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North America » Mexico
September 1st 2005
Published: October 3rd 2005
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So we made it to Mexico…..us and our trusty (we hope) 4Runner had negotiated a relatively hassle free border crossing at Tijuana. I say relative as even at this early stage a lack of Spanish made the wheres and hows of obtaining vehicle and tourist permits all the more tricky - need to get learning and quickly. We counted our blessings though and shot past the endless queues heading in the opposite direction back into the U.S.

We were headed south through Baja California - the long, narrow stretch of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. Wanting to avoid the more popular resort areas in the north we didn't stop until well after sunset, thus breaking rule number 1 - don’t drive after dark in Mexico and Central America. I must admit to feeling quite apprehensive as we found ourselves lost, in the dead of night, on a dirt track somewhere behind the dunes of San Antonio Del Mar. We managed to find a suitable spot though and established rule 2, which naturally complements rule 1, tent pitching should only be carried out in daylight hours.

Moving south into the more remote central region and we were greeted by the wilderness we'd read so much about, endless mountains, deserts full of cacti, huge boulders the size of houses. We were both surprised by the colourful variations in vegetation bearing in mind how arid the region is. Four wheel drive proved itself invaluable after we stopped to free camp at Punta Baja, reversing down a steep gravel track to a small cove (seemed like a good idea at the time) we very nearly lost it over the edge.

Our next stop, Bahia De Los Angeles, bore no resemblance to its namesake. An idyllic fishing village set within a sheltered bay along a small stretch of Baja's hundreds of miles of virgin coastline. Camped on the beach, gorging on the Yellowtail we bought earlier from a local fisherman, we settled in for a couple of days whale spotting. Unfortunately we didn't see any, but this was more than compensated for by the scenery, sunsets and proliferation of birdlife, particularly the brown pelicans which, when either standing on rocks or dive bombing for fish, have a certain uncoordinated, cartoon-like comical appeal.

Guerrero Negro next and we experienced our first military checkpoint. Prepared for elaborate means of cash extortion, I had to wind my neck in as the 10 peso charge for spraying insecticide to the underside of the vehicle was in fact legitimate. It was also here that we met the Australian equivalent to Bob and Bils; Min and Morg. We watched with interest as another Toyota, laden with even more gear than ours, pulled into the same guesthouse. We soon established that not only had the occupants been in LA at the same time as us, spent the same amount of time vehicle searching, taken the same route down the Baja peninsula at the same time but had even paid the same price for their truck, to the penny.

The next day, feeling a little jaded, obviously we had to celebrate the coincidences, we set off in convoy, music expertly chosen and broadcasted by DJ Min and her iPod in front - the perfect accompaniment to our drive through beautiful desert, mountain and canyon country.

After a little time searching along the dramatic coastline of Bahia Concepción just past the oasis town of Mulegé, we found the perfect spot to camp, Coco Beach, and set our gear up around a palapa (basic palm
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A man's work.........
frond shelter). Fortunately, we bumped into Daniel, a local fisherman who introduced us to the delights of eating raw scallops with lime and chilli sauce. We were hooked and hastily arranged a scallop gathering and spear fishing trip for the following day.

So, loaded up with beers, lime and chilli sauce, we headed out in Daniel’s boat. We were amazed by the abundance of scallops lying on the sand just a couple of metres from the surface and within half an hour had collected more than enough for lunch and supper, we didn’t even offend the commercial scallop fisherman collecting in the same area. This, combined with Daniel's donation of a couple of speared Yellowtails, meant we were set for a camping feast. Perfect, bar the fact that cleaning scallops is not as easy as Daniel made it look, nonetheless, eaten raw or cooked in garlic and lime and wrapped in locally made tortillas and it was all worthwhile.

The next couple of days seemed to merge into one long relaxed party consisting of supping Pacifico beer, swimming from dawn (since it was too hot to sleep in the tent after sunrise) until late afternoon and then marvelling at the phosphorescence in the sea at night - snorkelling in the dark our limbs seemed to comprise a million tiny flickering lights; all of us saw it so it couldn't have been the effects of the Pacificos!

All too soon we were saying our goodbyes to Min and Morg who were continuing on to La Paz. We'd elected to take the 8 hour crossing to Guaymas, on mainland Mexico, so had to return back to Santa Rosalia, an hour or so north, to catch the ferry. The deserts, sandy bays and sleepy fishing villages of Baja were then just a memory as we made our way across the Gulf of California in a ferry that looked particularly un-seaworthy.

Safely on the mainland our first destination was the Barranca Del Cobra, or Copper Canyon - the journey would take us two days, giving us our first idea of how vast this country is. After a long first day’s drive we were struggling, first for petrol, the area is very remote, and then for somewhere to stay. Eventually we found a room in a small guesthouse, or rather a room in someone’s house. Certainly, one of the real highlights
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Daniel lining up the raw scallop shots
of travelling for me is meeting the people and getting a feel for how they live. Staying with this family was hugely enjoyable and we managed to communicate to a certain degree with the parents and their children and friends, albeit with animated gestures.

The next morning we made a brief yet spectacular stop at Basaseachi Falls, the largest single drop waterfall in North America and moved on, via a 100km dirt road to San Juarito and then to Creel. When I say dirt road, I mean similar to Cambodia, again 4wd drive came in very handy. Neither of us expected the scenery to be as green and fertile as it was. Pasturelands dotted with small shacks and ranches surrounded by impressive jagged limestone rocks and mountains. Car still in one piece, we arrived in Creel, the base from which we'd explore the Copper Canyon. We both really liked Creel, certainly on the tourist radar but still very relaxed. Tarahumara women from local villages selling traditional crafts in the same way as they have for centuries, and cowboys on horse back appearing to prance sideways in an attempt to keep their mounts under control.

All was rosy until
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Beers, seafood, sun....perfect
we awoke to find anti Nazi graffiti drawn in the dirt on the back window of the car. Americans are popular in these parts, a comforting thought since we've got a Californian license plate and a stars and stripes sticker. It's a harsh reality, but as soon as people realise we're English we generally get better treatment.

A tour around Creel museum gave us a good briefing of the history and ancient traditions of the Tamahumara people, it even contained a mummified body, all the more disturbing as Tarahumarans contorted the dead into horrific positions in the process of mummification.

Creel doesn’t have direct access to the Copper Canyon itself, it just serves as the nearest town for visiting the sites. We caught a bus to the next village on from the main vantage point of El Divisadero, figuring that we’d be able to catch another bus back in order to then catch the train home to Creel, and enjoy what is touted as one of the world’s most impressive train journeys. There was no return bus…and we began the 10 km walk back up the train track nervously making our way through several of the numerous tunnels
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Relaxing in camp palapa with Min and Morg
lining the route. This was a beautiful walk and allowed us the opportunity to see another view of the canyon after a short diversion at San Rafael.

Fortunately, a gang of railway engineers took pity on us and gave us a lift in their tiny locomotive, for the last stretch back to El Divisadero, almost beating the train we had just missed.

An hour or so was spent waiting for the next train, taking in the stunning views, and having a beer in the local bar which must have the most impressive backdrop of any bar, anywhere. The Copper Canyon is often used to describe a region which is actually made up of six massive gorges, the deepest, which normally takes the title, is actually deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Then the train journey back…and it didn’t disappoint.

The next day we had a lot of mileage to cover, but due to the winding nature of the first hundred miles or so of road through the canyons, we failed to make our destination and had to have an overnight stop in the very interesting, very local, town of Rio Grande. We then crossed the Tropic of Cancer
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The sunset (or maybe the Pacificos) playing with us.
and continued on, via Hidalgo del Parral, to Zacatecas.

It was on this epic driving stint that we suddenly heard a loud crack, the windscreen had popped out of it's housing - whoops, first minor technical hitch. Three stops later and a great deal of gaffer tape and we made it to Zacatecas, capital of Zacatecas state, home to the largest silver mine and second largest bullring in the world.

The town is built in a ravine the centre of which filled with beautiful old colonial buildings lining cobbled streets. A couple of days to soak up the atmosphere and get the windscreen fixed - by sheer fortune a specialist windscreen repair garage was located opposite our guesthouse, in the centre of town. It took a while for them to realise that we weren't from California, um, that little license plate issue again, and then they quoted the price……the equivalent of $2 (the owner of our guesthouse insisted that they would have charged 10 times that, had we been from the country North of the border). The chaps did a great job, we had great fun chatting to them as they repaired the seal and after completing the work, it took a great deal of persuasion from Bob for them to take any money from us at all.

Zacatecas was also where I sampled Pollo e Mole - a traditional Mexican dish - for the second time - and nope, still couldn't get to grips with the chicken in chocolate sauce combo.

Heading south again through Aguascalientes State and the vegetation became visibly more lush and tropical. Mountain passes covered in dense jungle providing magnificent vistas from which to view the surrounding countryside. The highlight, for me, being a couple of enormous single drop waterfalls which seemed to appear from nowhere.

Guadalajara, Mexico's second city. First impressions; a cluster of millions of shacks built together on an enormous mountain plateau. Stuck in traffic in not the best area of town it was suddenly a case of windows up, doors locked, and quickly. Despite this, the road around the city centre was pretty quick and what brief glimpses we did get made us intrigued to explore more. This urge was counteracted by the lure of our next destination, Tequila.

A half hours drive from Guadalajara through acres of blue agave plantations and we arrived in Tequila town. Our initial disappointment at a mass of tacky souvenir shops on the approach into town was quickly forgotten when we established ourselves in the town centre which is an attractive mix of colonial and modern architecture....and of course sampled some local produce.

Previous tequila assumptions; vile tasting drink masked to small degree by liberal dousing of salt and lime, storming hangover guaranteed. Then…..a tour of the Jose Cuervo distillery and enlightenment. I like it, particularly the reservado variety. Our tour guide was surprised at Bob's preference for the 55% non-distilled version, I wasn't.

We had a fascinating tour, learning some interesting facts along the way. Only tequila from Tequila, Jalisco state and specific neighbouring states can be called tequila. It takes 8-10 years for the blue agave, the plant from which tequila is derived, to mature with the 50 kg bulb that they use in the distillation process. Salt and lime should not be used as it masks the flavour, these accompaniments were used in years gone by when the tequila tasted as bad as it does in pubs at home. I can’t remember how many free samples we were given, but I do remember being taught how to professionally taste tequila and no, it’s not by shooting it down at the bar.

Guanajuato, our next destination, is the capital of Guanajuato state. Another beautiful old colonial town, set in a narrow gorge and filled with historic stone buildings that climb the surrounding hillsides. Guanajuato is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been important for silver mining since 1548. What intrigued us most though were the underground streets which wind their way beneath the city, more than likely a solution to earlier flood problems. The place is a bit of a must see for Mexican tourists, we could understand why.

A couple of days spent taking in the sites at Guanajuato including panoramic views of the city from Monumento a Pipilia, watching Mexico versus Costa Rica in a local bar and we were ready for the big stint, Mexico City and on to San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Incidentally, the local tipple which accompanies football games has to be one of the most revolting beery, gaspachio-soup type concoctions I’ve ever sampled. A hearty mix presented in a litre jug, salt and lime to the rim, filled with beer, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, tomato
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Hitching a lift with the railroad boys
sauce followed by a generous dousing of chilli sauce - foul - Bob claimed he liked it, I stuck to vino blanco.

Fortunately after a lack of sleep, we'd decided to delay our departure to Mexico City by a day. I say fortunately as the city's congestion is controlled by a system of random digits. If your license plate ends in the chosen digit on a chosen day you're obliged to pay $80 US for the pleasure of crossing the city. Yep, Friday and 9, so we left on the Saturday…

Early the next morning we set off for the mammoth drive. 18 toll fees later, an interesting episode lost in the maze of Mexico City's backstreet markets, an hour spent stuck behind a jack-knifed lorry in the pouring rain and dark and we’d made it to Tuxtla Gutierrez, just short of San Cristóbal. After 13 hours of driving, pot holes and all, we'd covered 750 miles, and were in need of rest and food. Burger King beckoned - as much as it's lovely to eat local, exotic foods, occasionally there's nothing more satisfying than a good old fashioned burger, especially when it’s the only place open.

So we made it to San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas. A beautiful, relaxing and popular town with an interesting mix of colonial architecture and indigenous culture. It was from our base here that we visited Zinacantan, one of the villages surrounding San Cristóbal, for a taster of indigenous rural life. Unfortunately though, the village was more akin to a human zoo and we were besieged by people used to selling local crafts to an ever increasing number of tourists. Although a shame in a way, the steady increase of tourists to villages such as this is a lifeline to many who would otherwise barely manage to afford the basic necessities of life.

Continuing north through Chiapas state via a brief stop at Agua Azul, a series of jungle waterfalls and rapids, and we arrived in Palenque. A pleasant town essentially built up to cater for visitors to the famous archaeological site nearby, Palenque is reputedly the most beautiful of all the Maya ruins in Mexico and was a must see for us. Built for strategic purposes at the height of the Classical Mayan period on a series of artificial terraces surrounded by jungle, it’s a fascinating place,
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Blue agave bulbs waiting to be turned into fun juice.
made more so by a visit to the museum which contained stucco carvings, jade jewellery and ceramics retrieved from the site. For me, above all else it is these personal effects that you can actually imagine being worn by individuals thousands of years ago which really bring the place alive.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Palenque, we decided to visit Becan, a lesser known site, on our way to the Belizean border. An interesting mix of decorative towers, fake temples, shrines and palaces, what took our breath away though was, unlike Palenque, at Becan we had the place to ourselves. There's something quite magical about wandering around these immense structures in the middle of the jungle and being completely alone. What we hadn't realised is how numerous these sites are throughout Mexico. From the many people we've spoken to, the lesser known sites are often just as impressive - they just happen to be in more inaccessible areas and hence the infrastructure hasn't developed to the same degree to cater to tourists.

Reluctantly we had to move on from this fascinating country. Mexico was fantastic, but being such a huge country, with so much history and the many different peoples and cultures, we had literally just scraped the surface, and would need many months to do it justice.

An overnight stay in Chetumal, and we found ourselves at border crossing number two, bound for Belize................



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