Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chiapas, 2010: The Good, the Bad, and the Disastrous

Our plan was to fly into Mexico's Benito Juarez Airport, rent a VW Jetta, and drive south to Chiapas, to visit San Cristobal de las Casas, Ocosingo, the Mayan ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan, and Comitan. We ended up doing only half that, losing one full day finding a road down that was not flooded out by a recent hurricane, and losing another full day when our transmission was torn out by topes and gravel roads in the park at Lagunas de Montebello. We ended up missing all of the ruins, including Tonina (near Ocosingo, which we also missed), and cutting the trip short to make a mad, 550-mile dash for one full day in our Pacific Coastal favorite, Puerto Escondido. At long last I submit to the notion that making an itinerary of any trip in Mexico involving ground transportation is just plain futile. I won't get fooled again.

My friend John Gaston had warned me weeks in advance of our departure of problems looming on the horizon -- not only the drug war, but the crisis at Mexicana Airlines and the hurricanes making landfall east of Chiapas, affecting the massive rivers of that state as well as those of south Veracruz and northern Oaxaca. Thinking that his concerns would be behind us by the time we left, I continued to rely on my airline reservations with Mexicana until the news broke on CNN that they were shutting down, causing me to scramble to find other tickets on AeroMexico. When the latter changed the itinerary of the San Antonio-Mexico City leg of the trip, we lost our connection on the Mexico City-Tuxtla Gutierrez leg, which is when I decided to rent a car from Thrifty. Big mistake. I should have opted for staying in the City for one night and continuing on by plane the following day. From the guide books, I learned that we could have relied entirely on ground transportation for the entire trip, making rental of a car unnecessary -- and as it turned out, an exorbitantly expensive option. Something tells me I am getting too old to ignore friends' advice.

Things started getting out of hand pretty early, two weeks before departure with the announcement that our Mexicana reservations had been canceled, causing me to spend hours online trying to get alternate flights both into Mexico and to Tuxtla. I secured AeroMexico reservations but lost the connection when AeroMexico changed the San Antonio departure time from morning to afternoon. Due to the late arrival in the Federal District ("Dee Effey"), we did not get on the road in the rented VW Jetta until well into the rush hour, which can be hectic in any city and a nightmare in Mexico City. We took the Veracruz toll road, which joins up with the Oaxaca autopista and, eventually, the toll road to Villahermosa, gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula. Our plan had been to take this latter cuota as far as Minatitlan, where a two lane toll road goes more or less directly down to Tuxtla Gutierrez. It didn't quite work out that way. As my older brother is constantly reminding me, "When in Mexico, expect the unexpected." Looking back on it all, I should have known we might have trouble taking coastal routes following in the heels of a hurricane that crossed three states, including eastern Chiapas, after chewing up and spitting out the petroleum-rich, river delta state of Tabasco.

We had spent the night in Orizaba, at the foot of Mexico's tallest mountain, a perfect peak more or less in the shape of the classic Mexican cavalry hat. Well, close to it, anyway. Orizaba has one of Mexico's largest breweries and the people like to have fun. Still, it pretty much shuts down early on Saturdays. We glanced inside the guide book recommended La Troje restaurant just around the corner from our hotel and it was empty of all save spiffy waiters in starched white uniforms. Too expensive for us. So we ate tacos in a joint across from the plaza. Alex and Zack are gluttons when you put tacos al pastor in front of them; in fact, from our less than memorable trip to Acapulco last year they came away with fond memories of late night tacos in a sear and slice joint catercorner to our hotel with no running water. (They could not afford water because it was off season, one supposes.) In addition to its brewery, Orizaba is famous for its Eiffel building, a fascinating structure made entirely of steel, taken apart piece by piece, shipped to Mexico, and reassembled off the zocalo here under M. Eiffel's personal guidance.

The Gran Hotel de France, on the main drag, is a discovery of my brother, Terry, and me when we visited a couple of years ago. All the hotels in the area have more or less the same rates (we paid $65 for two rooms, as they only had two "matrimonials" in each room and my sons are not comfortable sharing a bed (matrimonios are a kind of "double" bed.) Unlike some of the other hotels, the Gran has a lot of character. It is built around a central courtyard where meals are served to guests and the public. It has free parking in back, entered through the same side street the La Troje is on. We got a pretty good night's sleep and in the morning had breakfast on the way out of town. We look forward to our Mexican breakfasts, usually huevos al gusto or chilaquiles de casa, though the breakfasts we really dreamed of were those of Ajijic and Escondido.

Plan? We Don't Got to Show You No Stinkin' Plan!

Our plan was to get back on the D.F.-Veracruz toll road, take the cut-off to toll road 145D (heading for Villahermosa, the gateway to the Yucatan). We would find the "new" toll road down to Tuxtla Gutierrez via Presa Nezahualcoyotl, a large, inland, man-made lake north of the Sumidero Canyon, Chipa de Corzo, and Tuxtla itself. There was just one problem: a hurricane had gone into the Isthmus and all points south via the State of Tabasco. The toll road going to Acayucan and Minatitlan were under water and we were detoured on some third rate road after going many miles out of the way on the "libre." At some point, we learned that there was no passage on that road, too. The third rate road, starting at a town called Isla, looked on the map to be a handy shortcut, but within minutes had us bumping up and down for an hour on roads better suited to burros. We got lost many times and got curious stares from the shop owners and the federales when we asked for directions.

And that was the least of our problems. Finding ourselves at long last on Mexican Highway 147 from Tuxtepec to Juchitan, but on the mountain roads with no shoulders as luck would have it, we wound up in hours-long roadjams where one lane had to be closed while work proceeded on the other, leading to long waits, inchworm advances forward, and dwindling hopes of making even Tuxtla by dark. Yes, this is before dark. We kept looking at the all terrain vehicle owner in the trailer ahead of us: he kept checking the cinch rubber around his cargo, almost like an obsessive-compulsive. (Alex swears that we saw him on the beach, later, in Escondido. But I am getting ahead of myself.) It was almost midnight when we finally pulled into the nearest town that purportedly had a hotel or two: Matias Romero. We did find a room, had a too-late dinner, and retired.

We finally arrived in Tuxtla at 3 p.m. the following day. I was running low on pesos and tried to get $100 bills exchanged at Bancomer, the Mexican equivalent of BBVA Compass in the States. I had been misinformed that changing dollars into pesos was easy if you had a BBVA account. While this is no doubt true, is it also misleading: If you only have a BBVA Compass account, your debit-credit card may or may not help you, probably depending on the city. I only learned in Mexico City ten days later that Compass and Bancomer operate independently and the latter puts limits on how much you can exchange in given month. We had only intended to drive down Belesario Dominguez, the main drag, for a quick pop into the bank. It ended up taking an hour.

The drive over to Chiapa de Corzo is fairly spectacular once you get out of the burbs, which are terribly congested and ugly, reminding me vaguely of the outskirts of Acapulco. Sometimes when one is being touristy in a city's zona centro, one forgets that there are slums in the hills where even the service industry refuses to live. Chiapa de Corzo is just the other side of a magnificent bridge going over the Rio Grijalva at the beginning of the Cañon Sumidero and is dominated by the Pila, an architectural centerpiece in the big plaza, done in the 16th century, Moor-inspired Mudejar style. We stayed at the mediocre Hotel Los Angeles, which "didn't have" any of the fan-only rooms, only the ones with a/c, kicking the price up considerably -- much to my chagrin when it dawned on me that we practically had rooms to ourselves. As they only had the double bed they call a matrimonio. Although we only stayed the night ($60), I would have moved to another hotel for a longer stay. We took our evening meal at the Corredore at the other end of the plaza ($6 milanesa, $5 fried chicken plate).

Breakfast was had at the corner of the portales nearest the Los Angeles. We wanted to get off early as possible for a launch trip up the Grijalva into the canyon. The excursion costs $12 each, including use of a life jacket, without which you cannot go along. Later, I would rue not taking a my long-sleeved windbreaker or not applying sunscreen, as the mid-morning sun burned my arms (something I can ill afford, being prone to skin cancer). Unfortunately, effluvia from the hurricane, the same hurricane that ruined our driving plans, had washed into the river a ton of plastic water bottles and other garbage. Not a turn of the boat took us into water not dotted by the trash accumulation. We noticed a clean-up crew in a boat near the painted rock outcropping of a cave that is home to a retablo in living color. Alligators taking sunbaths lined the rock ledges at water level; one is unable to tell is they are asleep or playing dead, they do not move.

Enchanting San Cristobal

We arrived in San Cristobal early enough to shop for a small fan, which seemed absurd in the near perfect weather of these mountains in early October: crisp and clear of everything but the heady smoke from charcoal burners mixed with the mesmerizing smell (at least in the nearby Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages) of copal incense. Simply explained: my son Zack has tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, which does not bother him at night if he has the drone of an electric motor. So much for being in a garage ban for years. Since I was last in S.C. de L.C. my old hotel, the Jardines de Cerillo, a couple of blocks from the artesanias market, has remodeled. The restuarant has disappeared, its entrance now the main door to the hotel itself. We got a nice room in one of the off season "promotions," three beds and a fireplace for $56. Not at all bad for this tourist mecca.

The city itself is magic and cast a glamour over my sons. They found the cathedral plazas, where so many young people gather to enjoy the local ambience, delightful, and the shopping for artesanias without equal even in Oaxaca (though one doubts they could rival those of Patzcuaro). There is something about San Cristobal that you can't put your finger on; it is just out of reach, and it even embraces the city's silly ways, such as presenting diners with an extensive menu, then informing them that the only thing they had was tortas -- a scene out of Buñuel. This actually happened to us the night we arrived, at the misleadingly-named Emiliano's Moustache. Ordinarily, I would not be caught dead in such a place, but the guide book had given it thumbs up. We were so disappointed, we went elsewhere.

We discovered a treasure: a small, attractive restaurant called the Maya Pakal in the middle of the jumble of eating spots and gift shops to the east of the main plaza. The menu here is varied and the entrees reasonably priced. We wound up eating breakfast here twice, including the following morning, when we went out to San Juan Chamula, the quintessential tzotzil village. After parking, we were immediately accosted by an obnoxious woman with a baby in tow who had a novel approach to selling her somewhat shoddy textiles: She asks your name, then approaches you repeatedly and for hours, using your name as if you were an old friend. The boys were amazed at the cathedral, with its shamanistic practices (rituals on a floor covered with pine needles) and its unique altarpiece, John the Baptist occupying the center of the paintings, the primary object of worship. I thought, Aha, Johanites, and in Mexico no less!

As it happened, we had arrived at a propitious moment: the city fathers had gathered in the band stand in a large arena between the cathedral and the market, observing a festival dance. Dancers with masks ("viejo" and other motifs) stomped about to the accompaniment of a village band. Some of the roles were played by small boys, and dancers with roll-about bull's heads of papier mache set off fireworks from time to time. Alex tried to take a video and was told it was forbidden. Once the dance ended, the dancers exited the arena in a long line, and we went into the amazing Templo de San Juan. We also went over to Zinacantan, another village known for its artesanias, though we found the place somewhat inhospitable and lacking in commercial expertise. The shops looked closed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Bad" Times in Mexico

From a discussion at the egroup, "life_in_Mexico" at google, a post I send in response to someone asking for peoples' "bad" experiences south of the border:

I have had precious few "bad" experiences in Mexico, almost all of them my own fault. Back in my drinking days, I once got taunted in an abarotes in Patzcuaro by two teen aged boys who saw me buying a bottle of tequila and said, sotto voce (but loud enough to be heard), "Cabrón." The glare I gave them would have killed the faint of heart, but I knew they recognized an alcoholic when they saw one. Once, in D.F., at the Opera Bar, I foolishly engaged in a drinking contest with a couple of macho bastards who came close to physically attacking me. In another bar in Guadalajara, I struck up a conversation with a patron who hailed form Monterrey. When I mentioned that Monterrey was famous for its UFO sightings in the vicinity of Cerro de la Silla, he became incensed and loudly proclaimed that I was a gringo puto motherf*****r who thinks all Monterreños are loonies. (In my defense, the other patrons, all Tapatios, laughed at him, not me. (I later learned that Tapitios despise Monterreños as a matter of principle.

I had my one and only blackout of my drinking years in Vallarta, where Beto, owner of the Toucan Bar, lectured me on being a miserable drunk. And once, on a trip to D. F., I left my camera in my room at the old Hotel Carlton near the Monument to the Revolution. When I got to the airport, I asked a flight attendant to call them to arrange for return of the camera and it was agreed that I would send an international money order from home with sufficient funds for postage and handling. I never got my camera back. I left another, cheaper camera at an hole-in-the-wall liquor store in Chihuahua (the kind that looks like a New York pawn shop, complete with wire grate between customer and the bottles). I got chewed out by a Calzada de la Independencia bus driver in Guad when I asked for directions to the Teatro Degollado and he said in Spanish (or so I think), "You can't get there from here."

But my single worst experience was in 1971 in San Miguel de Allende when I got stoned on pot and went to the local teen hangout, La Fragua, and got paranoid about it. The following morning a high official's son turned up dead, having O.D.'d on some type of drugs, so perhaps my reaction was to genuinely bad vibes: he had been to La Fragua earlier in the evening. Oh, and I had a huge argument with an elderly gay man at Chucho's bar (where everyone from Neal Cassidy to Dave van Ronk, and, legend has it, Hemingway and many others, passed through). He argued that his Jewishness was racial, whereas I believed that the race is Semitic, which makes them first cousin to Muslims. We didn't come to blows (thank God!), but it got kinda heated all the same. Poor Chucho got into trouble with the city mothers, who forced him to close down.

You, too, may have some harrowing tales of Mexico if you go to get drunk.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Around and About Coahuila

Taking advantage of a 40% drop in tourism and a $13M to $1US exchange rate, we left South Texas April 8, 2009 to spend semana santa (holy week) in the State of Coahuila and traveled to Monclova, Quatrocienegas, Torreon, Parras de la Fuente, and the capital, Saltillo. We found excellent accommodations going begging -- in no small part because narcotraficante violence has scared other tourists away. In some cases we had whole cities almost entirely to ourselves. Gas was about 80 cents higher than in the States, the Mexican petroleum industry being state-owned, with resultant price controls. But although we took toll roads (cuotas) when available, we still did the five-day trek for about $350 each, including a bit of shopping. There were some surprises...and some disappointments.

We entered via Piedras Negras (across from Eagle Pass, Texas), mostly because I was wary of crossing at the shorter point, Nuevo Laredo (so plagued with drug violence that even the famed Cadillac Bar, re-christened the El Dorado due to an internecine squabble, shut down), and also because one of the guide books said that the Piedras Negras crossing was quicker. It did not say that the aduana (customs) offices, where both visas and temporary auto importation permits are dolled out, is in the town of Allende, about 30 miles from the border. As it happened, the document procurement was no more streamlined than at Matamoros, where we crossed last October (2008), but that crossing was very much out of the way for so westerly a trek.

The drive from Allende to Monclova is surprisingly lacking in the sort of monotony characteristic of the Reynosa-Monterrey approach: rolling, arid hills give way to a variegated landscape, with an occasional outcropping of mountainous rock and a sharp curve or two. The outskirts of Monclova herald an oasis complete with palms, and the city is quite pretty in the suburban hills to the west of the main drag; the shabbier centro lying to the east about a zocalo dominated by a giant foundry crucible, a sculpture erected in honor of the founding father, whose Altos Hornos iron and steel works (Ahmsa) employs many locals.

We found acceptable quarters at a Lonely Planet recommendation, the Hotel Olimpia, just off the square ($41) and ate some antojitos for dinner at a popular cafe on the square. We spent about 45 minutes looking for a nicer accommodation, asking several policemen how to get to the Chulavista de Monclova. We never did find it, but our search introduced us to the ritzier suburban side of town on the west side of Highway. This is an upscale area, and it was enjoyable driving through it at sunset.

The next morning, we headed for Cuatrocienegas, stopping off briefly on the outskirts to shoot pictures of an enormous equestrian statue of revolutionary hero Venustiano Carranza on top of a hill overlooking the city. The view from the top is spectaclular, but you cannot see the primordial desert spring-fed pools lying further west of the small city. Cuatro has some good hotels for a desert town, including the Plaza, in whose La Casona we ate a hearty breakfast. The Museo Carranza just a block or two away from the zocalo is worth a look; I had not known that the man had been governor of Coahuila prior to his march south as part of the same forces that would include Villa.

We had heard much of the Area de Proteccion de Flora y Fauna lying outside the town, about ten miles away. True, the Poza Azul is a wondrous sight: a many-hued pool of water fed by springs gurgling up from subterranean desert. As we had seen in online photos, small fish were feeding on the bottom, some not found anywhere else in the world, but the postcard views we'd seen were not to be found. The visitors' office seemed to have upped the entry fee just for semana santa, a minor annoyance. We didn't visited the other pools: Tortugas, Mezquites, Bezera, and Churince, as we figured we'd be paying extra for a swim. (Swimming is not allowed in Poza Azul.)

The water in the lagoon at Poza Azul was quite startling, however: so many shades of blue (as I hope my photo reveals), though the setting was somewhat spoiled by the occasional piece of trash, including a polyvinyl drink container that had floated up to the marshy weeds along the banks. When we walked back to our car (one can drive to the site, but we thought it would cost extra) a trio of park ranger vehicles, complete with whirling overhead lights, roared past, and as they returned only moments later, we assumed the tour of the area was mostly for show. We drove on, past Poza La Becerra, which appeared closed. Although one can swim at La Becerra, we were in a hurry to get to Torreon, which we had not seen since a childhood trip from South Texas to Mazatlan over the hairpin Highway 40 out of Durango. (It was under construction at the time and we had memories of having to back up great distances to allow heavy earth moving vehicles to pass, one way, and of delays for dynamite as well.

This time, however, we only wanted to go as far as Mapimi, the desert town northwest of Torreon, where, oddly, many revolutionary heroes passed through on their way to one destiny or another. Lonely Planet is unfair to Torreon, calling it "one ugly city." If you peruse their minuscule section on the place, you see that they spent very little time here, haven't updated their listing, and treated it as a stopover-only last resort. It isn't. It is worth exploring all for itself. Their writer recommends the Hotel Palacio Real on the zocalo, which we found lacking in any charm or amenities, a pensioners' public housing haven (the plaza itself is down in the dumps and has nothing to recommend it, all the nice stores having moved out to the malls on the main drag, Independencia). While looking for another hotel listed at (a good resource for the traveler to Mexico if you take the star rating system with a grain of salt), we stumbled upon the Hotel Calvete, surely the best of the moderately priced inns in this city of a half million.

We ended up staying at the Calvete two nights, as we set out for Mapimi and the mine at Ojuela before noon the next day. But I am getting ahead of myself. That night we went out for dinner, heading for a "Spanish" restaurant advertising paella in one of those "attractions" maps you sometimes find in hotel lobbies. Instead of making bets that a Mexican paella would taste fairly fake to anyone who has been to Spain and had the real thing (as both of us have), we should have bet we couldn't find it, which we didn't. Instead, we found a place featuring meat grilled al pastor and arrachera in particular, grilled (asada) top sirloin. This was the Xotepingo, also on Independencia.

I made the mistake of ordering a milanesa, the Mexican version of Vienese veal scallopini, only made with thin beef. It was good but I've had better. Terry wisely ordered the speciality of the house, arrachera, and didn't stop talking about how good it was for the rest of the trip. The Xotepingo, which has branches all over both Torreon and Durango, is a must if you're passing through. The portions are generous and the management lays on plenty of sides and totopos with salsa. We looked forward to eating there a second time when we got back from our trip to Mapimi but, alas, it was Good Friday and, like many businesses in town, the Xotepingo was closed. We did have a substantial breakfast at a local VIP'S, before setting out for Mapimi and the Ojuela mine. Again, Terry enjoyed his huevos divorciados, so-called because it consists of two fried eggs on opposite sides of an oval platter. Actually, we only ate at VIP'S because it was the only place open at 8 a.m. I was less enthusiastic about my eggs with bacon and hot cakes.

We spent a good part of the morning looking for one of the local museums, the Museo de la Revolucion at Lerdo de Tejada and Calle 10. This is a good place to familiarize yourself with the history of the revolution of 1910-1924 and, in particular, that part of the war in the North pitting federal troops against the legendary Division del Norte, peopled by the likes of Carranza, Madero, and Villa. Located in a restored (and resplendent) private home -- that of Dr. J. W. Lim, dating to the turn of the last century. Interactive videos show how the revolutionary troops armed themselves, traveled south by train, and me up, eventually, with their southern counterparts, including Zapata. We got lost looking for the place and a young couple in a VW bug with a local TV station's logo on the side graciously led us to the building. Torreonos go out of their way to be nice to tourists!

The drive out to Mapimi later took us through Torreon's sister city, Gomez Palacio, which has nothing to recommend it, though we did notice it is cleaner than Torreon. We found the turn-off from Highway 45 from Torreon to Chihuahua, and had an uneventful drive until we got to a point about a mile out of Mapimi. We were forced to stop when we pulled up behind taxi cabs, pickups, and other vehicles, all haulted in the middle of traffic. Off to the left we saw a hill rising about 500 feet from a path less than a quarter mile from the road. On top of the hill were three crosses; we immediately realized we had come upon a religious procession -- an Easter pageant.

Mexicans really go in for recreations of the crucifixion -- and how. Not only were amateur actors playing Jesus and the thieves, there were more than a few Roman centurians; in fact, about thirty of them. It is beyond me (and certainly beyond my ability to believe) why anyone would want to play a Roman in an Easter crucifixion play, but there they were in their cardboard armor, painted silver, with whips and scourges pushing a reluctant Christ forward across the highway, down a gulley, over the path to the hill, and up and up to the local Golgotha. In all, our delay lasted about thrity minutes, but it gave Terry time to get to know a taxi driver who, after all, was in the same predicament.

Mapimi is a small town, celebrated for its church steeple peppered and now pocked with revolutionary bullets. It has quite a proud history. Mapimi was founded in 1589, primarily as a service town for the nearby Ojuela Mine, which we passed on the way in, deciding to see when doubling back. When the French chased Benito Juarez north, the father of Mexican independence stopped here. Another revolutionary, Father Miguel Hidalgo, wound up in a jail cell in Mapimi in 1811. We dipped into a tienda on the plaza to buy some cold drinks, and I found another opportunity to pass out McDonald's Happy Meal toys, which I always take along as gifts for the local children.

The mine at Ojuela is only accessed by a 1,040-foot-long suspension bridge dangling perilously above a canyon gorge some 330 feet deep. As I have acrophobia, I made sure to hang onto the railings while crossing. The setting is quite spectacular (I kept hearing the music from Treasure of the Sierra Madre as I inched my way down the floor of the bridge), and for a small fee, one can make the return by zip-line. Both of us agreed this was not our cup of tea. We did go on a tour of the mine, however. Its highlight, if you can call it that, is a dead mule perfectly preserved by the minerals of the mine, much like the bizarre "mummies" in the panteon in Guanajuato.

On the trip back to Torreon, we stopped off in some rock shops. These are plentiful but only sell quartz and other minerals, nothing even semi-precious. The small town of Bermejillo is full of such stores, and it is a good place to gas up and dip into one of the ubiquitous Oxxo's. Let me say here that I, for one, don't know how we ever got along with these spotlessly clean, fully-stocked, well-operated convenience stores. You can get anything from toilet paper to cold beer and all of the prices are scanned by bar code, no chance of a chingle here. Some even have restrooms, quite a nice change from the disgracefully dingy toilets you find in most of the Pemex stations. There, you need to take your own paper and have a few peso coins to deposit into the hands of the cleaning staff, or stuff into an electronic door opener.

That night, Good Friday as it was, we were disappointed to find that the Xotepingo was closed. We had to eat at one of the few places open for the holiday, a Pollo Loco, which is actually pretty tasty, though nothing at all like our "Southern fried chicken." It is grilled but inexpensive and delicious. We are not night people now that we've ceased our libational habits, so I cannot report on what sort of night life Torreon boasts. From the laughter and good cheer exhibited by young people having beers at the Xotepingo the night before, I gather the party scene is alive and well there.

In the morning, we set off for Parras de la Fuente. It's about thirty minutes off the toll road, but the drive is a pleasant one, desert cactus slowly being replaced by leafy green trees. The Parras area flora is fed by underground springs, which allows cultivation of a lot of pecan trees and the agricultural produce Parras is famous for: grapes. As we drove into town, we noticed that to the left of the highway is a huge public park, occupied by hundreds of families who were cooking out, picnicking, and socializing. Their vehicles were parked alongside the road, bumper to bumper. I knew that Semana Santa is celebrated in somewhat different ways in different parts of Mexico, the big party in Jerez, near Zacatecas, being one of the most popular (and perhaps the craziest, with lots of horseback riding in the streets, firing of pistols, and so forth). We tried to get coffee in an Oxxo and had to stand in long lines, the crowd was so large.

We had to kill some time waiting for a room at the Hotel Posada Santa Isabel, just off the plaza. Although a bit cramped, the room was modern and comfortable. I am left to wonder if Mexicans read in their hotel rooms, so many of them have lousy lighting, e.g. lamps with fixed shades that don't allow light to spill farther than a pillow. Who reads a book with the pages touching their nose? The grounds at the Santa Isabel are shaded by pecan trees (Lonely Planet erroneously indicates avocados); during the night, a wind storm blew in and shook the branches, causing a few tiny pecans to fall to the grass.

After checking in, we drove out to San Lorenzo to the Casa Madero, a winery established in 1597, that has been producing varietals ever since. We took a free tour of the extensive grounds -- quite impressive, complete with a sampling of their brandy -- and shopped for friends in the bottle store. Returning to Parras, we barely had enough time to eat at the restaurant of the Hostal El Farol, about a block away, before the festivities of Holy Saturday began -- signaled by pyrotechnical destruction of the Satan piñatas.

The square was crowded like a sardine can, full of revelers listening to a music group. On our way over, we passed a gaggle of young people who begged us to shoot their picture. I even took a shot of the Semama Santa Queen, much to the consternation of her parents. (They must have thought we had ulterior motives.) After a stroll around the plaza, during which we bemoaned the old custom of the weekend parades, young men going in one direction, young women and their chaperones going the other way, a practice that has all but disappeared in modern Mexico.

In the morning, we had freshly-prepared menudo at a little greasy spoon next to the bus station. I've never understood some peoples' aversion to this dish. Its detractors describe the tripe as "squishy," "yucky," and worse, but I find it a delightful breakfast even though I no longer feast on it when I have a hangover, as I no longer drink. (The tiny thimble-full of brandy at the Madero Winery reminded me of my decision to get off the sauce.) Of course, it is impossible to eat menudo without the proper condiments, and in fact I cannot think of doing so unless I add them: fresh lime juice, a sprinkling of chopped serrano peppers, chopped white onion, and Mexican oregano. (Mexican oregano is not the same plant as European oregano; it is related to it, but much, much stronger.) I doubt that menudo "cures" a hangover so much as it helps settle the stomach.

We went shopping for local specialties, including a kilo of chorizo from a shopwoman's own kitchen, proudly displayed in the doorway of her house, which also served as her showroom. The back walls were lined with shelves of flavored sirups made of coffee, blackberries, and other things. She told us she used only a small amount of alcohol in their preparation, so I bought a bottle, and Terry bought some campechangas, little wafer-like sweet crackers with a sugar glaze, quite delicious. These were offered all over town, and it amazed us that so many shops had a product that one would not expect to encounter so far from Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Then we left for Saltillo. I had been to Saltillo on several occasions, but never really spent any time in the historical center. I was amazed at what I had been missing: Saltillo is a modern city with colonial touches, e.g., the main cathedral, an 18th century structure set back from the Plaza de Armas where impressive statues and fountains treat pigeons and lovers. After checking into our room at the impressive Hotel Urdiñola, we did a lot of walking: to the public market on Allende north of the plaza, to the Serape de Saltillo, an artesanias shop on Hidalgo to the south. We also ate cabrito at the Restaurant El Principal, pricey but delicious. (It's about four blocks further up Allende from the Mercado Juarez.)

We did not get to shop at the Serape until the following morning, a Monday, and before that we had breakfast at the Flor y Canela, a chi-chi eatery with front windows looking out on the plaza. The food here is good, but the crafts at the Serape are insanely expensive. Almost all of its artesanias are sold along the border at much reduced prices, but we knew we probably would not have time to stop in Reynosa on our way home, so we went ahead and bought items, including a hand-woven cushion cover. (The have a weaver at work right there in the store.)

We arrived at the border mid-afternoon, took care of business, including surrender of our temporary auto importation sticker and U.S. customs on the other side of the river, and drove on home. All in all, it was a nice trip and a great introduction to the State of Coahuila.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fifteen Days, 3,000 Miles, 14 Cities: $1,200.00


My brother and I drove a 2003 Toyota Corolla approximately 3,000 miles through Mexico over two weeks. We saw 14 cities, with several side-trips and at least one adventure, and the entire vacation cost us about $1,200 each, including gasoline, tolls, and personal shopping for a few friends. Is Mexico a great travel experience on the cheap, or what?!

We left Corpus Christi about 8:00 a.m. for Tampico or Tuxpan (whichever we could make by nightfall). The border crossing took a bit longer than expected since there were more people temporarily importing their vehicles than was usual at this aduana. The road to Tampico is straight and, for the most part, a good one, though as is usual with Mexican highways, between the topes and doble-remolques (a.k.a. "sleeping policemen" and piggybacked trailer rigs, respectively), you really cannot make good time on most Mexican roads. Figure on 50 mph on the average, which is about what the speed limits are anyway. We took the "cut-off" road before Victoria, going toward the Gulf through Soto la Marina.

My theory has always been that if one is heading for any destination east of Mexico City -- even if it is in a mountainous region, like Xalapa -- the coastal highway, #180 all the way after La Coma is preferable to going inland through Tamazunchale. It's a straight shot down, whereas the inland route beyond Tamazunchale is one camino sinuoso after another. We had enough hairpin curves in front of us as it was, planning to go through the Sierra Gorda, 177 miles with over 460 curves, from Bernal to Jalpan, with Xilitla and Las Posas inbetween. Still, we only made it as far as Tampico, which was kind of nice since I had never stopped there, only passed through a half dozen times.

Was I surprised -- no, make that delighted. I'd always thought Tampico was hot, humid, and sleazy. Although we liked having air conditioning in our balcony room at the Posada del Rey, the city wasn't all that uncomfortable, and we didn't see anything sociopathic going on. We took dinner that night, and breakfast in the morning, at the Elite a couple of blocks away. Terry liked his comida mexicana, but I was disappointed by my club sandwich, and the breakfasts were pricey from an a la carte menu. Expect to pay at least $50 for a decent double room here, with dining entres in the $6-12 range.

Dean and Yoly Hughson of suggested we stop off in Tecolutla and buy some fresh, locally-made coconut cookies. I had seen photos of Tecolutla and wanted to visit, but it's off the route and I never had a car when passing the turnoff. We arrived to find a place very much like our South Texas Gulf beaches, thatched palapas notwithstanding. However, we didn't find any cookies, only a tipsy city trash collector who offered Terry a swig from his bottle of aguardiente (inexpensive cane liquor, a favorite of poor drunken peoples all over Latin America). By late afternoon, we arrived at Xalapa and spent almost two hours -- on foot -- looking for a hotel I have always heard about but never stayed in, the Posada la Mariquinta. We must have gone by it twice before finding it. None of the locals seemed to know where it was. Surprise! It was just around the corner from the old Hotel California. But the Mariquinta was shut down. Huge disappointment after our wasted effort.

We checked into an old standby, the Principal, just a block off the main drag, Enriquez, and only two blocks from the Cathedral. A room for two there is still about $40, with good firm beds and separate shower and toilet rooms. We wanted to eat at the Fonda, where you can still find a good $5 meal, but as it was Sunday, the place was closed (as was everything on the Callejon Diamante. We did manage to have a superb breakfast there, and at a small table on the balcony overlooking Enriquez. There is no dearth of good restaurants in Xalapa's centro historico.

Although Xalapa is one of my top favorite places in Mexico, we were in a hurry to get to Coatepec to buy altura coffee and to Xico to buy their local mole and see the nearby Cascada Texolo, a waterfall featured in quite a few movies, including Romancing the Stone. We set out for these right after breakfast and didn't leave Xico until afternoon. I had seen maps showing a highway from Xalapa to Cordoba, via Huatusco. (Incidentally, athough we took three different maps, as well as the big Guia Roja map book, the only map I will ever take to Mexico again is Rough Guide's: it eschews detail for well-delineated roads, including subsidiaries.) The map showed an improved road for about half and a superior road the other half. It was the first half that drove me crazy: lots of S-curves, hairpins, and potholes. Try dodging potholes on a hairpin while trying to pass a slow-moving vehicle just as an oncoming doble-remolque is coming 'round the bend and heading right at you. I was exhausted by the time we pulled into Cordoba.

An e-pal in Pachuca had pre-sold me on Cordoba, which did not live up to the hype. The people are friendly and helpful -- one cop went out of her way to help us locate a shop that had good coffee "en grano" (bean) when we'd almost given up finding anything but "molido" (ground) -- but there just wasn't anything going on. Sure, the prices are reasonable (we paid about $45 for a double), but the budget restaurant situation is abominable. We settled that first night on one of the sidewalk joints 'neath the portales, overate, and were kept up half the night by a self-accompanied crooner with inordinate (undeserved) amplication in a nightclub outside our window.

Breakfast was barely edible, taken at Las Gemelas Antojitos, the one place with cocina economica in its billing. Lonely Plant had given it an "Our Pick" rating, but it was nothing but a small, family-run joint, a greasy (plastic) spoon with enameled tables and ditzy waitresses. Worse, the State Art Museum, while containing a fascinating artists' history of the State of Veracruz, had its fine Diego Rivera collection out on loan the month we visited. As my older brother always says, "In Mexico, expect the unexpected."

We set out to find the small, rustic town of Rio Atoyac to the northeast, on a back road to Veracruz. I only knew that the road went through an amusingly-named town on the way, a place called Paso del Macho. We got lost at least three times and when we finally found the road, it took us up to wild rivers including the Atoyac, the town of the same name being something out of a reality TV program: streets that went nowhere, washed out streets, and streets that went up and down like a goat trail. The cascading river is genuinely impressive, but ignore Lonely Planet's recommendation you stop off for a repast of fresh, locally-caught (or farmed) langostinos. I was expecting "mud bugs" (Cajun: crawfish, or as some say, crayfish), but these were more like a large prawn.

They're best found in the larger town of Potrero, to which we doubled back hastily. At an attractive restaurant with a big veranda where we dined, we found the tasty langostinos. They were not inexpensive at $10 for a plate of five or six, cooked mojo el agua, or garlic-roasted. Would I get lost three times, almost go off the road in Atoyac, &c. for the local specialty? No. But they're good eating. I prefer shrimp prepared almost any style and even crawfish. And I was hungry: we didn't get to eat until almost three, which set us back for the next leg: to Orizaba.

We both felt Lonely Planet's description of Orizaba as "more industrial than urbane" was unkind and inaccurate. What's wrong with having a lively main drag separated by a few blocks from the zocalo? We found Orizaba charming. And we actually stayed on the main drag, at the high sounding Gran Hotel de France, actually nothing more than the central patio (Spanish) style inn with rooms on the periphery; in this case, though, they'd been thoroughly remodeled. A double is about $40. At night, you can walk over to the zocalo and hire a marimba band to play a song for two bucks. Or you can shop in the stalls on the edges of the 17th century parochia or, catercorner, the historic Palacio de Hiero (Palace of Iron), an art nouveau manse designed in the 1890's by the famous A. G. Eiffel, built in his native France, then disassembled, shipped to Mexico, and reassembled plate by plate.

Sadly, the Rio Orizaba, which snakes through the city much like the San Antonio slices up parts of the Texas city of that name, is polluted. They've even posted signs in the parks along the cement-shored-up banks to warn citizens and visitors alike to avoid swimming. October is delightful here. Cool, not cold, but one gathers the impression winters might be harsh at 4,000 feet. The main drag is actually a lot of fun at night. Terry and I were accosted by a secretary for the city government who was eager to practice her English. She even invited us to call on her office in the morning. Talk about friendly! One might live here and spend the cold months someplace along the coast, either big, brassy Veracruz itself or one of the charming villages nearby, including Tlacotalpan and the Tuxtlas.

Next morning, we were off for Tlaxcala. I had been there once, years ago, and had some fond memories, including those of a good hotel for the money, the Alifer, on a hill on the southeast side of the city center. Now, about $58 for two, it is expanding to new wings, possibly entitling the owners to a tax break for an "unfinished building." wOur room was not as nice as the one I had previously, but it was large and had OK beds. (Having injured my back with a compression fracture last summer, I began to notice the usually dismal quality of Mexican beds, usually lumpy matresses with odd bulges that interrupt your sleep when you have to catapult yourself over the bumbs to change position, as I frequently do at night. We found that price seldom equals quality of mattress.)

I showed Terry around the twin plazas, Constitucion and Xicotencatl ("She-co-TEN-cawl," I think it's pronounced). We located an artesanias alley but it was closed, probably until late October, when the Dias de los Muertos festival, now combined with gringo style Hallowe'en, brings back the chilangos. (Don't get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for the people of Mexico City. Having visited there two years ago, I realized they're not unlike the pretzel vendor I once encountered on the street in Manhattan: when I asked him where Macy's was, he pointed to a building across the street and, lo and behold, there it was! "See, you gotta be tough to live in New York" he said proudly. It was a non sequitur that made perfect sense.)

But the attention Tlaxcala gets from its weekend and holiday infusion of big city folk has made it somewhat crass and aloof. I did not like it as much as I had years ago. Next door to the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, however, I located a place I had not visited previously: a very reasonably priced Casa de Artesanias. We bought hand-painted "Katrina" statuettes, Posada-inspired husband-wife skeletons in fancy dress, sets of two for about $12. The employees wrapped them and boxed them at no additional expense when we said we were driving and didn't want to break them. The place has a wide variety of folk art, highly recommended.both for its pieces and helpful staff. We had a good breakfast at another favorite of mine: the Restaurant Tirol, just up the street from the city's downtown bullring.

We had to kill some time before we wound up in Cuetzalan for their festival. Terry wanted to see Huamantla, having read of its crazy running of the bulls in August, unique in that, of all the imitation Pamplonas in all the world, Huamantla's is probably the only one that, improbably, opens the gates from both ends of the run. Terry also mentioned a Puppet Museum, so I was ready to go. In my youth, I both made puppets and staged puppet shows. Unfortunately, the museum is disappointing, having only a few pieces of very fine work. Other than its pleasant zocalo, Huamantla is at best a stopover on the way somewhere else. If you get both tired and hungry, the Balcones Restaurant between the Hotel Centenario (where we stayed, reasonably priced) and the plaza, will do in a pinch. Check out the bar with its collection of bullfight memorabilia. You can also stroll over to the plaza de toros and museum nearby.


Deciding to crisscross and double back, we went to Apam (a.k.a. Apan), once the capital of pulque making in the State of Hidalgo (and, importantly, linked by rail to the Federal District), but now a typical modern Mexican city; not my destination, but the closest large town. For years, I had wanted to visit an old hacienda, Tetlapayac, where the Soviet filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein shot what has come to be known only as "the Mexican film." Having seen the unassembled raw footage of the project, donated to the Museum of Modern Art by Upton Sinclair, the producer, I became fascinated by Eisenstein's epic love poem to a country he came to almost regard as a second home. Alas, it was not to be. Sinclair pulled the plug and Eisenstein, his photographer and actor-friend went home to Russia and a new culture czar both insensitive to his plight and disinclined to offer him new projects. Stalin would not approve. This explains why the packaging for the Kino Video/DVD release of Gregori Alexandrov's "remastery" of the film, titled Que Viva Mexico! as Eisenstein wished, bears in the year-of-production as "1931/1979"!

Stark in memory of an exposure to the uncut footage decades ago were the sequences for Eisenstein's anthology film's "Maguey" episode. A gazillion maguey plants; pulqueros sucking up sap from the heart of the plants using a pig gut as siphon; three young agrarianistas burried up to their shoulders so that the hacenderos on horseback could trample them afoot. The compositions of the shots and to some lesser extent (given that Alexandrov edited, not S.M.E.) the editing of these sequences were right out of the Eisenstein we came to love with Battleship Potemkin, Strike, and Ten Days That Shook the World. The old hacienda served as the background for many of the "Maguey" scenes. (Little did I know, it also served as the location of a fairly recent Zorro movie with Sir Anthony Hopkins. And only recently, some filmmakers shot a documentary there about Eisenstein's connection with the place. I have not seen either.)

The "Apam Trip" was our Excellent Adventure. We got lost about six times. We never thought we would get there. I began to feel guilty for taking us so far out of the way, as Terry did not seem 100% enthusiastic about the venture (or so I imagined). Worse, we encountered a patch of road construction south of Calpulalpan (the city they hated so much they made it unpronouncable). We inched forward at less than 5 m.p.h. and even had to come to a complete stop for half an hour. It was getting later and later, and I kept thinking things like, what is we get there at dark and they've closed. No, no, I thought, we don't even know if they're open to the public in the first place.

When we finally did arrive in Apam (or Apan, different spellings on different maps), it was a relatively easy thing to ask a shopkeeper if they knew where we could find the Hacienda Tetlapayac, and we were on our way. Or were we? We got lost another six times. We asked young women at rural bus stops, old men on burros, road crews, and we finally wound up at a road to the northwest with a tiny sign: "Tetlapayac." The big front walls are about a kilometer from the highway and a few hundred yards from the small town that grew up since the pulque-distillery days, the coming of filmmakers, and other events. We noticed that there were thriving sheep ranching and not much else.

A young man of about 30 met us in the courtyard, and he kept punching a button on his walkie-talkie to speak with a woman who appeared, soon enough, in the window balcony of the second story, a woman who looked like the doña and didn't mind that we could hear her voice both from the parapet and the walkie talkie in her nephew's hands. She was, when we finally met her, imperious and proud, not proud of herself but for her family history. She and her nephew told us that the incident depicted in "Maguey" involving the agrarianistas turning on the hacendados only when one of them rapes a young bride-to-be on the eve of her wedding.

The señora was reluctant even to talk to us until her nephew assured her that we spoke some Spanish. We would have to make a donation; getting in was free but they had upkeep and such to attend to. The nephew showed us into a bedroom in the far side of the main house, but when the señora took over, she invited us up to see the bed S. M. Eisenstein actually slept in. (Of course, I am reminded of the famous joke about the tourist buying one of two Pancho Villa skulls, asking the small boy if he hadn't bought that same skull from him just last summer? "O, si, señor, but this is the head of Pancho Villa when he was a little boy." Nevertheless, I soon saw that it was the master bedroom and had its own bath: Eisenstein was a guest of honor at the hacienda in the 30's, so it's quite likely he was given the best lodging.)

She surprised me by showing her willingness to lie down on the big bed where, she says, Eisenstein slept. Once Terry and I were out of her earshot, he muttered: "She kind of reminds me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard."

"Yeah," I said. "I could just hear her saying, 'Ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.'"

We had to double back again, this time through Apizaco (a second time), and on the way decided to do something we hadn't planned: stop in Cholula so that we could see some small cathedrals and the ruins at Cacaxtla, both nearby. It was just turning dark when we wound down into the zocalo. The plaza has been cleared on one side for parking, but we arranged for off-street parking a few blocks away courtesy of our hotel, the Posada Santa Rosa. Similar to at least one hotel in Toluca, the Santa Rosa is located inside a shopping arcade, but the rooms are nice for about $50 a night. The eateries along the portales walkways were pricey, but they came with strolling marimba and other musical buskers, and we were eating too late to have more than a sandwich or some chilaquiles anyway. The city lights up the cathedral on top of the Tepanaca pyramid so that it displays a stunning backdrop for a stroll along the plaza. So much nicer than the hustle and bustle of nearby Puebla, we thought.


If you approach Cacaxtla relatively fresh from the experience of Chichen Itza or Palenque, you might be disappointed. The excavation itself is not much more than at the Templo Mayor in D.F., but you're not there for temples, you're there for frescos in color, a rare encounter in a Mexican archeological site (certainly the most famous being Bonampak's). Imagine Herculaneum, except that these frescos predate the eruption there in 79 c.e. by centuries. Due to the lateness of the hour, we had to rush through the exhibits, but we were nonetheless treated to the magnificent sunset taken in by modern Mexicans' earliest ancestors. On a clearer day, the view might be like something in Provence or Tuscany. But then, on a really clear day, you can see the volcanic remains of Ixta and Popo.

We also put in at Tonanzintla, where one of Mexico's most famous churches awaited -- and it must be seen! The inner decor of the Templo de Santa Maria has been described as "exhuberant." I would say Mexican rococo, as authentic in its way as Frida's corsets, with unselfconsciously passionate executions of the many saints in the Catholic hagiographies, rather like one of those detailed, hand-crafted and painted Trees of Life that are so hard to ship back to the States. (The most magnificent of these is surely in the big museum triplex in Toluca, standing some ten feet and decorated with everything from Adam and Eve to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with charming Mexican village scenes in-between the catechismic depictions.)

On we went to the city of Teziutlan in the mountains of northern Puebla, not our destination but a place to spend the night in case the hotels in Cuetzalan (pronounced by locals as "Kwet-SAH-lan," incidentally) were full. Tomorrow was the first Sunday in October, which is the highlight of the two-week-long Feria de Cafe y Huipiles (Festival of Coffee and Native Dresses). Tonight, we stayed in an eerily deserted "suite" in the Suites Teziutlan, and in the morning made a return reservation at the more inviting Hotel Colonial a few blocks away. Both were priced at about $45, which appeared to be a set price all over town. We strolled through the public market, just off the square. The people were quite friendly. I had gotten sick on a torta I had in Humantla and was not eating, though I went into an attractive hotel with preserved elegance from bygone times, the Virreynal, and ordered chicken soup at $4 a bowl.

The manager of the Colonial, very friendly, gave us a map to get out of Teziutlan and onto the road to Cuetzalan, requiring us to go south back to Zaragoza before turning off and going more or less north. It was a very long, winding trip. I was glad we had gotten off early in the morning: in Mexico, you can always drop in a panaderia and get some pan dulce, then find an Oxxo for coffee. (Oxxo serves very good coffee at a good price, too.) This saves 90 minutes in a restaurant ordering huevos al gusto or chilaquiles.) We went to Zaragoza by toll road, took the turnoff as the hotel manager had shown us, and drove up, up, up, through some of the most spectacular scenery we'd seen, until the road winds down into a lovely valley with Cuetzalan built on the hills.

I got out my Ronald McDonald bag. This is a big snarly nylon Mexican market shopping bag -- the kind with the water hose handles. For months, I had collected my Happy Meal toys in plastic bags and had about three of them full of movie tie-in and TV promo kid toys in little plastic bags. When I took my sons by car to Cancun, we drove back via Chetumal, and when we stopped for gas in Felipe Carrillo Puerto I passed out Happy Meal toys to a crowd of small boys who swarmed our car trying to sell us a windshield wash or a pack of Chiclets. They seemed much more pleased by the toys than money. I remembered the smiles on their faces and brought just as many Happy Meal toys this time.

The children of Cuetzalan went wild for them. No sooner would I give one out to one girl, she would bring a friend even if it meant having to catch up with you two blocks away; a brother would tell his brother and follow you about, and so it went. I must have given out fifty toys in that one town. But they know a lot about commerce here. The festival is as much an artesanias sellathon as a religious and agricultural celebration. You will be accosted almost every couple of minutes to buy hand-knitted tortilla warmers, planters made of armadillo skins, and huipils -- hundreds of huipiles (skirts). After all, the festival itself is named The Fair of Coffee and Skirts.

The square, which fronts the cathedral, was full of a couple of thousand people, a lot of them sitting in temporary bleachers running out from a stage where jarocho and huapango groups -- some very, very good -- belted out son after son. The outside of the church was full of costumed voladores (the flying pole jumpers), with their curious rainbow sun helmets; children all in white, girls on one side, boys on the other; and a few people in viejo (old man) masks, hand-carved and painted. Ablaze in color, the scene would be fit for a painter. Add to this the smell of copal incense wafting out at you when you enter the church, and the effect is hypnotic and, for me, downright spriritual.

Most of the hotels were, in fact, full, but not Lonely Planet's backpacker's heaven, Posada Jacquiline. I met the señora herself in the lobby, where she had a sign reading: "Cuartos, $10 per p." and she said she had vacancies. Nicer places did not. We took a ton of photos, did a lot of shopping, had lunch near the square, and left after about three hours. Cuetzalan is nothing if not photogenic: high, cobbled streets, pastel houses and terra cotta roofs, dramatic sunny blue skies with spun sugar clouds, and unspoiled charm. It might be nice to see it when it's not quite so hectic. But we'd both seen the voladores, in Papantla, for example, so we were headed back to Tezuitlan and an early turn-in for a long haul in the morning.

The Colonial we thought vastly superior to the Suites Tezuitlan: newer, more attractive, with nice frills and fairly good beds. While I am in the habit of going online to for the latest price quotations for Mexican hotels, their star system (in emulation of Michelin, no doubt) is completely unreliable: they give the Suites four stars but the Colonial only three. In our opinion, this should be reversed. Had we not been tired and the streets so bumber-to-bumper (Teziutlan is a very busy city!), we would have sought out the Meson de San Luis, a venerable colonial patio-surrounded by rooms, extremely posh place with rooms going for very little above what we were paying.

But after a snappy breakfast of panaderia pastry and Oxxo coffee, we headed out. The manager assured us that the mountain roads to San Juan del Rio were impossibly curvy and poorly kept, and that our best, which is to say fastest way to that city was due south on Mexico 129 until we reached the trans-Oriental toll road taking us back through Puebla and, eventually, to the toll road to Queretaro, 57. We kept seeing signs advertising small eateries that boasted of their pollo frito (fried chicken): "KFC," though the entrepreneurs, perhaps with trademark violations in mind, explained that it was "Kansas" style, rather than Kentucky. We thought this amusing. (We wondered if Kansas actually has some special way of frying chicken that would justify the sleight-of-hand, but, really, what does the average Mexican know about the differences between the two states?) Except for getting lost in the slums of Mexico City -- I am not even sure where we were, Netzahuacoyotl? -- the trip was as brisk as he'd told us. We were paying tolls to avoid pot holes, doble remolques, and hairpin curves.


For some silly reason, Lonely Planet leaves San Juan del Rio out of its guide altogether, but includes nearby Tequisquiapan. San Juan is pleasant enough itself, and I had read that it was the center of the country's precious and semi-precious gem trading. Undaunted by the fact that the only gem store on the main drag, Highway 120, had a very limited supply of the stone I wanted, a Mexican fire opal, we almost by accident met a woman in an internet cafe who directed her helper to guide us to her mother's place several blocks away. We were let into a courtyard full of plants by an elderly but spry, charming woman who opened up her horde of cut and uncut stones. I had read enough about opals to know that she was quite well versed in her trade, so I bought a small opal for my friend Ellie.

We got a decent room in the cavernous Hotel Portal Royalty (about $45) and took a jewelry store owner's advice on finding a place to eat. It was located under the portales along the main drag plaza, a blocks-long affair with pretty fountains and lots of shady trees, globe lighting, and statuary. It's called The Portales and had great food, moderately priced. There are good places to eat along the portales on the south side of the plaza. They have the local specialty, borego (lamb). The next morning after breakfast here, we drove over to Tequisquiapan, whose zocalo not only looks like a movie set, it has been used for one quite a few, or so said a tour guide who introduced himself.

We dropped into several establishments to browse and check hotel room prices. Tequis is virtually empty during the week, but on weekends throngs of Queretaro and Mexico City families arrive and pay top peso for rooms and shop the arcades, where, we were surprised to find, most of the wares were Chinese, not Mexican. The difference between shopping for artesanias here and in a place like Cuetzalan, is that in the latter, indigenous peoples still take part in the fabrication process and they eschew plastic. Something must be wrong in Mexico that a shop would have a Chinese piggy bank, not one of clay such as Mexico has become famous for. But even some Mexican crafts appear to be headed for extinction; I'm told, for example, that the mask makers of Guerrero and Michoacan are not passing on their art to the younger generation, who only want to migrate to the big cities and an almost certain hard live.

Leaving Tequis, we embarked on a drive with spectacular scenery and marked by an estimated 860 turns or curves on a 150-mile stretch to Jalpan. We had intended to stop in Xilitla and perhaps see Las Posas, the bizarre, unfinished home of a British expat who envisioned a house built around pools formed by a rushing spring nearby. But a tropical storm had come in off the Gulf and pumped torrential rains on the mountain villages, making the drive up through the "mission district" of the Sierra Gorda quite hair-raising at times. I was glad I had fairly new tires and good brakes. By the time we actually reached Xilitla, the rain was so hard we decided to leave Las Posas for another trip. After all, Terry has shown it to several friends on at least two earlier occasions.

Jalpan was a delightful discovery, its only drawback high humidity. We found a nice room on the plaza across from the church, the Hotel Maria del Carmen, and ate breakfast in the patio-side restaurant inside the more expesive Mision Jalpan. The rain eventually let up and we explored the small town center. We went to a couple of the missions founded by Frey Junipero Serra, but, frankly, they looked like cookie cutter churches, with basically similar design and materials. It would have been nicer to explore the area's multitudinous caverns and waterfalls. Terry's kind of place.

We were now on the backward leg and had a couple of days to kill. I suggested a stopover in Ciudad Valles so that we could take a nostalgic sidetrip to the old Hotel Taninul, near Tamuin, on the road to Tampico. We found a fair to middlin' hotel, the San Fernando, which at least had a nice courtyard parking lot and a friendly staff. It was about $50 a night. We couldn't find anyplace to eat except the La Troye, next to the Hotel Piña, where we both had stayed on previous trips. I couldn't say much good about my $6 hamburger, but Terry had puntas de filete (beef tips in sauce) and was pleased.

In the morning we drove over to the sprawling Taninul, something out of another era, still a hot springs resort. Amazing to know a place we visited as children was still open for business: we've seen San Jose de Purua and the Ruiz Galindo (in Fortin) close since our childhood trips. One does these things for nostalgia's sake, but we were only too happy to tip a young man named Elias who proudly informed us that he was the only person on the Taninul staff who spoke decent English. He'd learned it in Georgia on a trip to the States. He showed us back to the swimming pools, including one in a natural cave (closed for the time being because of a landslide that blocked the entrance). I will never forget my visit as a child, enchanted with the very idea of swimming up into a cave.


Our next night was spent in Matehuala, which has a dearth of good, reasonably priced hotels. So many are trucker and tourist traps on the eastern edge of town, the "motel row." We priced several of these decaying habitations on both sides of the main highway, Mexico 57, turning down one offer because the young man who showed us the tawdry room insisted we should pay him rather than register up front. He had a nervous attitude and a blind eye. We decided to go elsewhere.

On the way out, a uniformed doorman suggested we try a new hotel a few blocks away, on one of the sidestreets leading into the town center. It turned out to be the bargain find of the trip. Because it was off the main drag (where one finds the Las Palmas Midway Inn at $80 a night), the Hotel del Parque cost us only $50 and was easily the most comfortable, attractive room we found the whole trip, bar none. (Parking in the basement is a little cramped: we had to do a rumba to get the Toyota out in the morning.)

Matehuala turned out to be a fairly good place to shop for a few things: we found masks for $15 each, some jarocho CD'S and, in the mercado, goat cheese and country chorizo. We also had a great meal at El Chivero, a cabrito joint at the southern end of the main road in. For about $10 each, we got soup or beans and a big cut of moist, tender baby goat, grilled with a side of rice and some corn tortillas. It was one of the best meals we had, and boy, were we stuffed!

In the morning, we were off for an unplanned trip to Real de Catorce, just up the road a piece (and down a long, dusty cobbled road leading up to the old mining town). This was one of two places I had hoped to see on another trip, another year, and stopping here made up for missing the rain-drenched Las Posas. I had heard about the famous mile-long one-way tunnel in and out of Real de Catorce, but it is an experience one must enjoy in person. Cars, minibuses, and delivery pickup trucks line up to get in and out, waiting for a signal from the other end on either side for entry and exit.

Once through the tunnel, we took a wrong turn and wound up on a narrow, gravel road on the other side of the river from the main town, which is built on mountainsides. Most tourists do the wise thing and, after the tunnel, park just outside town, then go on in by foot or local taxi. Unwisely, we drove in and found ourselves in a labyrinth of dusty, rock-paved streets, some with inclines of 45 degrees or more, with barely enough room for parking. At one point on the return trip, we got stalled; Toyotas are front wheel drive, and if one of the tires is caught in a washed out hole in the rocks, the wheels spin but no forward movement is possible. Worse, if the car had slid backwards, we would have gone down one of the inclined side streets. Fortunately, once my brother was out of the car, it found its traction and we were able to proceed.

Aside from touring the Casa de la Moneda, an old mint that pressed silver coins in the 1860's, and the Templo de la Purisma Concepcion, a pretty cathedral, both on the tiny zocalo and perched high on the city's hills, there was little to see or do. The trinket stalls were mostly Chinese junk. We didn't even find a decent restaurant and wound up leaving about an hour or two after our arrival. On a scale of one to four, I would give Real de Catorce about a 2 1/2.

We took the four-lane divided Mexico 57 north as the sun began to set. This is a major highway connecting Monterrey with San Luis Potosi. Our plan was to take the turn-off onto 31, connecting the small town of San Roberto with Linares and our overnight destination, Montemorelos. This latter city has nothing to recommend it, and had we not arrived at twilight, we would have gone on to the border and home. (Little did we realize that the Montemorelos-General Bravo leg of Highway 35 is almost as winding and curvy as the Sierra Gorda route we had taken from Bernal to Jalpan, dotted with pine trees and cut through sheer rock canyons, at times quite beautiful.

I cannot recommend the hotel where we stayed in Montemorelos, or even the restaurant we found on the main drag. The locals are surly and inconsiderate. We were glad when we left the following morning, taking the modern, excellent divided superhighway once we reached General Bravo on into Reynosa and home. We agreed we had been on a very nice trip, and we were glad we "brought money home."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Mexican Pharmacopeia

Going south? Better know what drugs to take and those you'd be wise to leave at home.

Rule 1. Leave at home all or almost all patent medicines, since, e.g., the farmacia may not have Tylenol, but they'll have some brand of acetaminophen. And even if they do not speak English, acetaminophen is world-speak. They know what you want. If the farmacia doesn't have it, chances are the local Wal-Mart will. So: take your Wal-Mart card.

Rule 2. You may want to stock up on supplements and your favorite brand of multivitamin you use daily (in addition to any statins or prescription medicines, in which case best take a copy of the prescription with you), since finding kava-kava, for example, might get you socked for making an inappropriate sexual overture. I myself use a prostate aid called saw palmetto and when I search in vain for it in Mexico, some clerks say "from Florida?"

Rule 3. The roadblocks at various places in Mexico are probably less likely in this age to be looking for drugs, but you never know. The customs people in Mexico appear to be looking for movements of arms, but, then, what are the German shepherds there for? I once took a dozen joints to...well, I forget my destination that year, but I do remember smoking in my room in Queretaro, and flushing one joint down at my bus connection in Poza Rica, Veracruz, because I suspected it would be the last stop before the border.

Rule 4. Taking your Wal-Mart card may actually prevent you from daring into a Mexican superstore, which is one heck of an experience let me tell you. One has a French name I can't think of (good one in Merida); the ones I am fairly familiar with are Soriana's, which bought out another, Gigante. To walk around in a good Soriana for about an hour will have you wish you had one where you live. Did I mention they carry lots of patent medicines and all kinds of personal hygiene products?

Rule 5. If you get sick and need additional medications do not hesitate to go to a clinica. Chances are, it's something an internist can take care of, examination and medicine for about $25. (The last time I went to a physician in the U.S., it was $50 or more just for the appointment.) And don't believe Big Pharma's propaganda about "untrustworthy" Mexican drugs. The industry just doesn't want you buying a competitor's goods. The California avocado growers kept Michoacan Hass avocados off the market here for decades by claiming they were "buggy." Avocados or pharmaceuticals, the lie is the same.

Rule 6. Don't drink the water. Always insist on agua potable, which they know to be bottled water, though almost all hotels have large glass bottles you're allowed to tap any time of day or night. Sometimes, you will find only bottled water at the desk -- for a price.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Escarcega: The Ballad of the Sad Panaderia

About halfway between Chetumal, on the road to the bay that borders Quintana Roo, Mexico and Belize at one end, and the big oil city of Villahermosa on the other, lies a bizarre town called Escarcega (accent on the first "a," an exception to Spanish accent on the next-to-last syllable). Escarcega is exceptional in other ways. For one thing, it is a town that would have to had to have been invented had it not sprung up, literally in the middle of nowhere. In almost compass-like alignment, there is a highway running roughly north and south connecting Chetumal and Villahermosa, as mentioned, and an equal and opposite highway running roughly east and west connecting Campeche and the Lacandon rain forest.

We knew Escarcega was strange when we dealt with the motel desk clerk. He didn't seem a bit interested whether we stayed in his establishment or somewhere else, and the room was not a fair value for the money. Not only that, but he refused to provide us with a third blanket when our party of three only found two beds in the room, necessitating inflation of our trusty air mattress. On our way to our room, we smelled the odor of marijuana coming from one room whose door was left open. I don't mind smelling marijuana, mind you, but the indiscretion annoyed me. Our room itself was barely large enough to turn around in.

The restaurant on the west side of town gave us the same apathetic service. When we finished our meal, we drove down to a big panaderia on the south side. A drunk leaned against the storefront, singing an inane ditty and, in between garbled verses, moaned and groaned in a kind of feral way. My sons took to imitating him, and we had a good time doing his shtick both that night and all the next day. But the fact is, one does not encounter so many drunks in Mexico as one did a generation ago. The stereotypical image of the pulqueria inebriate is almost a forgotten matter, more myth than legend.

The pastries were good, if a little heavy. Mexicans make delicious pastries. After all, they played not-so-welcome host to the French and Austrians, among other colonialist forces. (In Pachuca, the Cornish miners brought over a kind of fried pie called a "pastie," usually dough stuffed with meat and potatoes.) But don't expect Danish. Mexicans use lard for their "pan dulce" (lit. sweet breat, not to be confused with "sweetbreads," which is a whole other thing entirely). They're still delicious. And they're especially good the way Mexicans eat them: by dunking them in cafe con leche at the breakfast table. We were looking for desert.

I am told that the Mexicans are building a cross-peninsular superhighway from Cancun to Villahermosa which will shave several hours off the trip from Cancun to Escarcega by way of Chetumal. Unfortunately, we had to go the long way. I doubt I will ever see Escarcega again...but you never know.

Mexican Bus Ride

Mexico's bus system used to be caricatured by images of rusted, overloaded, broken-down school buses with pigs and chickens on the roofs (and in the aisles). That kind of bus might still be found in a rural setting. The modern bus transportation industry continues to amaze, a heavily competitive, increasingly sophisticated group of lines offering in some cases not only clean on-board restrooms but recent movie releases, snacks, and beverages. And the cost is about a third of an airline ticket. No wonder even the Mexican middle class takes the bus.

I've traveled by bus so many thousands of kilometers I could write a book on the subject but with care, I can hopefully boil it all down to a blog entry. Topics covered include fares, tips for survival, and types of service. I started traveling by bus in Mexico as a child. Luckily, my father was a Mexicophile and took the family on many trips south of the border, often in the family car, but by public transportation as well. It should be noted that since I went from Veracruz to Merida by train as a boy, almost all rail travel has ceased in Mexico, the two exceptions being the Copper Canyon trip and the "Tequila Express" out of of Guadalajara, the latter a day trip out to the town of Tequila for a tour of a distillery and lunch. Nowadays, most Mexicans take buses.

If you've seen northern Mexico before and only want to get to a city in the interior -- say, Xalapa -- you can save time (and the cost of a hotel room) by going overnight. Using our Xalapa example, you could book a bus at Matamoros (across from Brownsville) at about 6 p.m. and wind up in Veracruz sometime in the morning (10 a.m. to 12 p.m.), with a brief stopover in Tampico. Since first class buses up to Xalapa leave about every hour at Veracruz, making a connection is easy; you may not even have time for breakfast, though the terminals serve fairly good meals. Whether you're first class or deluxe (or "Ejecutivo," meaning executive), you can put your seat back and sleep. (I find that over-the-counter diphenhydramine works well to ease you into a sleepy state, and if it's not the most comfortable rest you've had, you can always take a siesta in your Xalapa hotel room.)

Oddly, the Xalapa trip is the only one I took in Mexico that I encountered a pest. In this case, a flirty young woman who first usurped my reserved (yes, reserved bus seats: they're required on all lines), then spent half the night crawling over me to get down to the lower platform where the driver sits, the better to chat with him. She did the same thing at each stop. Although I thought it inconsiderate, I did not demand to have my reserved seat since little did I expect that anyone would have the unmitigated gall to take a window seat, then crawl her way to the aisle every thirty or so minutes. Needless to say, the night bus trick did not serve me well on that trip. But it was the exception.

Currently, the Matamoros-Veracruz fare is about $50. Try flying down for that. Even the executive class buses are reasonable; in fact, most times only a few dollars more than the regular first class. What you get for the extra money is a bucket seat, sometimes only three to a row, a snack, a drink (or bottled water), and an immaculate restroom. Also, the deluxe class is less likely to make a lot of stops. The slowest, stoppingest buses in Mexico are segunda clase, or second class. I took one from Puerto Vallarta to Colima once and thought better of it. Talk about a hot, dusty ride! The only alternative though was to backtrack to Guadalajara, where we'd come from, then take a directo to Colima from there. Looking at the map, the first class route looks three times as long, but that's just how the system works. In its favor, second class is cheaper, but time is money even to Mexicans.

I once took a second class bus out of Zacatecas for Tlaxcala. It, too, looked like a short jaunt on the map, but it took all day to get there. One of the stops, in Apizaco I think, was so long, I had to figure the driver had gone inside to have dinner, take a siesta, and get laid, we were that long just sitting in a street-corner terminal. This can be quite a dramatic introduction to Mexico and I have on many occasions found myself in such a situation and made such a subject of curiosity that when I chat in my pidgin Spanish, I make new friends for the remainder of the journey, and if they lapse into Nahuatl or Purepecha, I can at least get a laugh by saying I only understand a little Spanish, but in cantinas, "Puedo defenderme."

Ticket buying is as simple as pie. (Well, no, pie is a lot harder, especially if you are making the crust from scratch.) You simply get in line at the terminal counter and when called, "Si?" or "Paraservirle?" you step up and say where you're going and when you want to leave. (A big board will have departures and ticket prices behind the clerk, so that even if you have to say, "Tzintzuntzan?" phonetically, you can point to the board. (No first class service calls on this charming lakeside village full of woodworkers and their intricate carvings, but you can get a local out of either Morelia or Patzcuaro.)

This brings up the subject of Mexico having two basic types of bus: directo and de paso. The former means a bus that originates in your location or connects very briefly for some reason. The latter is bus making frequent stops or when flagged down, so it's slower but handy in small towns like Papantla. I have only spent two long periods of time making a connection, in Poza Rica, a grimy oil town south of Tampico, and in Tuxpan on a green river. I must assume that the Huasteca have secret devices designed to lure one to linger in such places, but being stuck in Poza Rica is like being stuck in Purgatory. Each minute seems an hour. Lesson: Take as many directos as possible.

That said, you can't assume that directo means Point A to Point B without stops. Hey, even a bus driver likes to check out the senoritas in the little mom and pop restaurants along the way, and the bus may need refueling, as for example nearly all first class from Guadalajara to the border towns of Texas, putting one in the ugliest part of Monterrey after dark for a thirty minute stint. By this point you may be so starved, you'll eat those nachos even if you did see the old woman pick a fly out of the cheese melt. This happened to my youngest son when we took a trip to Mazatlan and did the last leg from Los Mochis by bus, through what is, today, one of the Mexican Medelin's, in the heart of the narcotraficante zone. The turista didn't hit the boy until we arrived in Mazatlan shortly prior to daybreak, sleepy and exhausted. I ended up taking him to a clinic. Cost of examining physician and dispensary medications? About $30 US. Smile on Zachary's face the next morning? Priceless.

If you are on a de paso and want the driver to let you off anywhere but the final destination, show him your ticket. Make certain that if you check bags underneath the bus, you get a receipt for each piece of luggage. Depending on the terminal and line, you may be asked for the receipt. Just as often people simply point to something in the underbelly compartment and it's handed to them. Mexicans are fairly trusting people. Still, on some lines, e.g. ADO out of Mexico City, you will have to undergo baton inspection to see if you're carrying arms. This seems to be spreading, so expect it. Rarely, however, will a bus be pulled over by the federal troops at various checkpoints.

Unfortunately, if your Spanish is poor to weak (como yo), you may be disappointed at the movie playing on the drop down or side-mounted TV monitors. I rather liked seeing I Dreamed of Africa with Kim Bassinger on a bus from Puebla to Oaxaca, but wasn't all that excited to see it again on the bus making the return trip. (As if that were bad enough, something went wrong with the bus and we had an unscheduled hour layover in the Sierras at a cafeteria hugging the side of a mountain.) Just as often, the film is entirely in Spanish, and may be something thirty or forty years old (Tin-Tan musicals are popular, and you may be rewarded with the occasional film with Cantinflas (a.k.a. Mario Moreno, who gave a hospital to the Federal District and whose house in Cuernavaca is now a very popular, very chic restaurant).

Just because the families that line up on the topes (raised bumps in the road, on either end of every small village and town) and jump aboard to sell you snacks don't bring their wares wrapped in celophane isn't necessarily a reason to pass on them. The candies, presumably cooked, are probably a safe bet, and I have bought tamales from such vendors. These, I found to my enormous surprise, we not Tex-Mex style skinny things, but big fat hunks of masa mixed with fiery chili peppers and various herbs and spices. The vendor will inevitably exit the bus when it goes over the topes on the other side of town, there to catch the next bus going in the other direction.

I am unsure, but I presume that the ejecutivo class buses take cuotas, or toll roads. These avoid topes, which in itself spares an hour or two on every journey. In a private car, I can seldom go faster than fifty in Mexico, since you can't even be sure that such and such a village even has a warning sign before you reach its topes, and going over them faster than about ten or fifteen is painful on the butt and ruinous to the alignment of the auto. Mexicans mean business with their topes, which may have saved the lives of a lot of children and old folks. There should have been topes outside Stephen King's place in Maine.

Always ask the driver at a stop how long ("Cuantos minutos aqui?") before de-bussing. I've never missed a bus before by tarrying too long at a station, but I came close in Tomatlan, between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, but off the road a good thirty minutes. The problem was, there are no restrooms on second class buses and I had to "go"; besides, the bus depot was just outside the public market, inviting a tour. I barely made it back to my seat in time.

I've done fairly wide-ranging bus trips through the interior of Mexico for two weeks on a $250 US budget for transportation, including taxis and combis. One cannot even buy a one-way airline ticket to Mexico from the U.S. for that kind of money. Besides, you get to see more of the country and its amazing people. I'd take the bus again, but I prefer going by car if I have time.