On January 26, we left Mazatlan, both surprised that we had enjoyed an entire week there and also happy to be moving on. Deciding we needed to make some time getting south, we hopped on a toll road. Our Mexico maps show these “autopistas” as green lines. They are considered the primary highways. The red line roads are called secondary roads, and the little yellow ones are tertiary. These red and yellow routes are the roads we prefer to take, along with the white dirt ones of course! Most of these roads wind circuitously up and down gorgeous mountain passes and through agricultural lands. They are generally full of blind corners and are sometimes hard to follow, providing lots of local encounters as we ask for directions. The primary (green) roads are great if you need to get somewhere quickly, but the tolls are expensive and you miss a lot. They are like freeways back in the States where exits can be many miles apart and small towns are bypassed altogether.
We made good time running south on the green 15, but north of Puerta Vallarta we jumped back on the 54, a red road, to get to San Blas. We didn’t know much about this small coastal village, but picked it as good place to start wandering the red roads down the coast toward Puerta Vallarta. Ned and I are happy to gather anecdotal information about places, but for some reason, we have done no internet research, nor have we bought any guide books. I guess it’s because we share a common spirit of exploration and prefer to discover on our own what lies around the next blind corner.
The main entrance into the village of San Blas was lined with these outdoor restaurants. The clientele looked to be all locals…not a gringo in sight.
Each restaurant displayed this tantalizing array of fresh seafood being cooked on open grills. We picked out a large piece of marlin and a whole dorado.
Yes, this was a meal for just the two of us piggies, and yes, we ate it all. We had to fight for our meal with about a thousand flies, but it was delicious!
It was getting late, so rather than trying to find a private spot on the beach we rented a palapa from a crusty fellow named Alfredo. It looked like a lovely spot, but it became apparent very soon that this was not the best idea. The whole area was hot, humid and just plain dirty. Flies were not the only insectesoid inhabitants. There were sand fleas, millions of sand fleas. Blind corner! Before arriving we had never heard about the sand fleas of San Blas. That’s what we get for not doing research. Since our hazing, we hear everyone talking about the infamous sand fleas of San Blas. In spite of having mosquito screens over the open door and windows, we sweated through the muggy night while being eaten alive by the vicious creatures. We suffered brutally for the next week with hundreds of bites that oozed and bled and itched like mad. We had breakfast in the central plaza the next morning, but overall, found San Blas to be jaded by tourism, dirty and not really that quaint.
Amazingly, just south of muggy, buggy San Blaaaaaaas we discovered this lovely stretch of beach which we had all to ourselves. We enjoyed several very peaceful hours just hanging out, writing the Mazatlan blog, running and working out on the beach and scratching our flea bites.
Later in the afternoon, following the meandering red road down the coast south of Santa Cruz, we found orchard after orchard of trees growing these very large, strange dangling things.
After miles of puzzling over the mystery orchards we spotted this sign in El Llano showing a picture of the dangly thing. “Pull over!” I cried.
It was a place that served homemade helados (ice cream). The lovely girl spoke no English, but I asked her about the thing on the sign. She explained that it was a Jacka or Jack Fruit and most of the helados were made with the fruit. We couldn’t resist. Ned had a pure Jacka ice cream with a Jacka marmalade topping, and I had coconut (another major local crop) ice cream with the Jacka marmalade topping. I don’t usually eat sweets and hadn’t had ice cream in years, but I have to say this was like heaven! Unusual flavors and so worth it!
So I had to ask…”Why is it called Jack Fruit? That’s not a Spanish name.” Ok, here’s the story. Remember, this was all in Spanish, but I swear this is what she said. (Some of you will probably Google it and you can correct me if I got it wrong.)
There was an American soldier named Jack who was starving in the Jungles of Viet Nam during the war. At one point the nice ice cream girl mentioned World War 2, but I’m pretty sure she meant the Viet Nam War. Anyway, Jack discovered this fruit, and it kept him alive. When he returned home to Miami he brought some “semillas” (seeds) with him, and the Jack Fruit became a big commercial crop. Someone (not sure who) then exported the seeds to this region of Mexico, where there are now acres and acres of flourishing Jacka orchards. Implausible? Sure, but I’m going with it!
Since it had already been an afternoon of discoveries, we were delighted to spot this sign directing the way to Playa Las Tortugas, Turtle Beach. It was about four miles off the main road and all along the way the signs warned against driving vehicles on the beach. How exciting! This had to be a turtle sanctuary. We knew this area was a natural habitat for sea turtles and could not wait to see what was going on there.
We drove through some beautiful agricultural fields and then through a coconut palm orchard…
…where we arrived at this sign…What???
Were we duped! We laughed so hard at ourselves. It was a gorgeous resort with huge, expensive villas like this for sale and rent. We wanted to drive through to look around, but the Mexican gate keeper looked dubiously at Charlotte and shook his head. He did kindly tell us that we could drive back down the road a half mile, then through the palm orchard where we could camp on the beach. It was getting dark, so we were grateful for the tip.
The mosquitoes were bad here, so we put up our awning with our homemade netting and cooked up an impromptu supper.
This one is for Jason and Danielle who gave us this awesome Bug Zapper. Thanks you two, best tool ever! Get ‘em Ned!
Sitting in our little anti mosquito room, listening to music and enjoying some quiet solitude together, we suddenly realized that there were things crawling on our feet and legs. Grabbing a headlamp, we found red ants all over us. Our safe zone did not preclude ground crawlers! Fortunately they were not the biting kind, so we swung our legs sideways over our chair arms (off the ground), rested our heads together and continued with our musical interlude.
The morning presented us with this lovely scene, but we were over the ants and the mosquitoes. We were still deep into our itch-fest from the sand fleas, so we moved on without coffee, breakfast or exercises.
We had had good reports about a town called Sayulita, and decided to drive around for a look. It was a lively, energetic place. Although it was quaint, colorful and artsy, it was also hugely crowded with Americans, Canadians and Europeans, both visiting and living there. We drove on without stopping; great town, just not our style.
Showers and the Internet awaited us at a two night hotel stop-over in the town of Bucerias, home to friends Peter and Nancy. This adventurous couple spent six years sailing around the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America, and we had a great time visiting and getting some helpful anecdotal information about Mexico.
Our goal after Bucerias was to spend at least one night in nearby Puerta Vallarta exploring the city. After 30 minutes of driving around the bustling city, we found an illegal parking spot and strolled down to the Malecon, the oceanfront walkway. It was lovely, and the restaurants looked very nice, but we were not enthused. Turned off by the crowded streets and booming tourism, we realized that, for now at least, this was the wrong track. We needed to get out of the city and back onto the red and yellow roads.
We were very hungry however, but rather than fancy dining on the waterfront, we opted for this awesome taco stand way back on a residential side street of Puerta Vallarta. This is Maria, who served us delicious pork stew out of her crock pot. Maria lived upstairs and had six grandchildren, two of which came in for a snack while we were eating. We were treated like grandkids ourselves, and it was so delicious we had seconds (which made Maria smile even more). Then we high-tailed it out of Puerta Vallarta! We took the 70 east (a red road) and headed up into the mountains. These two desert rats were immediately relieved and happy to be off of the buggy, muggy coast.
Tempting roadside attractions.
We drove by this charming place in La Estancia, outside of San Sebastián in the state of Jalisco and realized that it was a tequila distillery. Looks like we hit the jackpot on this blind corner!
The still! Tequila in the making.
Eduardo, the owner was passionate about his tequila.
The fun part…tasting! I’m not sure how, but two bottles, one coffee flavored and one regular ended up in our “pantry.”
Who needs tail lights? For that matter, who needs a horse trailer?
The region had very nice feel. We drove on through beautiful wooded mountains and river gorges. There were more haciendas than ranchos, and the whole area had a more Spanish than native Indian flavor. The towns were clean and cute, and the people were happy, friendly and prideful. The river gorges eventually gave way to rolling green hills and fertile valleys tucked between thickly forested mountains rising to alpine heights of 7,000 ft. Glossy cattle grazed on the hillsides and healthy orchards grew on the valley floors.
It was getting late, and this lone restaurant just outside of Mascota caught our attention. We had an awesome dinner cooked and served by Berta, her daughter, Eva and the rest of the family. This was cattle country, so of course our plates were loaded with Arrachera, which is marinated, grilled skirt steak. Tender and delicious.
Ahhh…Micheladas…beer with chili pepper, Clamato and lime with a salted rim.
It was dark by the time we finished eating, and the family was going to let us stay overnight in their parking lot. Then Eva’s husband mentioned that it would be quieter in the field across the street, so this is where we spent a very peaceful night. The family was warm and caring, and we were happy to be sleeping in Charlotte up in mountains where it was cooler and quieter…and no bugs!
We loved the town of Mascota.
We had (much needed) coffee and breakfast in a little café with a European flare. (It kind of looks like I have some of that tequila in my mug rather than coffee!)
Luz Marie and her employees made our wonderful meal. Luz Marie had an interesting philosophy. Most of the other Mexicans we spoke with warned us that the state of Michocan was too dangerous (thanks to the drug lords) to travel through. But Luz Marie had just come from a nice visit to the capital city and was emphatic that there are good and bad people anywhere you go. We tend to agree with her.
At a small market in Mascota this little lady was actually hand-making piñatas.
And this lady was hand-making shoes! These had genuine tire tread soles and a very native Indian style…I had to buy them…for a whole 150 pesos ($12).
Local boys shooting the breeze in the central plaza of Mascota.
Berta had told us that Talpa de Allende, a village about 10 miles off of the 70, was holding a festival for the national holiday, Dia de Candelaria and that thousands of pelegrinos (pilgrims) would be making their way into the village to pray to the Virgin Mary. Many, she said would be arriving crawling on hands and knees in spiritual humility. She warned us that it would be too busy and that we should avoid it. To us it sounded like a local experience not to be missed!
Many groups paraded into the square to wait their turn in the church, and the village was hopping. Lively music sprang from several bands, street vendors lined the central plaza, children played and adults gathered. And this was only Friday. Sunday would be the biggest day of all.
There were also several groups in native attire…but none crawling on hands and knees.
Talpa. “It’s just another town along the road” -JB
We continued east on the 70 and through more beautiful country, then turned south onto an unnumbered yellow road at Ameca toward San Martin de Hidalgo. We eventually came to Laguna Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico (but very shallow) where we took the south shore road. We did not care at all for the feel of the place. It was dirty, and the people were not as friendly, appearing rather wary of foreigners. Darkness fell, and the traffic was horrific. To make matters worse, the road was under construction the entire way along the lake. There was neither a place to camp nor any hotels or motels. We were agitated and had nowhere to spend the night.
So this is where we hit our all time camping low. We found this tiny dirt track paralleling the highway and under an over pass. It was loud from trucks rattling over the overpass, full of garbage and smelled like a dead carcass. But it required 4-wheel-drive to get there, and it was pretty well hidden from the road. It was the best we could do. We could not put the screens up because of the smell, so it was hot and stuffy in the bus. We spent a restless, paranoid night and got out of there at dawn. With dread, I held my nose and jumped out to snap this photo. This is definitely one of the risks of adventuring forward, off the beaten path with no plan.
The risks of not knowing what lies around the next blind corner, however, are offset by the wonderful surprises that await us. We were now driving yellow roads northeast of La Barca and through Ayotlan and had not seen another gringo tourist since Puerta Vallarta. Yay! In this tiny village of Jesus Maria I jumped out of Charlotte to ask this young man if I could take a picture of him with his donkey. He not only let me get the photo, but he offered to let me ride the sweet critter! Not going to get that in Puerta Vallarta!
Another discovery along the yellow road…this ancient estate, Hacienda de Atotonilquillo was build in 1613 by a Spanish rancher and later, in 1650 was sold to Jesuit priests. We got the grand tour from Cuauhtemoc who, ironically, was proud of his Aztec heritage.
One of several large bedrooms
Signing Cuauhtemoc’s guest book, we observed that the few visitors he received were Mexican. This was a remote area.
Traveling northeast on more yellow roads, we passed field after field of blue agave, the origins of blue agave tequila.
As the day ended we found ourselves driving through privately owned agricultural lands with no open space in which to camp. We spotted some far off hills which looked undeveloped; promising camping turf. Off we went at sunset, heading through some corn fields, trying to follow the power lines to get to those hills. But we got busted. We passed an old farmer in his truck who motioned us to stop. We did not. We kept hoping we could get to the hills. Though it was now dark, we could see his truck in the next field over, stalking us. Neither of us had our lights on. He knew we were going to hit a dead end. When we did, we had no choice but to go and meet him face to face. We turned on our lights and so did he. When we met, Kat hopped out, playing the lost tourist. He and a younger man got out of their truck to meet her. The old man was bristling, asking if we were lost and telling us that every bit of land we saw was his. She smiled and explained that we were trying to get to the hills to camp but could not find our way, could he please help us. Fortunately her Spanish has been coming back nicely which really helped as he spoke no English. He warmed quickly as they chatted. We introduced ourselves formally. “Alfredo” then insisted we camp right there in his field next to a shack where his son and daughter-in-law slept to watch over the farm. We were apprehensive at first, but were delighted when his son, Gorge showed up with his friendly wife Leticia, who hugged us both when we met.
We spent a very peaceful night in Alfredo’s field. In the morning Gorge and Leticia pointed us to a water tank to wash (I guess we smelled like we needed it!). Amazingly, it turned out there was a hot springs on the site. The water was hot! They cooled it in a reservoir and then used it to irrigate the tomato fields.
And then, to our delight, we were invited to breakfast. Another great surprise around a blind corner! We followed Gorge and Leticia to their home which was next to Alfredo’s. The whole family lived in a large compound just outside the village of Romita, with several family dwellings all sharing common kitchen and bathroom facilities.
It was Sunday, and on Sundays the family enjoys a special breakfast of menudo. I tried hard to appear enthusiastic as I gulped the rubbery guts in trepidation. Menudo is a spicy tomato based soup featuring the stomach lining of pigs…uggh, but when in Rome…
The experience was exceptional and the family was warm, welcoming and gracious. It was interesting to notice the men claimed the table and the seats. The women and children waited for the men to be served before helping themselves to what was left. We felt so guilty gagging on the ghastly gastronomicals as the kids watched us hungrily. We obviously had cut into their portion of their once-a-week breakfast treat.
After breakfast I noticed the men got up and left the kitchen for the barnyard, so I followed suit. The kids were then allowed to sit and eat their menudo and Kat offered to show the ladies photos of our trip. When she came out to get her laptop she found me sharing shots of tequila with the boys…at 9:00am! But, of course, it was Sunday. I asked if they went to church since everyone is Catholic and every town has an elaborate church. They laughed and said Sunday was tequila day!
The guys also said Sunday was no trabajo (work) day but that didn’t apply to old Alfredo. He buzzed around the compound feeding cows, moving bags of feed, etc. while the younger guys just hung out and drank. I felt kinda guilty watching him so slipped away and took some pictures of him.
It was a tearful goodbye at 11am when we took final pictures and rolled out of there – Kat bleary with tears, me blurry with tequila and beer.
The guys may not go to church on Sundays, but the women did. They were all cleaned up and ready to go into town.
Our next destination was Guanajuato, a hill town known for its cool tunnels that undermine the town. Most of the traffic is routed beneath the city in ancient, stone-lined tunnels that wind everywhere. It’s easy to get lost in them and I was glad to have a maneuverable Charlotte to navigate them. We never could have gone here in some of the huge Overland trucks and motorhomes we have seen.
Overlooking Guanajuato with its colorful buildings.
The main market caught our attention and camera lens.
Because most of the traffic was in the tunnels, many of the streets of the hilly town were catacombs of tiny walkways make up mostly of steep stairs.
Local parking for the public bathroom.
We moved on from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful artsy city to the east. Many ex-pat artists live here, and we found the place to have a lively, international feel to it. It being a four day Mexican holiday, San Miguel, like Guanajuato was packed with Mexican tourists on holiday from Mexico City. They were a pleasant relief from the hordes of gringo tourists in the coastal towns. Here the gringo, Canadian and Europeans seemed to blend in and we couldn’t tell who lived there and who was visiting.
The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel Cathedral was a site to behold at dusk. Its tolling bells could be heard for miles around.
Since the town was packed we found all the hotels full, so we did the next best thing when in an urban environment and in need of a shower, we checked in to our first RV park. The Weber RV and tennis club contained the first “Overland” vehicles we have encountered since the Baja ferry. We were wondering where they all were. There were also many motorhomes, most of them parked for months, their owners hiding out from the cold northern winters of their homelands. We set up our ARB awning and fit right in.
We stayed in San Miguel de Allende for two days enjoying the restaurants and cool vibes of the town. Not being much for art and art galleries, I can’t say we indulged in the many available, but we really liked the nursery market with its amazing botanical displays…
Kat overheard the mother of these kids explaining to them the importance of taking care of their newly acquired tiny, potted plants. They happily posed for a proud picture with their new possessions. Just like American kids right? lol – maybe if they were cell phones!
After our RV experience it was back to hiding in the bush for us. We headed southward towards Parque Los Marmoles on as many yellow roads as we could. Why? Because nobody had said anything about it so we figured we’d be the only gringos there – more blind corners. En-route we camped back in the high desert where Kat dreamed up a tasty chicken soup.
Trail-side Chicken Soup ala Charlotte for you to try out:
Chop up giant green onions
Brown in olive oil in big soup pot
Add cut up boneless skinless chicken breast (actually I cut it up with kitchen shears in the pan so I didn’t dirty up the cutting board)
Cut up and add:
2 Big Roma tomatoes
1 Broccoli crown
1 Large carrot
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Big Drizzle of lime juice
Cook till veggies done
Add some Parmesan cheese and serve
It was quite tasty, but please don’t ask me for any measurements…I don’t have any idea!
These guys enjoyed watching our morning rituals.
The following morning we were in awe passing by Presa Zimapan, a manmade reservoir that didn’t even show up on our maps. There were two amazing tunnels, each about two miles long, incorporated into the cliff hugging road, carved into the mountainside along the lake’s northern shore. There wasn’t another car in site the whole length of the lake.
Both tunnels and the dam were guarded with military outposts, presumably to ward off terrorists (?) – just like Hoover Dam. When we tried to take pictures, the soldiers waved their AKs at us and said “no photos”! So Kat snapped this one from her lap at the huge, man-made cliff that had been blasted to form the dam and roadway.
Leaving the dam, the road climbed through gorgeous canyons and afforded amazing views back at the unmarked reservoir.
After driving for two days on great back (yellow) roads past everything from machine gun guarded dams to marble mines, we arrived at the mystery Parque Los Marmoles on which we’d originally set our sights. Alas, as we climbed the steep road into the mountainous area of the Park, the clouds socked in and it began to drizzle. Our first rain of the trip! However, we couldn’t see a thing and after an hour’s driving north and seeing nothing but fog, we gave up and turned tail, heading south towards Mexico City. Ah well, as we’ve said before, it’s the journey, not the destination.
Late in the day, after our foiled Parque viewing, we rolled into urban hell. All along we’ve been saying we were going to avoid Mexico City and its roughly 20,000,000 inhabitants. But, at the last minute, I decided maybe we should drive within 25 miles or so of the city center, get a hotel with safe parking for Charlotte, and take the bus into the heart of the city for a day to look around. Well… that plan didn’t work out very well. Seems 25 miles was way too close to the core. We got sucked into toll-road freeway hell and couldn’t get off. The next thing we knew we were spit out into inner city horn honking, bus spewing, graffitied walls, middle-of-the-street vendor hawking, people crowded, urban hell and we were totally lost. Mr. Garmin, aka Einstein, as usual, was also lost, and, it had just gotten dark enough that we needed the headlights! How did we survive? Stay tune next time. :-)