Mayan Coronas

Dia de San Patricio
Tuesday 17th March 2020 |
8 Ak'b'al |
 11 Kumk'u |

Top of the morning to you and a Happy St. Patrick's Day. It's strange how today is a cause (or at least an excuse) for a celebration the world over, not just for the Irish. The Mayan day is Ak'b'al meaning the night, but often referred as the darkness before the dawn. It was a positive thought for better things to come.

We woke up 6am when all the air-con units decided to whir back to life. As we were awake so early we decided to phone home just to let everyone know we were safe and sound in Mexico and will be home in a week. 

We managed to get back to sleep for a few hours, at least there was a bonus to having a room without much natural light. We woke up for a second time hungry and ready for breakfast.

Down in the restaurant, on the bar as we walked in, they had this enormous 4 litre bottle of antibacterial hand gel. In the UK this would be liquid gold! It's been sold out for weeks.  Also in the UK it probably would have been stolen.

Anyway, it was reassuring to know that no one had an excuse not to wash their hands.   

Alex and Suzie were here, they had already eaten and were now coming up with an escape plan. They found that Japan was still open for business and were looking for direct flights to Tokyo from Mexico City. We felt for them. It was an incredibly stressful situation.

Breakfast was a buffet which I was dreading but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had a plateful of fried plantain, black beans cooked down into almost a thick sauce, huevos a la Mexicana, scrambled eggs with tomato, green pepper and onion and this cornmeal cake with a spinach-like green vegetable called chaya running through it.

  All eaten with a few freshly warmed tortillas.

Even Julie found her adventurous culinary side and went local this morning by trying a dish called Despeinada, shredded chicken with tomato, green pepper. Gabo later told us despeinada meant "uncombed" as in messy hair, which described the scruffy look of the dish to a T.

With hunger banished we returned to our room to pack our bags before leaving them with concierge. It was time to say good bye to Gabo. We thanked him for being a hero and getting us out of Guatemala safely, He wasn't too sure what was going to happen to him now.  With Guatemala's borders shut and him being Costa Rican he needed to get home somehow and overland wasn't an option.

As we were leaving we instinctively went to shake hands but quickly realised the new pandemic social ettiquette and attempted the lastest craze which was an elbow bump, making a right hash of it.

Our plan for today was to orientate ourselves with Villahermosa, especially find the bus station. We had thought of finding an Irish pub for lunch and a drop of the black stuff, and there actually was one here, called  McCarthy's but we felt it was too far away.

So, we stepped out of the hotel and turned left. After walking for a few minutes we came to the tall obsevatory deck of  La Torre del Caballero. I'm usually the first to want to climb the tallest building in the city but I was on a mission to find estacion autobus and it dawned on me we were walking in the wrong direction.

We retraced our steps, back to our hotel hoping no one noticed we had gone the wrong way and continued along Avenue Francisco I. Madero. We made slow progress as the pavement was mostly inside a shaded arcade filled with traders making it feel like a crowded market place.

Although it was quite an exciting experience accompanied with the sound of banging Mexican music being pumped out of huge speakers from every other store it seemed.

Villahermosa really was a non-descript town, with tired old buildings but we eventually came to a splash of colour in the form of Iglesia de la Santa Cruz brightly painted in a warm ochre. This was our cue to turn down Calle Colonel Lino Merin.

 At the end of the street we found the ADO bus terminal. It was as large and modern as any train station we have at home.

We stepped up to the counter and asked where would we catch the bus to Tulum. They spoke no English and we had no Spanish but a resourceful young girl used Google translate to tell us we needed Room B (Sala B).

There was an adjacent terminal building. We checked it out, then left, happy we knew exactly where we needed to be later.

Gabo had told us that there was a decent Olmec museum here in Villahermosa called Parque La Venta but we were too tired to go traipsing across the city, and too tight to pay for a taxi, so we just walked back towards the hotel, the way we came, past the church.  

In hindsight I wish we had made the effort as we'll probably never come back here.

Anyway, on the way I stopped to photograph a row of colourful houses. The first one, the green house was a pretty looking hotel (Hotel Hacienda Garau) but the houses next door were empty and nearly derelict. If I were the hotel owner I'd be more than a little upset by my delinquent neighbours. 

We continued down the pavement marketplaces of Avenue Francisco I. Madero, looking for a swimming costume for Julie. We did see a few but they were mere slips of cloth and highly inappropriate. They reminded my of that swimming costume worn by Sasha Baron Cohen in the film Borat!

We popped inside a supermarket called Soriana to pick up some snacks and drinks for the bus ride this evening. I got excited in the fruit & veg area when we saw some fresh cactus for sale, the paddles of the prickly pear, known as nopalitos. It made me wish we had an appartment here where I could cook with some authentic ingredients.

It was interesting to compare again with the UK. Here the shelves were fully stocked, panic buying hadn't reached Mexico yet. Athough the public had started to hoarde antibacterial sanitiser. When I asked at the counter if they had any 'gel del manos' the only ones they had left were kids "Hello Kitty" branded strawberry smelling hand gel. We still picked one up as back-up.

A little bit further we went inside a department store called Del Sol hunting for the elusive swimming costume. We found plenty of them but we had some difficulties with the sizes. They were completely different, not even standard US sizes, which we sort of knew was UK size minus two. So we went for the largest size we could find, and at only 179 pesos it was a mistake we could afford.   (Turns out that Mexican sizes are UK sizes plus 24)

We crossed the road and returned to our hotel's reception to book a taxi for 5pm, to get us to the bus station in plenty of time. Alex and Suzie were still here, in the middle of booking their flights home. It was costing them a fortune, $4000 AUD, the equivalent of  about £2000 each. Helen was also here. She was travelling to Mexico City with them later for her direct flight home to the UK on Friday.

We said our goodbyes and left them to finalise their travel arrangements.

We still had another three hours before we were due to leave. It was surprisingly how not hungry we were! But we thought it was sensible for us to have a decent meal now as we probably wouldn't get a chance later.

We decided to give the first tidy looking restaurant a try. Two doors down, in a Best Western hotel called Hotel Madan, they had menus outside. We stuck our head in through the door and were warmly welcomed by staff dressed in colourful traditional style clothing whilst at the same time wearing face masks. It was strange to see at first but once you got used to it you soon became comforted by the fact they were wearing a mask.

They even brough hand gel to the table for us to wash our hands. 

My biggest concern was the large buffet counter in the centre of the room and was prepared to walk back out again if that's all they had to offer. Fortunately we could still choose from the menu. I went for something I had never tried before, Tostones de Plátano Verde, a local delicacy I gathered.

I used this amazing feature of Google translate where it would attempt to translate an image. I pointed the camera at the menu and within a few seconds the Spanish words turned to English. It read "Crispy and golden flakes of plantain, you will love them. Do not leave Tabasco without trying it." How could I not order them after that endorsement!

Sadly, they lied. I would happily leave Tabasco without trying another one. They were plain deep fried battered pieces of green plantain. It needed plenty of seasoning and a good dousing in hot habanero chilli sauce to make the greasy rounds anywhere near edible.

I also chose Tacos Vegetarianos, which turned out to be like something your would find on some crazy detox menu with a lettuce leaf used instead of a torilla, and filled with shredded carrot and onion. It was the classic "rabbit food" dish for the vegetarian. I was so disapponted.

In contrast Julie really enjoyed her chicken dish, described as  Pechuga a la Parrilla, which literally meant grilled breast, plain and simple and well cooked. 

As I waited for Julie to finish eating (I always finish first. Julie says I don't chew my food enough) I studied a large black and white murial on the wall. There was an old photograph of a square I recognised. So after we paid the 432 pesos bill we then made our way to Parque Juárez.

The square didn't look like it had changed much in the interviening years. It was a pleasant little open space with a statue of (I assume) Juárez in the middle There were plenty of people sat around taking a break in the shade of the trees. The bars weren't busy, perhaps 4pm was too early for a drink on a Tuesday afternoon.

Well, that didn't stop us though. An ice cold Corona Extra went down a treat. Quickly followed by another one. They didn't do wine so Julie joined me in some beer. Earlier in the week we had read that global sales of this iconic Mexican brew had plummeted since the outbreak of the coronavirus as people thought they were somehow connected!

We returned to the hotel to collect our luggage and waited outside for our taxi to arrive. Ten minutes later and we were still waiting.

"Sod it, we'll get our own" I said, and picked up the rucksacks crossing the road towards a taxi who had just dropped someone off.  "Estacion Autobus ADO?" I asked. The driver nodded and opened the boot of the car to chuck in our bags. "Oh I hope there's only one bus station in Villahemosa" I told Julie who gave me a "why did you tell me that?" face. She hadn't thought of that specific scenario!

Thankfully the taxi dropped us off at the main bus terminal, the one we had scouted earlier. We marched purposefully to Sala B and sat down in the waiting room for our bus to arrive. We had fifteen minutes to spare.

We noticed on the departures board it said the bus was delayed. We also noticed that the bus company was AV and not the ADO, despite buying tickets from their website. Anyway, 5:40pm came and went without the board changing. Half an hour later we were still waiting.

An AV bus arrived. There was an announcement and I thought I heared "Tulum" mentioned, yet the departures board didn't change. We were getting a little concerned that the board wasn't being updated. So we got up and asked if it was the bus to Tulum / Cancun, and it was!

We chucked our bags into the hold and got out mobile e-tickets scanned but they wouldn't validate. Computer said no. The diver asked the termnal staff a few questions but none of them were bothered so he took me himself to the ticket booth. Julie stayed by the bus completely at a loss as to what was going on.

It turned out I had to buy a ticket for the 6:40pm bus. Thankfully it was half the price of the earlier one, so wasn't a costly mistake (£12.50 each for a 12 hour bus ride!) I asked if I could get a refund for the other bus but she said (via google translate) that it left "in a timely fashion". We must have sat there and watched our bus leave without realising.

With tickets for the bus, the driver scanned us in and we got on board. It then dawned on us what £12.50 gets you.... no toilets!  Twelve hours on a bus without a toilet! The seating plan on the earlier bus definitely had toilets, but this one was just your basic coach. It definitely was not the luxury ticket. We had no choice but to get on with it. 

There were only a handful of other people on the coach, mostly local women. Thankfully no livestock, so it wasn't that bad.

It was dark by the time we set off and in true Owen fashion we were tucking into our "packed lunch" half an hour into the journey. Our torchlight supper of a Subway style cheese baguette and a bottle of cheap supermarket branded wine was almost romantic. 

We felt a strange sense of excitement. We were on our own, travelling across time zones, with no toilets, but we were safe and were together. "We should do 'Race Across the World' (a BBC TV programme)" she said flushed with the adrenalin rush of adventure.

Two hours after leaving Villahermosa we came to our first comfort break at a service station on Highway 186 just outside a town called San Marco, in the state of Campeche. We got out, bought some diet coke, used the facilities. Then got back on board.

We managed to get some sleep but it was that kind of sleep where it feels like you're waking up every five minutes. 

At 1:30am we rolled into the first proper scheduled stop at a town called Xpujil. Julie went to spend a penny whilst I stretched my legs.  I had never heard of this place before, I couldn't even begin to pronounce it, but reading about it afterwards there's a major Mayan ruin some 25 miles away at Calakmul, which I hadn't heard of either.

Back on the bus we still had another 200 miles to go.

  Next day >  

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