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Old 01-30-2011   #1 (permalink)
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Driving Ms Gracie - Dallas to Playa del Carmen - Spring 2010

^Ms Gracie in the city of Veracruz

^Ms Gracie near Cascada Misol-Ha in Chiapas

^Ms Gracie at Agua Azul in Chiapas

^Ms Gracie catching a few winks near Felipe Carrillo Puerto

^Ms Gracie slurping water at Pollo Bronco in Tulum

My goal is to provide some insight of what it’s like to travel from the Texas border to Playa del Carmen. If you’re looking to someday make the drive, I’m hoping the information provided will be useful in making your drive safe and interesting, If you’re just looking for the speedy route to Playa, you won’t find it in this report.

So, for those of you who’ve never met Ms Gracie, she’s one very sweet adorable Sheltie who’s spent most of her life cooped up in Dallas, Texas. This was Gracie’s very first trip to Mexico and for a first timer, she more than exceeded my expectations. Her traveling quarters was a tiny ledge directly behind the Ford Expedition’s center console. Most of the time, her head rested on the rear of the console, but every now and then, she’d inch her way up front and onto someone’s lap. Her biggest hangup... she’d go ballistic whenever the windshield wipers were set in motion. Luckily, we only had rain on our second day of travel, but it lasted most of the day. By the way, Gracie is the beloved pet of Vikki (myhappyplace2) on the PlayaInfo forum, and this was her first experience driving to Playa del Carmen. My deadline for this trip... getting Vikki to Playa for her birthday.

For me, the adventure started the evening of February 14th, when I flew into Dallas on Sun Country Airlines. It commenced with a mini tequila fest at Vicki & Jeff’s house. The next morning, we enjoyed a late breakfast at a diner just off 75 in north Dallas. After that, it was all business as we mounted the hard-sided rooftop carrier and made a last minute stop at Target for things we didn’t yet know we needed. Amazingly, we managed to fit all of our belongings plus a warehouse full of pet-shelter goodies into the vehicle. There was absolutely no way to see out the back window from the driver’s compartment!!

By mid afternoon, the three of us (Vicki, Gracie & myself) were on the highway headed towards Mexico. Looking at a map, it would probably seem logical to take I-35 through Austin but the interstate is sort of rough going that way and traffic through the Austin/San Antonio area is always brutal with delays. Instead, from Dallas we selected I-45 to Houston which is probably one of the most perfect roads in Texas, plus it’s a peaceful four hour ride. Along the way, we made a pit stop at Woody’s in Centerville for their fabulous but somewhat expensive beef jerky. We got more than enough to get us all the way through Mexico.

While enroute, I phoned my friends in Conroe to let them know we’d be stopping by for supper. Unfortunately, we missed brisket by a day but they had enough leftovers to whip together a shepherd’s pie. The timing was perfect... we had an enjoyable time hanging out for a few hours and also dodged Houston’s rush hour gridlock. We departed Conroe (just north of IAH) about 8:30 taking I-45 to downtown Houston where we connected with Hwy-59 to Victoria. At Victoria, we merged onto Hwy-77 which is a direct shot south to the border-crossing at Brownsville-Matamoros. We arrived around 4am and spent the night at the luxurious Motel-6 along the freeway, only a few miles from downtown Brownsville.

Motel 6 - #0348
2255 North Expressway
Brownsville, TX 78520
Cost: $45

A few weeks before the trip, I happened to be cruising the GPS selection at BestBuy and bumped into a hot sales rep from TomTom. Being a Garmin fan, she’d have to do a ton of convincing to sway me to the darkside. The appeal of a built-in Mexico map was a surefire way to get my attention and the fact that she knew how to navigate the device gave me the opportunity I needed to run it through it’s paces. In the store, she was able to fluidly get me across the bridge at Tampico and into the neighboring state of Veracruz... no easy feat!! The following day, I ordered a TomTom GPS, Model XXL-540S from Amazon.

The morning of February 16th was set aside to obtain our paperwork (tourist visa, import sticker, etc.) and eventually cross the border. Before we could do that, we needed to find a distributor in the warehouse district of Brownsville to pick up a couple cases of sesame oil that someone had ordered and donated to the pet shelter. We fired up the TomTom, plugged in the address and assumed this would be a simple navigation task. The device kept taking us in circles due to a lack of mapping information or possibly an internal meltdown. This occurred several times during the trip whenever the unit was in use for more than a half hour. Although I really don’t need a GPS to make the drive, it always came in handy to find our way out of larger cities that lack sufficient signage. Eventually, we completed all of our tasks and crossed the border at Nuevo Progresso in early afternoon.

^Motel 6 in Brownsville, TX - Convenient to the 24 hour downtown border crossing.

^Vikki and her Vehicle Import Sticker at the downtown border crossing in Matamoros, Mexico.
This is the only crossing that’s full service 24 hours a day

^Our first stop in Mexico... about 70 miles from the border in the state of Tamaulipas

Our first food stop was at Carne Asada San Martin, a place frequented by truckers. It’s a cute place on Hwy 101/180 a bit south of the city of San Fernando. I’ve made pit stops here on previous occasions but this time around there wasn’t any beer (that 1st beer is an important ritual) and the food was probably the most dismal of our drive.

^Hard to miss the turn for Soto La Marina and Tampico

We eventually split from Highway 101 and followed Highway 180 through the town of Soto la Marina. This route takes us on a relatively new two-lane road with very little traffic. It’s a quiet ride through cattle country complete with rolling hills of sage, stumpy palm trees, mountains in the distance, and more importantly, very few topes. On this stretch, we cross the Tropic of Cancer and watch the sun disappear over distant mountains.

^I believe these little piggies went to market

As we descended in darkness upon the town of Manuel, Hwy-180 transforms into a four-lane road heading east toward the city of Tampico. Tampico is a rather large industrial shipping port, situated along the Gulf of Mexico. It has a impressive daily market in the city’s centro district and at least two distinct hotel zones with most US hotel chains well represented.

Through the years, I’ve read various reports of local police taking advantage of gringos passing through Tampico. So I’m guessing it’s pure luck that I’ve been able to avoid a shakedown, at least until now. After pulling us over, two aggressive cops began their inquest to find something wrong to relieve us of some dollars. When they finally reached their quota of dead ends, they turned their attention towards Ms Gracie and demanded $600 US because the paperwork for her was insufficient. After pressuring us for about 15 minutes, they suggested we give them just $100 US, so pretending not to understand, I handed over a fresh 100 pesos note. His instant response to that was, “No, no, no, mil pesos”!! Eventually, after a 20 minute stand off, I handed over another 100 peso note and said, “No mas”. It took at least another 10 minutes before they came to the realization I wasn’t coughing up any more money. At that point, they reluctantly waved us on our way. That’s probably the most I’ve ever paid for a traffic stop anywhere in Mexico.

By the time we finished up with the police, it was well beyond 11pm. We were fairly close to a Comfort Inn where I’d stayed on a previous trip, so we decided to make it our home for the night. It’s a nice clean modern hotel with a cozy tropical courtyard surrounding their outdoor pool. Parking is semi-secure and this hotel is not pet friendly. So this night, we sneak Ms Gracie into our room, a fairly standard one with two queen size beds, large shower, and a strong wireless connection.

Comfort Inn
.Avenue Hidalgo 3408 A Col. Flores
Tampico, Tamaulipas (MX) 89220
Phone: 52-833-217-2917
Cost: $55 (US)

Last edited by JimmyMN; 07-17-2011 at 06:40 AM..
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Old 01-30-2011   #2 (permalink)
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The next morning, we start our day to the sound of heavy rain. While Vikki showers, I cross the street to 7-11, gather beverages and a couple breakfast sandwiches. We fire up the TomTom and plug in our next destination... the city of Veracruz. Like GPSís before it, it takes us to a location where the old bridge was once stood Youíd assume a new GPS would come with the latest maps... thanks TomTom! Unfortunately, the entrance to the new bridge is always a challenge to find. Luckily, I have my handheld Garmin GPSMAP 60CS with the location (waypoint) bookmarked for Puente Tampico. We follow it across the Panuco River leaving the state of Tamaulipas behind us. We pay our 20 peso bridge toll, the first in a series. I must say, crossing into the state of Veracruz is a fantastic way to start our day, even if it is pouring rain.

^Couple of friendly attendants at our first Pemex stop, just a few miles from the Tampico Bridge

^Vendor selling jicama at a tope in Ozuluama...sorry sweetie, too early for jicama today

^Weíre in Mexico, so this rain isnít about to dampen our spirits

^Following Regio on a rain soaked road

^These treats were so neatly arranged, I had to shoot them all

^Always good to have some quality road food

^Which one are you craving?

^Decisions, decisions, decisions....

We make our way through Ozuluama, an hour from the Tampico bridge and the first good place to stop if youíre seeking a decent restaurant, as there are a handful of choices.. From there we pass through Narranjo, then Cerro Azul but instead of going through Tuxpam, we depart Hwy-180 and follow Hwy-127 through Alamo. This route takes us into a prime citrus producing region with winding roads, rolling hills, and magnificent orchards surrounding us everywhere we look. A huge processing plant for oranges and limes is located on the southern outskirts of Alamo. Thereís also a brand new modern hospital and a rather large attractive autohotel located nearby. A reward for traveling this way is the 10 pesos, 32oz fresh squeezed orange juice weíre able to buy from multiple vendors waiting at the topes.

^A major landmark in the town of Alamo

^This massive sculpture summarizes how important citrus is to their livlihood

^On a rural stretch south of Alamo, produce vendors line both sides of the roadway

^An older gentleman called this variety Monica... a bit ugly but they tasted fantastic.

^They even sold jicama...

^...honey, bananas and other goodies grown in the area.

^Quick glimpse of some orange groves with a backdrop of palms

Just south of Tihuatlan, weíre able to pick up a cuota (toll road) thatíll take us the quickest route to Papantla. We decide to take it only a third of the way and find some diversions in the sizeable city of Poza Rica. Thereís a brand new Walmart on the far west end of town and it was clear to us that we needed Don Julio reposado and some quality shot glasses to give it respect. Did you know that itís virtually impossible to find anejo tequilas when youíre far removed from tourist areas?

^Taken on the toll road heading to Poza Rica

^This is a brand new medical facility for the handicapped in the outskirts of Poza Rica
Taking photos got me noticed here... I was intercepted rather quickly by security

^A monument on a parkway leading to downtown Poza Rica

^Bored and in traffic... a snapshot of this centro Poza Rica shoe store

^Workers keeping dry while heading home along Hwy-180

^Rather attractive autohotel on Hwy-180 in the southern outskirts of Poza Rica

On a wide, tree lined parkway through the city, weíre motioned to pull over by local police in a patrol car. They were mostly curious but totally professional, checked our paperwork, and in minutes we were back on the road. In Poza Rica, we reconnected with Hwy-180 but if we had continued on the tollroad, we would have connected with it near Papantla and saved an hour or more of time. Our route eventually got us to the outskirts of Papantla and we were quickly closing in on Costa Esmeralda. While making a potty stop at a Pemex station near the coast, we couldnít help but notice gals with a table selling empanadas and decided to give these attractive masterpieces a whirl. They were filled with a sort of sweet cheese and the outside was covered with a glazed sugar coating... it was an unexpected tasty treat.

Costa Esmeralda is maybe a thirty mile stretch along the gulf where the best one can get is a broken view of the ocean through towering palms painted white along the base. Thereís also an endless array of small hotels, seafood restaurants, and merchants carrying the usual tourist junk blocking the view of the sea. Itís a bit cluttered to be appealing, and the fact that itís still raining makes it even less appealing. By now, weíre hungry and decide on a sit down seafood joint with a handful of patrons inside. The food ends up being good but not great and by the time we finished our dinner, it was dark outside. We still had hours to go before reaching Veracruz. Ahhh... nothing like night driving in Mexico.

Just to the north of Cardel, we encounter some of the most abominable pavement in Mexico, easily stretching for more than 30 miles. Itís not so much a road filled with potholes as one where pieces of the newer road surface have separated themselves from the older underlying surface. Itís like riding on something ten times worse than the rumble strips that waken drivers who fall asleep on US interstates. Luckily, it doesnít last forever and shortly after passing through Cardel, Hwy-180 transforms into a modern state-of-the-art toll road about twenty some miles out from Veracruz. Itís Ash Wednesday and our plan is to stay at the not-so-pet-friendly, Holiday Inn, located in the central historic district about two blocks from the main square (zocalo). Stayed there a few years back when I traveled with Bob (el bobster on the forum) and his friend Doug. Its secure fortified parking setup makes it the ideal place to stay when traveling in a vehicle filled with precious cargo that youíre not able to unload.

After checking in and paying for the night, we make a quick inspection of our ground floor room near the pool. We then head back to the vehicle to get our luggage and our pet carrier, that looks like luggage. While unloading the gear from our vehicle, the ever efficient attendant catches us off guard and picks up the carrier containing Gracie. How many ways can you say... Busted!! So we work out a deal (heavy tip included) and he allows us to sneak her in after 11pm and we agree to a wake up call to sneak her out at 6am, before the day crew arrives.

Holiday Inn
Centro Historico
Morelos No. 225
Veracruz, MX 91700
Phone: 229-932-4550
Cost: $70 US

Holiday Inn Photos

In the meantime, we head for the zocalo (two blocks awsay) with Ms Gracie in tow to kill a few hours. On the way, crowds from Carnival are dispersing and descending on the square... only in Mexico would they still be celebrating the event on Ash Wednesday. We wind our way through the crowds to a dry spot under the awning of a restaurant that still has space. Along the way, families and especially children that spotted Gracie kept shouting out... Lassie!! Considering the number of times we heard it, Iíd say the Lassie series is highly popular in Mexico. Eventually, we temporarily renamed Ms Gracie... so whenever someone asked her name weíd just say it was Lassita. Due to the steady rain, I shot a limited number of photos but we enjoyed our nondescript dinner and a few rounds or alcoholic beverages before calling it an early night.

^In a fish bowl full of mariachis, it was a relief to find a musical odd duck in the zocalo

Veracruz is definitely a world class destination city. One could easily spend a week there and not uncover all it has to offer. In many ways, it reminds me of New Orleans, both in architecture, friendliness, and outstanding food. Their zocalo is only one segment of the cityís identity, but itís a thriving one with a variety of mariachis, steel drums, and roving vendors. Besides itís historic aspects, you canít escape itís significance as an important shipping hub. Although it has its share of Americanization, itís a nice blend of merging culture. Thereís also no shortage of trendy restaurants along the malecon and the populated well groomed beaches, especially in upscale Boca del Rio, are nice but the sand is definitely darker than Playa

^Took Gracie for an early morning romp in the park across from our hotel

^The park is surrounded by various governmental maritime agencies

^In the foreground is the Registro Civil building and behind it Hotel Colonial

^The outside of our hotel doesnít have much appeal but itís a gem inside... love the 10' ceilings

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Old 01-30-2011   #3 (permalink)
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After tucking Ms Gracie safely away in the vehicle the next morning, we take advantage of the hotelís included breakfast buffet. Then itís off into pouring rain to parts of Mexico neither of us have ever been. Each time in the past, Iíve always taken the toll road from Veracruz to Villahermosa. Itís a faster way if you donít mind traveling alongside dangerously long double semis that would probably never be allowed on US roadways. This time we skip it and continue following Hwy-180 towards Lake Catemaco, a route that brings us closer to the gulf.

^Itís weird to see cactus along the gulf in this part of Veracruz state...

About 35 miles east of Veracruz we come upon a tiny town called Arbollilo, situated on a sliver of land with gulf on one side and a backwater bay on the other. Nothing overly appealing about the rain soaked town except for the two guys shucking oysters under an awning outside Restaurant Ulises. Vikki and I spoke almost in unison... ďAm I seeing what I just thought I saw?Ē. I slip the truck into reverse, glide it into a parking spot, and we excitedly go investigate. A seafood restaurant thatís got a house full of customers at 11am has got to have a good thing going. So we order a small plate of oysters (ostiones) for 15 pesos... and they deliver by bringing us a platter with 18 of their freshest. Talk about an incredible savory value! We wash them down with a beer and a delicious seafood soup. Upon our departure, we toast the restaurant by breaking the seal on our Don Julio before backing out of our parking spot. The gods are evidently with us because the rains are beginning to taper off.

^Oysters ready to be shucked outside Restaurant Ulises

^We realized we had forgotten to take a photo... so we rearranged a mini sampler plate

^...nothing like Tequila on a rainy afternoon

Within minutes of leaving Restaurant Ulises, we find ourselves crossing a bridge, high above a magnificent bay. As I peer out the passenger window, I catch a momentary glimpse of an intriguing city on the waterfront nestled below. Just before reaching the toll booth at the far end, I select the retorno back across the bridge for a better view. With no cars directly behind me, I stop the car in the middle of the bridge, jump out and snatch a few photos through the mist. As inviting as the town appears, we decide to postpone our discovery of Alverado for our eventual return trip when hopefully the sun will be shining. Iím confident we wonít be disappointed!

^Photo of Alverado from the bridge

^This bridge toll booth, across the bay from Alverado, is typical of others we see like it in Mexico.

^These pastries are filled with ham & cheese and this guy is a regular seller near the toll booth.

Shortly after paying the bridge toll, we pass through Buenavista where weíre greeted by an endless stream of attractive seafood restaurants lining both sides of the highway. It was difficult to say no to their offerings! We continue on through Lerdo Tejada, a region abundant in agricultural products like corn, bananas, and sugarcane. The soil here is a rich dark black and the fields glisten of emerald green. Itís extremely peaceful driving through this area so diverse in vegetation and foliage. Vikki grabs the opportunity to doze off and for the very first time during this trip, I slip on some tunes. On the horizon, I can see the mountains of Santiago Tuxtla and in a very short time we climb from sea level to 1800 feet above it. This part of Mexico is absolutely stunning and dishes up some of the most breathtaking vistas of the drive. Iíd also rate the roadway here as one of the most perfect in Veracruz state.. Itís also the halfway point between the border and Playa del Carmen.

^This map gives a clearer illustration of our travel through this part of Veracruz state. We eventually exit this region at Acayucan where we catch the toll road (cuota) toward Minititlan. To the east and northeast of Lake Catemaco, the area is somewhat desolate and one that I plan to someday explore in depth.

We make our spirally descent into the small but bustling city of Santiago Tuxtla where itís time for a Pemex stop. As I was pulling in, the attendants motion me into a lane, other than the one I was attempting to enter. This lane had a series of rocks blocking me from driving straight through. So after filling up, I backed slowly out of the spot, carefully watching the rear view mirrors. In my blind spot there happened to be a lone gas pump... I fortunately missed the pump but caught the guard rail protecting it. It made enough noise when I hit that the workers at the autolavado across the street, broke out in cheer. Iím thinking if they can hear it, it must be real bad! Luckily, the drivers side tail light lens took the main hit, plus we ended up with a minimal crease on the corner of the Expeditionís lift gate. Jan ordered a whole new lens from CertiFit in Minnesota ($28) and Cazador on the PlayaInfo forum was kind enough to tote it to Playa for us.

^In the hills above Santiago Tuxtla there are roadside stands along the highway selling this stuff

^Although most items are for cooking... the one with the horse on it is sugar cane rum

After the big bump at the Pemex, we once again set our sights for Catemaco, less than 20 miles away. Weíd first need to pass through San Andreas Tuxtla which sits squarely between the two towns. San Andreas Tuxtla is the more sizeable of the three with a beautiful zocalo lined with shops, restaurants and upscale hotels. Itís also the main shopping hub for the other two towns. In short order, we reach the turnoff into Catemaco where a uniformed man steps out of a booth and waves us to stop. At first glance, I thought he was a police officer but as I get closer, I realize heís the equivalent of the chamber of commerce. He shows us a laminated menu of the various activities heís promoting... what no brujos? As we pull away, weíre immediately buzzed from both side of the vehicle by two guys on mopeds soliciting tours from a similar laminated menu... no, I donít want to see fat little monkeys stuck on an island in the middle of Lake Catemaco. I just want to get to the Lake Catemaco waterfront... so they give me an escort. Of course, once they get me to the waterfront, they click into sell mode for the bar or restaurant that gives them the best kickback. Instead, we follow the roadway along the lake to the far end and enjoy the peacefulness it offers. Besides, Gracie had her own kind of business in mind... finally learning to decipher her whimpers.

^Fishing and especially boat excursions are popular activities on Lake Catemaco

^There are several volcanic mountains nearby, but those in the distance are not.

^From what Iíve heard, people travel to Catemaco just for birding adventures.

^Screeching of birds in late afternoon was deafening... this group had their own private ritual.

^Handful of tour boats lining the shore of Lake Catemaco

^Signage around town referred to this church as the Cathedral... itís situated on the main zocalo

^There are quite a few nice hotels located on the streets surrounding the square

^Believe this building is the equivalent of a municipal courthouse

Prior to embracing this new route through Mexico, I did a minimal amount of research. I really prefer to learn about an area as it unveils itself directly before me. I donít care if I miss anything... itís just more intriguing that way. We both agreed there was too much to discover here and that we still had too much of the unknown yet to explore. So we grabbed a quick bite and some beers from one of the vendors on the street and made our way back to the vehicle to continue our journey towards Acayucan. As we ascended into the hills leaving Catemaco via Hwy-180, we could see the beautiful volcanic mountains that stretched north of the city all the way to the gulf.

^Spotted this guy was hanging out along the highway somewhere near Corral Nuevo.

^A rustic church near the town square in Acayucan

By the time we rolled into the city limits of Acayucan, we had only a few moments of daylight remaining. Due to our mishap, our taillight bulb needed replacement and we were able to easily locate an automotive electrical store. Acayucan is one of those towns thatís a little rough of the edges but seems to be one thatís totally self sufficient. Although there was an abundance of cute restaurants and stores, none were overly polished.

According to our Guia Roji atlas, thereís no way to catch the toll road from Acayucan, even though itís just beyond our fingertips. It shows that we can make the connection at Oteapan, about an hour east. The TomTom differs in opinion telling us we get on the toll road going east, only if we travel west. We are also at the junction of Hwy-185 which heads straight south to the Pacific Coast and for awhile we give that some serious thought. In the end we decide that a detour to the Oaxacan coast may make it impossible to reach Playa in time for Vikkiís birthday... so we this time we take a gamble on the TomTom. Just to be sure, we stop the car, turn the GPS off and let it sleep for a couple of minutes. We fire it back up and again set our destination for Villahermosa, Tabasco. As we turn west onto a highway, the road sign reads Coatzacoalos (yes, home of Salma Hayek) which lies northeast of us... hmmm. After a few miles, the GPS starts chattering to stay left, stay left as the roadway splits and the overhead sign welcomes us to the Veracruz Cuota. What? ...we donít want to go back to Veracruz! Several miles later the GPS starts chattering again to stay left. Almost immediately the GPS begins telling us to make a sharp left across oncoming lanes of traffic as the sign pointing towards Villahermosa comes into view.. Down a sloping curve way out in the middle of nowhere is a tollbooth to enter the cuota. Thank you TomTom!!

Last edited by JimmyMN; 01-30-2011 at 11:00 PM..
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Weíre now in total darkness and need to drive a minimum of three hours just to reach the city of Villahermosa. Itís not like weíre all alone on a lonely highway dodging banditos... we have tons of company. And by tons I mean buses and big ass double semis with ďdoble remolqueĒ emblazoned on the rear of their trailers. The truck traffic usually kicks in about 6pm and tapers off around 3am, so weíre in the thick of it. A little west of Minatitlan, somewhere near the Veracruz-Tabasco border, we hit the second worst stretch of road on this drive. Weíre still on the toll road but this 8-10 mile fiasco is about as bad as it gets... itís been like this for years and it keeps growing worse! Eventually, the toll road (MX-145) ends and the road conditions gets dramatically better. We eventually converge with Hwy-180 which becomes a speedy 4-lane parkway about 40 minutes out from Villahermosa. The center of the parkway is wide and filled with flamboyant trees... itís a pretty drive even at night but the cross traffic keeps me on my toes. You know youíre arrived in Villahermosa when you see the side by side Walmart and Sams Club at the edge of town. I like passing through this city any time of day because they separate highway traffic from local traffic by using the feeder road concept popular in Texas.

Near the eastern edge of Villahermosa, we say goodbye to Hwy-180 which continues on to Merida and eventually to Cancun. We instead select Hwy-186 which extends all the way east to Chetumal. Our final destination for the night is Oasis Autohotel in Macuspana which is roughly another hour east of Villahermosa and situated on the south side of Hwy-186. In the night, you canít miss it... itís lit up like a true oasis. We pay 350 pesos for the night (less if we only stay for 3 hours). Weíre unable to pull our vehicle into the garage due to the overhead travel carrier, so we unload just the expensive stuff and use one of the safe outdoor parking spots. Pets seem to be welcome here, although Iíve never really asked if theyíre allowed.

^This is the exit... the only time you see staff is at the drive up window on the entrance side.

^Entry to the room is through the garage door... pull your car inside and hit the close button.

^The door you see is for maintenance but behind the red wall is the door leading to the room

^Marilyn & Modelo

^Plenty of room for Ms Gracie... each unit has a king size bed

^24 hour room service... reasonable prices and a great selection of decent food.
Orders arrive via the lazy susan... remove the items, replace with bill/money and give it a spin

Have stayed at Oasis Autohotel on several occasions but Iíd hardly consider the nearby town of Macuspana a destination. Although Palenque is only an hour and a half further, getting a room there in the middle of the night is way more difficult. So for me, this little gem has worked out perfectly. The place is always immaculately clean, the shower is huge with plenty of pressure and hot water, cable is provided way out here in the boonies (including a few exotic channels), plus the hotel provides condoms in the welcome package. How cool is that...

^Mexican state of Tabasco tends to eliminate topes by incorporating more overhead walkways

By 9am, were packed up and on the road to Palenque, one of my favorite stops along the way. The town of Palenque sits at the base of a mountain in a lush tropical jungle. Itís home to one of the greenest, most fascinating ruins in Mexico and itís an easy 10 hour drive from Playa del Carmen. To get there, we continue east on Hwy-186. We eventually turn south onto Hwy-199... the turn is well marked and thereís a Pemex station at the intersection. Twenty miles later, we roll directly into town, and after a quick stop at Super Che, we make our way to El Panchan.

^El Panchan sign out along the road... you can see the entrance to the biosphere in the background

El Panchan is a jungle village situated on the road leading to the ruins. Itís on your immediate left (maybe two car lengths) before you reach the gated entrance to the Palenque biosphere. Yes, thereís a small personal toll to get into the biosphere and larger fee to enter the ruins. El Panchan is a bit confusing the first time you visit because thereís no central desk to obtain accommodations. Inside the complex you can find a place to pitch a tent, hostels, rooms with shared showers/toilets, cabanas, and modest hotel rooms. There are currently three restaurants that serve as a bar or nightclub in the evening... many with live entertainment. Don Mucho is the largest of the three and the easiest to find... itís kind of grand central.

^Don Mucho... restaurant by day transforms into a nightclub at night

We have breakfact at Don Muchos and afterwards go scouting for a place to stay thatíll accept Gracie. Our first stop is Margarita & Edís where we get a nice room for 400 pesos. This unit is on an upper floor and comes complete with shower and toilet in the room. We also like that thereís a parking spot relatively close to the room. After unloading our luggage, we make our way up the mountain to check out the three most popular waterfalls in the area; Agua Clara, Misol-Ha, and Agua Azul.

^One of the cabanas at Margarita & Edís

^We stayed on the upper floor of this unit... Margarita & Edís has various styles of dwellings.

^This was a shot taken inside of our room

Our first stop is cascada Misol-Ha... like the others, thereís a small fee to enter the grounds. Misol-Ha is a unique waterspout type of falls where the stream is projected out into an enclosed rocky lagoon. You can actually walk under and behind the falls by following the path into the sort of open-sided cave. It has a relaxing layout that doesnít require a lot of walking to enjoy it. To me this site is probably the most beautiful of the three because there are no distractions to destroy its natural beauty. It probably looks almost the same as it did 100 years ago.

^This is the initial view of Misol-Ha from the pathway leading to it

^Looking across the lagoon...

^The rocky path on the other side of the falls

^Directly below and behind the fall's waterspout

^Vikki and Ms Gracie enjoying the view.

When we realize we wonít have enough time to visit Agua Azul today, we head over to Agua Clara, several miles away. Although there are some simplistic falls here, we need to walk through some rough terrain to get to them. For hiking or having a picnic, this is a super nice place but when it comes down to it, Iíd check out Misol-Ha and Agua Azul as first choices. Theyíre much more dramatic and on the must see list.

^Some of the mountain terrain between Agua Clara and Misol-Ha

^The limestone riverbed gives the water that same aqua hue found in the Caribbean

^Bridge over a small creek in the park at Agua Clara

^Some locals hanging out on the other side of the river

^Looking downstream at Agua Clara

So, back down the mountain through lots of twisting switchbacks we go and for the very first time, Vikki is driving her rig in Mexico. As usual, we find some reason to stop at Super Cheí. We also spot an auto lavado across the street and decide the Expedition really needs a bath. Itís filthy from all the rain slicked roads in northern Veracruz and weíre tired of having the grime rub off on our clothes when we brush against it. While the attendant washes our car, we enter the adjacent tavern for a beer and catch the latest telenovela on the tube. Vikki suggests we find something to eat, so we ask the gal working the cash register for a suggestion. The attendant waves down the tamale vendor at the far end of the block and he come rolling down the street with his cart. To me, buying a tamale is like selecting items at a dim-sum joint... itís always a mystery. After this positive experience though, I have a whole new respect for tamales and an impressive standard for future comparison. The simple things in life... this is what I love about Mexico!

^We see signs for Taller Mechanics everywhere we go, but never any for Shorter Mechanics

^Up and down the mountain we see children selling produce

^Mountains roads are mostly in very good condition

^You never know where youíre going to see a church in this part of the country

^Seeing youngsters sitting along the road like this, reminds me of those little crosses back a few miles

^Lots of beautiful hills and vistas to enjoy from the passenger seat

^We again reach the base of the mountain

^Impressive statue outside the Best Western on Hwy-199 in downtown Palenque

^This was probably his dirtiest vehicle of the day

^He worked hard getting it clean while we enjoyed tamales & beer... it was worth the big tip

^While dad handed out tamales, his daughter collected pesos. I'm presuming her mom cooked them.

We make a pit stop in our room to get cleaned up for a friday evening of entertainment in the jungle. In the late afternoon jewelers are already setting up shop along the edge of the dining area at Don Mucho. I always find unique necklaces here and Iíve learned from past experience to not hesitate about buying a piece I like. The prices are ridiculously low, so the items move fast. Thereís a slightly smaller bar/restaurant called Mono Blanco thatís also very popular and seems to have live entertainment every night, just like Don Mucho.

This night I spend most of my time hanging by the bar at Don Mucho. They have a band that plays during dinner and Iíd guess there are close to 100 tables that are all filled. Later on, they switch to a salsa band, and somewhere past midnight the fire dancers and bongo players arrive. Everything shuts down by 2am but you can take a taxi to centro if you have a need to keep going.

^Candlelight dining... there's an extensive selection of items on their menu

^This was the salsa band setting up for the night

^Like most places in Mexico, children and K9s are welcome

^Mother and daughter from the state of Oregon

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One thing thatís cool about staying in the jungle is the unbelievable quietness. Okay, itís quiet until the howler monkeys make a pass or two through the jungle early in the morning. It gets even more entertaining when the dogs chime in and start barking. Despite the early morning chatter, we still get a relaxing start and enjoy a late breakfast. We decide to check out of our room because we think we might continue up the mountain to San Cristobal after visiting Agua Azul.

We start with a visit to the Palenque ruins, only five minutes away. Since dogs arenít allowed, Ms Gracie has to stay in the car. We park in a safe shaded area directly behind the ticket booth and crack all the windows. Thereís a fee to park here and we offer a generous bonus to the young attendant if he keeps a close watch on our vehicle. Entrance to the ruins is 50 pesos per person. Canít say enough positive things about this archeological site except that itís one of my favorites in Mexico. The foliage here is extremely jungly and green, creating an inviting backdrop to enjoy the unique flavor of these ruins.

^Children approach you everywhere to buy these necklaces... I bought some of their suggested favorites

^A creek runs all the way through the ruins site and on a lower level is this pretty waterfalls

^On the way down to the waterfalls, we have a conversation with Spencer, a solo traveler from Oregon. When we get get to this lookout platform, one of the Mexican girls asks us to take a photo... more specifically, the girls want he and I in the photo with them. How can we turn down that request.

^Hereís a photo of their entire group

We finish up at the ruins around 1pm and invite Spencer to travel with us to Agua Azul. Heís a recent college graduate, majoring in Spanish history, and is traveling through Mexico and then down into Central America. Heís not aware of any waterfalls in the area but is excited to check them out. So up we go about 40 miles into the mountains. On the way, we stop at Misol-Ha and drop him off at the gate while we wait with the car. Vikki and I set up a mini bar on the back bumper and break open the Don Julio. When Spencer returns we do another round of shots but thatís the last time we see those shot glasses. I think we forgot them on the bumper but more importantly, we didnít forget the tequila!!

^Lots of buses making their way through the hills

^Colectivo system is a bit more primitive than what youíll find along the Riviera Maya

Agua Azul consists of a series of cascading waterfalls that stretches for at least a third of a mile. There a wide cobblestone walkway and stairs with a knee high retaining wall that parallels the river all the way to the top where the river disappears into a forest. At the entrance to the park are the larger restaurants or souvenir shops, and lots of smaller ones as you climb the path. My favorite is the restaurant halfway up that sells these fantastic empanadas. This is an impressive sight and one you donít want to miss if you ever happen to be in the Palenque area.

^Spotted this German gal on the walkway and asked her boyfriend if heíd kindly take a picture of us

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By the time we finished exploring at Agua Azul it was almost 6 oíclock. So we head back down the mountain to Palenque to spend the night. Great... another night of party in the jungle! When we get there, we check at Margarita & Edís to find they have no more rooms. So we inquire at the Jungle Place and find a cabin for about 150 pesos... with bathroom & showers in a bunkhouse across the way. They have lots of cute cabanas and even some larger structures but we donít have too many choices because thereís a big salsa contest going on at Don Muchos tonight. Spencer happens to be staying at a hostel in El Pancham, so we agree to meet him in the bar after weíve showered and switched into evening wear.

^This is our 150 peso hut at the Jungle Place... this unit was a double bungalow.

^This was the bathroom shower house about a hundred feet from our dwelling.

^One of many cute little cabanas at the Jungle Place in the El Pancham complex

^A new salsa band on Saturday night at Don mucho

^Lots of friendly enthusiastic salsa dancers here for the competition

^This guy was kicking it for the fire dancer event

^This adventurous jeweler from Hawaii obviously caught my attention

^This was the last band of the night and played til 2am

^Ran into the German gal from Agua Azul at Don Muchos

^This time I got a photo of her with her boyfriend (the one sitting next to her)

^This sign at the neighboring bar/club/restaurant, El Mono Blanco always cracks me up

^Liked hanging with this guy from Switzerland because he had so much energy and a great smile.

^Just couldnít keep away from this little hottie... yes, I bought some of her jewelry

^The last solo singer performing saturday night at El Mono Blanco

On Sunday, we (Gracie, Vikki, Spencer and myself) set our sights for San Cristobal del Las Casas, a six hour drive near the top of the mountain. After a quick stop at Super Che for cash and munchies, weíre on our way. The weather is perfect for the drive... a rainforest fog towards the beginning, but later, hardly a cloud in the sky. Highway 199 takes us past the waterfalls weíve already visited and is the main road between Palenque and San Critobal.. We stop for breakfast at Ocosingo, which is the halfway point to our destination. We also stop anytime we find a vista with a place to pull over so we can take some photos of the beautiful mountainous terrain. Near the peak of the mountain, I canít help but notice this prison out in the middle of nowhere. When I whip out the digital SLR with the big zoom, Iím quickly spotted by the guards in the watch tower who turn on the sirens and start yelling at me over the public address system. We donít waste any time complying and make a quick exit out of there. We make that final half hour decent into San Cristobal, quite thankful we arenít intercepted by any Federalis.

^The views driving through these mountains are even more stunning in person

^This shot was probably taken at about 6,000 feet.

^Spencer road shotgun and kept a watchful eye over Ms Gracie

^Vikki setup camp in the back seat on the way up to San Cristobal

^Touristic wall map for the state of Chiapas

^Just before the Ocosingo sign... a new artisan village with an open air restaurant
This was a nice relaxing spot on the 2nd floor for a late breakfast

^A statue at the main circle on the highway in Ocosingo

^Fine looking motorcycle shop on the highway in Ocosingo

^We feel the presence of the Zapitistas throughout the state of Chiapas

^Couldnít resist getting a photo of this prison on the southern outskirts of San Cristobal

^We finally make it to the city about 2pm...

Our goal upon arriving in San Cristobal was to find a hotel with secure parking that could fit our vehicle with top carrier and would also accept a dog. It took us more than two hours to accomplish this task. We ended up at Hotel Blanquita, only two blocks from the Zocalo. In our search, we found a number of spectacular places to stay in the 300 to 600 peso range, but most wouldnít accept Gracie.

Hotel Blanquita
Alvaro Obregon No.4
Barrio de Santa Lucia
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chipas
Phone: 01-967-678-6861
Cost: 450 pesos

Hotel Blanquita fit our security needs perfectly with indoor parking and a 24 hour attendant. Our unit consisted of a master bedroom and two twin beds in an adjacent room. It also included free internet. Vikki became ill from those non-stop switchbacks up the mountain and possibly the high elevation. Sitting in the backseat probably didnít help either. So she hung in the room while Spencer, Gracie and I went exploring. Iíd been here before but never long enough to thoroughly enjoy it. This visit would be no different. After a few hours, we brought some pizza back for Vikki and dropped Gracie off. Then Spencer and I setoff to discover the town after dark and hopefully find some spectacular nightlife. The best we could find was La Revolucione where a Mexican heavy metal band was playing. It was a fun place...

^San Critobal is a photographers paradise

^Everywhere you look there seems to be another church

^This quaint hotel was only a few blocks from ours

^This plaza appeared to house several mobile restaurants

^It was amazing to watch this young pro shine my shoes... he went beyond all expectations

^Spencer & Gracie... he enjoyed looking after the little lady

^Inside the courtyard at Hotel Banquita

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The next morning we say our goodbyes to Spencer. He plans to hookup with some friends in San Cristobal for a few days and then make his way through Guatemala and then on to other Central American countries. Vikki feels better after a recovery night and has reestablished her energy level. Near the highest peak (7,000 ft) on the drive back to Palenque, I purchase a few gems at a rustic touristy jewelry store. They had lots of inexpensive ambar and were fairly negotiable on most of it. We werenít so lucky in our attempt to find Chiapas coffee beans... and we checked numerous places. All we could find was ground coffee. Like the drive up, the drive down took us almost exactly six hours.

^A new military facility being built just north of San Cristobal

^This image is quite common in the states of Chiapas & Oaxaca

^Love these makeshift mountain stores

^Children at a school next door to Bodega Aurrera, in Ocosingo

^When they saw my D-SLR, they ran over to the fence and started mugging for these photos

^Further down the mountain, a truckload of children coming home from school

^It appears that the Zapatista movement is still going strong in Chiapas

^Other than the large cities, there are no Pemex stations in the mountains

^One final glimpse of the sculpture occupying the circle in Palenque

Itís almost 4pm as we make our way out of Palenque heading towards Playa. The Pollo Asado joints are kicking up smoke as they lure us in. With our bellies full, weíre ready for the serious night driving ahead of us. As we turn east onto Hwy-186, were now roughly 10 hours away from Playa del Carmen. About 20 miles down the road, weíre detoured through the town of Emiliano Zapata... what a gem it turns out to be. Weíre still in the state of Chiapas, so I decide to check a few produce stores here for coffee beans. No luck, but a woman customer in one of the stores walks me a few blocks to a place where she knows they have a good selection. Not just her, everyone in this town was ultra friendly!

^A statue of Zapata as we enter the town of Emiliano Zapata in Chiapas

^The amphitheater in the townís main park

^One of several sculptures in that park

As we make our way east towards the Caribbean, itís about 7pm when we fuel up in Escarcega. Itís always a good idea to top off here, as thereís a limited number of Pemex station between here and the coast. Weíre in the state of Campeche and the population density along this stretch is very low. So, thereís not much traffic on this highway and better yet, the roads are some of the best in Mexico... this is also my favorite stretch to drive at night. I make pit stops at little cantinas I find along the highway to stretch, get some caffeine and chat it up with locals who are fascinated to see a gringo out here in the middle of the night. We roll into Chetumal about midnight and spend the night at Hotel Mayan Plaza in the heart of downtown. Weíre now a little less than 4 hours from Playa.

Hotel Mayan Plaza
Avenue Juarez No. 49
Col. Centro C.P. 77000
Chetumal, Quintana Roo, MX
Phone: 983-832-1414
Cost: 500 pesos

The next morning as weíre leaving Chetumal, I get a text message from one of my Minnesota friends on a cruise ship just docking in Majahual. Vikki and I figure it would be fun to pay them a visit and check out the changes there since the hurricane. So from Chetumal, we connect with Hwy-307 and head north to the turnoff for Majahual. From the highway, itís a boring 30 mile drive through the ugliest of jungles as we make our way to the coast. The beach is beautiful, the sun is shining and we help consume a few buckets of beer before heading northward.

^Pineapple vendors at the topes near Lake Bacalar

^The Norwegian Spirit docked in Majahual

^I like the way theyíve designed and manicured the beach

Ms Gracie soaking up the sun in Majahual

^Iím sure glad Vikki is behind the wheel

^ Stop to buy jewelry from Vincente and catch lunch at Pollo Bronco

Thereís still lots of daylight left when we arrive in Playa. Vikki drops me at my home away from home, Casa Santiago on Calle 10 near the beach. One of their new puppies is there to great me.

^At first glance, I thought this was Bicky, but it's her newest addition to the family

^Lucky enough to time my visit in Playa for Palomaís birthday party at the Dirty Martini Bar

^Yes, we ate cake... and drank martinis

^And then we repeated it all over again for Vikkiís birthday event at La Tortuga

^All I can say is... veeery niiiice!

^My meal at La Tortuga...

^At PGs Sandbox... Canadians pulling for their hockey team in the Winter Olympics

^Had a blast hanging out with these beauties from Montreal for three full days

^The risidual effects from my secret cologne keep me smiling

^Me getting lucky...

^Absolute Al getting twice as lucky...

^Al and I bonded with these two critters up near Maroma

^On the way to pickup friends at the airport, Al & I stopped to visit a Mexican artist up near Punta Bete

^I liked all of her work...

^but I especially liked this piece

^Kind of rare to see an expensive bottle like this on the shelf

^Absolute Al & I pick up friends at the airport... nothing like that 1st cold beer in Mexico

^The next afternoon, Iím seeing this out my window...

^After modeling each piece of jewelry I acquired for her on my journey...
...we head to Cafť Lurcat in Minneapolis to celebrate 30 years of living in sin feels wonderful to finally be home


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Driving Ms Gracie home - Playa del Carmen to Dallas - Part 2

Start my second half by catching a direct afternoon flight (Friday April 2nd) out of Minneapolis via Sun Country Airlines. There are maybe 10 passengers on this flight to Playa, so thereís no end to offers of peanuts, pretzel and refreshments. Iím transporting goods for a friend and she is kind enough to scoop me up from the airport. She whisks me into town and drops me off at Piola where I meet up with several peeps. My mission is to drive Vikki and Ms Gracie back to Dallas... our deadline is to be there by April 8th. Itís Easter weekend and I have one night to do the town... no problema!!

^After Piola, itís off to Luna Blue to catch Mike Grabow

^El Bar usually has live entertainment on the weekends

^Most of the singers are not ones I typically see in other bars

^Vicki gets one last chance for an evening out before the trip home

Vikki has made arrangements to bring four furry friends back with us to the states. We leave Playa around 2pm the next day with two small kittens and a dog name Kitty. We still need to pickup a third cat at the Belize border that needs some eyelid surgery. Looks like weíll be an animal house on wheels... or should we just call it... pets to go.

On the way to the Belize border, we make a pit stop on the shores of Lake Bacalar to walk the dogs and stretch a bit. Being Easter weekend, itís extremely busy along the lakefront, yet entertaining to see everyone out enjoying their holiday. After that, we meet our courier in Chetumal, about half hour or so further south.

^Boater activity on Lake Bacalar about 3 hours south of Playa del Carmen

^This is Kitty... a dog adopted by Kelly (bigbadleroy) that weíre transporting for her to the US

^In Mexico, a picture is always worth a thousand words

^This sweet lady brought this kitten up from Belize so we could get it to Austin for an operation.

Nightfall is fast approaching as we maneuver our way back out of Chetumal and onto Hwy-186. We cross the Rio Hondo and head west towards Xpujil, then Escarcega, and our final stop for the night, Oasis Auto Hotel in Macuspana. Itís after 2am when we reach this oasis which works perfectly for us and our fur family.

^Statue in the circle at Escarcega

We get a super solid night of sleep and take our sweet time getting on the road the next morning. While weíre filling up at a Pemex nearby, Vikki notices some nails in a rear tire. Itís our lucky day because we can see a vulcanizadora less than a block away. While the young tech gives our tire some professional treatment, we take the time to swap out the broken tail light assembly... an easy process on a Ford product. So, weíre left with plenty of spare minutes to take the dogs for a walk. On this walk, we get a scare when Kitty gets spooked, slips out of her collar and starts running for the highway. Luckily, Vikki was able to use her special touch to coax Kitty back.

^Contentment at the Oasis Autohotel in Macuspana

^The kittens managed to keep themselves amused

^Youíll find vulcanizadoras just about everywhere, especially along rough roads

^These tire repair guys really do incredible work...

Around noon, we roll into Villahermosa where we take time to snoop around. First, we check out some beautiful villas along one of their many lagunas and then make our way through a park along Paseo Tabasco. This is an upscale part of the city where everything is manicured to the hilt leaving only a minimal hint of Mexicana. Itís Easter Sunday but the town seems fairly quiet for a big holiday. Maybe everyone is still in church. We press further into a more typical yet trendy Mexican neighborhood where we spot an auto lavado thatís open. We give them the honor of removing more than a months worth of grime while we walk around and purchase a few consumables for the road.

^Welcome to Villahermosa... in the state of Tabasco

^Busy city with a nice expressway right through the center of town

Lots of traffic in the Americanized section of the city

^One of many attractive parks in Villahermosa

^This sculpture is near a busy intersection along the expressway

^Driving down Paseo Tabasco...

^Nice gated villa along the lagoon... several of this caliber in the neighborhood

^Mexico... home to some of the most unique and beautiful churches

^The auto lavado is a great place to get a wash as well as to socialize while you wait

So far, weíve been mostly retracing the route that we took on our way to Playa del Carmen, with the exception of the side trip to Palenque and San Cristobal. In time, we finish our exploration and follow Hwy-180 westward out of the sprawling city of Villahermosa. Eventually, the highway hooks up with the toll road and we cross into the state of Veracruz. As we pass through a toll booth, some Federalis motion for us to pull over... a quick check of our paperwork and weíre back on our way.

^On a highway leaving Minititlan... you can see the unusual bridge in the distance

^Many of the bridges in Mexico seem to follow this design format

^Taken near a Pemex distribution station... Hola Elvis, whatís happening?

We stay on this cuota until we reach an exit for Minititlan. Our plan is to take some local roads to see new countryside on our way to Catemaco, where weíre hoping to stay for the night. We plug Catemaco into the GPS as our destination but it attempts to take us back onto the cuota, so we select the shortest route without any toll roads. While in Minititlan, we make a quick stop at a Bodega Aurrera to buy a harness for Kitty... an oversized green one is the best we can find. Nothing earth shattering to spur our interest in this medium sized town, so we follow the main highway (tollroad quality) leading westward. After awhile, the GPS takes us onto a winding road through beautiful countryside where we pass in and out of quaint little towns. The town of Chinameca is one of those that catches our attention... weíre hungry and can see and smell the smoke pouring from the grills of restaurant Comedor Maya. The aroma is begging us to come in and sample their variety of delicious meats. What else could we do but surrender to their sizzling demand.

^Comedor Maya in Chinameca had a steady local business... much of it was take out

^These are my chorizo tacos... generous meaty portions

Afterwards, we snap a few photos of the picturesque little town and then continue to follow the GPS northward. The drive is nothing less than amazing on a twisting road circumventing deep gorges and through more small towns lined with a backdrop formed of volcanic mountains. The subtle increase in elevation as we move upwards into the mountains is hardly noticeable... maybe weíre just too busy enjoying the scenery. Our trusty Guia Roji map provides very little information about this region other than showing us thereís a legitimate road thatíll bring us into Catemaco via the mountainous side of the lake. That good enough for us!

^Little church on a hill in Chinameca

^Railroad station in Chinameca... doubt if this is functional anymore

We really have no idea where we are because the GPS doesnít identify any of these miniature towns and the towns themselves have no identifying marks either. We approach one, that weeks later, weíre able to identify as Soteapan. As we approach Soteapan, we twist our way down a steep winding incline, cross a small river and then glide upwards around a curve into a town that overlooks the valley. It has a simplistic parkway down the center of town that divides the northbound traffic from the southbound. There are several young adults hanging near the basketball courts but otherwise, most people are walking towards the church on the far end of town. We cruise past the church a mile or so and the nicely paved road abruptly becomes a cow path.

^This is the last photo I took before heading into the mountain at nightfall

We soon realize then that the sound on our GPS has been accidentally turned off. Once we clear the unit and reprogram for the shortest route to Catemaco, we need only backtrack three miles to correct the miscue. The road is good but daylight has finally come to come to an end. We are still maybe fifty some miles out from our destination. After about a half hour we reach a ravine where the mountain road has been washed out but once weíre through it, the road returns to normal. During this segment of driving, we meet a total of three vehicles, and two of them are colectivo pickup trucks. The next hour gets more intense as we climb in elevation and the road narrows to the width of our vehicle. It also has turned into a solidly packed dirt road. The good news... the GPS previews curves in the road before we get to them and the sight of an occasional colectivo gives us hope. Weíre in total darkness at the top of a mountain... we canít see any stars and there are no lights from any towns or villages on the horizon. There isnít a way to turn around and go back either.

As we start a slight descent, we have to jockey for space to allow a colectivo to pass. A short time later, we reach a switchback at a lower elevation where thereís a wide clearing ... actually wide enough to turn around. As we approach, off to one side, thereís a Veracruz police cruiser. Three uniformed police officers step out to block our path, then cross over to the drivers side. While Iím presenting documents, the rest of the force is peering through the windows with a little help from their flashlights. After a routine inspection, they come back around to the drivers side and itís apparent theyíre entertained to find us on this mountain top. They return our paperwork and we ask for the direction to Catemaco. They point straight ahead in the direction weíre already traveling.

As we make our way downward, we enter a tiny little village where weíre unable to distinguish between the driveways and the roadway... plus the terrain is extremely steep and treacherous. The GPS keeps telling us to turn around no matter which direction we go. Luckily, we spot a couple sitting on the hood of their car smooching and they kindly point us in the proper direction. We sense that weíre finally returning to civilization and decide itís not too late to shoot some last minute video to remind us later of this mountain road. After that, more and more little villages spring up and weíre soon beginning to see the lights of Catemaco in the distance. Paved roads start to become the norm as we pass through several eco villages along the eastern edge of the lake.

Itís around 10:30, when we finally arrive in Catemaco. Their Semana Santa celebration is a complete contrast to our journey through the mountains. Itís total gridlock as we make our way towards the lakefront. The nightclubs there are absolute chaos, so itís obvious to me weíve chosen the perfect party place. Sadly, weíre unable to find any hotels with vacancy in the centro district, and nearby hotels out on the highway are just plain disgusting inside. So we try San Andreas Tuxtla about six miles away, but none of the hotels there will accept a pet. We now make our way even further west towards Santiago Tuxtla, checking out other hotels along the way. Just before town, we spot a spectacular looking Hotel Kingdian perched high above the valley, but it seems strangely deserted without a single car in their lot. We ring the outside buzzer and after awhile, someone comes to our aid. We request a room furthest from the office so we can sneak in our fur babies.

^Hotel Kingdian is an attractive, well groomed property on the outside

^Photo taken from our room, way back in the corner

Hotel Kingdian
On Hwy-180 roughly a mile south of town
Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz, MX
Semi Secure Parking
Cost 950 pesos

Hotel Kingdian turns out to be less than kingly on the inside. Besides being the most expensive hotel on our drive, itís the first to be minus a toilet seat. Luckily, weíve come equipped for this type of emergency. The room is also rather cramped and is in dire need of maintenance. The good news is that itís clean and weíre able to accommodate five animals without being detected. The bed is extremely comfortable and when we depart the next day, weíre greeted by a generous splash of sunshine to begin our day.

We backtrack to San Andreas Tuxtla for a quick tour of the Santa Clara Cigar Factory on the highway right in the middle of town. Itís a rather relaxed extremely clean facility employing several men and women. We were allowed total freedom to roam the floor and take photos as workers went about their business mass producing cigars.

^Casket shop in San Andreas Tuxtla

^Santa Clara Cigar Factory in San Andreas Tuxtla

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Afterwards, we turn onto a rather rough country road on the eastern edge of town, following it to Cascada de Eyipantla, in the town of Salto, about eight miles south. Upon arrival, weíre greeted by a handful of individuals offering to wash our car, watch our car, or give us an official tour of the waterfall. The town centro is essentially a large culdesac parking lot ringed with stores full of touristic goodies, a few cantinas, and a combination of fast or slow Mexican eateries. After negotiating a reasonable price with one of the guides, I grab a beer and we make our way down some stairs (over 1,000 steps) to the official entrance. Like most ecological parks, thereís a small fee to enter. Iím able to hear the thunderous falls long before I can see it. It certainly isnít Niagara but itís way more impressive than anything I expected. If youíve watched the movie Apocalypto, then youíve already seen this falls. At some point, my guide took me off the tourist trail so I could get a much closer view than from the observation platform. That was an appreciated touch...

^Cascada El Salto de Eyipantla

^My tour guide shot this photo on a shortcut to the upper part of the falls

^From the top, less worry about the mist messing up my camera

^More than a hundred foot drop to the bottom

^My tour guide showing off his added chest appendage.

Then itís off to Alvarado, a commercial fishing port I only saw from a bridge when we drove down. Itís easily three hours west through some of the most beautiful terrain in the state of Veracruz... this time we get to enjoy it in the sun, instead of the rain. About 30 minutes from Alverado, we decide to make a quick stop for some oysters and a beer at a roadside restaurant in Buena Vista. With so many restaurant options, we pick the one with the most curb appeal. As weíre driving away from the restaurant, Jan calls to wish me a happy birthday.

^A canopy of trees is a common sight between Catemaco and Alvarado

^These trees with a redish bark seem to be planted as barriers along the highway

^Havenít a clue what this formation is but itís definitely an eye catcher

^This is sugar cane being hauled to a processing plant

^No, I didnít stop here... but someday I just might

^Huge cattle processing facility in the countryside near Lerdo Tejada

^This is typical of the seafood restaurants we saw in Buena Vista

^Vikki and I were craving oysters, so we split an order and each got a beer

^These are the friendly women who catered to us at this fine establishment

Before long, weíre find ourselves on Alvaradoís waterfront. The place is abuzz with commercial vehicles converging on the seafood market to transport the daily catch. We locate a parking spot further down the malecon away from the market where itís less crowded. You canít help but notice all the old weathered shrimp boats anchored along these docks without feeling the enormity the sea has on the lives of people who live here.. Everywhere you look thereís seafood... crab, oysters, shrimp, and a variety of whole fish. Some seafood processors appear to specialize in shrimp, possibly for export. Those operations have an assembly line to peel, cook and bag at a production level... for 60 pesos, weíre able to purchase a kilo of their bite sized, precooked shrimp. One thing lacking in Alvarado, is a waterfront restaurant overlooking the bay. The closest thing is the renowned La Viuda, set back a bit on the malecon and only a few feet away from the fish market.

^View from the Alvarado Bridge, looking out into the Gulf of Mexico

This view is of the back bay looking inland... itís a fairly sizeable bay

^This large trawler is heading for the Gulf

^Weathered shrimp boat anchored along the malecon

^Decorative non-commercial portion of the malecon extends all the way to the bridge

^Nice catch just using a drop line

^Shrimp cooking kettle at the processing plant

^La Viuda has a reputation for itís seafood dishes... it doesnít get any fresher than this

^Looks like the average meal is about 65 pesos

^Interesting how they tied these crab bundles together with sugar cane grass

^Heavy congestion of boats closer to the fish market

^The cemetary in Alvarado is huge and colorful

By now weíre both beyond hungry but instead of eating in Alvarado, we choose to revisit Restaurant Ulises about 5 minutes down the road in Arbolillo. Their food selection satisfied our cravings first time around, so weíre excited to go back. This restaurant probably wouldnít get an award for decor or ambience but their service is outstanding and their seafood is cooked to perfection. Itís one of those special family run places were glad to have stumbled upon. Itís also a good reason to skip the toll road and take scenic route.

^Guy shucking oysters on the right remembered us when we stopped on the way to Playa

^These are the freshest oysters Iíve had anywhere... each platter was 15 pesos

^This is Vikkiís fish of the day cooked al la plancha

^Interior shot of Restaurant Ulises

^Two happy diners ready to hit the road for the city of Veracruz

Itís about 5pm as we make our way into Veracruz. Although we could easily by-pass the city, it doesnít take much longer going straight through it. Besides, Vikki hasnít seen this amazing city in the sunlight, and this is a great opportunity to get a quick view of its beauty. We have no plan to spend the night here and have no idea of where weíll stay on the way towards the Texas border. It takes us 90 minutes to get through town which includes feeding and walks for the animals near the Boca del Rio neighborhood.

^On the outskirts of Boca del Rio.. appears to be a naval facility

^Boca del Rio beach... you can see the city of Veracruz in the background

^Youíll notice the sand is much darker than in Playa

^Find the decorative graffiti style art kind of cool

^This black bird had an interest in Gracie & Kitty at a park by McDonalds

^This beach is typical in Veracruz... they use a sea wall to slow the waves

^Towering palms are everywhere along the scenic waterfront

^In the heart of Veracruz... great view of the shipyards on the western edge of town

^No shortage of upscale hotels in this city

^Carnival banners still up... when Mexicans think carnival, Veracruz's is the preferred one

^The architecture in the centro historical district is awesome

^Photo taken from the malecon looking towards centro

^There are tour buses everywhere... some even go to Alvarado, Catemaco or Xalapa

^This is the Holiday Inn we stayed at on the way down.

^Tree lined parkway on the west end takes us out of Veracruz onto a highspeed toll road.

^Wow... 180 pesos for 4 hours!! Very sexy deal...

^Spectacular mountain outcrop near the town of Cardel

After we pass the town of Cardel, it gets dark rapidly and Iím the pilot since Vikki doesnít drive at night. We stop for dinner at a seafood restaurant near Nautla and afterwards we gas up at Pemex and walk the dogs. After our crew is all buttoned in... Vikki surprises me with a birthday present... two bags of coffee beans from the nearby town of Coatepec. Really good stuff!

Last edited by JimmyMN; 02-13-2011 at 07:27 PM..
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Old 01-30-2011   #10 (permalink)
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From here our plan is to slip onto the toll road to Tuxpam where thereís a supposed dog friendly hotel. Unfortunately, itís after midnight and I have no idea of this hotel's name or where it's located. Tuxpam at night always creeps me out, so I decide to just keep driving towards Tampico. Finding the highway out of this dark spooky town really gives me the shivers...

At 4:30am, as we approach Tampico, I consult with Vikki about us driving straight through to the border. Doing so would easily get us to the border by 1pm... absolute perfect time to cross. She gives me her nod of approval and goes back to sleep as I keep pushing northward. We pass through Manuel and make a turn onto Hwy-180 towards Soto la Marina where I stretch, gas up and get a fresh jolt of caffeine. While there, my newest best friend with the mangled paw shows its charm skills... thanks Ms Gracie for donating some of your premium mix to this K9 in need.

^Given his circumstances, this injured dog had an exceptionally good atitude

^Ruta 2010... these signs on special routes celebrating Mexico's Bicentennial from Spain (1810-1821)

^Military outlook south of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, MX

^We wait to cross the border into Brownsville, Texas.

As we get closer to the crossing, there's a small building on the Mexican side where we turn in our Import Sticker. There are absolutely no signs that remind you to do this! It's important that you do this, otherwise you may be denied entance into Mexico in the future!! An attendant will come out to your vehicle, compare the original paperwork to the tag on the windshield and also check to see that the vehicle identification number on the vehicle matches the application. After that, they scrape the sticker from the windshield. You are then given a receipt to prove that it was officially removed. I suggest you keep that receipt with your passport whenever you travel to Mexico (maybe 2 years), just in case someone makes a mistake and you're not removed from the database. It's a very important document!!!

After waiting in the long line, we finally cross the border at 2pm...

After crossing into the US...
US Customs demand we remove everything from the vehicle for inspection.
Have a quick round of drinks with SCTX & LilG at Rileyís Bar.
Spend the night at Motel6 in San Marcos, TX... oh that shower felt good!
Dropped the cat from Belize at Central Texas Cat Hospital in Round Rock, TX (Austin).
Place Kitty (the dog) on a flight to North Carolina where Kelly is anxiously waiting.
Party with peeps who have come to Dallas for the Bon Jovi concert.
Party with peeps already in Dallas joining the Bon Jovi attendees at nightspots around Dallas.
Take my very first Southwest Airlines flight out of Love Field. (Southwest is new to MSP)

AND... then there were those useful signs along the way...

AND... those signs that made us laugh...

^Nothing slips past these guard dogs

^Can hardly wait to stay here

^At the bridge over Rio Hondo... above is the westbound sign. The eastbound sign readsĖ> Puente UCum

^Vikkiís man crush politician in Veracruz...

^Some music CDs I procured along the way... always someone selling them near an OXXO or Pemex

Last edited by JimmyMN; 02-14-2011 at 10:07 AM..
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Old 01-30-2011   #11 (permalink)
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Hotel resources for someone looking to make the drive from Brownsville, TX to Playa del Carmen

(Note: These hotels are in sequential order starting with Texas)

Motel 6 - #0348
2255 North Expressway
Brownsville, TX 78520
Cost: $45 US

Comfort Inn
Avenue Hildalgo No.3408-A
Col. Flores C.P 89220
Tampico, Veracruz, MX
Phone: 833-217-2917
Cost: 650 Pesos

Hotel San Carlos
Col. Benito Juarez 92517
Cerra Azul, Veracruz, MX
Semi Secure Parking
On Hwy-180, 1 mile south of the turn off into the town
Large hotel on the right hand side of Hwy-180 heading south... big sign
Cost: 400 pesos

Auto Hotel
2 Miles south of Alamo right hand side on Hwy-127
Alamo, Veracruz, MX
Semi Secure Parking
Huge complex, nice rooms, well manicured grounds, garage
On Hwy-127 two miles south of Alamo, you’ll pass the new bright orange hospital on
your left. The auto hotel will be on your right about a half mile further.
Cost: 350 pesos

Auto Hotel
Poza Rica, Veracruz, MX
There are at least two auto hotels in this town
No Info!!

Holiday Inn
Zona Centro C. P. 91700
Morelos No. 225
Veracruz, Veracruz, MX
Phone: 229-932-4550
Secure Parking (24 hour attendant)
Cost: 900 pesos (walk-in rate)
**Showed my AAA card and paid 750 pesos

Hotel Colonial
Centro Historico
Zona Centro C. P. 91700
Miguel Lerda No. 117
Veracruz, Veracruz, MX
Phone: 229-932-0193
hotel colonial en veracruz|hotel en veracruz|hoteles en veracruz
Secure Parking (24 hour attendant)
Cost: 650 pesos

Hotel Miami
Located on Hwy-180
Alvarado, Veracruz, MX
Left side just before Alverado on Hwy-180 heading south.
No Info!!

Hotel Venecia (Auto Hotel)
East of Alvarado maybe 30 miles
Lerdo de Tejada, Veracruz, MX
Semi Secure Parking

Hotel Kingdian
On Hwy-180 about a mile south of town heading up the hill
Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz, MX
Phone: 294-947-1447
Semi Secure Parking
The hotel is on your left heading south.
Cost: 950 pesos

Hotel Los Arcos
Francisco I. Madero No.7
Centro C. P. 95870
Catemaco, Veracruz, MX
Phone: 52-294-943-0003
Phone: 52-294-943-0773
Los Arcos Hotel waits for you with open arms on your next visit to Catemaco, Veracruz, Mexico.
Secure Parking (24 hour attendant)
Located 2 Blocks from the malecon on the corner of Madero & Garzia Mantilla

Auto Hotel
On Hwy-180 midway through town on the right hand side traveling east.
Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico
No Info!!

Oasis Auto Hotel
Located on Hwy-180... right side of road heading east.
Macuspana, Tabasco, MX
Phone: 936-389-5269
Phone: 936-389-5290
Secure Parking (in private locked garage)

Hotel Maya Tulipanes
Centro Turistico
Palenque, Chiapas, MX
Phone: 52-916-345-0201
Hoteles en Palenque - Hotel Maya Tulipanes
Secure Parking (gated 24 hour attendant)
Behind the giant statue on Hwy-199 in the center of town
Cost: 900-1300 pesos

El Panchan Complex
On the road leading to the ruins 100 feet from toll booth for the biosphere - Sizeable Sign
Palenque, Chiapas, MX
Accomodations List:
Margarita & Ed’s
Jungle Place
...and more
No Secure Parking
Cost: 100 - 600 pesos

Hotel Mayan Plaza
Avenue Juarez No. 49
Col. Centro C.P. 77000
Chetumal, Quintana Roo, MX
Phone: 983-832-1414
Cost: 500 pesos

Hotel Luna de Plata
Avenue Mahahual KM 2
Costa Maya, Quintana Roo, MX
Phone US: 425-906-4934 (state of WA)
No Secure Parking
Cost: 450 pesos and up

Last edited by JimmyMN; 07-29-2011 at 10:04 AM..
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Old 01-30-2011   #12 (permalink)
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This is the conclusion of our roundtrip from Dallas to Playa del Carmen.

If you ever need help planning a drive, have questions about some of the formalities (insurance, necessary documents, etc.) or need an experienced navigator, feel free to contact me by mail:

jimmymn at yahoo dot com


Last edited by JimmyMN; 02-14-2011 at 09:46 AM..
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Old 01-30-2011   #13 (permalink)
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Posts: 114

Damn, what a wonderful trip, thank you sooooo much for giving us the chance to ride along with you all.

It is a shame that most will never have the chance to realize what a truly beautiful country Mexico is.

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Old 01-30-2011   #14 (permalink)
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Posts: 43
What a great trip report! Thanks for all of the info on driving to Mexico. Your photos are great! Looking forward to hearing about the rest of the journey.
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Old 01-30-2011   #15 (permalink)
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Great pics and stories. I really enjoyed this report.

Thanks alot.
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