(30th March – 15th April, 2016)
Just after leaving the harbor we were plunged into the turbulent chaos that is the traffic of Mazatlan and it was made abundantly clear to us what was meant by the “light version” and the “real” Mexico – at least where the traffic was concerned. In comparison to the Baja we once again found ourselves in a completely different world. The roads were packed with cars, trucks, motorcycles, and people and when we thought that the driving style on the Baja was a bit hard-hitting we were forced to realize that we really had no idea! Tailgating within mere centimeters of the car in front, crazy overtaking maneuvers and motorcycles squeezing through impossible gaps on either side were now the order of the day. Of course, everything was also suddenly more hectic, louder, and dynamic. We spent a few days outside the city on the Pacific and one more-or-less unwilling sleepless night directly in the city where we, completely unexpectedly, landed in the middle of the yearly Harley-Davidson meetup before leaving the coast to head inland through the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit.
On the Mexican mainland, you often have the choice of driving the toll roads, the “Cuota” or the free roads, the “Libre”. Te Cuota are well-developed highways with little traffic, mostly in immaculate condition and of course much safer. However, they are also quite expensive and not just for Mexican standards. If you want to get somewhere in a half decent amount of time you can spend between $20 – $25 in a single day. Of course, you miss much of the land you are driving through. What also end up missing, which is a very good thing, is the multitude of “topes” (speed bumps) which are used, as it turns out, in all Latin America as a means of forcibly reducing ones’ speed since no one really pays attention to the posted speed limits. Even the smallest of villages would have at least 10 of these massive speed reducers on the main thoroughfare, and although some would actually be indicated in advance by way of a sign the majority would come as a surprise deftly hidden in the shadows or handily in front of a shop or street vendor. So, as it happened, more than once, we saw the bump at the very last moment and came to a screeched halt just before, or worse still missed it completely going over with a zippy suspension straining WHUMP and feeling the shock deep into our bones thinking that this time we definitely broke something or ended up with a bent rim and flat tire. Though thankfully, nothing really happened except for us receiving a nasty shock and being extra suspect of every shadow or dark patch of road.
At first, we didn’t dare to leave the cuota, especially in the perilously well-known state of Sinaloa, and because of the innumerable warnings of the locals, but after only 2 days of boring, expensive, highway our curiosity got the better of us. The cuotas may be well built, and a dream to drive, but one sees absolutely nothing of the surrounding landscape except a few unfinished bridges and the rare crossroad. So, in the afternoon we decided to risk a section of the libre, it was the middle of the day after all and although we knew it would take much longer we figured it couldn’t be all that much different, right? The reality, however, was something altogether different. We had just left the cuota and the craziness started, and how! For all the tranquility and calm that was the cuota, the libre was a full-on war. Chockablock full stuck behind some over loaded truck going up the sinuous climbs, constant jockeying and hail-Mary overtaking maneuvers that left us white knuckled and in a cold sweat. Driving through the towns took forever and not only because of all the topes but also because the roads were a packed chaos that we had to somehow force our way through. To get anywhere one has to adapt ones driving style in the manner of “when in Rome” and simply jostle, beep and squeeze into the smallest of openings one dares, just like the locals. Sometimes there were mere centimeters between our bumper and the vehicle in front – something which left me as the passenger in a slight panic, and I was very thankful that Gary was driving. I would have probably, at some point, become paralyzed with fear and simply stopped in the middle of the road and screamed, or become a blubbering sobbing mess or something else other than drive. However, Gary seemed to enjoy himself tremendously, while I sat white knuckled and overwhelmed in the passenger seat, he skillfully pushed and jostled the Landy through the utter chaos really relishing the challenge!
Loud, lively, hectic and wild that was the Libre! Though naturally, you drive right into what Mexico is and experience what the locals experience. Although an authentic experience it was one we decided that we would rather experience in small doses in future. It was a bit exhausting after all. After our adventure on Libre we certainly appreciated that the Cuota was an option for the longer distance drives.
Etzatlan – Pure Mexico!
After several days, we reached the state of Jalisco. Our only real reason for being there was to visit the town of Tequila, where as one would expect Tequila is distilled in huge quantities. Since there weren’t any places for us to camp in or around Tequila we stayed at the 40km distant town of Etzatlan at a very well-kept campground. Tequila is as world-renowned as Etzatlan is unknown so we weren’t really expecting all that much other than what we had at the campground. Though to our surprise the very pleasant, bilingually raised campground hostess, informed us that we were lucky to be in the pure heart of Mexico and we should not miss the opportunity to stroll into her hometown and experience it for ourselves.
So, the next day we ambled into town and soon realized that our host had not exaggerated in the least! Etzatlan really is pure Mexico and after a couple of hours of strolling around the town it won a place in our hearts. With the sun shining above we walked through the many small alleys passing many individual Tiendas (shops) where you can get just about anything, from tailors to saddle makers to casket maker – all next to each other. Every now and then we would pass a street vendor selling grilled chicken or corn on the cob or some other delicious treat. Almost all the streets and alleys lead inwards to the heart of the town – the Plaza. As we arrived we were almost struck dumb by its beauty! With wrought iron benches, palm trees and manicured grassy areas the plaza is an artfully designed haven and apparently the main meeting point for the entire town. Young and old gathered to enjoy the centerpiece of their town. Afternoons, the school children gathered, and in the evening families, seniors and love birds – everyone met at the plaza to enjoy the shade, play games, dance, enjoy an ice-cream or simply to sit and while away the time. We were the only noticeable tourists there and were so thrilled with the quaint little town that we decided to spend a few extra days to experience a little more of what Etzatlan had to offer.
Of Thieves and Cowboys
With crossing the border to Mexico we got into the habit of asking what the security situation was where we were camping and depending on the answer locking up our camping chairs and table with a steel cable and padlock. As we asked our campground host she laughed. “Your things are completely safe here, nothing will get taken.” She assured us. “We had some thieves here some time ago”, she continued, “But they are all dead now.” “Excuse me?”, we asked somewhat shocked. “Yeah, guys from the organized crime took care of them. They don’t like getting too much attention, they deal only in drugs and stolen petroleum and nothing else, its’ just not lucrative enough. So, when there are people doing petty crime it draws unwanted attention from the Federales and so they took care of them.” “And now they are all dead?” We asked stunned by the telling. “Well, that’s what I figure. In any event they disappeared without a trace and since then nothing has gotten stolen again.” Needless to say we were quite shocked with the news but also somewhat fascinated. The big fish apparently take care of the little fish in this town making everyone safer! Crazy, we thought, though we went to bed with peace of mind and didn’t even think to worry about our stuff getting nicked.
In Etzatlan we also saw the most wonderful horses that we have seen in Mexico thus far. Exceptional animals decorated with splendid tack and gorgeous saddles. Their riders, real “Rancheros” (cowboys), weren’t a bit less shiny and decorated with stylish button-down shirts and classic Mexican hats. By the way, you can buy everything from hat to saddle in excellent handmade quality directly in town – at unbelievably inexpensive prices too. Apparently, the Rancheros meet often in town or use it as an excuse to pick up a bottle of tequila, which then they empty on the way home. On a small hike to the lookout hill above town we passed a few well-dressed cowboys coming the other direction with a half empty bottle of tequila and a stack of plastic cups sticking out of their saddle bags. They seemed to be offering everyone who passed a shot of tequila with a choice of sparkling water or ginger ale as mixer and naturally topped up their own as well!
Thanks to the insider tips of our host we got to enjoy some local cuisine at a restaurant that a tourist probably would never have found on their own, or if they passed by the place would not have stopped inside. We found the rustic and somewhat rundown looking restaurant in a small side street. During the lunch hour, it is filled with locals; once again we were the only non-locals in the place. The food was prepared in an open kitchen by 3 very friendly and helpful ladies. There were two options available to us but having no clue as to which either were we let them surprise us. Our meal turned out to be a very spicy meat stew served with a small salad and a huge stack of corn tortillas. It tasted wonderful, though I was not accustomed to how spicy Mexican food is so my mouth was burning and beads of sweat started to form on my forehead. The temperature outside was hot and now in combination with the spicy food I really started to sweat. Gary, who enjoys eating spicy food to begin with didn’t seem to be fazed by it at all and was thrilled with the meal.
That evening as we once again strolled through town the most wonderful fragrance wafted in our direction. We followed our noses and landed suddenly back at the plaza in front of a mobile food stand where a very friendly elderly man was using a strange type of gun to squirt a thumb thick rope of batter into hot oil. We asked him what it was he was making. “Churros.” He answered and handed us a piece that he had rolled in cinnamon and sugar – whereby he had us hook, line, and sinker! Churros is apparently the national dessert in Mexico and we were immediately hooked on them. Looking back now, the Churros that we had from the old man on the plaza in Etzatlan were to be the best we would have in all of Mexico.
When it comes to sampling the Mexicans are in general very generous and proud of their local wares. If you ask what something is you don’t get a small taste but usually end up with a huge piece of whatever it is to try; sometimes it almost embarrassing too when all we really wanted was to know what exactly it was we were looking at and then practically ending up with the whole fruit in the hand to try. That happened to us at one stand in Etzatlan with a very friendly fruit seller who seemed very interested in us and despite our embarrassingly non-existent Spanish wanted to talk to us. We stopped because a huge strange looking fruit (think big green knobby pumpkin) was on display on his stand, which turned out to be a massive jackfruit and probably weighed in at about 10kg. Apparently jackfruit can be as heavy as 35kg! Although we tried to prevent him he immediately cut it open to show us the insides of the fruit even though we made clear to him we were only curious and had no intention of buying anything. Never the less he cut out a piece of the fruit for us to try. The flavor of this particular fruit reminded one of Haribo gummi bears and as we found out later, along with all manner of other facts, the flavor changes from tree to tree and with exposure to the air. If that wasn’t enough he pressed a few different types of coco nut and pieces of sugar cane into our hands to try as well. When we asked, at the end, what we owed him for all this sampling he laughed and shook his head explaining that he enjoyed simply being able to introduce us to some new things. We were moved from the unbelievable hospitality and decided to buy a bag of cubed sugar cane – something new for me but something out of Gary’s childhood.
The temperature had risen quite dramatically; we were after all in the middle of the dry season and the sun burned down on us in the afternoons with such intensity that we could barely endure it. The mornings were still a relatively cool 12C, but by the afternoon the heat was so bad that we delayed all physical activity for later in the evening. In the afternoons, we couldn’t do anything besides sit somewhere in the shade, eat ice-cream and drink a lot of cold drinks and when possible take cold showers. The evenings were wonderful, since it cooled slowly we were able sit outside without a jacket or sweater late into the night. Apparently, the locals also try and avoid the afternoon heat as the streets were deserted; first after sundown do they once again brave the streets or gather in the plaza and sports like soccer start at the earliest at 8pm.
As we finally ended up visiting Tequila, the main reason for our visit to the region to begin with, were we quite disappointed. The town is quite pretty but it made a sort of pretentious impression on us – the usual tourist trappings. Inflated prices, kitschy souvenirs probably “made in China” and everyone was suddenly speaking to us in English. The half-day we spent wandering around the town was more than enough for us; we decided to head back and spend a bit more time in Etzatlan – and eat more Churros!
Tapalpa – Pueblo Magico
The town of Tapalpa is another of Mexico’s so-called Pueblo Magicos, though it wasn’t the only reason for visiting the town but also because it sits at a comfortable height of over 2000m. Not yet used to the dry heat we were happy for every destination that was at a higher altitude with promises of a somewhat more comfortable climate. Just outside of town we found a comfortable campground at a paragliding school that had fantastic views of the valley below – not to mention quite possibly the best wood fired pizzas we have had on the trip so far! All that in the middle of Mexico – who would have though? At first though, the place took a bit getting used to as it belongs to two brothers who, at first glance, look as though they belonged on the Interpol’s most wanted list of international criminals. The well-worn faces and raw scratchy voice speak of a bit too much “living”; and as the younger of the two brothers told us that he had run a good restaurant in Italy we couldn’t quite believe him think that perhaps he had a different type of lucrative business… Though after we got to know the brothers a bit more they turned out to be really helpful and agreeable hosts. After trying the pizzas we were definitely convinced of the restaurant cover-story!
Tapalpa reminded us somewhat of a Swiss mountain village. Small cobblestone alleys, white plastered houses with fancy wooden balconies, terracotta tiled roofs and prettily ornamented churches. The village is really pretty and we took our time exploring the many alleys and paths, tried the locally made sweets and had a delicious “Lonches” (a type of hot sandwich) at the market. We were both well overdue for a haircut but our knowledge of Spanish was still in its infancy so we have absolutely no idea how we could possibly try and explain what we want to a hairdresser but we figured it would somehow or another turn out ok. We asked at a small shop about getting an appointment to which the answer was that the “Chica” would return in the afternoon, when exactly that would be wasn’t clear but figured it was “mas o menos” anyway. We used the time to puzzle together, with the help of a dictionary, a few sentences like “the front somewhat longer than the back” or “the sides shorter”. Without cheat-sheet in hand we headed back to the little salon at around 3pm with the clear understanding that what we end up with might not exactly be as we expected. The “Chica” turned out to be a bright, pleasant young lady who turned out to be incredibly skilled not only with her scissors but also in coaxing out of us with our pathetic Spanish exactly what we wanted; we also ended up with the best haircut since leaving Germany all for about 5 Euro for the both of us together! We were so shocked at the price (it was after all our first Latin American salon visit) that we had to ask twice to be sure we understood and ended up giving her a huge tip to assuage our conscience. Super happy and freshly styled we headed back to our camp and couldn’t resist ordering another round of pizzas.
There was a lot to do in the surrounding area of Tapalpa and so we took a few drives along small side roads through the idyllic landscape, hiked through some interesting rock formations at the “Piedrotas” and hiked down to “Salto de Nogal’ a rather isolated waterfall. Though before we did any of that we stopped at the tourist information to see about a safe place to leave the car, or if it was even a good idea at all to leave the car so long at the trail head. The answer that we got was a “No problem” from the friendly man at the counter. “You can park your car just about anywhere without any worries. It’s totally safe here. The organized crime people makes sure of that. They deal in drugs and stolen petrol and don’t want to raise any kind of attention. I have to be honest with you folks and simply say that our children can play outside at any time of the day or night thanks to the organized crime.” He added.
We had to laugh. Didn’t we just hear the exact same story a few days ago? We are actually safe because of organized crime! Unbelievable! It almost seemed like some kind of cosmic joke was being played on us; though his testimony was enough for us to park our car and with peace of mind head out for a nice long hike.