Topes to Tuk-Tuks

From Zihuatanejo we continued down the coast and in a day made it to the outskirts of Acapulco.  While still the coastal route, it is almost exclusively far enough off the coast so that the sea wasn’t visible but as a blue border on the Garmin GPS display.

If eventful at all it was for what seemed to be hundreds of ‘topes.’  Now topes are bumps in the road deliberately placed to slow traffic to a virtual stop. Santa Fe, New Mexico went nuts for ‘speed humps’ a few years ago and while they are irritating, they are gentle and the recommendation on the signs is not to proceed over them faster than 20 mph.  Topes, however, are a brutally more deadly version, usually only a foot or less across, at least six inches high and extending all the way across the road, but designed to bust not just tires but the steel wheels they are on or engine oil pans (we can testify on that one) or some major suspension component if taken faster than say about 2 mph.  Most are just humps in the asphalt, but some are steel hemispheres placed across the road close together, or rubber strips about 8 inches high, or even old six inch manila mooring lines just stretched across the road at army or navy check points.  Some are marked with signs and painted with yellow strips so you can’t miss them; some are hard to see in the shadows if not painted; some I swear are deliberately hidden where one would never expect them so that nothing but a panic stop prevents some form of vehicle destruction.  And apparently anyone with a wit worth of ingenuity and supplies can put one across the road.  We were through villages where there were more topes than people and sometimes encountered one in the middle of nowhere with only goats or burros to witness Dan the Van hopping in the air.

The stretch of road between Zihuatanejo and Acapulco was bad; the road from Acapulco to Puerto Escondido is famous for them.  The consensus seems to be that there are about two hundred of them on that highway.  One fellow traveler claimed to have counted 187; another claimed 236 but he was riding a bus and they sometimes detour into villages to pick up passengers. Either way, it is tope heaven or hell. I did the math based on 200: one tope every 1.2 miles over 240 miles. While topes are everywhere in Mexico, this is truly the heartland!

Let us tell you a bit about Acapulco.  We were a bit hesitant about it since it has been the location of some pretty horrible drug cartel violence, but encouraged by others we decided to give it a couple of days.  We stayed on the northern fringe of the city in an area called Pie de le Cuesta, a narrow stretch of sand between a lagoon on one side, rather funky hotels and nice restaurants on the strip of sand, and a beach to kill for on the other side. The campground was shaded, well tended, and with a really wonderful group of Germans and Canadians, most of them Quebecois, and most in residence for the winter season.

The Acapulco Campground in the quiet of the morning

The Acapulco campground in the quiet of the early afternoon

One of many spectacular sunsets at the Acapulco beach

One of many spectacular sunsets at the Acapulco campground

They gathered for coffee in the morning, for boules at 4PM each day, and for a drink afterwards, and could not have been friendlier to these American visitors.  It was here that we also met Kevin and Ruth, from Ottawa and tent camping and who were our companions for the next few days overnight in Playa Ventura and later in Puerto Escondido.

Acapulco itself was a real surprise, and a number of things stand out, beginning with the heat.  It was hot and it was humid.  We got a ride into town with a German in his fancy pickup truck who kept repeating that there were no speed limits in Germany and that the same could easily apply in Mexico as he attempted to prove his thesis.  He dropped us close to the zocalo or most central plaza and we had a coffee and a look inside the rather un-Mexican and somewhat Byzantine cathedral adjacent, then headed up the hill to witness Acapulco’s most famous tourist attraction, the divers from the cliff top, La Quebrada Clavadistas. I don’t know what to tell you except that they are absolutely spectacular.  I grew up diving off rocks from 12 or 15 feet into narrow channels.  These guys dive from up to 113 feet down a cliffside into a narrow slit of water, timing their dives to coincide with individual waves coming in because the water depth is almost nothing.  And the best of them do a flawless summersaults as they descend!  Way spectacular!

Divers climbing the cliff as one sails toward the water

Divers climbing the cliff as one sails toward the water

Three divers at once, doing summersaults as they fall

Three divers at once, doing summersaults as they fall

We also walked down the waterfront to the Fuente de San Diego, the 1783 fortress overlooking the entire bay and built to offer protection from pirates to those Spanish galleons coming from the Philippines and loaded with oriental treasure.  This was a trade route that furnished Spain with riches for centuries.  Galleons were loaded with oriental goods, chiefly Chinese, in Manila and brought to Acapulco, where the treasure was transported overland over heavy guard to Veracruz, and from there shipped on to Spain.  It now houses the Museo Historico de Acapulco which details this fascinating history and includes examples of the porcelain, silk and furniture brought across the Pacific to Acapulco.

The Acapulco skyline from the fort

The Acapulco skyline from the fort

We decided to take a bus back to the campground and finally found one wildly painted, and certainly with a couple of decades of experience visible already, but with the name of our area painted onto its windshield. So we boarded and started out, but after about 40 minutes we had moved about half a mile and that entirely in the wrong direction in the heat.  When we crept into a narrow street next to the Central Market we decided that the best course was to bail and grab a cab.  Here’s a look at the interior of the bus with its pink dashboard, extravagant decor, and giant frog centerpiece.  What you can’t see is its blaring Mexican rock music so loud we had our fingers in our ears.

Inside the Acapulco bus

Inside the Acapulco bus

But for the topes, the road from Acapulco to Puerto Escondido was uneventful.  Sections of the countryside enveloped us in a green blur, a steamy haze of avocado, papaya, banana, mango and giant coconut palms set against the blue of the sea and sky.  We spent a night in a small village along the shore called Playa Ventura where we stayed with our friends Kevin and Ruth in a family’s yard beside the sea.  This is an area where there is a heavy African influence and most of the residents are of obvious African background.  The story is that they are descendants of escaped slaves from the Caribbean side of Mexico, or of a slave ship which supposedly went aground in this area sometime in the 1800s.  There were six daughters of the couple whose yard we camped in, two chickens and a rooster and twenty downy chicks, three dogs and a cat with whom one of the dogs played like a puppy.  Here’s a shot of Kevin doing his daily blog as Ruth hovers behind him, ready to edit:

Kevin and Ruth at the keyboard under the beach palapa

Ruth and Kevin at the keyboard under the beach palapa

And here’s the link to his blog. You might want to check it out– http://www.travelwithkevinandruth.com

The trip on to Puerto Escondido was as anticipated but for Kevin and Ruth catching up to us as we had lunch under a tree in a town full of what we would call ‘tuk-tuks’ from our Southeast Asian experience.  They were everywhere and we haven’t seen them since, which leads us to think that a boatload of Vietnamese somehow ended up here with their mode of transportation intact!

Tuk-tuks everywhere!

Tuk-tuks everywhere!

Down The Deserted Coast

It has been almost a two weeks since our last entry, during which we have covered over 800 miles of the Mexican Pacific coast, through its most beautiful and isolated section to the hurly burly of Acapulco, its biggest and certainly most congested city.

Here’s a little of what we saw and experienced along this long and often rather isolated coast.  We left Puerto Vallarta and drove south, first of all through the city itself and then its beautiful exit along a dramatic coast with the road hung into the mountainside.  This is now an area of rather established and elegant homes, and was the area where ‘Night of the Iguana’ was filmed.  The atmosphere still lingers–jungle, mountainside diving into the sea, hot and steamy with humidity with just a hint of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume still in the air.

For most of this long coast, we encountered campground after campground where we expected to have to beg our way into what we were told would be a packed campground only to find them virtually deserted.  This wasn’t always the case—witness our first night from Puerto Vallerta in the small town of Punta Perula where a filled campground went off together to dine at a beachside palapa restaurant featuring an amazing 8 year old guitarist who even managed to include an empty beer bottle into his performance.

Budding Jimmy Hendrix who can also play his guitar when behind his head

Budding Jimmy Hendrix who can also play his guitar when behind his head

But here is La Boca, renowned for its over 100 campsite capacity and amazingly beautiful beach and foliage.  We had really looked forward to it because it is adjacent to Boca de Iguana, the site of our friends Warren and Tuli’s beach house.  But it was absolutely deserted; we were one of nine campers there.

Dan at beachside in the deserted campground at La Boca de Iguana

Dan at beachside in the deserted campground at La Boca de Iguana

We did find a full campground in Melaque, right in the middle of town but on the beach and surprisingly quiet at night. The town was the site of a settlement of Irish Catholic Americans who refused to fight their Catholic brothers in the Mexican American War, and formed the San Patricio part of town when offered a home by the Mexican government.  One still sees an occasional redhead covered with freckles in the shops and streets, and they are clearly not tourists.

From there we went into the state of Michoacán, famous as a bastion of the drug trade and the La Familia cartel up in the mountains to the east, and for a coastline widely thought to be the most beautiful in Mexico. We certainly would agree, particularly for its similarity to Big Sur on the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and featuring spectacular views from the highway hacked into the jungle and the mountainside. We saw almost no other vehicles through its entire length, and while it is slow and twisty it is absolutely stunning in its beauty.

Michoacan equivalent to the view from Bixby Bridge

Michoacan equivalent to the view from Bixby Bridge

Part of the seemingly endless beach

Part of the seemingly endless beach

And it just goes on and on...

And it just goes on and on…

We spent one night in the van in a deserted seaside village famous for its turtles behind the palapas as the only visitors, then stumbled on a small beachside village called Neixpa the next day which seems to be inhabited primarily by American hippy surfers, one of whom has been living here for 33 years.  We had lunch at the Mary Jane Restaurant above the beach only to discover the source of its name when we noticed that they sold more than food from behind the counter and the surfers at the next table were smoking something decidedly not tobacco.

The Mary Jane Restaurant

The Mary Jane Restaurant

We found a really nice camping spot on grass under coconut trees, but the grass itself was infested with vicious biting ants who were intent on eating Bonnie’s feet and ankles off. So it was on to Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.

This was not a new location for us as we had been to ‘Ztown’ when last living in San Miguel. It remains primarily a large fishing village with a significant tourist operation focused on its famous beach called La Ropa. We spent an afternoon swimming and walking it again and wishing our friends Sue and Tom were in residence in the hotel at the north end of the beach which they visit each year.

La Ropa beach in the early morning

La Ropa beach in the early morning

Ixtapa is a different story.  After the ‘success’ of Cancun on the Yucatan coast, the government decided that they needed a similar upscale and inclusive resort community on the Pacific, and Ixtapa was it.  While we really only drove through it coming and going from the rather upscale campground we stayed in, it is boulevarded, treelined and hotel bordered, with almost no access to the beach for its citizens.

Overall what is most apparent to a North American traveling down this coast is the lack of Americans.  From the time we left Puerta Vallarta almost all travelers from the U.S. have disappeared, and we were told over and over again that the ‘snowbirds’ have flown elsewhere this winter.  The stories of drug cartel violence has taken a toll beyond the lives lost; there has been a tremendous loss of livelihood as well.

We have seen exceptions.  San Miguel where we spent Christmas is still bustling with visitors, but it is a different crowd.  Many of those Americans, even those with homes in San Miguel, have stayed in the States and have been replaced by tourists from other parts of Mexico, chiefly from Mexico City and Guadalajara.  However, for most of the Mexico we have traveled through, the Americans are gone.

Ah–but those Quebecois–they are everywhere!  Across a whole continent they have come from far off frozen Quebec, pulling their trailers, traveling often together and certainly collecting to camp together along this wild and lawless coast!  Spanish may be the primary language here, but it is Canadian French that is the second language.  A game of boules in the quiet of the afternoon,

The 4PM Quebecois boules game

The 4PM Quebecois boules game

a hockey game broadcast from Montreal but still available on the TV mounted into the side of the trailer,

Hockey straight from Montreal to the campground at Ixtapa

Hockey straight from Montreal to the campground at Ixtapa

some good French wine…the Quebecois community is alive and off to far-flung adventures!

Back to San Miguel de Allende

A couple of days short of Christmas we drove east around Guadalajara to San Miguel de Allende, the marvelous colonial town where we had lived for three extended periods up until about two and a half years ago.  San Miguel was initially the  stop for supplies and equipment into, and silver out of, the great mines of Guanajuato nearby.  By the mid 1700’s the mines were exhausted and San Miguel became a ghost town asleep in the Mexican sun, but with its colonial splendor still intact.  Recognizing this, the Mexican government declared it a national treasure in 1926 and forbid development out of character with its colonial facades from that point on.  Over time it had a resurgence initially driven by a colony of artists in the 1930’s and beyond, and accelerated by GIs coming down to study under the GI bill with artists such as Diego Rivera and David Siquieros, both of whom taught here at one time or another. Later Americans and Canadians who fell in love with its colonial atmosphere, cobblestone streets and inexpensive living costs took up residence as well.

Traffic Cop on patrol

Traffic Cop on patrol

A typical street scene

A typical street scene

The center and focus of San Miguel is the Jardin or central plaza with its most important church, the Parroquia, at its focal end.  Here the life of the city pulsates, usually into the late night and often accompanied by fireworks, parades, and general festivities.  It is a beautifully shaded respite in the midst of colonial splendor.

The historical district from the hillside above

The historical district from the hillside above

The Jardin and the Parroquia Cathedral at Christmas

The Jardin and the Parroquia Cathedral at Christmas

One of the archways around the central Jardin

One of the archways around the central Jardin

Even a clown needs a shoeshine in the Jardin

Even a clown needs a shoeshine in the Jardin

We spent much of our time seeing old friends after the time spent away and enjoyed so much reconnecting with those who had been so critical to our experience in San Miguel in the past.  We were able to see a number of  friends from Santa Fe who have all moved to San Miguel over the years, including John and Marcia who have finally finished their ‘ready for Architectural Digest’ home.

We were also fortunate to stay in the rooftop apartment at ‘Melrose Place’, the 220 year old hacienda that had been our last home in San Miguel and the source of so much of our love of the community of gringos resident there. This also included a New Years Eve party in the courtyard that brought many together to celebrate there and then walk down the block to the Jardin for the fireworks as the clock ticked down.

The Melrose courtyard with string quartet

The Melrose courtyard with string quartet

The Melrose courtyard ready for New Years Eve party

The Melrose courtyard ready for New Years Eve party

Moonrise over San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Moonrise over San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

We also had lots of chances to eat again in favorite and new restaurants, and snuck away one early morning to have a bath at La Gruta, the wonderful hot springs fed spa close by with our friend Terry Baldwin, formerly of Santa Fe.

La Gruta

La Gruta

Our nine days and nights in San Miguel were absolutely wonderful and strengthened again the pull of that city as a future base for these rather nomadic wanderers.  It was more than difficult to pull ourselves away and return to the trail in Sayulita.

Sayulita on the Beach

From Punta Mita we have moved a few miles north to Sayulita, a rather classic Mexican beach town renowned for its waves, its restaurants and street food, even its rather charming ambiance and visual treats.

The long beach to the north

The long beach to the north

A long wall of street paintings

A long wall of street paintings

An unusual shopper

An unusual shopper

The quiet street just behind the beach

The quiet street just behind the beach

A young customer awaiting his street food

A young customer awaiting his street food

Pizza on the street--99 pesos for a large with unlimited toppings

Pizza on the street–99 pesos for a large with unlimited toppings

From the Canadian and American perspective it is a mix of those who are here for brief vacations, those who are here as ‘snowbirds’ for the winter, and those who are here to ride the waves either in Sayulita itself or off neighboring beaches, depending on the sets coming in each day.  Unlike so much of what we have seen in Mexico, the visitors here are at least half young surfers (and some not so young), almost all attired in nothing more than bathing suits and tattoos–lots of tattoos!

We spent the entire 12 days we had in Sayulita staying at a wonderful campground right on the beach and an easy walk of three or four blocks into the heart of town (and considerably less via the beach).

Beachside at the campground

Beachside at the campground

The land was bought 48 years ago by a German immigrant from Hamburg who came to Sayulita via first Canada, then the U.S., then Mexico City, always working for Coca-Cola as a machinist on their bottling equipment.  Still married to Christina, his Mexican wife, and at 78 still with a rapid wit and intelligence, he tucked us into ‘Vanagon Corner’ and made us more than warmly welcome (am sure Bonnie had something to do with this).

Vanagon Corner

Vanagon Corner

Our comfy campsite

Our comfy campsite

In addition to the camping sites, they also have perhaps twenty bungalows around the edges of the property.  Everything was full for the time we were there.

The campground itself is full of a wide variety of the visitors described above, with perhaps two thirds of the spaces taken by those who have been coming south to this campground for years, often leaving their motor homes or trailers here all year.  The various campers, trailers and small motor homes line each side of the campground down to the beach, leaving a wide lawn in the middle for the volleyball net, a long tiedown strap lashed tightly between two trees and inviting surfers to try their balance on the tightrope, and the afternoon boche game at 4PM daily and usually won by Christina.

The view from our campsite down to the ocean

The view from our campsite down to the ocean

The Veggie Man making his usual stop in the campground

The Veggie Man making his usual stop in the campground

We also had most of a morning with two couples traveling in ruggedized Land Rovers. It was really interesting to get the prospective of people for whom roads are not the only avenue of travel and whose vehicles are outfitted to take them anywhere and extract them from any difficulty.  They encouraged us to attend a rally of ‘Overlanders’ in mid May in Mormon Valley south of Flagstaff, Arizona.  We will see.  It would certainly be an interesting group.

Sandra "Overland" Young climbing down from their sleeping quarters

Sandra “Overland” Young climbing down from their sleeping quarters

Nogales to Sayulita

We crossed the border into Mexico at Nogales early on a Sunday morning without incident, though the contrast between the two sides of the border is always both stunning and stupefying no matter where you cross.  Dan was cleared for temporary importation about 20 kilometers south of the border at a major checkpoint heavily guarded by countless Federal Police in body armor with ski masks hiding their faces, each carrying an AK-47 and a pistol as well.  This was a familiar sight as we traveled south, though it became less frequent the further we got from the border.  Most of the checkpoints were set up for traffic going north toward the U.S., so we just sailed along.

Guaymas/San Carlos was our stop the first night and Mazatlan the next, the second day being a very long hard slog of about eight hours on the twisty coast road. The third day we arrived in the northern outskirts of Puerto Vallarta at a spot called Punta de Mita, famous for its enormous Four Seasons Resort, of which we saw only the main gate as we stopped to ask directions.

We had four wonderful days on Banderas Bay staying in the beautiful beachfront condo of old sailing friends Caren and Sam from San Francisco.  While there the remains of the big flotilla of sailboats that comes down from San Diego each November and is called the Baja Ha-Ha showed up anchored offshore directly in front of our building–26 sailboats in all including nine catamarans and reminding us once again of Icarus, our catamaran home on the Mediterranean for six years.

Icarus on the coast of Turkey

Icarus on the coast of Turkey

We swam, took long walks along the beach, and ate heaps of seafood after 3000 miles of driving since leaving Santa Fe ten days before.

Sunrise over Banderas Bay

Sunrise over Banderas Bay

The Baja Ha-Ha flotilla anchored offshore

The Baja Ha-Ha flotilla anchored offshore

No, we didn't eat all of this one.

No, we didn’t eat all of this one.

The view from the Edwards' condo.

The view from the Edwards’ condo.

The Start of it All

Let us tell you a little about our home on the road, our 29 year old Volkswagen Vanagon named Dan The Van. We have already done over 110,000 miles in him since buying him in 1991, have slept in him for well over a year in total, and have recently beefed him up for the rough roads of Mexico and beyond with a more powerful engine, a new and much more rugged suspension and a general cleanup and refitting of most of his important parts. Handsome fella, wouldn’t you say?

Dan after a little snow

Dan after a little snow

Having a look at Monument Valley

Having a look at Monument Valley

Getting comfortable for the night

Getting comfortable for the night

Ready to Cruise

Ready to Cruise

Ready to snooze

Ready to snooze

The kitchen setup

The kitchen setup

That said, he does nevertheless present surprises, sometimes at the most inopportune moments. There was a lot of preparation that went into leaving on this wander: a house and casita to rent in Santa Fe, New Mexico while both remained for sale; a much enjoyed job to finish and pass on to another in Dave’s case; and the final preparations and adjustments to Dan for the journey.

And that’s when Dan surprised us. We checked out the propane system it proved to be dangerously corroded after 29 years, and the water system simply didn’t work because the pump had died a quiet death from inactivity. Because of the Christmas rush, the parts supplier could not get the parts to us before we had to be out of the house for renters.

The only solution was to head for San Luis Obispo, California, get the parts from GoWesty and install them there before heading south for Mexico. So we began with a thousand mile detour to Central California where we installed the propane system and water pump, then finally turned south down the coast, through the Los Angeles basin (always a joy) and on at last to Del Mar north of San Diego where we enjoyed two days staying at our friends Tom and Sue’s place across from the ocean. We spent most of that time just relaxing, walking the beach, and stowing all the gear we had been carrying in boxes inside Dan for the trip into Mexico. That finished, we drove two more days from San Diego to our crossing at Nogales and were finally on our way for the wander.