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.
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.
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