Mexico City, Acapulco to Puerto Vallarta on the west coast
06.02.2006 - 25.02.2006 12 °C
Travel Notes – Mexico February 2006
Monday + Tuesday (11/12 Feb)
Amsterdam on a Monday night might be more interesting than Peoria – but only just. I went there to pick up my KLM free-ish Air Miles flight to Mexico City. The bars were dead, streets quiet, so I had an early night. I stayed at the Hotel Park Plaza well out of the city centre, but right on a tram line and very comfortable – a bargain in Amsterdam at £42. The area is residential and has impressive large Victorian houses on a lake (what is the Dutch term for Victorian?). In good weather I’d like to explore this neighbourhood.
Long flight but no problem in transfer to Hotel Monte Real. The taxi fare had nearly doubled since last year .. I bought the ticket at the ‘authorized taxi booth – 240 Pesos ($24). The driver was partially colour blind .. he stopped for red lights, then proceeded while they were still red (I assume he was seeing green).
This area south of Alameda Park is even more chaotic than when I stayed at the nearby Metropol Hotel last year. The streets are closed due to construction, no pavements (sidewalks) or when there were pavements, they had huge pits and holes in them .. very hazardous. Next day I was able to pick a route though this mess which took slightly longer in time but less likely to find me falling in a pit.
The huge new development (Plaza Juarez) by architect Ricardo Legorreta is impressive. The office blocks and carpark are complete and final touches being made to open spaces which border on the park. It has a sculpture park and I watched a huge bronze foot being unloaded – curious because the tips of the toes are cut off .. I dubbed it Bad Manicure. There are huge grilles and reflecting ponds .. almost a modern Moorish type place. It is the size of a whole New York city block and has two huge towers at the back of the site ; interesting walkways and open spaces near the park and a restored church (now some type of cultural centre) at the front of the site. This area was badly damaged by the big earthquake in 1985 and many buildings are derelict or damaged, so this development really is an improvement. I noticed some restoration work in the adjacent streets, so assume that I will soon be priced out of this area.
Big news here is the expulsion of Cuban delegation (fewer than 20 people) from a Sheraton Hotel where they were taking part in an American-Cuban Energy Conference. The Sheraton is American owned and the hotel bowed to pressure from US Government as part of the Cuban embargo. I wonder what sanctions the USA put on the Americans taking part – the Sheraton apparently did not expel them. What is the USA trying to do? It angers/annoys the entire world. Don’t they have enough on their plate with the Middle East? The Mexico City authorities were retaliating by finding licensing and fire regulation infringements at the Sheraton and were threatening to close it down when I left the city.
Dinner at good old Sanborn’s on Alameda Park .. a touch of 1950 and good if not exceptional food. Not a tourist in sight .. this branch seems to cater for Mexican office workers and families.
Spent the whole morning at the Museum of Anthropology and finally managed to see the entire collection (but not the educational part on the upper level which is mostly in Spanish). This is certainly one of the world’s great museums and a reminder that this culture spans millennia. Fantastic objects in stone, wood, bone and ceramics. The huge Olmec heads are still as mysterious as when I first saw one in Chicago. A recurring theme in Mexican art is the mask .. through various eras and often very beautiful and slightly eerie.
Lunch at an old favourite – La Blancha in Col Madero Street. 3 courses and coffee for 57 Pesos ($5.70) Both the guacamole and the pork tacos were spicy – heaven! This is quite an ordinary place, full of locals.
The altitude (7,000 feet – over a mile high) took its toll and I needed a siesta. In the evening I had drinks near Garibaldi Square where the mariachi bands congregate. It was too early for them to be playing in the square, but they were in evidence and they were sounds of trumpet practice. As the Lonely Planet guide says, this would not be a good place to wander around at night. The people seemed nice enough but it is very poor and there seems to be an air of desperation about it all. Possibly it looks better in summer or even on the weekend when crowded with people.
I enjoy the Monte Real Hotel – not as up market as the Metropol but staff warm and helpful and £25 a night included a basic breakfast.
I did a recce (reconnaissance) of the Southern Bus Terminal for my trip to Acapulco. Just as well since it is a very confusing place with several bus companies each having its own counter (no central booking point) and some comparison shopping was required. Also, a maze of stairs and confusing paths to reach the place so getting there by public transport (carrying luggage) not an option.
I switched to a train (Tren Licora) to go further out in the suburbs to the Anahuacilli Museum which contains the ceramics collection of the artist Diego Rivera. The building is a pyramid type structure of dark volcanic rock ; the lower rooms are rough walled and dark ; there is a huge studio on the upper floor with a wall of windows flooding the place with sunlight. Rivera designed the building but died before it was completed. What an amazing place! The collection is on a par with that of the National Museum and especially the West Coast artifacts (Colima – Najrarit)) are lovely. Unfortunately access is by guided tour and it went too quickly ; I could have spent a half day here easily but the tour was just over an hour long.
Back in the city center, I walked around the Zocalo – there seem to be perpetual demonstrations here. The Gran Hotel where I stayed in the 1980s has been fully restored – very up market and I was not even tempted to check it out. Dear, dear .. what has happened to me? I used to adore these grand places and now find them pretentious. Or is it just sour grapes since I can no longer afford them?
Lunch at Gante Café – great chicken salad at an outdoor table in this pedestrian street which has many places to eat and is great for people watching. There was an interesting outdoor exhibition of Rodin sculptures in a nearby plaza – part of the collection owned by a Mexican bank.
Back at my hotel, the area was crawling with riot police (troops?) and then I realized that there is a huge Sheraton on Alameda Plaza (not the one which was the centre of the Cuban debacle), so I guess they were there in case of any problem. These police are extremely tough looking and heavily armed – I do not find their presence reassuring.
Dinner at El Regiomontano in Luis Moya Street, Cabrito (kid goat) which was tasty but not all that tender (downright stringy, in fact). I think that this is one of those places that is better in concept than in the reality.
The bus to Acapulco climbed mountains up to the southwest of Mexico City. High desert with few people/animals but interesting cacti, flowering trees and great views. The Hotel Mirador in Acapulco is in a breathtaking setting, built into the rock canyon from which the famous divers give their nightly performances. I had a large room with balcony and fantastic view. Alas, I was to find that I was directly above the band which played nightly for the diners at the expensive La Perle restaurant (so posh the menu did not give prices) which is part of the hotel. After two nights of amplified music and the clump clump of folkloric dancing, I was ready to move on.
Acapulco proved far more interesting than I expected. First of all, no matter how corny the divers sound, this is a very impressive feat. They dive into a small bit of water about 20 feet wide when the tide comes in.
Acapulco is a big city (1.5 million). Hotel Mirador is isolated but about 10 minutes walk to the centre of the city ; most of the tourist hotels are on a strip to the south of the city. The good news is that means the centre is very Mexican and not nearly as touristy as I expected. There are busy markets and shops – a bit shabby and all very Mexican. The central plaza is small and has mature trees which shade the whole place, several fountains and many cafes which are good for people watching. It is directly across a main road from the harbour and there is a working port in addition to tourist boats. In fact there were fishing boats which I thought would probably be condemned in other places – certainly they would be excluded from smart Puerto Vallarta or Ziahuatenejo.
According to the Miami Herald newspaper, there is a battle between the local police and drug cartels. In the week before I arrived, there was a big gun battle in the streets of Acapulco (near the central area) in which 6 people were killed including a police chief. This matches the battles that are going on in the border towns near Arizona and Texas .. two police chefs were killed there during my stay in Mexico. There was no sign of tension in Acapulco ; this appears to be a falling out between crooked police and criminals. Ordinary people are not involved (or possibly not even concerned) but there is another issue for them I saw a poster about the disappearance of a 3 year old girl ; a local newspaper headline said that 22 Acapulco people disappeared in the past 3 months. Mexico is a violent country – no doubt about that.
The bus to Ziahuatenejo goes along the coast but because it is such rugged country the sea is often hidden by mountains. One long beach at (….) is beautiful but I saw only one hotel in this 7 hour journey. The guidebook says the waves here are simply too strong for swimming. Zihua (luckily it is shortened) is an old fishing port and a major tourist destination. There is a new development (Ixtapa) of mega hotels to the north of the old town, but Zihua is small scale, low buildings on a lovely bay with fishing and pleasure boats. Getting really picky – it is not possible to see sunsets which are blocked by a nearby mountain, so this is not a place I will hurry back to. There are too many tourists and this is reflected in the cost of my very basic room -- $25 a night for a cold water room with fan and no view and the constant noise of children in the hotel hallways. I met an NorthWest Airlines pilot and his wife who were staying in Ixtapa where they had great sunset views. Sounds good but I don’t think it is worth $200 a night.
Based on the interesting ceramics in the Diego Rivera collection, I decided to change my plans and go into Colima, about 60 miles from the coast on a high plateau near two volcanoes. I had also had enough of the fat Yankees (and Canadians) in the beach towns.
I decided that I needed a treat after the cold water room in Zihau, so booked into the rather swish Ceballos Hotel on the main plaza in Colima. Large high ceilings with all mod cons and grand public areas.
Getting to Colima was a hassle ; the first class bus I’d planned to take was cancelled, so I had to go by local bus to a town to the north (Lazaro Cardenas), then switch to a different terminal for a Colima bus which stopped almost everywhere on the 200 km road which was curving almost all the way. There were a couple of straight bits near the coast with lovely beaches but no people in sight. At around 1600 hours I was about to doze off when 6 soldiers got on the bus. At first I thought it was a roadblock check but they took seats and were hitching a ride. They came for a highly fortified checkpoint and were all armed. The 3 young ones had rifles which looked almost World War I vintage, but the older ones had those nasty snub nosed automatic weapons which are really scary. The one who sat opposite kept dozing (by this time I was wide awake and on full alert). The muzzle to this automatic weapon was pointing upwards (admittedly at his chin and not at me). My paranoia was working overtime, so I was very pleased 45 minutes later when they left the bus.
I left Zihua at 1000 hours and arrived in Colima at 2030 hours, very tired. There was some type of festival in the plaza (traditional Mexican music first, then loud rock and roll until well past midnight). I just cleaned up, found a meal (Los Naranjos – delicious chicken a la orange). and went to bed – so exhausted that I slept in spite of the noise from the plaza.
The Regional Museum in Colima is small but informative. There was an ancient civilization in this area (2500 BC) which was related to South American and/or Pacific cultures (as evidenced by deep well tombs which are not found in other parts of Mexico). The most striking artifacts are ceramic dogs (including a charming pair of dancing dogs). The story is that dogs were buried with a corpse because they would guide the person to the Other World (a live dog might be sacrificed, but mostly the tombs had these ceramic dogs). Other ceramic dogs (very short and squat) represented those used as food. These ceramics are sophisticated and very artistic.
[Listen up there in the back, there may be a quiz next time I see you]
I learned two facts in the Regional Museum: (1)coconuts where introduced to Mexico by Filipinos who were brought to Mexico by the Spanish in 1569 and (2) the Spanish branded their animals and the museum had a collection of branding irons and an ancient document which listed brands, owners and number of animals. I always assumed that coconuts where native to Mexico and I thought American cowboys invented branding. Travel and learn.
Went to a recommended Oaxacan restaurant (Ah Que Nanishe)), reasonablably priced ($11 for chicken mole and 2 beers) but the treat was an appetizer – which I think is spelled xijoman or hijoman. It is a turnip like vegetable (the owner’s son brought a whole one from the kitchen to show me what to look for), served raw in sticks, it is very moist, almost like a melon, with a pleasant and refreshing taste.
On my way back to the city centre (the restaurant was 6 or 8 blocks outside the plaza) I encountered a parade which was related to fiesta days in a Colima suburb called Alvarez. Earlier that day I saw a sedate procession starting at the cathedral with horses, musicians, children, etc., but this one – mostly in cars and trucks was a wild affair. All drivers appeared equipped with a can of beer, there were large speakers on the back of pickup trucks with music blaring. The oddest thing was that almost all the cars and trucks had men in silly drag (bad wigs, oversized tits, caricatures to be honest). When the vehicle stopped, they would get out in the street and chase young men and humiliate them with crude sexual advances. The crowd loved it and it was odd to see these macho young Mexican men running away. It was all innocent fun and it reminded me how unusual it is to see the whole community taking part in such an event.
I walked out to the edge of the city to the Museum of 3 Cultures which had an impressive collection of ceramics .. more dogs, but also a man in some type of trance (possibly psychotropic). Both people (especially warriors) and dogs seemed to be caught ‘in action’ .. there was a tension and reality about their pose which is really captivating (they date from about 300 AD). This is a small but high quality museum. Alas, there were no postcards or museum guide.
Up early for the trip to Puerto Vallarta. There is only a night bus which goes non-stop, so I had to go to Manzanillo and change. I thought I was in luck because connections were good (10 minutes wait in Colima and only 30 minutes in Manzanillo) but it was still very long day ; I left Colima at 0730 hours and got to PV at 1700 hours. At first the countryside was similar to that which I had seen on my way from Acapulco but this was even more remote .. the bus didn’t stop as often because there were so few towns. But it often stopped in very remote places when someone was standing along the road and flagged it down. No road, no town, no buildings in sight .. where did these people come from? Odd.
About 2 hours south of PV there was a dramatic change in environment. The high dry desert mountains gave way to more greenery which became more lush (and eventually looked like jungle). We were inland and about 45 minutes north of PV turned a corner and there was the Pacific .. what a welcome sight.
Stay in PV about the same as last year .. room at the Rosita Hotel on first floor, so closer to street noise and really not very good. This hotel is a bargain at £24 a night through Expedia (double that if you walk in at this time of year) but I think I will look for a different place on any future visits.
The big event was Michael Natzke’s birthday ; he was there with several friends. We went to a very grand restaurant (Café des Artistes). This is one of the finest restaurants I have been to in ages (think Oxo Tower in London). It is huge and spacious, mostly white which showed off the large oil paintings and sculpture dotted around the place. Set menu was $36 (£20) but alas, wines were also the same price. In this case it did not matter because Simeon, a friend of Michael’s picked up the tab for the entire group. The highlight was the dessert course which was presented on a large mirror on which Happy Birthday Michael was painted in chocolate, and the various desserts we had ordered arranged around the mirror with lots of slabs of dark and white chocolate as a bonus. Great evening!
Hotel Monte Real
$25 per night
$70 per night (fantastic ocean view)
Portal MeMedellin, 12
$52 per night
Paseo Diaz Ordaz 901
$47 per night (cheap rooms ar3e3 very noisey!)
Update on Sheraton Hotel drama:
The authorities have ‘closed’ the hotel (which still seems to be operating). This one will play and play.