Mexican Central Mountain Towns

Sure, I did go pretty quickly through Southern Mexico, so I am by no means an expert on the place.  But, right or wrong, the impression I got was that most of it was quite impoverished, hot as hell, frequently dirty, unmaintained, rainy and sporting something of a bad attitude.  I had some of my worst experiences of my entire trip in Southern Mexico.  There were two incidents in Chiapas where teens pulled ropes across the road in front of me in an attempt to stop (I didn’t stick around to ask why).  There was another incident in Chiapas where a young man swung a machete at me.  Another guy told me to basically go f*&k myself when I asked for directions.  Then, there were the constant attempts by cashiers and gas station attendants to rip me off.  Plus, there were more bugs than I’d ever seen anywhere in my life.  Stuff like that.

I was a little leery to back to Guadalajara after having all of my clothes stolen the first time.  But on my second visit, I found Guadalajara to be a fantastic city.  It’s not an overly exciting place, but its wonderful eternal spring climate, many modern restaurants and seemingly educated population made it very different from the Mexico I experienced further south.  In a lot of ways, Guadalajara reminded me of an Argentinian city.  It had a lot of tree lined streets and a population that seemed to be economically similar to what I found in many Argentine cities.  There was a modern and moving forward feel to the place that I found absent in many Latin American cities.  But still, it is very different from the notion of what “modern” would mean in the U.S.

There weren’t a ton of them, but the central area of town really had some great historic buildings.  Plus, in certain parts of town, one could actually escape the seemingly omnipresent mariachi music.  There are also no donkeys or cows on the road here, which I appreciated.  But, what impressed me most about the city was the sheer number of statues, sculptures and public art scattered throughout the city.  I was really impressed by the amount of time, effort and I would imagine money that the city spent on its public art.  The city even had a municipal band playing marches and waltzes in a gazebo near the town square.

Town squares…  In my opinion, the town square is really the defining part of a Latin American city.  Every population center has one, whereas very few American cities have anything comparable.  Generally, you will find a large church, municipal building, restaurants and frequently some type of entertainment.  On my trip I found them to be a nice place to walk, people watch, sit and have a coffee.  Town squares generally have some form of public art – perhaps it is the buildings themselves, sculptures or mature shade trees.  Anyway, I think it is the kind of centralized heart that is missing from most U.S. cities and its a shame.

While in Guadalajara, I took a day off to do motorcycle maintenance.  I finally managed to track down the front tire that I had been looking for since leaving Costa Rica.  I definitely got my moneys worth from the last one, having bought it in Argentina and ridden it from Uyuni, Bolivia.  Next, I replaced the front and rear brake pads with the set that Amanda had brought to Sayulita.  The front pads were certainly due for a replacement and the rear “refurbished” pads were looking ugly too.  Then, I found a shop where I could get the oil changed, clean out the air filter and install a new spark plug.  I also spent some money getting the bike washed, especially since it was caked with mud after my trip to Playa los Tortugas.  I finished by adjusting the chain and doing my standard “check every bolt I could see ” routine.  Of course, I found a few loose ones and snugged them up.

After all this, the Red Burro was running great.  That was until I somehow managed to flood it on the way back to the hostel.  This had never happened to me before.  I got pissed off and kept trying to start it.  Instead of firing up, all I managed to do was fill the carburetor and air box full of gas.  Finally, reason prevailed and I turned the ignition switch off and took stock of the bike.  I smelled gas and began to investigate.  I opened the air box cover and yikes.  Gas was not supposed to be in there.  Then, I pulled the plug off the end of the air box drain hose.  About half of a beer can worth of gas drained out of that thing.  I figured that if the carburetor and air box looked like this, the spark plug was probably soaking wet too.

So, I began to take the bike apart in a gas station parking lot.  Fortunately the folks  working there seemed to enjoy the show.  They would stop by from time to time, offering suggestions.  A popular one was to help me push-start the bike.  In my crappy Spanish I tried to relay that I did not think this would work, given the bike was completely flooded.  So, I waited for a while, letting the air box sit open while the drain hose emptied out and the spilled gas evaporated.  Then, I shut off the gas line from the tank.  I tried to turn the engine over to see if it would start now.  I tried for quite a while and no luck.  At this point, I was about five minutes from being really concerned.  Or pissed off.  I’m not sure which.  I then took the body panels, seat and gas tank off the bike and pulled out the spark plug.  It was soaked.  I cleaned it off and turned the bike over a few times.  On the first few revolutions, a significant cloud of fuel came out of the open spark plug hole.  I cycled the engine until it was dry, waited a few minutes, then reinstalled the clean plug.  Then, I put the tank back on and she fired right up.  I put the bike back together and headed back to the hostel, hoping the whole way that something like this wouldn’t ever happen again.

In total, I spent eight days in Guadalajara.  On one of those days, I took a 45 minute drive to Lake Chapala.  Its a fairly well known resort area in the region and has a mix of Mexican and foreign tourists.  There is a sizable american community on the lake, as well as a town with several thermal spring pools.  While walking around the waterfront, I had a horrible joke drink called a Michelada.  As far as I could tell, it was a repulsive mixture of beer, chili peppers, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, a big lump of ice and I would prefer to not know what else.  The locals seemed to love the stuff, but I couldn’t even chug it.  Since I don’t like bloody marys, I probably should have steered clear of this stuff from the start.

My next outing was to attend a Chivas futbal game.  I met a group of four German guys who were staying at the hostel.  They were working as engineers in a Mexican town and were visiting Guadalajara for the weekend.  Even better, they had a car.  Since I don’t know much about soccer, I was sort of expecting something like the spectacle I witnessed in Mendoza, Argentina.  Nope.  We arrived at a huge parking area that looked like what would find in the U.S., which surrounded an enormous, shiny and new stadium.  It looked sort of like a concrete donut resting on a mound.  We got to the stadium and while there were police and security, they were not busy.  The place had a very family feel to it.  The stadium was clearly built, had modern concession stands and everything that might be found in a U.S. baseball stadium.  I was a little surprised, but it was nice.

I eventually ran out of excuses for staying in Guadalajara any longer.  I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I was really comfortable in the town and it was hard to leave.  But finally, I packed my bags and left for the historic mountain town of Zacatecas.  Wow!  The town is located at an elevation of 8,005 feet, so the air is nice and cool.  It’s an old colonial city and has an impressive set of beautiful old buildings.  Like Guadalajara, Zacatecas was full of public art and interesting public buildings.  I checked into the Hostel Villa Colonial, which was recommended by my friend Vicente.  I parked my moto in a safe spot, and got to work enjoying some beer and the Hostel’s fantastic rooftop patio.

Zacatecas had had its start as a Spanish mining camp in the mid 1500s.  The area has substantial silver deposits and the city quickly became one of the more important cities in the area.  As in other colonial mining towns, like Potosi, Bolivia, most of the silver went to the Spanish crown.  After serving as an important mining town for ages, the town next made headlines as being the location of a important battle during the Mexican Revolution when Pancho Villa took the town.  I was only able to spend two nights in the town, but was able to see a lot.  The place is full of great architecture as well as some very good food.  One thing that struck me as curious though was the makeup of the tourist crowd.  As beautiful and historic as the town was, it really didn’t have the developed tourist type activities that could be found in places like Panama, Guatamala or really, most other countries to the south.  Perhaps it has something to do with the visitor crowd.  It seemed to me that most of the visitors were Mexicans or Mexican Americans.  Also, it seemed that the crowd was a little older than what was found further south.  Anyway, I had a great time exploring the town and felt very safe there.

Since I am quite fascinated by all things mining and mining related, I had to go on the towns mine tour.  Well, it was interesting but sort of like a disney version of what I saw in Bolivia.  Nice cement walkways, handrails, no active mining, mood lighting and there was even a disco in the mine that was open in the evening.

From Zacatecas, I made my way to the dusty town of Durango.  It was an ok place, but nothing I would go out of my way to visit.  After Guadalajara and Zacatecas, the town was downright boring.  It had a decent town square and an interesting cathedral, but, yeah, not something I need to see again.  On a side note, Durango seemed to me close to the dividing line between the green and wet south of Mexico and the dry arid north.  The most interesting thing that happened to me in this area was crossing the Tropic of Cancer, which had me thinking a lot of how far I had gone and everything I had seen.  It made me think a lot of when I had crossed the Tropic of Cancer, in northern Argentina as well as the equator in Ecuador.  Wow!

After a night in Durango, I made my way to Mazatlan.  I got going fairly early in the morning because the high, twisty mountain route between the two cities has a bit of a bad reputation for banditry.  The road, called the Devil’s Backbone, went up, up and up.  I’m not sure how high it topped off, but I think it was over 10,000 feet.  It was cold, the road was very winding but it was a fun and super scenic ride.  Logging (and banditry and narcos) seem to be the big industry in the area.  In the not so distant future, the Puente Baluarte, the biggest bridge in Latin America will be finished.  Apparently this should shave a couple hours off the six or so hour trip.  Banditry aside, the ride was a lot of fun.  Starting in dry Durango, then making my way up into the mountains, for quite a while, then, finding my self dropping down back into the tropics on the other side made for a fun day, and a few changes of clothing.  I wrapped up the ride by having a nice shrimp meal at a road side stand in a small town on the way into Mazatlan.  From there, I made my way into town, intent on finding a hotel and doing some exploring.

One of the things I wanted to do was find the ferry terminal for my ride to Baja.  I was hoping to spend one night in Mazatlan, then hop on the ferry and make it to Baja the following day.  Well, it didn’t really turn out that way.  I made my way through town and just sort of ended up at the ferry terminal.  I was thinking back to Puerto Vallerta and how I wasn’t too interested in staying at a overcrowded gringo tourist destination.  As I was parking my bike to inquire about the schedule, a ferry employee came up to me and asked if I wanted to get on the boat.  “When was it leaving?” I asked.  “Now” she said.  “Right now?”  “Yes, you need to hurry.”   So, I grabbed my paperwork, paid a big fee in the office and rode my motorcycle onto an enormous ferry.  Did you just say it would take 17 hours was the last question I asked on Mainland Mexico.  It hit me now that my trip was pretty much over and when I hit land I’d be in the netherworld of Baja.

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