Travel Notes Mexico 2007
I flew to New York (Newark International .. my new preferred gateway), spent 6 nights in Manhattan, then fly to Guadalajara and spent three weeks in Mexico.
Guadalajara continues to please me .. it is a great city with lovely architecture. The Cow Parade, though small, lived up to the previous one I enjoyed so much with my sister Liz in Chicago back in 1999.
The Devil’s Spine .. the highway which goes up, through and over the Sierra Madre Mountains from Durango in the interior to Mazatlan on the Pacific.
It was cold in several of the cities (because of the high altitude) ; not freezing, but too cold for me. The whole point of the exercise is to get to warm (or even hot) places.
The destruction of Puerto Vallarta. The Romantic Zone (the old town at the heart of the city) should really be re-named the Concrete Zone. Two old style plazas have been ״improved״ ; condominiums seem to springing up in spots which formerly had lush green riverside areas with birds.
Crime .. not particularly directed at tourists, but the drug gangs are killing police (who are described by most commentators as corrupt). In one spectacular case, 7 police where shot and killed in an Acapulco police station and the killings videoed.
Monday 29 January
An early night for my 4am departure for Newark Airport and Guadalajara (Not my choice .. the airline changed the time after I booked) .. the $70 taxi wiped out all my savings from the trip into Manhattan! The nice part is that I arrived in Guadalajara early afternoon and not 11pm as originally scheduled.
I stayed at my regular place – the San Francisco Plaza. I was not happy about my room at first ; it was on the second floor and very small compared to the grand spacious rooms in the front. Then I discovered the modern heating/AC unit and all was forgiven .. I have been cold here in the past. I don’t seem to tire of Guadalajara even though I have been there several times. The lovely architecture, busy plazas and great museums make it an interesting city.
There was even a Cow Parade .. (I recall the massive one in Chicago which Liz and I enjoyed so much in Chicago in 1999). Blank life size fiberglass cows are decorated by local artists. The ones in Guadalajara had the usual Mexican preoccupations: Day of the Dead was painted with skulls, one had a cut out section where you could view its heart and the best was Trans Border Cow .. a prosperous United States of American on one side and starving Mexicans on the other. It took me an age to figure out a centrepeice cow with many legs spread in a huge circle .. it was a Da Vinci Cow, based on the famous drawing of human proportions.
Thursday 1 February
The ceramics in the regional museum are truly amazing. Ancient art here was highly developed. There was an impressive Crucifixion in ivory with very Asiatic features ; probably done in the 17th Century by a Filipino who was brought to Mexico as part of Mexico’s colonial migration system. I was really sorry photos were not allowed .. this is a fantastic piece of art.
Finding a good Internet shop is no longer the problem as it was when on my previous visits. I found one which was quick and cheap (60 US cents for 40 minutes). I liked it because it was operated by an elderly lady who was very proficient with the computers and seemed to be giving training as well as hiring out machines. Just proves you don’t have to be a kid to be computer savvy.
I had another look at the Orozco murals in the Governor’s Palace and must say they are in a league of their own … Especially Fiery Hidalgo which portrays the priest (‘Father of Mexican Independence’) encased in flames ; it is painted in a semi dome in a staircase.
After a cheap (40 US cents) bus trip to the Central Bus Station I caught the bus to Guanajuato via a transfer in Leon. I decided to upgrade to one of the better hotels – the Sante Fe. It is in a terrific location on one of small beautiful squares but imagine my surprise that (1) there was no heat in the rooms and (2) they keep the front doors wide open so the dining room was chilly at breakfast. The elevation here is 6,649 feet (1.25 miles), so it is cold in spite of lots of sunshine.
Guanajuato is one of the most impressive colonial cities I have seen in Mexico ; it was many churches, public buildings and squares all connected by extensive pedestrian ways. Most of the traffic of the city is carried through tunnels under the city formed from a one time river bed. At first it seems almost too perfect (is this Disneyland?) but then you realise that tourists still make up only a small part of the population –even on a weekend – and there are ordinary Mexican people living and working in this place. I would love to see a 3 D (axiomatic?) drawing of the city .. it is built in a valley between two steep hills and with stairs going up hills and down into the tunnels, it is almost impossible to determine where ‘level ground’ is. It is like a very friendly maze .. at one point I thought I was lost and then there was my ‘corner church’.
Saturday 3 February
Not warm enough (Note to myself .. stop coming to these high elevations in the winter!). A big surprise was the Diego Rivera Museum ; he was born here and there is a museum in his house. Actually he lived with his family for only a short time on the first two floors of the building. It is furnished in a Victorian style (reminded me of a better taste version of the Pancho Villa home in Chihuahua). Upper rooms have many early drawings and paintings during which he went through all of the phases of modern art (Impressionist, Cubist, etc before finding his own style and subject matter (Mexican history and its Indians).
Another museum (Alhóndiga de Granaditas) is most important as the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the War of Mexican Independence. Father Hidalgo headed the group of peons who eventually massacred the Spanish wholesale. The exhibition contains few artifacts and too many words (in Spanish only) but the rather grim windowless building (built as a granary in the 1790s) is impressive and evocative.
Imagine a city of 80,000 people with no traffic lights, no neon signs, no Starbucks or MacDonald’s .. and that is Guanajuato. The well sited Casa Valadez on Jardin Union produced a first class chicken salad and the nearby Bar Potro serves a Guinness type beer which is dark and sweet but tasty.
Sunday 4 February
Oh dear! Bit of a wasted day. I walked up to the Museums of the Mummies (described in the Lonely Planet as ‘absolutely gross’ which should be right up my street). The light rain turned heavy, I got a bit lost and by the time I climbed way up the hill to the museum there was a very long queue of Mexican families (just the thing for kids) so I decided the whole enterprise was a bit silly. I was not about to spend hours waiting to get in and I retreated. I got some stunning views of the city which made it worthwhile and after a great lunch from a basic place on Avenue which spit roasted chicken over wood fires. The rain increased again so I spent the afternoon reading and resting.
Monday 5 February
I am beginning to do lateral thinking with the bus system. There was only one direct bus to Zacatecas later in the day, so I tacked my way there via Leon and Aquacalientes. .Bus stations in Mexico are generally a cut above their Greyhound counterparts in the United States but there is a slight problem There are several competing bus services and no central ticket point, so you have to do a bit of shopping from company to company and they are not always helpful in informing about alternative services.
In arrived in Zacatecas by 2pm and I stayed at the same hotel (Condesa), dropped my laundry off and was feeling quite at home until I found that my favourite bar was closed, apparently forever. Zacatecas is also a colonial city but more open and spacious than Guanajuato. It has a nice Mexican vibe to it and few tourists.
After the fog cleared it was a warm sunny day and I walked for hours. I went to the edge of the city to the Rafael Coronel Museum, as interesting for its setting as the collection of over 3,000 masks. The building and gardens were founded in 1593 as a Franciscan mission and abandoned when the Franciscans from Mexico were expelled from Mexico in 1857. Currently the buildings are partially in ruins but somehow they have found good exhibition space for this unique collection. 3,000 masks may sound like overkill, but because of the variety of styles, materials and the broad range of time represented, this is a fascinating place. Materials include gems, stone, ceramics, wood, papier mache, even painted corrugated paper. I found those incorporating animal parts – skulls, teeth, horns, hair, bones and skin – the most captivating. Odd that there were few masks of women and fewer skulls than one normally seen in Mexican art. Oner whole area was devoted to a display of Christians and Moors (the Spanish obviously brought these tales of battle with them)
I walked up to the cable car station (a strenuous hike) and took the trip above the city. I then walked back to the city centre through some basic housing .. not quite slums, but a poor neighborhood of shoddily built houses. Most were unfinished with reinforcement bars sticking out the top as if waiting for another floor to be added. (a subsequent conversation with the American owner of the place I stayed in Puerto Vallarta revealed there is method in this madness. As long as a house is not complete, you do not have to pay full tax on it .. regardless of how long it takes to complete).
Odd sighting. At lunch time and then in the early evening I saw a young man in a distinctive orange sweatshirt walking very fast through the crowds with his arms swinging out and back in a strange fashion, staring straight ahead. He did not bother anyone but appeared to be emotionally disturbed. In Thailand such a person would be viewed with a look of sympathy, but here he was the object of ridicule, mostly by teenagers but also by people who looked like they should know better. Whether through ignorance or cruelty, there is a streak in the Mexican behaviour which is not pleasant. (2) this is a positive note .. both here and in Guadalajara, shops which sell fabrics and sewing accessories appear to have sewing classes with lots of ladies sitting around a table and what appeared to be a teacher helping them. They seemed to be having a good time ; I’d liked to have joined this constructive fun.
I treated myself to a massive Argentinean steak at Garufe, a posh restaurant in a lovely old building. $22 with a huge Martini, and a roast pepper starter. It was a bit spoiled by a waiter who seemed bored almost rude – not just to me but to other guests. This is unusual in Mexico.
Clever Mexicans .. I noticed that in New York (like London) many drivers run the red lights. In Zacatecas, the green light blinks to indicate it is turning, then goes yellow, then red, so there is little excuse for going through on red .. and no one seemed to be doing it.
Wednesday 7 February
The bus trip to Durango was a ‘chicken run’ with lots of local stops. I stayed at the Hotel Roma – only $25 a night and just around the corner from the cathedral. It is being refurbished but my room was newly decorated, clean and with a view of the grand local theatre. Durango is back in the land of the franchises (MacDonald’s, Wal-Mart) and it was hard to find a real place for dinner. At least it has a good bar .. the Belmont on Bruno Martinez Street alongside the theatre.
Thursday 8 February
Scrumptious breakfast at La Tostada opposite the Florida Plaza Hotel. Lots of locals eating there. I am developing a passion for scrambled eggs with chorizo – not the firm salami type I get in Spain but a soft spicy sausage.
I walked to the park .. which was hardly worth the trip .. scrubby grounds, pine trees. Then a longer walk to the Museum of Culture at Santa Ana Plaza …. Folk art, local crafts but not really much that you could not see if a good craft shop. Dinner at an Italian place – Corleone Pizza at Constitucion 110 North. Limited menu (pizza/pasta) but good and reasonably priced.
Friday 9 February
Bad start to the day .. I went to the Central Bus Station for a 0905 hours bus for Durango and was told it would be an hour late .. but it never appeared and I was transferred to a 1200 hours bus instead. I did not realize the significance of the term ‘de paso’ on my ticket .. it means that a bus going on a longer journey might stop .. but then again it might not. I will need to watch for that in future and it helps explain the hesitancy of the ticketing agent to sell me the ticket.
The late bus was not First Class (scruffy in general and with no seat belts). The upside to it was that it had no blaring video, no freezing air conditioning and the frequent stops meant I got to see a lot of local colour.
Even the dreadful brat in the seat in front of me (he keep bouncing around and flipping the arm rest back on to my knee cap) could not spoil this journey. This is one of the most fantastic bus journeys I have taken .. anywhere. First a description from an objective source:
Source: AAA Tour Book on Mexico
The 320 (200 mile) journey west from Durango to Mazatlan via Mexican Route 40 passes through some of |Mexico’s most spectacular scenery. The views of the Sierra Madre Mountains are truly impressive. The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) is a narrow mountain ridge with steep cliffs slanting down from the edges of the highway. The road climbs to over 8,000 feet in the vicinity of geological formations, forests and waterfall.
This highway goes up, over and through the Sierra Madre Mountains (8,100 feet ; 1.5 miles high) and then right down to sea level at Mazatlan. Mountains ranges stretch off to the north and south as far as I could see and there were often sheer rock walls rising up above the highway, then suddenly dropping off on the other side. The road is rarely straight .. miles and miles of tight curves, hairpin turns, up and then down. We came to a sign announcing that we were crossing the Tropic of Cancer and it seemed that suddenly the whole flora changed from high desert with pines to much greener landscape with a mixture of trees, flowers and ferns.
The towns were a disappointment .. very grim. They seemed to centred on logging and mining and although small (2,000 to 4,000 population) they seemed to be near slums with corrugated steel roofs, trash everywhere and downtrodden people. One place had a potentially beautiful river cutting through rock right in the centre of town but it was overflowing with rubbish.
I am getting to be an Old Hand in Mazatlan and got a nice balcony room with sea view in La Siesta Hotel ($44 a night) and was soon out enjoying the walks along the Pacific Ocean. The Ladies Bar at the Hotel Belmar (the hotel is still a dump but they seem to be trying to refurbish it) is still as interesting as ever and with beer at $1 a bottle (50 pence UK), I undid any tension from my 7 hour bus journey through the mountains.
Mazatlan is not spectacular like Puerto Vallarta but it is a pleasing place and the small bay and beach at Olas Altos very attractive. Most of the big hotels are up to the north of the city in the Hotel Zone, but Olas Altos is just a few blocks from the old city centre with its lively plaza, market and shops. There is a lot of rehabilitation of buildings going on here but luckily no ugly new developments (the damage has already been done ; my award for the ugliest building is the seven storey monstrosity next to La Siesta Hotel .. a 1960’s building which now houses a federal agency .. truly ugly and out of place).
Mostly I like Mazatlan for its Oceanside walk .. a broad promenade which goes on for miles of traffic free walking and great views. I also walked up the hill at the south end of Olas Altos beach to a viewpoint which overlooks the lighthouse and the ferry landing (this is where my cruise ship docked in 2002). There are some lovely homes up there but I fail to see the attraction of the new developments south of there because they are totally cut off from Mazatlan by water .. it must to a long journey to get into the city.
The restaurant below my hotel is called the Shrimp Bucket and I have always ignored it because it is part of a chain (said to be the first) mostly known as Senor Frog. Usually it is filled with large groups of loud tourists. Because I was having an early start and the place was quiet on a Monday night, I gave it a try and was very pleased (and a bit sheepish for being such a snob). 10 huge coconut shrimp (shrimp coated with toasted coconut) was excellent. With cocktail and 2 beers, the bill was $20 .. not cheap by Mexican standards but good value for the quality of the meal.
Tuesday 13 February
There was no good direct connection to Puerto Vallarta , so I took a bus to Tepic and caught a First Class bus to Puerto Vallarta from there. I like this journey through the foothills with glimpses of real cowboys at work.
The Adagio Inn in Puerto Vallarta proved to be a good home for the next week. I have a spacious apartment with full kitchen (alas, I used it only for breakfast), well decorated and very clean .. for $70 a night including tax (Not cheap for Mexico, but cheap by Puerto Vallarta standards). It is located about 10 blocks from the beach in a real Mexican neighborhood, not at all fashionable but interesting. Views from the rooftop terrace include the nearby mountains and the city roofs. Michael and Armando who own this small place (there are 4 apartments) are extremely hospitable and fellow guests were friendly.
Most of my time was spent with my friend Michael Natzke (from San Francisco) and his friends Jack and Simeon. We were there for Michael’s birthday which we celebrated in style at Café des Artistes (Guadalupe Sanchez 740 – Downtown) .. a real 5 star place ; we ate in the garden under the stars. Excellent food and wine and great company.
I think Puerto Vallarta is being ruined by overdevelopment. Last year it was Plaza Hidalgo near Hotel Rosita which was ‘improved’ by removing the local street traders and covering the whole space in concrete. This year it was the plaza at the end of Olas Altos which was being converted to an underground car park with a sea of concrete above it. The area near the river which once had Hotel El Molino de Aqua (Lonely Planet description: Fully in keeping with Puerto Vallarta’s tropical village image with cabins dotted around a tranquil garden) is now raw land on which a huge condominium development is under construction. All the trees and greenery have been swept away. The former arts and crafts market near the central plaza is now a multi storey car park (why cars need an ocean view is beyond me). In addition to ‘uglifying’ the city, these developments are pushing out ordinary Mexicans in favour of franchise units, posh shops and foreigners. How do you say THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGG in Spanish?
Tuesday 20 February
Very posh bus (ETN) to Guadalajara with the bonus that the sound to movies is delivered through headphones and does not blare out all over the bus. I had a good meal at Sanborns 16 de Septiembre and Juarez); the Happy Hour menu included two beers for 23 pesos ($2.20) A nice finish to my Mexican journey
Much disparaged by the backpacking set, Sanborns is a chain of upscale cafes and restaurants seems to have no British or American equivalent (the long departed Lyons Corner House in London or New York’s Schraft’s were similar). Good food in pleasant surroundings (often buildings of historic significance). Especially the Mexico City House of Tiles branch:
Wednesday 21 February
Ash Wednesday and the Mexicans were flocking to the churches. They do not get that grey smudge that I sometimes see on Catholics in England .. they had clearly defined crosses on their foreheads (black chalk or real ash?). An easy journey through Atlanta to La Guardia in New York where I caught the last shuttle into Manhattan. I stayed at the New Yorker at 34th Street and 8th Avenue .. overpriced at $169 but it meant I could walk to Penn Station next day for the trip to Newark Airport. Did some chores in the morning, checked out Amtrak rail pass for a trip next autumn and had a extended lunch (drinks) at Julius’s in the Village …. always fun and with excellent hamburgers (something I really get in London). No joy with my list of books (on Thailand and Burma) .. too specialised. Even though train to Newark Airport was close to rush hour (4:30 pm), it was not crowded, so easy journey to airport (to think of how I used to struggle to JFK Airport).
Thursday 22 February
The flight was delayed by an hour and totally packed, so I was happy to get to Gatwick and be home by 11am Friday morning. Altogether an interesting trip but I must reconsider going anywhere in Mexico with high elevations at this time of year .. too cold for my taste.
The Practical Details
Hotel San Francisco Plaza
Degollado No 267
$44 per night
Hotel Sante Fe
Jardin de la Union No 12
$100 per night
Ave Juarez , 102
$40 per night
Ave 20 de Noviembre, 705
$25 per night
Hotel La Siesta
Olas Altas 11
$46 per night
Rivera del Rio, 172
$70 per night (for an apartment)
Morgan Library In New York City
Drug related violence in Mexico
Mexico: Acapulco Gunmen Attack Police, Killing 7 [i][u]
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
Published: February 7, 2007 New York Times
Commandos armed with machine guns and dressed in khaki with red berets invaded two police stations in Acapulco, leaving seven officers dead. The invaders were believed to be the hired guns of drug smugglers. The attacks took place on the same day that a police commander in Sinoloa State, Jorge Valdez Fierro, was killed in his car by gunmen. President Felipe Calderón has sent thousands of troops and federal agents into both areas to rein in drug-gang violence.