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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
Where we saw the Monarch butterflies, went to Puebla and met Tigger’s Travels
Pilgrims, pilgrims and still more pilgrims….we passed hundreds of them walking along the highway as we drove north from Oaxaca.
Maybe they were walking all the way to worship at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. We weren’t sure where their spiritual journey was taking them.
Our destination was to see a miracle of the natural world – to see firsthand millions of Monarch butterflies resting, and hopefully at play, in their overwintering ground in the Sierra Madre mountains, west of Mexico City.
Every Autumn, these butterflies fly up to 3,000 miles from their breeding and feeding territories in Canada and northeastern U.S to the forests in the mountains which straddle the states of Mexico and Michoacán. By late March, they have all returned north. If it’s overcast or raining, the butterflies huddle together for warmth around the oyamel fir trees. We hoped we’d be there for a ‘good’ day when the warmth of the sun encouraged them to take flight.
We were headed for the Monarch sanctuary at Sierra Chincua and planned on getting there with three overnight stops along the way. Our first was at Cholula, not far from the city of Puebla. On the iOverlander app, we found what looked like a good spot – a car park within walking distance of the town’s famous landmark, the Great Pyramid.
It was built in prehispanic times, bit by bit, over a thousand years to become the largest pyramid complex in the world. There is little to see of the ancient pyramid now. Covered in grass, it looks like a hill. And that is apparently also what the Spanish thought when they arrived in the 1500s and constructed a church on top of what was once a temple for the indigenous people.
We parked up, set out our chairs for a sunset beer and – with perfect timing – along came the snacks and nuts guy.
The church is up a steep climb…
…with a good view across to the Popocatepetl volcano.
Next morning we prepared to set off for nearby Puebla and hit the first of what turned out to a series of van troubles on our trip. The engine would not start. Dead as a dodo.
After some tinkering around – and a phone consultation with Karl our ever helpful mechanic back in London – Stuart got Molly going again after loosening the fuel supply to one of the injectors to bleed the air out and giving the engine a squirt of Damp Start.
That took him back to the days as a Hillman Imp owner.
We got to Puebla, the biggest city we had driven in so far but the traffic was manageable and we found our way to the police station where we planned to stay the night.
Yep, that’s right. Our hosts for the night were the tourist police of Puebla who very kindly allow passing campervanners park outside their station overnight and offer the use of the officers’ shower and toilet facilities.
All we had to do was give the front desk copies of our passports and we were free to use the facilities as and when we needed. And we were also given tips on which restaurants to try in Puebla though it was hard to focus on what the young police officer was saying. Chatting easily about the best place for tacos isn’t easy when your guide has a huge gun strapped to her front, pointing directly at your big toe.
We visited the elaborately ornate Biblioteca Palafoxiana…
…and had dinner in a small restaurant which specialized only in pozole. They are big steaming bowls of either red or green broth which come with side garnishes of fresh coriander, radishes, lime and chilli peppers. Stuart watched a local and did as he did, piling it all in to his bowl in one go. Not a good move for someone whose tolerance of fiery food is low. It blew his head off.
In return for their hospitality, the police officers asked if they could do a video interview with us about our thoughts on their city. We were delighted to oblige.
So somewhere on a tourist marketing site, there’s footage of the two of us gabbling enthusiastically about the delights of Puebla and pozole.
Next day we set off for Tula de Allende and for another night of wild camping. This time it was in a car park beside the town market but at least we had a hot shower the previous night so we weren’t feeling too grimy.
Once parked up, Stuart decided to stay in the car park and do manly things…like tinker with the van engine…
…and smoke one of the special cigars he got for Christmas.
I left him to it and headed up to the archaeological site, famous for its giant statues of Toltec warriors.
Local artist Antonio Fuentes showed me around his exhibition of paintings influenced by the flora in the park.
By day, Antonio works for the state-owned petroleum company Pemex – we know it well for diesel and loo stops and by night, he paints.
The next day when leaving to get to Sierra Chincua, we had the same problem starting the van and crossed our fingers that the spray of Damp Start would get us going and keep us going so we made it to the butterflies.
We made it.
It’s a long walk through the woods to get to the place to see them.
We turned down the many offers of a horse ride to get there.
When it seemed like most other visitors had small babies strapped to their front for the trek, it would have been very feeble of us to hitch a ride.
The butterflies were dazzling and we spent the rest of the afternoon there watching them flutter in mesmerized silence at them.
It took a while to realise that the orange and brown specks on the trees opposite were not leaves – they are all butterflies.
When we planned our travels to Mexico, there were three sights we definitely wanted to see – the Monarch butterflies, the gray whales at San Ignacio in Baja and the surrealist sculpture park of Edward James at Xilitla. We had now seen the first of the three ‘must sees’. We headed back to the van excited and elated by the experience of seeing them.
But as any VW owner will testify, our 30 year old van has a way of bringing you back down to earth. Molly refused to start once again.
What was causing it? Dirty diesel? The high altitude? We didn’t know and were very, very grateful that the spray of Damp Start got us going once again.
We left Sierra Chincua and headed down into the valley to the former mining town Mineral de Angangueo.
We had seen on iOverlander there was a car park on the edge of town that campervans could stay in overnight but when we got to what we thought was the right spot (going by the GPS coordinates given), the three local men parked up there having a chat and smoke shrugged at us and shook their heads. Clearly they weren’t keen on us parking up for the night. It was getting dark and we were getting worried about where we could stay but decided we would probably be safer if we were right in the centre of the town.
A cheery local was chuffed to bits at the sight of our old van pulling into the main square. He grinned and waved at us as we pulled by him into a side street. Could we ‘duerme’ there that ‘noche’? we asked in our atrocious Spanish. ‘Si, si’, he assured us. That was good enough for us. We parked up, conveniently close to an excellent taco stand where …
…we had one of the best meals of our travels in Mexico so far.
.Watched over by the street dogs, we had a good night’s sleep right beside the main square.
Next morning we had a wander around the town. It was a Monday and so unfortunately the Casa Parker museum was closed (it was the former home of expat mining engineer Bill Parker and his photographer wife Joyce). But we picked up much of the story of Angangueo from this mural..
…which covers the alleyway on both sides and graphically depicts the mining history of the town…
…including the tragic accident in 1953 which claimed the lives of 25 miners. That was the end of the American Smelting and Mining Company in Angangueo as the accident led to the nationalization of the mines.
Meeting Tigger’s Travels
Our next destination was Morelia which took us along a scenic mountain route.
Going to Morelia was a last minute detour for us so we could meet with Suzanne and John Curran aka Tigger’s Travels. When we were first planning this trip to Mexico and the USA, we had been following them on Instagram. They have a T25 like ours though their van Tigger is, as the name suggests, a lot more eye-catching than Molly (bless her Timor Beige good looks).
As well as following their posts, we had direct messaged them for advice and had a call with them to get information on travelling in Mexico. At that stage, we were planning to start our journey in Baltimore and then go south the Mexico before doing a loop back to the USA. On our call, they asked why we were not shipping the van direct to Veracruz. We hadn’t even considered it but it was a ‘light bulb’ moment for us. Why not?
It certainly made far more sense as it meant that the clock would only start ticking on our 6 month American B1/B2 Tourist visa once we crossed the border after our Mexico travels rather than as soon as we arrived in Baltimore. By going direct to Veracruz, we could take our time and enjoy Mexico as long as we felt like it and still have the full 6 months in the USA.
Suzanne and John were going to be travelling south through Mexico at the same time as us but for a while it seemed unlikely that our paths would cross. Unfortunately for them though, Tigger started giving them trouble, so much trouble that ultimately they were stuck in Morelia for weeks and faced having to replace the van’s engine. And Morelia was only a couple of hours drive from the butterflies. It was too good an opportunity to miss. We arranged to meet up with them…
…and had a great evening with them…
….which turned into nearly a week hanging around with them in Morelia once we decided to stay to see if the mechanic working on Tigger could also help sort Molly’s problems.
He did. Hugo the mechanic diagnosed problems with the injectors and glow plugs – which were knackered and burnt out – and put us in touch with Ivan the diesel specialist. He reconditioned the fuel injectors, provided new glow plug and praise be, that sorted the problem.
We said farewell to Tigger’s Travels and set off for the northernmost point in our travels around Mexico. Our destination – Xilitla and the surrealist Garden of Eden of Edward James.
Driving from San Cristobal de las Casas to Oaxaca was always going to be a two day affair for us. The distance is just under 400 miles but the route involves long steep climbs through the mountains and many, many topes . Those are the fiendish traffic slowing road bumps that still manage to catch us unawares.
Molly may have a reconditioned engine but our 30-year old campervan still finds big hills hard going. But we weren’t in any hurry so taking it slow was fine with us. And to make sure we didn’t end up overheating, we stuck with Stuart’s (so far) failsafe method of getting up the steepest of climbs.
That imvolves keeping the speed below 25 mph, staying in third gear or 18 mph for second gear. At any sign of the water getting to 110 degree centigrade and the oil temperature heating up to 100 degrees centigrade, we pull over …
…. put on the kettle …
…and have a cuppa while we wait for the engine to cool down.
As an additional aid to keeping the engine cool, we put the blow heater on full blast. It makes inside the van unbearably hot when it is already hot outside but that’s a small complaint if it helps to keep Molly moving.
Our two-day trip to Oaxaca took us through the most beautiful scenery we’ve seen on our travels through Mexico so far.
The route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec also took us through the windiest part of Mexico and past what is apparently the biggest wind farm in Latin America. There are wind turbines as far as the eye could see, row after row of them, on both sides of the road.
There were no convenient campsites en route so we spent the first night in a hotel in Juchitan de Zaragoza and the second in one a hotel in the small town of Najapad de Madero .
Here we are on one of our many van cooling stops, on a quiet mountain road where the loudest noise….
..was from a woodpecker pecking a cactus for grubs.
We knew we were getting near Oaxaca when we started seeing agave .
This is mezcal country and the landscape is dominated by the crop which is boiled and distilled to make the spirit.
We finally reached Santa Maria del Tule, the small town not far from Oaxaca where we had booked into Oasis Overland, a small campsite run by Canadians Leanne and Calvin. Experienced travellers themselves, they haven’t quite left their ‘home is where you park it’ days behind. They still sleep inside their bus…
…though nowadays, it has a mighty plush extended living area.
We ended up spending four days there, making new friends…
We helped Stretch and Lucinda work through their mezcal selection. .
The carnival was on in the town and we went with Tim, Sarah, Leanne and Calvin to watch the firework show. Young men dressed as toritos or young bulls scattered sparklers and set off rockets as they danced around and charged at each other.
On reflection, it wasn’t sensible to take a ringside seat for the show. Tim and Sarah each received scorch burns from flying sparks and Stuart’s evening ended in the paramedics’ van after a firework shot straight at his head, smashing his specs to the ground and burning his forehead.
Thankfully it missed his eye and left only a small scar on this forehead.
It wasn’t quite as magical as this one. Behold the wonder of photo editing!
The main attraction at Santa Maria del Tule is this Montezuma Cypress which is apparently one of the oldest and widest trees in the world.
The campsite was a good base for day tripping. We went to the Sunday market at Tlacolula…
…and bought mole sauce, new spanners and a replacement radio for the van. It was a good place to restock the van after the robbery.
We drove to the nearby village of Teotitlan del Valle, famous for weaving …
…and bought a new rug for home.
We drove out to see Hierve del Agua where the rock formations look like a waterfall ..
….and we had a dip in the naturally made infinity pool. If you get the camera angle right, it looks like you have the place to yourself.
And on the way back, we stopped off at Esmerelda’s roadside stand for tacos.
Stuart gave some of the locals a tour of the van and I had a shot at making tortillas…
And on the way back along the mountain track…
…we were hailed by Don Alberto to come try his mezcal. He showed us the whole process , starting with the roasting of the agave pinas or pineapple ‘hearts’…
..through to distillation, then to tasting and, of course, buying.
The flash of colour in the corner caught our eye. It turned out that our stop at Don Alberto’s coincided with a photoshoot for Lukas Avendano, Zapotec transgender muxe performance artist and, for the purposes of the shoot, a mezcalero hard at work turning the mill wheel to pulp the roasted agave.
I confess I had not heard of the word muxe before (pronounced moo-shay). The word is said to be derived from mujer, the Spanish word for woman, and is a third gender specific to the Zapotec indigenous people in the Oaxaca region.
Reading more about the muxe story, we found out that Lukas is something a celebrity. And so never knowingly passing up an opportunity for sleb spotting, I shamelessly crashed the photoshoot for a happy snap .
So that’s what we did around Oaxaca, in the city itself, we did plenty of wandering around the colourful streets…
…checked out the street art..
…one of the Zapatista shops/art galleries…
We did a tour of the botanic gardens which are lovely though the tour was in Spanish so I’m afraid we drifted off after a bit..
…and started taking selfies.
We visited the cathedral..
….and ate and drank aplenty in the wide choice of bars and restaurants. We recommend the soup…
…which is heated with hot stones.
We would have been happy to stay a lot longer exploring Oaxaca but it was time to get back on the road again.
And so after a scrub up for Molly…
…we joined the pilgrims and pointed our van north.
From Catamaco in Tabasco, we travelled further south and into the state of Chiapas to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque.
The journey took us to the most southern point we will go in our Mexico road trip. We stayed at a campsite conveniently close to the ruins, if a little noisy. The howler monkeys kept us awake for part of the night with their unearthly screeches.
We also met a convoy of Canadians – three motorhomes travelling together – and they told us very reassuring tales about the skills of Mexican mechanics. They can fix anything, we were told, and they relayed to us one story of a truck which had snapped in two and had been miraculously welded together. Nice to hear but we hope we never have to test this one.
Our Canadian companions also passed on alarming stories about the route we intended to take the following day to get to San Cristobel de las Casas. We had already read on various blogs and Tripadviser reviews plenty of scare stories about the risks travellers faced on the mountain road there. There were reports of Zapatista bandits barricading the roads and not letting drivers through unless a ransom sum was paid.
Worse than that, the Canadians told us they had heard about a couple who had been held up at gun point and robbed the previous week. But then, they added, this couple had apparently been driving the road at midnight. The one piece of advice we have had drummed in to us from all sources is ‘do not drive at night in Mexico’. In the dark, the risks come from all directions – unseen topes or sleeping policemen, potholes, wandering animals, drunk drivers. Armed bandits are at the end of a long list of risks to be aware of.
We weren’t sure if all the scare stories were true or had grown with the telling. Some of the reviews were a few years old. But they unnerved us sufficiently that we seriously dithered about whether we should avoid taking the mountain road to San Cristobal and, instead, back track to Villahermosa and take the main highway there. It was by all accounts a much longer, less scenic but much safer route. But if we did that, we would have missed out Ocosingo, or more specifically, we would have staying at “Jose’s House”.
We had read on iOverlander – the app we rely on heavily to find safe places to park overnight – that in Ocosingo, local family Jose and his wife Elki offer a warm welcome to passing campervanners and cyclists. Previous travellers waxed lyrical about the warmth of the welcome they received. The opportunity to stay with and meet a Mexican family? It sounded too good to miss. Just to reassure ourselves, we texted Elki at the mobile number given in the app. We wanted to come visit but would it be safe to travel? Her daughter Nina responded with an enthusiastic welcome – their house would be our house. Do come. She added that she was aware the police were patrolling this road because of the risks.
That was the reassurance we needed to hear. Though still very apprehensive, we set off at around 7 am, taking Nina’s advice to travel early in the morning.
Just in case we did meet some barricades, we made sure we had a stash of smaller peso notes at hand, ready to hand over.
It was a long steep climb through the mountains and when the engine started to heat up too much, we pulled up outside a village to wait for it to cool down. Two youngsters approached the campervan. But all they wanted was to sell us some warm empanadas…
…and crispy plantain which were delicious.
We carried on along the mountain road…
…and then we hit the first of the five informal road barricades that day. The first was manned a young girl, no more than eight years old, holding rope across the road to block our way and demanding nothing more from us than to buy some of her goodies. We couldn’t work out what but we waved our bag of plantain at her. She smiled, shrugged and down went her rope. On we drove and so it continued for the rest of the drive to Ocasingo. We met five more makeshift baricades and on each occasion, an apologetic smile and waved bag of plantain gave us a free pass through.
Further along on our road through the mountains, a fleet of police and army trucks came speeding past us and we saw them screech to a halt and assemble around a truck which had been pulled over at the side of the road. Something was kicking off for someone that afternoon but thankfully nothing that involved us.
Afterwards we heard the horrific tale of the gruesome murder of two cyclists – a Polish and a German – on that same route two years ago. The still unsolved murder has led to the setting up on a whatsapp group for solo cyclists in Mexico so they plan their route from one ‘safe’ house to another.
We were very glad we made the trip to Ocasingo and our time there will be one of the highlights of our whole trip I’m sure. Jose, Elki, Elki’s mum and daughter Nina were so warm and hospitable to us.
We were offered a parking spot just outside their house to stay the night …….
….as well as the use of their outdoor kitchen where we dined with Jose and Elki and fellow guest Duvan from Columbia. Here we all are…
And here with Molly, from left, daughter Nina, Elki and Jose.
Jose was very keen for us to stay in Ocasingo longer than one night but we had to press on with our trip. Still, we did take the family’s advice and before we set off for San Cristobel de las Casas, we visited the Mayan ruins at Tonino which, in the Mayan civilization, was once a more powerful city than Palenque.
Unlike Palenque which was busy with other tourists the day we visited, we had Tonino to ourselves which was magical.
And then Jose tempted us with a further reason to linger on in Ocosingo – there was a chario or rodeo on that afternoon. We should come along for a bit before setting off on our travels again. We weakened…..we couldn’t miss this. Jose and Duvan piled in to the back of the van…
….squashing themselves in around our stuff with what turned out to be all their kit for a clothes and hat stall at the rodeo. All designs by daughter Elki.
We watched the caballeros compete….
…and did some shopping. I’ll take one of Elki’ s hats please.
Then it was time to leave – a slow departure as it turned out as we had timed it just as all the local ranchers arrived in procession, beers in hand, to celebrate the rodeo.
Though only 95km away, it was a long slow climb over the mountains to get to San Cristobal de la Casas. The first person we met when we arrived at the campsite there was Michelle, a cyclist from Dublin. And we discovered just how small the traveller world is in Mexico….we knew of her before she introduced herself. At Ocasingo, Jose had already showed us the snaps he had taken with Michelle. And parked next to us were Hans and Katya, a couple from Holland still in the recovery stage from the shock when their truck camper had snapped in two and had to be welded back together. Yes, they were the couple mentioned to us at Palenque.
Here we are with Michelle…
…..before she set off to complete her cycle from Cancun to Oaxaca.
We spent four days at the campsite in San Cristobal de las Casas. It was great to have some time to do some important stuff for the van…..like attaching the sunflower stickers we’ve carried around with us for months.
….and the plastic ivy that makes us look like intrepid travellers (thanks Regan – an inspired pressie!)…
Our fellow campers Maggie from Michigan and Antonio from Mexico who are heading down the Pan American highway indulged us by looking suitably impressed.
And we met Melisa and Derrin from Vermont…
…who gave us great tips on where to camp once we cross the border into the US.
And, of course, we also spent time wandering around the quaint town of San Cristobal de las Casas.
So as the sun sets over San Cristobel de la Casas (cue final credits) ….
….that’s the end of this part of our journey. Our next post is takes us over the mountains to Oaxaca and onward and, unfortunately, we get the opportunity to see for ourselves just how helpful Mexican mechanics can be. There’s van trouble ahead.
Hola again. You left us at the last blog post licking our wounds on a campsite just outside Veracruz. Here we are…
We’ve travelled a good few miles in Mexico since then, bumping and shaking our way across the top of hundreds of topes that come upon you with, and mostly without, warning. Those are the Mexican versions of sleeping policemen that dot every road in a bid to slow down speeding drivers. And very effective they are too.
And so normal travel blog service has been resumed and we will try very, very hard not to harp on again about the thievin’ curs who are currently besporting themselves somewhere in the world with all our stuff. Do spare some sympathy though for the unfortunate travellers who cross our paths and who, Ancient Mariner-like, we can’t resist grabbing hold of and fixing with glittering eyes to tell our tale of woe.
Well at least we’ve got a good story out of it while they got our chairs, clothes, tools…….ENOUGH!!
As for our travels so far, we ended up spending nine nights in Veracruz while we were waiting for the van to arrive into port. We used the time to plan our route for the next few months.
We strolled along the harbour front to watch the local boys dive for pesos and shells …
…and along the beach where vultures were swooping down to pick up dead seagulls…
…and it was bathtime for this lady’s chihuahua.
Some days it was just too windy to walk very far.
Usually at lunchtimes we would head across the road from the hotel to Tacos David for suckling pig tacos in a broth and a glass of cold cold horchata made of rice milk and flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon.
At night time we would go to zocalo, the main square in the city, where there was usually great music and fantastic dance shows.
Zocalo was always a lively, buzzy place. In the time it would take to eat a fish taco and drink two cervezas, we would have been approached by a parade of street vendors asking you to buy something – cakes, nuts, a lantern, cigars, painted bookmarks…you name it. It was on offer. But it was all very chilled out and hassle free. A polite ‘no gracias’ and they moved on. We did buy a lantern though because did I mention that our’s was stolen. (YES YES YES YOU DID BUT ENOUGH!)
We did do some of the tourist ‘musts’ in the city. We visited the fort of San Juan de Ulúa where Cortes landed in 1519 and there started the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
And we had lecheros in the city’s Grand Cafe de Paroquia where the waiter first pours black coffee into to your glass then clinks it with a spoon to summon another waiter to pour out steaming hot milk from a height like so…
We have heard since that Veracruz has a reputation for being a dangerous city. Certainly the police and army presence was very obvious and our first sighting of an open back truck whizzing by manned by two black masked machine gun bearing officers was a shock. It was a common occurrence though and it’s slightly disconcerting how quickly you became immune to it. We’d scarcely pause in conversation while passing armed soliders in full fatigues on the pavement. Well maybe not completely immune. The burly machine-gun armed security guard emerging from the lingerie section of Walmart in Veracruz did give me a start.
Once we had our van sorted and re-stocked, we headed 100 miles south to Catemaco and to a little campsite called La Jongle.
It is appropriately named because it is set within rainforest overlooking Lake Catemaco and we slept or at least tried to sleep to a soundtrack of macaws and howler monkeys.
If the site looks familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve seen either Medicine Man with Sean Connery or Apocalypto with Mel Gibson. The family who own the campsite rented out their land as sets for both films.
It poured rain the whole time we were there so we stayed only one night. But it was a good base for a visit to the factory where they make Mexico’s most famous Te Amo cigars. The workers scarcely glanced up at us as they focussed on stripping out the stalks from the tobacco leaves in one section…
…and, in the next section, handrolled them into shape.
And next door to La Jongle, the nature reserve at Nanciyaga provided an opportunity for an unexpected beauty treatment.
Planning our route to the cocoa plantations of Tabasco, we asked the campsite owner for advice on a good place to stopover en route. It was unnerving to hear that she considered that the town midway along our route would not be safe for us. She has friends living there and she told us a bit cryptically that things weren’t very good there at the moment and we should steer clear.
So to bypass it, we decided to do the 200 mile drive to the city of Villharamosa, setting off early in the fog…
…and as there were no convenient campsites, arriving early evening to a hotel offering unlimited porn. (See our instagram post on Tabasco for more details!) And when we weren’t watching telly, we used our hotel as the base to go north to the cocoa plantations of Comalcalco. We visited the beautiful Hacienda La Luz…
and then stopped off at the Cocina Chantal de Nelly Cordova for some typical Tabascan-cuisine.
…..where we learned the valuable lesson – try a teeny bit of the salsa verde piquante before slathering it all over your meal such that you can’t focus for the fire in your gob.
Before leaving Tabasco to travel further south to the state of Chiapas, we clocked up another Mayan ruins visit at Comalcalco. Them’s Mayan fingerprints in the brickwork apparently….
We met some igunas and a very friendly Mexican woman who was truly baffled at why we had shipped our van from the UK to Mexico and wanted to know more about it. Oh yes, the perfect audience to offload our tale of woe. We’re word perfect by now.
Next post is about our route to Palenque and on to Oaxaca.
I regret writing that instagram post bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t allowed go to the Customs inspection at Veracruz port with Stuart.
I posted it minutes after Stuart disappeared off in the car with our shipping agent Luiz, leaving me sitting in the office somewhere in the Veracruz city outskirts to wait for their return. It hadn’t been mentioned before we arrived that there was only a permit for one to attend at the port so apologies but Señora had to stay behind. If I had known, I would have stayed in the hotel.
“Having a severe attack of FOMO..” .I posted petulantly, annoyed that I was missing out on seeing the inspection firsthand and then – as I imagined – experiencing the relief and excitement of driving out of the port in Molly, free to go on with our travels.
But it was nothing like that for Stuart. Instead of excitement, he had the sickening experience of seeing firsthand how thieves had thoroughly ransacked our campervan and stolen so much of our stuff. Except my shoes….they left behind a pair of orange sandals from Zara. And some books, DVDs and cooking stuff.
The pilfering wasn’t obvious to Stuart at first. When he arrived at the docks and opened the van, everything looked in order at first glance. Then he spotted that the fake wooden panel he had built to hide all our stuff had been smashed and the padlock cut open. And then he saw that the padlock securing the cupboard under the seat was missing.
Before shipping the van, we were advised that we could store personal stuff on the van while it was in transit from Southampton to Veracruz but it was at our own risk, not insurable, and for safety, everything needed to be locked away and completely out of sight. So that’s what we did. Everything we needed or wanted for the trip, and were not going to use for our week’s holiday in Mexico City, was packed in boxes behind a padlocked door or padlocked under the seat. Nothing was in view so we thought we were pretty safe. More fool us.
The pilferers were a determined bunch and clearly had plenty of time to cut through the padlocks and wrench off cupboard doors to sift their way through every box and crevice in the van, open up every Eagle Creek bag of clothes and take what they wanted. Then they shoved what they didn’t want back into the cupboards so anyone looking in the van window would think there was nothing amiss.
When the two Customs officers finally arrived for the inspection, Stuart had already had two hours of sorting through our things and bit by bit was realising what had been taken. Sitting in the agent’s office, his ‘whatsapp’ messages kept pinging through to me, listing everything.
I’m not going to list them all but here’s a sample. Our camping chairs had gone. Then there was the quilt and sleeping bag we bought for our first big van trip. They were sold to us with the promise that they roll up small, are really light but they could keep you toasty warm in the Himalayas. We’ve never been that far but they certainly proved their worth to us when we were in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The list went on… Stuart’s fishing rods, all his tools for the van (a collection amassed since he was a young lad with a Honda motorbike), our hiking clothes and boots (the good stuff we bought for walking in the Peak District) …..the ‘whatsapps’ kept coming. The front of the radio, even the clip to hold your sunglasses on the sunvisor for goodness sake!
And just when you start to feel immune, one hits you in the craw. It looked like they had taken the beautiful wooden Sami cups sent to us as present by Rita and Anders, friends we had met in Sweden on our last travels. When we had revamped the van for this trip, the wooden cups added a finishing touch.
When the Customs officers finally arrived to carry out their inspection, Stuart was ordered to empty everything from the van onto the dockside so each item could be photographed and sniffed by the dog. By the time he got back to the agent’s office, he was looking really strung out and fed up. And we still had no van as it was going to take another two or three days for the paperwork to be processed.
We used the waiting time to restock on the essentials. Walmart had most things including an £8 duvet which will do just as well as our fancy Himalayas one. Then it was back into the centre of Veracruz to the Talisman DIY store to get replacement tools. The assistants proved very patient and understanding at our halting attempts to explain what we needed. They were also far too polite to laugh out loud at Stuart’s request for a ‘spanner piquante’ instead of ‘pequeno’ .
And finally, finally we got our van back this morning. Before making our way to a campsite south of Veracruz where we are now, we made another visit to Walmart to stock up on food.
And that’s where we met fellow Vdub owners Omar and his lovely Mum Rosa when he parked his van beside us.
So now we have our van back and bit by bit discovering the full extent of what was taken. These guys clearly spent a lot of time in Molly figuring out exactly what they wanted and discarding what they didn’t want. So what’s wrong with my orange shoes anyway?
It’s a strange thing but when we come across something in the van they didn’t steal (like the Sami cups from Rita and Anders – we found them thrown in the back of a cupboard!) we are thrilled and strangely grateful to the thieves that they kindly left it behind for us. What’s that feeling I wonder – some off shoot of Stockholm syndrome?
Yep, it’s been a challenging start to our road trip but at least, we now have Molly back and, subject to a few bashed internal doors, she’s in pretty good shape thankfully.
So the clock has started ticking on our 9 months away in Molly our campervan – well almost. As I write, Molly is tucked in among enormous trucks and tractors on a ro ro ship sitting just outside the port of Veracruz. If it’s not too windy again, the ship may dock tonight. Once off loaded, she will be in the hands of Customs and, depending on how suspicious they are about the marmite and cod liver oil tablets on board, we may have her back and be on the road within a couple of days. Here’s hoping.
So in this limbo period when we are still hanging around in a hotel in Veracruz, here’s a look back at how Stuart and I started off our travels. It was with a week’s holiday in Mexico City, shared with my two daughters Ciara and Regan.
We left London on 30 December 2019….
…arriving just in time to ring in 2020. We hadn’t booked anywhere so were lucky to find a Thai restaurant with a free table to ring in the New Year…
…complete with props for happy snaps.
Our first impressions of Ciudad de Mexico or CDMX (as it’s officially called) is that this city of 21 million people is much more chilled out and manageable than we expected. But maybe that was because it was still the Christmas holidays and the city wasn’t as busy as usual. Or maybe it was the heavy police presence – which is quite startling to see. Whatever, we felt safe walking everywhere and also taking the Metro (which we took a few times and found easy to navigate). That was once we figured out that plastic doesn’t work on the Metro so we always needed small change to pay the standard fare of 5 pesos (about 20 pence) for fares.
Mostly though we relied on Uber to get around because it was so cheap. One local trip we took cost the equivalent of 68 pence. And longer trips like our pick up on arrival from the airport to our airbnb or our 20 minute journey out of the city to the Frida Kahlo museum cost less than a fiver.
Where we stayed ..
We stayed in an Airbnb in the Roma district which, on balance, was fine though not exactly as the wording promised. Or maybe it was exactly as the wording promised. The blurb talked about the third ‘bonus’ bedroom on the roof giving ‘unprecedented access to nature’. Translated that meant there were a stream of bugs crawling under the bedroom door. At about 4.30 am, Ciara bailed and picked her way down the scary spiral staircase in the dark to sleep on the sofa in the living room. And there she bedded down for the rest of the week.
Seeing the sights in CDMX
We started off our touristy blitz in the Centro Historico where it was still Christmas time, complete with ecologically-sound fake ice…
….had a wander around the lavishly decorated Cathedral Metropolitana…
….watched the Aztec dancers conduct what looked like a cleansing ceremony…
…and then strolled downtown stopping off along the way to visit one of the city’s institutions La Ideal Bakery.
There was a huge selection of cakes, bread and biscuits on show. We copied the locals, picked up a tray and tongs…
…and picked out a modest selection from the vast array on display.
The floating flower gardens of Xochimilco
We took the metro, bus and train to the floating flower gardens of Xochimilco. These waterways were used as flower and vegetable gardens by the Aztecs. Now gondala rides along the canals are a big tourist attraction and the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We haggled for a two hour ride, thought we had a deal, then found ourselves being punted back to shore just over one hour later. Hey ho. It all goes with the tourist territory. We persuaded our boatman to give us a bit more time but actually, an hour probably is enough time enough to enjoy the experience of bumping along in a boat traffic jam boat…
….listening to the passing mariachi bands…
….buying snacks from passing traders (here’s Regan with elote, that’s corn on the cob, drenched with lime juice and chilli powder) …
…and enjoying the wildlife and weirder sights along the canal banks.
A trip to Teohiuatcan
From the Airbnb website, we went on Alejandro’s excursion to the temples of the sun, moon and snake of Teotihuacan, about an hour away from Mexico City. Here he is…
His family home is nearby and as a young boy he played inside the temples before they were protected as historic sites and laws were enacted to stop the kids trading their pre-Hispanic jewellery and carvings for sweets and pesos. It was well worth doing the trip with him. He knew to get us up the temple steps early in the morning……
….before the rush hour started when, by Alejandro’s account, it can take two hours shuffling in a queue to get to the top.
Then it was back to Alejandro’s home to taste the delicious hot chocolate made by his wife and meet the local wise woman who offered us a cleansing just as we had seen in Mexico City. Couldn’t pass that chance up.
We saw art …
….at the Frida Kahlo Museum at Coyacan…
….except Stuart who had a haircut instead while we went inside Casa Azul…
…(to be fair he had been to the Frida Kahlo exhibition in London).
We saw the murals of Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional …
….and more at the modern art museum …
We only skimmed the surface of Mexico’s ancient civilizations at the vast anthropology museum.
We stayed a while outside the museum as well, enjoying the fire dancers…
…and the dance of the flyers.
Stuart sampled the deep fried crickets from a stall there – delicious with with lime and chilli sauce apparently. (Will take his word for it).
Viva Lucha Libra
We had a great night out watching wrestling Mexican-style….
….and dressed for the occasion..
Food glorious food
We’d heard that Mexican street food was good.
We didn’t expect it to be soooo good. Especially the tacos from this stand.
…..and we queued with the crowds to try another CDMX favourite, freshly made churros and chocolate sauce from El Moro.
A cooking lesson
We went shopping in Mercado San Juan with Mexican chef Diana.
I think we will all remember one tip she passed on from her grandmother. When going to the market for rabbit, check it has furry legs to be sure you are not buying cat.
And that’s a quick tour through our week in Mexico City….it was fantastic for me to be able to share the start of our big trip with Ciara and Regan. My son Conor will hopefully join us somewhere on our USA leg, as will Stuart’s son and daughter Callum and Mary.
Maybe they too can be persuaded (eh embarrassed into) co-ordinating outfits with their Dad!
So farewell then CDMX
After leaving the girls at the airport for their flight back to London, work and normal life, we took the coach to Veracruz to start our Mexico/USA road trip….