April 16-30, 2003
Over and over we said that we would drive into Mexico. And over and over we wondered if we would really do it. Was it better to drive or better to do as we did elsewhere in the world, rely on public transportation? Each had its own good points: Bus and trains offered more chances to meet people and no worry about breakdowns and unexpected expenses. A car offered the chance to see more of a city, to stop on the way and explore out of the way corners.
We finally bought a car in late February. And we still hadn't really decided we would take it to Mexico. We wanted it for getting to Florida and for getting to California. Finally in Texas we got information on auto insurance in Mexico and took the plunge: we bought the car insurance.
Then the next day we cancelled it. That doesn't quite mean that we are as indecisive as it seems. It just means that we found a better insurance package. We cancelled the AAA insurance and bought insurance from Sanborn, at a 30% saving.
Our insurance dealings took us most of the morning. Once done, we set off for Mexico, thinking we might make it to Monterrey that night. South we went along I35 seeing country that seemed as if it must be little changed since the Spanish exploriers first passed. It was large a mesquite covered plain, with no hills within sight, but it wasn't (we had learned) what the first Spaniards saw. When they came it was more a grassy plain, kept that way by the native Indians who burned the area to drive game heards. When their numbers were greatly diminised by European diseases the burning stopped and the mesquite began to take hold.
After we crossed the border and got past the twin towns of Laredo - Nuevo Laredo the same country continued. And then through a strong haze we began to see hills. In all, from San Antonio to the town of Sabinas-Hidalgo at the foot of the hills it was over 200 miles. This 200 miles is probably the biggest, emptiest place we know between such large urban agglommerations as San Antonio and Monterrey.
We spent one night in Sabinas, not wanting to drive past dark to get to Monterrey , capital of the state of Nuevo Leon. Then it was three nights in Monterrey, which is not enough for this city of over a million. If we had been more organized or it had not been as hot it might have been. But we missed some museums and "street life" that we would like to have visited. From there it was an easy drive southwest to Saltillo , capital of Coahuila. It is a third the size of Monterrey and correspondingly easier to get around. Its historic center is much better preserved. We spent only two nights; part of one day was spent "disovering" how to change the oil on a car and where Gerry could get a skin growth examined. We succeeded in both. Then it was further southwest, more west than south, always keeping about 25 degrees north, to Parras . On the way we stopped at a Dinosaur museum near where a some fossils had been found. Parras is distingued by the oldest vineyard in North America, over 400 years old, and a few years older than the town. We spent most of a day walking from the center to the vineyard, a roundtrip of about 18-19 km.
Back to Texas
Our second foray into Mexico was much more leisurely than the first and much more comfortable too. The Spanish practice we had had in April started to bear fruit making just about everything about life easier.
We spent the first month mostly in the desert state of Sonora , during which time we had our problems, but we always managed to either overcome or overlook them. We ended our stay in Sonora with a lengthy stay in Hermosillo where we rested from the desert heat in the cool waters of our hotel pool. Then we made a beeline for the coast hoping to find cool ocean breezes. It was not to be. Instead San Carlos brought us temperatures of 37° Celsius and 90% humidity. It was brutal.
In September, we left the coast for the mountains and spent a wonderful couple of weeks in and around the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyons). This Mexican grand canyon is a delightful area that reminded us a lot of the hill country of Northern Laos and Northern Vietnam with their spectacular combination of isolated hill tribes and magnificent high mountain landscapes.
Our next destination was the high (and cool) mountain plateaus of Durango,
Mexican cowboy country.
Here we found a room in a 1960's motel,
built on the outskirts of the city of Durango
for American moviemakers and movie stars like John Wayne.
Long past its initial glory
Campo Mexico Motel nonetheless provided us with spacious accommodations for a very
reasonable price and time to catch our breath,
do some laundry,
and explore the lovely
colonial city center.
From Durango, we drove the Devil's Backbone back to the Pacific Coast at Mazatlan. Mountain driving has been one of our greatest pleasures in Mexico. Fabulous vistas of range after range of Sierra Madre, pure blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds, and last but not least, a cool, cool, breeze blowing in our face. There is hardly anything more one could wish for.
The weather at Mazatlan was a little kinder to us than it had been at San Carlos. We still had to deal with the before and after effects of a hurricane heading for Baja California, but as it kept the temperature down and the waves up, we couldn't complain. From here we hopped down the coast to Puerto Vallarta, a pretty nice beach resort town, where we found us a lovely beachfront hotel, a seaview room, and a beachfront pool — Jan's idea of heaven. We carried on down the coast until we got to San Patricio de Melaque (simply Melaque to locals) where we found perhaps our favorite beachfront room. It gave onto a huge covered terrace with tables and chairs and it was here that we spent many pleasant hours caressed by the ocean breeze that had been AWOL in San Carlos, and soaking up the million-dollar view of palm-fringed beach and ocean.
From Melaque we headed back into the mountains headed this time for Mexico's second city of Guadalajara. En route we spent a couple of days on the shores of Lake Chapala in Ajijic (A-hee-heek), a popular place for Americans to retire to. In Guadalajara we did big-city things like visiting museums and cathedrals and experienced our first Mexican religious festival as we accompanied la Virgen de Zapopan on her way home.
Last, but certainly not least, we drove across more of the lovely high mountain plateau country to get from Guadalajara to Zacatecas, the city of silver mines. And here we found ourselves fortunate enough to arrive in the midst of a cultural festival with French movies, street theater, and open air band concerts. We sort of fell in love with Zacatecas in a way we hadn't with any other Mexican city. Its colonial city center and baroque cathedral just charmed the pants off us.
But finally, reality dawned. Here we were on this wondrous journey that we longed to share with the world and two of our most important tools had begun to fail us. Jan's computer was having power supply troubles and Gerry's SONY digital camcorder could no longer focus. Having already paid $300 and three weeks without it for repair in the summer, we now had to admit that it was past repair. We considered having Gerry ride a bus to the border and back to get them replaced, but in the end we figured the cheapest thing was to drive there and back. So that is what we did. With brief stop in Saltillo, and Reynosa, we crossed the border into Texas and took a room at the Aloha Motel in McAllen.
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