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Demonisation of a nation

16 Jan

PD & JD, Xela, Guatemala

We have so much to say about what’s happened in our first week at Spanish school. Not least there is the shocking news that Jeremy is pregnant. That’s what he told his teacher anyway. She informed him it was impossible, so he turned to his dictionary to see where he’d gone wrong. Turns out the words for embarrassed (embarazarse) and pregnant (embarazada) are very similar.

But more of our schoolboy and schoolgirl errors in a few days. For now, if you don’t mind indulging us, we’d like to briefly rewind to a subject that has been in our minds for several months – and now we are out of Mexico we want to address it. It’s a subject that came up in almost every conversation we had with north Americans in California, and then in Mexico itself.

Grim reaper at roadside shrine

It's not all grim down south, you know

The brutal drugs war in Mexico has led to the entire nation being demonised in the eyes of much of the outside world, but particularly by those north of its border. It’s a deadly, grim situation – no doubt – but no one who actually travels there believes the hysteria is justified.

We were shocked at the level of fear in the US about going to Mexico. Almost everyone – there were maybe only a couple of exceptions – warned us how deadly it was, how we could be caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out, how we would be robbed in the street or in our van, how we would be car-jacked, how we would definitely be “shaken down” by corrupt police or military officials at some point, how we should carry a gun to protect ourselves, how we could be scammed by people faking road accidents, how we could have our tyres spiked by bandits, how we’d get sick on street food… the list goes on.

This wasn’t just the usual over-cautious official warnings about things that could happen – and, to be fair, all of those things can happen, in many countries in the world. It was every conversation we had. And it was hard not to be infected by it.

Most went like this:
US: “So, we’re planning on driving to Argentina in our campervan.”
THEM: “What, through Mexico?”
US: “Well, yes, there’s not really another way from here to Argentina.”
THEM: “Is it safe to drive through Mexico? I’ve read/heard/been told..” [Cue long list of things that would happen – see above].
US: “Well, thanks for the tips, we’ll let you know how it goes or perhaps you’ll read about it in the newspaper.”

One particularly worrying conversation was with a Latin American guy, Angel, who worked at the dealership at which we bought our campervan. When we told him of our plans he said: “What, through Mexico? Wow, that’s brave.”

I asked which country he was from. “Mexico,” he said. Gulp.

Iguanas, Chichen Itza

I forgot to mention that iguanas are another fabulous thing about Mexico. What's not to like?

Once we were on our way the evidence of fear was all around us – there has been a huge drop in the number of tourists coming from the US, and it shows. While many places were still thriving, we did see virtually abandoned trailer parks where campers and cars sat gathering mildew, rust and leaves because their owners – who would normally go south to Mexico every winter – had obviously not returned for years.

Those that continued to travel there, and US expats that had remained, said they always received the most dire warnings from friends and family who had never actually been to Mexico. They usually blamed the media for its reporting of the drugs war as being over-the-top and terrifying the hell out of everyone.

However, the conflict is real, and we don’t want to try to diminish the effect it has had, with thousands dying every year because of a brutal gang warfare and the government’s response to it. We also don’t want to be so naïve as to claim that just because we spent three months there without incident that there are therefore no problems at all.

The point is that it does not affect every area of the country, and the violence is not targeted at tourists. Many parts of Mexico rely on tourism and it is sad to see people struggling because of a problem that is not of their making. Drugs are a global issue. What market are these gangs feeding? Where does the root of the problem really lie?

Mexico is a vast, varied, modern, culturally-rich, beautiful, welcoming country – a country that is more like several nations within one. It also has loads of problems and its share of crime – who doesn’t?

To characterise it simply as a homogenous violent, dangerous, brutal place is just plain lazy.

Days: 105
Miles: 5740
Things we now know to be true: We love Mexico

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

8 Jan

PD, Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

Hello country number two.

We finished off three months in Mexico with a few days of spectacular stuff in Chiapas. Spectacular mountain scenery, lakes and waterfalls, some spectacularly bad weather (and some good) and a spectacular near-miss involving a falling tree.

After new year we set off from San Cristobal to check out a few of the more rural parts of the region, starting with the “turquoise lakes” of the Lago de Montebello area. We drove through torrential rain and misty mountains – it felt like the sky was almost touching the van at times – and pulled in to a place on the edge of Lago de Tziscao in the late afternoon. The camping area was by the lake, which – judging by the fact that some of the waterside cabins were half-submerged – looked like it had risen rather a lot in recent weeks.

We pulled up and dithered for a while about stopping nearish to the edge of the water. But it was raining hard and we were worried about getting stranded in mud, or ending up in the lake, by the next morning. We pulled back about 20ft and settled in to hide from the weather for a while. A nice wee cuppa and a relax for a bit, ahh. Our peace was interrupted when about 45 minutes later a 40ft tree crashed to the ground right across the spot we’d originally parked in. We stared, looked at eachother, looked back at the tree, looked at eachother again and laughed nervously. “That’s where we were parked wasn’t it?” I said. “Yes”.

Tree falls in front of van, Lago Tziscao

Crash! Jeremy ponders what might have been

We turned around and drove back up to a concrete parking area, away from the trees. Good decision, because the next morning two more came loose in the soggy ground, creaked, groaned and slammed to the ground. Oh!

The lakes were beautiful, not really turquoise in that weather, but more like moody Scottish lochs in the winter. After visiting them we drove on the next day to a gorgeous little community eco-tourism place, Las Nubes, built around a gushing river and dramatic waterfalls. Jeremy swallowed his vertigo and bravely crossed the very wobbly bridge traversing the most dramatic canyon and falls.

The skies cleared, sunshine again! It was so lovely we stayed an extra night, walked, and dried out. The friendly night guards were fascinated by our van and came for a long hard look inside. Some people seem to find it hard to believe we live in there. When we ask for a space to “camp” for the night in our “casa movil” (mobile home) they often look around as if to say “ok, but where is it?”.

We have been through many routine and military checkpoints on our trip so far, and when the vehicle is searched there is usually more interest in our little “casa” than a serious quest for contraband. We are always careful to be polite and sensible though, as you never know if the conversation is going to take a turn.

One of the more thorough military checks was while we were in Chiapas, an area known for political tensions, so we wanted to give a good impression. Jeremy got out and answered the officer’s questions, showed our paperwork and whatnot. After it was over we pulled away. Jeremy looked down at his feet and realised he was wearing two different shoes – a Converse boot on the right foot, a walking shoe on the left. Those kooky Brits! I’m not going to explain why, you can make up your own theories.

Our last night in Mexico was perfect, pretty much summing up the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the country. We were cutting it a bit fine again, trying to find a camping spot before dark. We followed a sign off the road, near the Guatemalan border, to a laguna we hadn’t heard of. As we pondered over whether to park in a public car park area, an old woman appeared from behind a little shop and beckoned us to drive in behind their gates. At the back of the shop was a little lakeside area, with basic rooms plus palapas, tables and BBQs for daytrippers. For £1.50 we camped there, safe and sound, birds tweeting and bats swooping, with the laguna right in front of us, shining in the moonlight.

P has a rinse at Lagunas de Colon

Quick head rinse in the Laguna before we leave for Guatemala

Next morning we said goodbye to Mexico. The old lady said: “Can’t you stay another day?”. But we couldn’t, we had to get to Guatemala, we had school on Monday!

The border crossing was mildly chaotic and confusing, but we were prepared for it and survived the hoopla of paperwork, getting through in a couple of hours. As we pulled off, having completed everything, we were directed towards a detour around the village which took us down, around and then back up, one of the most terrifyingly steep and narrow streets we have yet encountered. Could this really be an international border? For the umpteenth time we thanked our lucky stars that we had chosen a small vehicle with a bit of oomph to it.

So here we are in Quetzaltenango, more commonly known as Xela. We have booked one month of Spanish classes, and have opted to live with a local family. We will register and be taken to the house later today, and then start classes at 8am tomorrow.

The school is an non-profit organisation which uses its surplus to work with human rights groups and social projects. As well as learning Spanish, students are also taught about the economic and social problems in Guatemala.

It might be a tough four weeks for our ageing brains, but we’re really looking forward to it and are determined to make the most of the experience.

We’ll let you know how it goes. Hasta luego.

Days: 97
Miles: 5597.4
Things we now know to be true: Just because we’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean the trees aren’t all out to get us.

Even bees wear balaclavas in Chiapas

2 Jan

PD, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

We’re not used to big nights out any more. These days it’s usually a couple of beers as darkness falls at 6ish, dinner and early to bed. But for new year we made an exception, of course. We started off as usual at 6pm, to toast the UK new year, and carried on right through to the Mexican one.

The latter part of the evening was spent watching a fantastically energetic Chiapan band at the Cafe Bar Revolucion in San Cristobal – we’re nothing if not predictable. The night finished off with a spectacularly ill-advised tequila when we got back to the van. Ouch. What I would have given for a greasy sausage sandwich with HP sauce on new year’s day morning.

Wedding ceremony, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

A Mayan wedding ceremony was taking place in front of the cathedral on New Year's Eve, San Cristobal de las Casas

Here we are at the centre of Zapatista territory, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. We loved the sprit of the place when we came 10 years ago and it hasn’t disappointed this time. New Year is the anniversary of a 1994 uprising that grabbed the attention of the world, so what better place to see in 2012? 

This town has everything – the revolutionary vibe, a thriving music scene, great locally-grown coffee, and an amazing mountain setting with colourful buildings that glow in the evening sun. And it’s gone all trendy since we last visited, with oh-so-cool wine bars, cafes and restaurants and shops selling EZLN paraphernalia to people like us. We’ve even bought some honey made by a Zapatista co-operative. The bee on the label is wearing a tiny balaclava.

All-in-all it’s been not a bad little haven for a few days after several weeks of being on the move. Even the chilly evenings and mornings haven’t been enough to drive us away, although getting into the erratic hot-cold shower has required something of a superhuman effort.

And after a few quiet weeks we have been glad to meet some fantastic like-minded people here. First we had a night out with some UK friends who coincided with us for one day on their way home from a three-month trip in Guatemala. And on our lovely wooded campsite we’ve had great chats with two other road-tripping couples from Arkansas and British Columbia, and spent New Year’s day evening chewing the fat around a fire, accompanied by hair of the dog.

To add to all that San Cristobal has, there are also some fascinating indigenous villages in the surrounding hills. We returned to one, San Juan Chamula, this week. It’s known for its central church, at which people of the indigenous Tzotzil group practice a curious blend of Catholicism and traditional pre-Hispanic ceremonies. Inside, small groups of worshippers were huddled on the floor, which is carpeted with fresh pine branches and lined with hundreds of little candles, creating a heady aroma.

In one group a man chanted and rubbed eggs and herbs over a little girl’s head. They each swigged from a bottle of Coke, to induce burping which they believe cleanses their bodies. As they rose to leave we heard a cluck-cluck-squawk and noticed the grandmother was carrying a live chicken, which had stayed inexplicably quiet during the whole ritual.
But, for us, the most bizarre part of the ceremonies at this church is the relationship between the group’s religion and Coca Cola. Crate upon crate of the stuff is drunk every day in the church, truck loads of it are present around the town square and people sit around the little cafes supping on it. It’s hard not to let the cynic in us wonder if some marketing man at Coke really has done the unthinkable and convinced this population the drink has health-giving and spiritual properties.

Band playing at Cafe Bar Revolucion, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

The band played out 2011 at Cafe Bar Revolucion

New year is traditionally a time for both reflection and looking forward. We’ve been three months on the road in Mexico now, and are preparing to cross into Guatemala next week to start a month of Spanish school in the highland city of Quetzaltenango. More of that later.

What a three months it has been. We’ve had so much to learn about living in the van and all that entails – keeping the vehicle happy, mastering the quirks of the ‘house’ appliances and working out how to fix the things that have broken – or, to be more specific, that Jeremy has broken! As well as all the sight-seeing and galavanting most days involve waking up somewhere unfamiliar and having to find one or all of the following – food, water to drink, water to wash in, toilets, petrol, propane, and – most importantly – a safe place to bed down for the night and the right road to get there.

Those accommodations have ranged from the blissful sunny beaches of Baja and Yucatan, to gorgeous mountain towns with freezing mornings that make it hard to part with the duvet, to sleeping at a noisy petrol station/truck stop in the pissing rain and wondering where that leak is coming from… and many things in between.

Do we feel unbelievably lucky to be able to do this trip? Yes. There have been so many amazing highs, incredible sights and lots of laughs, and we’ve barely really begun. By the end of 2012 we should have reached the northern part of South America, and it’s hard to imagine all the adventures ahead.
Are there frustrations, little tantrums and scary bits? Sometimes. Is loud swearing sometimes heard in the van? Yes. Do we miss our lovely families and friends, and cat? Absolutely.

Do we have any regrets about taking this leap? Nope.

Happy new year everyone

And here are some more pics for your perusal:

Flickr: Patzcuaro to Mexico City

Days: 91
Miles: 5,152.2
Things we now know to be true: Socialist honey tastes much sweeter.

Feliz Navidad

25 Dec

PD, Campeche, Mexico

Christmas day, Campeche

Taking it easy - 25 December 2011, Campeche, Mexico

Merry Christmas to all! Thanks for following the blog so far, and to those who are lucky enough to be off work, we hope you all have a relaxing and delicious holiday. We’ve de-camped to a hotel in beautiful Campeche, and have enjoyed a Christmas morning swim. It’ll be chocolate for lunch, and something tasty involving refried beans and tortillas for dinner.

And as our gift to you, here’s the latest (albeit belated) set of pics, charting some of our exploits between Mazatlan and Guadalajara last month. You might notice I particularly enjoyed taking pics of cowboys at the rodeo..

Flickr pics: Mazatlan-Guadalajara

Is a snowman made of sand still a snowman?

21 Dec

JD, Chelem, nr Puerto Progreso, Mexico

We had calculated that driving a white VW van would help us blend in – but we never counted on this. We do blend in. The collectivos which run between and around every town, village and city are all white, many are VWs.

So on an almost daily basis someone tries to flag us down to help them home with their shopping. Once or twice we’ve even stopped, explained we’re not a collectivo but that if they are going the same way as us they are welcome to jump in.

Snowman made of sand

Not so much frosty the snowman, as sweaty the sandman

Being mistaken for a Mexican bus is just one of the strange happenings we’ve had to contend with over the past couple of weeks. Dogs that enjoy chasing cars, or napping on the road, are a hazard we could do without.

How to avoid crashing in to thousands of people – young and old, many barefoot – pounding the narrow city streets, running over mountain passes and cycling along the motorway with huge statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe tied to their backs and flaming torches in their hands was not something that was in my driving test.

But all that’s as nothing compared to the coconut which plummeted to earth inches from my head and smashed on the ground seconds after Paula uttered the immortal words – “apart from the obviously bad things about having to tell people you were dead, imagine how embarrassing it would be if I had to say you’d been killed by a falling coconut”.

That, and her whacking me with a book whilst I was driving – on the flimsy pretext of killing a mosquito – has got me worried.

In between dodging falling fruit and unwelcome rain storms we’ve hit the heart of the Mayan world on the Yucatan peninsula. Suddenly there are tour buses and package holidays and lots of touts and whilst none of that is welcome the amazing white sand beaches and incredible ruins more than make up for it.

The jungle-shrouded ruined cities at Balamku and Calakmul were amazing. Forty-metre high temples with incredible views across forests that echoed to the sounds of monkeys and woodpeckers in the upper reaches of the canopy. And best of all they were almost deserted.

Not so at Tulum – one of the major Mayan sites – which is spectacularly located on a cliff above a white sand beach and turquoise sea. Later that day we swam and snorkelled in a picture-postcard cenote – basically a large sinkhole with amazing colours and caverns so deep you are sure some mythical creature MUST live down there.

At Coba – described by our guide book as like being in Raiders of the Lost Ark – we climbed Nochol-Mul, at 42m high the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Regular readers of the blog will realise when I say we, I mean P. She climbs, takes the picture and that way I get to see the incredible view without the vertigo.

At Chichen Itza we again rose early to beat the tour buses and took in the full splendour of the most perfect 25-metre high pyramid and temple virtually alone. The site, unlike many others, has been extensively restored, but it is spectacular and you can see what all the fuss is about.

Mayan ruins at Tulum

The Mayan ruins at Tulum have got a pretty spectacular location

In between lapping up Mayan culture we’ve had a few days basking in the sun at lovely beaches – Xpu-Ha and El Pescadero – and stopping off to sample a bit of life in smaller off-the-beaten-track towns such as Izamal, Isla Aguarda and Laguna Bacalar.

At the latter we were lost in the dark, again, looking for a ‘campsite’ of which we had read – a un-signposted field in which a Mexican family lived, next to the laguna. Cynics that we are, we don’t believe in guardian angels as such. But as we circled the area despondently a car came up close, weaving slightly, and started flashing its lights behind us. We pulled over reluctantly. Wasn’t this kind of thing in the book of ‘things not to do in Mexico?’.

We waited. A white-haired man got out and approached us, then started singing ‘California here I come’ – in reference to our licence plates – as he bounded up to the window. It was Tony, a very drunk Liverpudlian-Canadian who lived in the area and had seen us cruising around looking lost. He knew what we were looking for, he said, got back into his car and guided us there to a friendly welcome from the owners.

We offered him a tequila to say thanks. Appreciating he was already well imbibed, he politely refused and slunk off into the night as suddenly as he had appeared. Earthly angels do exist then, and they are Liverpudlian apparently.

And as John Lennon once said… and so this is Christmas. Well, not quite but you get the laboured journalistic link there. And, in keeping with recent events, for us this will be a strange one… thousands of miles from home.

It seems somewhat incongruous to see a ‘snowman’ made from sand on a blisteringly sunny beach or a light-up Santa adorning the edge of the swimming pool at our current camp site in Puerto Progreso. But don’t worry, in keeping with tradition we intend to eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep in front of a film.

Days: 79
Miles: 4,494.2 [We have put in a bumper crop of miles since last blogging. We’d like to show you that on a map, but ours is currently broken and awaiting repair.]
Things we think might be true: Just because your wife puts your chair under a coconut tree, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s trying to kill you.

Luxury hotels make us sick

6 Dec

PD, Cholula, Mexico

Happy birthday Jeremy!

So the last week or so has been one of contrasts. We spent much of it in a luxury hotel, and some of it in busy hostels, in Mexico City. Some of the contrasts with van life were not what we expected. We felt worse, for one thing.

We were at a posh hotel because we were working at an international union conference there. And of course we accepted the gratis king size bed and deliciously tasteful en-suite, as well as the limitless supply of coffee and cakes, with gratitude.

Jeremy at Trotsky's house, Mexico City

A Trot pays tribute, Coyoacan, Mexico City

But the thing is, we missed the van. I know, I think we are weird too. And by the time we left that hermetically-sealed air-conditioned hotel four days later we were head-achey, bleary eyed and feeling rather lethargic.

Some might say we are just allergic to work these days, or that the altitude of Mexico City – at 2,240m – was the problem. But I’m sticking to the original theory – luxury hotels just make us sick. On the upside, we are now stocked up on enough soap and body lotion to last us until 2013.

After the conference we spent the rest of the weekend exploring. Mexico City fizzes with energy – walking around involves weaving through packed avenues of shouty street-food vendors, political protesters, musicians, shoppers, tourists and – at the moment – Christmas shops. Preparations are in full swing and we were around for the big festive light switch-on on Saturday, with a tree the size of a skyscraper in the Zocalo.

We structured our sight-seeing around the inspirational Diego Rivera, Frida Khalo and Leon Trotsky set. Gazing at the murals, artwork and homes of the three takes you to astonishing buildings and one of the hippest suburbs of the city, but also illustrates so much about the cultural, political and social history of Mexico – and beyond – as well as the incredibly alluring times the three lived and died in themselves.

We paid a second tribute to Trotsky at the house where he was finally murdered, having visited 10 years ago – well, it’s not possible to have too much of Trotsky. Unless you’re a Stalinist, I suppose.

Much as we love the city, it was a relief to navigate our way out of it, hit the road again, and feel the wind on our cheeks.

We have spent most of the last month or so in towns and cities. We are currently camped near Cholula, which not only shares a name with our favourite Mexican condiment, but is a suburb of the beautiful multi-coloured city of Puebla.

And for a couple of atheists we are spending an awful lot of time in churches and cathedrals. As anyone who has visited a Spanish colonial-designed town will know, they are the literal and cultural heart of every village, town and city.

Christmas lights switch-on, Zocala, Mexico City

The Zocalo was packed for the big festive switch-on

They are, almost without exception, beautiful places to visit and an important part of Latin America’s history. But they do stir up the same old questions time and again. How did the colonisers manage to convert, on such a breathtaking scale, the indigenous people of an entire region? Those that they didn’t kill or enslave, or both, I mean.

There are still some communities that reject Catholicism, but proportionally very few.

And how does the Church justify the obscene opulence of so many of their places of worship, while so many of their worshippers still languish in abject poverty? If this is not too simplistic, are those things necessary for prayer or perhaps – maybe – could some of those gold-adorned statues, blindingly shiny chandeliers or priceless paintings be utilised to help people in some way?

It’s not only churches we are seeing in their hundreds. We’ve noticed a few other things that are prolific in every town. Mexicans must worship shoes too. We’ve never seen so many shoe shops. And wedding dress shops. And dogs in clothing. In one incident, near Mexico City, we saw a dog in a dress and pink bootees. The dog looked mortified – if I’d known the number for the Mexican RSPCA I would have phoned them.

There is no photographic evidence so you’ll have to take my word for it. Talking of pictures, one friend emailed this week to say she was boycotting our photos because they were depressing her more and more, as the Scottish winter closes in.

So it’s just as well I’ve fallen so far behind on uploading any photos onto Flickr. You won’t believe me if I say I’ve been too busy, so let’s just say I’m being kind.

Days: 64
Miles: 3,100.6
Things we now know to be true: It doesn’t matter if shoes are a national obsession, that’s no excuse for putting them on a dog.

Sod ’em and Zamora

29 Nov

JD, Mexico City, Mexico

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that we have added a map to the blog. The most observant will notice that said map consists of a single line following the roads we drove from place A to place B.

Let’s call it ‘creative mapping’. Had we added all the u-turns, dead-ends and the numerous circuits around ring roads while looking for the right exit, it would have given us RSI, been dizzying for you and made our beautiful map look like a child’s scribble or bad etch-a-sketch.

Talking of endless tours around ring roads we never want to go to Zamora again… I don’t want to talk about it. Suffice it to say it shall forever be known to us as sod’ em and Zamora!

Rodeo in Guadalajara

Yee ha: One Guadalajara highlight was spending an afternoon at the rodeo

But getting lost is just a small – and inevitable – part of an increasingly wonderful journey as we travel through the heart of Mexico. From the stunning silver city of Zacatecas to the buzz of Guadalajara, the picturesque indigenous town of Patzcuaro and on to the constantly amazing Mexico City – one of our favourite cities in the world.

Along the way we’ve over-indulged in our favourite past-time – people-watching – at the rodeo; joined in cheering for the good guys and booing the bad at the temple of kitsch, Lucha Libre; been confused by a rural roadside zimmer frame stall (do they get much passing trade?); and indulged in feasts of spiced-up tacos, ostrich fajitas and melt-in-the-mouth burritos. Oh, and the famous sweets of Morelia – chilli tamarind truffle anyone?

All these ingredients ensure life in the van is never dull. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve camped in beautiful bird-filled gardens and at petrol stations, creepy deserted campsites and hotel car parks with stunning views overlooking the city. And we’re kept busy pondering why the check engine light has come on again, why the doors have started locking by themselves, why the driver’s door has stopped opening or…

Jeremy, Salon Corona, Mexico City

Salon Corona, Mexico City: Mexican league football can be as nail-bitingly tense as a Spurs game


But for a few days we’re leaving van life behind. We’ve done the unthinkable and driven right in to the heart of Mexico City (population estimated at a mere 20 million). Not bad for someone who only passed their driving test less than a year ago!

We’ve got a few days work covering an international trade union conference and are booked in to the conference hotel (the room actually has a bath – which measures about the same as our whole living space in the van!!).

On Sunday night, over a few draft beers and the best tacos we’ve yet had, we congratulated ourselves on the first 3,000 miles, making it safely to Mexico City and meeting the only deadline we had.

Days: 57
Miles: 3,021.1
Things we always knew to be true: Posh hotels are outrageous. [Bottle of water in our room = 55 pesos. The 10 tacos we had for lunch before we got here = 50 pesos.]

Devil of a ride

17 Nov

PD, Zacatecas, Mexico

If you’ve ever travelled to high places with someone who has vertigo, you’ll know it’s not exactly a relaxing experience, for either party. But sometimes it just has to be done.

J has the proper spinny-head fall-to-the-ground vertigo when faced with extreme heights. But he loves mountains too. Like watching a horror movie, he really really wants to see these amazing high places in the world, but they often have to be viewed through the slats of his sweaty fingers.

Devil's Backbone, Mexico

If the road has the word 'devil' in it, take the hint.

And so it was as we drove over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains from Mazatlan to Durango. Four hours of hairpin bends, culminating in a section of road named the Devil’s Backbone. I don’t think any further explanation is required. It was both stunning and scary, and I was required to do all the driving. When we reached the ‘spine’ the clouds hung in the canyon below us – it was definitely an unmissable sight.

Several incidents en route delayed the journey. These included a few baffled circuits around Mazatlan and the highway coming to an inexplicable and sudden dead end at one point – one more u-turn for the list! We also had to pay an unexpected visit to a mountain village mechanic (check engine light, again) who stared blankly at the engine for 45 minutes before we gave up and drove off, crossing our fingers. About an hour later the light went out of its own accord…

All this ensured we arrived in Durango in the pitch black, breaking our rule of not driving in the dark. We got horribly lost and ended up driving through the town square in the middle of a fiesta. Even at the time we saw the funny side. But when we discovered our destination had had a name change and no longer allowed motorhome camping, we were less amused.

It was refreshing to move inland and upwards to slightly cooler climes, and we wandered Durango’s beautiful colonial streets in jeans and jumpers that hadn’t seen daylight for a while.

Since our last post we have waved bye-bye to Baja. The day before our ferry to the mainland we collected the van from the mechanic’s and, my, how we’d grown! The suspension had been lifted and new chunkier all-terrain tyres added, giving us another 4 inches in clearance from the ground. Who knew tyres and springs could be so very exciting? Rogelio Vazquez Castillo, of Geraldo’s VWs in La Paz, has been elevated to hero status in our house now. Thanks Rogelio, you are a VW genius.

Leaving La Paz, Baja, for Mazatlan on the ferry

We left a stunning Baja sunset behind as the overnight ferry departed

And while we’re on the Oscar-style teary thanks, let us reiterate our deep gratitude to fellow campers Bud and Joan Winters, from Canada, who led us to Rogelio, drove us there and back, fed us with soup and gave us numerous little gifts to help us on our way. Thanks again and happy travels.

After J navigated the van into a postage-stamp sized space at the end of a terrifyingly long and steep ramp into the bowels of the ferry, we set off from Baja amid a spectacular sunset and arrived in Mazatlan the next morning. Our very nice campsite there was full of Canadians spending the winter in the sun. Is there anyone actually left in Alberta?

Our journeys of late have given us the opportunity to taste some new local dishes. We see lots of signs advertising ‘birria’ but never got round to finding out what it was – other than looking in the dictionary, which says it means ‘rubbish’. Hm, sounds like a tasty snack. So we stopped at brunch-time in a village en route to Durango and plonked ourselves in a birrieria.

We asked, rather obviously, ‘what do you have?’. He said ‘birria – do you want two?’. ‘Yes please, and some coffee’, we said. The birria – a meat stew served with onions, lime and coriander – was a welcome sight, even at 10.30am. The coffee was more alarming. We received a large cup of hot pink water, and a jar of Nescafe. I looked down at the water and asked ‘what is this? Agua rojo?’. Neither of us understood the explanation though. J thought he said it was good for the circulation, while I just assumed he was saying ‘we put that pink stuff in there to cover up the taste/smell/rankness’. We drank it, and three days later we are still alive.

Gorditas (a little filled masa cake, like a pitta pocket) – which are everywhere here – are another newbie on the block for us. We’re working our way through the various fillings, such as tongue, pork rind, cactus leaves and peppers with cheese, mostly served with a liberal dose of hot chillies. Ouch. Yum.

And now we find ourselves in the stunning old silver-mining city of Zacatecas. We are ‘camped’ in a hillside hotel car park which overlooks the city.

Wandering around Zacatecas reminded me of my first visit to Brugge. Every corner you turn offers a gorgeous scene – beautiful colourful architecture, incredible cathedrals, pretty squares, hilltop views and lovely restaurants. It’s all ‘wow!’ and ‘look at that!’ until you run out of exclamation marks and have to sit on a bench to recover.

So all I can say is “Zacatecas, wow”.

Days: 45
Miles: 2253.9
Things we now know to be true: If you’re going to ask why the water is pink, you better know enough Spanish to understand the answer.

Tails of the unexpected

8 Nov

JD, La Paz, Baja California, Mexico

I’m generally with Billy Connolly when it comes to the sea – if we were meant to go in it they wouldn’t have filled it with so many things that bite and sting and nip.

But a day’s snorkelling at Cabo Pulmo has changed all that – although the last words I heard before plunging in to the depths was “this is where I saw a grouper the size of a man”. Gulp!

Calm, beautiful clear waters above Baja’s only coral reef, amazing colourful fish, including a shoal of thousands and, to top it all, a colony of sea lions that swam below and around us. It was a magical experience finished off with a couple beers and some seafood tacos overlooking the bay.

The coastal drive to Cabo Pulmo was an experience in itself – 30 miles of washboard road and pot-holes, with the occasional sand trap. Apart from banging the propane tank off the odd rock and unnecessary speed bump the only casualty was a hub cap which we spied rolling down the road, retrieved and secured back in place.

Kitesurfers, La Ventana

Kitesurfing - looks great from here, but no thanks.

Completing the southern loop of Baja Sur we visited (and camped on) the beaches of Los Frailes, Los Barriles and La Ventana where, as the name suggests, it’s pretty windy – and a major centre for kiteboarding and windsurfing. Snorkelling was dangerous enough for me, so the idea of being blown through the air whilst strapped to a kite, suspended above the sea or crashing through the waves is a step too far. But it’s amazing fun to watch….

The state of some of the roads and the fact that we seem to enjoy heading for ever more remote beaches and villages has convinced us we need to get the van’s suspension raised if we are to avoid doing it permanent damage. So we’ve tracked down a highly recommended VW mechanic who is busy working on the van as I write. By the time we pick it up this evening it should be four inches higher.

So in the meantime we’re busy practising our Spanish… something we need to do more of after, well, let’s just call it ‘fishgate’. Misunderstandings are common when you travel. Even as as a four-year-old I recall my dad marching into a chemist and confidently asking for a shampoo for his horse… sadly the words for horse and hair are very similar in French.

Barbeque

Mmm.. barbequed fish for dinner.

There’s already been many a time when meaning to say ‘I don’t understand’ we’ve told someone they don’t understand. And I did ask a policeman if there was a bench in the town instead of a bank.

So what of ‘fishgate’? I still maintain it wasn’t our fault. We’ve been buying whole fish (pescado entero) to BBQ regularly. Only last night entero not only meant with head and tail, but guts too. It was a messy business.

And so to avoid similar mishaps in future we turned to the dictionary. But all I can say now is “I am gutted”. I was… but it shows why more practise is necessary.

Baja Sur: Click here for the latest pics

Days: 36
Miles: 1,792.5
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes whole really does mean whole.

Another crappy week in paradise

29 Oct

PD, Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico

A friend emailed us this week and expressed astonishment at our mechanical knowledge. Now, I don’t know what blog they’ve been reading but they perhaps got the URL a bit mixed up and typed in peoplewhoknowsomethingaboutvehicles.com.

But we are learning, and what we lack in technical know-how we try to make up for in common sense. So we know when that ‘check engine’ light comes on, then you have to stop and go to a guy who knows how to check the engine. We turned back from our planned 350km journey to the state capital La Paz on Sunday, and waited til Monday for a mechanic to tell us, thankfully, it was nothing serious. (catalytic converter, um, something to do with the different fuel here. Look, I wouldn’t want to baffle you with the details…)

Surfers, Playa Los Cerritos

Boondocking and bodyboarding, Playa Los Cerritos

My dad, who provided a stream of advice, lists and tips when he and mum came to California to help us choose the campervan, will be delighted we took the cautious route. A story he had told us kept ringing in my ears. It was about “someone they know” whose campervan engine caught fire “because they ignored all the warning signs Paula!”

One guy we met that day said to us: ‘oh, that check engine light is so annoying, I’ve worked out how to switch mine off’. We’ll never be that blasé – not when this camper is our home, our wheels and pretty much the only thing we actually own.

La Paz, when we got there, was a beautiful city with one of the most picturesque seafronts imaginable – palm trees lining the immaculate malecon and a tiny pristine beach that provided a decent backdrop to a lunch of octopus cocktail and shrimp tacos the day after we arrived.

Cat in a pram

At our campsite we encountered yet more generosity from our north American cousins. Canadians Bud and Joan had looked at our Flickr page, seen photographic evidence of the camping toaster we were using, and immediately came over with a superior version made by Bud’s own fair hand. With decades of camping experience behind them we do not doubt their toaster will get the job done – thank you.

While there we also met the first travellers we have seen who are also heading to Argentina in their campervan. Until then all the other foreigners we had met here were on holiday from the US/Canada, or spending the winter in Baja.

Now, I must stress that the vast majority of those people have been lovely, sane, and unbelievably friendly. And we don’t wish to use this blog to keep deriding people from the US. It’s just that the minority of really crazy ones we do meet are so hilariously off the wall that it’s hard not to mention it. This week alone there was the trailer park full of old soaks, fugitives and a couple who kept their cat in a baby’s pram, to the guy who was convinced – and he had been round the world with the US Navy, so he knew – that Argentina, Australia and New Zealand were all “owned” by Britain. It all got rather confused, but I tried to politely explain the situation in each case.

Dia de los muertos is coming - Todos Santos

"Has Paula stopped going on about the dog shit yet?"

He wasn’t having it. Re Australia he said: “But you British are citizens of Australia, I thought you were all just one big country.” I explained again that Australia, like the US, had gained independence. He thought about it and (honestly) declared: “Well, I’ll be darned.” Funnily enough we’d just been reading about the Scottish independence referendum on the BBC that day. J gave me a look that said: “Don’t you dare start trying to explain that…”

Just 26 days on the road and we’ve hit rock bottom – the southern tip of Baja California, that is. Cabo San Lucas is the Benidorm of Baja. We have gone from isolation and solitude to the land of cruise ships, high rises and shopping malls. Today we shall visit Land’s End, the tip of the peninsula, and then eventually loop back up to La Paz to take the ferry to the mainland.

But Cabo is not typical. Our journey back to La Paz should take us to yet more spectacular and barely developed beaches – the major selling point of this peninsula. The night before last we boondocked for the first time, by a surfers’ beach on the Pacific coast. After breakfast we rented bodyboards and spent an hour flying across – and, not infrequently, tumbling into – the waves. Superb.

I know this has been a lengthy post but I’d just like to mention one other thing. It’s about a floor mat we have that was provided with the van. Granted, it’s quite a dull subject, but do read on! I have a love-hate relationship with this heavy dirt-collecting mat, but this week it redeemed itself. One night we came home in the dark, someone had let their dog shit outside our van, and one of us (J) trailed a big chunk of it inside. Bad in any situation, catastrophic in a confined space. Out went the whole mat (and J) and, hey presto, clean floor underneath.

See – you thought we were getting away from all the trials and tribulations of suburban life, but no. No matter where you are in the world, there is still plenty of bitching to be done about dog crap.

Days: 26
Miles: 1,402.7
People who are now off the Christmas card list: Anyone who thinks it’s okay to let their dog shit outside our van.

Surfing the (short) waves

22 Oct

You can keep your iPod touch, your Spotify or digital downloads, for we have discovered the beauty of shortwave radio.

Ok, admittedly you have to stand on top of the van, contorted in a grotesque manner holding the aerial towards some mythical point in the sky and turn slowly in time with the rotation of the earth to gain entry to this mysterious world. You need the hearing of a dog to make out real words amongst the hiss and crackle but, oh, when you get all the elements aligned what awaits you has to be heard to be believed.

Camping at Bahia de Concepcion

Still not bored of the beach yet, Bahia de Concepcion

Thanks to the cuts you can’t get the BBC, and it’s not the latest mariachi bands or club remixes of Mariah Carey’s back catalogue which have drawn us in but – and there’s no kind way to say this – the crazy people who apparently are allowed to broadcast from the US, presumably as part of their rehabilitation.

We have learned so much from them. We now know, thanks to the plethora of creationist radio shows, that “iPhones don’t come from no slimeball”. Apparently those who believe in evolution think they do.

We know that Barack Obama is a communist and, from one caller, that he goes in to patriotic Americans’ homes and steals money from their wallets. It’s not a metaphor, he’s actually seen it happen! And, if you hadn’t heard already, Idaho is being run by the Chinese Communist Party.

Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto

But there's culture too - Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto

From the survivalist stations, we learned that we need to be stockpiling guns and ammo and food and many other things because we have enemies out there and they are coming to get us.. oh and so much more.

In the past few days we’ve enjoyed such gems while camping at Playa Los Cocos on the gorgeous Bahia de Concepcion. We kayaked to a remote island (thanks Joe and Carol for the kayak), swam in the crystal clear waters, visited Mulege and its picturesque Jesuit mission and drove the winding but beautiful coastal road to Loreto where the lovely historic town is preparing to celebrate the 314th anniversary of its founding. Let the party begin…

JD, Loreto, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 19
Miles: 989.6
Things we now know to be true: When you pee in the sea jellyfish come over and sting your bum.

The kindness of strangers

17 Oct

We promised to ourselves that the blog couldn’t solely become a platform for showing off about stuff. But there are certain pinch-yourself moments you just can’t not mention. Take the other day. I got up for a pee as the sun was rising and there were dolphins leaping about in the fiery red bay in front of the van. I rubbed my eyes and they were still there.

Sunrise, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California

Sunrise, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California

A couple of days later I was standing in the water, gazing at the stingrays around my feet, when a dolphin leapt out of the water about 30ft in front of me. I kept asking J: “Did you SEE that dolphin?” (he had, he confirmed repeatedly), because I started to wonder if I was just making it all up in my head. Nope, it’s really happening.

We’ve spent much of the last week camping on beaches, and while it is still obvious that Baja’s tourism numbers have plummeted, we have encountered a few more people than we did in the initial few days.

Our fellow campers have proved to be kind and generous. Perhaps we look like malnourished mature students (not likely after six weeks of eating gargantuan portions of steaks and ribs in the US), because many of them have been moved to giving us food parcels when they leave.

Bob and Gail from Twentynine Palms, in California, kindly handed over a sack of potatoes and garlic the night before they headed back to the US, following five months on the road. They took off early the next morning and when we woke up we found a bag containing two fat juicy steaks on our table outside. So if you are ever, by chance, reading this blog Bob and Gail, muchas gracias. We fried them up with some eggs for breakfast and they were bloody lovely.

We had to fib about the veggies we were carrying when we crossed the military checkpoint at the ‘border’ between Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. So seriously do they take this state divide that a symbolic puff of disinfectant is deposited on the underside of your vehicle as you cross.

Playa La Gringa, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California

Not a bad wee camping pitch, Playa La Gringa, Bahia de Los Angeles

We ended the week with a wedding anniversary treat – a couple of days in the beautiful desert oasis town of San Ignacio. We lounged in the square by the church, then had a late lunch and a couple or three cheeky beers. It was an intimate affair. Just me, J, and most of the village’s old boozers, who had gathered at the other end of the terrace. They were all set for a raucous afternoon – a little mound of salt, a pile of limes and enough tequila to sink a few marriages.

Part two of the splurge was two nights in a hotel. Aaah! Although we haven’t hankered after it half as much as we thought we might, it was lovely to have a bed big enough for two people, running hot water and constant electricity with which to charge our many appliances.

We have power sockets in the van but have to be careful, when we’re not on the move much, not to leech the engine or auxiliary battery of power. We discovered this to our cost this week when we, er, leeched the engine battery of power during a couple of static days on the beach. Got all packed up to leave on the morning of our departure. Ran through the checklist – propane off, check; nothing leaking, tick; pop-top locked, brilliant. Start engine. Click-click-click-click. Bollocks.

But the kindness of strangers was evident again when a lovely Canadian man with a huge truck came to the rescue. Luckily he knew how to work our jump leads. And now we do too.

Click here for pics of Baja California Norte

PD, Mulege, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 13
Miles: 874.5
Current average number of tortillas consumed per day: 572 (approx)

There are no kangaroos in England

10 Oct

We’re camped on the shores of the beautiful Bahia de Los Angeles, a stunning deep blue bay surrounded on three sides by arid desert mountains.

Jeremy at beach near San Quentin

Empty beach means all the more space for star jumps

It’s a week since we crossed in to Mexico. Over the 500-plus miles we’ve covered since then we’ve traversed the peninsula – via the stark and atmospheric desertio central, with its forests of boojum trees and cadron cacti – from the blowhole and dolphins at La Bufadora and the surf beaches of the Pacific, to the calmer aquamarine waters of the Sea of Cortez.

Along the way we’ve camped on the beach, in a car park and at an abandoned tourist resort in Puerto Santo Tomas, a small fishing village at the end – literally – of a 16-mile dirt road. Our pledge not to drive ‘off-road’ lasted a full 24 hours… and provided a hair-raising introduction for me to driving in Mexico. It was that or yet another U-turn. We’re getting good at them! We suffered our first loss during that rickety journey – the cap on the all-important external propane tank – but hey, didn’t we buy those food bags for the emergency vehicle repairs?

Puerto Santo Tomas is exactly the kind of place we have always missed out on seeing in the past, when travelling only by local bus. Having our own vehicle has also allowed us to get to some of the harder-to-reach places or just stop off to walk, look, eat and experience things along the route between two destinations.

And the overwhelming sense we’ve had during the first week is of a tourist industry in crisis. The resort at Puerto Santo Tomas is not the only deserted one we have seen. RV parks, hotels and many other places have shut up shop, slashed prices or have an air of abandonment. It is eerie to walk into a derelict museum in the middle of the desert with doors banging in the wind.

Desert, Baja California

Okay I suppose we expected the desert to be deserted

It is tragic to see the impact of the economic crisis on this beautiful region – so much for the much-vaunted free trade agreements! We may only be 500 miles from the manicured ‘burbs of Los Angeles but it’s a world away.

Talking to locals and long-term residents from the US, they cite a combination of 9/11, recession and security concerns as the cause of an exodus of American tourists – the former mainstay of many local industries.

Many of those who remain are long-termers who have been living in Baja for 10 or 20 years or, as one old boy told us, been coming since the early 50s.

In one place with a functioning bar, it was lively with long-termers who lined up the brandys during happy hour from 4-5pm. They were a hardy bunch – funny, crude, with a hint of redneck about them and generous with a beer! And despite the fact they live ‘abroad’ some lacked a sense of the wider world – perhaps best summed up by the larger-than-life Gerry asking us, upon hearing that we had come from London, if kangaroos really did hop across the road in our country.

JD, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 7
Miles: 509.9
Number of repairs to van successfully executed with a plastic bag and three elastic bands: 1

Bienvenidos a Mexico – twice

5 Oct

After all the daydreaming, saving and wondering; months of researching, planning and packing, we are here. In Mexico. The road trip starts now and – if all goes to plan – ends in Argentina.

Final preps, San Ysidro, USA

Final preparations the day before departure, San Ysidro, USA

We’ve spent our first night camping right on the Pacific Ocean about 80 miles south of the US-Mexico border – near Bufadora in northern Baja California.

Keen to navigate the world’s busiest border crossing without too many hitches, we got up at 5am on Tuesday and set off clutching all our paperwork.

It wasn’t the most dignified of beginnings. We crossed the border into Tijuana – twice! It will be the first of many cock-ups. With so much new paperwork to focus on for our campervan, we passed the brief customs search and headed directly to the vehicle permit office – sailing straight past immigration and entering Mexico without the necessary tourist visa. Bugger.

Realising our mistake, we backtracked and ended up going right round the city, took a wrong turn and went back out of Mexico, then in again! If nothing else it will have provided an amusing tale for the baffled US immigration border guard. “Yes officer I know it appears we are trying to drive into the US, but in fact we are just looking for somewhere to do a u-turn so we can go to Mexico, from whence we came just moments ago…”

Those kooky Brits!

Paula gets the giggles, Mexico

Border angst + celebratory afternoon beer = slight hysteria.

Turns out there would have been a much simpler solution to our dilemma – ah, we shall become very close friends with Mr Hindsight during this trip.

Some people might remember waving us off 3 months ago, and yet the road trip proper is only just beginning. What have we been doing since then?

We spent a month in Costa Rica for some R&R after leaving London, then flew to the US to buy a campervan, equip it and test it out. While that process was going on, along with all the bureaucracy required for registering and insuring the vehicle, we spent 6 weeks enjoying the sights of California and saw some amazing (and plenty of weird ‘it could only happen in America’) stuff (see pics here).

By the time we left, however, we had had quite enough of visiting auto shops for obscure VW spare parts.

So enthused were we about final entering Mexico, we decided to do it twice.

– PD, Punta Banda, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 1

Miles: 81.6

Wrong turnings: 1 significant one