GASP! Gulf Area Sea Paddlers

Veracruz Trip Report
Thursday 2/6/2002 through Saturday 2/15/2002

By Ken Johnson

I had mixed emotions about driving 800 miles through a remote section of Mexico along the Gulf with my new car loaded down with 3 kayaks, kayaking and camping gear, food and water for 10 days, and my friend Scott (neither of us speak Spanish). My most trusted companion was my Garmin GPSmap76 which laid out the route from Corpus Christi TX to Veracruz Mexico, identifying all the roads and towns for us to follow, and beeping reliably whenever we approached a turn or exit. Interesting problems: many towns had names different from the two maps, our targeted Highway 180 frequently branched out into 3 different directions, all with the same highway number, few residents spoke English, highways went from good to "a road out of hell" with potholes that looked like "black holes" that would swallow up all but the biggest of vehicles, hidden and camouflaged speed bumps designed to scrape out the bottom and rear end of your car as you tried to get over them slowly, or blow your tires and dent your rims if you hit them fast, and wind blasts to make you airborne as the trucks and busses blew by six inches from your car mirror on narrow shoulder-less roads.

Nevertheless, it was all worth it as we found spectacular kayaking with a wide diversity you could never find in the United States. We were able to romp in what at first seemed like intimidating Gulf surf, climb remote towering sand dunes, kayak along the joyful vibrant Veracruz waterfront and harbor, paddle beautiful quiet rivers with stately homes along the water, get lost in dense jungle mangroves loaded with birds, and even kayak in a lake in the crater of an extinct volcano with 7 islands, several of which had colonies of Thiland baboons bounding about in the trees. Every kayaking trip had a charming restaurant right on the water with out-of-this-world fresh fish and tasty Mexican dishes. And there were side trips to ancient anthropological sites dating back to 400 A.D. with large cities, pyramids, temples, sculpture, and artifacts reflecting the original very advanced cultures of that age. And everyone was very friendly, even the military that searched our car at frequent military stops, and the cop that gave us a $100 ticket for making an illegal U-turn. Rafael Mier-Maza hosted our trip by letting us camp on his property and use his cabin located in La Laguna, a small rural farming town about 20 miles south of Veracruz on the Lagoon that is connected to the Gulf by the Boca Del Rio. It was a very memorable, comfortable, and inexpensive trip.

The 800 mile drive is a 18 or 19 hour drive. We did it in two days, staying over at two very interesting and comfortable hotels enroute. Scenery was always changing from desert, to scrub vegetation, to highlands yet to experience spring, to lush tropical green forests and jungles. The moderate weather was perfect for paddling and sleeping during the entire trip. There were few bugs (other than the scorpion and tarantula we found at the cabin). The quiet and rural sounds of the farm animals in the morning and evening were totally relaxing. No rush down here!

We will put together a full trip report when everyone gets home and has a chance to collect their pictures and thoughts..but though you would like to view our incomplete and still expanding photo collections at:

Ken Johnson's photos: (page 3)

Juan Luis DelValle's photos:

Scott Cartier's photos:

Rafael Mier Maza's photos:


Thursday, February 6: Left home at 5:00am to pick up Scott and drive from Corpus Christi to Veracruz Mexico. We were at the boarder (Brownsville/Matamoroso) by 8am. We went through customs to get travel permits and car papers, and were on the road again by 9:15am. No English spoken, but everyone was polite, friendly, and helpful. Took Highway 180/101 through San Fernando and La Coma to Soto la Marina. Here we took Highway 180 through Aldama and Manual, to Tamipco. It is a rural area with lots of horses, donkeys, pigs, horses, and dogs all around the houses and roads. It was about 480 miles (7 hours) to Tampico, all good highways. We tried to find the Hotel San Antonio which Rafael had recommended, but only succeeded in getting a $100 ticket for making an illegal U-turn. Decided to skip Tampico and continue on to find a hotel before dark. Roads became really bad with big potholes and many small towns with a multitude of dangerous speed bumps. Negotiating them at the slowest possible speed would only scrape the middle and rear of the car.a little faster and you could knock your whole front end out. Only averaged about 40 mph for this portion of the trip. Beautiful countryside though. We stopped at the small river town of Panuco. A great lush green park ran all along the river. The cobblestone streets and architecure almost looked Victorian. We spotted eight kayaks in the river: one Seda, and seven racing kayaks. We continued on through winding mountain roads to a charming small town perched on the side of a mountain (Tantoyuca) where we found a nice modern hotel (Posada San Javier) to stay for the night ($38 double). It was 6:30pm, with 13.5 hours and 570 miles behind us. Nice large room with large comfortable double beds, great shower and a balcony overlooking the town. Parked car inside the locked hotel courtyard in a garage by one of the hotel guesthouses. Perfectly secure for a good night's sleep.

Friday, February 7: Slight drizzle, and on the road by 7:20am. Again, very bad roads with lots of small town speed bumps. Arrived at El Tajin, one of Mexico's most important archealogical sites, by 10:30am (3 hours, 110 miles). El Tajin is spectacular! This ancient city and it's structures date back to 400A.D. The Totonaca culture reached its peak development between 800 and 1150 A.D., when the city was destroyed by fire, presumably set by an invading force. The word "Tajin" means "The Sacred city of the Dead and of the Thunder Storm". The city was populated by the elite: rulers, leaders, politicians, religious figures, major landholders, as well as craftsmen, traders and minor commercial vendors. The site has more than 200 temples and 17 ball courts on the 25 square km site is hidden by surrounding hills, jungle, and coffee plantations. The pyramids have a unique, almost oriental look. The most exotic is the Temple of the Niches which is six stories (59 feet) high. The northeast wall holds a carved panel depicting the sacrifice (decapitation) of a ball player. It was here that the Mesoamerican ball game was born. It was more ritual than sport. Sculptured images of underworld deities appear throughout the site in scenes of the ball game and the manufacture of "pulque", a fermented beverage made from the maguey cactus. It appears that death, ball playing, and the drinking of pulque were critical to ritual life here. There are 365 small square niches around the temple representing the number of days in a year. The keepers of the temple kept flames buring in each niche. The temple's façade had a stucco veneer and glowed brightly with red paint. El Tajin's buildings, with their distinctive slope, nich, and cornice construction, are monuments to Mesoamerican engineering. To date, some 50% of the city's buildings have been excavated. The Papantla Flyers perform in front of the El Tajin visitor center daily at 4pm. A group of them jump from a high pole on long lines tied to their ankles and swing in wide circular loops until they gracefully land on the ground on one foot.

We had a great fresh seafood lunch at an adjoining open-air restaurant. A young man came up to help us order when the waitress asked us questions about our lunch selection. Although he had lived in Mexico all his life, he was quick to say that he was Italian, and introduced us to his father who was from Italy. They were entertaining his father's relatives who were visiting from Italy. He was eager to practice his English, and we traded e-mail addresses to keep in touch later. He is attending college to obtain a degree related to computers.

We then drove on to Veracruz, taking the highway 180 that went along the city's beautiful waterfront. Then we switched to the highway 180 that went 13 miles south to Rafael's property in La Laguna, a small rural town right on the Lagoon. Everything was lush and green. Rafael's cabin is reached by a small rough single-lane road that winds around to this property. The lawn and garden are beautiful, and his cinder block cabin is functional and being renovated. He had just installed a brand new tile bathroom and shower with an abundance of hot water . and we took advantage of before going into Veracruz for dinner that night. We ate light at La Parroquia which is right downtown by the Plaza and always crowded with joyful patrons talking and eating. It is famous for its coffee, music, and good food. It reminded me of an old world class New York restaurant in the Village. Later we walked around the central Plaza de Armas, or zocalo, filled with music, performers, open-air restaurants and cafes, and merry people. Marimba bands, guitarists, and mariachis serenade couples on benches near the fountain and throughout the many cafes. The entire square is lighted, displaying beautiful old historic buildings with grand architecture that surround the Plaza. Had a great night's sleep at Rafael's, using the cabin and two tents.

Saturday, February 8: Beautiful, sunny and warm. Used the cabin kitchen facilities to prepare breakfast, and then headed straight to the Gulf (Anton Lizardo Beach) to play in the surf. Passed by the meticulous Mexican Naval Academy just before arriving at the Gulf. Drove on the beach and launched in front of a clean restaurant on the beach with all glass windows facing the water. Tried out all the different kayaks in all kinds of surf conditions, had a great lunch, and then took the kayaks back to Rafael's and showered for dinner in Veracruz that night.

Sunday, February 9: Another beautiful day. After breakfast, drove to Boca Del Rio where the river joins the Gulf to paddle with the local group of kayak racers that paddle here every Sunday morning. It was a great group of paddlers, and after paddling up-river a little ways, we stopped at the Golf Club beach to have drinks at their open-air bar and get caught up on all the local kayaking news. We parted company here, and then paddled by ourselves up the river through the remote and silent mangroves, seeing a wide variety of birds (I could identify only the vultures and ospreys) along the way. Everyone was intrigued by the red crabs with large black and white eyes that crawled around the base of the mangrove roots just above the water. Past the mangroves we came to a small town (Matosas), and then paddled on to the colorful Mandinga waterside restaurant for a fresh seafood lunch. The place was busy with small tour boats taking patrons out for a cruise around the lagoon. There were several men wading in the water collecting oysters from the floor of the lagoon and shucking them on the spot, leaving the empty shells in the lagoon to encourage more oyster growth. From there we paddled across the Lagoon to Rafael's cabin (about 10 miles all in all). After retrieving the other car at Boca Del Rio, we completed the shuttle in time for another great dinner in Veracruz that evening.

Monday, February 10: Off early to paddle the river and Gulf out of Chachalacas (about 25 miles north of Veracruz). Rafael owns another piece of property on the Gulf in this little beach front town. We launched in the Actopan river and paddled down to the Gulf, winding our way through fishermen casting their nets from their boats and beautiful trees and vegetation on the shore. There was a long rope suspension bridge that crossed the river.we didn't take the time to try it out. The surf was intimidating as it pounded in on the bar by the river opening. We decided to try it and found pleasant paddling out beyond the surf zone as we paddled north to Rafael's property. Landing and launching again at Rafael's property was no big problem, and we continued paddling north up the coast to the towering sand dunes and beaches of black sand. There were occasional homes and people along the beach up to the dunes, and then nothing from that point north. Paddled back to the river outlet for lunch at a beachside restaurant which was well deserved after many of us capsized and rolled or exited in the large surf pounding on the beach. Nevertheless, a great day of paddling!

Tuesday, February 11: Rafael had to work, so Juan Luis, Scott, and I took the day to drive to the state capital (Xalapa) which is known for its beautiful vegetation and mountain cool location (about 75 miles northwest of Veracruz). While everything was lush and green around Veracruz, everything was brown and the leaves were off the trees on the way to Xalapa through the mounains. It is a large bustling town perched in the mountains, with little winding narrow roads in the downtown area. Lots of traffic, and we were lucky to find a convenient downtown parking lot to leave the car. Parking was only $2. Should have taken up their offer to wash the car..took me 3 hours when I got home. We found the famous restaurant La Sopa on a tiny little side street and had a great lunch (always crowded, great food, and very very inexpensive). Three course lunch (soup, entrée, desert, drinks) was $10 with tip for the three of us. Then we made our way to the famous Museo Antropologico de Xalapa, an impressive sprawling modern museum designed by the New York firm of Edward Durell Stone. The L-shaped structure, built in 1986 on a 50,000 square meter plot, covers 9,000 square meters has high ceilings, roofed patios, and abundant open spaces bringing natural light into the six spacious exhibition salons. It is surrounded by a lovely botanical garden. The display covers the three major indigenous cultures of Vera Cruz (the Totonacs, Olmecs, and Huastecs). There are several colossal Olmec stone carved heads weighing up to 27 tons each. Many of the relics came from the El Tijan archeological site. On the way back home, we stopped of at the Ex-Hacienda El Lencero, an impressively restored estate that once belonged to the strongman, general, and several-time president Santa Anna. The home and church are surrounded by beautiful formal gardens and lakes, and Santa Anna used this beautiful hacienda to entertain artists and visiting nobility. That night we joined Rafael for dinner at a unique Argentinian restaurant in Veracruz where as long as you stay seated, he waiters keep bringing a wide variety of different types of rotisseried meats cooked to perfection.

Wednesday, February 12: We paddled 14 miles today from the Gulf beach in front of downtown Veracruz, out to three islands (Isle de Sacraficios, Isla Verde, the Reef wreck, lunch on the third island, and then back past the harbor to our launch point). Great day for paddling: sunny, warm, and fairly calm. The Isle de Sacraficios is where the enemies of Veracruz were taken to be sacrificed and no one is allowed to land on the island now. There is an old relic of a boat built that the one-time Mexican Secretary of the Navy had built, believing that cement construction was the key to future ship construction. It was way ahead of its time, and got no further than this first island, where it now sits in front of a shark cage maintained and used by the local enormous 10,9000 square meter aquarium in Veracruz. Isla Verde is also deserted, but has lush green vegetation, beautiful beaches, and crystal clear water. The third island for lunch is just a strip of narrow shallow sand beach along the reef. After our return, we had drinks in a beach front palm thatched roofed bar and watched the local youths practice their soccer on the beach.

Thursday, February 13: Drove 80 miles south of La Laguna into the lush mountains known as Los Tuxtlas. This is a beautiful region of dense tropical forests, lakes, waterfalls, deserted beaches, and tobacco plantations. Our destination, the little town of Catemaco, is a well-known center for witchcraft and sits on the shore of Lago Catemaco, a 12 km long and 9 km wide lake in the crater of an extinct volcano. There are 7 islands in this lake, the closest and most famous being Isla de los Changos and Isla Agaltepec, which are populated by local monkeys and a colony of baboons from Thailand who were stranded in Veracruz decades ago on a cargo freighter. They were relocated here and have since overrun the island. We had to sprint at top speed to catch up to two men in a brightly colored row boat to ask them directions to the island with the baboons. They were impressed with our we were with theirs. When we were watching the baboons at the island, I was surprised to hear heavy breathing noise like a dolphin.but it wasn't. It was a group of men diving for snails using mask and snorkle. Their boats are colorfully painted in a wide variety of pastel colors..very picturesque. Further around on the north side of the lake are two private nature preserves, La Jungla and Nanciyaga, where visitors pay a fee to tour the tropical jungle, use a temezcal steam bath, or camp for the night. This was one of the most beautiful areas I have paddled, and the serenity and netural beauty of the lake nestled in the mountains was awesome. While paddling back to our launch, we cooled off by practicing our rolls, and then we stopped at a colorful lakeside restaurant known for its delicious preparation of snails harvested in the lake. Driving back to La Laguna, we stopped off at El Salto de Eyipantla, a roaring 40 meter wide waterfall near the village of Sihuapan. It is formed by the drainage from the lake. I think it was 224 steps down to the base of the falls through beautiful jungle.

Friday, February 14: Really sorry to leave this beautiful paddling paradise, we drove off at 8am to head back to Corpus Christi. Drove 10 hours through Tampico and stayed at a new and very neat, clean and efficient motel just north of Tampico.

Saturday, February 15: Drove the remaining 9 hours back to Corpus Christi. Drive back seemed much easier than drive down, probably because we had become acclimated to the potholes and speed bumps, and going back the roads kept getting better, where as they kept getting worse on the way down. Actually, drive between Tampico and Corpus Christi is over very good highways, and there are many deserted beaches and fishing towns to explore in this area on a future trip. I should note that while I had always prided myself on my efficient 4-kayak carrying system, and Rafael warned me not to exceed the suggested 150 pound limit, the rear rack collapsed on the way home. One of the racks rear feet bent slightly, and the sides of the car roof over the rear doors dented slightly, enough to let the rear rack turn on its side under the kayak load. We were able to take the kayaks off, reposition the rack, and reinstall it to get home, but I am now going to have to find a better way to transport my kayaks. I'm still not sure whether it was exceeding the weight limit, or the onslaught of large fast trucks and busses passing inches from my side mirror on narrow shoulder less roads that caused the demise of my rack system. Also, on the return, I must have picked up some dirty gas to clog my fuel filter, but after adding some gas treatment, the car runs as good as new. My car averages 24 mpg ($.058 per mile) in the states, and averaged 23 mph ($.083 per mile) on this trip to Mexico (about 44% more expensive). All in all, it was a fun, trouble free, interesting and unique paddle that was quite inexpensive.

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