Tequila, Van Trouble and getting to the Pacific

23 – 26 February 2020

This is where we think the van is on fire in Guadalajara, we get to Tequila and Molly makes it to the Pacific

We were cruising down the three lane highway through Guadalajara. 

What was that strong smell? Was there an industrial bakery nearby? Or a brewery? I stuck my head out the window trying to work it out. It was Stuart who spotted the smoke coming from inside the van, billowing out from the glove compartment right in front of me.

We flicked the hazard lights on and stopped as far over in the lane as possible as there was no hard shoulder. Both of us donned the high vis jackets provided courtesy of the London 2012 Olympics.

We couldn’t stay there and so we crawled along to the next exit, hearts thumping with the worry that the smoke would ignite into flames.

Thankfully the problem was nothing terminal. The heater blower fan had burnt out though the fuse itself was fine.  Mercifully the wiring harness hadn’t caught fire. We’ve been turning the fan up to the max when tackling big hills in a bid to cool the van down. That – and, of course, the 30 years of service – combined so it finally packed in. We read this is not an uncommon fault for the VW T25. It seems it’s a two-day job to fix as it involves removing the dashboard. We would just have to get on without the fan.

Still a bit nervous after the experience, we set off for Tequila.

It’s a quaint little town and, as you’d expect from the name, is entirely geared up the production of Tequila.

Everywhere we passed there were buses shaped like Tequila bottles or other Tequila-related themes transporting tourists from the various distilleries to the surrounding agave plantations and back.  

Following up on reviews in iOverlander, we rattled and shook our way over the cobbled streets going from car park to car park before finally finding one which allowed overnighters.

First thing in the morning, we went on the morning tour at Casa Sauza.

Social work graduate Marisol was our guide.

She led us round the distillery and then to the plantation…

… where we refused the invitation to cut the piña or heart out of the agave plant.

That tool looks lethal.

We learnt that it’s very hard to stomach neat tequila first thing in the morning before you’ve had breakfast so I’m afraid all those tasters were wasted on us. As we had a long drive to get to San Blas we bailed on the tour before the end, leaving to Marisol’s astonished cry ‘you’re not staying for the free margaritas?’.

And here is Molly parked up at Las Olas Overland near San Blas.

Our wonderful hosts were Marjit and Len who travelled from the US many miles around all Mexico before finally settling here and setting up their haven for overlanders.

As well as providing us with electric hook up, hot showers and steps from their place down to an ocean as warm as a bath…

they also drove us in their vanagon to San Blas for shopping and tacos….

….took us to buy cake from this fantastic stall…

…and stopped here for a short while to watch the local alligators basking in the sun.  

And a big treat for us, Hilda here was happy for us to watch her at work in her tortelleria and take photos.

We’d always wanted a longer look at one of these places where tortillas are made fresh every day and sold by the kilogram. In San Blas we had the opportunity. Hilda was busy making a sack load of tortillas for a customer. No, he really did have a sack with him. He showed Hilda a photo of a ship on his phone so am guessing he was on kitchen duty.

These flatbreads made from corn are a staple in the Mexican diet and have been since Mayan and Aztec times.  we’ve probably eaten our own body weight in them since getting here. If our breakfast, lunch or dinner isn’t actually wrapped in one, then chances are the meal comes accompanied by freshly made ones, stacked in a basket and kept warm in a tea towel.

Tortillas are so important that if the price per kg starts rising, it’s a key indicator that the Mexican economy is in trouble.

Getting to San Blas felt like a landmark moment to us in our trip. We’d taken Molly from the Thames to the Pacific. Smoking fan aside, that’s good going for the old girl.

Next day it was time to get back on the road and head to the port city of Mazatlán where we were catching a ferry to the Baja peninsula. This is where we hoped to see the third of our Mexico ‘musts’ – the gray whales in San Ignacio.

Mazatlán was supposed to be our last stop on the Mexican mainland as, after Baja, we were intending to head north to the USA. It didn’t work out that way. But that’s a story for another day.

Dorilocos in Guanajuato

20-23 February 2020

Our stop in Guanajuato will be memorable for a few very different reasons. In no particular order, here they are:

  • the terrifying, gut wrenching steep drive up to the campsite;
  • the discovery of Dorilocos – probably the best ever junk food snack;
  • meeting with two fellow ‘shipped van to Veracruz and got robbed’ victims;
  • and, of course, the beauty of the city itself.

Here’s the campsite.

It is called Morill RV Park and is in a great location overlooking the town. The reviews about it on iOverlander really don’t get across just how steep the hill climb to get to it really is. It was scary stuff and I still don’t know how Molly made it up there or how Stuart kept on driving. I kept my eyes shut.

The view was worth it though.

Our fellow campers were a lovely couple from Brazil (@Tavapelomundo on Instagram) and ….

… Hans and Sigrid from Germany.

Chatting to them, we discovered we had something unfortunate in common. Both our campervans had been cleaned out by thieves on the crossing from Veracruz. While we shipped with the Orion Highway from Southampton, they shipped their van on the Hoegh Yokohama. There are other differences between us – they were assured (and very luckily insured) that their personal possessions in the van would be safe, but advised to keep everything in cupboards, out of sight. On that basis, they didn’t actually lock everything away, thinking that padlocks would have the reverse effect of attracting thieves. It didn’t work. The thieves who had clearly plenty of time picked through everything accessible from the main door (via the key handed to the shipping line) and took everything of value and some things of little value e.g. their usb sticks with carefully chosen music playlists.

In our case (and do forgive us for going old ground), we had taken the additional step of padlocking stuff away but that proved no deterrent. They just smashed the locks. Talking to Hans and Sigrid brought back all the bad memories yet it was good too to share what happened. Nice to feel we are not alone.  And so based on our shared experiences, do we have any advice for anyone considering shipping their van to Veracruz? Go via container if you can – our T25 is too high for one so ro ro is our only option. Otherwise, we suggest you pick up every item you pack on board your van before you ship it and say your farewells. Unfortunately, it may be the last time you see it.

Discovering Dorilocos

How have we lived this long and not discovered dorilocos before? Maybe it was because we happened upon this stall not long after we had arrived into Guanajuato when we were feeling tired, hungry and ready for a cold beer.

We headed down the hill from the campsite and came to this brightly lit stall selling an intriguing snack which started by slashing open the side of a packet of Doritos, then piling whatever you wanted on top – like homemade salsa with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, coriander, chili and lime, handfuls of peanuts, cucumber, grated carrot, more crisps and other stuff we couldn’t identify. Then your overflowing bag is topped off with chili sauce and lime. Practically drooling now just thinking of it.

Exploring Guanajuato

Here’s Guanajuato looking like the really hard jigsaw puzzle you never get round to doing.

We saw this view from above when we went up the funicular railway and from below when we went through the tunnels built to divert the Guanajuato river.

We went to the regional museum in the old granary….

… but didn’t do the kissing thing in the Callejón del Beso. That involves leaning out of the window on one side of the street and kissing someone leaning out of a window on the opposite side.

We stayed in the audience. Clearly no romance in our souls.

And that was the end of our Guanajuato stay. We pulled out of the campsite and down the steep slope which somehow looks very tame in this photo.

Next stop Guadalajara, more van trouble and a taste of Tequila.

To Las Pozas And San Miguel De Allende

14 – 20 February 2020

Mariachi band in San Miguel de Allende

We mentioned in a previous post that there were three ‘musts’ we wanted to see in our travels around Mexico.

We’d seen the Monarch butterflies in their winter migration home.  Now we were headed to the second ‘must see’. That was the surrealist sculpture garden of Las Pozas created in the Mexican jungle by the wealthy and eccentric Englishman Edward James, patron of artists Magritte and Dali.

We said farewell to Suzanne and John of Tigger’s Travels and left Morelia to head north to the mountain village of Xilitla, home of James’ concrete Garden of Eden.

On the way, we stopped overnight in the little village of Bernal. Here is its most famous sight.

Pena de Bernal

…the Pena de Bernal, at just over 1,400 feet high, it is one of the tallest monoliths in the world.  We walked up the hill for a closer look but were too late to get onto the hiking trail leading to the top. We headed back into the town along with a few disappointed couples who were clearly aiming for a romantic insta snap on the rock to post on St Valentine’s Day.

We stayed the night in a car park and set off early next morning for Xilitla.

The drive up into the Sierra Gorda mountains was hard going – long slow steep climbs….

…and tight  switchbacks.  

Molly in the car park at Posada El Castillo

As a treat and to enjoy the full Edward James’ experience, we booked in for two nights in to stay at the eight-bedroom Posado el Castillo, once the family home of Plutarco Gastelum, James’  longterm friend and collaborator in creating Las Posas.

We met Plutarco’s granddaughter

..and stayed in the bedroom used by Uncle James when he was in Mexico.  

It has a Magritte painting of Edward James. A print that is. Of the back of James’ head.

Edward James

 Las Pozas is a weird and wonderful place and judging by the crowds there, a popular tourist attraction.

Back into the town for the afternoon, we watched dancing in the square…

He was the greatest dancer

…went shopping in the local market.

And visited the museum of Leonara Carrington.

Then it was once more back on the road. Our fellow guest at El Castillo recommended the hot springs of Rio Verde as a good place to stop and break our journey.  We had a swim….

and the  friendly security guard said we could stay overnight in the car park so long as we had left next morning by 7 am.

Parked for the night – Rio Verde

San Miguel de Allende

Mention you are travelling to Mexico and everyone – especially anyone from North America – will mention  our next stop – San Miguel de Allende. Throw a stone there and chances are you’ll hit a gringo.

The place is heaving with us! One in 10 – to be more precise- are from the USA or Canada because the little town is a hugely popular retirement destination.

And all are fiercely active retirees judging from what we could see on our  wander round.

If they weren’t whacking balls across the net beside our van (the campsite came with hot showers and tennis courts) they were huddled in a corner discussing rhyming couplets whilst dressed in yoga gear. A Shakespeare tutorial with stretching? The local estate agent is a branch of Sotheby’s and the shops reflect the affluent clientele. 

There’s no doubt San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful place with its colourful Spanish colonial houses and cobbled streets, the Parroquia church glowing pink in the sunset- but we were happy to move on after one night.

We were headed to Guanjuato, another place we’d heard a lot about. But first, a quick stop in the small town of Dolores Hidalgo. It is the place to go if you are looking for handcrafted talavera ceramic tiles. Or in our case, just looking at the tiles. So much choice, so little room.