January/February 2007

No Mas Frutas!


And then we found ourselves behind a truck whose blinker actually meant he was turning left! 
How confusing was that!

We left you in Patzcuaro.  What  a wonderful city; we have a special fondness for this lovely, inviting town.  We could easily have spent the entire winter, we feel so comfortable there.  And some year we might.  But right now we want to keep pushing the envelope, and continue to see new areas of Mexico.  So what do these two idiotas do?  We head back to the beach….and to our original plan, which was to go down and around, along the south coast, until we got south of Oaxaca, and then head back up into the mountains to see that lovely city.  And so that’s what we’ve been up to.  You may remember that we left the beach because it was so damn hot.  But back we went anyway.  And it was still too damn hot for us.  

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Smart-asses that we are, in leaving Patzcuaro we figured “we” knew how to get out of town better than the people who put up all the directional signs.  Kathy says, “you make a right turn here.”  Rick says, “no, this other way is better.”  Hah!  Remember:  Patzcuaro is old, old, old.  Old means tiny streets, sharp turns, big trucks taking up all the room.  But on we went.  Then screech—oops – left turn so we won’t go into the square, absolutely filled with vendors. Realizing we were in trouble now, we wanted to backtrack, and go back and take the turn the sign had said.  Uh, oh; street gets small.  Well, turn left again.  We’ll just back track some more.  Oops; dead end.  Have to turn around (thank goodness we don’t have larger motorhome-towing-jeep).  Chinook turns around in middle of street, causing lots of stares and amused grins from locals (stupid gringos).  Oops; truck bearing down on us; nice truck driver helps us get past him with about a ½” to spare on either side with our mirrors folded in and back up to corner again.  Turn right to avoid the square; go back to “the sign” and do what it says.  Whew!  Finally out of town.  Kathy smiles smugly.

Patzcuaro is at an altitude of a bit over 6800 feet; we were heading for the coast and very quickly dropped to 1700 feet, into lush tropical foliage and the pretty little town of La Huacana.  We were definitely off the beaten track here, having chosen to take a lesser road to the coast.  The fellow in the truck next to us when we were getting fuel had half a pig hanging on a hook over the side of his truck; he casually shoved it aside in order to get to the gas tank.  Local color…..

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We like the Mexican local roads through the mountains, probably more than most folks.  They are twisty and windy, full of sharp turns that suddenly come upon cows beside (or in the middle of) the road, kids zipping along on motorbikes, tiny wide spots in the road with locals watching the passing parade try to get over their topes (speed bumps); fun for all.  The freeways are less interesting, although often much faster, and of course are not free.  We spent most of our day on one of these lesser roads, with pleasure, but finally opted for the quota road in order to make better time in getting to a campground before dark.  As we got closer to the coast, we came into alternating very dry (lots of cactus) and very tropical areas, culminating in a huge dam and electric power plant; but always warmer and warmer.

At the coast, we left the state of Michoacan and entered Guerrero.  We had hoped to spend the night on the beach near a turtle sanctuary.  We had heard it was very interesting; the turtles were laying their eggs in the sand, and volunteers were helping by digging the eggs up and carrying them to safety, then later helping the little guys get oriented toward the water after hatching.  But we’d gotten a late start in the morning (all that backing up and “oops”-ing in Patzcuaro), and had to opt to visit the turtles another time.  This was the second time I’d had to forego a Trip to the Tortugas (humph).  The first time had been on the Baja; the sanctuary near where we were camped was simply never open to be visited.

We worked our way further down the coast to La Saladita, which had come highly recommended.  We were not disappointed.  Picture wide beaches, palm trees, and sunny skies.  Think Santa Barbara – without the people or the town.  That’s La Saladita. We spent a quiet night parked on the beach, between two palapa restaurants, with a lovely breeze keeping the hot humid air from being oppressive.  There were a resident horse and burro who wandered around, unfettered, first one in the lead and then the other.  Idyllic.

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Back on the road, we now were seeing coconuts at roadside stands everywhere.  The land of the coconuts, it seemed; and very tropical now, as long as we were right on the coast.  Coco palms, banana palms, lush vegetation, bougainvillea.  Roosters and pigs running loose in every little town.  And the road goes through every single one of them.  We like this; we’re not in a hurry and it’s very picturesque, though also very tiring by the end of the day.  We rode along conjugating Spanish verbs as we dodged the goats and pigs, the oncoming traffic, passing the big huge trucks with aplomb, and bumping over the topes.

The road doesn’t just go along the coast; it goes inland over the hills that border the coastline, and when you get inland a bit, it gets very dry and arid.  Then back to the shoreline, and drippy wet again.  The fridge cannot handle this.  Turned up all the way, it gasps trying to keep things cool.  Not helped by Kathy, who sincerely feels that each produce stand along the way deserves her serious attention.  Watermelon; oranges and tangerines for juice; grapefruit; and oh, look, there’s a big beautiful pineapple.  Finally, says Rick: No Mas Frutas!!!!!  Kathy scowls, but subsides.

We stopped for the night in Acapulco.  Nothing good to say here.  We took the bypass road up into the hills and around much of the city, but that didn’t help.  It brought us down into town through the working class underbelly of this huge resort city.  You could only feel sorry for all these poor folks scurrying to work each day in the big hotels we could see lining the shore.  But enuff; it was hot and humid, we spent the night and got the hell out of town the next morning.  We did, I confess, splurge on Domino’s Pizza.

Throughout Mexico, there is a military presence.  Between states there will be a military check point; often when two large roads converge there will be a stop.  But along the southern Mexican coastline, we were seeing them several times a day.  And they were actually stopping us now, rather than just waving us on through; and, for the first time, wanting to see our passports.  Always polite and friendly, they ask where we are coming from and where we are going.  Most times, they try to dig up someone who speaks a little English when they find out we are not Mexican.  We suspected this increased surveillance was because we were getting closer to the state of Oaxaca.

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And soon, here we were, in the state of Oaxaca, and once again along the water.  This part of the south coast has lagoons; a couple of major ones are now sanctuaries, and are ecotourism destinations.  Too buggy and snake-y for our taste, but we spent our last night on the coast along the edge of Laguna Manialtepic, kind of a cool spot, close to Puerto Escondido.   We were in a small campground with few amenities except direct access to the lagoon.  It was run by a nice old fellow who lived in the middle of this swamp, in a funky old house slowly being overrun by vines and banana palms.  A charmer, he said he’d about given up the property a few years back because of a lack of fresh water.  But then they had an earthquake, and ever since, he’s had plenty of good spring water, so he guesses he’ll stay on.  

And then, happy to be heading into the mountains and toward cooler climes, we headed back up the hill.  Destination:  Oaxaca City. Oaxaca is at about 5100 feet, but to get there you go up to 6500 feet, then down again, then to 7000 feet then down, then to 6200 then down then up to 5000 and Oaxaca valley.  The refrigerator was having fits.  On our way up we went through coffee-growing areas, forests, desert-like areas; it was quite a trip on a very snake-like road.  Do you know what a URO is?  That’s an Unidentified Rolling Object, typically citrus in nature; we had lots of them in the coach as we went around all those curves.

On one occasion we passed a procession of people on pilgrimage to a famous small town.  Their cars were decorated with flowers, or they walked along carrying religious things; there were even a few semi-trucks, all decorated with palm fronds and paper snowflakes.  It was quite a scene.

Brightly painted beehives were along the roads in several places.  We are all used to seeing white boxes alongside the road, or back under the trees; these were all the colors of the rainbow, making quite a picture.

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We arrived in Oaxaca to find ourselves in a small campground high above the city.  This is a wonderful spot; you can look down on the city lights at night, and see the smoke in the morning from the people cooking breakfast and heating their homes with wood fires.  We were out in the country; roosters were vocal in the mornings; the neighborhood burros were braying (when they weren’t busy hauling wood); there were resident peacocks at the local tienda where we could buy groceries; and birds everywhere.  And did we mention all the church bells?  What a super experience!

To get into the city you take this crazy bus ride.  Some of the roads are paved, all of them are very narrow, and then you get into the city proper.  And there’s traffic galore.  And the bus driver is trying to make up time from when he stopped at the tienda to get a munchie to help him through the morning.  So here comes Mr. Toad’s Ride again.  It was a gas.

It took us a couple of trips into town to get comfortable with Oaxaca.  We so love Patzcuaro, and are so comfortable there.  Oaxaca is much bigger; the square seems strangely sterile and plain to us; but we discovered that the markets are even more colorful; and the merchandise is certainly lovely.  So we fell in love all over again.  Oaxaca has rugs.  We own two that came from this area (Teotitlan, actually, which is quite close by); and we were happy to spend two great days wandering into each doorway, visiting each small hole in the wall with rugs hanging outside, looking at all the beautiful tapetes (rugs) and wishing we could buy them all.  We also sampled the local coffee, bought the local chocolate, and ate the local dishes. We have met Oaxaca and it is ours.

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This is not to say that Oaxaca has no problems. There are almost no tourists here this year (and those who have come are typically European or Canadian – no Americans).  During last summer and fall, the city suffered violent riots and several people were killed.  Buildings were burned and a lot of damage occurred.  The federal police finally came in and brought back order, but there is a lot of anger here. Since the riots, many buildings have been repainted, but you still find burned-out ones, plenty of graffiti, and lots of broken windows, including in the governor’s palace, right on the main square.  There is a HUGE police presence in town; groups of soldiers on the corners keep an eye on folks, although they often seem very bored.  At one point I was watching a group of five of them; three were talking on their cell phones (one took a call after his ringer went off for quite awhile – it was playing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite).  And several times we saw large groups of them, carrying riot shields.  A bit of a damper, but as everything seemed to us to be completely calm and peaceful it actually didn’t affect us other than to regret the apparent need for them to be there.

After a week in Oaxaca, we decided to move on, out into the countryside where our rugs had been made, to the small town of Teotitlan.  We had the name of the man who had sold us a rug last year, and we were interested in tracking him down.  But more than that, we knew that Teotitlan had a reputation of having fine rugs available all over town, as well as the local rug makers being interested in having you into their homes and showing you how these rugs are made.  We sure weren’t disappointed.  We arrived mid-afternoon, and immediately got lost trying to locate our contact.  We stopped a nice woman (Angela Martinez) to ask directions.  She told us the address we had was in Oaxaca and he didn’t actually have a location in town, but were we interested in coming to her home where she could show us some rugs, meet her family, and she could demonstrate how they make the dyes they use.  Yes, of course; we would be delighted. So she hopped into the Chinook with us, and took us up to the tippy-top of this very steep, high hill; fortunately the road was paved!  (For a brief time I figured she had simply found a great way not to have to climb that hill each night, but quickly let that go.) 

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We had a ball.  All the family came to meet us; mama was busy carding wool, dad was spinning the yarn, two brothers were making rugs, and Angela ground various plants to make dyes for us to see.  They even get the wool from their own sheep.  It was fascinating.  We spent the afternoon with them; Angela spoke good English and one brother also worked in the local community museum, so we were able to easily communicate.  The upshot of all this, of course, was that we wanted to buy a rug.  We picked out one we liked, but Angela said she had more in her shop on the square; so we trooped back down the hill again.  Mama came with us this time, and both she and Angela couldn’t stop talking about how lovely our coach was, with the kitchen and bathroom and so much space.  As always, we tried to downplay how our home made us appear so rich, but it never gets us very far.  It’s awkward.  No matter how small and simple, what we have is so much more than they do.

Back at the square, we concluded our transaction and said our goodbyes.  The Martinez family was so gracious to us; we exchanged happy smiles and email addresses; and we got some wonderful pictures in the bargain.  The people of this area are very small, and for once Kathy felt like a tall person; we were in the clutches of the Lilliputians!  All the pictures show Rick towering over everyone else.  We felt wonderful about our experience, and we had bought a rug who’s family we had met!

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We spent the night in Teotitlan, parked around the square.  Early the next morning, while it was still dark, we began hearing cars and trucks and various noises.  Peeking out the window, we realized that it must be market day!  All these folks were unloading trucks full of vegetables and flowers and goods to sell.  Such a treat!  We attend market days all the time; they are great fun and there is much to see, along with wonderfully fresh produce.  But never before had we been able to watch one come to life.  We moved the Chinook to a quieter spot where we at least thought we would be out of the way, and got out to enjoy the spectacle.  There were baby pigs tied to a tree, bunches of huge lilies, breads and sweet rolls, and lovely fruits and vegetables of all kinds. Interestingly, as was true in Oaxaca, most of the sellers were women.  There is a very strong feminist movement in this area.  We wandered around, taking pictures and buying fruit (what! more fruit? says Rick).  Teotitlan was an absolutely enchanting experience.  We often enjoy the wonderful simplicity and apparent happiness of life in Mexico, but these folks set a new standard.  Everyone was smiling and laughing and carrying on conversations right and left.  It was so apparent that market day was as much for visiting with friends as it was for buying and selling.

Moving on: You may know that Mexico is full of two big things:  volcanoes and ruins.  Many of them are in central Mexico, in the area around the capital city.  Our route for the next few weeks was designed to take us on a loop around Mexico City, first east and then north, and then back toward the western part of the country.  And we would be passing both volcanoes and ruins.  We decided to get a ruin-fix, and visited Mitla, close to Teotitlan; it was one of the biggies, but not nearly as impressive as we had hoped.  So we snapped a few pics, dodged the nice folks trying to sell us beads and blouses and other stuff, and took off, on to Puebla.  

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Visiting Puebla, we actually stayed in nearby Cholula (with an incredible view of guess what:  a volcano – Popocatepetl – which was quite nice).  From there we took the bus into town. We ended up enjoying Puebla; it is a very nice, sophisticated colonial city.  As with each of these big cities, it takes some time to have its particular charm penetrate.  We were wandering around wondering why we had bothered, as it was getting difficult to tell these cities apart.  Then we stuck our heads into the door of the tourist office to find out when the Palacio Municipal (which was next door) was going to open up, as it was supposed to be interesting.  They said “Want a private tour?”, we said “Sure” and off we went.  And it was really cool.  All these old buildings are really neat; this one was French Renaissance, had recently been refurbished and was very elegant.  It included some beautiful ceiling decorations, and was a real treat.  

We also wandered into a public space where a local folklorico dance troop was performing.  It was kids and then adults; their energy and costumes were very special.  We really enjoyed the dancing a lot.

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When Cortes invaded Mexico, he destroyed every temple he found, and built a church on the ruins.  In Cholula, “the ruins”, constitute the largest archeological site in the western hemisphere. No kidding! What appears to be a hill is actually a labyrinth of corridors connecting several layers of religious sites from prior civilizations.  We declined to take the guided tour through the underground area, but knowing it was all down there was neat, and the view from the top is quite spectacular, almost worth the climb (says Rick). You can see four volcanoes, the aforementioned Popocatepetl, plus Iztaccihuatl, La Malinche, and Pico de Orizaba (as if you cared…).  They ring the valley that contains Puebla.

This valley also contains another city which was an unexpected delight:  Tlaxcala (in the state of the same), which is northeast of Mexico City, and a real beauty.  It has its own rich colonial heritage, and the city has been lovingly restored.  The local stone is quite a vivid ochre color, and we were able to get some nice pictures.  We spent about half an hour talking to a group of university students.  They quite apparently had been given an assignment in their English class to talk to English-speaking tourists.  So they accosted us and asked us questions and we had a great chat.  We had had a similar experience in Puebla while at the dance performance.  We suspect that all students at all universities are given similar tasks.  It was lots of fun; the kids were charming and giggly and full of high spirits.  And they seemed genuinely curious about us, our interests, and our plans.  A great cultural connection, if fleeting.

Well, the Cholula hike in the morning, followed by visiting Tlaxcala in the afternoon, left us pooped.  We didn’t want to go far when we left Tlaxcala, so we followed up on a suggestion that we could camp overnight in a state-run resort-cum-sanitarium.  And it was a treat!  We drove up this steep hill (remember all the volcanoes in the area), and parked in the courtyard of this huge, brightly painted resort.  The grounds security walked us in and turned us over to the concierge.  Posh, wow!  They let us stay overnight in a huge, quiet parking area that overlooked a lake surrounded by Italian cypresses; I thought we’d died and gone to Sienna.  We were at 7600 feet, looking down on the city of Tlaxcala.  During the night church bells rang regularly, but they sounded more like a huge cell phone than traditional church bells. (Or maybe they were to remind the people at the resort that it was time for their mud baths.)  This place was a hoot!

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The next morning we started out on the road toward Pachuca, which would take us north of Mexico City, and head us west toward Queteraro and then San Miguel.  We went up over 9500 feet, through a broad pine-covered valley that was mostly used for grazing sheep; it was very pretty.  We decided that the State of Tlaxcala was a hidden treasure.  No one ever talks about it or suggests it as a tourist destination.  And we aren’t going to mention it to a soul (except you, of course!).  We went through several lovely small cities; we congratulated ourselves on our choice of routes, and how smart we were to be so far off the beaten track.

And then…  the road basically ended.  By now we had left Tlaxcala behind, had negotiated the large city of Tulancingo, and were headed for Pachuca.  I was busy being pleased that the road was brand new and so much better than the map had indicated, when…it stopped being a road.  Damn!  They were busy building more of this “new road,” and had torn up much of the old one.  And no signs saying the road was closed.  Sometimes we traveled on dirt, sometimes we were on sections of old road, sometimes we were in the middle of nowhere with no indication of what to do next.  But every once in awhile someone would come at us from the other direction, so we knew we could get through if we just kept going.  And every once in awhile we passed some workers, and they never started waving their hands and telling us not to go on (and they weren’t giggling and pointing at us, either, which was comforting).  For better or worse we were following a couple of trucks.  Couldn’t tell what kind, until they turned off into a pit and we realized they were dump trucks for the road work.  After they had abandoned riding “point,” and we were on our own, we felt lonely but courageous.  And eventually, after about 15 miles, we met the finished road and toodled merrily (not really) on our way.  What an exhausting adventure.  We found a place to pull over for the night, and sat licking our wounds as we muttered about “the Mexican way.”

Interesting:  now that we had left Oaxaca, and had moved into more urban, industrialized parts of Mexico, we no longer encountered any road blocks.  Guess there are no drugs, guns or terrorists here…

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The next day brought us to San Miguel, a nice place to be in anyone’s book.  San Miguel is a lovely colonial city we have visited before.  It has some of the most vividly colored, beautiful buildings in all of Mexico, and last year we had wandered extensively, taking zillions of pictures.  This year, we were quite tired out, and in need of some R&R, so we kept it more low-key.  Also, it was quite rainy for most of our week there.  We were in a pretty little campground close to downtown, and it was a happy choice.  We had wi-fi, for one, but even more important:  the best damn showers in all of Mexico!  Lots of hot water!  Lots of water pressure!  Clean!  New! Beautifully tiled!  7th heaven!  This doesn’t mean we didn’t wander and have a good time, just more slowly.  There was a new paella restaurant around the corner that we tried, along with some new friends in the park (yummy, says Kathy; is that squid, says Rick?).  And Kathy and a new friend had a splendid morning visiting the tianguis market, filled with produce, good things to eat, and a huge flea market; Rick had quiet time back in the coach; we both enjoyed ourselves hugely.

Mexican lessons for the day – yonke; a yonke is a junk yard.  And a vulcanizadora is a tire repair place; it always reminds me of Isadora Duncan.

Interesting custom in large cities (we saw it several places):  people don’t put out their trash the night before the garbage truck comes; instead, a person ringing a bell precedes the truck, letting everyone know it’s time to come bring their trash out to be removed.  Seems to me this is eminently practical; we saw it both in the business areas and among residences.  Pretty neat, we’d say.  Ring… and then the trashman cometh.

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Suddenly, one day we looked at the calendar and realized our winter was slipping away.  It was now February, and we still had one major destination to head for:  the beautiful, UNESCO World Heritage City of Guanajuato.  So we headed up, moved on out, and trucked over the hills to Guanajuato.  

What a lovely city!  Just like in Oaxaca, again we were in a little campground above the town, looking down on it all.  We were so glad we had come, and immediately walked down into town (closer to the action this time), spending the afternoon getting our bearings and enjoying the sights.  We planned to stay a week or so, before heading back into the States to take care of encroaching issues.

But the issues continued to encroach, and ultimately we realized that we needed to head out, if we were going to be able to handle things as we wished.  Frankly, for some time we had realized that our goals were evolving.  Traveling in the Chinook had convinced us that small RVs are the way we want to travel, and increasingly over the last several months we have been talking about heading further afield, and the manner in which we wanted to do this.  All winter, we have been meeting folks heading to Central America, or coming north after being in South America, and two different couples who were starting trips around the world!  And we realized that we wanted to do that, too.  But what would be the best vehicle for this several-year trip?  We thought it might be the Chinook, although that had some downsides, the biggest being its age, very limited ground clearance and the fact that it has a gas rather than a diesel engine.  So Rick researched what other options we had, and came up with a couple of good alternatives.  One we were very interested in was a small company operating out of Columbia, South Carolina, which made the Tiger, a small chassis mount camper on a Chevy truck chassis; another was Sportsmobile, in Austin, TX, making conversions on the Mercedes-Benz van chassis.  Both diesel, both small, both innovative in their design, both quite intriguing.  A conversation with the company owner in South Carolina got us moving right along. He said he was about finished with the 2006 trucks he was going to be able to get, and the 2007s were going to have the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel requirement (more on this later).  So if we were interested in his product, we should think about coming to look pretty soon.

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Bottom line, we left Guanajuato and headed north.  We saw the Sportsmobile in Texas, and liked it a lot; then we went to South Carolina to see the Tiger, and fell in love.  The Tiger (which we are refusing to call Tony) will be perfect for us.  It is smaller than the Chinook, very important as you get into developing countries, but has an even more efficient layout and it has four-wheel drive and excellent ground clearance.  We are buying it now, so we can get all the kinks out before taking it off the beaten track (of course, our planned “shakedown cruise” involves going up to the Arctic Circle before heading to Central America).  It gets about 16 mpg, much better than the Chinook (although not as good as the Mercedes van).  We can go on dirt roads, gravel roads, through the mud, anywhere we want. 

By the way, about the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel.  You know we are very sensitive to environmental issues; always have been.  We applaud the United States for joining Europe in adopting this new requirement; if we were going to stay here we would be delighted to become involved.  But (and this is a huge thing), the developing countries where we are headed are not ready to provide us with this new fuel and may not be for years to come.  We’ve been told that an occasional few gallons of the “wrong” stuff won’t do damage, but that larger amounts will result in costly repairs; and what about entire countries (or continents!) that don’t have any – anywhere?  So that’s why it was so important to us to buy one of the older engines.

You can read more about the Tiger on our Our Vehicle page; we hope you will look at it there, at least until we can show you in person. We hope to see many of you on the West Coast this spring, or maybe in the Mid-West in the fall.  It’s going to be a great year!

Hasta la vista, 

Rick and Kathy, your crazy-intrepid-spontaneous-impulsive-justplainweird wandering amigos. 

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© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018