Mexico has so far been exactly what we hoped and expected it to be. Once you hit the border, you’re no longer in English speaking country…you better start throwing your best version of gringo spanish and hope someone gets what your saying! The small towns consist of a few shops (tiendas) lining a single street which you were likely to miss if it wasn’t for the speedhumps in the road. The people are friendly, the food is delicious and cheap and all the rules associated with the western soceities seem to have flown out of the window (or more likely blown away by the wind!). Not everyone is wearing sombreros and sipping tequila though…instead they are wearing cowboy hats and lunching on fish tacos (pescada de taco), tamales, guacemole and salsa. And for the curious out there, the tequila we drink in South Africa is probably made from some other cactus we have over there! The stuff they sell here tastes a LOT better and don’t give you that instant headache. So far, its been a feast of fruits, vegatables and beaches mixed with a spicy salsa and a heap of seafood! We are loving it!
We crossed over into Mexico with a lot of anticipation and a bit of apprehension. The warnings heeded by the US, UK and Australian consulates focus on the drug cartels and where they are clashing while most every US citizen that hears you are going to Mexico has a word or two of warning. It was, to say the least rather disconcerting and instead of dreaming about beaches and sombreros, we were trying to find a way around this giant country. Although I wouldn’t say there is no sign of any of the big problems here, we have found a country full of friendly people and good food. It feels a lot like Africa with people speaking Spanish! And here’s a big secret which I think the Canadians might want to keep to themselves, this place is perfectly safe for big RVs and until now we can still find “RV parks” just around every corner. Indeed, we have met more Canadians “snowbirds” (literally flying south for the winter) in Mexico than we did in America and Canada!
Baja Mexico (pronounced Bakha, j=kh as in lokhnessmonster) can be divided into the northern Baja Calfornia and southern Baja California Sur at roughly the middle of the +-1200km peninsula. We drove through Baja California at quite a pace but with the exception of the beautiful pacific coastline and the Sonora desert, anything above San Ignacio fails in comparison to what follows.
After the long desert landscape San Ignacio with its palm trees looks like a long awaited oasis. We drove through town to the town square where we got to see our first of many Missions. These Missions were built after monks started arriving in 1523 after the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521. The missionary work done by these monks helped extend Spanish control over Mexico and by 1560 they had converted millions of people and built more than 100 Missions. This was probably after Pope Paul III declared indigenous Mexican peoples human in 1537! Anyhow, someone told us that each Mission was built according to the length you could travel by foot per day, if it’s true we don’t know…but we found some of them that are definitely built closer to each other than a day’s walk! When in San Ignacio, do buy yourself some dates, they are delicious and keeps forever.
The next really nice town was Mulege (pronounced Moo-le-he), covered in all color variations of bougainvilleas! It seemed a great place to retire with it’s laidback atmosphere and cobblestone streets. The Mision Santa Rosalia de Mulege can be found on a hillside across the town which overlooked a beautiful green river surrounded by palmtrees. From here we drove south and were soon next to Bahia Concepcion, a giant bay with gorgeous turquoise water and silky white sand. We stayed at one of the many camping spots along the bay where we had a palapa and only a blowfish skeleton for company. The weather was slowly starting to get warmer since leaving the freezing US and if you could get a spot out of the cold wind, you could take off your jacket and imagine you’re in Mexico!
The next town we got on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja was Loreto . It has a quaint little town square full of Bougainvilleas surrounded by souvenir shops. Closer to the beach foreigners (and I guess Mexicans as well) have built beautiful houses which I’m sure has lovely ocean views. It was a nice little town which had it’s own Mision and everything else you may need as a traveler, just be warned that the calibration of the pumps at the gas stations is way wrong!
Bahia Concepcion is bay con the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja. To say it is beautiful would be the understatement of the year. The beaches (or playas as they are known in Spanish) are just stunning…there is no question why the Americans take their RVs and drive south for their winter. At M$80 per night its a bargain as well! The facilities aren’t really up to what they are in the US but who notices with such a gorgeous view!
A wise man we met in Los Angeles told us that although he wasn’t religious, the Mision Javier de Vigge close to Loreto made him consider otherwise…we now know why! Although the road have unfortunately been paved all the way to this quant little village and now you share this sacred place with villainous Mexican biker gangs, the Mision and what must have happened there in the past, still moves you. Definitely a worthwhile detour from the Mex-1.
When you enter the city limits of La Paz it seems to be a dirty, dusty town with one small palapa shop following another. Let’s just say that it doesn’t prepare you for how picturesque the town really is! The malecon or waterfront looks like a Caribbean paradise complete with yachts and skinny girls in tight shorts jogging on the boardwalk. We drove out of town about 20 km to Playa (Beach) Pichilingue where our Mexican trip finally started. We hid from the relentless cold wind behind some beach bushes and woke the next morning to glorious sunshine and swimsuit weather. We had bought some Tequila and margarita mix at the Walmart (jip, they’re still here) and we spent the next few days just soaking up Mexico we had been waiting for! It was here that Marius said goodbye to those pretty locks of his and hello to washing hair only four cups of water…since then I have considered short hair more than a few times! We free beach-camped here for a few days and before we headed south we ran into our first South African overlanders..Brian and Diana Jones (www.travelpod.com/members/panamericalandy). In their Landrover have done a Cape to Cape trip and is now on their way north to finish their Pan America trip. We met at pretty much the halfway mark and it was bittersweet to see South Africans doing what we are for the first time. Good luck guys, race you to the finish?
From La Paz we did a circle route all along the coast of the Cape region of the Baja. We took the gravel scenic route out of La Paz and reached Los Barriles after a few days. The coastline was beautiful here and for the most part still unspoiled. Here and there gorgeous mansions look out over the ocean, but then just a few kilometers further you find smaller local settlements sustaining themselves with nothing more than the fish they catch. The two bigger towns in this area, San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas look more like something you would expect to see in the US. Large, fancy hotels, Starbucks and of course a trusty Walmart line the coast, but it’s beautiful tourist spots with gorgeous beaches and lots of Mexican folk taking advantage of the foreign money. A little to the north, the pueblo magico (magical town as some quant towns in Mexico are know) Todos Santos is a lot less touristy and tranquil and seemed like the perfect place to retire.
Back in La Paz we were ready to board the ferry and cross over to mainland Mexico. Although initially we were going to take the ferry to Mazatlan, we figured we would see more of Mexico if we rather go to Topolobampo which is about 400km north of Mazatlan. The ferry ride was also much shorter and would take us across the sea of Cortez in only 7 hours versus 15 if we were to go to Mazatlan. We would board the ferry at 11pm (not am), sleep conveniently in a reclining chair that looked very comfortable on the brochure and arrive at 6am the following morning. So in our best Spanish, we booked a ticket and arrived at the port to board in a very timely manner (if your surname is de Clercq you will understand). We had to part ways as the Marius had to park the cruiser in the hull and I was lucky enough to get to stand in a very long row with the rest of the passengers. When I finally made it into the ferry about 45min after Marius, we navigated ourselves to the canteen where we would get a dinner included in the price of the ticket…what a bargain we thought! As we should have expected being in Mexico, we got beef (or a reasonable representation thereof) stew, rice and beans with some rather dry maize tortillas which weren’t all that tasty. But we weren’t all that bothered by the dinner as we had a nice relaxing 6 and a half hours to sit and enjoy the trip to the mainland. We could have not been more wrong! It was a Sunday night and most of our fellow passengers were school kids returning from some sports gathering. Young, clingy, adolescent kids with silly grins were everywhere! We finally managed to get two seats, not quite as soft and comfy looking as those in the brochure, but still no reason for complaining. Two minutes after sitting the reason for the large amount of people lying on blankets in the corridors became all too clear. A rather self-satisfied smug looking fellow informed us that we were not allowed to sit there pointing to a small piece of print on our tickets : “sin silla”. My first encounter with the word “sin” was years before when I attempted to learn Portuguese when we were still thinking that I should look for a job in Angola: Agua sin gas, Agua con gas…water without gas, water with gas.. A sick feeling came over me as we realized what he might be suggesting…In serious denial, we marched to the info office and demanded someone who spoke English. Our fears were realized…our tickets had no seats! The unfriendly lady told us, with what I am sure was a smirk, that our best bet would be to sit in the canteen area or bar…for 7 hours! We were speechless, and with that the boat started rocking slowly as we left the port! The chairs in the canteen area were your typical white, plastic garden chairs. We sat down rather undignified and realized that this may be the longest 6 and a half hours of our lives. After only 30 minutes we had enough, we walked to the bar to see if there might be more comfortable chairs. There were some nicer lounge chairs, but they were all taken and that was if you could handle the loud (85+ db) Mexican distorted music and rowdy crowd! We walked along the corridors looking for a spot to sit on the floor but to no avail…families were lining the floor on blankets. Ironically, we had exactly the same idea with actual air mattresses and sleeping bags but decided the reclining chairs looked more than adequate. I thought of Joseph and Maria, wondering if they might have felt something similar. After about two hours we finally got a piece of hard, cold floor which we were really grateful for. A piece of floor with the hygiene you would expect in your average shopping mall (not a US mall). We lay down with cushions constructed from a jacket and a backpack (which we realized later had some sandwiches in) and tried to sleep. It was as hard as you would imagine a floor to be and the constant worry that someone may steel our bags while we slept didn’t encourage a good night’s rest. With at least two to three hours of interrupted sleep we made it to Topolobompo in one piece…a rather sore piece, but one piece nevertheless. It was a night we truly don’t want to repeat!
After recovering from the ferry trip, we headed inland toward an area called the Copper Canyon. In size it apparently tops the Grand Canyon and as an added bonus you get to visit remote Mexican villages with indigenous peoples. The usual way tourist visit the canyon is by taking a train that runs northeast along the canyon, stopping at most of the villages before returning by the same tracks. It is possible to drive there, and we apart from it being much cheaper to drive yourself, we also saw an opportunity to see the road less travelled. We passed the small town of El Fuerte and tried to follow our map to the next town when we met a guy from the US on the road. He offered to help and we followed him to his place. He was working at a copper concession in the area and seemed to know the area pretty well. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that we were heading straight for one of the areas the drug cartel wars were a big problem. In fact, we would be crossing a river (which we did not know of) where these guys were controlling the ferry to pass. It was disappointing, as this area would have made the ferry to Topolobompo instead of Mazatlan worth the extra kilometers, but we turned around reluctantly and drove south. In retrospect we should have gone directly to Mazatlan as the only thing we learned from going to Topolobompo was that ferries have hard floors, drug cartel wars are real and that you can sleep at any petrol/gas station (all called Pemex) in Mexico.
When we entered Mazatlan we could see why it was one of the first resort destinations on Mexico’s pacific coast. It is a beautiful bay area with a long boardwalk lined with large hotels. The town can be divided in two regions, the new, touristy area where you could swear you’re in the US and old town Mazatlan which reminds you of some village in Italy. We stayed in an RV park where most people were French Canadian. That night we went to the tree-lined Plazuela Machado in Old town Mazatlan and with that transported into a wonderland of cast iron terraces, cobblestone streets and old theaters. The plaza at centre has chapel-like structure with quaint (but expensive) restaurants surrounding the plaza. Truly worth a visit.
South of Mazatlan beautiful beaches line the entire coastline of Mexico. We stopped at some of the big names such as San Blas, Chacala and Sayulita. Went for an interesting walk at Chacala. Interesting like having a flat tire in the Chalbi desert in the middle of the night! What was supposed to be a leisurely hike to a secluded beach cove turned out to be an exercise in how many ticks can climb on you and how taking shortcuts leads to lengthy detours. The path runs through a cow pasture for the first 2km, although frankly I think it’s torturous where the cows must go through to get to a grassy patch. The landscape resembled the rocky surface of the asteroid Bruce Willis and his team landed on in Armageddon….with small hills and valleys. Somewhere along this ankle twisting trail I managed to pick up a nest/flock/whatever the group name of ticks the size of a ping pong ball. They might have just hatched that day as they were so small I didn’t realize that the big brown spot on my jean were actually a gazillion of minute ticks. Getting them all off was impossible and as it happened while we were still heading toward the cove, they would have ample time to crawl to whichever fleshy part of me that liked. Marius got a few on his shoes and legs as well, but I think I scored the bonanza when I walked through their nest. The cove was cool, when I actually looked up from trying to pick the ticks off. Halfway there we got to a gravel road which went all the way to the cove and decided sleep there the next day. As the tick pasture wasn’t a lot of fun, we figured we would take the little gravel road which was bound to meet the asphalt road leading to Chacala. After 2.5km and thanks to the trusty GPS, we finally accepted that the road wasn’t going to meet the tar road any time soon and not only had to walk those kilometers back but also the lovely tick pasture. That night we picked off dozens of ticks from each other and itched for days to follow. I guess I was glad for the exercise….
Sayulita is a lovely place, but sadly everybody knows it. It’s terribly touristy and you’re more likely to see a foreigner than a Mexican. We stayed in a nice, crowded campsite for two nights and met some fellow travels, but unfortunately with lots of tourists everything becomes more expensive. It’s definitely more of a hippie place where you’re more likely to wake up to the smell of marijuana than coffee, but it was fun to interact with people of our own age.
After Sayulita we made a quick stop inland at hot spring someone told us about on the way. We were just about to give up on finding the place when a sign jumped out in front of us. Cement pools cascade into each other resulting any variation of water temperature you would prefer. It’s kept beautifully clean and unlike most hot springs you can have a drink and even use them at night.
Further down the Pacific coast we visited more stunning beaches like Arroyo Seco, El Paraiso, the beautiful Maruanta and the laidback Nexpa. This area is well-known and loved by surfers for the large and sometime scary waves that crash here. At Boca de Pascuales we got to see some daredevil try their luck with enormous wave which form those typical barrels you see the professionals glide through. The waves here are so big that the surfers are taken to the wave by jet ski and then sometimes “rescued” by the same jet ski if the wave is just too big. It’s not uncommon for surfers to actually break their boards here. We met Edgar Alvarez when we camped at his hotel (Hotel Boca de Pascuales) who fixes the boards of these poor unfortunate souls who ventured into the blue, but he also makes his own brand of surfboards. His place is super relaxed and filled with backpackers and wannabee surfers from all over the world. Seemed like the laidback kind of living every surfer would be happy have. Make sure to visit his great restaurant, the quesadilla carne asada (2 tortillas with cheese and roasted meat in the middle, toasted like a sandwich..mmm) is to die for!
On our way along the coast we picked up a rather nasty stomach bug and realized why it may not be the best idea to take a bite of some free pies in a Walmart just because it is there. After 4 days of taking turns lying around and feeling pretty awful, we had had enough time on our hands to read up on the interior of Mexico and turned inland at Lazaro Cardenas. Our first stop was the villageof an indigenous peoples, known as the Purepecha, that had been destroyed by lava from a nearby volcanic eruption in 1943. Within a year of spurting steam, sparks and hot ash, Volcan Paricutin had risen to an elevation of 410m and its lava had all but engulfed the Purepecha villages of San Salvador Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro. As the lava flowed slowly, all the villagers had time to escape. It continued to grow until 1952 and today all that is left from the villages the Templo San Juan Parangaricutiro, an old catholic chuch, which protrudes eerily from the coarse, black lava rock. The church is located not far from another Purepecha village called Angahuan. Unlike the rest of Mexico, these peoples built their houses from wood, still ride horses instead of driving cars and believe in booming loudspeakers for announcements any time of day. The women wear their hair long and braided and have ankle length, pleaded skirts that are very colorful. They are friendly but more reserved and seem to prefer their own culture to that of the rest of Mexico.
There are two ways to get to the church, you can walk there or let a guide take you on a horse with a wooden saddle…we opted to walk. When we got to the church, we were met by a number of Purepecha ladies that were selling among others blue corn quesadillas. We got a free taste (against better judgement..), and yes, it really is a blue corn tortilla. Inside, a small amount of cheese keeps the fried cactus leaves (called nopales) together and all this is then dunked into a fiery tomato and chilly salsa..it was only a taste but Maria’s blue corn quesadillas is great. As for the rest of the area, most of the church was covered in stone with the tower being the only thing that was still visible. Amazing to think that two towns could just be erased so easily…
From Angahuan we visited another Purepecha town called Paracho which is famous for high-quality, handmade string instruments. In the next few days it became quite clear that each little village had its own specialty or niche. This town was all about guitars and if you didn’t sell an actual guitar you had a souvenir replica of one or your store had guitar painted on its outside walls. There is even a museum displaying all kinds of guitars. We stopped for lunch at the famous and wonderful El Pony which sells pork (carnitas) and goat (birria) meat. Here, they serve you pork or goat that has been slow cooked in its own juice…think Eisbein. Soon a little old lady appears asking you about tortillas. No, she is not trying to sell you tortillas while you are trying to eat, she is trying to find out how many corn tortillas you want with your meat. After her third attempt I finally got it, and off she went to fish out M$5 worth of tortillas from a 50kg maize bag filled with semi-warm tortillas. It was really good…and off coarse we had the pork, we’re from Africa but goat is still a little foreign!
Further to the east we visited the town of Patzcuaro, a very well-preserved colonial town in the state of Michoacan. At the centre, an old church known as the Basilica de nuestra senora de la salud, sits on a hillside where it towers over the town of white and brown-reddish houses. We headed north after leaving Patzuaro to the Lago de Patzcuaro which was described by our trusty Mexico guide book as being “a lake so blue its edge blends seamlessly with the sky”. Although blue in a Vaalriver kind of way, we think the guy may have had some vision disturbance that day. All along the lake, charming small villages line the shore, each making and selling their own special product. The village for Tocuaro is a tiny place, to which we actually initially missed the turnoff, where villagers make the some of the finest masks in Mexico. We stopped at the best mask maker, Orlando Horta, and was allowed to take one picture as buying one will set you back several hundred U$. The village of Tzinzuntan specializes in ceramics and you can even go for classes if that would float your boat. A third village slightly further from the lake, Capula, has an particularly colorful and flared way of celebrating one of Mexico’s most famous holiday, Dia del Muertos (Day of the dead). It is held in early November and in this village graves are covered in moss and marigold crosses and headstones in red roses and purple orchids. They make graveside fires and stay up all night honoring their deceased. Someone had told us that somewhere in the area they even exhume the bones and clean them…we have no proof but it may not be too far-fetched.
One of the main reasons for our trip inland was to visit the beautiful colonial city of Morelia. It is described as one of the best-preserved colonial city and was actually declared an Unesco World Heritage site in 1991. It was truly worth the detour! After finding parking (in a city!) with relatively no problem, we walk toward the town’s centre plaza. The Cathedral rises above the streetvendors shining shoes and selling food with prominence and beauty, a view that was only topped when we saw it lit up that night. Inside the stainglassed dome rose above you to a height 20+ metres and the walls covered with studs religious artwork framed with gold and silver. On the pulpit, a priest was preaching-chanting while the people softly repeated everything he was saying. On the right, another priest entered a small wooden confession box that already had two rows of people ready for confession. Each sinner had to go on his/her knees to get hole the priest was listening through. When one lady was still there when we left, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it’s been since her last confession…
Other than beautiful old buildings Morelia is know for its Dulces Morelianos (delicious sweets made with ingredients like fruit, nuts, milk and off coarse sugar). An old-fashioned chocolateria close to the Cathedral make and sell all kinds of chocolates, fruit preserves and glorious sweet things. Some of the chocolates are filled with nuts, some with spicy chilly flavours while others are just big chunks of truffles covered in cocoa available in dark, milk or white chocolate variaties. The ladies that work in the shop are all dressed in beautiful old silk gowns with hats and a very proper and elegant way about them. I wanted to stay forever, but we bought a few varieties and Marius pulled me kicking and screaming out of the store! Beside the amazing chocolate, a whole separate Mercado de Dulces that sell cinnamon infuces chocolates, sugared fruits such as figs and mango, peanut brittle-like candy made from almonds, pecan and other seeds and nuts. They also sell all types of sweet and creamy liqueurs. It was a remarkable place with rows and rows of the same treats sold by different vendors. Pretty sweet. That night we ate at a small hole in the wall called El Taquina which served delicious alambres (corn tortillas with spicy meat and peppers covered in cheesy) for almost nothing.
See you soon…well sooner than this time!
After the lovely Morelia we headed further east to a town called Valle de Bravo. An artificial lake serves this up-class area known as a popular holiday destination for the wealthy living in Mexico City. The narrow streets of this small town with its lakeside setting made you wonder if this may be somewhere in Italy.
Our next stop was the 4690m high long-extinct volcano Nevado de Toluca that has a 48 km long road that runs all the way up to it’s crater that contains two lakes, El Sol (the sun) and La Luna (the moon). Since we live below 1000m most our lives, we were sure our red bloodcell count would not be nearly enough to get oxygen to all parts of our brains. What the guidebook neglected to tell us is that it would be another kilometer’s walk to see the two lakes. Now, its one thing to start feeling a little funny above 4000m, but it’s quite a different thing to drag your oxygen deprived self up a steep incline. After about 400m we were huffing and puffing, throats (it just took us 3 minutes to try and get the spelling for this word…we must be out of civilization for too long!) burning and hearts pounding like the crazy. The really sad part was that some of the other visitors were running around throwing each other with snow while others were having intense conversations while calmly ascending the hill, showing no sign of any strain. The summit could not have come sooner and we were rewarded by a pretty spectacular view of the lakes and the surrounding area. The walk down was much easier and when we got back to the cruiser we rewarded ourselves with a beer and two oranges. It may have been the lack of oxygen or the sense of wellbeing from conquering the hill, but then and there we decided to change direction and instead of heading back to the coast, we would head straight for Mexico City to see the Teotihuacan ruins that lies just to the north.
We were lucky enough to only get a little lost on the outskirts of Mexico City and were able to reroute just in time to miss the Centro. In the small town of San Juan Teotihuacan we stayed at the comfortable Teotihuacan trailer park filled with other foreigner wanting to see the great ruins. Unlike the rest of the foreigners we decided to walk to the ruins which were only about 2-3 km from the town…felt much further coming back after a day of walking around the ruins! I guess a short history of the ruins are in order…The Teotihuacan ruins are all that is left of the first great civilization in central Mexico. The grid plan for the city was laid out in the 1st century AD which formed the basis for the Pyramids of the Sun and moon and all other structures that was built in the following 600 years. At it’s peak, the population of this city was about 125,000. These peoples had many gods such as the feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl), which was important for fertility and life, and Tlaloc, which was the water and rain deity. Like all pre-Hispanic civilizations in Mexico, Teotihuacan were burned, plundered and abandoned by the 8th century.
Although initially more than 20 square kilometer, today all the ruins lie along a 2km Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the dead) named because the later Aztecs believe the great buildings that line the avenue were all tombs. Sights along this avenue include the Ciudedela, which is a large square complex built around a pyramid known as the Templo de Quetzalcoatl. The temple has striking carvings on its steps of both the feathered serpent and the four-eyed, fanged rain god Tlaloc and it is believed to have been the residence of the city’s ruler.
The Piramide del Sol (Pyramid of the sun) is the third-largest pyramid in the world and stands at 70m high. Each base is 222m long and was built using three million tons of stone without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. This pyramid, painted bright red during Teotihuacans height, was dedicated to the sun which was a large part of their religion. It was 248 narrow and steep steps to the top and we couldn’t help but feel for the poor priest/leader that had to climb them on a regular basis.
The Piramide de la Luna (pyramid of the moon) is smaller than the pyramid of the sun but its summit is almost at the same height as it was built on higher ground. It provides a beautiful overview of the entire area and the fewer steps makes the trip that much more appealing. All and all the ruins were pretty much what we expected except that the area was much drier and more like a desert. Although we arrived just after 8am we were already sweating when we got there and from that point onward the sun only got more scorching. It truly was amazing to think that the people who built this ancient place used only their hands. On the way back we buckled under the pressures of the relentless salesmen selling their stone marks, knives and silver jewelry, but found we paid 50% more for our knife than we should have at the next salesman! First rule of Mexico: Always try to bargain (we actually did that)! Second rule of Mexico: Always ask at least three different vendors before buying anything…lesson learnt!
From Teotihuacan we drove an excessively wide circle around the west side of Mexico City just to avoid any possible traffic from the city which is fast becoming one of the most populated in the world. To get to the road leading back to the Pacific coast, we drove in between Mexico’s second- and third-highest peaks, Popocatepetl (5452m) and Iztaccihuatl (5220m). Although the latter is dormant, Popocatepetl is very much active and in 2005 caused the evacuation of 30 million people from 16 villages in its vicinity. It is known as the smoking mountain and the reason for this name is very apparent when you see a puff of smoke every 15 minutes. Lucky for us nothing more than smoke came from the bowels of the great Popo and the drive between the two peaks rewarded us with beautiful views and fresh mountain air.
Once we successfully navigated our way between the two volcanoes, we drove to my favourite town (so far) in Mexico…Taxco. Years ago it was a big silver mining area and to this day it is still the place to buy silver when in Mexico. There are dozens of little plato (silver) stores selling anything from cheap silver plated bracelets to super expensive pure silver watches. There were some pretty shiny things to buy at some pretty reasonable prices, but it was the little town itself that stole my heart. Built on the slopes of some hills, here you find the steepest cobblestone one-way streets which always seem to go in the direction you don’t want to go! The houses and stores are small holes-in-the-wall with white walls and terracotta coloured roofs. And to top off the cutest town in the world, white Volkswagon beattles (Herby style) is the main transport in the town. They are everywhere and seem to navigate these steep, narrow streets with the greatest of ease. We had a great typical Mexican dinner at a local place and even got to watch part of a triller movie in English on wall in town. Great place.
After a night at a conveniently located Pemex, we headed straight to the coastal resort made famous by shows such as Loveboat, Acapulco. We expected a large city, but nothing prepares you for navigating the confusing streets whilst avoiding the corrupt policemen and the expensive tollroads. Just as we entered, we were indeed stopped by such policemen and accused of skipping a traffic light which wasn’t there. I know it seems a strange concept because there either is a light or there isn’t, but try to imagine a street with three lanes in which at least five cars are driving next to each other, at least three ladies selling some sort of food based on tortillas to crowds of people barely to the side of this road and for kicks, throw in some street vendors trying to sell you a cold coconut or wash your windscreen. The main peanut policeman’s attitude so resembled that of our South African traffic officers, that suddenly all our Spanish and English conveniently flew out of the window and we only spoke Afrikaans to the guy. He tried to explain in his best English that usually he would keep Marius’s drivers license and we would have to go and pay the M$2000 fine somewhere in town where they would only then hand the license back to us. But being the kind guy that he is, he would be willing to have us pay a fine of M$1000 right there as to not inconvenience us any further. It all sounds too familiar doesn’t it. Same story, different 3rd world country! After a lengthy discussion on how we would only be able to give him M$50, in change, because it is all we can afford to, he got so annoyed with these two gringos, that he gave up and let us go…Here’s to coming from a country with similar idiots, they brought us down to their level, and now we beat these guys with experience.
After filling up on some groceries at the local supermarket, we thought it would be smooth sailing to our campsite located just out of the city…but our day wasn’t over yet. When we arrived at the entrance to the campsite as shown by our book, we were met by a sign indicating that the entrance had moved to a different spot. Fair enough we thought, we would just drive around to where the sign indicated. What ensued however, was a 45min search for the entrance. We literally drove almost all around the outside walls, but could not find the gates! Not to blow my own horn, but we finally managed to gain access through a road I initially suggested. We were so tired and fed-up that I didn’t even feel like rubbing it in. Once inside the campground, we might as well have drove into French Canada. There were rows of large corrugated iron shelters with every type of RV/mobile home you can think of. Some of these snowbirds had already left for Canada leaving their shelter empty and hollow while others leave their whole RV/mobile home behind for next season. The kitchens areas are built outside, next to the RV and might as well be a kitchen in a home. Some even had microwaves and blenders on the counters. The beautiful grassy lawns are kept clean and tidy and there are two luke-warm swimming pools you can choose from.
Our next stop was a national park known as the Lagunas de Chacahua which a guy we met at Sayulita told us about. Unfortunately we turned off to the town Chacahua, instead of the park, and started off on a 30km corrugated gravel road that just didn’t seem right at various points on the way. It was almost dark and we nevertheless continued on until Murphy intervened and a pebble got stuck between the front brake disk and the disk guard. It sounded like a piece of the undercarriage had broken off, but lucky for me my man knows what causes sounds like these. We had to take off the tyre to get the pebble dislodged but we managed it in record time and were off again just as darkness fell. When the town of Chacahua finally appeared in a dusty haze, we were relieved. But Murphy wasn’t finished, one guy ran up to us and after a lengthy Spanish conversation helped, along by a young boy who was fluent in English, we established that the national park area was on the other side of the lagoon on the edge of the town. In fact, all the accommodation, restaurants and other touristy stuff was on that side and there we would have to drive all the way back to the main road and enter from the other side. That just wasn’t going to happen! We asked nicely if we could stay somewhere around there and they kindly gave us a spot between the tiny pig pen and the banos (toilets) without doors. We were just happy to stop driving and even the 3 minute memory dogs that forgot they knew who we were and barked most of the night, didn’t mind us much. We left early the next day and sighed as we drove past the turnoff to the Park a few kilometers after getting back on the main road…
Next stop was Puerto Escondido (the hidden port). We had heard a lot of good things about this laidback, hippy beachtown and were excited when we drove into it. It was hot (32 degC) and humid to the point where you can barely stand your clingy clothes. We had a few camping spots to choose from according to our book, but as we checked them out every one of them had no room for us to camp with the cruiser. The places all catered for backpackers with ground tents. We finally found a rather depressing looking “trailer park”, where we had to stand in the parking lot because the grass was for the non-existing tent campers. The next day we decided to walk around and try to find something better, and lo and behold, we found the El Eden trailer park. It was located off a tiny gravel road that turned off from the main waterfront road between the Oxxo and an Italian restaurant. The area was divided into good sized camping spots, had clean toilets and showers and even water at the site. There weren’t a whole lot of shade but we managed by covering ourselves and the cruiser with every tarp we owned. The site was cheap and comfortable and we ended up staying there for a week. We got well acquainted with the family that partly owns the campsite and also lives there. Maribel, her two daughters, Paula and Michell and her son, Alberto, lives in one of the houses on the property. After the third day of seeing Maribel walk up and down with plates of food, she told us that she makes and sells food from her home to the people working in the souvenir shops on the main street. We asked if she could make us something for that night as well, and she offered to make us some fish Oaxacan style. That night we walked up the hill to her house and were treated to a beautiful view, a super-delicious dinner and great conversation. We were even getting some free Spanish lessons and she also introduced us to Agua Jamaica (a tea made with the red Jamaica flower found in every shop in Mexico). It felt like the first home cooked meal since we left home! They were such a good example of a close knit family and even though the kids were all in middle to late teens you could see that Maribel did a fine job raising them be respectful and genuinely nice young adults. Good luck with your studies and Paula, we hope you get a great husband ;-)!
After Puerto Escondido, we felt like we had seen enough of the ocean for a while but stopped at the renowned hippy-getaway Zipolite just to see what all the hype was about. When we arrived there it was hotter than the gates of hell and the sweat was dripping as we walked from one campground to the next to try and find space for ourselves and the Cruiser. In this neck of the woods, most travelers seem to fly in, so they have no vehicle to worry about, and then camp on the sand in 2×2 meter spaces..obviously not the type of camping we can fit into! After some searching and ample frustration, we found a spot right on the beach. One could feel the sea spray from where we stood and if you kept really quiet you could hear the Cruiser rusting. We sat down feeling content about finally finding a spot, soaking in the laid-back atmosphere of this hippy joint, and soon found what the scene here was actually about… draped in nothing but leathery, bare, gay skin, was a scrawny-looking fellow strutting his naked stuff from one end of the beach to the other and then back again! And soon, another fellow and another and then a topless girl…Great stuff, we had stumbled onto a nude beach! As we tried to eat our very tasty ham sandwiches, it was hard to know where to look. Everyone was out of whatever closet they were in and proud of it. The rest of the people there seem like they came here in their mid-20s for the surf scene and after smoking their days away, acquiring dogs they couldn’t feed and lost interest in ever cutting their hair again, just never left. We stayed there for a night and I watched Marius’s back whenever he went to use the boys room, and we were happy to leave the Pacific ocean for a while.
We decided to skip the city Oaxaca because it was a big detour there and we wanted to get to Chiapas which was the place to see according to most of the local Mexican people we had met. Our first stop was the Tuxtla-Gutierrez zoo which would give us a chance to see all the local animal that was rarely spotted in the touristy places. If you decide to visit this zoo, try and do it on a Tuesday when it is free and if that is impossible, do go before 10am when it is half-price, otherwise it is M$60pp. It is a large zoo and for the most part well-maintained with decent sized cages for most animals except for some of the birds of prey. There all kinds of colorful and vocal birds, weird and wonderful insects, plain scary reptiles and interesting foreign mammals a South-African had only heard about on National Geographic channel. You follow the cat prints for kilometers along narrow footpaths through jungle foliage until you reach the king of the jungle…the black jaguar. Unfortunately we could see the normal jaguar which has spots like a leopard, but we did get to see the very angry-looking black jaguar which was pacing his confinement like a raging bull. The black coloration is actually a mutation, similar to albinism, which leaves the poor feline with a coat isn’t really made for the climate it finds itself living in. If you look really closely and the sun catches his coat at right angle, you can still see the outlines of the spots. It is a beautiful creature and by the look in his eyes, you do not want to meet him in the wild! We saw a few other felines like Pumas and Ocelots, but I can’t remember which is which, except for the puma, so I just named the ones I know.
After the Zoo, we drove to San Cristobal de las Casas which was up in the mountains, and we finally had some relief from the heat (in fact, a little more relief than I preferred). The campsite there was very nice and we had a hot shower for the first time in weeks. The town was another example of a beautiful, old colonial settlement with cobblestone street, tree-filled plazas and elaborately designed churches. We bought some Chiapas ground coffee beans that make a great cup-a-joe, but steered clear of the expensive tourist eateries. Around one of the churches there is a local market which sells amazing products made by the very creative people of that area. Among others, there were really inexpensive leather bags and belts, super-cute stuffed toys and loads of weaved blankets, clothes and carpets. We already had our overpriced Quartzite knife for our Mexico memorabilia, so we just looked..but one could really walk away with a cruiser full of stuff!
After San Cristobal, we headed for the far east corner of Chiapas. On the border of Guatemala, the Lagunas de Montebello consists of a number of beautiful lakes scattered amongst pristine jungle. The area is really well protected and if we could almost imagine that we were somewhere next to a lake in Canada or Alaska. We stayed at a nice campground next to one of the lakes, Lago Tziscao, before we set off the next day for a place called Las Nubes.
Our plan was never to go to Las Nubes (the clouds), but it was on our way to a very secluded lake called Laguna Mirador, which you can only get to by hiking 7km through untouched rainforest of the Biosphere Montes Azules filled with anything from toucans to jaguars. We didn’t know exactly what our plan was with the cruiser and what it would cost, but we figured we’d drive there and see for ourselves. Anyway, the road there passed a sidetrack to a little place known as Las Nubes. The name is actually quite ironic as we started out that morning at a nice and cool 1500m above sea level and then gradually dropped, from the clouds, into green lush and very humid rainforest and finally descended to only 200m. When we arrived there at around 12 AM it was hot, but was pleasantly surprised by beautiful milky-turkois/green waters cascading over beige limestone (?) which you could swim in! We’re sure Sol Kersner had a glimpse of this when he designed the Lost City. We had a swim amidst all the Mexican families spending their Sunday barbeque-ing and hanging out. With the smell of the deliciously charred red meat torturing our noses, we dipped in and out of the natural pool before we went for a much-further-than –anticipated hike along the river, through the jungle, until we reached a vista that made the bucket of sweat we lost worth the while. Lucky for us, we couldn’t get desensitized to the view because a swarm of black flies had made the lookout point their home and only allow you a glimpse of their piece of magic before they start sucking you dry! Anyway, great place to visit if you get the chance!
It was at this pretty place that we found out that the road to Laguna Mirador we could see on our GPS, did not exist and if you want to get to the secluded lake you had to drive a road that approaches it from the west instead of the south…long story short, we would have to drive a detour of more than 100km to get there…it wasn’t going to happen. Instead we continued on the Carretera Fronteriza road that follows the border of Guatemala. We stopped over at a Macaw refuge area known as Las Guacamayas (the Macaws). Here you can hire a guide that takes you over the Rio Lacantun on a trek through the jungle searching for the endangered Scarlet Macaw. The resort itself is lovely, set on the riverbank with large beautiful cabanas separated by lush green lawns. The amount of birds darting over your head is amazing and by the sounds of the foreign songs there were many birds we had never seen before. Unfortunately, although we parked on area designated for camping and we saw signs indicating that they had camping, the lady a reception explained more than once in Spanish that they didn’t have any camping. We ended up staying next door under a big mango tree in the backyard of a friendly lady who owns a small shop. No-one even came to ask about the guided trips into the jungle, so Marius swam in the green Rio Lacantun and we think we saw two scarlet Macaws flying in the distance, but packed up the next day and left for Palenque.
Palenque (Palisade) was first occupied by the Mayans around 100BC and rose under the ruler Pakal who reigned from AD630 to 683. He apparently lived to the incredible age of 80 and was responsible for many of the plazas and buildings as well as his own mausoleum, the Templo de las Inscripciones. Following the death of Pakal, his son Kan B’alam (684-702) presided over the construction of the Grupo de las Cruces temples among others. After AD 900, the city was largely abandoned and due to the heavy rainfall in the area was soon overgrown and remained unknown until 1746. When you enter the Palenque ruins, three spectacular temples, the Templo de la Calavera, – de la Cruz and -de las Inscripciones lie to your left with a backdrop of luscious, green jungle. In front of you, the (El Palacio) palace rises to the top of more than 50 steps and has a tower on top which is believed to have been constructed so that the Maya priests could observe the sun falling directly into the Templo de las Inscripciones. The ruins spread over 15 sq km and contain hundreds of buildings, more than 15 temples.
The most exciting and interesting of all the temples is by far the Templo de las Inscripciones which was constructed in eight levels and has a central front staircase (which you cannot climb) rising 25m to a series of small rooms. In 1952, Ruz Lhullier, discovered Pakal’s tomb at the bottom of interior stairs. His jewel-bedecked skeleton and jade mosaic death mask were moved to Museo National de Antropologia in Mexico city where the mask was apparently stolen in 1985. The intricately carved sarcophagus lid remains there however, but they provide a pretty convincing replica in the site museum. Descending to the site museum, you walk down stairs through the jungle where you can see the ruins of what seemed like the houses where the common folk lived. On the way you pass jaw-dropping beautifully pools and waterfalls which was probably where a Mayan would go for a swim after a long day of building temples. Definitely worth seeing even if you’re not that into ruins!
After thousands of kilometers, we had reached the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. It was here that we had expected the dense rainforest, the wild animals, the Maya ruins. We were wrong on most accounts. The Yucantan can be divided into three areas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The entire region is on a layer of limestone with dense, but dry, brush with very few large trees. There are a lot of Maya ruins in the area which you can make a point of visiting if that’s your thing. The Campeche area encompasses most of what is left of the Mexican Gulf where lots of pirates fought it out with Spanish colonialists. The town of Campeche itself had such a rough time trying to keep the pirates out,that they built a +-12m wall around the town and put large barracks with big canons. Since then, the city has expanded and the most of the walls have been demolished leaving only the barracks in place. The buildings of the old town surrounded by the wall have all been restored and painted in all kinds of pastel colors and filled with artsy, hole-in-the-wall shops selling all kinds of expensive items.
The whole Yucatan might as well be a big Maya ruin with dozens of sites you can visit including the more famous ones like Uxmal and Chichen Itza (one of the 7 new world wonders) . Visiting all the sites would not only leave a really big hole in your pocket but drive an architecturally impaired person out of their mind and we therefore decided to only go for the big one..Chichen Itza. There’s not a whole lot in between these places and so after what felt like days of endless driving, we arrived in the small town of Piste, which exists only because of the famous ruins. The next morning we woke up early and walked the 2km to the entrance gate of Chichen Itza where we were unpleasantly surprised to find that it now cost double what they mention in the guide! We assume it might have something to do with not so distant addition to the “world wonders” list. It was way more than what we wanted to spend so we didn’t go in but instead stopped at one of the many cenotes (limestone sinkholes filled with water) and swam with blind black catfish in refreshingly cold water.
After a long drive, we reached the third state in the Yucatan Penisula, Quintana Roo. Here the Caribbean Sea hugs the land and we finally saw what the hype around the Caribbean was about. The ocean was a gorgeous turquoise with small waves crashing on silky white sand. We drove down a gravel road which goes to Punta Allen, a tiny fishing village, but only got three-quarters of the way before we stopped for the night at our first free beach camping on mainland Mexico. It was a lovely spot if you could see through all the mosquitoes trying to feast on you and we were glad not to have to pay for a night. Unexpectedly, we stopped at Tulum ruins the next day and ended up seeing the beautiful ruins built on cliffs overlooking the Caribbean sea. It was almost difficult to see the buildings between all the tourists, sweat dripping in your eyes and trying not to step on the iguanas, but we enjoyed it nevertheless (some more than others…) and we could tick off another ancient ruin on our list.
From Tulum we headed south toward the Belizean border and spent our last night in Mexico at a Balneario (swimming pool) next to the turquoise, freshwater Laguna Bacalar which is seriously underrated in the guide books. We swam in near bathtub warm water and watched little Mexicans duck and dive in this stunning blue water hole. It was a great ending to a 3 month, 10200 km journey through the biggest country in Central America. We had some really good days, and some fairly bad days in Mexico. We never had first-hand experience with the drug problem (except for some offers for marijuana..). We didn’t improve much on our Spanish but know what an old colonial Spanish church looks like and we can definitely make a killer taco now. As for the Mexicans, they are a loud bunch, somewhat complacent about issues concerning sanitation and have no space-issues whatsoever. They also love color, themselves, food and odd music that usually distort because the speakers are turned up too loud. They’ll look like they could beat you with a stick when you first see them, but they’ll disarm you with a genuine smile a second later. Love them or hate them, they know how to be happy and have fun and that’s what they do. Asta luego Mexico, mucho gusto!