All Along the Highway
28 February 2016
Brad, Jake, Aline, Jim, Kathy, Jay
February 12, 2016 - Part One of our road trip.
When we started cruising we knew we didn't want to see only the coastal communities but wanted to explore inland Mexico, as well. Each season we have tried to visit at least one town via road trip. The first year we were down here we went to Todo Santos (with the blues band, you may recall). Last year we went to the Copper Canyon and San Sebastian and this year we went on a two-night, three day excursion to see the Monarch butterflies and some ancient ruins.
I had heard about the butterflies from our friends, Kevin and Debbie on s/v Peppermint Patty. At the time, we had just started cruising and were in Ensenada. The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary was miles away near Mexico City. As enticing as it sounded, I thought, we will never get there, it's just too far away, too far inland.
Jump ahead two years later. Now, in Nuevo Vallarta, circumstances were keeping us at the dock longer than expected. I got wind of a small tour headed for El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, just north of Morelia and yes, not far from Mexico City. Only it wasn't happening until the second week of February. We had hoped to be on our way south by then but after talking it over with Jay, we decided it was worth the wait. We try to keep reminding ourselves that this is what our trip is all about, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.
The first leg of our journey started out at 6:30 in the morning with us and our friends, The McDougals, Aline, Brad, and their son, Jake, standing outside on the street corner in front of the Paradise Village condominiums. Earlier, April had made arrangements to pick us up there because, even though she is a Mexican citizen and a licensed tour guide, the taxi drivers give her a hard time. Evidently, the taxi union is one of the strongest unions in the state and each taxi division has its own territory. Only Paradise Village taxis are allowed to transfer people out of the area. It was still dark and not many people around so when April arrived with her van, we stealthily climbed aboard as quickly as possible and off she went.
Introductions were made. The McDougals had not yet met our other two friends who joined us, Kathy and Jim from Solar Flair (who hitched a ride from La Cruz), nor had they met April. April is a natural woman. She wears her long blond hair in dreadlocks and sans make-up. She is an avid surfer, loves to hike and is passionate about Mexico. April is an intelligent woman, highly educated, and she cares deeply about America, her homeland, and her adopted homeland, Mexico. She is eco-minded and shares her concerns about the environment. She and her husband moved to Bucerias over thirty years ago and raised their two sons here. I asked her how this came about and she said her husband's parents were cruisers and they brought their son to La Cruz when he was a child. He loved it so much, he always dreamed of going back. Her children now grown, they sold their house and now spend winters renting in La Cruz and summers in southern California (she has dual citizenship) where she and her husband run cross-country motorcycle tours on Route 66. Interesting woman.
We started out on Highway 200. Our destination was east and south but because of the Sierra Madre Mountain range, it was an easier drive to go north to meet the toll roads before heading south. Here we passed through lush, green jungle, while traveling on a two-lane highway that was loaded with curves. As we made our way up and over the mountains, the terrain began to change. It was much more arid. As I looked around I saw many flat-top mountains that were, in fact, volcanoes. Ancient lava lay in the valley below, having once spewed out of the earth with fierce force and heat and then, left for centuries, hardened into huge blocks. I wondered at how and why they formed in such a way.
We passed by the town of Tequila, famous, of course, for its namesake. Surrounding it were fields of Agave, used in the making of tequila. When the agave plant stands alone, you might not think of it as blue. But when it lies in rows and rows across the land, together it has a beautiful blue hue with a hint of ash. It is especially pretty in contrast to the tan dirt, drab cactus, and intermittent splashes of green brush.
The trip to Angangueo, the old mining town in which we were to spend the night, was a ten-hour drive. One of our first stops was alongside the road where a few merchants were selling flat tortillas with either meat or beans. April pulled over and offered us a taste of the local fare.
"Don't get the meat ones." April warned. "It's not just because I'm a vegetarian. One of the guys I brought up here had one of the meat ones and it didn't settle well." We took her advice. The bean ones were good. And cheap. We stretched our legs for a bit, had a bathroom break and back into the van.
Eventually we found our way to the toll road, 15. The tolls were outrageously expensive. I think it cost about $150 American dollars to go all the way to Angangueo but the alternative would have taken us countless hours through towns with dozens of topes (speed bumps). It seems every little town in Mexico has a number of topes as you travel through. Not to mention the cobblestone streets. So the cost of the highway is worth it.
We stopped at Subway, of all places, for lunch. I noticed that the only two eateries along the toll road were Subway or Papa Johns, certainly not Mexican food. I asked April about this. She explained that whatever corporation contracts the highway gig gets time to recoup some of their expenses.
"There will be check points." April said. "Don't freak out. They just want to know what we are doing and then we move on. I was here two weeks ago and there were a lot more federalies than usual. I think that is because the Pope is expected this week. We timed it just right. He will be here just two days after we leave, so we will get out before having to deal with all the traffic. They are expecting over one million visitors in Mexico City. Can you imagine that?"
We turned off the highway and went through a few small towns. This was fun, despite the topes, as it gave us a little sampling of the local communities. We passed by the open markets and women sweeping the streets. At one turn, there were workers digging up the street, so we had to make a detour. At another turn, we found it blocked off by a celebration of some sort. Another detour. Children were walking home in their school uniforms, laughing and pushing each other in jest. A young boy dodged the cars as he weaved his bicycle through the streets. As we left town, the road started climbing up higher, little by little, as the sanctuary is found at 10,000 feet above sea level.
All through our road trip, April explained the history, culture and agriculture of the areas we traveled. She told us to be a licensed tour guide in Mexico, one must take many hours of serious study and write a thirty-some page thesis - in Spanish - to boot! She is extremely knowledgeable and because she is fluent in both languages, communicates clearly to us gringos, as well as to the Mexicans. Having lived here so many years, she knows the land, the people, where to go and where not to go.
Almost to our destination, April mentioned a building she had seen off to the side of the road on a hill. It looks like a church but it is surrounded by what looks like ruins. "I don't know what it is. I couldn't find anything on the internet. I haven't been up there but it looks intriguing. Do you guys want to go up there and check it out? Are you up for that?" We all murmured and nodded in agreement. "Why not? We're here."
The single lane road curved around and around as we climbed up to the driveway that led to the entrance of the church. As far as we could tell, it was deserted but for the teenage couple trying to find a few minutes alone. We exited the car to two dogs barking and claiming the property as their own. But it wasn't theirs. They belonged to one of the houses below and soon lost interest and went back to their yards. We walked around and peaked into the holes in the walls. We imagined it to be a fortress from long ago. From the hilltop, we could see the entire neighborhood, houses dotting the landscape.
April looked at her watch. "Time to go!" Ever the taskmaster, we couldn't help but tease her. But, she had a schedule and by golly, we were going to keep to it. "I want to get you to the hotel and settled. Then we can take a walk through town before dinner and get you acclimated to the altitude."
See Gallery for more photos.