MORELIA – SO MANY CHURCHES!

I don’t know why I thought Morelia was going to be a cute little town like Tequila. May be it is the name itself or that it is the migration point of thousands of monarch butterflies, but really the fact that it is the capital city of the  State of Michoacan should have clued me in!

As an exception, I decided to take the shorter route by going on the toll highway. It ended lightening my wallet by M$ 1,000 which to me is a lot of money. I do not convert into US or Canadian dollars, but compare it to my budget. M$ 1000 is one full tank of gas or about 1 and sometimes another  ½  day of driving; it could also be 4 to 5 days in a campground.  However, the free road usually runs parallel to the toll highway, and in my opinion is more picturesque, but in this case, it was weaving in and out, up and down and I thought it would add too much time to my driving day. Oh well.

Getting into the city centre was a breeze: straight through! I arrived late afternoon with a soft sun bathing the beautiful Cathedral and its plaza in a gentle glow.

I had decided to “pull a Tequila”, ie. spend the night parked in a little side road. Once again I was lucky to find the perfect spot, but a few blocks away from the Cathedral.

I tucked in the pets and went for a stroll. My first mission: find a post office and a bank. I was sent left, right and centre by conflicting directions but finally found the post office inside of the museum. The only reason I went in was to ask for directions and there it was! I sent my package registered and was told it will take about 20 days to reach Calgary. As long as it arrives, I thought!

After my stop at the bank I was ready to unwind. I picked up a few goodies off the street on my way home: Gazpacho is a town’s specialty. Finely chopped fruit mixed in with salt, chile and lots of juice. It was delicious. Then I had Churros, noodle-like donuts and finally I decided to try funny looking beans in their pods that you eat like you would edamame (they are called garbanzo beans if you are interested). They too were dowsed in spicy chile sauce. I got into the van and was not feeling too good. It must be all that chile I thought. I was positively dizzy and my body was quivering. When traffic eased up, I opened my bedroom window for fresh air and finally fell asleep.

The next morning, Marley and I went for a walk. I love our morning walks in cities. The sun is gentle, the streets are quiet but for the merchants opening their stalls. We came across a huge covered market in the process of setting up.

When we got back to the RV I was on a mission to find an internet café and post all my backed up articles. I knew that I would be traveling next to beautiful colonial towns and could not afford more delays in my posts. I googled and selected the closest opened cyber café and found it closed! On the way there, I noticed an Acupuncture business and went to inquire. It was set up in typical Mexican fashion, with a front like a garage space turned into a reception area. There was a wall and glass partitions separating the office to the public. The fees were M$ 250 for a consultation. Ok, cheap for a Canadian, but I wondered how expensive it would be to a local. I noticed many medical consultation rooms set up this way. I even saw a beautiful couch sitting in a narrow corridor and discovered that it was facing the door to an ophthalmologist’s office.20161221_111708

In many ways Mexico reminds me of France when I grew up, before the big mega superstores of every kind.  When you needed something you went to a small, specialized, family owned business. Papelerías are “papeteries”, where one buys anything to do with school and office supplies, paper supplies of any sort. The French “quincaillerie, crèmerie, fromagerie, ferrailleur, cordonnier…” all have their Mexican equivalents.

I even saw a Mexican “pet store” with fluffy bunnies and cute puppies alongside chickens and full sized turkeys!

I found a beautiful café with internet and sat down for a coffee, but we were unable to sign in, and the young waiter tried his hardest to help me connect. Disappointed I went on my way again. It was lunch time and I was close to a restaurant highly recommended by my guide book. At the very least I would have lunch I thought, but with luck I was able to connect to their Wi-Fi and spent a good 3 hours finally updating my website.

I decided to sample Michoacan’s specialty, the Aporreadillo:   a stew like dish, in which machaca — dried, shredded beef — is mixed up with scrambled eggs and served under a warm blanket of spicy tomato-chile sauce. It was delicious and with a bit of a kick, but just right! I decided to eat it French style, with a side order of rice (as opposed to rolled up in a tortilla). I love the way they cook their rice in Mexico, this one was pink and fragrant. I also treated myself to a nice glass of red wine. It turned out to be a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon. After I finished my meal, I wandered about the restaurant to discover that it had many rooms and hidden terraces. I was set up in the front room for the internet, but the rest of the place was much more inviting.20161221_170050

Commonly in restaurants, musicians would come in to serenade the patrons for a tip. It is actually quite pleasant.

It was late-afternoon when I got home and decided to take Marley for an evening walk and enjoy the town all lite up for Christmas. I got dizzy again and noticed that it was at about the same time as the night before. Curious, I thought, what can it be? Pollution I thought. And then it dawned on me! The RV is filled from exhaust and I had carbon monoxide poisoning! Oh my God, and the poor pets had been in this polluted environment all day! As soon as I turned the fan on to suck the air out, we felt better! So, note to self: when parked on the street, make sure I have my ventilation system on!

Off we went, in the setting sun, to the main plaza. We were greeted with live music, light displays, tourists happily meandering about and street vendors of every kind. It was wonderful.

I have never seen so many churches in one place than in Morelia. This is the Cathedral. After Guadalajara’s it was ok, and the old priest who looked bored out of his mind didn’t help.

Every street corner has a beautiful church. They are everywhere.  So on our evening walk, we followed beautiful archways to a courtyard facing yet another beautiful stone church. This square was lined with native arts and crafts and completely strung with traditional Mexican Christmas piñatas. It was beautiful.

We continued our jaunt unto the main plaza which was filled with nativity scenes, Christmas trees and light displays. I had brought my Go Pro camera which allowed me to take some beautiful wide angle shots of the Cathedral.DCIM100GOPROGOPR6176.

How lucky am I to not only visit beautiful towns, but during the holiday season to boot where everything becomes magical under the twinkling lights, street concerts, amped up street food selection and festive ambiance ?

We meandered about for a while and when I got hungry and tired I knew it was time to go home. I had noticed street kitchens under the arcades earlier and felt like having a large bowl of – non spicy – soup. Stove after stove had big pots of boiling broth. Some were white, others were in a tomato sauce, but upon investigation, they were all serving the same thing: Pozole! I had sampled some at the food fair with Nadine in Kino and we had not been impressed. It is made from what looks like large white corn kernels, but are very floury and bland in taste. Fine then, I will have the Pozole for dinner, “para yabar, por favor” (to go). I selected one whose broth looked rich and inviting. Once home, I poured it into a beautiful bowl and discovered that it was delicious, not spicy to boot – a winner!DCIM100GOPROGOPR6200.

Christmas was fast approaching and I was eager to get to my next destination, the one I would spend Christmas at: San Miguel de Allende. We woke up early to the sound of a hand bell. Someone was pacing the streets up and down ringing a bell, how curious. I was just about to take off when this man came about with his bell. I had to ask: what is it for? It’s for the garbage truck he responded. Oh I get it, they notify people to move their cars out of the way to allow the garbage truck down the narrow streets. I love it! Mexico is full of ancient traditions adapted to modern living!20161222_082937

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Kiki

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHRISTMAS, MEXICAN STYLE

I wish you all a merry Christmas in pictures:)

Feliz Navidad muchachos y muchachas!

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Kiki

 

 

GUADALAJARA

A good thing my campground was off the periferico boulevard because entering Guadalajara, the second largest metropolis in Mexico with 4.3 million people was a bit of a zoo. Thank God for Google Map to guide me because Gloria, my not so glorious GPS that day, insisted that I retraced my steps to take the paying highway (she gets all upset when I take the free road).

We settled in at the campground, a very quiet and shaded park, so I was comfortable leaving the pets in the truck during the day while I played tourist.20161218_095604

The next morning I took the direct bus to the old Guadalajara.  It was a 1 hour ride, but there was so much to see that it went very fast. When I got there, I had plans to visit a few monuments, perhaps a museum or two, but I got infected by the vibe of the place and decided to soak it in by just wandering the streets instead.20161217_152953 I did go to the famous cathedral and happened to be there for the noon mass. I must say there is something very special to enter a church and smell frankincense. They don’t use censers in many churches anymore and what a shame because it adds so much to the mystical experience.20161217_115635 The burning incense, the procession, the singing and the fervor of the congregation added to the grandiose structure of the cathedral itself was breathtaking. It was a magical experience for me and I took the time to thank my angels for my good fortune to be on this amazing journey.

Religion is big business is Guadalajara. Shops and stalls selling religious objects are everywhere. Stores specializing in garments for communions, baptisms and such were numerous. I saw a young girl coming out of the Cathedral, dressed like a bride, with veil and all, at her father’s arm. I am guessing this was a first communion?20161217_115417

Guadalajara had many plazas with beautiful official buildings, narrow busy merchant streets, open squares with the usual souvenir vendors. It was busy without being rushed and stressful like most big cities. I guess I stayed in the touristic area, so most people were enjoying themselves.

At one point I found myself inside a covered market and realized how huge it was when I saw upstairs floors. It was crowded and busy of a different kind. This is where the locals shopped. It was a little bit too much for me, too many people in very tight spaces! I am not used to that.

I have to say that for me part of discovering a new place is to sample to local foods. Guadalajara had many treats and I settled for a large cup of fresh fruit. I passed on the chili that is usually poured over everything you order, from chips to fruit!

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Can i have mine without bees por favor?

I had a really good time but after 4 hours of walking around I was ready to go home. I took the same bus I used to come in, but discovered that it took quite a bit of a detour into an adjacent little town before resuming its course on the boulevard I wanted. I got home at 6 pm.

Sunday market in Tonala:

I really enjoyed my time in Guadalajara and wondered if I should go back there for one more day. My guide book recommended the Sunday market in the suburb of Tonala so I decided to check it out.

After a 3 hour commute where I almost lost my cookie because of the hectic driving I finally arrived in the busy streets of Tonala.

The narrow streets were lined with stalls with awnings creating covered walkways. It was busy and relaxed at the same time. The flow kept moving making it difficult at times to stop and look at the merchandise. I was looking for the center plaza where I hoped to find a terrace for a quiet coffee and recuperate from my nausea, but there was no quiet to be found.

When I found the plaza, it too was completely covered and taken over by food stalls. So I decided to sample some of the local food. I had the “Orden” a slow fried mix of meats with onions and bacon (Amazing) served with of course Frijoles (beans) and tortillas. It was wonderful! I also sampled a meat taco dripping with juice and a large cup of fruit. The prices were very competitive compared to Guadalajara, but still more expensive than in the little villages on the side of the road. I did buy a few terracotta cookware typical of the region and new curtains for my mosquito netting.20161218_132313

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I bought this little piggy!

On a hunch I checked the map and discovered that Tonala was actually closer to my campground without having to go back to Guadalajara Centro. I also didn’t want to spend another 3 hours in buses. So I tried to get into a taxi. Well, that proved more difficult than I thought. I was turned down by 3 cabs because they would make more money running around Tonala than drive me to Guadalajara! While I was negotiating a cab ride, a family harangued me and offered me a ride for M$150, instead of the $250 the cabs wanted. By the way, there are no meters in cabs, so you better agree upon a price before setting off! I hopped into the car, with Teodoro, Sandra and their teenage daughter whose name escapes me. Teodoro wanted M$200 after looking at the map. At this point I just wanted to get home and it was still cheaper than the cabs, which didn’t want my business anyway. So off we went and chatted on the way. He kept teasing his daughter that she couldn’t chat with me in English after all the lessons she has been taking! He drove in typical Mexican fashion, weaving at high speed in and out of traffic, taking a shortcut and dropped me off in 26 minutes flat, when Google said it would take 45 minutes! I was just glad to be home in one piece.

I stayed at the campground the following day as I was quite tired and wanted to write my blogs. The internet service was so slow that I was unable to post anything. This internet issue is becoming quite a problem! When you have one, it is often so slow as being absolutely useless. When on the road or boon docking I am without internet, which means that I will post a whole bunch of articles at once when I am fortunate to get a good signal. So thank you readers for your patience and understanding:)

By subscribing, you will receive an e-mail notification each time I post something, so you don’t have to keep checking my site and get discouraged.

Also did you know that when you click on the content of the e-mail it will direct you to my website where you can click on the pictures to enlarge them for your viewing pleasure?

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

Kiki   20161217_144746

 

 

 

 

TEQUILA!

I arrived in Tequila early afternoon, plenty of time I thought to visit one of the many distilleries. I had selected Mundo Cuervo as my preferred choice for 2 reasons : It is the Jose Cuervo distillery, one of the largest and oldest in the world, and it is located right in the town’s main plaza. I had assumed, wrongly, that they would have a large parking area for the busloads of tourists and once parked I would be able to browse the town.

First of all I couldn’t find the plaza and got lost in narrow and poorly paved cobble stoned streets. When it became obvious that I was going in the wrong direction, I turned around and retraced my steps where I knew I must have missed my mark. On the way there, obviously lost, parked on the side of a busy intersection and with my map on my lap, a truck stopped near me and the driver asked me in English if he could help. He showed me the way and led me to an even narrower street saying “count 7 blocks and turn right, and 2 blocks and turn left”. One block into this road I was panicking a little with huge trucks coming my way, oh my, I thought, I’m never going to make it in one piece! Traffic relaxed a bit and I even stopped on the way to purchase a Santa Clause Piñata to give the truck a bit of a Christmas atmosphere.

The closer I got to the center the busier the streets. I asked for directions and knew I was close. If only I could park the RV I could just walk, I thought. By sheer miracle I found a parking space on the side of a typical narrow street that still allowed room for trucks to pass me by without scraping the RV. I got the pets settled in, and walked to the town’s main plaza, which happened to be only a few blocks away.

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Can you see Santa in the window?

The plaza was a large and beautifully decorated open space, lined with churches, cafés, boutiques and arched terraces.

I walked around in search of the Mundo Cuervo distillery and when I found it decided not to spend the money on a tour and be rushed through the last guided visit of the day, but go to the adjacent Tequila museum instead to learn about the process of making this wonderful beverage. My guide book had indicated that a small hacienda in a village outside of Tequila is always rated as number one by the visitors of the touristic Tequila Tours that abound in the region. This would be a better and cheaper choice I thought.

I decided instead to enjoy the sounds and sights of this wonderful town. While browsing I had noticed a tourist sipping a drink in an earthen ware jar. Interesting I thought. I also compared prices and with the help of pictures on menus I had decided to try the “carne en su jugo” a slow cooked meat in its own juice. It looked delicious!

When I found the place that was selling the mysterious drink in a clay pot, I treated myself to a Cantarito. First they put ice cubes at the bottom and sprinkle a few grains of coarse salt. Then comes the freshly pressed juice of half a lime, orange and grapefruit.  They poured in orange soda for fizz and a LARGE glass of tequila! But that is not all my friends, in true Mexican fashion Chili had to come in somehow, in a sweet granulated fashion. Give it a swirl and Voila! It was divine and dangerously deceptive! No wonder everyone looked so happy, they are all half drunk!

I slowly made my way to the restaurant I had selected for my dinner.

The waiter was very helpful in showing me how to eat this traditional meal Mexican style. You add the side dishes to the main one and roll a tortilla that you would eat in between spoonful of stew.

Even on its own the stew was very flavorful, but when the other ingredients, chopped fresh white onion, cilantro and avocado were added to the mix, it added quite a bit more contrast and was simply fun and delicious to eat.DCIM100GOPROGOPR6086.

I made my way “home” and decided that I might as well stay put and spend the night right where I was. I took Marley for his evening walk and discovered that I was close to another bustling shopping area. The night had fallen and I felt safe walking the busy boulevard with Marley by my side. What fun! I usually never go out after dark, but this felt very safe. I bought 2 cheap skirts, treated myself to a large glass of Coconut Frescada (half of it was finish the following night with Tequila!) and enjoyed the night scene of a small town such as Tequila. No tourists now, but lots of young people and it seems that’s when the general population do their shopping – when the sun is down. I got back to the RV it was only 7:30 pm!

The road I was on was very loud and busy and I had to keep the windows closed because of the exhausts, but after a while, I am guessing 10:00 pm it grew quiet and didn’t resurrect until 7:00 am the next morning, so we ended up having a good night sleep after all.

Because my parking spot was so perfect and I wanted to enjoy the town some more, I decided to treat myself to a coffee at the town square and take Marley with me.  We sat at one of the cafés lining the square and discovered that people were setting up booths for the week-end! Bonus I thought, I’m going to look for gifts and trinkets later on.

I eventually ordered breakfast, which came as I am discovering must be a Mexican fashion, with lots of extras in pretty side dishes. First came two pieces of buttered cinnamon-sugar toast. Yum!

My omelet arrived with a side of “frijoles” (slow cooked beans) and salsa of course!img-20161216-wa0000

I decided to follow the street alongside the Jose Cuervo building. As I was climbing up a pretty hill with picturesque homes, I happened to pass by the private gardens of the Cuervo distillery when the gardeners were there and they allowed me in to take some pictures.

I continued on my road, all the way to the dead end.

When I came back to the square, the market was in full swing. I found some wonderful pieces at a very reasonable price (much cheaper than in Guadalajara).

We were just a few hours outside of Guadalajara and I wanted to allow plenty of time to find my campsite on the outskirt of town as well as visit a distillery on the way.

It was a spur of the moment thing, when I saw the ample parking space in front of the Tres Mujeres Tequila distillery, to stop for a tour. I discovered to my great surprise that it was free! Even better!

Here is my guide, Christina, is showing me how tall the agave plant can get. This one is only 3 years old. They are usually harvested when they are 8 years old. I enjoyed my private tour. In the cellar where they mature the tequila in oak barrels from France, classical music was playing to relax the wine. I then sampled the different quality of Tequila, dependent on how long it was aged.

The Blanco (white) Tequila is unaged while the Tequila Reposado (rested) has been aged for 3 months and there is already a distinct difference between these two stages.

The Tequila Añero (vintage) came in 3 years or 8 years of maturity (black label).

In the store, the best vintages were sold at over $100 and are best savored neat as you would a good Bourbon. I wanted to recreate the Cantarito I had in Tequila, so I bought the cheapest one. No need to mix the good stuff with fruit juice! I learned that you can add Tequila to Chocolate milk, but I am sure chili and such is added to the mix as well. Margueritas here are with pomegranate juice – I have yet to sample a true Mexican Marguerita – something I look forward to doing, may be while sitting at another picturesque town square?

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!DCIM100GOPROGOPR6076.

Kiki

 

 

 

 

 

 

TEACAPAN – TWO WEEKS IN PARADISE!

I spent two idyllic weeks in Teacapan, a small fishing community west of Escuinapa. Thanks to my trusted book on camping in Mexico I was able to find this campsite on the beach, which was practically empty except for Bob and Gayle from Colorado who winter there each year. We were joined later on by two other couples from Banff of all places! Instead of telling you how beautiful it was, let me show you!

I had the pleasure of meeting the gringo community there and was invited at different events.  Gayle took me into town a few times to replenish my groceries and I was invited to join Judie and herself for the Milk Run they were doing the following week, which I gladly accepted.

This is what I learned in the few hours I spent in the company of Judie and Gayle:Once a week ladies from the gringo community will distribute milk and cookies provided for by the Mexican government. This is intended to help the native community and as I discovered this venture is faced with many obstacles. First of all most of the children do not go to school, so a school program would not even reach them. Most of them, particularly the boys, are sent to work in the fields as early as 10 years old, despite the law that forbids child labor.  The other problem is that this population is a transient one that follows crop harvesting around the country. They usually arrive in Teacapan around October and stay until April, when they will pile onto buses, with their many children and all their belongings to the next area offering work. They will either settle into abandoned or half built homes, or will be charged an exorbitant rent for something a little better. Many families return to the same dwelling year after year, but not always, making it difficult for the volunteers to locate them.

The indigenous people are a distinctive population. They are small in stature, with a very dark coppery skin. One group had fine features with a hooked nose, while another group was shorter still with rounder features.

The gringo community is very involved here and does a lot of good. It organizes a Christmas dinner for the indigenous families. It was during such an event last year that a family asking for a piece of wood to secure their wooden shack was generously gifted a brick house a gentleman paid for himself. The expats also organize a golf tournament to raise funds for the dental clinic. Two dentists from Boston have been coming to Teacapan for years to offer their services to the population for free. The gringos joined the venture organizing a fundraiser to keep the clinic running and to feed the population during the event.

The brick house the young family was gifted was small, kept very clean and tidy and reminded me a lot of the little house, not much bigger, my paternal grandfather Manuel received from the government when he retired from the coal mines in central France.20161208_085919-2

Another family we visited lived in a 2 room brick house with a straw mat on the floor for mattress where they would all sleep together. Three children lived there that we saw. This house by comparison was very dirty and unkempt.20161208_101303

But the poorest of the poor lived in wooden lean-tos, shacks with dirt floors, with the cooking area outside.20161208_092334

Wherever we went, be it a brick or wooden house, lean-to or shack, all of them had one thing in common: an altar to the Lady of Guadalupe, the patron Saint of Mexico, beautifully and colorfully decorated with a Christmas theme. Sometimes the only light in the house being the garland lights around the altar.

The other interesting thing I found in a village with a population of 40,000 was the number of religious institutions and bible study groups. Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, Christians, all have churches here.

My time in Teacapan was relaxing, but I soon started itching for the road and the discovery of what was just around the bend.

I was excited to start the next stretch of my trip, the colonial towns in the Altiplano (Highlands) of western Central Mexico!

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Kiki

I AM SUCH A SPOILED WESTERNER!

There is nothing like traveling to a third world country to realize how spoiled one has become!

The first time I came to realize this I was parked on the side of the street in Navojoa. Having noticed a truck selling corn, I congratulated myself f on my lucky find, thinking of the excellent corn on the cob dinner I would have that night. I approached the back of the truck, picked an ear of corn and started peeling the husk.  The top was grainy and “wormy” I found. Well I thought, normal they don’t use pesticides the way we do, but I can get past that. I kept on peeling until I saw the curled up body of what I thought was a snake because of the way it was curled and its stripes! I screamed! Instantly the young man came and plucked the bug with 2 fingers making me realize that it probably was just a fat caterpillar! But the harm was done! I turned around in shame for my stupid reaction, and missing my Monsanto GMO corn so much!

Then I was surprised to remember that grapes actually do have seeds!

Grocery shopping is also quite the eye opener, especially in small towns. The limitation of fresh vegetables and fruit is very surprising. I would have thought that poorer countries would have more fresh produce and less canned goods, but I was wrong.  A typical grocery store would have a few and sometimes not so great looking selection of greens. Some carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans are surprisingly popular here, but no lettuce, no dark leafy greens of any kind. You might find limp looking broccoli, or perhaps a cauliflower. You quickly learn to get what you can get. No 10 varieties of bell peppers to choose from here! No need to ponder if you want to steam kale over spinach for dinner! I have to say though that the lack of lettuce, which to me is one of the easier things to grow, is surprising. The only kind you seem to find here is the disgusting (in my spoiled opinion) iceberg lettuce and it comes from California! What? They can’t grow lettuce in Mexico that they have to import American ones?

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Delicious shrimp fresh from the fish market!

I thought that being vegetarian (pescatarian is more accurate) would be a breeze here, but tofu is unheard of, even at Walmart. Frozen fish is hard to find and I have yet to find frozen shrimp.

The comfort foods that one has become accustomed to find in Canada are nowhere to be found and you are left wondering what you will munch on for tea or a snack? You try to adapt by buying local deserts, pastries and such and find them extremely lacking in taste, texture and sometimes hygiene.   I can understand why people who travel for a long time would sometimes stop at a MacDonald’s for a taste of home!20161220_154704.jpg

Ah, the pleasures of traveling and sampling the local food. It is to me a big part of experiencing a country. Until one morning while making coffee you are overcome with an unfamiliar feeling… What just happened? OMG I think I just shat my pants!palm-tree

 

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!november-2016

Kiki

 

 

DEMYSTIFYING MEXICO

Mexican Roads:

Let’s start by the most obvious, since I have read so many warnings about Mexican roadways and their poor and dangerous conditions. I must say the books I’ve read must be outdated because since crossing the border I have been pleasantly surprised by both Mexican toll highways and the free roads. You can tell by the sheer number of renovations, repaving or the plowing of new roadways that Mexico is heavily investing in their road network. Their tourism economy depends on it. With better and better highways, RVs are now able to travel further and further south, generating a welcome influx of income to otherwise dormant fishing villages. On the other hand, this boom is slowly changing the face of Mexico. Typical ocean side villages that appealed so much to travelers wanting to experience quaint and genuine Mexico are now turning into touristic resorts with RV campgrounds, hotels, boutiques, in short all the bells and whistles expected to be found in destination locations, to the grief of many old-timers that have been traveling these roads well before they were on the map.

However, no matter how well paved roads are, they remain Mexican in their quirkiness. Signs reducing the speed limit on the highway to 60 km/h and sometimes 40 km/h appear out of nowhere and no sign to resume speed ever appear! At first I was the only one obeying the signs, now I drive Mexican style, following the flow around me! I gathered that they were placed when the road was being worked on and never removed. That’s the only explanation I have for this weird phenomenon.  The other incongruous thing are the “vibratores” , speed stripes on the road that appear where nothing warrants their presence – no bus stops, no town or village in sight, no buildings… forcing you to suddenly reduce your speed. Sometimes they do have a purpose and are signaled in advance, but many times they would appear out of nowhere and without warning.

The Mexican government has the policy that for every toll highway there is a free option. It very often rides parallel to the paying highway and would typically enter small towns that the toll road bypasses. Paying the toll does not guarantee quality of the road and many times I’ve been stuck in traffic because of road work. If you don’t mind taking a bit of a detour, the free option often is in as good a driving condition as the toll road and definitively more picturesque. A caveat though, makes sure your rig can maneuver the narrow and convoluted streets of some of the villages along the way. Harvey gave me an excellent advice regarding this: look where the commercial trucks go – do they take the toll highway or do they turn off at the free road? This will tell me if the free option is a viable one for me. I also noticed many of the local buses will take the free road, of course because they service all the little towns. This has been a good indicator of how safe the free sections are to drive on. By the way, those buses are to be watched for: they drive with no regards for speed limits, safety or passing lanes! I am terrified of them and when I see one in my rear view mirror I purposefully slow down and get out of their way!

Speaking of passing, Mexicans have a different way of doing it, even when there is a passing lane, and often when there are none, and with no visibility whatsoever. On a 2 way road, each side of the traffic would ride straddling the shoulder yellow line, thus leaving a middle lane for passing. Traffic in both directions would use this “passing” invisible lane, sometimes at the same time putting everyone in their path in danger!

The other things Mexican roads have are “topes”. Big speed bumps usually at the entrance of towns or near bus stops. They are big and can be very damaging to a vehicle undercarriage if you do not slow right down. Because of this feature, topes have because the sight of many roadside vendors, some of them with little booths on the side of the road, others just standing on top of the topes and approaching you with their wares. The first time I saw one, I was famished. This woman was selling hot cheese burritos and I found myself at a standstill straddling the topes to talk price with her. Unfazed, traffic just moved around us. This being my first encounter with street vendors and still not familiar with the price of things, I drove off without buying anything and  later on beat myself up for it when I found out how cheap this hot meal would have been.

I now always have some change with me in the cabin for such occasions. Very often people sell fruit, homemade tortillas, tamales, burritos, still hot from the kitchen. Others sell pimentos, drinks or newspapers. Another great location to do some shopping are the toll stations. Local artisans will sell their crafts and wares and I even found a guy selling USB charged with thousands of Mexican music. I bought two: one  with popular music, the other one with more traditional Mexican songs, in the George Brassens and Jacques Brel poetic style of singing. It is actually a good way of learning Spanish while entertaining me during long drives. I hesitated getting a truly folkloric compilation, but there is only so much Mariachi music one can take!

Speaking of traditional music I have a little trivia for you. Guess what is the most common musical instrument you will hear in Mexican music? You hear it at night in the campgrounds, through people’s car windows, in villages. It is used in folklore, but also in pop music. It is, I would say the most loved instrument in Mexico. No, it is not the guitar. No, neither is it the trumpet. Care to make another guess? The tuba my friends! Not a particularly pleasing sound either as it seems to always strike the same 2 notes, but it is the bass behind every song!

Mexico is not cheap:

Since we are demystifying some popular misconceptions about Mexico, let’s talk about money! Mexico is not cheap. Not anymore. The price of gas is equivalent to the one in Canada – which bears asking the question as to how can Mexicans afford to drive at all on their modest salaries? Tolls are very expensive and so many that by the time you reach your destination you have parted with quite a chunk of money. Between Alamos and Mazatlan, there were no less than 6 tolls. Usually the fee is calculating according to the number of axles your vehicle has. For me, with 2 axles, it costs about M$110, but driving to Mazatlan, and sometimes for a 15 minute stretch of road, I had to pay double that! Adding the price of gas, driving days are very costly.

Campgrounds have become so popular that the claimed $2 a night campsites in some books have long disappeared and the average cost for an RV, with all hook-ups is an average of M$400 (that’s about $26 CDN). The boon docking beach I am currently at, with no service and no hookups whatsoever is costing me M$107 a night or $7 CDN. That’s more like it but these treasures are hard to find and want to be kept so by the regulars.

Hence my constant search for safe and cheap camping sites. I am discovering some unexpected options. Sometimes I would drive 2 days in a row to get to my destination. I might stay on the parking lot of a Sam’s or Walmart if I am near a town.  I also found myself on the side of the road at a truck stop, but would not do that again. It was too loud, and the trucks that I thought would be there for the night and “protect” me drove off and I found myself alone and exposed. Not a good feeling.20161118_170156

Parking at a Pemex gas station is always an option. It will be very noisy and you will have to tip the attendant, but it will be safe. However, I found another solution. On the free road to Culiacan I noticed big fenced complexes baring the title of “Motels”.

One night I decided to go and ask for sanctuary to the guard, asking if I could park inside their gates for the night. I was ready to tip him for this privilege. First of all my rig was too high and wouldn’t fit through the gate. I was told that it would be safe to park in front of the gates as they are watched by camera 24/7. The added bonus is that most of such motels are professionally landscaped, making it a pleasant site to park and let the pets out for a bit before dark. The guard even refused my tip! Because it was a bit off from the road and it not being a busy highway, I slept very well.  The Mexican “motel” concept is quite unique. Once you are through the gates all you see are garage doors! Do people sleep in their cars? I wondered. But upon closer inspection you can see that the back of the garage or the side of it, has a door opening into a very small building, probably just big enough for a bed and small bathroom.  The price of the units varied from M$260 to M$400 a night, which, even to Mexican standard is very cheap. They seem to be very popular and I can see why. Your vehicle and belongings are safe and out of prying eyes. The gated enclosure with security guard and cameras are a good deterrent against night rogues. The high walls will also block out the noise from the highway and ensure a good night sleep. It’s all round perfect!

To tip or not to tip?

The art of knowing when and how much to tip, as well as the art of haggling is an acquired skill and it takes time. I come from a country where people offer to help you and do not expect a tip for their help. Here everything has a price. I do not know if this custom started by gringos offering to tip in order to help the obviously more destitute population, or if this has always been a local custom, but sometimes it gets to me. What about human kindness and doing it just because you can, not because you expect remuneration from it? Also, I do not know if by offering a tip I will offend a person or not. Like the good water truck driver who pulled me out of trouble. Ray kindly reminded me to tip him and suggested M$100. Ok, cheaper that calling a tow truck I guess, but by the same token had you asked your neighbor in Canada to come and help, he would not have charged for the service. Again, I am getting acquainted to the cultural differences. The reason why I am so stingy with my money, and this time the misconception is the other way around – Mexican assumes that all gringos are rich. I am sure that the concept of working 60 hours a week to pay loans, bills and mortgages escapes them completely.  As well as the idea that most travel gypsies such as myself, sold everything to enjoy the simpler lifestyle that they themselves are enjoying is beyond their comprehension.  They too are becoming conditioned to strive for a more continental lifestyle and to look up to the American culture to the point of naming their children with English names they can’t even pronounce themselves!  I look at Antonio and his wife Veronica, the caretakers of this idyllic campsite i am staying at right now and think: “man, what a perfect job!” There is no pressure, you work outdoors, it is calm and relaxing”. They may not make a lot of money by our standards, but they are not lacking in anything either.  I know I might offend some people with my perhaps ignorant comments here, but I think that I am voicing a more and more common complaint that life in North America is not the end all be all. The price to pay can be too high for some and there are no guarantees. Many of the people I meet on the road, particularly couples that live fulltime in their RV are doing so because they cannot afford to retire in the States or in Canada!

Cartel: Danger or safety?

The question of the Cartel presence in an area is prone to disagreement depending on who you talk to.

Some advise to avoid certain areas and not stay overnight in some towns known for their cartel affiliations, yet others would claim that the cartel protects gringo populated areas because of the benefits they bring to that region. Expats are investing in properties, using local workers and supplies, and are also supporting the community by organizing milk runs and fundraisers. I am sure the cartel also wants to avoid unwanted attention that a crime against a gringo would bring to a region they would prefer remained unnoticed by the authorities.

So what is one to think? Remaining cautious and aware is a good policy. Heed warnings about areas to avoid with diligence without falling prey to paranoia would be my advice. Otherwise your ability to enjoy your visit in Mexico, or any country with a drug presence would be completely debilitated. Each country has a problem factor, a crime area, a danger zone. It might not be cartel, but it could be vandalism, robbery, home invasions…  Listen to the locals, to the gringos that are familiar with the territory and then make your own experience, but with your eyes wide open.  For this very reason and after hearing some stories I decided to add extra protection around my camp by adding men’s shoes and clothing to my perimeter! The local expats were happy to help! So now if someone is sniffing around and sees me alone, it might be a simple deterrent to have a male presence in the form of shoes by the door and large shorts hanging on the clothing line. One never knows!

That being said, the kindness and hospitality of the Mexicans I have met is heartwarming. I have never felt but welcomed and protected and this is another reason why I feel very, very blessed on this trip.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

20161215_114445Kiki

 

 

RESCUED IN MAZATLAN

I took a conservative 2 days drive from Alamos to Mazatlan. One can perceptively see the difference in vegetation as you cross the Tropic of Cancer. Everything got greener and more lush as I kept driving south. I arrived at Mazatlan Playas early afternoon.  I met a gentleman at an RV park who gave me two options for dry camping in this northern part of town. The first was at the very end of Avenida Sábalo Cerritos, where apparently an Argentinian camped there for 2 weeks without being bothered by the police. It is right in front of a restaurant, he said and you’ll have wifi. The second was to find one of the many roads leading to the beach off an unpaved avenue right next to the train tracks.  Since I wanted quiet and privacy after 2 days on the road, I chose the latter. I found a side road leading to a bluff overlooking the beach. I decided to walk it first for safety, checking for things such as is it wide enough for the truck? Is there room to turn around? Is it level enough for me to park? Is it safe? Satisfied with my deductions I started to drive down the path to find myself stuck in the deep sand just a few meters away!  The one thing I forgot to check was the ground. Because of vegetation it seemed hard enough, but once engaged I discovered too late that the sand was quite deep in places! Undaunted I figured this was just a minor setback and that I was going to shovel my way out of this jam in no time at all!

It was a good thing that a gentleman saw me turn off and was waiting to see how I fared. I came out and asked for help: I am stuck! I said.

Well, he replied, you seem like a pretty resourceful woman. Do you have a shovel? I am pretty sure I do, I replied, wondering if his comment about my resourcefulness meant he was going to leave me fend by myself. We introduced ourselves. Ray is Canadian from Vancouver and owns the Surf’s Up Café down the road. I’ll be back with a shovel he said and off he went.  I desperately tried to shovel my way out, but the truck had sunken too deep in the sand. Bother, what I am to do? And still no sign of Ray… Oh well I can sleep here and figure it out in the morning I thought. But what do I see coming but Ray, followed by a big water truck! My savior! After a few pulls and a tip to the truck driver, I was safely back on the road. Evening was fast approaching and Ray kindly offered that I parked the truck on his property. The café is closed for the next couple of days, why don’t you stay there? You will be safe. I gladly accepted and followed him. I was greeted by a wrought iron gate leading down a long driveway. On the left was the café and on the right was the house – overlooking the beach! What an incredible property. The view was splendid, the buildings beautiful, Ray and his lovely wife Linda had found a piece of paradise and had called it home for 6 years now.

They allowed me to use their electricity and fill up my water tank in the morning. I also used their wifi signal to upload my blog on Alamos. This was a very wonderful and unexpected respite. What a blessing to have met Ray and Linda.

At around noon the next day I decided to leave my hosts and visit Mazatlan. I was looking to find the Malecón, the longest boardwalk in Mexico but couldn’t. I was concerned about not being able to park but was surprised to find the main beach completely empty and the avenue not busy. I parked right there and went for a walk.

Mazatlan is a beautiful ocean resort, with its many hotels, ocean side condominiums, souvenirs shops and many restaurants. I found it very windy and the waves would crash in thunderous clamor. After a few hours of playing tourist, I was anxious to settle down somewhere quiet for the night. Instead of seeking out the city center and the eluding Malecón, I decided to check option number one on Avenida Sábalo Cerritos. I expected the road to end into a parking area next to a restaurant, but instead found that it ended abruptly at the beach and that parking was on either side of the road. To my right it was lined with typical Mexican restaurants overlooking the beach and across the way was a row of souvenir shops. Since I was told that this was a safe area to sleep through the night I parked the RV and went for a walk on the beach with Marley. The place was beautiful, with jutting rocks, crashing waves and an amazing view.

The many restaurants were very appealing and the shops inviting. I spent the following hours browsing the area and decided to treat myself to dinner. I sampled a tostada of seafood, which was delicious – and a bowl of seafood soup which was not so great. There were too many sea snails in it and I must say, as a French girl I prefer my snails with butter and garlic! The broth was ok but paled in comparison to the soup Nadine and I sampled at the Food Fest in Bahia de Kino.

While having diner I watched newlyweds getting their pictures done on the beach. Theirs was a simple intimate affair with just the immediate family attending. Later they would feast on the lower terrace and I looked at the platers the cook would bring out, curious to see what locals have for their wedding dinner. The night was quiet and uneventful. Twice police cruisers patrolled the area without bothering me.

The next morning I woke up at 5:30am to the sound of fishermen parking their beat up trucks all around me to start their day’s work. I got concerned that I would not be able to get out of my parking spot and I was anxious to leave to my next destination. So, after making coffee, I took Marley for a walk on the beach and see if I had room to manoeuver out of my spot. A group of fishermen were leaving already so I harangued them asking if they had caught shrimp in the hope that I might buy some, but they answered they were out for oysters.

I didn’t see much of Mazatlan as I stayed mostly in the northern part of the town and avoided the city center, but I got an appreciation for its resort vibe and can see why it is a popular destination for tourists, be they foreigners or Mexicans.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

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20161129_133802   Kiki

ALAMOS

I fell in love with Alamos. First of all you will understand why when you see where I was staying for 4 days.

I arrived in the former mining town by mid-afternoon. With my trusted “Mexican Camping” book in hand I stopped my RV on the side of the main Plaza to ask for directions. When I heard the Police siren I got worried that I was going to get a ticket for my botched parking job, but instead I got an escort to my destination. A good thing too because I would never have found it on my own.

El Rancho Acosta greeted me in all its splendor: tall palm trees lining an inviting swimming pool and terrace, shaded RV sites, a huge and beautifully cared for property, clean facilities: I was delighted and when I heard the price $10 USD with no hook-ups or $15 USD with electricity I thanked my angels even more. To top it all, I was the only guest there – I had the whole place to myself and the pets were free to roam! I would say that within one month this ranch will be crammed with families, screaming children and yappy little dogs. I was counting my blessings!

The first thing I did was to go for a swim and then have a hot shower and wash my hair. Luxury! I decided that the next day I was going to stay at the ranch. The entire day I followed the shade around the pool and uploaded all the blogs I had saved in my computer, waiting for a wifi connection.

The next day I walked around the beautiful town for 6 hours and loved every minute of it.

Alamos found its glory in the 1700’s in the silver mining industry. It was at one time a wealthy colonial town. When the surrounding mines closed it virtually became a ghost town until the late 1950”s when wealthy Americans and Canadians with an eye for character buildings invested money to renovate some of the gorgeous buildings. Little by little the town returned to its former glory. One can peek through the gates to see the interior courtyards and gardens. This boom has now attracted wealthy Mexicans as well as lots of retired gringos, not all of them rich, but all of them attracted by the charm of Alamos.

Contrary to San Carlos where Americans seemed to have imposed their lifestyles, Alamos is very much an authentic Mexican town.  I relished discovering street food, browsing souvenir stalls and pretty shops. This is where I met a lovely lady (we never introduced ourselves) whose boutique showcased a lot of traditional work by local ladies. When I asked where she was from she answered from all over the place. After traveling extensively she decided to retire in Alamos. Her pension does not allow her to retire is the States (a very common complaint I am discovering). Here, she said, I pay $250 to rent a 2 bedroom apartment in a lovely villa, with a pantry (it sounded like a luxury the way she said it) and a terrace. She told me that she doesn’t do anything by the book. She is not a Mexican citizen, doesn’t have a permit for her shop and doesn’t even have a driver’s license – but here, she adds, nobody cares. She was pulled over by the police the other day, she explained, who asked her for her papers. Oh they are at home, I forgot them, she replied. Where do you live? they asked. In Alamos she said. Oh, in that case you may go, came the answer. She said that her neighborhood can be a little loud at times (but I’ve discovered, anywhere you go, things liven up at night. Mexicans love music and they love it loud!) She also said that the temperatures in the summer in Alamos where brutal.

For this reason, I read that a lot of retirees prefer to summer in the interior mountains and winter on the Mexican coast.

I followed a pretty cobbled street that led me into a beautiful neighborhood and in search of a private bathroom I discovered Teresita, which is probably the most expensive restaurant in the city. The oasis that greeted me from the heat as well as the inviting menu of Boeuf Bourguignon was a welcomed reprieve. I sat for a coffee and made sure to take a picture of the facilities for my friend Reg.  As a joke we decided to collect pictures of facilities along my route to eventually make a poster. The idea had come to me after seeing a similar poster at the Travel Clinic in Calgary.

A Mexican gentleman on a bicycle had struck a conversation with me on his way home. He spoke perfect English and told me that he works for an American family here in town. He lived in the States for 35 years and sometimes has to go back upstate to look after the family’s estate in Arizona. He lives with his mother on the outskirt of town and he was the one to tell me to find the church plaza. I am glad he did because at first glance one can assume that the main plaza is it. After talking with him I meandered the streets and discovered beautiful mansions, restaurants, hidden gardens and found the old colonial church and its plaza.

I was looking to purchase authentic, hand-made traditional clothes or artifacts.

20161125_133122 At the town entrance there was a gallery of such but I had found the prices to be really too high. However in town, all they had were machine made replicas of the beautiful embroidery style of the region. I was disappointed. The American shop owner had mentioned that a woman had a stall of embroideries she makes herself a few streets down and that her prices were reasonable. I soon found out that the lady in question was in Hermosillo for a fair and wouldn’t come back until the night, but if I was really interested, my interlocutor being her sister, she would let her know to come to my campsite in the morning with her wares. Definitively yes! I said.

Sure enough at 8:00 am like promised Linda and her son arrived in a little car jammed with beautiful artwork. Framed embroideries, pillows, men’s shirts but unfortunately no dresses. I loved the frames but decided that it would be too heavy in the truck, or for me to mail as gifts, so I bought an exquisite cushion for my bed. Every time I look at it I smile.

I was enjoying my stay at the Ranch so much that I decided to stay one more day than anticipated. This also gave me the opportunity to go back into town and purchase a mosquito net for my bed. I have been unable to find another Zapper! Marley – you little…! I also discovered Cocos Preparados (prepared coconuts)! A feast of spicy, salty and tangy flavors all wrapped into one!

I left Alamos, thinking that yes, I definitively can see why so many retirees call it home.

I was now on my way to Mazatlan, a conservative 2 day drive for me.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

november-2016   Kiki

 

 

COCORIT

I was parked for the night on the town square in Cocorit, right across from the pretty white church. This gave me a unique opportunity to see firsthand the life of a typical small Mexican town.

Cocorit wakes up at 6:00 am to the sound of advertising from a little truck blaring his message around town, the roosters were soon to follow. Then, the first city bus arrives. Children in their school uniforms start crowding the streets. At every corner, street sweepers appear with their brooms and are busily at work. The larger the area to sweep, the bigger the broom made out of long supple palm leaves.

At 6:30 am a tin bell sounds the morning service and old women wrapped in hand-knitted shawls hurry to church. By the time 8:00 am comes around, things seems to have settled into the routine of the day. An old gentleman comes to the square to water his rose bushes that he carries in a cart behind his bicycle. Women sit on the benches and chat the morning away.

The town will spring into life again when night falls, which is early around 5:30 pm. By 7:00 pm the plaza is full again; of youngsters gathering and listening to music, young couples holding hands and families meeting around benches to socialize with their neighbors. And then, as suddenly as it started, everyone goes home, and the town grows silent.

palm-tree

Until next time my new road amigos!

Please subscribe, tell your friends and add your comments:)

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Au plaisir de la route!

november-2016

Kiki