From Mexicio City north to Copper Canyon,, and some time in Puerto Vallarta
13.01.2995 - 11.02.2005 15 °C
• La Quemada (near Zacatecas) an unexpected surprise. 5 level city (200 to 1200 AD) built on a mountain by the Indians who later moved to found Mexico City.
• Mexico City’s crowds – often overwhelming and sometimes frightening. 18 million people and it often feels it.
• The wintery conditions in the Copper Canyon.
• Creel – a real pit – it makes me think that in future I shouldn’t trust the Lonely Planet guides so readily.
This was a freebie – an Airmiles trip on KLM from Amsterdam to Mexico City. Michael Natzke came from San Francisco to spend 4 days because he was keen to see Mexico City. My arrival was much better than my last trip to Mexico City (in the early 1980’s) when I arrived late in the evening. On this occasion I arrived mid afternoon and using the authorised taxi service from the airport got to the hotel quickly. The Metropol Hotel is in a great location and much more deluxe than I expected. Large room with a view of – earthquake damaged buildings. This area was the center of the huge earthquake in 1985 and there are still buildings which have not been rebuilt since then. One author calls Mexico City ‘post apocalyptic’ which is a good description, Its problems : poor water supply, inadequate sewage systems, and pollution make it a crazy place for people to live – and yet the people continue to pour in … the figure of 22 million is bandied about but the official population is 15 million making it the 7th or 8th largest city in the world. Unofficial population is 18 million.
I tried to meet Michael at the airport but due to poor signs, I got lost in the airport and missed him. Found him later at his hotel and was very concerned because he had such a terrible cold. Luckily his condition improved a bit before he returned to San Francisco.
We went to the Museum of Anthropology which is simply one of the finest museums I have ever seen ; the collection is fantastic but the 1960’s buildings are classic and a real delight. Because of my trip to Yucatan and a much better knowledge about the history of Mexico, I enjoyed it more than on my previous visit. One thing Michael and I enjoyed .. each building has an adjoining outside area – some with significant archeological buildings or artifacts ; others landscaped in a pleasing way. In either case, a good place for Michael to have his ciggie and for both of us to get fresh air and some sunshine. We had lunch in the terrace restaurant there – very good value in a great setting. That evening we looked for a restaurant in Michael’s neighborhood and ended up in a ‘European’ place which specialized in food from Alsace – we each had charcuterie – a huge platter of sauerkraut and pork in various forms. One plate would have been enough for the two us – delicious and authentic (Michael lived in Strasbourg and knows the real thing). A pianist with good musical taste added just that extra note to the evening.
On Sunday we went to the zoo – interesting collection but the part we enjoyed most was the landscaping. Perhaps not as spectacular as San Diego Zoo, but well landscaped and a feeling of being natural. It felt miles away from the pressure of the city. Michael returned to San Francisco on Monday ; I spent the day on a combination of chores and sightseeing around the Cathedral area.
On Tuesday I took the first of my many coach trips – First Class bus to Guadalajara. Altogether I traveled more than 2000 miles on the Mexican bus system. Excellent terminals, for the most part, clean and well managed. Spacious buses and good baggage control made travel easy and in a couple of cases, downright posh. As much room as you get in Business Class on an airplane. Down side is a video blaring away and air conditioning cold enough to chill meat! One company (ETN) had ear phones so I could ignore the video – others were so loud and violent that I got a headache from them.
I found the good old Number 616 bus at Guadalajara Bus Terminal and took the cheap (35 US cents) bus ride into the city. I was feeling quite smug until I tried to find the San Francisco Plaza Hotel .. someone had ‘moved it’. Well, my memory let me down and it was two blocks away from where I left it. Great place – old colonial style place with huge rooms and lovely interior courtyards and tiled walls. A welcome addition since my last visit was an electric heater in the room,. So I was very comfortable. Although I enjoyed Guadalajara and saw more of the ‘sights’ – I found it more polluted than Mexico City. The fantastic murals by Jose Orozco in the classic museum (Hospicio Cabanas) amazed me ; the centrepiece - Man on Fire – defies description or photographing, but is beautiful and mysterious. The Regional Museum with its amazing collection of early ceramics in a building which is fascinating make this city a must. The elevation (4500 feet; 1500 metres) means that it was cold at night but by late morning the sun made it comfortable for walking and touring.
Next stop was Mazatlan. I gave up on the old Hotel Belmar which really was too grim the last time I stayed there and opted for the expensive ($40 or £22 a night) Hotel La Siesta and was very happy with my room which had a balcony overlooking Olas Altos Beach .. a lively 5 or 6 block stretch. The Ladies Bar in the Belmar is as scruffy as ever and like a scene out of Starwars – its customers have a beat look and attitude and was great fun. The city has improved the promenade along the beach and connected it with the main beach where all the fancy hotels are located, so there is a great walk which can be as much as 5 miles if you are up to it.
Saturday night in the nearby plaza was great fun. It was decorated as part of the buildup to Mardi Gras and tables were set in the centre of the plaza for a private party. I was lucky enough to grab a table at a restaurant and ate dinner while watching the arrival of the sells in fancy dress. Lots of live music of all kinds and a general festive atmosphere.
My favourite hamburger joint in Mazatlan (Thorney’s) has closed, but there are plenty of places to eat and drink. I’m told that the place is dying – it simply does not attract the tourists the way it did years ago. On the other hand, the area around Olas Altos seems to be moving upmarket ; it is close to the centre of the city and has interesting art galleries, a theatre and a fairly large expat community. A visit to the hotel strip seemed to indicate they were eager for business even though this should be peak season. Several hotels were offering rooms for $30 a night. There is not much to see in Mazatlan, so I was ready for the bus journey to Los Mochis after my 3 days there.
Los Mochis is spread out and my map reading skills failed me, so I walked for ages before finding a taxi to take me to the Hotel Montecarlo. The place looked OK but the room was cold and there was only a trickle of water – hot or cold – even though the plumbing was all quite new. My plans for an early night were disturbed by a wedding party (or a successful drug deal from the looks of some of the party) which went on until well after 3am. They did not look like the sort of people you tell to pipe down – and when the alarm went at 4:30 am I was glad to clear out of the place.
The main goal of my trip to this part of Mexico was to visit the Copper Canyon – (Barrranca del Cobre in Spanish). This is a series of six massive interconnected canyons in the Sierra Madre mountain range. The canyon system is said to be four times larger than the Grand Canyon in the USA; four of its six canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon. I had to take all this on trust because I simply looked down into it – any thoughts of exploring were out of the question because of the cold wet weather. CHEPE (Ferrocarril Chihuhua al Pacifico) connects Los Mochis near the Pacific Coast to Chihuahua, 393 miles (655 km) to the northeast. It has 87 tunnels and climbs from near sea level to 8000 feet (2400 metres).
The train station for CHEPE is about 4 miles outside the city and looked desolate but a few people came in and at 6am we boarded the train. Nice clean train ; (it was First Class – there is an Economical service which leaves an hour later but it makes many more stops and is not recommended). There is a smart dining car and after a good breakfast I began to feel better. The early part of the journey is through flatlands and I slept for a hour or so but luckily woke up as we entered the most interesting part of the journey. Many more people (mostly in tour groups) joined the train at La Fuerte about 3 hours from Los Mochis; this avoids the flat farmland and does not require such an early start.
As the train gains altitude, the scenery becomes very intriguing. There are mountains in the distance and miles of forest – oak trees according to the book I was reading – but interspersed with cacti and dogwood (both rose and white). There was also a tree with red bark which I could not identify. The rivers were flooded, in some cases creating huge lakes – there has been a lot of rain this year. By 10 am, the train was going up steeply and doubling back as we climbed. The highlight of the trip is a town called Divisadero which is right on the rim of a huge canyon. This is clearly the place to stay – the hotel there is posh - $175 a day with meals – but if I do this trip again this where I would stay.
CHEPE relies heavily on freight and one of the most astounding scene was a series of 15 or 20 flatbed rail cars with US and Canadian RVs (Recreational Vehicles) on them, the owners proudly sitting in front of their vehicle in portable chairs. I saw two convoys of these which were in marked contrast to the regular freight train which had very poor Mexicans huddled in the freight cars – ragged and poor. I guess the RV owners chose to go by train both for the scenic journey and to avoid the long drive from the high plateau to the Pacific.
I went on another 3 hours to a town called Creel which was recommended by the Lonely Plant guide for its range of cheap hotels. They did not mention the stray dogs, the people who looked furtive and unfriendly – altogether a rough and unpleasant place. The fact that the train was 3 hours late, it was dark and driving cold rain did not help matters. My first choice hotel was closed up tight so I went to Casa Margarita which turned out to be a fire trap posing as a hotel. $20 a night included meals and I had a good but basic dinner (cheese on everything ; this is Mexico) ; a short walk revealed no bright lights or place for a drink and the crowd of backpackers in the hotel were not friendly so it was early to bed. The gas heater kept making booming sounds during the night which combined with the pouring rain to keep me awake. After a quick coffee in the morning I walked through driving cold rain to the bus station and asked where the next bus was going … luckily it was to Chihuahua (a major city on the high plateau).
This bus was not one of the First Class ones and was very crowded and made lots of stops. There was a strange (American, I think) ‘family’ .. a blonde man in his 50s was clearly in charge; he was with one man and 4 women, all in their 20s. The younger people consulted him throughout the trip and he had a strange habit of raising his right arm and fist in the air. His T shirt message was NOT TO YIELD and SERVING THE MISSION. Is this a cult? Bad vibes .. or was this just the Creel Effect?
I checked into the Chihuahua’s best hotel and relaxed after a hot bath. Creature comforts never looked and felt so good. Chihuahua is a cowboy centre and there seem to be dozens (hundreds) of places selling outlandish cowboy boots (camp bright pink and fuschia with winklepicker toes .. I loved them), saddles, all types of cowboy getup. I thought the place was fun. Sunday evening was amazing – the whole city seemed to congregate in the plaza for an old fashioned promenade – young and old – all walking about the enjoying themselves until well after 11pm. It was also the site for a ceremony the next day when the flag was lowered at 6pm (not sure if this was a special occasion) – The music included kids playing recorders ; the Municipal Band dressed in black wool overcoats over beige trousers and looking vaguely like London skinheads, and finally a military drum and bugle corps.
.The cathedral is impressive and very restrained by Mexican standards the tasteful stone interior and small beautiful floral arrangements on the side alters made the place feel more loved than some of the gilded and gaudy places in Mexico City. The three real sights were (1) the small ancient church dedicated to Hildago – simple and impressive – (2) the Pancho Villa Museum – a hilarious place. It was like a small castle but very quaint inside with French furniture and rather twee murals on the walls. I found it difficult to imagine Pancho Villa in a bourgeois setting like this but there was his pistol holder hanging from the brass matrimonial bed. I gather than one of his many wives lived here and although he visited the place, his main home was a ranch outside Parral.. The museum had a lot of interesting photographs, including those of the gun toting women who joined Pancho Villa’s army as they moved south to capture Zacatecas. Chihuahua was also famous because earlier revolutionaries (Hidalgo ; Jaurez) were here.
(3) The other place of interest is a Art Nouveau home (Quinta Gameros) on a grand scale, built in 1907. It would look right at home in Paris – really a huge mansion.. The story is that a rich man built it for his bride to be, but she fell in love with the architect and married him instead. There were only a few rooms with original furniture but the bathroom had all the original Art Nouveau ceramic tiles, a mad circular antique shower and lovely light fittings. The other room was a child’s bedroom with bed, dresser and walls all decorated in a Little Red Riding Hood motif. I doubt if I could have slept there – the wolf seemed to be everywhere – what a curious choice of theme. Many of the rooms were filled with rather indifferent modern paintings but the building was still well worth the visit.
My next stop, Parral, is a very out of the way place .. about 150 miles from Chihuahua with only cattle country and small towns en route (and few towns at that). It rained during the journey and at one point a man got on and played his guitar and sang sorrowful songs. Because all the Mexicans gave him some coins, I did too and then he got off the bus at a remote crossroads – I gather that is how he makes his living. One of the most fantastic things I saw was a low level cactus which was distinctly purple in colour – maybe this is commonplace but I had never seen one. All my attempts to photograph failed.
Parral (official name is Hildago del Parral) is a mellow town of 110,000 most famous for Pancho Villa being assassinated there in 1923. It was founded in 1631 and while there is not much of interest there, it has a nice feel about it and the people and polite and leisurely. Hotel Acosta is a family run place with 1950’s décor and fittings .. a nice little place with friendly staff. There were also a couple of cute restuarants with 1950s décor and a fun bar at a place called Calipso.
I particularly enjoyed a huge funeral there on the Saturday – not sure who the deceased was, but there were at least 10 pickup trucks filled with huge floral displays – 6 feet in diameter - waiting outside the church for the trip to the cemetery. What a send off ; nice day for the floral trade. Also interesting that women were wearing rather smart casual gear and no hats – the days of ladies covering their heads in Catholic churches seems to have passed (where was I when that happened?).
I stopped in a hardware shop to buy some locks and the man insisted on getting his wife who spoke English. I am glad he did – she lived in London for several years during the 1970s and spoke excellent English. She was interested in my travels in Mexico and very curious about what I was doing in Parral. We had a half hour chat and I brought her up to date on things in London.
I thought I saw nuns in Parral but it turned out to be young Mennonite women wearing white kerchiefs on their head. They were standing at an intersection, selling cheese. Mennonite cheese is apparently highly regarded in these parts. These people moved here from America and I have seen them in bus terminals – the men in bib overalls and the women usually wearing black .. odd that they should end up here.
In both Chihuahua and Parral, the role of the Indians is not quite as simple as the guidebooks would have you think. Yes, they are dressed with great colour and often selling handicrafts, but they were also begging at banks, in bars and appearing very much like gypsies. They clearly were not popular with the local population. Sad, since they are striking handsome people and many of them have a natural dignity.
The next bus journey was 6 hours to Durango – another cowboy city. This is a place with many fine buildings and more character than Chihuahua. I stayed in a converted mansion which housed a restaurant I was keen to eat in – until I found that the a la carte menu had been replaced by one of those ‘all you can eat’ formulae. It was a carnivore delight Brazilian place with waiters carrying beef in all forms all over the place while people stuffed themselves silly – very off putting. I found a nearby Italian place and had a good pasta – it had great style and a fun crowd, so I enjoyed it. Alas, the hotel room was cold and I had to pile blankets and wear several layers of clothing. This cold weather was getting to be a real bore!
Durango was noteworthy because of the lack of guns. One of the things which is disconcerting about Mexico is that you see guns everywhere – usually in the hands of private security people – even the CHEPE train had a man wearing dark glasses carrying a serious looking automatic weapon. Guadalajara was filled with guns, but not so many in evidence in Puerto Vallarta.
My next stop was Zacatecas ; a city of 115,000 which was founded in 1548 and with a fine Baroque Cathedral and many beautiful colonial buildings. UNESCO designated it a heritage city and pumped funds into it, so it caters well for tourists and has at least 10 museums. It rained while I was there which spoiled it a bit for me, but between showers I walked around the lively market, saw several of the buildings and generally enjoyed the great atmosphere. There is a mountain (La Bufa) dominating the skyline and a cable car connects it with the city – a fun ride. The mountain is flood lit at night and I had a excellent view of it from my hotel room (a very nice place – Hotel Condesa ).
In common with most places I had visited, there were no interesting bars in Zacatecas. With all those plazas and beautiful buildings, it was crying out for a bar with a terrace to people watch. This is odd thing about Mexico – it is very puritanical about bars – you can rarely see into them from the street and have to go past a screen to see what type of place you are about to enter. Puerto Vallarta is an exception and there are more bars with a terrace (or at least open to the street).
I booked a tour of the city which included a trip to a nearby town known for its silver mines. Some deep level mines are still operating but when the Spanish came, the silver was in veins near the surface which could be easily scooped out and this accounts for the prosperity of the region. One small town looked picturesque from above and I asked the guide to take me down there. He was somewhat reluctant and I learned why. Although it looked charming from a distance, it was very poor and the people looked almost desperate – he said that most of the men in the place were working in the United States and the families had broken down and it had problems with drugs and violence. We did not stop and it was one of the few places I saw in Mexico which I really found menacing.
The next day I went on another trip – some 30 miles outside Zacatecas to an archeological site – La Quemada. There were 5 of us and the guide was knowledgeable, so I enjoyed this tour. This turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of my trip. I knew nothing of the place but it is impressive and has a informative small museum with a fascinating video which explained that the Indians who lived there from 200 to 1200 AD, then abandoned the site and later moved on to found Mexico City. The site is on a mountain which provides a natural lookout from which you can see for miles in every direction – an impressive military site. The city is on 5 levels – we climbed up to the 3rd level which was about 200 steps and quite vertigo making enough for me. Level 1 had a marketplace where the local people came to trade goods; Level 2 had the court where ballgames were played, overlooked by a small pyramid; level 3 was where human sacrifices were carried out and through a niche in the wall, the priests could display the heads to the population below. Level 4 was the religious center and Level 5 for astronomy. The structures were made of dry stone walling – no cement used. Often it was difficult to tell which parts of the mountain were natural and which man made. Apparently the population of the city was only 500 but there were 10 to 15 thousand people living in the plains below it who provided the food and effort to keep the place going. While it is not as impressive in architectural terms as the Mayan ruins in Yucatan, I still found it interesting and it had a a great sense of atmosphere because of its impressive setting.
Things began to speeded up after I left Zacatecas .. I went to Guadalajara and stayed at a dreary hotel near the bus terminal so I could catch an early bus to Puerto Vallarta. This was Primera Plus – a really deluxe company with a fine bus. In Puerto Vallarta I stayed at Hotel Rosita, right on the sea at the north end of the Malecon, the lively strip of bars and restaurants. I did not have a sea view but the hotel has fine public spaces on the ground floor which were conducive to reading and relaxing. I received a great reception from Ken and Gary who have a condominium there. Ken’s sister Brenda and her daughter Laura were visiting and they were fun gals – we all hit it off and had lots of laughs. That is, until I tipped over. I was coming home around midnight and made the mistake of trying to jump up a low wall to the promenade, I lost my balance and fell down into the cobble stone street, just managing to catch myself with my right hand. I landed on the right side of my chest and hip. At first I thought I’d cracked some ribs but I think I just pulled muscles – in any case it cramped my style and it was still sore when I got back to London. Naturally I blamed myself for being so silly – I should have waited until I got to some stairs or a ramp before going up to the promenade. No permanent damage done .. but any fall is a serious matter and it was a shock to my system.
I had some bad memories in Puerto Vallarta during two of my previous visits there when Ken Johnson was so ill ( and when I had pneumonia) but I laid those ghosts to rest and enjoyed it – it was nice to be with lots of English speaking people again (or in my case, English listeners) and the whole restaurant/bar scene is simpatico. Ken and Gary cooked a great dinner on Sunday evening (delicious salmon) and gave a fun Mardi Gras party and we finally had a evening out going to the art galleries followed by a good dinner. Eating outdoors at 9 pm is such a treat … the weather has lovely.
The return journey to Amsterdam was taxing – in part due to my painful chest … but also because I had a boring 4 hours in Mexico City airport which has no seats (I ended up sitting on the floor), no restaurants (until you get past immigration into the Departure lounge). In any case, it was good to get to my Amsterdam hotel and after a shower, have a quick drink with my friend Andrew Watt before an early night. I left my hotel in Puerto Vallarta at 10am Thursday morning and checked into the Amsterdam hotel at 4pm Friday, so it is no wonder that I slept 12 hours that night.
Luis Moya 39
$42 per night (very nice hotel near Alameda Plaza)
Hotel San Francisco Plaza
$38 per night
Hotel La Siesta
Olas Altos, 11
$40 for seaview room with balcony
Hotel Margarita Plaza
($10 but not recommended ; seemed like a firetrap to me)
Hotel Plaza Cathedral
Hotel Posada San Jose Constitucion , 102 Sur
$35 per night (might be OK in summer .. no heat and too cold in winter)
Paseo Diaz Ordaz 901
$47 per night
At Guadalajara Airport
(I thought this was an overpriced dump ; if possible, stay in the city)