The week-long Zihuatanejo Guitar Festival, March 22-29, was great fun! The first night of the festival is a concert held at a large venue where most of the performers or groups (trio at most) play 3 or 4 songs each, giving attendees a sample of their style and talent. Then week-night performances are held at smaller venues, mostly restaurants and bars. What an experience! Musicians from the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America came to play, providing a broad selection of music to choose from and enjoy. Our favorite was British Columbia-based De La Terra, known for their Latin Flamenco-style. The first night when the duo played near the end of the evening, they BROUGHT THE HOUSE DOWN!!! We bought 2 CDs and attended 3 more of their performances that week.
Our friends from Sisters, Jeanne and Roger, came to visit that week and were able to attend the festival a couple of evenings too. It was fun to share our favorite place of this trip with friends from home. They conveniently stayed at Villa Los Arcos, the small hotel where we were camping in the back parking lot. One of the days they were there we drove about 45 minutes north to the village of Troncones. It is a small Mexican beach village that has been 'yuppified' with small bed-and-breakfasts / hotels, and yoga / pilates retreats. We went to the highly recommended Inn at Manzanillo, where we enjoyed a very relaxing beach-side lunch and long walk on the beach.
Nancy and Dave, who own Villa Los Arcos recommended eating Sunday breakfast in Cucayoul, a small town south of Zihua(pop. about 4,000) we hadn't yet visited. Aside from enjoying a wonderful meal, we discovered a place we plan to explore more extensively next year! The 'restuarant' is only open on Sundays from 9-2pm and is completely run by a large family. They have seating for about 75 on their large terrace patio and serve the BEST chicken mole! Regular style breakfast is also available, such as bacon and eggs, omelettes, etc. The entire extended family is involved from Grandma directing production in the large outdoor kitchen (all cooking is done on a griddle heated by a wood fire!) to the little kids doing the dishes. Those too young to work peer out shyly from partially open doors. We will go back again for sure!
Remember John's broken tooth? Well, time had come for me to get my dental work done. Before leaving home, my dentist had discovered I had a cracked tooth, explaining my sensitivity to cold and learned habit of chewing only on one side. After his quote of $1500 for a crown, I'd decided to wait till we were in Mexico to get it fixed. I had one appointment for the general cleaning, then 3 appointments: one to do all the prep and get a temp crown, another for the permanent crown to be set, and a third for final check. All went well and when it was all done, I was surprised to realize how conditioned I'd become to favoring the 'good' side of my mouth. The final price: about $600.
Fonatur, the department of the Mexican Federal government in charge of developing resorts, etc. has a new beachfront campground at the north end of Ixtapa (the resort town north of Zihuatanejo). When we had driven out to see it in mid-February when we arrived to the area, there were about 40 RVs there, mostly Canadians. When we went there with Roger and Jeanne at the end of March, we were shocked to find it completely empty! We've always been told that most RVers come to Mexico from January - March. It really is true. And those traveling from the most-northerly locations, such as Canada, have the shortest 'season'. As we mentioned before, 70-80%of the RVers in Mexico are Canadian.
There were a couple RVers who also stayed at Villa Los Arcos during our almost 7 weeks there but for the most part we shared it only with the owners' daughter and her husband.
We departed on April 3, looking forward to a few weeks of traveling to several inland colonial cities. First on our itinerary was a return to Patzcuaro, the beautiful town I described in our last entry where we'd gone for a couple days with my sister and son. But this time, we stayed at an RV park on the outskirts of town. The B&B where we stayed before had been a great location as the truck was parked on the premises and we were able to walk, and John to ride his scooter, only a couple blocks into the heart of the town. Staying at the RV park required driving the very narrow, cobblestone streets. We could not find a parking spot large enough not only for our big truck, but also big enough to unload the scooter, as using only the wheelchair in these old cities is, in practice, impossible. As it turned out, these parking and accessibility issues plagued our entire inland tour. We are glad we'd had the chance to explore Patzcuaro from the B&B so we used our days in the area to explore the nearby larger city of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan, and the nearby, very large lake, Lake Patzcuaro.
Morelia is known as one of the most beautiful colonial cities in all of Mexico and from our limited experience, we wholeheartedly agree. We drove around for quite a while looking for parking and could never find any so we regret to report our tour was done completely in the truck, and we have few photographs to share. Our spirits were a bit dashed at the driving and parking difficulties but we enjoyed our day. We plan to return to the city, hopefully next year, and stay at a downtown hotel, as we did in Patzcuaro, so we can easily explore all Morelia has to offer. We've never been to Europe but our driving tour through town brought to our minds images of Spain. The city was founded in 1541, and many square blocks of downtown boast buildings constructed in the 1700s. The cathedral is also known as one of Mexico's most beautiful. It took about 100 years to build, from 1640-1744. Morelia is now home to about 600,000 people.
The following day we took a driving tour around Lake Patzcuaro. Our guide book recommended a German restuarant along the way which sounded like an interesting change for our palette. We enjoyed sausages, scalloped potatoes and sauerkraut and struck up conversation with a couple at the table next to us who, as we learned, 12 years ago moved from Los Angeles to one of the small villages on the lake. It was interesting to hear their stories of struggle and triumph at assimilating into a small, tight-knit, family-oriented Mexican village. It was several years before they felt to be a part of community but they know they will never be 100% accepted.
We also visited the small town of Santa Clara del Cubre, famous for it's copper work. Here is a copper cream and sugar set I bought:
Our next destination was the city of San Miguel de Allende, well-known as an enclave for artists and ex-pats from America and Canada.
Our experience in San Miguel taught us something about subconscious expectations. Even now, we can't quite define what our expectations were but we were disappointed. We'd always heard how beautiful the city and the surrounding area is but we just didn't see it that way. Generally we like most places we go, appreciating a place for its virtues, often overlooking its shortcomings. We found San Miguel's surrounding hills to be quite barren. This is also the "dry season" for the region, and being high desert made it even more so. Our plan was to spend one week there but after two days of driving around town unsuccessfully looking for a place to park, my frustration turned to complete and total dismay. John, being both an officer and a gentleman, maintained his composure, taking it all in stride (pun intended). I, on the other hand, had my first 'mental meltdown' of the trip.
Let me explain why: Driving a full-size truck in Mexico, with or without the trailer attached, is always at least somewhat stressful, even in the modern cities. But in these old cities, the streets are extremely narrow. Even 'two-way' streets are not wide enough for our truck to pass a small compact car coming the opposite direction. On one such street, after crossing through an intersection with four small Nissan taxi's coming toward us, we had to backup back into the intersection, to allow them to pass us, before we could continue down the street.
Maybe it's due to accumulated travel fatigue, but I encountered what I used to try to avoid in my long-distance running days--I "hit the wall". Whatever the underlying cause, I was ready to quit the race and come home. The finish line--crossing the border--was all I could see. Thankfully, John coached me into pressing on with our travel itineray and the next day we drove to Guanajuato. But first, he encouraged me to venture into the heart of San Miguel on my own to see the sights. So, our last afternoon in San Miguel I did just that. The cathedral is beautiful and the downtown is worth several days of exploration. There are art galleries galore, bountiful boutiques and gift shops, and shading courtyards offering delectable dining. I so regret that John was not able to get into the center of town to see it all.
The next day we drove to Guanajuato which is about 60 miles west of San Miguel. When we left the main highway out of San Miguel we had picked up a hitchhiker. As John says, "We picked him up at the Guanajuato turn off, and dropped him off in the middle of no where." But 'no where' was where he knocked on the side of the truck, signaling we were at his destination. It was a nice day trip through the rolling hills and countryside in anticipation of another city we'd heard so much about.
I'll once again quote from our guide book: "Guanajuato, pop. 70,000, is crammed onto the steep slopes of a ravine, with narrow streets twisting around the hillsides and disappearing into a series of tunnels. This impossible topography was settled in 1559 because the silver and gold deposits that were found here were among the world's richest. Much of the fine architecture built from this wealth remains intact, making Guanajuato a living monument to a prosperous, turbulent past...The University of Guanajuato, known for its arts programs, gives the city a youthful vibrancy and cultural life that are as interesting as the colonial architecture and exotic setting...It's ideal for walking, but tricky to drive around."
They weren't kidding! There are two main one-way streets where traffic flows through town. In 1905 the Guanajuato River flooded the town, after which the river was diverted. Now, due to increased traffic, that old river bed has been converted and traffic flows west to east on this subterranian roadway. At least eight other tunnels have been constructed to cope with increasing traffic. We were prepared for the challenge and studied the guide book and even Google World the night before our visit and we still could not find the center of town. We did find the tunnels though! Absolutely amazing! These are not just short jaunts through a mountain. They are 'Disneyland-like', as John describes, constructed of large stone slabs, where upon entering, there is no light to mark the end of the tunnel. We don't know the exact length but neither of us have ever experienced tunnels such as these. We agreed we need to come back to Guanajuato and stay at least a week, hire a taxi driver to give us a good tour to get oriented before venturing out on our own again. Though is was only a driving tour, we did enjoy the day and we thought the countryside surrounding Guanajuato was much prettier than around San Miguel, possibly due to the unique setting of the city in the deep, narrow valley.
We returned to San Miguel on a different highway, drawing a loop on our map to mark our route. As previously described, Guanajuato is situated in a deep ravine and as we climbed the twisting road heading northeast, we picked up another young hitchhiker. Hitchhikers here do not expect to ride in the truck cab; they have all readily hopped into the bed of the truck and settled in for whatever the distance would be. This young man raised the hood of his sweatshirt, put in his Ipod ear-buds, and nestled into the corner of the truck bed for the ride to Dolores Hidalgo.
We left San Miguel the next day, shortening our stay there to four nights instead of seven. We were ready to see Guadalajara, and hoped our driving and parking challenges would be left behind as we arrived in Mexico's second largest city. Stay tuned! The next installment of our story will be ready in a few days!