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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Puerto, I Miss You

I had come down from Oaxaca late in the day, arriving in Puerto by bus in a driving rain spawned by a Gulf hurricane that had flooded much of the Oaxacan lowlands and parts of Chiapas. I recognized some fellow gringos on the bus, but it was every man and woman for themselves as we tried to cope with our backpacks and, through the rain, hail down a taxi for the trip to our hotels. Apparently, the young couple who got the next cab just missed getting a room at the Mayflower, a kind of hotel and hostal all rolled into one. Little did I know that the somewhat lengthy route taken by my hack would turn out, by daylight the following morning, to be four or five blocks as the gulls fly. The owner of the Mayflower had to turn the couple away.

During a letup in the downpour I managed to find my way down to the Adoquin, the broad tiled street that is the main in-town beachfront drag in Puerto Escondido ("Puerto" to insiders). A bit wet and disheveled, I discovered the La Galeria, which has the best pizza margherita I've had since I was in Naples, with a crunchy woodfired stove crust, excellent marinara, and "Mexican mozarella." The people-watching from a table in the Galeria is the virtual equivalent of a floor show and ought to fetch higher prices for such delicious fare.

Back in my generous room, I discovered I had three beds and one powerful ceiling fan. Puerto gets so hot during late summer, and it's so tranquilly located, one can wilt in the noonday sun. Curiously, the ceiling fan provided all of the cooling I needed at night while there. The owner explained that my room is ordinarily let only to large groups traveling together, but, due to her having a bit of a hangover the following day and not remembering her request to relocate me to smaller quarters at such time, allowed me to remain. Lucky, too, that it was a room with a view: down the alleyway to the Adoquin itself.

The following day, the rains let up and the sun came out. I quickly settled into what I suspected might be a daily routine for me were I to retire here. It began with catching a jerry-rigged small sized pickup fitted with a tin roof and wooden seats over to the world-famous surfer's beach, Playa Zicatela, and having a wonderful breakfast. (These mini-buses cost all of a quarter each way.) It's important to start with breakfast here because of the surfers, and because of Carmen's Cafecito. I say start with breakfast, cause surfers get hungry and tend to like the same things most of us do, and the couple who own the Cafecito love to serve hot Oaxacan coffee with their home-made pastries. A full breakfast here is just a few bucks.

The rest of the day can be spent in a variety of ways, most involving the beach. In relative order of roughness, undertow, and swimability, there's the one in front of Carmen's, Zicatela (for surfers only); the one on the south side of the Laguna Agua Dulce, Marinero (can be rough, just right for boogie boarders), and the one along the Adoquin, Principal (calm, lapping waves, great for families, with delightful, reliable seafood restaurants on the marina side). If you get bored with these three, you can go to others. I did not.

I bought postcards to send home, then set out for the post office to buy stamps. Tourists might be oblivious to the fact that Puerto has a center and a market and all the other amenities found in Mexican towns. The heart of the city is its commercial district, which is spread out from the coastal road, Mexico 200, to the post office several blocks up Avenida Oaxaca (a long walk, but an interesting one).

Here, I encountered one of the Mighty Strange Anomalies for which Mexico is justifiably famous. The postal clerk informed me that the post office had no stamps. Now, to a norteño accustomed to buying stamps in a supermarket or at a post office, having no stamps for sale at a post office in Mexico might seem insane. To a seasoned Mexicophile, it made perfect sense. When I asked (on a Thursday) when stamps might be available, I was told to come back Monday. Rightly or wrongly, I assumed that the stamp problem had something to do with the hurricane.

Instead of feeling I had simply wasted my time, I used the occasion to scour the shops for a replacement for my broken coil immersion heater. Absent minded, I sometimes plug these in without first immersing them in water. I guarantee you will destroy the heater doing this. You can usually make yourself understood in a hardware store if you make a cup and coil gesture and say, "Calintidor para agua en una copa." Among all of the electrical hardware was one a bit big for the tea mug, but I bought it as it was the only one in stock.

Strolling down the Adoquin became a favorite pastime for me: dipping into the doors of enticing hotels on the beachfront side to check on prices and noticing that at least one of the really big ones was empty and for sale, while another was offering drab, worn-out rooms at prices way out of proportion to what was given. The length of the Adoquin is only about four blocks, but it's an attraction in itself. It runs parallel to Playa Principal and it's got good people watching and other pursuits.

By comparison, Marineros is "local." Most of the bathers are young, handsome, and sassy. It's obvious they're really enjoying their beach and would never take it for granted. As said, Zicatela is primarily surfer, but it has its share of business wannabees and gringos in case you're looking for a conversation.

I miss Puerto so much I am going back this fall.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Driving With Pemex

I drove from Corpus Christi, Texas, to the jumping off place for Isla Mujeres and back, and learned a bit about Pemex. Rule 1: Never ask a pump man for the price, which is required to be posted outside the station. Rule 2: Stay with your car, or have someone else watching it. Rule 3: Make sure the pump is rolled back to zero before the pumping starts, or you may end up paying twice: for your gas plus that of the previous motorist and/or the attendant, who may give you less for your money by inserting in the pump his Magic Key. Rule 4: Have someone take advantage of the wonderful snack shop while you're watching the car. Rule 5: Avoid the toilets if at all possible, since they usually cost a pittance extra but don't demonstrate inside that any of the money is going to keeping them clean. (Ever notice how bad the service suddenly gets just before a USPS stamp increase?) Rule 6: Take toilet paper with you, as it will be stingily doled out as if you had the asshole of an ant. Rule 7: Tip the attendant: it is expected, but tip him only for his honesty. Rule 8: Eat at lot of Happy Meals before you go (there may not be a McDonald's in Coatepec), but save the wrapped toys so you can bring smiles to the small boys who flock around a gringo car offering to wash your windshield, &c. We found that the toys pleased so much more than money. Rule 9: Start your engines and enjoy Mexico!