Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Night at a Sex Motel

After a long day of driving and visiting two archeological sites (see previous posts), Nancy and I were exhausted. The sun was nearing the horizon as we prepared to leave the El Tajin ruins, north of Veracruz. We asked an elderly parking lot attendant about nearby hotels. He recommended El Castillo, a nice big hotel, he said, but expensive. Cheaper ones could be had a few kilometers further, in Posa Rica, a small city with ties to the petroleum business.

After laboring along a pitted road crossed with treacherous speed bumps, we came upon Hotel Castillo, an imposing stone edifice that looked like a medieval castle. Hurrah, we thought, we can call it a day.

As soon as our car nosed through the “drawbridge” gate, we realized that we were in a motel, not a hotel. In Mexico, as in Costa Rica, “motels” cater to couples needing absolute privacy. They rent rooms by the hour.

A young man hurried over to greet us, and invited us to look at a room. It cost only 370 pesos, he said, (about $33), and we could stay until noon the next day. Nancy and I exchanged a look. If this was the expensive hotel, the other hotels must be flea bags.

So, we gamely looked at a room. It actually was quite nice but with a few peculiarities. No closet to hang clothes. No chairs. A metal pole in the middle of the room. A little rotating cubby in the wall where drinks and snacks could be delivered discretely. But the room was very clean, the king-sized bed was comfortable, it was getting dark, and we were exhausted. We handed over our pesos, parked the Buick in our private garage, pulled the curtain to hide our car, and climbed up the stairs to our room.

We checked the TV. Three channels of porn as well as soap operas and Los Simpsons. But we entertained ourselves on the bed with a rollicking game of cootie, a form of competitive double solitaire, probably the only time that surface has been used as a card table. The lighting was so low (we didn’t bother turning on the red headboard glow) that we had to wear our camping headlamps to see our cards.

As we prepared for bed, Nancy looked around for a water glass. No luck. Oh wait! There was one on a ledge with napkins in it. “Perfect!” she cried, reaching for the glass. It wouldn’t budge. The glass, the ashtrays, and the TV remote were all glued down.

So we spent the night at a sex hotel, the only real danger being the chance of running head-first into the pole on the way to the bathroom in the dark. Before daybreak we rose, packed the car, and were on the road with the morning sun.

No, I did not duck in the passenger seat as we crossed the drawbridge, as Nancy observed one woman doing, protecting her reputation while her partner drove.

The roads were so rough and congested it took us 45 minutes to go the eight miles through town. As we finally reached the edge of the city, guess what we saw. A huge Holiday Inn!


Friday, February 11, 2011

Not Another Sports Stadium!

Nancy and I strolled through El Tajin, a large archeological complex north of Veracruz. The city flourished from 600 to 1200 C.E., although it had been inhabited since 5600 B.C.E. It was the dominant city of what is now the state of Veracruz. Its builders remain a mystery. Like Cempoala (see previous post), the site was abandoned in 1230 C.E.

Although only a portion of the site has been excavated, its scope and imposing stone structures are impressive. Unique to this site are “niches.” One structure, the Pyramid of the Niches, contains 365 recessed niches, one for each day of the year.

Seventeen ball courts have been uncovered, more than any other site in Mesoamerica. These guys must have loved sports, like a town with a basketball court on every other corner.
While El Tajin's structures are impressive, for some reason they did not speak to our hearts. The site seemed dreary, and the buildings lacked the breath-taking beauty and sacred sense we have felt in other Mexican ruins we have visited.
Or maybe it was a message telegraphed through the ages from one of the women of El Tajin, hands on hips, scowling, "What! Not another sports stadium! We need better schools!"

Ruins of River Rock

After years of exploring the archeological sites of the ancient Maya, we paused on our drive back to Minneapolis to explore two ruins outside the Yucatan. North of Veracruz at Cempoala (also spelled Zempoala), the Totonac people built their pyramids and other structures out of river stones. Our eyes are so used to the block stone of the Maya, it was rather shocking to walk into the site. The dark stones are smooth and carefully placed in rows, joined by mortar that still holds up after all these centuries.

Cempoala means “the place of the 20 rivers” because rivers converge near the site. Most of the buildings date from the 14th and 15th centuries. The site was occupied much earlier, though, probably by the Olmecs some two millennia ago.

The unusual circular structures may have had astrological significance. One architectural motif is the step pillar, a chair-like stone structure on many of the ruins, including the outer walls. All the buildings are accessible, and Nancy sat on one of these "chairs" as though it were part of a carousal ride.

Cempoala was the first New World city that Cortez ran into. Its 30,000 people were under subjugation to the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City. Seeing an opportunity to throw off their oppressors, they joined forces with Cortez to help bring down the Aztec empire. They ended up helping the Spanish destroy their own culture.

Cempoala is lovely and quiet. No vendors hawk wares, and the summer-like breeze and lovely palm trees dot the spacious areas between the amazing buildings.
As we left the town, we realized that even the speed bumps were shaped like step pillars.
These were the only speed bumps in our 4000 plus miles of driving in Mexico that gave us pleasure!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Nancy and I spent two nights in Veracruz on the southwestern rim of the Gulf of Mexico. We found the city, the main shipping port of Mexico, busy and a bit worn. It is not a tourist town and we were the only gringas we spotted on the streets, in restaurants, and at our hotel.

There’s a wonderful boardwalk running along the sea that affords a lovely view of the open water, the huge ships in the harbor loaded with cargo, fishermen pulling their catch from the sea, and families milling about on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Nancy bought a ripe, juicy mango on a stick along the boardwalk beautifully peeled, scored, sprinkled with salt and chili powder, and doused with fresh lime juice. Vendors were also selling sliced pineapple, ham & cheese empanadas, and cooked corn.

We woke Monday to a howling sound. A cold north wind had come barreling down the gulf overnight with gusts up to 40 miles an hour. Not a day for outside activity. So we spent the morning reading and looking out the windows on three sides of our unusual garret and the afternoon at the Veracruz Aquarium, one of the largest and most visited aquariums in the world. It has a huge donut-shaped waterway where large fish and sharks swam while onlookers stand in the middle.

We also spend a chunk of the chilly day in the Gran Café, where patrons clink spoons against their glasses (no coffee cups) to signal the waiter for free refills of the rich local coffee, poured from a small silver pitcher, and hot foaming milk, poured from a big pitcher. A large glass of this Veracruz lechera costs all of 27 pesos or about $2.25.

After a full day of rest, we were ready to be on the road again exploring more of Mexico on our return to the States.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Birding at Rio Lagartos

Yesterday we met our birding guide a little after dawn by the pier at Rio Lagartos.

Diego Nuñez drove us to nearby fields abutting the enormous Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, where we spotted 24 birds. My favorite was the Vermillion Flycatcher whose bright red feathers glowed in the morning sun.

Nancy's favorite bird was the Mexican Sheartail, a hummingbird with a brilliant crimson throat, found only along the northern coast of the Yucatan Penninsula.

After three hours of birding on foot, Diego took us deep into the park in his little motorboat. Rio Lagartos was misnamed by the Spaniards who thought the waterway was a river (it’s an inlet from the Gulf of Mexico). The meandering expanse of saltwater weaves in and out of stretches of dense mangroves, providing a sanctuary for 333 bird species, marine turtles, fish, and crocodiles.

After an hour of leisurely birding, we reached our destination: the waters off the salt flats (shown above) where over 40,000 pink flamingos make their home, the largest colony in Mexico. The young flamingos are pale pink. The mature adults are orange from the concentrated brine shrimp in their diet. (My photo below doesn't do the color justice.)

Here's a photo from Diego's website that gets closer to the actual color. The flamingo is a beautiful bird in flight with the black edging on its wings.

On the return trip, we caught sight of two great blue herons in a mating dance, stretching their impressive necks skyward, fluffing their feathers, advancing and retreating through thigh-deep water, and being oh-so coy.

Diego Nuñez, shown below, is an excellent guide.

You can check out his website at


Note: Photo of the vermillion flycatcher is from the website, photographer Greg Lasley.
Photo of the Mexican Sheartail is by Diego Nunez. Photo of flamingos in flight from his websit, taken by Jim Legault.