Eyes burning, sinuses clogged and throats hurting, we looked at each other in total exasperation. We were deep in Mexico City traffic. We were in hell. It was dark now, so we could only smell and feel the effects of the unimaginable smog, but earlier we could see it. The air was thick and brown and for all we complain about emisions controls in the US, we had a moment of appreciation for the sacrifices we make for superior air quality.
As Ned mentioned in our last blog, we had planned to find a hotel on the outskirts of town and take public transportation to explore the city. For about two and a half seconds we even considered taking in one of Mexico City’s infamous wrestling exhibitions. Now we had a problem. We had come too far into the city and were totally lost. We could not get a fix on our precise location and Mr. Garmin was useless due to the criss-crossing over and underpasses. We had planned to hug the eastern edge of the city on a ring road, but our opening act upon entering the confusing melee was to miss an exit; we were heading right into the heart of one of the world’s largest cities. Dimly lit street signs (when they were there at all) made no sense, pointing to streets going in completely wrong directions and forcing us into several illegal U-turns in desperation. Horns honked, lights blazed, and semis threatened to crush us under their aggressive wheels. Motorcycles zipped by with suicidal purpose through the narrow spaces between vehicles and sinister gang graffiti marked our passage along the garbage strewn streets. All told, we were mired in the filthy mess for over two hours, sneezing incessantly and sure we were going in large, madening circles.
There was no choice but to soldier on through the stop and crawl traffic, still trying to read street signs in the murky darkness. Our driver/navigator relationship was in serious jeopardy, when suddenly, out of the gloom we saw a freeway sign for Puebla which was another big city to the east of Mexico City and in the genreral direction we were headed next. “Let’s get the @%$# out of here! To #&%* with Mexico City!” Decision made, we whipped onto the “autopista” heading east and felt instant relief.
By comparison, the autopista (freeway) was a breeze. The tolls were expensive, as usual, but to our delight, about an hour out town we climbed out of the smog to a heavenly alpine elevation of 9,000ft. Unfortunately, it was also nearly 9:30pm, and there was no way off of the freeway to find a place to camp. Guard rails blocked our way into what appeared to be a lovely forest.
At the top of the pass, we saw a break in the guard rail which opened into a parking area lined with vendor stalls offering food and crafts. Ned murmured something about “how do the locals get in and out of here,” and pulled into the parking area. Sure enough, there was a frontage road, but better yet, there was a dirt road running perpendicuarly behind the stalls. Encouraged, we turned onto it and within minutes needed to put Charlotte into four-wheel drive. Wonderful! The more difficult the terrain, the less likely to have visitors in the night.
Within about a half a mile, we drove into a large, flat meadow. This would do quite nicely. We brushed our teeth, crawled in the back and fell into an exhausted sleep.
We awoke to find that it was cold. Our handy Auto Zone thermometer told us it was 28° in Charlotte, and our Lowrance GPS indicated our elevation was 9,500 ft. Stumbling sleepily out of the bus to stretch in the dim, misty morning light, we saw that the sun was still behind a tall, steep mountainside. In fact, turning slowly around, we were amazed to see the same steep slopes wrapping 360° around us. We had fumbled our way into a crater!!
The sides of the crater were steep enough that I had to use my own four wheel drive (two feet, two hands) to climb up to the rim. But the exercise felt great after so much driving. Ned and I hiked around the rim to the other side and bushwhacked our way back down the opposite slope.
Back on the autopista, we dropped quickly out of the mountains and into the smog. We had been told by several people to visit Puebla, Orizaba, and Cordoba, but we found the entire Hwy 150 corridor too crowded and too polluted. We blew by on the toll roads, and at Cordoba, turned southeast on a yellow road toward Presa Miguel Aleman, a reservoir in a more remote area.
This was sugar cane country! The yellow roads turned to dirt, and the pageant of this sweet commodity was dramatically played out as we drove along in a drizzly mist.
The crops thrived in this warm, humid climate in the valleys between “King Kong” looking mountains.
Machete wielding men labor hard to harvest the cane.
Trucks carry the harvest…
…to the processing plants. Recognize the “Domino” brand label?
Once at the plant, the drivers line up to have their loads tallied and dumped.
Most of the drivers were asleep in their cabs, confirming our suspicion that they waited in line for hours. This poor guy looked like he’d been waiting days.
Raw cane went in…processed liquid sugar, poured into tankers, came out…
…and beautiful rivers downstream suffered. The pools beyond this fall were not only brown, but also covered with sudsy foam.
Hand painted, public service messages like this have been common throughout the remote areas of Mexico. This one warned against Dengue fever and the dangers of standing water. I’m pretty sure I even spotted a Leprosy sign out of the corner of my eye once, but failed to get the photo.
A ferry! This would be fun.
We were trying to find an obscure road south of Vicente around a reservoir, but after we loaded Charlotte onto the ferry, we asked if this was the right way to get to the reservoir. No, we had to go back into Vicente and take a different route…no ferry crossing after all.
Back in Vicente we could not find the road south. We drove around in circles for a while, and finally got pulled over by a truck load of AK47 toting cops wanting to know what we were up to. We played our stupid tourist parts again and they loved Vaca Muerta (our dead cow head). All seven of them were very friendly so Ned got the brilliant idea to ask for a police escort to the road. The head honcho agreed, and we followed them through the village to a tiny dirt road we would never have found on our own.
The dirt road led through more cane fields. Darkness fell, so eventually we turned off on to a muddy track and drove deep into the fields to hide among tall stalks. It was muggy and buggy, so we stayed “indoors.” Dinner was left over soup heated on the Coleman stove inside the bus and salad made in and eaten out of the lettuce bag.
Ned slept well, but I had an uneasy night listening to strange sounds among the rustling canes. “Children of the Corn” kept running through my mind. By morning, though, all was well.
We saw pollos (chickens) roasting in the front yards of several casitas in a village called Cabeza de Tigre, (Tiger’s Head). They looked delicious.
We were hungry so we decided it would be a good opportunity to have a local encounter. We pulled up to one of the huts and asked if they would sell us a chicken. It was a great choice. The little home was also a one-table restaurant and the family was precious.
Antonino, Anita and their daughter Raquel, who was 7 months pregnant, were the perfects hosts. We were treated warmly and graciously. Antonino told us he was of Maztecan descent. We really enjoyed our breakfast of fresh roast chicken, tortillas, rice and a delicious salsa. He laughed telling us the chicken was so fresh it was running around this morning!
Antonino said he rented rooms to Mexican tourists on their way to the reservoir. We showed them pictures of where we spent night in the cane fields (las cañas) and they laughed, thinking that was so funny. They said we should have stayed there with them!
Anita proudly offered to show us her beautiful, well organized kitchen.
Antonino was surprised to learn that the Spanish word for cilantro is the same in English.
Anita showed me how to make the salsa, but wanted to make sure we had a blender…uh, no blender in Charlotte! But some of you may want to try this…it was so good!
Add all together in blender:
2 Tomatillos – raw
1 Garlic clove
1 Cilantro bunch
Simple and delicious!
The reservoir was unremarkable, but the 182 red road west toward Teotitlan was insane! We climbed yet another 6500 ft. in to a rain forest. We could tell it would have been gorgeous but the fog and drizzle kept visibility low the whole way. It was hard driving for Ned; tortuously tight turns, sheer drop-offs, blind corners, on-coming traffic and heavy fog…and it was getting dark. We had decided on this route because we suspected it would be beautiful…but we couldn’t see much of anything. We did climb through the mist at one point, popping into great views of huge, fog filled valleys.
The backside of the pass was dry desert and an absolutely spectacular, airy drop back down 6,000 ft. Are you getting the idea that Mexico is mountainous??
By night, the city of Teotitlan was full of shady looking characters. We drove on and found an awesome place to hide for the night. We slept well and woke up to a beautiful mountain desert view. We desert rats do best in a warm arid climate. Ned made bacon and eggs. I worked on photos. We did some stretches and got back on road. The road was still super windy, heading south toward Oaxaca.
We had been shower-less camping for 5 days and checked into a hotel in Oaxaca to refresh, do laundry and work on the blog. Breakfast on the plaza was a real treat. The city had a wonderful energetic feel.
The surprise orchestral concert added to the upbeat atmosphere
The Oaxaca region is famous for Moles, sauces made with chocolate. Our meals were delicious.
Textile and basket weaving is also important here.
We had heard about this regional delicacy…deep fried grasshoppers! Evidently they are supposed to be full of lead, so the Mexican government has banned them. Obviously some vendors still sneak them into markets. The guy carrying these around got pretty fussy with me for snapping this photo. No, we didn’t try them.
10 miles out of Oaxaca, is the small town of Santa Maria Tule where the Overland Oasis is located. Ned had read about this place and felt we should stay there. It turned out, the ex-pat Canadian owner Calvin, is a total gear-head just like Ned. They spent two days yakking about VWs, race cars, off road races, tools and who knows what else! I finished the red & yellow road blog. Check out Calvin and his wife Leanne’s 1957 Greyhound bus that they have lived in for years. It’s now parked somewhat permanently under the awning.
On our way to breakfast in Tule, we walked by this textile shop. This man was vigorously working his loom. It looked like hard work, but the results were beautiful.
Only locals were eating in this open air street restaurant. We were served lovely Oaxaca cheese omelets with rice, black beans, (obviously) handmade tortillas and another awesome salsa. Of course I had to ask what was in this one. Here it is:
A small bit of Serrano chili
One raw tomatillo
Lime juice to preserve the color
After Tule we drove south toward Puerta Angel and up over another beautiful pass. The sunset and scenery was gorgeous, but I was not enjoying it. I was in the back sick as a dog. Evidently, the hand rolled Oaxaca cheese I bought in the market is not suitable for Gringo stomachs. I ate some that morning. Ned did not. By the time Ned shot this photo I had already lost a bunch of my breakfast via dual ports on the cold drizzly pass and was threatening to lose more.
This cute little cabin was a god-send. Ned spotted this place just cresting the alpine pass and made a quick u-turn to check it out. It would have been quite romantic without the food poisoning. The night was rough, and I was grateful to not be camping in the cold.
Back on the Pacific coast in Puerta Angel. This little bay was pretty, but the area seemed very impoverished. Mentally and physically challenged people seemed abundant and begging was rampant.
This is where we finally got our last blog out…
After a camping night spent in a sandy wash and several foiled attempts to reach a private beach…this was our reward.
This fellow found himself straddling a curb and unable to move forward or back. Charlotte and Ned did their good deed for the day, winching him off.
We spent Valentine’s Day in the romantic town of San Cristobal de las Casas. The city is rich in both Native (Mayan descendants) and Spanish Colonial history. Beautiful woven textiles and handmade garments are everywhere. The woman on the right is Mari. She hand sewed the blouse I bought. The skirts the girls are wearing are thick fuzzy wool, a very popular style here.
Mari also made these gorgeous pillows.
The youngest shoe-shine. I paid him 5 pesos for the photo, but that didn’t come with a smile.
And the youngest street hawkers. It was a bit sad to see so many of these kids selling and begging on the streets, but most of them looked pretty healthy.
The markets were the most colorful yet…
Amber, fossilized resin, is another hot commodity in the area. Maribel explained how real resin glows vivid turquoise under an ultra violet light. The fake stuff, mostly cheap crystal does not.
Ned couldn’t believe there is an adult shorter than me on the planet.
Mexican fast food consists of roadside taco stands and pollo asado (roasted chicken) stands. Lunch time found us driving through Ocosingo on a red road heading north toward the Mayan ruins of Palenque.
I was immediately drawn to Luis and his shy, charming smile. It was Saturday, and Luis was helping his mom, Juana at their little chicken stand. He was polite, courteous and hard working.
Luis had never heard of Baja California, even though it is a Mexican state, so Ned brought out the map and showed him our route. Juana watched with obvious pleasure and pride.
We chatted a bit, and Luis told me he was learning English in school and some day wanted to go to the United States. We practiced counting to 20 and reciting the days of the week and months of the year
Tales of our travels brought a local audience who listened with rapt attention. I was sad to leave and wanted to take Luis with us. He took our contact info and promised to email us if and when he ever could. I truly hope he does.
What the heck are these bean-like things everyone has drying in their yards???
I was so curious I had to stop to ask. It was coffee as I suspected! So I had to buy some…it is wonderful!
“Mountain grown…the richest kind!”
Yup, those are coffee trees growing up on those cliffs.
We had heard of the waterfalls at Agua Azul, but nothing prepared us for their stunning beauty.
Local boys showing off in the pools
Kat showing off in the pools
The spectacular ruins at Palenque…actually Palenque was the name of the Mayan king who built this Palace around 600AD.
Palenque himself depicted here with a serpent
A decapitation, our guide told us
Nature takes back its own! These rocks I’m standing on are really huge ruined buildings which have not been excavated. There are thousands like this strewn throughout the jungles of the former Mayan empire.
We hired Rafael to take us around. He was more knowledgeable than we could have imagined, explaining Mayan numbering, mathematics, history, calendar, astronomy and much more. I’d share some, but it was mind boggling, and I’ve already forgotten most of it. I’ll let you know if it ever comes back!
Rafael calmly and with a straight face explained how to eat termites and how nutritious they are.
Tastes like chic….uh, carrots!
“I don’t care how much they taste like carrots, Rafael, I’m not eating a live bug!” But I did. They really did taste like carrots!
After Palenque we made a beeline for Cancun, mostly on the autopista. However, we veered off long enough to take in Izamal, the yellow city. Almost all of the buildings in the town were painted yellow. The effect was striking.
We had no interest in Cancun, except that there is one thing that Americans can do there that they can’t do at home…stay tuned to find out what we’re up to next!