The decision to drive isn’t taken lightly. I wanted and want to paint and to bring my easel and paints with me and in the end that tipped the scale.
Nice new car to go in with almost no miles. Maybe ought to fly …
From Maine on the border with Canada to San Cristobal Chiapas on the border of Guatemala where we have just been is three thousand miles anyway. So check out your car first. El Borro our 2002 Jeep Cherokee. We went for a check up at the local dealer. No way is it safe to drive they said for $150. 163,000 miles on it then. Trade it in on a new car. Our local mechanic put $1500 in the exhaust and some other items and it has driven absolutely (almost) perfectly. Of course it is pretty dull being on the highway all this time, some seventeen days so far. You have to like to drive. We also took the East Coast gulf route as far as Vera Cruz which is not mountainous or full of zig zags on the mountain’s edge. Auto also allows one to pack up things it might be hard to ship or carry, like easels and paints and for a long trip, six months we plan, enough clothes. On the coast it is warm but in San Cristobal it is pretty cool, high enough to be in the clouds mostly. And it is a great way to find time to listen to audio books. Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea, a historical drama of vast proportion about planters and slaves and revolution in what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti and then Louisiana in the late 1700s and Great Books How to Understand Classical Music have made for an interesting trip. Also one can vary one’s plan.
Anticipating driving in Mexico…Do i really want to?
Crossing the Border at McAllen Texas you get across, noone asks for your passport or anything and you find you are in Mexico but it is a kind of a ten mile no man’s land. You can’t bring a car in without insurance and if you don’t have it and have an accident you wait in jail for the case to be done, I am told. [A situation I am sure most any of the 130,000 undocumented illegal immigrants trapped and living in the “golden cage” of the Rio Grande Valley between the Mexican American Border and unable to move beyond one hundred miles north and the 300 Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California Checkpoints for fear of deportation or other consequences if caught.
So my friends go to Sanborn’s the preeminent insurer which has insurance outlets close to every crossing. ($300 for basic liability for us) Once across there is a sign on a building somewhere you probably will see if you are looking out for it a sign for Immigracion but it is easy to miss and I guess you get picked up fifty miles down the line and have to come back. There after paying $300 you get back only if you return with the car you get a six month tourist visa. This is not very hard but still once you are across the border not many people speak much English at all. The basic words are similar in both languages but the speaking only deceptively similar. It is good to have a phrase book or dictionary or both. And of course a map or maps. We have a Garmin Nuvi GPS but it is all mixed up in the cities and the familiar voice leads one on wild goose chases to streets it says you are on but which don’t exist and when they are for real they are one way the wrong way so you could not take them if you wanted. Not a lot of help.
The Ancient Pyramids of San Antonio, Texas
Best to have some pesos before you cross the border as it is not always so easy to find somewhere trusttworthy immediately to change American money. The exchange rate now is good, 16 pesos to the U.S. dollar. (Although prices seem to have gone up in Mexico to keep them actually the same) Travelers checks no longer good. So get a City Bank or Bank of America credit card. You can then make withdrawals on your American account at the correspondent Mexican Bank ATM. But make sure your American Bank knows you are going to be using your travel bank card ahead of time or the ATM machine will have an automatic block with requires some real time on the phone with the Bank’s international help number to fix. Also your cell phone won’t work out of the country unless before you go you add a plan for the country you will be in. ‘There is a code to call go the US, “00″.
And of course before you leave, there are a lot of other plans to make like where to board your dog and cat. Plan on your loyal friend who says she will take your dog to tell you at the last minute she can’t and have a Plan B. And of course there is the taking care of the house issue. Last trip where this blog broke off in 2014, we had a lovely guy take care of the house, his only job to keep the freezers plugged in. Of course he did not and we lost $3.000 plus on organic lamb we had been freezing from our sheep …
THE GULF COAST – EAST:
Swaying coconut palm trees, cattle ranches, a long highway ahead, and behind.
Lots of oil refineries in towns on the Gulf. … Not for the coconut oil, which is also plentiful and great for hair and skin and very much available … The first day we made it to Tampico. An oil refining town, and busy and hard to get into at night. They say not to drive at night at all in Mexico so best start planning where to stop and find a place by 4pm.
Spreading Jacaronda trees, generously broad at the top, with red blossoms. Under this natural ceiling, everyone who does not have a double length tractor trailer truck or who is not driven by taxi or three wheel tuk tuk has a motor bike, darting in and out and around.
Sugar cane fields …
Not Unytypical driving situation
The next day we made Miniatitlan and neary Cuatzacualcos where we spent one night. Very indigenous population but very industrial town. Seems very hard working. We kept driving too long and have to come into town to find a motel or hotel after dark. Kind of like driving into the outskirts of New York City. First getting in, many streets going one way, a lot of sound all the time, horns, beeps, radio music, and the recurrent loud speaker vehicle. Finding a hotel with safe parking for a car not too hard but not to easy either, especially on a weekend. However, once found, the accommodation usually was good, with breakfast, desayuno, to boot.
Eventually we got to Vera Cruz and stayed again at El Faro Hotel, The owner, remembered us from two years ago very well. One of these gentlemen with a charming smile that registers for a long long time. It was good to see him again. We had breakfast at the famous La Paroquia, full of families eating with relish and fervor as Marimba players and other musicians feted anyone willing to pay a few pesos, all before murials depicting the pre colonial and colonial history of Mexico – on the one hand, battles and soldiers, and on the other an underworld of skeletons, virgins being served up for rape and bestiality, representing the Republic (about 1910?) I think and its fight for independence – pretty gruesome. When you tap your glass at La Paroquia a fellow comes by an pours first coffee and then milk from the spout of his pot a foot above down into your cup. As depicted, about the year 1500 Hernando Cortez set up headquarters here in Vera Cruz in his ongoing conquest of the country. There is a great fortress prison. The natives were not treated well. As we drove south from Vera Cruz we remained undecided whether to head to Merida, in the Yucutan at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and bordering Belize, or to San Cristobal de la Casas, Chiapis more Westerly and bordering Guatemala on the Pacific Coast. The earlier morning experience of incredibly good coffee at La Paroquia was followed by another liquid delight – fresh Pina, frozen Ice cold pineapple juice in plastic jugs – the taste not broken by any processing – bought and sold from the field on the cuota also in bags with straws at speed bumps also called Reductors, at which you practically have to slow down to very close to a complete stop or wreck your shock absorbers and maybe more.
Entrances perhaps to the Underworld of the Maya 900 to 1200 modern era)
We stopped at the Tajin Mayan archeological site on the way. It is worth seeing. Aside from four guys spiraling down on ropes from a very high pole who charge 100 pesos to watch, the ruins themselves are impressive. The recesses in the great structures perhaps were gates to the complex underworld of the Mayas, this being one of their northern most areas of control. A great king ruled the whole Yucutan and Chiapas and the Peninsula and groups that spoke 127 different languages, having people run fresh fish from the coast to mountain to him. The classic period is 900 AD to 1200 AD, although less anthropocentric symbols than AD and BC are now used. Which makes sense as these guys had a civilization ranking our miserable orders of the 12th century in Europe. …A complex culture still being discovered about which about as much information is available as if we based our Western history on Pilgrim’s Progress and a few suriving cathedrals… The Mayan peoples are by our standards rather short, often not much over five feet tall. And have what we would consider baby faces. But they were pretty fierce, having over eleven ball fields at Tajin, where the players played with skulls for balls reputedly and if a team was of captured enemies, beheading the losers. And of course a ritual space is there for cutting the hearts out of living victims, the reward being they got a free ticket to heaven. Despite the promised reward, older and respected guys like me reportedly had to hold their arms and legs down during the ceremony. It adds a dimension to the popular Roman Catholic posters showing Jesus’ heart open and beating.
We decided instead of taking the Gulf Atlantic Coast down to Merida to take the Pacific coast up, putting off further research into the Maya, whose descendants people the Yucatan today. However, the decision was tentative and we went first to San Cristobal De Las Casas, Chiapis, where the Maya also lived. The ultimate choice to take the Pacific route up and not go to Merida was not to avoid any residue of the rituals of prior times but because the more subtle attack by Montezuma’s revenge hit and we figured the beach was a better place to get better than the jungle. The American remedies I had brought helped, but a Mexican Pharmacist gave a much stronger red pill remedy which worked wonders. It is a good idea to bring extra garbage bags and underwear on any trip, more than you think you will need …
Sometimes travelling down this flat close to jungle plain The Gulf coast with the cacophanous music in the towns at night, trucks with loud speakers advertizing candidates and goods of all kinds-loudly – trailer trucks passing, double length like great caterpillers. In front and in back squeezing you to pass when you don’t know what’s ahead. Vulcanizing shops by the hundred, radiator repairs, brake repair shops lining the road at the entrance to every town, mechanico taller signs. Taller does not seem to be in my dictionario? I should be grateful at the great performance of the jeep, but it all seems repetitive, and the fact it is almost impossible to communicate details when one hasn’t learned Spanish.
Ah well, if the Beloved wants us to let go and see beyond our blinders, one would be a fool not to. Even though your narrator, Don Wimpy, at the onset of nonstop diarrhea quite debilitated has his doubts.
The Maya are generally short of stature but make up for it also in unparalleled ability to weave.
In a Country where the worst of the cities still have streets full of pastel colored houses it is hard to remain depressed long.
SAN CRISTOBAL, CHIAPAS
The road to San Cristobal is a bit windy and a long way up hill to 7,700 feet above sea level. We passed some serious accident sites, one where a truck carrying some eight to fifteen cars had run off the road.
San Cristobal has itself become a sizeable place. Here as always, tourist traveler friends, head for the Centro Historico first. It is the real center of town.
We found a great family hotel in San Cristobal. Most of the hotels are family hotels. It was called Miramar on Avenue Panaiagua. I took a good walk to find Santander Bank ATM and within four blocks was lost. It took three passes at 30 pesos each to get back to the Hotel, the street location of which I had forgot. Hard to find as taxi driver could not get my pronunciation of anything. San Cristobal is great for buying hand woven shirts, dresses, done in the style done by the weavers’ mothers and grandmothers before them. It is also a very beautiful town. We wished we could drive on and into Guatemala but not for now on this trip. Much to see we did not.
From San Cristobal we headed up the Pacific Coast to Puerto Angel where we had been before and has the curative beaches where the Pacific Ocean pours in in great breakers of luke warm water. Just short of Puerto Angel, passage on the road was blocked, for two days. We were in line with tractor trailers, cars, taxis, all. Apparently there were some armed troublemakers up the road. No one knew just what. Happily we found a motel and had a one night stay. Down the way we stopped for Tacos and Desayuno where we met some friendly Australian youth who were traveling as far as money and time would allow and headed to Guatemala. They had just come down from San Jose del Pacifico. Based on their story, we drove backward to Salina Cruz, and up inland to Oaxaca (Benito Juarez), a good day’s trip, and after stocking up on Mezcal at Matatlan, stayed again at a wonderful hotel in Mitla just before Oaxaca, where they served a great meal, and great Oaxaca coffee. This was much better than the first hotel in town we found but we stopped early enough to look around this time. We had seen the Mitla ruins before so headed on the next morning. And we headed to San Jose to Oaxaca taking 175 West, the back or inland route to Puerto Angel, our earlier frustrated objective. The road from Oaxaca to San Jose and on to Puerto Angel as well is sinuous. Just when you think you have stopped going up and are going down, or leveling out, you go up again. On any one of the countless hairpin curves, unexpectedly another vehicles appears in the opposing lane coming around the curve toward you, so you hang on and go at ten miles an hour not looking at perhaps the yard of two between the edge of your lane and a yawning chasm into the beautiful valley spreading below. Eventually we are driving literally into the clouds. Lights on. This is definitely driving where two hands on the steering wheel is important.
First we pass through San Bartolo,on Route 175, which lives up to its reputation as a center for Black Pottery, clay burnished with great effort and using certain things in the fire. There is a market called Negro Barra full of these items.
About 8.000 feet above sea level into the clouds
We arrive at the mountain village of San Jose del Pacifico where the famous mushroom curandero Maria Sabena lived until her death in the 1980s. Psychedelic Mushrooms for sale are openly advertized for sale and legal as part of the culture we are told by a local guide a decade younger than me, former diver, chiropractor, tourist guide, now guide for lack of better word, who the next day we join for the Tamazcal healing ceremony involving burning wood to heat stones placed in the center of a sort of igloo (like I guess a Native American sweat lodge) and dipping various plants into already prepared plant teas then patting them on the hot stones to steam …… It is rather dark and claustrophobic at first… and preparation of the hongos He would have us meditate on inner time rather than wrist watch time… We are a mirror of the clouds, the animals, nature and they don’t need a watch… This season is not a great one for mushrooms but perhaps more of that later.
Between this ceremony and the focus on driving, I have slowly lost much stress from the responsibilities of work accumulated over the past few years. I am ready to follow the repeated advice of Manuel, the family hotel owner in San Cristobal to RELAX, even when we left behind esposas passport at the Hotel when we first left. It was under some covers and having done the final check before leaving. And later another mishap when her money belt with all in it, (which hooked together badly) somehow got lost and appeared maybe magically outside the hotel door in Tonala, another one night on our path.
THE TROPICAL RHYTHM
If Manana is good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.
Although the welcoming committee at the beach in Puerto Angel included a scorpion sitting on top of the mop in our accommodation and a cockroach in the shower, the luke warm surf and beautiful beaches from Zippolito ( heavy surf, some nudies, unfortunately it seems only gay males) to Esta de Cahuite (best of all) are simply great. I am already quite used to the tropical rhythm, sleep late, get up, do what has to be done, like buy fish, a bottle of wine or beer, maybe go to ATM, have a nap, go to the beach, swim to the heart’s delight, make an effort to paint, come home, maybe read or write, then sleep. we succeeded so far in learning a lot about Scorpions. There are a lot of these fellows in Mexico. Mostly they keep to themselves. But if you don’t want them around keep the door closed (so they don’t crawl in and bleach the floors. They also don’t like Lavender we learn. ) But the alternative approach is you can make scorpions pets and send them to your friends. I can think of a few people I would love to introduce the scorpion to, one in particular. Ours got away before we could get ahold of him and probably we would have and will if he shows up again hit him with a shoe. We have made a couple of friends of the human variety too, one young Italian and one young Spaniard travelling the world at their leisure …