The Long Road to Palenque

The Long Road to Palenque

Choosing to visit the world renowned Mayan ruins of Palenque was easy. Deciding how to get there, however, required more careful consideration. In last week’s blog I mentioned the widespread protests against literally anything and everything in these parts ( often resulting in road blockades ). Given that Palenque is internationally known, a major tourist draw and is most often accessed from San Cristobal de las Casas, protestors have, for years now, set up rotating blockades on the main road to the ruins, route 199, just outside the town of Ocosingo. The direct route is shown in blue in the second map below and is already ( at best ) a 5 hour drive. The worst part is that you cannot guarantee to be allowed through the blockades and if you are, generally with some additional delay and the payment of an unofficial toll ( perhaps this is where the term “highway robbery” originated ? ). We took the liberty of asking some locals, the police and then the tourist information folks about the route. Responses ranged from “No problem senor” to “Just leave early and get to Ocosingo before 8am” and finally – wait for this……”Be sure to drive in a convoy” ! Since a convoy could not be hastily arranged and travelling the direct route was clearly questionable, we took the long road to Palenque………

The long road to Palenque
Direct route to Palenque via the 199

While it looked like a much longer route ( and it was in terms of kilometres- see top map, above ), we managed to cover the extremely circuitous San Cristobal – Tuxtla Gutierrez – Route 145D – Route 187 – Cardenas – Villahermosa – Palenque route in just under 7 hours ( a very long driving day in Mexico ). No delays, no blockades and, all things considered, a pretty comfortable and often scenic drive as well.

Palenque – a brief summary

Palenque, we thought, better be worth this long drive ! In fact, it was not really so far out of our way since our next destination – the Yucatan – required that we cover much of that same ground anyway. Having heard so much about the place our expectations were very high. We had already seen Teotihuacan in Mexico City and had other similarly famous ruins planned in the weeks ahead. We need not have worried – Palenque was absolutely worth the effort to get to and altogether different than Teotihuacan. The latter, I suspect, only sees more tourists because of its proximity to Mexico City and thus relative ease of access – not because it is a more impressive archeological site. Palenque’s mystique is in a sense heightened because of its relative remoteness, and is absolutely enhanced by the lush setting – that jungle backdrop really gives the place ( please excuse the Hollywood analogy ) somewhat of an “Indiana Jones” movie set feel. What is interesting is that, as impressive as it is, only a small percentage of this site has actually been uncovered – there is much more there that hasn’t been exposed so far. The museum nearby, viewed after the site visit, contains many of the detailed sculptures that would otherwise weather away if left exposed to the elements – very impressive as well and it’s air conditioned comforts were a welcome relief nafter hours outside in very hot and extremely humid conditions.

About to enter Palenque
Inside main pyramid, Palenque, near the queens crypt – humid as a sauna and very claustrophobic !
Waterfalls, Palenque at slow shutter speed
Palenque ruins in a less restored state
The walk out of Palenque was quite beautiful itself !
Some of the most impressive finds are kept in the museum

Following Palenque our route turned north east to the old Spanish garrison town of Campeche. Perched on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche has quite the rich history. A major trading port during the colonial era, its riches drew the attention of roving pirates and in response the Spanish built a fortress to surround the city, the well preserved remnants of which survive to this day. Within its walls lie what is known today as the Centro Historico and contain a couple of excellent museums that we explored and which provided a glimpse into life at Campeche in those days. Also one of the prettier cities to simply wander around with well preserved period buildings and other historical landmarks, now complemented with great restaurants and coffee shops ( which we also sampled ).

Campeche Malecon
Campeche – Centro Historico
Campeche – has the coolest police cars !
Church in Campeche old town
Restored nobleman’s house, Campeche
Nobleman’s house, Campeche
Fortress walls , Campeche
Lois, walking the walls of the old town
Jeff, in the Centro Historico, Campeche

Campeche was only a short 2 hour drive to one the most anticipated cities we would visit in Mexico – Merida. While the scenery and conditions continued pretty much as they had been all the way to Campeche- very flat, very green and very hot- we did experience a “first” in Mexico. A good, old-fashioned attempt shake-down by one of Mexico’s Policia Estatal ( State Police ).

Just north of Campeche one of the many police inspection stops one passes in Mexico lay ahead. It looked for all the world like any other – and in every other case but one, we were waved through ( or ignored ). The one that stopped us a few days earlier just wanted to impress us with his English – a few irrelevant questions from him, compliments from us on his English skills, and we were on our way. Not so today.

The Policia always work in pairs and when the first one waved us over ( meaning for us to stop ) his wingman quickly slid in to speak to us. Unusually, he had a very stern look on his face. All the others smiled a lot. We were asked if we spoke Spanish ( we always answer “no” ) but he tried some Spanish on us anyway. We missed a lot of it, but picked up three critical things; 1) we had not put our hazard lights on when approaching a police stop – doing so is the norm in Mexico, if not exactly the law, 2) this was a serious “infraccion”, and 3) the cost to “resolve” the issue quickly would be “dos mil pesos” ( 2,000 pesos or about 135 Canadian dollars ). Explaining politely that this was not a rule in Canada and we simply did not know about it got a polite shoulder shrug – he repeated “dos mil pesos”. We promised not to do it again ( lol ! ) if this could be converted to a warning perhaps. Another shrug and second request for dos mil pesos. A stand-off.

Lois then recalled a tip we had read about. She pulled out our Say Hi Translate app and asked if he could take us to the station, show us the rule we had broken, and issue us a formal ticket at which point we would pay. Suddenly we got the puppy dog eyes look, a markedly different tone and an admission from our friend that he would forget about this if we had something to give him. He seemed to be eyeing a bag of Cheeto’s sitting in our console so I offered those up ( opened, and half eaten – but he could not see that ) – he happily accepted them, gave us a wry smile and waved us on. I think we were barely out of earshot, the window safely wound up before we both burst out laughing. Proud of Lois for for her defiant stand, and glad we hadn’t eaten all the Cheeto’s yet !

Colorful houses on Merida street
Merida church
Merida church
Merida street scene downtown
Merida, church

Alas, back to Merida, which, in short, was a bit disappointing for us. More of the same things we were starting to tire of ( churches and cobblestone streets ) and none as splendid as those we had seen before. The campground was not great, the neighbourhood a bit rough – frankly, Campeche was much more impressive. It was so unimpressive in fact that we’d have considered it a waste of time if it was a destination only but it was fortunately en-route ( and close ) to another of Mexico’s world-renowned Mayan ruins – Chichen Itza.

Approaching Chichen Itza, Yucatan tourism signs heavily promote the fact that the site is now one of the 7 Man Made Wonders of the World ( I was not aware that the places on that list ever changed ? ). This and it’s proximity to Cancun / Playa Del Carmen ensure that thousands of tourists converge on the place at any given time – the site is impressive, though I’d put Pelanque ahead of it in terms of the “wow” factor. Unlike Pelanque, at Chichen Itza it was virtually impossible to get photos without hordes of other folks in the image ( we had to be creative ? ).

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Jeff at Chichen Itza
Lois, Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza

Having had our fill of pyramids, churches and Spanish fortress ruins it did not take much convincing for us both to agree that a short “hotel” holiday was now in order. While we feel fortunate to have endured very little rain during the Mexican wet season, the high humidity that is also typical of this time of year has persisted and a cool break was called for. Given the unbelievable deals available at hotels here in the off-season and the fact that Yucatan campgrounds are neither inexpensive nor very good, we decided to use the rest of the week to enjoy some cool, pool-side relaxing time and also get some important onward travel planning done. Playa Del Carmen was close, we knew it well, and when we found the 50 Suites Hotel just off 5th Avenue offering a deal we could not believe we quickly hit the “Book” button. Pool time it was…..

Taking a break from the sun, Playa Del Carmen
Taking some camping “down time” at the 50 Suites Hotel in Playa Del Carmen
Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas

Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas

Fifteen years ago Lois and I had travelled to Oaxaca state en route to the beachside community of Puerto Escondido where we spent a memorable 10 days. Memorable, for the great weather, great surf and as always, the people we met. Memorable as well for the windiest, most nauseating, and at times breathtaking journey we had ever taken in a minibus – a journey from Oaxaca city to the Pacific coast ( to get to Puerto Escondido ) on “Highway” 175. While only 235 kms on the map, it was back then, and turned out to be again, all of a 6 hour journey, only this time, driving ourselves, we battled a torrential tropical storm, dodged downed power lines, and crossed many overflowing creeks and partial mudslides. Turned out Mexico’s “rainy season” was not quite over yet. Nice to have had a high clearance 4×4 – we saw many smaller vehicles turning back. One of those times as well where, having descended 5,100 feet there was a palpable sense of relief when we finally reached our destination. Note – the following images were shot through the windshield, wipers on, in heavy rain, hence the reduced quality – couldn’t open the window in that downpour !

Creek overflowing from the rains
One of many mudslides on the 175 that day
Another, a waterfall of mud, with crews on the road clearing debris
And another
Who needs a truck when you can fit this much “on” your car !

The destination in this case was Huatulco, or rather the nearby beach community of San Agustín. Having enjoyed the relative cool of the highlands for a few weeks it was definitely time to switch gears and spend some down time on a beach – great reviews on iOverlander, subsequently endorsed by our new friends John and Kayoko, steered us to the Dutch-run “Don Taco Overlander Beach Campground”. While the Dutch owners, Franz and Anneke were on vacation, their ( Dutch ) caretaker, Mark, ran the place like it was his own and was great company for the 3 days we stayed there – even sharing some freshly caught tuna fish with us and another overlanding couple from Germary ( who, like us, were headed ultimately to Ushuaia, Argentina ). Probably one of the best true “beach” campgrounds on the Mexican coast, at Don Taco your rig was on the sand and literally just yards from the waves.

Mark, with the eponymously named ‘Don Taco’ ( the owners dog )
I had just always wanted to take a picture like this !
Rock bluff off San Agustín beach, Huatulco
Fishing boats on the beach
The beach
Lois in the hammock
View from door of our camper
Beach to the west
Campground from the road
Lois, swimming
The German’s motorhome and our camper, Don Taco’s
Campground from the beach

Don Taco was just the recipe we needed to recharge the sightseeing batteries – one can get a little ‘churched out’ and ‘ruin weary’ in these parts unless you periodically change it up. What really surprised us at San Augustin was the sunrises. Being on the Pacific coast of Mexico ( ostensibly its “west” side ) one expects only sunsets, stunning examples of which we had seen all the way down the Baja. On closer inspection however, when you are this far south in Mexico the country kind of lays on its side – when looking out at the Pacific you are thus looking more to the south, not west, and depending on the particular angle of the beach you are on, you can ( and we did ) experience impressive sunrises. See below. The sun setting on the mountains behind us at night also gave a very picturesque orange glow to the whole campground. We kind of had it both ways at Don Taco’s. A small bit of misfortune while there – we realized we had “blown” one of our two, 100 watt solar panels. Not a single volt was coming out of it. Yes, we could survive on 100 watts but it would mean the occasional shore power top up and more careful use of the fridge until we could replace it in Mexico or ship one down from Canada – being a lightweight “flexi” panel dramatically limited our options in Mexico at least.

Sunrise at Don
The orange glow of a sunset on the campground
John, a resident Canadian and solar guru, confirmed it – not a single volt in that panel !

Continuing east in Mexico ( that just seems wrong – feels like I should be saying”south” ! ), the plan was to reach San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, spend time there before heading to the ruins of Palenque at which point we would enjoy our last weeks in Mexico in Yucatan. As was our experience going from Oaxaca to Huatulco, the distance on the map and the time required to get to some of these places seemed totally at odds. A combination of drastic elevation changes ( sea level to 7,200 feet ), narrow shoulderless roads, many small towns in between and, in the case of Huatulco to San Cristobal, a taxi blockade along the way, meant the latter journey took all of two days. Scenic- yes. Tedious – that too. We realized, only once we were there, that this segment of the south would have us crossing the “isthmus” of Mexico – that “skinny bit”. Technically known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, it represents the shortest distance between the Pacific coast and Gulf of Mexico. In the low lying parts it is extremely windy with lots of cautionary signs along the road. We managed to stay upright but were not at all surprised to see more wind turbines there than either of us had ever seen in one place.

Wind turbines all across the Mexican isthmus – the skinny bit of Mexico !
Mexico’s Pacific coast near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec
There were some long straight stretches ( but lots of curves too ) !

Both Oaxaca and Chiapas states have been somewhat restive over the past decade or so with their indigenenous populations making their feelings known on a whole list of grievances – teachers’ salaries, taxi fares, truckers’ pay and a history of other perceived areas of discrimination. Road blockades, imposition of unofficial highway “tolls” and the like are not uncommon. We saw a truckers strike ( clogging the main road into town ) in Oaxaca city and had to re- route ( 2 hours out of our way ) around a taxi blockade in Ixtepec en route to San Cristobal. A funny way ( in my mind ) to display your dissatisfaction, but hey……T.I.M.

During our “detour” the GPS sent us down this road…….you just can’t always rely on it !

Very disconcertingly, during that part of the journey, a smorgasboard of dashboard lights suddenly came on – “ABS”, “Brake Fluid Low”, and “Stabilitrac Alert”. Odd, because we had just a few days earlier had a full service. We nursed the truck carefully into San Cristobal ( thankfully, with questionable brakes, we were “ascending” 7,200 feet rather than descending ).

Despite the trials and tribulations of getting there, San Cristobal de las Casas certainly lived up to the high expectations that had been set. Probably Chiapas’ prettiest city, the combination of great weather ( always nice and cool at that altitude ), a lively arts and crafts scene, cobblestone streets, many locals ( especially the women ) wearing traditional garments and just the vibrant church colours and colonial era buildings give the place a special appeal – so much so that it was packed with foreigners; travellers in general, ex-pat residents and many students here to take Spanish lessons. Not without good reason is it one of the most popular stops on the overland route south.

Street scene, Centro Historico, San Cristobal
Colorful church, San Cristobal
View of the city, San Cristobal
San Cristobal’s most famous church
Pedestrian street San Cristobal
Colorful buildings, San Cristobal
Adorable Chiapas child, all dressed up, San Cristobal
Campground Rancho San Nicholas, San Cristobal

As we closed out our week in San Cristobal in preparation for the “Road to Palenque”, some good news. What with washed out roads, failed solar panels and shaky brakes we needed some !

First, the brake issue on the truck was quickly identified by the GM dealer in San Cristobal and rectified. It seems the dealer in Oaxaca, when doing the brake fluid flush had not properly dealt with the passenger rear disc brake and it was indeed leaking and draining brake fluid. Some sort of seal, or cap, was not in place in any case – lucky we took it in promptly. As an added bonus they also took care of an outstanding recall issue on the vehicle – now everything was up to date and this would hopefully be our last visit to a dealer for another 10,000 kms at least.

Hopefully our last visit to a GM service bay for some time !

Secondly, “Truck Camper Adventure“ just published a review I had been asked to do on our truck and camper (and they have asked for a couple more articles); our first published story ! For anyone interested in some of the more technical aspects of our “rig”, read all about it here:

Review of the Outfitter Caribou Lite 6.5 Truck Camper

Mexico City to Oaxaca

Mexico City to Oaxaca

More often than not by the time we leave the place we are at we are pretty pumped about the next place we are going to – not so this past week. We’d already extended our planed stay in delightful San Miguel de Allende and in truth we could have stayed even longer – it was just that kind of place. Not that we weren’t looking forward to Mexico City, but we had both been there before a couple of times, the weather forecast was not great, and we were really only looking to see and do a few things we had missed on previous visits; neither of us was rushing to get there in any case.

Leaving San Miguel and it’s awesome campground
Leaving San Miguel and it’s awesome campground

As it turned out, “CDMX” ( as Mexico City is affectionately known locally ) had some surprises in store for us, both good and bad. Firstly, our erstwhile fabulous weather did take a brief turn for the worse ( we had been so spoilt ! ). The drive in from SMA was a bit wet and most of our first day there visiting the Pyramids of Teotihuacan was likewise drizzly. It got worse – our second day ( a Monday ) was set aside for a walk through the massive Chapultepec park, its castle and a couple of the “must see” museums CDMX is known for. Turns out they were all closed all day Monday ! Apparently it’s common in Mexico- we just had not been caught out before. Now, a museum being closed one day a week we could see ( although most are open 7 days a week elsewhere ) – but a park ? I mean, imagine Stanley Park in Vancouver, Hyde Park in London/Sydney or Central Park in New York, ever………closed ? But hey, we often remind ourselves about “TIM” – “This Is Mexico”. Some things are just significantly different here ( but in fairness, both good and bad ). So we accepted the museum situation but I just could not believe a park could close – ever ! We were already downtown, and despite being advised ( twice – by the tourist information office no less ) that yes, in fact, the whole park was closed today, I just had to see for myself. So off we toodled on Mexico City’s excellent and very easy to navigate subway to Chapultepec station. “They had to be wrong Lois”, I said, “it must just be the castle at Chapultepec that is closed. It could not possibly be the whole park ?”. Well, as we emerged from the subway, there it was, staring right at us – a huge black gate blocking access. Our incredulous looks drew no sympathy from two cops standing nearby – “Lunes, senor” he said ( “Monday” ) – as if that alone explained everything. In Mexico apparently it does !

Yes, they really close this park every Monday. The whole park !

Things fortunately did get much better. In lieu of a visit to the main park and museums we filled our “Lunes” just exploring downtown Mexico City, walked other parks, and shopped the day away quite happily – the early dreary weather even improved as the day wore on.

Around the Zocalo, or main square, CDMX
Around the Zocalo, CDMX
Shopping street, CDMX
Lois resting in the Parque de Bellas Artes
Bellas Artes subway station – I think they stole this one from Paris !

Our visit to the Teotihuacan pyramids the day before had also delivered a wonderful and unexpected bonus. Not only was the site impressive in its own right and one of Mexico’s most visited archeological attractions, our visit day happened to coincide with an annual event where a large troupe of locals perform ritual dances dressed in full regalia – quite the sight as the images below attest; we would not have missed it for the world ! There’ll be ( many ) more museums and more parks but the colorful Teotihuacan dancers we’d likely never see again. We could leave CDMX quite content.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan
Dancers arriving, Teotihuacan
Close up of face paint
Another close up
Our campground manager, Omar and his son, Karim were among the dancers
Dance leader- the incense was powerful
Dancers close up
Note the detail in the head dresses
Ditto for the head dresses
A lead dancer
Lois got in on the action and I snuck a picture
Hot air balloons over Teotihuacan visible from our campground

Oaxaca ( pronounced “wa ha ca” ), would take us well into the south of Mexico. A 5 hour drive crossing mountain passes at over 7,500 feet this regional capital was our next point of interest. A very popular stop on the overland trail, known both for it’s historic “Centro” and colourful indigenous arts and crafts scene, many travellers stay longer than anticipated.

Church doors, Oaxaca
Downtown street, Oaxaca
Downtown church, Oaxaca
Downtown street, Oaxaca
Elderly woman, selling locally crafted handbags
Local crafts – hats are popular
Local crafts – masks and pottery are big here

Many Mexican cities boast historic ruins and Oaxaca is no exception – the valley is littered with them. Monte Alban, probably it’s most famous (and another UNESCO world heritage site ) is pre-Hispanic and was continuously occupied for over 13 centuries between 500 B.C. and 850 A.D. A fascinating place to simply wander around and stare in awe at what was built with such precision and yet such ( relatively ) primitive technology so very long ago.

Lois, on the steps entering Monte Alban
Juego de Pelota, Monte Alban
Gran Plaza, Monte Alban
Monte Alban
Monte Alban

Oaxaca’s great climate ( we were still up high ), awesome restaurants and  classic cobblestone streets kept us exploring for a few more days. Technically, we were not staying in Oaxaca but in the small town of El Tule, just to the east. While small, El Tule itself did have one big attraction – El Arbor Del Tule ( Tree of Tule ). A Montezuma cypress, it has the stoutest trunk of any tree in the world. We’d seen some massive Redwoods in Oregon but we can confirm we have never a tree with quite as stout a trunk as this one !

El Arbor Del Tule
El Arbor Del Tule

Another attraction ( for us anyway ) was “Overlander Oasis”. A very friendly campground run by a couple of ex-pat Canadians, Leanne and Calvin have built quite a reputation as THE place to stop on the way south.  The truck and camper were in need of some minor repairs necessitating tools I did not have and Calvin has a reputation as a man who can fix ( and build ! ) anything – so we made good use of the opportunity. Sharing the place with us were Mark, a charming Brit who’d spent 28 years in Mexico and was passing through Oaxaca; Matt and Alex, a young Swiss couple headed to South America in a camperized 70 series Toyota 4×4, and John and Kayoko, fellow British Colombians in a fitted out Toyota RAV 4, also headed to South America. Needless to say some great sharing was done and a fantastic burger night put on by Calvin and Leanne was enjoyed by all. One little surprise we did not expect was a mild earthquake on our first night ( 5 point something on the Richter scale ). Apparently they are very common down in these parts – still, quite an eery experience to the uninitiated.

Calvin making some minor modifications to our solar panels
A memorable burger night at Overlander Oasis
John and Kayoko, from Torino, BC with us at Overland Oasis, Oaxaca

With the truck odometer quickly approaching 72,000kms ( 10,000 of that since leaving Kelowna to come south), a full service was due and fortunately Oaxaca had a helpful GMC dealer who took care of the requisite oil and filter changes, various inspections and tire rotations – thrown in was the most thorough truck wash we have ever seen – and a complete camper wash as well ! Add to that 4 freshly polished tires and we drove off the Oaxaca GMC looking pretty sharp ! 

History, however, tells us that the vehicle does not stay clean very long on the road and the week ahead would likely be no exception. With all road options to the south east having had washouts due to heavy recent rains, our expectation is for some mud in the forecast – more on that next week !

The Colonial Highlands

The Colonial Highlands

Having spent the last weeks in smaller towns and mid sized ( more easily driveable ) Mexican cities, the size of Guadalajara was immediately overwhelming. Never had we been so relieved to find our accommodation and safely settle in for the night ( or the whole weekend as it turned out). Given it is Mexico’s 2nd biggest city we deliberated for some time before finally deciding to drive in. Going right downtown meant practically all the sights would be within walking distance and the added benefit was that we could stay at what is by far Guadalajara’s most popular overland “campground”.  I emphasize campground because Guadalajara really does not have a campground in the traditional sense ( vehicle  camping not being as entrenched  in Mexico as it is in Canada, the US, Europe or Australia ). The location of choice is in fact a commercial parking lot which allows multi-day stays, has 24 hour security, and whose owner has taken a liking to overland travellers; they are welcomed with open arms. Complete with fast wi-fi, a bathroom and friendly staff it is also located in a quiet, upscale area, right downtown and near all the sights; what more does one need – some  overlanders stay there weeks ! 

Just before Guadalajara we overnighted in Zacatecas – our B/B offered a great view of “La Bufa” a stunning rock formation above the city
La Bufa at night, Zacatecas
En route to Guadalajara, famous for Tequila, we passed many agave farms ( from which tequila is made )
The cathedral in Guadalajara
Rotunda, Plaza de Armas, Guadalajara
Shopping district in Guadalajara
Downtown Guadalajara
Guadalajara “campground” !

We enjoyed it for the weekend and also enjoyed Guadalajara’s sights – there’s a lively entertainment area close by and a great selection of restaurants; just a great vibe in this city very popular with fashionable young Mexicans. The forecast gloomy weather never materialized so our run of great weather continued on. 

Lois, shopping in the Chapultepec markets, Guadalajara

Until we had bumped into Andreas, our German friend, in Durango,  the city of Guanajuato ( our next stop ) was not even on our radar. Although we knew it was a central location in the Mexican revolution and thus steeped in local history, our plans were to leave Guadalajara and go straight to San Miguel de Allende. Since Guanajuato was more or less en route plans were quickly changed and, after a brief swing south of Guadalajara to check out Lake Chapala and Ajijic, we turned east towards Guanajuato. 

Getting there was half the fun – while Lois generally navigates very effectively, her mixing of “Guanajuato” with “Guantanamo” ( as in the American military base in Cuba ) had our trusty Google Map getting a little confused – hey, what do you mean we can’t drive to Guantanamo ? A city of 185,000 and capital of the state by the same name, Guanajuato is built on a hillside and “blessed” with extremely narrow roads, low clearance tunnels and poorly marked one-way streets. Even more challenging to drive in than Guadalajara, most don’t even attempt to drive through the city. Let’s just say I would not want to be driving anything bigger than we are driving ! It was one more time where we really appreciated having a smaller, more maneuverable vehicle – eventually we found our cliffside campground. Another highly popular “campsite” on the overland trail, the views certainly made getting there worthwhile. Another atypical spot, it’s really more a level backyard in a large cliffside house but it came replete with spotless showers and toilets, level parking and power and water on site. It would have been on our top 3 on the trip so far were it not for the cacophony of barking neighbourhood dogs the likes of which we have never experienced before and hope never to experience in future ! Torture for sleeping !

Typical of the narrow streets we had to access in Guanajuato
Steep too ! Notice the low hanging power lines

Barking dogs aside, Guanajuato is unquestionably one of the prettiest of the Mexican cities we have visited, and is designated a UNESCO world heritage site  for its important history and colonial architecture. It’s got to be about as classically Mexican as you can get. The city also lent itself to doing all sightseeing on foot – gotta love the smaller cities ! On our last day, “Victor”, a younger ( to us anyway ! ) American pulled into the campground in his Toyota 4Runner kitted out with all the usual overlanding gear. Turns out he is on pretty much the same journey as us – from his home in San Francisco he had travelled north to the Arctic, turned around and is on his way south to Tierra Del Fuego at the bottom of South America ( with plans for Africa after that ) – needless to say many notes were compared and tips shared between us !

Campground in Guanajuato – with Victor and his 4Runner
Sunset view from the campground
Main square, Guanajuato – could not get the guy with the cell phone to move !
Teatro ( theatre ) Guanajuato
Inside Guanajuato cathedral
Sidewalk cafes, Guanajuato
Fashionable old men enjoying coffee, Guanajuato
Pipila monument, Guanajuato
Parroquia de Balsilica Colegiata de Nuestra, Guanajuato
Plaza de la Paz with view to Parroquia de Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra
Guanajuato view from Pipila monument
Busker serenading Lois with a little “Guantanamera”
Where it all began….the Alhóndiga in Guanajuato, site of the first battle in the Mexican revolution and now a great museum
One of Guanajuato’s many tunnels – no big RV’s allowed !
Colourful back street in Guanajuato

Thirty four years ago, honeymooning around Europe, we met a well travelled Brit who spoke about his time in Mexico in the 70’s. We could not recall all the places he listed as “must sees” but one stuck with us all these years – San Miguel de Allende ( or SMA as it is often abbreviated here ). Finally, all these years later, it was the next stop on our travels – based on his glowing reviews we had high expectations. Like Guanajuato, it played a pivotal role in Mexico’s revolution and ultimate independence from Spain in the 1820’s – the two cities are not only close geographically, they share many other features and SMA is also a UNESCO world heritage city.

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, SMA

As our British friend did, there is good reason people fall in love with this place and equally good reason why an incredibly large number of “gringo expats” choose to make this place home – it just has so much to offer. Not just another Pueblo Magico, though it is one of those, it offers history, beauty, year round great weather and just a very cosmopolitan vibe. Like Guanajuato, it’s elevation at over 6,000 feet keeps it free of the extremely high temperatures, oppressive humidity and potentially malarial mosquitoes. Great restaurants, an eclectic artsy feel and some of the most traditionallly Mexican cobblestone streets we have seen so far. Something else we had both noticed about the folks in this part of Mexico, or more specifically had started to notice in Guadalajara, Guanajuato and also San Miguel – was their style. Dressed more fashionably and with, in some cases, a style sense on par with the French or Italians, whether it be chic university students scurrying around on Vespa scooters, elderly scarf-clad retired men sipping coffees in a cafe or proud parents dressing up small kids; it was definitely noticeable.

Quiet San Miguel backstreet
Even the kids were “styling” in San Miguel. Mum and Dad were doing a photo shoot with their young daughter and allowed us to take this picture
The “Jardin” ( garden ), SMA
Street scene, SMA
Home town hero, General Ignacio Allende who famously sided with the rebels during the war for independence. SMA is partly named after him. Executed by the Spanish for treason.

Another popular stop on the overland route south ( or north ) it also offers probably one of the best, and best located, campgrounds in Mexico. Somewhat pretentiously called “The San Miguel RV Park and Tennis Club”, the facilities were fantastic and included two beautiful clay tennis courts. A real oasis in the city. SMA was also the first place on our trip so far where we have met more than one other overlander; beside us was a German couple in a massive M.A.N. custom built overland truck ( heading to South America ) and across from us another German couple in a Toyota “Troopy” ( as we call them in Oz ) – Ule and Ute had traversed the Sahara multiple times, travelled Africa extensively over the past 10 years and were now retired and following the same route as us, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. We enjoyed their company while in SMA and shared some invaluable information with each other.

Entrance to the San Miguel RV Park and Tennis Club
Clay courts on site !
Not quite high season so only 4 occupants – in another month, it would be packed
The Germans just always seem to have the biggest rigs – these folks are serious overlanders !

While San Miguel’s “sights” were easily seen in a day, we took the opportunity to simply relax here, shop, explore the many cobblestone back streets, sample the great restaurants, replenish our supplies, enjoy the company of our new overlanding friends and do some long overdue vehicle cleaning . Next stop – the hustle and bustle of Mexico City.

PS: Try as I might it is generally impossible to find Wi-Fi that is is fast enough to upload all the blog images in the same full resolution in which I shoot them. They should be reasonably clear on a small screen – just don’t enlarge them ! If anyone out there has the technical savvy to help me address the issue, please comment !

The “Wild West” – Durango

The “Wild West” – Durango

One of the great delights of any overland trip is taking a break from the rigours of the road and catching up with friends along the way. So it was with Mazatlan.

Pauline and Ted were the most gracious of hosts – opening their home to us, showing us the sights of Mazatlan and guiding us around on the very busy Independence Day celebrations. An unexpected bonus at a very late hour on Independence Day was seeing a turtle come ashore on the beach, right in front of Pauline and Ted’s place, to lay eggs – very exciting ! Apologies for the poor quality image below ( it was dark ! ) but the turtle can just be made out. On top of their amazing hospitality, they passed on some wonderful and practical tips, the kind one only gets from someone who has lived in Mexico as long as they have – it could not have been a better, more relaxing few days. Mazatlan is going through a bit of a re-birth in the tourism space and the city planners have done a great job making it tourist friendly – renovating the “old town”, and re-paving the Malecon ( one of the worlds longest, we are reliably informed ! ) among other improvements. The night-life and shopping options were awesome. We’d go back in a heartbeat – thanks again, Pauline and Ted !

View from Pauline’s place, Mazatlan
A street in the old town of Mazatlan
Colorful house, Mazatlan old town
Plaza Machado, Mazatlan old town
Turtle laying eggs on the beach late at night
We had a visitor at the pool !
The Mexicans love a laugh – here, poking a little fun at “The Wall” !

While all good things come to an end, there was also much to look forward to in the days ahead – Durango was not in our original plans but commentary from other overlanders about the city itself and the stunning road across the Sierra Madre that would get us there, caused a a change of heart. And just as well we did. The new Mazatlan-Durango highway is an amazing feat of engineering in itself rising from sea level to over 7,000 feet and including numerous tunnels and bridges. Acting on a tip from our good friend Charlie Harris, we did take the ‘old highway’ as far as the town of Copala in order to sample Alejandro’s legendary banana cream pie ( and yes, Charlie, it was delicious ! ). That old road is not called the “road of 3,000 curves” for nothing – scenic, yes, but after 100 kms of it we were happy to finally find the “Entrada” sign to the new autopista.

Alejandro’s restaurant, Copala

With 1.4 million people our Durango expectation was for clogged roads and a busy high-rise downtown area. Au contraire – the city was easily navigated and refreshingly “low rise”. The setting of many “Western” movies, and home to legendary Mexican revolutionary icon, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, John Wayne even had his own ranch here back in the day ( complete with its own Western film set ). In short, we loved the city and received the most gracious hospitality everywhere we went.

The cathedral, Durango
Plaza de Armas, Durango
Pedestrian avenue, Constitución, Durango
A quiet alley, Durango
Clothing and personal effects, “Pancho” Villa
As if driving in Mexico were not challenging enough, on this street in Durango ( and only this street ), you drive on the left !!!!
Directions to John Wayne Ranch in La Joya, Durango
Film set ruins
Road to the canyon, La Joya Ranch
Old “train station” from the film set, La Joya Ranch
Hanging dock from film set, La Joya Ranch
Store, film set, La Joya Ranch
Main Street, film set, La Joya Ranch
Many saddles, still on the set from Western movies
The jail, La Joya Ranch

For the first time in Mexico, we were not alone at the campground – during the 2nd of our 3 days there, “Andreas” ( a retired German in his 3rd year on the road ) pulled in beside us. Not only was the company wonderful but his tips were incredibly valuable having just driven “up” the very same route that we hope to be taking “down” to South America – priceless !

Closing out the week saw us leaving Durango after three great days there. Our next destination was Guadalajara but being more than a day’s drive we made a logical pit stop en route in Zacatecas, capital city of the state of the same name. An easy 3 hour drive along excellent roads got us there but the highlight was a stopover, and series of hikes, at Parque National Sierra de Organos ( The Organs National Park ) along the way. About an hour an half outside Durango and just inside Zacatecas state, these unique rock formations have also been the backdrop for many films ( Geronimo, The Cisco Kid, and The Undefeated, to name a few ) and are unlike anything we have seen before. Somewhat similar to the “hoodoos” at Bryce Canyon in Arizona, the rock formations resemble organ pipes – hence the park’s name. And, aside from ourselves and the park attendant, not a soul in the park !

Given the absence of campgrounds in Zacatecas we opted for a B&B, staying with a very hospitable Mexican family – just an excellent experience and one we will definitely do again. While the road to Guadalajara was smooth and the drive uneventful, navigating rush hour traffic late on a Friday afternoon in a Mexican city of over 4 million was, well, challenging to say the least ! By all accounts Guadalajara is a “must see” in Mexico so I’m sure the stress will be worth it – we hope to spend a few days here – more on that next week !

Lois, with the Marcias clan in Zacatecas
Mainland Mexico

Mainland Mexico

True to form, Baja remained intensely hot for our last few days there – there would be no respite from the humidity either. Our route to La Paz ( point of departure for mainland Mexico ) took us north from Los Barriles to another great beach community – or should I say twin communities, La Ventana and El Sargento. We managed to find a great spot at the latter, a campground right on the beach but up high so that it included an amazing view of the bay. That was fine until the owner offered us  an air conditioned casita ( small cabin ) for not much more so we quickly transitioned to that – like I said, it was HOT, and a pretty easy “sale” with humidity in the high 80’s ! No kite boarders around, apparently they descend on the place in November, so there were deals to be had. Again we found ourselves the ONLY people there until a local couple showed up late in the day – just incredible to see such beautiful beaches, lapped with crystal clear, warm water – and practically deserted. Such is the off season in Baja.

El Sargento beach and campground
Our “casita” ( small cottage ), El Sargento beach
View from the casita
Lukewarm waters of the Sea of Cortez, La Ventana

Despite the off season, we could not rely on just driving on to a ferry so chose a departure date in advance and decided to spend a few down days in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. The city was actually a real surprise – not at all on Mexico’s top places to visit but well laid out, with history dating back to the times of the Spanish and one of the prettiest Malecon’s ( seaside boardwalks ) we have seen so far. More of a big-town feel with no apparent high-rise “Centro” . It gave us the opportunity to do some exploring, catch up on some shopping that needed to be done, walk the Malecon, sort out the ferry and visit its two famous beaches – Balandra and Tecolate. The former, where we spent more time, was stunning, as the pictures below attest  – the latter, not so much ( but perhaps it was the dune buggy’s buzzing by at 120 km/h much of the time we were at Tecolate ! ).

Nice to have a pool in this weather….La Paz
Colonial- era church, La Paz
Colonial-era building down town, La Paz
“La Paz”
Tecolate beach, La Paz
Lunch break at Tecolate beach, La Paz
Stunning Balandra beach, La Paz
Lois, at Balandra beach, La Paz
Prime location ! Balandra beach, La Paz

Leaving La Paz started out well – managed to get to the ferry terminal, check in, do the vehicle weight check,  and clear the Aduana  (customs) as expected . As a side note, Baja is one of those special economic zones and in some respects operates almost autonomously of the rest of Mexico – as such, when leaving, and crossing to Mexico proper, the procedure is somewhat like crossing the Mexican border all over again; passport checks, food inspections – the whole bit. It was when we got to the actual ferry – as in, ready to drive on – that we got an unpleasant surprise. I was told I need to go back and “change my ticket” – as I drove off the weigh scale earlier, someone had decided our truck with pop-up camper was in fact a “motor home” ( yes – a whole new rate class ). Protestations to the contrary were having no impact, Lois already on the ferry ( passengers board on foot ), and time ticking by options were limited. We were cut a little slack in the end- they decided it was just a “mini” motor home – but the cost had still more than doubled. The sad irony here was that we have occasionally lamented not having the space of a bigger motor home ( as unsuitable as it would be down here ) – on this day we wanted to have a truck / camper, but apparently we don’t !

Measured up, and…..yes, it’s definitely a “mini motor home” ! Of course…..

Six hours later the ferry was docking in Topolobampo ( port for Los Mochis) after an uneventful and very smooth crossing. The only other foreigners on board were a French couple who were wrapping up their own independent 3 week holiday in Mexico – interestingly, the wife’s first question to us was “Have you met many other travellers ?”They too, were shocked at how few were down here.

We’d been on the fence about whether to visit Barrancas Del Cobre ( Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon ). By all accounts, a world class sight, and larger ( by several times ) than its more well known northern neighbour, the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We ultimately decided to go for it and headed to El Fuerte, a convenient jumping off point for “El Chepe”, the train that takes you through the canyon and on to Chihuahua. El Fuerte is a pretty little town itself – another of Mexico’s “Pueblo Magicos” and with any interesting history and some great historical architecture. Sadly, our Wednesday arrival meant an almost two day wait for the next train on Friday and by then the weather had turned seriously bad high up in the mountains with a forecast for four more days of the same. Mexican Independence Day was fast approaching, this cramping our accommodation options ( we would not have our vehicle with us ) and with Lois having just been treated for an intestinal infection, it was decided the Copper Canyon excursion would have to wait – we expect to be in Mexico many times again in future and would do it in better conditions. Perhaps a different call if we were in a more far flung corner of the world for us – but for this, we could easily return.

Centro, El Fuerte ( “The Fort” )
Preparations for Independence Day, El Fuerte
Bumped in to these students who were anxious to practice English with us
Parts of the fort , El Fuerte
Side street, El Fuerte

Fortunately, Mazatlan was the next stop on our travels south and a long anticipated visit with an old colleague of mine awaited. Pauline ( who worked with me many years ago ) had moved to Mexico 8 years ago from Canada. She was living with her fiancée Ted, in Mazatlan and had been waiting for us hoping we could join them for a few days, ideally over the Independence Day celebrations – a very big deal in Mexico ! A full days drive from El Fuerte got us to their beautiful condo right on the beach. Fantastic to catch up with them both, and to rest up for a few days – our reunion was celebrated with a night out at their favourite restaurant, watching a live band and a late night walk on Mazatlan’s 18km long Malecon – well, not all of it just quite yet – but perhaps over the next couple of days !

Another city sign – we seem to be collecting these. We love the colors!
With Pauline and Ted
Out for dinner – live band playing
View from their deck
Great location, right on the beach, and with a pool
Sunset from Pauline’s condo in Mazatlan