For our annual summer “beat the heat” sojourn we decided to try something different this year. Instead of traveling north from Baja to the cooler (and often rainy) Pacific Northwest, we opted instead to head south to the magical mountains of Central Mexico. We are renting a casita (small house) in San Antonio Tlayacapan, located on Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake. San Antonio is a Mexican village nestled between two larger gringo enclaves: Ajijic a few blocks to the west and Chapala about five miles east and the largest city on the lake.
Our journey began when we left San Felipe early on June 26th with the Honda Element filled to the headliner with all the “stuff” we imagined needing for our three month stay. The ice chest alone took two people to heft it onto the tailgate, made heavy by all the frozen goodies from Trader Joe’s. For the first time in three years we left one of the rear seats in for the single visitors we are expecting later in the summer. Gabe, of course, had his usual five square feet of floor space, although we did manage to stuff some items under his bed. Our roof-top luggage carrier was also bursting at the seams. I would like to report that the packing project was a text-book lesson in organization and efficiency but the reality was that late the previous night panic set in when it was obvious that the carefully selected piles of stuff would not fit unless we either got a bigger car or two of us stayed home. Since Gabe doesn’t drive, we chose arbitration and eventual left behind the table saw, punch bowl, down parkas and other bulky items of dubious necessity.
It felt strange turning east just before Mexicali instead of taking the usual route north. We followed the border through some beautiful desert for quite a ways. Along this stretch we saw the first one of a strange road sign that would intrigue us for the next 500 miles. It was in English - not Spanish – and read: “HASSLE-FREE ZONE NEXT 800 KILOMETERS”. In the corner were symbols of a motorcycle and an auto with the letters “U.S.A” under them. What a relief it was knowing that, as Americans, we were not going to be hassled for a great part of our journey! But our exuberance was short-lived as we began to ponder what would unfold once we left the magical hassle-free zone. Would we be continually pulled over and harassed by police or Federales? Would the locals run out into the streets to egg our car or try to sell us endless boxes of Chiclets? Only time would tell…
For those of you that haven’t driven much (or lately) in Mexico I am happy to report that the days of narrow, pot-holed roads teeming with banditos and loose livestock are pretty much a thing of the past. Mexico embarked a few decades ago on building a system of quality toll roads to crisscross the country, some of which put our interstate highway system to shame. At most toll booths you will find gas, clean restrooms and food. Although I don’t relish the idea of paying to use the road, the savings in gas costs (Mexican unleaded is about $2.80/gal and by law can only increase 1% per month) paid for most of the tolls. The tolls also keep quite a lot of traffic off the highway as there are free alternative roads complete with potholes, banditos and an abundance of cattle.
Turning south along the Arizona border we encountered some of the most beautiful Sonoran desert I have ever seen. The rolling hills were dotted with towering saguaros, massive organ-pipe cactus and a blend of mesquite and juniper. At Santa Ana we connected with the major highway which runs from Nogales (south of Tucson) to Mexico city and encountered the first of many toll booths. After twelve hours of driving, we spent the night in Hermosillo, the busy capital of Sonora.
Leaving very early the next day, we planned on breakfast in Guaymas, our first city heading back along the coast of the Sea of Cortes. Unfortunately, we wound up in the industrial section where there were no restaurants open so we hit the highway again after munching on some snacks. Shortly afterwards, we left the magical NO HASSLE ZONE expecting to be hassled at any second but no such luck: even at the huge checkpoint between the states of Sonora and Sinaloa we were waived right through. Sinaloa, incidentally, is the tomato capital of the Mexico – they even have a tomato on the license plate - and 40% of all tomatoes consumed in the USA come from Sinaloa.
Finally, after two long days of driving we made it to Mazatlan for a three day rest and a visit with our friends, Tom and Kathy Coonce. Kathy and Tom moved from El Dorado Ranch in San Felipe to another Pat Butler development on the south end of Mazatlan, Estrella del Mar, a beautiful golf resort with four miles of mostly empty beaches. After spending two days in the car Gabe got to play with the Coonce’s Chihuahua and run free on the beach with a pack of Golden Retrievers. We were now in the tropics, with temperatures and humidity to match as the rainy season descended. Staying in the heart of Mazatlan’s noisy hotel district, we drove forty minutes each day to the resort where we walked to breakfast along the gorgeous beach and lounged poolside with our friends. We got invited to a pool party complete with a swim-up bar under a big palapa. Finishing the evening with straight shots of fine Tequila, Lyn drove us home (from what I can remember).
What surprised us about Mazatlan was how big and congested it is. This was the first time there for both of us and somehow I pictured something a little more tranquil. It has a population of half a million and it seems like most of them hit the malecon on weekends. Just a mile back from the shore you can find Wal-Mart, Home Depot, OfficeMax and other bastions of American consumerism. Also, we were past the Anglo tourist season so most of the tourists were Mexican, which adds a few decibels to the excitement. But Mazatlan is not entirely without charm: there is a renaissance happening in the oldest part of town with many buildings being renovated to house art galleries, bed & breakfast establishments and chic restaurants.
We were sorry to leave our friends and the beautiful resort but we needed to be on the road once again as we started the last leg of our journey. We headed away from the ocean and into the central heartland of Mexico, eventually gaining 5000 feet as we wound through beautiful forested mountains on our way to Chapala. We hit Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city at seven million inhabitants, and, as we skirted around the southern end of the city, we hit the rain that would stay with us for the next week. We finally reached San Antonio (everyone drops ‘Tlayacapan’ as it is too much to say) and settled into our new abode, two blocks from the lake.
Next story: Ajijic: Life in the slow carril
The Road to Chapala
Click on any picture to view larger version.