Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

Silao, Guanajuato – Jesus is big

Mittwoch, Juni 15th, 2011

On a 2900 m high mountain close to the city of Silao a statue of Christ stands enthroned. It shall be the second largest of the world, but that’s not completely true. Counting the high plinth where a church is located on two stories one could put Christo Rey on the second place after the 36 m high monument in Poland. But plinth isn’t the same as statue, and for the remaining 20.5 m only a standing at the rear places, even far behind the famous statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro, is left.

For the moment, we have to try to find Christo Rey. First many signs with white Christ icons on blue background point the direction, suddenly they disappear. It is essential to know that abruptly one has to follow the signs to El Cubilete how the mountain is called the monument was erected upon. That’s Mexican logic. In the end of a several kilometres long cobblestone road that steeply climbs the mountain we find Jesus. Big yes, but not overpowering. From here we have a wide view into the vast country. This place in the mountains is pleasantly cool, quiet, and peaceful. We decide to bed down on a remote parking lot below the statue for the night.

Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán – Craftwork and pork knuckle

Dienstag, Juni 14th, 2011

Lake Pátzcuaro is an idyllically located lake between rolling hills and pre-Columbian villages. The loop is just 90 km long. In many of these towns still today their traditional trades are practised. In one village beautiful coloured award-winning wooden masks are made, in the next one straw huts in all shapes and sizes. We find pottery or lacquer work from wood bowl and trays with bright flowers. Another community creates statues for the garden or the typical small chapels, shrines and sanctuaries at the side of the road, the next one makes wrought-iron tables and chairs. If you ever pass by Lake Pátzcuaro, don’t miss the Rolf who runs a German-Bavarian restaurant on the south-western shore. It is a beautiful location with a pretty garden, ponds with trout, ducks and other animals. And the food – made by his son – is delicious!

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán – Happy skeletons and dancing old men

Montag, Juni 13th, 2011

Tzacapuansucutinpátzcuaro. Despite greatest efforts I’m not able to pronounce the name correctly, to read it, let alone to remember. But why shall I succeed in what the Spaniards didn’t manage? They shortened the word, which means in Purépecha language “place of the stones” without further ado to Pátzcuaro. And that was that. The Purépecha is the resident tribe whose language can still be heard in the area.

The Aztecs had never been able to conquer the empire to which Pátzcuaro belonged. As the Spanish invaded the area in 1529 they created carnage and subjugated the people. Only two years later Franciscan monk and future bishop Vasco de Quiroga arrived with completely different ideas. He strived for a society with equal rights, founded new Indigene communities and encouraged them to practise each their own trade. This habit is still maintained, including Tata Vasco’s worship to whose remembrance a plaza with fountain and memorial was erected.

In this not too big town are quite a few plazas, and a lot of old buildings like churches, palaces, beautiful hotels with inner courtyard, a former convent, a museum, a library… Private buildings and shops have a common appearance with whitewashed adobe and red tiled roofs. There is a cute market with fruits, shoes, and craftwork. Pátzcuaro is famous for its souvenirs, pictures or figurines of elegantly slim skeletons in expensive robes. The Indigenes celebrate the All Saint’s Day intensely, but they don’t mourn, instead they have a party for their ancestors where they show the incredibly decorated skeletons.

There is another tradition Pátzcuaro is famous for: la danza de los viejitos, the “dance of the eldest”. Dancers equipped with face masks and canes limp around satirically and pull older age’s problems’ and slight pains’ leg. There are rumours that more probably the Spanish conquerors should be mocked.

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán – 5*-campground

Montag, Juni 6th, 2011

Mexico isn’t really the land for friends of free camping as we are. An exception is southern Baja California where we could stay cost-free on many public beaches. Otherwise we stand a bit uninviting at gas stations along the highway, on other parking lots or around plazas. Or we have to pay for a campground, which is not always quiet and cosy, and not clean at all. A noteworthy exception is Villa Pátzcuaro Hotel and RV Park in Pátzcuaro. The pretty town and the scenic lake are each only 20 to 30 minutes walk. The small facility rents out besides 24 lots with electricity, water, sewer and internet some hotel rooms as well. Since we are once more the only campers we have the choice for the parking areas, all on grass, some even with shadow. The swimming pool and the sanitary facilities are up-to-date and clean.

But it comes even better: In a neighbouring building a big common kitchen is situated with stove, refrigerator, sink and dining room for meetings. A second small adjacent building with large panorama windows is directly located next to our campsite with some rustic chairs, tables and sofas, and a fireplace with firewood. We are in 2100 m elevation, even in early summer the nights are cool and can stand a little fire. Immediately we make this room our office for the next days. Here we stay, since we have to make up so much work. I spontaneously forgive the camp ground owner who didn’t let herself be persuaded to concede a discount to me. She wants 180 Peso per night, with 10 % discount for a whole week. It’s worth the money anyway.

Angahuan, Michoacán – God-fearing lava

Sonntag, Juni 5th, 2011

The lava buried two villages, it rammed the church, caused one of the spires to collapse, destroyed the entire nave, and crawled further to the altar. Only a miracle can explain what happened then. Very suddenly the lava stream stopped, it froze in front of the altar, and the volcano became inactive. Should it have respected the house of God? Was it reverence? Humility?

Everything began on February 20th, 1943. In one moment the farmer stood on his field and tilled the soil, in the next moment he fled panic-stricken as the earth began to quiver. A volcano grew under his feet, broke repeatedly in thundering explosions, and spit ashes and lava for the next nine years. 4000 humans had to leave their houses and flee, fortunately nobody was hurt.

Today the dormant crater Paricutín protrudes 424 m from its environment, surrounded by a 25 sq km big pitch-black lunar landscape that is only slowly reconquered by nature. At the edge of the lava field Iglesia San Juan de Parangaricutiro can be visited or just what is left. On one side is the entrance portal with the preserved and the collapsed spire. Climbing over the metres-high lava boulders to the other side to the opposite wall, there is the undamaged altar that is newly decorated over and again. The embers literally stopped one meter before. The heat just took the toll on some plaster figures above the altar.

The village Angahuan is starting point for the visits. Managing to squeeze past the eagerly advertising Indio who offer their services as guide with and without horse we drive a few more kilometres to the last parking lot at the viewpoint. Not without being followed by wild riders who don’t want to give up so easily. After we convinced the men that we really rather hike than ride they leave disappointedly. For some Peso we can park here, for a few more even overnight. Following the numerous horse and footprints downhill through the forest we reach after three kilometres the frozen lava. From here on – with or without horse – one has to walk in any case over the lava field. Long pants, sturdy shoes, and possibly a robust long-sleeved top prevent from being injured by sharp-edged rocks. Those who prefer the horse can ride to the edge of the crater, but that would be a day-trip.

Sahuayo, Michoacán – Tiny fish in big lake

Samstag, Juni 4th, 2011

For how long will it be Mexico’s largest natural lake? Laguna Chapala south of Guadalajara is today still 113 km long and up to 32 km wide. But the greedy large town and metro slurped half of the water from the lake since the turn of the 20th century. Most fishes were killed by pollution; surviving inhabitant is a tiny 5 cm long fish that shall be a delicacy. We relinquish since we are not sure about how the pollution was solved.

Guadalajara, Jalisco – Bus driver on piece-work

Freitag, Juni 3rd, 2011

1.6 million inhabitants in the city, 5 million in the metro, Mexico’s second largest city with a history lasting since 1542: These facts can describe Guadalajara only superficially, since it has much more to offer. A large-scale pedestrian precinct was built around the historic city core that contains the most important sights. Although Guadalajara’s traffic isn’t by any means as chaotic as the one in Mexico City there is a parking problem in the city centre, especially for vehicles above 2.8 m height. But the public transport system is fully developed in an exemplary manner, and the (only) campground provides us with perfect information for the city bus.

For 6 Peso (55 US $-Cents) we may ride the bus for nearly an hour. But I would call this a kind of temperamental. To stop the bus at the station you have to throw yourself in front of the wheels. You better have the right money on hand, chuck it on the driver’s counter, grab the ticket, seize one of the handles, or better dive full length onto the next available seat. The driver immediately sets off as soon as the last passenger has entered the bus, and he handles the rest while driving. And how the man drives! He must be paid on piece-work and according to the rounds he can manage in one shift, or he receives a stake in total passenger transport. There’s no other explanation for his style of driving, how he furiously pokes about in the gearbox and meanwhile maltreats the clutch. He brakes only in case of extreme emergency and even then in the last moment only. Else he thunders with 100 kicks over the roundabouts, but nobody seems to really care. However, we are relieved to get off in the town centre.

Guadalajara’s cathedral is huge and received after the earthquakes from 1750 and 1818 a replacement for the two collapsed towers. The yellow tiled spires are now the city’s landmark. The portal that was initially made for the cathedral can be found today at the government palace that was converted into a museum. The naked women’s busts carved in wood were eventually found inappropriate for the sacred building. The main staircase of the Palacio de Gobierno is decorated with an impressive mural that is about independence hero Father Manuel Hidalgo who fought in 1810 for abolition of slavery, and was executed for this by the Spanish clergy. A multi-lingual pensioner volunteer is dying to explain us the painting. He doesn’t refuse a tip in the end of his lecture – like always in Mexico, tips are welcome, although not necessarily expected.

The Teatro Degollado and the Institutio Cultural Cabañas are colonial buildings worth seeing as well. After so much culture the stomach rumbles. Mercado Libertad, one of the largest covered markets in Latin America, finds a remedy. Here are not only food stands on three stories but everything else what could be more or less useful: Meat, fruit, and vegetables; shoes, purses, and t-shirts; pens, lighters, and sunglasses; eye shadow, nail polish, and artificial nails. And much more. Made in China.

Back to San José del Tajo RV Park we shower off the city sweat. Cockroaches are commonly seen inhabitants of these establishments. But here I find small frogs. How sweet. I rather keep my slippers on. The swimming pool wouldn’t bother being cleaned as well. The campground isn’t bad at all, but the price (knocked down from 250 to 200 Peso) represents more the location than fittings or cleanliness.

Tequila, Jalisco – Tequila olé!

Donnerstag, Juni 2nd, 2011

It smells like tequila, it is called Tequila, and we drink tequila. In this city everything turns about the distilled agave juice. Numerous shops sell the brew, and some of the factories offer visiting and tasting tours. We decide for the Sauza distillery that was formerly called La Perseverancia, the big old competitor of José Cuervo that’s even known in Europe. But the old Sauza was the first to call the drink tequila. He achieved that following the example set by French Champagne only agave schnapps from the area is allowed to carry this name and he was the first to export in many countries when sales was declining during the turmoil of the Mexican revolution in 1909.

We see the huge hearts of the blue agave, the only plant that can be used. They are called pineapples due to their resemblance with the fruit. They weigh 35 to 50 kg and come from around seven years old plants whose spiny leafs were stripped off. Hearts of older agave can weigh up to 100 kg and more. The pineapples are shredded, the fibre removed by means of steam, and the juice cooked. It tastes like molasses and caramel, but not too sweet. The first distillate contains too much methanol to be healthy to drink, but we can try the second one. It still contains 70% alcohol, and there are two kinds: tequila from 51% agave and 49% sugar syrup from corn, sugar can or others (ugh) and 100% agave (even in this state mild and delicious). After the second or third distillation claro, white tequila, is bottled directly, during reposado ages in small or big oak barrels – depending on the desired taste – two months to one year to yellow or light brown colour. Añejo has to age one to three years in small barrels, some sorts even longer, and gets a dark brown tan.

One could think the 70 Peso pp for 45 min guided tour (in English language) is a bit overestimated, but far wrong! In the end the barman is called and together with our guide we sip his wonderful creations from strawberries, raspberries and tamarind or lime, orange and hibiscus. With tequila, of course. Just the drinks were worth the money. Finally we can shop tequila in the factory outlet with knowledgeable advice. They don’t have to tell this to us twice.

La Quemada, Zacatecas – Archaeology by the sweat of our brow

Mittwoch, Juni 1st, 2011

History that’s much older than the one the Spaniards brought with them can be found at La Quemada, just under an hour south of Zacatecas City. The archaeological find Ruinas de Chicomostoc (41 MXN pp entrance fee) was once important religious, political, and trade centre. Settlement from 500 to 900 is regarded as proven. Credible indications to an earlier settlement need more excavations and proofs. Still today it is not completely sure who populated the land, but it must have been a powerful tribe. Walls extend for kilometres around the area on a mountain with 360° panorama view. Bone finds in different pyramids and Mesoamerica’s largest hall with 5 m height, 30 m width, 41 m length, and 12 columns supporting the roof indicate human sacrifice. Most of the residential buildings are decayed or burnt down, but finds of food remnants and pottery proof domestic activities. Especially remarkable and emphasizing the importance of the complex is that it was never built over.

A steep stony trail leads from the parking lot via the columned hall and the pyramids up to the citadel, but it is worth the two-hours-hike even with boiling heat. All inscriptions are in Spanish and English.

Zacatecas, Zacatecas – Mexico’s most beautiful city?

Dienstag, Mai 31st, 2011

It shall be the most beautiful city in the surroundings, if not of entire Mexico: Zacatecas is, who would guess so, the state of Zacatecas’ capital. And really, thanks to almost inexhaustible precious metal deposits the city looks back on a centuries-long rich inheritance, what appears in the exquisite architecture of the houses made from pink sandstone. Built on a hilly area on an elevation between 2400 and 2700 m the town contains a pleasant, spring-like weather all year round. Not only the meteorological climate is nice, the city’s atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. Many of the 124,000 inhabitants speak English, even the night guard and the ice cream woman, despite there are less visitors than in other better-known towns. Rarely any city so warmly welcomed us, and we thankfully suck in the flair.

The centres of all colonial cities are extremely congested and hardly offer parking possibilities. Once made an unfortunate turn, we are caught in narrow side alleys of which thoroughfare cause us perspiring hands. A parking lot at the centre’s edge offers us to park during the day for 30 Peso, and to stay overnight for 50 Peso. The kind guard even offers us electricity and water.

For the moment we visit the neighbouring Mina El Éden (80 MXN pp). Equipped with a helmet, we go down into the mine by train before continuing on foot. There is a small mineral museum, and then an English speaking guide leads us through the tunnels. From 1580 on silver, gold, iron, zinc and lead were mined for 380 years. The productive mine was only shut down because some city houses were in danger of collapsing. Today there is a discotheque in 120 m depth, probably the deepest one on earth. We get a good impression of the harsh, even life-threatening working conditions of the Indio, adults as well as children. They had to chisel tunnels into the mine, following the veins of ore – as workers for a pittance, and as slaves for no money at all. Having survived the childhood, their average life expectancy was 35. Metal mining is continued today on other spots around the city under more human conditions.

At the mine’s back entrance is the cable car station that brings us for 40 MXN in ten minutes onto the city hill Cerro de la Bufa in 2700 m elevation. Up there is a museum and statue for the famous revolutionary leader from 1914, Pancho Villa, and Zacatecas’ patron saint’s pretty chapel as well as a fantastic view to town. Instead of going back by teleférico, we walk down the steep path with many steps through narrow alleys to the cathedral. The ecclesiastical building, completed in 1752, is regarded as a masterpiece of Mexican baroque that’s called Churrigueresque style. This style is characterized by overladen ornaments, conveying flowing movements to obscure the shape below. Zacatecas is blessed with many churches and museums, beautiful shops and restaurants as well as with an aqueduct from the 18th century. It doesn’t provide the city with water any more, but its 39 arches can still be admired. All attractions are within a foot walk from the parking lot (La Roca del Roque, at the entrance of Mina El Eden, N22°46’35’’ W102°34’49’’).

Durango, Durango – The Wild Bunch, now with flashing blue lights

Montag, Mai 30th, 2011

Victoria de Durango, capital of the Mexican state Durango, obtained some degree of fame as backdrop for numerous Hollywood productions, first and foremost late westerns like “The Wild Bunch” or “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid”. Stars of the golden age like Lillian Gish, John Wayne and Clark Gable as well as more recent actors like Jack Nicholson John Belushi and John Travolta shot movies here.

And yet Hollywood plays just a small role in Durango’s long history that goes back to its foundation in 1563. To its landmarks belongs the baroque cathedral with its twin towers where an affectionate nun is said to haunt in full moon nights. A mansion from the late 18th century, Casa del Conde de Suchil, houses a number of shops. A bank settled fantastically in the square inner courtyard. The waiting benches were put up under the new glass roof, and the counters are grouped around under the arcades. Unfortunately we are not allowed to take photos, but at least we succeed in getting a snapshot with the telephoto lens from outside. The government palace is mainly interesting for its inside. Well-known Mexican artists designed huge murals. A part of the palacio de gobierno is closed. The friendly guard gives us access to take some images after asking kindly.

Today’s agitation happens on our way south on MEX 45. For the time being clouds mount up in front of us, it seems to rain in the distance, but we only get few drops – heralds of the approaching rainy season. Just before Fresnillo we stop at the hard shoulder to examine a PEMEX station regarding its suitability as place to sleep. Suddenly there is a police car and two officers. The “speaker” talks in a terrible dialect from which I understand only half – maximum. Then two more squad cars arrive and four more police men from whom one speaks clear Spanish. From where we come, where we go, and what we transport, he desires to know. He allows us to continue driving as he finds out that it’s all about a camper.

But we are followed and we don’t get far. In Fresnillo one of the police cars passes and cuts us, two more are waiting on the hard shoulder, willing to violently stop us. They must have seen this in one of the movies. Or were they part of the film crew? We are suddenly surrounded by uniforms and flashing blue lights. What utter confusion about a single RV. I count five cars and ten officers. Isn’t that a little bit much for two tourists? This time they bring one English speaking civvies. The other nine stand along a wall like stuffed dummies, trying to maintain a non-binding smile – just in case we are really harmless tourists, and not to leave a too bad impression. They check passports and driver’s license, and then they ask again for the vehicle’s kind. Did we have weapons? No. Knifes? Yes, BIG kitchen knifes. The man doesn’t have a pronounced sense of humour, but he accepts my explanation. We carry out their request for a look into the cabin, but we don’t put the ladder. A single glance from outside convinces him, it is really a motor home. Who did expect that? Where is the problem, we want to know. They aren’t used to this kind of vehicle. And the slightly disproportionately large police presence? That’s how it is in the state of Zacatecas; this could happen to us in each village. I am looking forward to that! The city police officers remained all the time acceptably friendly with just a hint of arrogance. Anyway, we prefer to make some miles and look for another gas station.

It doesn’t take long, and a state police car circles around us, but we remain unplagued. If one day I come up with the idea to earn my money with drug trafficking or arms running, please remind me of taking the oldest and most inconspicuous car I can find, to dress in frilly blouse, cardigan, pleated skirt and lace-up shoes, and to put on horn-rimmed spectacles and a headscarf. That should work then. On the other hand, nobody ever searched our truck…

In the meanwhile the sky darkens alarmingly. A sandstorm rolls up and wraps us. We have to close all windows, not really funny with these temperatures. Then thundering and flashing starts, but again there are only drops of rain, just enough to bind the last eight rain-free weeks’ dust on the paint, unfortunately by far not nearly enough to wash it off.

Pueblo Nuevo, Durango – Devil’s backbone

Sonntag, Mai 29th, 2011

La espinoza del diablo may rightly call itself one of the world’s great roads. 170 out of 340 km from Mazatlán to Durango run in endless curves, following one another, from sea level up to 2800 m and then back down to 2000 m – wherefrom the name devil’s backbone comes. We can’t count every single bend, but a projection amounts to about 2000 curves. The views into the fertile green mountains with their deep valleys and gorges are worth the trip. The high elevation leads us into fragrant pine forests. Although it is hot in daytime, it is dryer than at the coast, and the evening chills down pleasantly.

The ascends take the under-motorized trucks to their power limit, the 100 km long descend to the west is a torture for the braking system able to be detected by the sense of smell. The trucks are extremely loud: Uphill they sound like a helicopter, downhill like machine guns. Do the drivers wear ear plugs or are they already deaf? How can they stand this the whole day? There is little traffic today, but it is Sunday. So there are nearly no trucks holding us up during our way into the mountains, and the other way round we don’t disturb anybody during our slow brake-kind way down.

We have to pay attention anyway. Time and again a 20 years old pick-up driver appears who inherits immortality and passes us God-trusting even in front of a blind bend. Oncoming semi-trucks are a constant danger. They generally cut left-bends. In right-bends they take a big swing into the oncoming lane to not slip with their last axle from the road in the narrow radiuses because of their huge turning cycles. Hundreds of crosses erected along the road show the many car accidents where partially whole families were obliterated.

Mazatlán, Sinaloa – Tropic of Cancer

Samstag, Mai 28th, 2011

It’s an HH climate: hot and humid. No wonder, we are in the tropics. After one and a half days drive we cross the Tropic of Cancer for the second time after Baja California in southern direction and reach Mazatlán, the second port that is reachable by ferry from Baja. Tourism rules the image with countless hotels, restaurants, bars, and a rich variety of campgrounds and shopping possibilities. We decide for the quiet and pretty San Fernando RV Park close to the beach. Full hook-up, clean swimming pool, internet and palm trees are due to a lack of clients 150 Peso instead of 24 to 27 US$ in high season.

But Mazatlán has more to offer: a long promenade where roaring Pacific waves roll up, and two plazas with 19th century architecture. The cathedral Immaculata Concepcion, neo-Gothic on the outside, baroque in the inside, and Italianate Teatro Ángela Peralta, named after the opera singer born in Mazatlán stand out. Since neither ice cream nor pool can cool us down we decide: We’ll go to the highlands tomorrow.

Los Mochis, Sinaloa – Six canyons

Donnerstag, Mai 26th, 2011

To not waste the morning – the train would depart only at lunch time – we decide for another excursion. It shows us more of the six-canyons-land of the Sierra Tarahumara, part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. We have enough time to admire the views into the gorges, from one spot we can look into three canyons at the same time. There is an option to take a ride with the newly built cable railway (by Swiss engineers), but 250 Peso for two times ten minutes journey isn’t inexpensive, whereas the excursion costs us 200 MXN, but safes us 100 on the train ticket. Since we enter the train in Divisadero only, we can safe some money. Return tickets for the rail can be bought on the train only. After nine and a half hours we swing into Los Mochis and find Arminius undamaged on the campground.

Creel, Chihuahua – The nimbly marihuana farmers

Mittwoch, Mai 25th, 2011

One of the most obstinate indigenous nations is the Tarahumara. 400 years ago they retreated into the mountains of Sierra Madre Occidental to escape the unpleasant missionaries’ ideas. Still today they live their traditions, although in the meantime under the guise of the Catholic Church. But they don’t let themselves be persuaded to give up their rites and polygamous lifestyle – two wives per man are standard. Despite the harsh living conditions in the mountains, where the winters are snow-covered and ice cold, the springs are hot and dry, and only late summer and autumn offer a short growth period during the rainy season, the men act reservedly with regard to work. They preferably leave this to the women and devote themselves to beer and tequila. Officially potatoes, corn and beans are cultivated. It is left unsaid that marihuana and opium poppy are grown on secret fields in inaccessible valleys.

The Tarahumara call themselves Rarámuri what means the nimbly people. Their lifestyle forces them into long hikes in high elevation what helps them achieving an extraordinary physical fitness. Playing the traditional national sport Rarájipari two opposing teams run around an improvised mountain course kicking a wooden ball – barefoot or in sandals. The match can last several days.

The women in the village of San Ignacio de Arareko wear colourful valance skirts, pleated blouses and even more colourful headscarves. They carry their babies in big fichus. The girls help their mothers at the stands where they sell woodcarvings, wickerwork and woven goods, the boys are sent with a small variety to actively sell souvenirs or, in case of non-success, obtain money by begging. The cutest snotty-nose brats naturally have the highest success rates. Men are not seen however.

The rustic stone church San Ignacio in Arareko makes a gathering place for the Tarahumara where they can perform their traditional dances. There are only a few benches around the walls for the audience or tired dancers – although a Father comes from Creel on Sundays to say mass. Our excursion to the Rarámuri brings us to one of their cave dwellings with open fireplace and integrated chicken coop and goat barn, and to the beautiful waterfall Cascada Cusarare although there is not much water now. We get to see a museum with sacral paintings from the colonial era and the horseshoe-shaped lake Lago Arareco with its original rock formations.

Creel, Chihuahua – Dream vacation for train fans

Dienstag, Mai 24th, 2011

The Grand Canyon, one of the world’s big miracles of nature, has to be conquered on foot, all the way down and up again. The Barranca del Cobre, even bigger although less known superlative is a must for train fanatics, a highlight for sleeper riders, one of the big rail travels locomotive friends dream of. The railway line from Chihuahua to the Pacific should be the fastest east-west-connection on the continent, but it was finished only 100 years after planning start. In those days ships already passed the Panama Canal and roads, cars, and trucks existed. But still today the construction of the railway line is a masterpiece of engineering. The iron worm spirals up- and downwards for 673 km / 325 mi through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, from sea level up to 2440 m / 8000 ft elevation of the Sierra Madre Occidental and down in 13 hours. El Chepe, how the train is called, is the last remaining passenger train in Mexico, but the line is used by freight transports as well. For some tourists not the rail travel is the decisive reason for the journey, but the landscape. The Copper Canyon, where the train passes through, has with 30,000 sq km the numerous size of the Grand Canyon and is nearly 100 m (around 100 yards) deeper. Six rivers carved into the copper-coloured volcanic rock that was the canyon’s namesake.

Three times per week the second class trains leave at 7 o’clock in one or the other direction, the first class daily and an hour earlier. The second class isn’t significantly more uncomfortable that the first but has no restaurant car, just a snack bar. But there’s everything else: A stop at every train station (the first class only stops at selected stations), Mexican welcome and farewell scenes, and vendors shouting into the wagons, offering fruits, juices and local fast-food. Mexican life pulsates here, and that makes the trip so exciting.

In the beginning the train glides through the intensely irrigates fields around Los Mochis, passing tiny huts with gardens, dogs, cars, and sometimes even air-condition. They might look poor, but never hopeless, and always tidy. Cacti stand in disconcerting but peaceful unity with banana plants and hardwood trees. The train ascends higher and higher, in adventurous 180°-bows, along slopes and over bridges that are hardly as wide as the train. With the pine and juniper forests in higher elevation it cools down to more bearable temperatures. Indio women and children stand at the stations, trying to sell their craftwork: dainty baskets, pearl necklaces, and braided bracelets. The train stops for 15 minutes in Divisadero to offer travellers the opportunity to look into the impressive Barranca de Urique canyon, as well as to buy Indian craft and the typical lunch snacks. Now the steepest section of the line follows with a 360°-curve in a tunnel and the highest point that the rails reach. Then El Chepe starts its descent. Nearly on time we arrive at 6 pm in Creel where the hotel bus is already waiting for us. The small hotel Plaza Mexicana, where rooms on two floors gather around a snug inner courtyard, is delightful. Wrought-iron tables and chairs with sunshades, rocking chairs and finely carved wooden benches invite to rest. The rooms were lovingly decorated, as well as the bathrooms with their hand painted ceramic in glowing colours. We get the double room with half board for 600 instead of 700 Peso.

Los Mochis, Sinaloa – Arminius abandoned

Montag, Mai 23rd, 2011

In Los Mochis we find the only remaining campground. We are the only guests, but it is kept open all year round. I negotiate with El Jefe, the owner, to keep our truck here for four nights. He agrees on reducing the price per night from 250 to 200 Peso, but he refuses my further attempts on getting a discount. He had to appoint a watchman just for our truck. Well, I agree, it is better to have a guard, since Arminius will be here alone for two nights. El Jefe lowers himself to make a reservation by phone for my chosen hotel and to call a taxi for tomorrow morning. Our rail travel can start.

Topolobampo, Sinaloa – How does a Mexican ferry ride smell?

Sonntag, Mai 22nd, 2011

The ferry to Topolobampo, how Los Mochis’ harbour is called, shall cast off at 2:30 pm. Not sure how long procedures will take, we arrive at 10 am. First we pass customs, since vehicle papers are checked when leaving to mainland from Baja California with its special provision. We have to press a button that lights up nine times a green light, but a red one on every tenth trial. The lamp is red, and the very friendly customs officer apologizes for having to check our vehicle. The brief opening of two closet doors and drawers as well as the bathroom door doesn’t take much more than a minute to satisfy with the rules. The chronically bad-tempered lady at TMC asks if we drive a motor home. “No, a small truck.” I’ve learnt my lesson. We are sent to the scales where we are classified, measured, and weighed. Our personal data are entered in “driver” and “adjutant” – that’s me – since in Mexico most truck drivers have a co-driver.

Back to the ferry office we are curious to see the result since we couldn’t identify the code for the vehicle’s classification. To ship as a RV would be much more expensive. The ill-tempered girl types on her computer keyboard and presents the correct bill: Arminius is transported as small truck for 3300 Peso; the co-driver gives us 710 MXN. Hence we safe 2000 Peso compared to TMC’s camper-class.

The shipping – we start an expected half hour later – is an olfactory experience. The two restroom doors – one for the toilet, one for the urinal, there are no other differences – in the tiny icy air-conditioned passenger room with two oversized flat screens stand wide open. The facilities have been cleaned, but a blind truck driver would find them without hesitation. I leave the establishment and pass the kitchen, whose little inviting odour remains insignificant, since it only caters the crew. Passengers can buy chips, cookies, popcorn, microwave-warmed packet-soup, and sodas. For more comfort you have to travel with the other company, Bajaferries, but the local flair is here. The next scent experience is brought by a huge truck, built around the Stone Age, with a bonnet as big as our Arminius, who is highly loaded with fresh hey. Unfortunately this smell doesn’t last long, since the next freight consists of dozens of silent goats with huge horns squeezed together on the loading space. Their excrements can probably seep onto the deck. This stench will stay with us until the end of the ride.

There are not many women among the passengers that are mainly male truck drivers, but those must thank God daily for the invention of Lycra. Without stretch material it would be difficult to squeeze into such tight fitting t-shirts that don’t hide any spare tyre. Finally we arrive in Topolobampo two hours late, but with a lot of new experiences.

La Paz, Baja California Sur – Busy beach days

Samstag, Mai 21st, 2011

We stay three days at El Tecolote Beach, but we are busy. We say good-bye to Regine and Walter, two Swiss globetrotter friends whom we already met in the USA, but we probably won’t meet them again on the road. We also part from our American friends Bill and Barbara from La Paz. I dare to get my hair done by a Spanish speaking hairdresser, and it turns out well, better that ever before. On the beach, we meet a French family that gigs around with their little son for a year from South to North America. Since they had a bad experience with TMC ferries that didn’t keep their price agreement when the time for payment came, we go another time to the harbour. We place Arminius so that the office ladies can see the truck. We receive the same offer like last time. What is still no guarantee, isn’t it?

In the evening the winch is employed again. A Jeep dug itself into a dune and needs help. Luis, the driver, sees that it is a lot of hassle: clearing away everything in the camper to be able to move, winching, coiling up the cable and driving back – it takes 30 to 40 minutes altogether. Luis doesn’t only help us winding up, he gives us all the beer in his ice box. 20 minutes later he returns with a portion of ceviche, raw fish salad, and a bunch of freshly baked tortilla chips from the neighbouring seafood restaurant. One of the nice and smart guys! Then we are ready to leave Baja California that we liked very much indeed.

Todos Santos, Baja California Sur – City of All Saints’ Resurrection

Mittwoch, Mai 18th, 2011

With the morning the flood comes back. The wind picked up and lets the wave rise to immense heights. Meter-high glassy-green walls come hurtling towards us until they overturn and disperse into white foam. With at least equal power they dive under the next wave and flow back into the sea, carrying everything away that’s not well anchored. The surf that thunders against the rocks explodes 30 m high, so that even Arminius looks like a dwarf. Pelicans impress me with their flight skills. They surf the incoming waves, they let themselves being pushed by the air cushion, and, right before the wave rolls over, sail out of the deathly tunnel.

For our part, we sail to Todos Santos, that means All Saints, a town with a pretty plaza and Andalusian architecture. The original mission was destroyed like so many others, but eager monks created replacement. Numerous cafés, restaurants and art galleries contend for the visitors’ dollars. The road to the fresh water lagoon with many waterfowls is suitable only for small cars, not for RVs.

Some few hotels and ranches offer rooms at the beach that’s also not suitable for swimming. The town itself was built in the 18th century two kilometres inland at a spring. It unexpectedly dried up two centuries later, brought agriculture to a standstill and made Todos Santos practically a ghost town. In 1981 the spring suddenly bubbled again and gave the town a second life.

Los Cabos, Baja California Sur – Mexico meets America

Dienstag, Mai 17th, 2011

Coming from the lonesome dirt road and the dream beaches, Los Cabos and the corridor can cause a cultural shock. The two cities San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas at the peninsula’s southern tip are commonly known as Los Cabos. They are touristic, commercial, and Americanized, but clean, pretty and covered with greenery as well. The 28 km in-between are called The Corridor, a four-lane highway with palm trees and bougainvilleas. The whole thing is a stronghold of luxury tourism with marinas for mega yachts, five star hotels, villas and condos, jewellery and souvenir shops, restaurants, art galleries, and many entertainment options.

Los Cabos shall be the most expensive holiday destination in Mexico or at least well on the way. San José del Cabo is still the more „Mexican“ of both cities. It has a beautiful historic plaza with restored colonial buildings, a mission that’s not the original one but has a long history, and a colony of artists. Tourism that’s ailing and harsh competition lead to aggressive pricing policy and partially offensive touting for customers (more in Cabo San Lucas). A tout lures us into a shady and cool terrace bar at the plaza (La Internacionál) with wonderful view. The ice-cold beer is just one dollar – hardly more than in the supermarket.

The Corridor accommodates nearly every market an American or other heart could wish for: If Wal-Mart or Home Depot, if Costco or Sam’s Club, they’ve got everything. Cabo San Lucas is a place for partygoers and bargain hunters who chase the best happy hour and all-you-can-eat offers. Huge cruise liners spit their human freight into the city. It’s a bit detrimental to the ambience that the coast is completely blocked by buildings and nearly not accessible. Even Cabo San Lucas’ landmark, finisterra, land’s end, Baja California’s southernmost tip with its characteristic arch can hardly be spotted.

42 km north of Cabo San Lucas the road meets a huge dry wash with ATV and dune buggy rental on both sides. You need a 4×4 to reach Playa de Migriño, a popular surf beach, though way too dangerous swim. The waves are impressive even with low tide. The more high tide comes in the more water brushes against the rocks and sprays high into the air, and the rollers conquer the beach.

Zacatitas, Baja California Sur – Caribbean feeling

Montag, Mai 16th, 2011

The beaches until San José del Cabo have a built-in Caribbean feeling with the perfect blue-white colour combination. There are some resorts, ranches or settlements in-between, but then we reach the next beach where we could camp for free, swim, and get a nice suntan. The coastal dirt road El Camino Rural Costero is regularly graded and pretty much suitable to any vehicle. The more we approach the south cape the more the Pacific influence is noticeable. Waves are bigger, surf smacks into the shore, and undertows make swimming partially dangerous. But there are still quiet beaches to find.

El Rincón, Baja California Sur – Best of all beaches

Samstag, Mai 14th, 2011

The most beautiful and secluded beaches of Baja California are situated at the south tip of the peninsula from La Ribera on. Here’s the sand white, the water turquoise coloured and warm, mobula, small manta rays, jump high out of the water, and in the background copper-red mountains perfect the image. There are even complimentary sunshades for instance at El Rincón although they don’t have a long life. Cattle roaming around freely love to eat the dry palm leaves with which the shades are covered. They seem to be a welcome change to the monotonous cacti diet. There are a few windsurfers, kite boarders, or anglers around in daytime, but we are alone at night.

Los Barilles, Baja California Sur – Town of cheerful early retirees

Freitag, Mai 13th, 2011

San Antonio and El Trufino are two small neighbouring towns that bloomed in the 19th century during Baja’s short silver and gold rush. A newly paved shortcut takes us from San Juán de los Planes back to MEX 1. Today, there is not much mining to see, even the ruins nearly disappeared. At least El Trufino has got a chimney that besides the fact that Gustave Eiffel is said to have designed it looks pretty ordinary. The village was Baja’s first settlement that was built without a mission, but has got an old church nevertheless. The piano or music museum is famous in the area where besides old pianos other music instruments are exhibited. The actual attraction is the odd museum attendant who has to be called most of the time, and who might give a private concert. A donation is expected.

Further south the highway leads to San Bartolo, a good spot for a lunch or coffee break. Not only restaurants and coffee shops line the street but candy shops and market stands offering mangoes, papayas, grapefruits, avocados, and other fruit. When MEX 1 meets the sea again we are in Los Barilles. There are some Mexicans around, but the image is coined by American early retirees roaming around on their ATVs. Dieter and Cherisse, the two kite boarders from yesterday, very early retirees below 50, have their house at the beach where they survive the harsh American winter. There is no quad, but other toys to bear the long Mexican days.

La Ventana, Baja California Sur – Under sail

Donnerstag, Mai 12th, 2011

Only 40 km south-east of La Paz there are more beautiful beaches. Public La Ventana beach, popular with windsurfers and kite boarders, is accessible via the paved road BCS 286, crossing the two settlements La Ventana and El Sargento. Especially in winter the reliable north wind attracts water sports enthusiasts and chases off flying insects. The first-rate surfing conditions care for a prospering American real estate market. It is fun to watch the kiters. On of the couples seems to like us and we’ve got the next invitation for tomorrow.

La Paz, Baja California Sur – Cuban beer in Mexico

Mittwoch, Mai 11th, 2011

The Mexican restaurant breakfast is sumptuous. Meet or fish with beans, rice, and tortillas. Together with it we drink fresh fruit cocktails with promising names like Dracula, Vampire, V8, or Osteoporosis. The mercado in La Paz is not only a place to take ones breakfast that lasts the whole day. Here we buy fish from the fish dealer, chicken from the poultry man, or pork and beef from the pork respectively the beef butcher. We get fruits and vegetables from the produce stand, cheese in the dairy corner, and oven-fresh flour or corn tortillas in the tortilla bakery. And if not sure, we can try everything before buying.

La Paz is with 200,000 inhabitants Baja’s third largest city, very Mexican, friendly, clean and pleasant, and therefore popular with many American expats. Bill and Barbara, two early retirees from Texas, show us the mercado, the five kilometres long malecón, which is the promenade that shall be the world’s longest one, the Plaza Constitución with Jardín Velazco park and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Paz, built in 1861 by Dominicans as a replacement for the original Jesuit church from 1720. This was burnt down 1734 in an Indio revolt and finally abandoned 14 years later. The historic governor’s mansion and the cultural centre with the Galeria de Arte Carlos Olchea are worth visiting as well.

Bill and Barbara talked to us at the beach of Bahia Constitución and invited us. Together we study Mexican kitchen. There was fish fillet with mango salsa yesterday, and today we decide for enchiladas. People drink wine with it, beer pure or Cuban (with lime, English sauce and Tabasco), or margarita. Or everything. Hic.

La Paz, Baja California Sur – Ferry studies

Dienstag, Mai 10th, 2011

What wasn’t possible in Tecate is pretty simple here: to get the temporary import permit for our Unimog that’s necessary for foreign vehicles outside of Baja California. It takes half an hour until all papers are filled in, copies are made, the customs declaration is issued, and the vehicle classified. But the ladies in the Banjercito office at the harbour are very professional and multilingual. For 592 MXN we receive a permit that’s valid for ten years. It is necessary to present a credit card on the vehicle owner’s name, the title, passport, and the immigration card. There are two ferry lines from Pichilingue: As well Bajaferries as TMC head for Topolobampo and Mazatlán.

During Bajaferries operates well organised and English speaking, although with partially higher prices, communication is more difficult at the TMC counter. How to explain a shapely Mexican rustic beauty in a miniskirt what is a Unimog? The attempt ends in two different prices – the last one is higher – since small campers are not scheduled with TMC. The offer to ship as small truck is still better than the price offered by Bajaferries. Besides they propose to stay in the camper on the upper deck. We can neither buy the ticket nor make a reservation since it is low season. We can only hope the offer will still be valid in a week or so.

Pichilingue, Baja California Sur – Basic foodstuff

Montag, Mai 9th, 2011

North of La Paz’ harbour named Pichilingue is some beaches that become prettier the farther they are from the city, some with restaurants, some not. The most beautiful and largest beach is El Tecolote nearly in the end of the road. Here are two restaurants, some sunshades for free and some for rent, dustbins, and complimentary camping possibilities. The beach is white sand, and the water shallow. We are alone here except a Mexican family that listens to cheerful music, plays soccer, swims, and drinks beer. There is no need to worry about the beer drinking woman well advanced in pregnancy. Beer is considered basic foodstuff and quite a few pretty healthy offsprings romp around to give the lie to any prophecy of doom.

Loreto, Baja California Sur – The protective Virgin

Samstag, Mai 7th, 2011

As we wish to leave San Javier next morning the road is blocked. A rally comes through town, a kind of veteran’s race from Mexicali to La Paz. Nobody including the village policeman knows how long it’ll take and how to acknowledge the end of the rally. After one and a half hours watching dune buggies, dirt bikes, tuned VW beetles, and jeeps all waiting parties unanimously decide to raise the road block. The village policeman watches indifferently. We only meet two isolated race participants and one that had a breakdown.

There are only 40 km to go to Loreto at the Sea of Cortez, a city that’s completely adjusted to tourism. This appears in the good supply and accommodation options, but as well in the high prices of the souvenir shops. Loreto has got a pretty promenade with palm trees that is called malecón in Mexico, and even a small beach with sun umbrellas. Besides, the city owns the oldest mission of Upper and Lower California. Had the statue of the Virgin of Loreto to remain in a provisory tent in October 1697, a stone church was built for her between 1699 and 1704 that was expanded and restored several times. The original statue of Nuestra Señora de Loreto de Conchó can still be seen today in a side room of the church and is dressed in a new gown every year. In return the saint protects her church: It survived the 1829 hurricane as well as the devastating earthquake of 1877. The restored altar piece also dates back to the mission era.

22 km south of the city there is a possibility for boondocking at Juncalito Beach.

San Javier, Baja California Sur – The longest 50 km of our life

Freitag, Mai 6th, 2011

Actually the day didn’t start too bad. Some fishermen casted off in the middle of the night and return in the morning. The men weigh their catch, write down everything, and load it to a waiting truck. I ask the person responsible, which seems to be the man with book and pen, if I can buy a fish. He answers: “Yes.” Nothing else. I’m trying to be patient, but after a few minutes I point to a flounder I’d like to have. The man manages to ignore me what’s not that easy in the face of my height, but it’s also not so easy to get rid of me. I am waiting 15 minutes until all fish is weighed and loaded.

The fisher stares for some minutes into a gaping void, but since his wish I might dissolve into thin air doesn’t come true, he turns his attention to me. He asks me how much fish I want, climbs onto the truck, and holds two big mackerel into the air. Since I assume discussions with the taciturnity are useless, I dutifully nod and ask how much I have to pay. “Nothing.” Superb. Since I intelligently forgot to bring a bag I have to carry the fish, each in one hand. The fishers probably will have something to laugh about until the evening. I don’t care, I’ve got the fish.

Then we follow the mainly paved 40 km to Comondú that actually consists of two villages, San José de Comondú and San Miguel de Comondú. Both oasis communities grow dates, fig, mango, banana, citrus, corn, grapes, and sugarcane, again fed by a river with water from the volcanic mountains. The second village had one of the largest missions of the entire California, which was built from 1751 to 62. In the first decades of the 20th century it was torn down to build a school and private houses with the bricks. What is left was probably the missionaries’ accommodation, and is used for services today.

We follow the signs to San Javier. According to my description the first 30 km of the track shall be in pretty bad shape, but improve significantly on the last 20 km. That is the understatement of the year. I have to admit that this information might have been true when it was printed, but the situation changed dramatically after the last rainfalls. The gravel road isn’t actually passable any more with its serious washouts; unless on is an incurable off-road fan, has the corresponding vehicle as well as the experience, loves the thrill of possibly falling into the hundreds of metres deeper valley since the track just isn’t wide enough, and is willing to invest four and three quarter hours for 50 km, wherefrom nearly four hours are allotted to the first 30 km. Actually I am not, but I don’t know that in advance.

As we realize something is wrong with this track it is too late to turn back. There is just no turning area, and when the first only halfway secure opportunity to turn occurs, we are already gone so far that we don’t want to turn anymore. One always thinks it can’t be worse. It always can, that’s why this day goes down in my annals of history. The washouts are perpendicular or lengthways, most of the time the gravel is completely washed off the big foundation boulders. The situation is especially problematic at the many ascends, slopes, and in the hairpin bends where the water ran fast and took everything with it what was not heavy enough to stay. The only bright spot is that there must have been one vehicle before us, whose tracks are discernible, although this car had a narrower wheelbase and probably a lower centre of gravity. Joerg will say to me tonight that he saw me somewhat stressed for the first time in his life. That must have something to say.

In the end of the day we reach San Javier, a pretty town with paving stones and one of the best preserved missions on Baja California. During the first church had to be abandoned in 1699 due to an Indio revolt, and decayed, today’s mission was built from 1744 to 58 and shows three valuable baroque altar pieces, carved and gilded. We realize in a relieved manner that we can complimentary camp behind the mission, near fields with onions, guavas, papayas, citrus, corn, grapes, chillies, dates, and roaring cows.