a queue to get to the top.

Ciara, me and Regan

Then it was back to Alejandro’s home to taste the delicious hot chocolate made by his wife and meet the local wise woman who offered us a cleansing just as we had seen in Mexico City. Couldn’t pass that chance up.

Ciara gets a cleanse

We saw art …

….at the Frida Kahlo Museum at Coyacan…

….except Stuart who had a haircut instead while we went inside Casa Azul…

…(to be fair he had been to the Frida Kahlo exhibition in London).

Ciara co-ordinates with Caza Azul

We saw the murals of Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional …

….and more at the modern art museum …

We only skimmed the surface of Mexico’s ancient civilizations at the vast anthropology museum.

We stayed a while outside the museum as well, enjoying the fire dancers…

…and the dance of the flyers.

Stuart sampled the deep fried crickets from a stall there – delicious with with lime and chilli sauce apparently. (Will take his word for it).

Viva Lucha Libra

We had a great night out watching wrestling Mexican-style….

….and dressed for the occasion..

Food glorious food

We’d heard that Mexican street food was good.

We didn’t expect it to be soooo good. Especially the tacos from this stand.

…..and we queued with the crowds to try another CDMX favourite, freshly made churros and chocolate sauce from El Moro.

A cooking lesson

We went shopping in Mercado San Juan with Mexican chef Diana.

I think we will all remember one tip she passed on from her grandmother. When going to the market for rabbit, check it has furry legs to be sure you are not buying cat.

Not cats
Regan makes salsa

Adios CDMX

And that’s a quick tour through our week in Mexico City….it was fantastic for me to be able to share the start of our big trip with Ciara and Regan. My son Conor will hopefully join us somewhere on our USA leg, as will Stuart’s son and daughter Callum and Mary.

Maybe they too can be persuaded (eh embarrassed into) co-ordinating outfits with their Dad!

Ladies in leopard print

So farewell then CDMX

Regan locks up the airbnb

After leaving the girls at the airport for their flight back to London, work and normal life, we took the coach to Veracruz to start our Mexico/USA road trip….

…when we finally get our hands on our van.