"Sign here and you're finished. Welcome to Mexico." With those simple words, and a similarly simple process, I am through customs and into my final latin american country. The process is prophetic: travelling in Mexico is so easy I feel I am somehow cheating.
The Mexican pavement is in great condition, I marvel at the luxury of road signs, everywhere there are indications of construction and industry. The American Big Three re-emerge. Oversized Chevy, Ford and Dodge trucks are everywhere. How inappropriate they now look to my eyes. However, the countryside remains truly beautiful. Katie and I just cruise along enjoying the scenery.
Rising fuel prices means everyone is looking for a way to get a few more kilometers to the tank. Service stations have found their own way of helping their taxi driver customers: simply put the taxi on a ramp and pour more in.
Even though I am surprised by the beauty of the state of Chiapas I know this is an active area of civilian discontent with the government. Revolts, protests and mischief towards highway travellers. I see it, watch it on TV, hear talk but luckily am not affected. When I leave the charming city of San Cristobal de las Casas and cross the Istmo de Tehuantepec I am, officially & geographically speaking, in North America. Katie and I move onto Oaxaca where political activity begins to bare its teeth.
Nominated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Oaxaca has retained some of its heritage charm since its founding in 1521. As the Footprint Handbook states, "It gracefully combines its colonial and native roots; fine stone buildings, churches, arcades and airy patios speak for its importance during the colonial period, while its markets, crafts, dances and feast days point to a more indigenous past."
Teachers, unhappy with political progress, or lack of it, staged fairly active protests before I arrive. Riot police responded, violence and arrests resulted. When I tour downtown Oaxaca, residual emotions are spray painted on heritage sites, tarps are strung across the streets and barricades interrupt vehicular traffic. An unhappy standoff remains.
Meanwhile, life goes on all around. On sabado, at the venerable Iglesia Santa Domingo (opened to the faithful in 1608), a bride and her maids excitedly pose for last minute photos before the big ceremony. What exquisite surroundings to be married in!
Blocks off el centro, where traffic flows without pause, the other symbol of venerable Mexico thrives, the Volkwagen Beatle. The bug is everywhere. Doing duty as family car, teenage hotrod, pizza delivery, moving billboard, or dressed bright green as a taxi in Mexico City, they are as commonplace as catholic churches and tacos.
Another kind of bug is famoso in the state of Oaxaca. Highly decorative and imaginative paper mache bugs. Just one more item for sale on a sidewalk near you.
Speaking of bugs for sale, how would you like to pick up a bushel or two on the way home? Grasshoppers, ants and some other little buggers I can't identify are all roasted and waiting for some hunger customer. Not me, thanks, but mind if I take a picture? My tastebuds are still a bit off from the guinea pig lunch.
Leaving the city of Oaxaca with its lovely climate moderated by being 5100 ft asl in the mountains, Katie and I hitch a ride with the local KTM dealer. He's on his way to pick up a load of new motorcycles. I can come along and see 20 million strong Mexico City from the luxury of a truck window. Considering this berg is the biggest in the world and much bigger than Los Angeles, I think this is too good to miss. And he will drop me off at the north end of the city, from where Katie and I can make an easy escape. The downside? We leave Oaxaca at 2 a.m. Turns out there is one more downside...
So which story do you want to hear first? The one about the two pickpockets, or the one about the corrupt Mexico City cop? Both clever in their own way, they share two things in common as it turns out: first, get the "walking wallet" to a secluded spot and distract him from what's really going on; secondly, play a mind game on him so he actually contributes to being a victim.
First, the cop story. After leaving Oaxaca at 2 in the morning, my KTM truck driver drives for eight and a half hours like we are being chased by terrorists. I try to sleep. I must stop thinking about what an ironic way to die this would be. When we hit the north end of Megacity Mexico (bigger than Los Angeles), miraculously we are still in one piece! Maybe there is something to denying reality. We unload Katie and I am thrilled to be heading out of town before noon. Until a cop stops me - catches me going the wrong way on a one way street. Costs me a 200 pesos bribe to get on my way again (the fine, according to him, was 1000 - but he'll take 500 because he is such a nice guy). He is nice enough to lead me to the autopista though so I do get some value for my money. And I remind myself I was breaking the law.
Did I get any photos of Mexico City? No. Kinda busy. Besides, it's tricky trying to get half the planet's population in one picture.
In my biggest travel day yet, Katie and I cover over 800 kilometers today. We make it all the way to unique Guanajuato. Unique and unusual in that it has an ingenious tunnel network under the city that helps overcome the traffic problem caused by building the city in a rugged ravine. Why build it there? Because that's where they found silver in 1548. The dons thought, "Hey, let's build our mansions right next to our mines, saves on commuting time."
So, being proud of myself for having made big miles and surviving the infamous Ciudad de Mexico (well, almost got away clean), the next day I decide to do the tourist stroll around "Mexico's most famous silver city" and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take some artsy pictures, have the best cappacino and best cheesecake I've ever had, stare at urban details like I'm Inspector Closeau - all at 10 in the morning - and just be another extranjero.
But I look a little too much like a tourist. I sit on a wet bench in Parque Union for a bit then stroll over to examine the tequila bottles in a speciality store. Two men rush up to me in the store and point out I have bird shit on the back of my jacket and pants. I think it is from the park bench. They help me find the washroom and with toilet paper, "help" me brush it off. Being a clean freak, I join in the frienzed activity. What a strange yellow colour. I smell my cuff. Smells like mustard and something else. Suddenly my helpers are gone. I realize immediately what has just happened. I feel my back pocket. There is a lump there but it is the wrong size. I run to the front of the store. They're gone, of course. As I return down the hallway to the banos I realize there is a floor polisher and mop blocking the hallway entrance. To isolate the scene of the crime so they won't be disturbed while robbing me. When I report the theft to the store clerk he acts strangely unaffected. Makes me wonder if he was in on it.
Luckily for me they only get away with my dummy wallet, day money (about $60) , a photocopy of my driver's license and two expired credit cards. In exchange for my crummy cordura wallet, they give me a much better one. On the bright side, I guess I have just bought a nice leather wallet for 650 pesos. Probably what it would cost in Canada.
So, two robberies in two days after travelling "dangerous" South and Central America for seven months. But in spite of the unfortunate incidents I remain very positive about travelling in Mexico: the overwhelming majority are genuinely friendly, helpful and honest. And as much as I am mad at myself for not catching on sooner, I am still safe and healthy. Important things to consider for un viajero viejo like me.
Meanwhile, back on the streets of Guanajuato, the transactions of money changing hands takes on more conventional methods. Market life and business goes on as usual. A farm truck arrives loaded with produce, bumper dragging as it climbs the shallow curb. The street markets will be selling lots of new stuff today.
Guanajuato's streets, built up out a steep, crooked ravine and up into the bald hills, have a narrow bent to them. Legend has it some streets are so narrow lovers can kiss from opposing balconies.
Necessity being the mother of all battles, no, wait that was a quote from some Iraqi guy. Necessity being the mother of invention, narrow streets call for narrow delivery trucks. And we all know how necessary cerveza is to the meaning of life. Especially for U of Guanajuato students who work up a thirst from classes close by.
After sampling the mixed charms of Guanajuato, it's time to move on to Puerto Vallarta. But first I must head west through another major city, Guadalajara. As Katie and I rocket along the fast but furiously expense toll roads (it is possible to pay $50 to use cuota carreteras for a day), I watch as a thunderstorm fills the western sky. Slowly our two paths converge. It's time to find an overpass. Just in time we pull under one. Big, warm but very wet drops begin to fall, then pick up the pace to a thunderous roar. I do minor service work on Katie to pass the time. I look out from my concrete shelter and see it'll be a while. Might as well get comfortable. Put my green Seal-Line bag up against the cement embankment, pull out a Nicaraguan cigar and write in my little diary book. Perfect. Well, except for the occasion blast of road spray from passing triple trailers. Minor thing though and I pass the hour peaceably enough.
As the sun peeks out from low in the sky, Katie and I race for the tiny town of Zapotlanejo. There, as grey twilight mixes with spattering remnants of today's storm, I find the clean, new and great value-for-200-pesos Hotel Western (not to be confused with the Western Hotel chain). A hot shower, then a walk downtown, umbrella overhead, to find supper and an internet tienda. Life in Mexico is good.
Katie and I ride through Guadalajara's morning rush hour and out the west side of this 3 million strong city before 9 a.m. As the second largest city in México it's a happenin' place but I don't want to stop. The Guadalajara area is the birthplace of the famous Mariachi bands and the Mexican hat dance. West is the town of Tequila. Tours and sampling are possible. With some reluctance, I decide to give the whole thing a miss. I've got to get Katie's hydraulic clutch problem fixed in Puerto Vallarta and soon.
After Guadalajara, branching off to the southwest, a little two lane blacktop meanders through Tala, Ameca and Mascota before descending to the famous coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta.
On one of the best rides in the last seven months, Katie and I curve along passing fields of sugar cane, maize and the famous blue agave. I must stop and examine these "fields of blue swords".
Archeologists say the agave has been cultivated for at least 9,000 years. ‘Tequila wine’ was first made by the Conquistadors, who distilled a native drink called pulque into a stronger spirit. Today, most of it is made in Jalisco state around the town of Tequila.
There are 136 species of agave in Mexico, of which the blue agave - agave tequilana weber azul - is the only one allowed for use in tequila production. Basically there are three grades for tequila drinkers to choose from:the young blanco tequilas with their rougher, more distinct agave flavour; the sharper, almost peppery flavour of a reposado; and my fave, the smooth, woody aroma in an añejo.
Pancho Villa's real name, by the way, was Doroteo Arango - commemorated in Los Arango tequila - and his horse was Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues), now another tequila brand.
As we start the drop down from the Sierra Madre Occidentals, we enter luxuriant rain forest. The dramatic increase in humidity, temperature and frequent rain showers are visual and sensual reminders of why the jillion trees and plants grow so happily here.
Katie and I get to Puerto Vallarta and find the KTM dealer just before the afternoon deluge hits. But it's a race. Like every other latin america town, there are no street signs so I must play 20 questions with a dozen folks to find my destination. Great way to meet nice people and honestly, 99% of the people I meet are very approachable and happy to give directions. I just have to filter how accurate the directions are.
Located just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Puerto Vallarta is the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands and its sub-tropical climate is often compared to Hawaii's. Temperatures average around 29 C all year long, with rain in summer (my luck, Jun to Sept) make this the second-most visited resort in all of Mexico. Blessed with 40 kilometres of golden beaches within the grand Banderas Bay, the greater area attracts 2.2 million tourists per year. That's the tourist blurb. Being a bit travel weary, I find the town, although attractive, has far too many extranjeros for my liking. Also, like a growing plague, American store chains are everywhere. But compared to the costs of Hawaii, Mexican resorts are a hands-down winner.
At BGC Motors, I meet Guillermo Mansilla, owner, chief mechanic and delivery boy. Guillermo, who I like instantly, speaks great english having travelled and worked in the USA. He has owned and worked on motorcycles since he was 15. I take the bike apart to fix a problem with the Scott-Oiler. He does a fix on the hydraulic clutch by changing an O-ring and flushing/refilling the system with 10 weight mineral oil. So I can check out the town the next day, I take a nice little hotel two blocks away, down the dirt and mudpuddle street from his shop. Although this section of Puerto Vallarta is poor and not on any tourist maps, it is safe, friendly and tranquilo. My kind of place. Around the corner from Hotel Villa Las Flores is a Mexico restaurante tìpico with open store front, white plastic chairs, four tables with clean, red table cloths and pictures of Christ mounted on walls of peeling blue paint. I have a fine enchalada supper, including cerveza, for 50 pesos (US$4.55).
My excursion into el centro results in a pleasant meander looking for stickers de bandera de Mexico to put on my Jesse panniers. I like to display the flag of each country I visit to show my support for their hospitality. While I'm at it I buy a couple of relatively expensive Cubano robustos. I want to do a taste test comparison with my inexpensive Nicaraguan cigars. After a week of scientific testing, I'm pleased to report my Nicaraguans are smoother and much better value for the money.
Heading north from Puerto Vallarta along coastal Highway 200 is another pleasant surprise. Lots of curves, vistas of the Pacific, and rain forest arching over the road giving cool shade as we swoop along make today's drive a treat.
Near Mazatlàn Katie and I turn east. As we again approach the Sierras, afternoon cumulonimbus threatens. We pull in to the tiny town of Concordia, founded in the late 1600's. Clean, tidy, and a good place to spend a day posting blogg chapters with heavy leaden skies overhead. My air conditioned hotel room is bonus time for escaping the tropical temperatures and liquid air.
Umbrella in hand, I wander around the main plaza, or in Mexico as it is called, el zòcalo. Among other minor discoveries is the wonderful El Granero restaurant. I eat there three times in the day and half I am there.
Not all delivery to El Granero comes by truck. The cart below is just one of many examples that hand labour is alive and well in latin america, Mexico included. I notice many fields tilled with oxen and horses, highway maintenance a can of paint and a machetè, fruit and vegetables hand picked, car windshields cleaned at stop lights at young men, newspapers delivered/sold by old men. Its a pace of life I've come to appreciate.
Riding into a dense fog that slowly lifts with the sunrise hour, Katie and I head out of Concordia and climb the Sierra Madre Occidentals towards Durango, 200 kms to the east. From there it will be another 600 kilometers north to the last major destination on my "must see" list: Barranca Del Cobre, or Copper Canyon. EyeWitness Travel Guide states, "Bigger by far than the Grand Canyon, yet nowhere near as well known, Mexico's Copper Canyon region is one of the great undiscovered wonders of North America."
As we switchback up the Sierra Madres we punch through more layers of grey. It swirls around Katie and I as we cross the Tropic of Cancer. The crossing ceremony consists of the GPS beeping the arrival of 23° 26' 22" North. I look around. Nothing but dense fog, dark green bush and mountain passing by. Not much of a celebration but still, another milestone.
As the morning sun gathers strength the fog dissipates and we climb into sunshine. At one of the last westward viewpoints it's time to stop for one more look at the Pacific. Blue sky builds in that direction. Another stellar day for Mazatlan.
Looking east it is plain I will be climbing into more weather. Highway 40 to Durango is not without charm, although much becomes lost as we ride in and out of more cloud and fog. At El Espinazo del Diablo (Devil's Spine), the road crosses a nine kilometre narrow bridge of rock with near vertical drop-offs on both sides. A damp, chill wind blows dark clots of mist across the exposed ridge as I stop to examine the place. I hurriedly put on warmer clothing. Taking a photograph of shifting shades of grey and green seems pointless. As I go to leave this neblina windtunnel, Katie's hydraulic clutch system fails. Again. The oil pressure has dropped from the mystery leak and the clutch won't engage. In what is becoming a ritual, I remove the reservoir cap and add a teaspoon of 10 wt. mineral oil. I'm not used to being cold and my hands shake, but in a few minutes I have a clutch again. Within an hour Katie and I summit the Occidentals and start down the eastern side. El Sol warms our road ahead and with it my mood.
At Durango we turn north. This is Wild West country and home to many Hollywood dusters of John Wayne and Sam Peckinpah fame. More recently, classics like 'The Mask of Zorro' with Antonio Bandaras and Catherine Zeta-Jones were filmed near here. Just past the pueblo of Chupaderos, Duranago's most used Hollywood location, another western classic stalks us from the northeast. A mature cumulonimbus towers to the stratosphere and sends long black streaks of rain thundering into the dusty ground. Katie and I take cover under a Pepsi stand in a tiny poblado.
That evening, after dodging a few more CB's, I find a quiet place to freecamp among the junipers and thorn trees that line the road to Parral. I wait til no one is in sight then head down into the ditch and drive into the forest. Out of view from the traffic of Highway 45, I hide in the trees and wait for sunset to set up my tent. Time for a Nicaraguan cigar and a 600 ml bottle of Coke. As I sit contentedly in the short grass, I watch the moon rise full with the setting of the sun. It'll be nice to camp again - last time was high in Los Andes of Peru. The night passes as quietly as the moon.
From Hidalgo del Parral , home of Pancho Villa, and location of his infamous assassination on 20 July 1923, Katie and I head west then north towards Barranca Del Cobre. The ride is pleasantly scenic as the two-laner blacktop meanders through hill and dale. Just what the doctor ordered.
Copper Canyon actually refers to not one but 20 canyons carved out of the Sierra Tarahumara by six different rivers. Together, these canyons create an area four times larger than Arizona's Grand Canyon. At an altitude of only 1640' asl, the canyon's deepest point (Barranca de Urique) has a subtropical climate, where banana, mango and orange trees grow, while the peaks above reach 7500 feet and are home to bushy conifers and evergreens. One of Mexico's most numerous indigenous peoples, the Tarahumara, still retain a traditional lifestyle here. Perhaps one reason for its anonymity is the Cañón del Cobre remained inaccessible to the casual visitor until the early 1960s.
The descent to Batopilas consists of a narrow 60 kilometer road of dirt and embedded rock carved out of steep canyon walls. It snakes down over a mile in depth with switchbacks so tight I must stand on the pegs and negociate the hairpins in first gear. Short sections of road allow for second gear. Such charming engineering features as bridges without railings ensure I pay attention to driving not sightseeing.
What with photo stops and a snack break, it takes me five hours to reach my subtropical destination of 1100 inhabitants. Batopilas, established in 1690, is built either side of its one street, hemmed in between cactus-studded canyon walls and a muddy swirling river. Standing alone just a mile upriver from town is the classy Hotel Marguerita. For 250 pesos a night ($23) this beauty wins my award for most romantic, best value for money, and best location with a view. Dressed in riverstone and white plaster, with open beam ceilings, stained glass windows and rooms with brass four-poster beds, the place exudes quiet luxury.
My second story room walks out on a spendid verandah from which I have a view up and down the canyon with the rio almost at my feet. I hear nothing but the hum of cicadas and the flow of the river. I am the only hotel guest as the August heat discourages tourism. High season, and much higher prices, is November to February. On my shady verandah-for-one a royal blue rocking chair invites. I accept and settle in. Time to watch the world go by. Time for a cigar and a cool cerveza. Batopilas being a dry town, I settle for a cigar and a Coke.
Across the river, heading upstream, a Tarahumara family walks by, perhaps 150 yards away. They follow a footpath that might be, like the dry-stone wall beside them, 300 years old. A burro leads, heavily laden. Next follows the man, white cowboy hat, like all Mexican men wear, with tan shirt and black pants. He walks with the help of a long crooked staff. Next the boy, about 10. He carries a hefty burlap sack on his back. Finally the woman comes into view, long black dress, white blouse. In each hand she carries a white plastic grocery bag. She walks tired. They file past then are lost from view in the trees. I watch as they reappear from time to time. A bend in the green canyon and they are gone.
A vaquero rides by on his burro, following the same camino antiqua. He makes good time as he too heads upstream for home. Downstream a few hundred yards, a modern burro, a white Toyota Tacoma, wades across the river, fender deep, delivering a white hatter to his casa on the far side. A black bird of prey does a low and over the truck then, with occasional flaps of his big wings, continues upriver to land on a midstream boulder the size of a cottage.
Further upstream, to the north, a moody black sky flashes and rumbles. As Dave Clark would say, sounds like the Gods are bowling again. My cigar smoke drifts lazily. Nothing, it seems, except the river, is in a hurry in this ancient land.
Darkness settles, carried in by the approaching storm. Below me, on the muddy road, sits Katie, snug under her cover. Bathed in a Hallowe'en glow she sits beneath the only yard light in my part of the canyon. Time for bed for me too. As I enter my room, strobes of light, bright as day, flash through the stain glass windows from the lightning and I hear the patter of rain start on the roof. A breeze billows the curtains. It's going to be a hell of a storm. I sleep well tonight.
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