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After the dull drone of parched hot and bolt straight highways, Campeche has revealed an unexpected dimension – a land of inspiring bike culture, where bread is laced with cheese, ham and spicy jalapeno peppers, and the bodies of the dead are dug up and put on display…
Fernando from the hostel in Campeche told us about a bizarre, often overlooked cemetary in a small village, Pomuch. There, in a mish mash of Catholic and Mayan ritual, bodies are exumed after three years, cleaned, and put on display in small, colourful cubicles set into the walls. One was scheduled for 11am that day...
Some skulls still had tufts of hair, or even lustrous wigs. The cloth on which they rest is changed each year in a ceremony that takes place on the Day of the Dead.
The other reason for visiting Pomuch was to sample its famous bread. So the first thing we did when we arrived was pull into this local bakery, La Conchita, and see what all the fuss was about.
Wow. It's called a pichon, and it must have weighed a kilo. It cost 40 pesos, that’s about 3 dollars, and was easily enough of a feast for two hungry cyclists. This is just half, and as you can see, its laced with cheese, ham and jalapeno peppers.
Even better than fine, filling food: this part of Campeche turned out to a veritable cycling utopia. Almost everyone was on a bike, be it two wheels or three. The three wheelers carted home produce from the market, and did a roaring trade as taxis too. Could the pancake flat Yukatan Peninsula be Mexico’s answer to Holland?
Utility bikes were everywhere. Apparently rides cost 5 pesos a go and judging by the amount of taxis, they were popular. One driver told me he expected 40 or 50 rides a day - that's 200-250 pesos. The minimum wage in Mexico, the kind of money a waiter might make for a full day's labour, is 50 pesos (4 dollars). And a new, single speed trike costs just 2400 pesos – that’s around $200.
Look at that. Just one car parked on the street, a sight that’s rarely seen in increasingly car-centric Mexico. Pomuch felt unusually relaxed, and I’d like to think the calming lack of cars cluttering the road or speeding past had seeped into people's psyche. I talked about it to the lady who sold us avocados, and she mentioned a nearby village where only one collectivo passed each day.
Fresh market produce, including my Hall of Fame favourite fruit, mango, and my new discovery, maranon, the one with the piggyback cashew.
We stopped off for some watermelon too, a great thirst quencher. I remarked on the generous size of the watermelon to the lady who ran the fruteria. 'That’s nothing,' she said dismissively. 'Sometimes they get to 25–30kg, and those ones are sent to Merida.'
It's hard to stay hydrated, so we bought a 20 litre recyclable bottle of purified water, and filled our bikes and bellies to the brim for the day ahead.
More bike culture in the nearby colonial town Hecelchakan, where schools of cyclists swoosh round the main plaza.
Here’s a taxi stand, Campeche-style - ‘Tricitaxi’ drivers hanging out under their canvas awnings, chewing the cud like a bunch of New York bike messengers.
Not easy working conditions. 40c degrees in the shade…
Unfortunately Romain was having a bad run of punctures; his spirits had began to wain after his 6th in a row. The word Campechino actually means ‘good natured’ in mexican spanish - and luckily local cyclist Javier came to the rescue, whisking him off to the bike shop to heal his bike’s inner tubes with special patches less prone to peeling off in the midday sun. Then he invited us to lunch, and gave me a great retro team jersey which I promised to photograph around Latin America.
Our original plan had been to follow the Ruta Puc – a network of roads that take in an array of Mayan ruins – towards Merida. But Javier’s told about a nearby cinote – an icy cold water hole – where we could camp for the night, and a pristine beach where we could get to the following day. So we swapped culture for for the promise of a cooling dip, respite from the unremitting heat. Plus, it was a relief to get off the highway. The roads through the mangrove swamps were blissfully empty, just what we needed.
And the traditional thatch houses in the villages we passed through looked like they might have come straight from a quaint Dorset backdrop, with a palm leaf twist.
From the sleepy fisherman village of Punta Arena, we negotiated a ride in a fishing boat – bartering down the opening 700 pesos gambit to a more agreable 150 pesos. This was the only way to get to Celustun.
I'm loving the markets. We popped into Celustun's offering for agua fresca – a choice of fresh fruit blended with purified water and ice. If you don’t say 'sin azucar' expect a couple of generous tablespoonfuls of sugar heaped into your healthy drink…
A motley assortment of motorbike and bicycle taxis were parked up outside the market.
The ride started out promisingly enough. An empty and well packed trail, with sandy fringes… Then the sand became more than just fringes, and things took a turn for the worse. Thus begun the Gulf Coast Beach Adventure… More on that soon...