La Paz to Mazatlan by ferry
I got to the ferry terminal about 5, as instructed. This time there were much less cars than when I was here a week ago about 5. Maybe because that ferry was going to Los Mochis.
I figured I’d have plenty of time in line to get everything organized, as you’re not allowed to go back to your car once it’s parked. Nope. They just shot me right up into the ferry.
After getting settled in, I went down to get the “incluido” dinner. Not bad. Looks like the people who don’t have cabins are set up for some karoke or live music later. I saw a table of 3 young men and one young woman sitting at a table full of unopened Tecates. They were in for a fun night.
Later I came out just to see what was going on, and they were obviously well into the Tecates. I don’t know what cartel guys look like – but these kids had on pretty new hip-hop looking stuff – so maybe? I also noticed the guys always sat in the corner with their back to the wall. Sorry I did not feel it wise to try to sneak a pic of them. I decided to give them a wide berth as I probably look like DEA or something.
When I was disembarking, I thought I was in the line for drivers-only, and of course I’m right behind all the hip-hop dudes – who still had open beers in their hands at 9am. I thought – holy shit these guys are all getting in cars? What is this some kind of drunken can transport agency? Luckily I found out I was in the wrong line and had to go back up through the ship. I’ve never been so relieved to be in the wrong line.
Mazatlan -> Puerto Vallarta
I made a bee-line out of Mazatlan and headed South – towards Puerto Vallarta. Poor Mazatlan. No one seems to have anything good to say about Mazatlan. And the parts I saw didn’t really change that perception for me. Although I’m sure it has something going on somewhere.
A little before Tepic, I got off the highway and headed for the coast – as I had time to spare and it looked like I could work my way down to Puerto Vallarta along the coast. The scenery turned quite lush and tropical jungle-ish.
I turned South at San Blas and worked my way along the coast. Lots of slow trucks going up hills slowed down traffic to a crawl. Then when the trucks get to the top they fly down the hill – the part where you can actually see to pass – and maybe only a few people can pass. If they’d just pull over at the top of the hill and let 20 cars go, traffic would move much faster. They’re practically stopped when they get to the top of the hill anyway. I don’t know if they’re trying to save gas or just massively underpowered.
Navigating through this region was pretty interesting as none of the small town names really matched my map, or google maps – which didn’t really match each other either. It felt like bingo when I actually got 2 of the 3 sources to agree. At a few points the road became completely covered with trees and made a tunnel.
The youtube compression really fails on these trees. It looks much cooler on my phone I promise.
Eventually I made my way to Lo De Marcos, which I wanted to check out as I had friends who have a place there. It was a very nice little town, sleepy in a way that I think I could really get into.
I’d heard about Sayulita just to the South, so I wanted to check that out too. Sayulita is a pretty enough Mexican town on the beach – but also completely overrun with tourists – mostly Americans from what I could tell. The beach was packed, parking was really tough. Coming from Baja – where I mostly avoided Los Cabos – this was some culture shock. I lasted about 30 minutes, but managed to take some pics.
Oh yeah I saw some guy on the beach hiding behind a restaurant sign, where he had cover to point his giant 500-600mm lens at women walking down the beach. I looked at him and he pointed his lens out to the ocean like he was taking pictures of whales or surfers. Yeah dude – crouched down is a great vantage point for that. The guilty look on his face said it all. I should have taken a picture of him and shamed him in this blog.
I was pretty hungry, so I sat down at one place that looked ok and not too crowded. Immediately a fat American returned from the bathroom smoking a giant super-potent cigar. Well that explains why this chunk of tables was empty. I moved up a little bit and found a place with some ceviche – which also sold these monsters:
My next stop was the La Cruz de Huanacaxtle marina, where my new buddy Crazy Collin has his boat. The closer I got the more I started to worry a bit. Do I really know this guy? Also I get anxiety the first few days in a new place – which the Mexico mainland felt like for me. It’s just a physiological reaction I guess to unfamiliar surroundings. So that wasn’t really helping matters. I figured – well just know where my bag is at all times – so I can always bail if Collin gets wasted and starts showing me his knife collection or something. I have to admit at that point I was kinda wishing I had just booked a cheap hotel room.
I finally found the harbor, I took a few pictures why I waited for Collin to get back from running some errands. I guess this is one of the richest harbors in the world in terms of expensive yachts. It’s also the first place I’ve seen where the “Yacht Club” actually looked kind of swanky. All the Yacht Clubs I’ve seen in California are fairly pedestrian. Racquet Clubs on the other hand – are always swanky.
Collin showed up a bit later and we went out to the docks. As we approached a row of dinghies – I remembered – oh yeah, Collin told me his boat was at anchor, not in the dock. Well that certainly makes bugging out if things get weird a bit more complicated. We headed out to the boat with a loaded down dingy and Collin’s dog, Sadie – the mellowest black lab I’ve ever met in my life. Naturally my mind raced to that iconic scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – The Implication:
We got to the boat in time for a gorgeous sunset.
I brought a bunch of beer, as one does when one is offered a free night’s stay on a boat. I figured this is the time where we get drunk and tell boat stories. Unfortunately Collin was not feeling very well and was pretty subdued. We talked for a bit while I drank a few beers and Collin went through sporadic contortions of pain. I remembered how much maintenance boats demand from my time owning one. And this one being twice as long looked like it demanded about 100 times more work. Quote of the night from Collin: “Yeah I’m 29 and own a yacht in Mexico. I think I’m gonna be single for a while.” Good on you Collin.
Oh yeah the other major tidbit Collin said is that if the cops catch you with cocaine on your boat – they just shoot you on the spot. So the war on drugs seems to have moved south. I hung out on the boat for another hour or so after Collin crashed, enjoying the peaceful sounds of the harbor. At night the waves were just enough to gently rock me into a deep satisfying sleep. Mucho better than a crappy hotel room – and sorry Collin for doubting your host-worthiness. You always have a place to crash in LA. Well whenever ifever I get back.
Also, apparently I bring pestilence with my wherever I go because the next day Collin was not really well enough to get up (man I hope Mike recovered in Baja). I did manage to wake up for an insane sunrise.
Collin’s buddy Gido, a German guy living with his family on the next boat over, brought over some miracle cure he had. “Don’t worry, it burns and tastes like chlorine, but it will kill anything.” Gido was also kind enough to give me a ride back to the dock on his dinghy, otherwise I may have been stuck on that boat for a while. Gido chucked it all in Germany and moved to Puerto Vallarta with his wife and kid a few years ago. I guess Germans have Jimmy Buffet syndrome too.
I WhatsApp-ed Collin that night and he was not doing much better. I checked in on him a couple days later and he had just gotten out of the hospital – where he was laid up with “hyper-infected intestines”. That sounds less than fun. He said the nurse told him it was probably from bad water. He said he only drinks bottled, except for what they give you at the restaurant. He had gone out for a nice steak dinner, and he was thinking at first it was the steak. But apparently it was probably the water. So avoid that at all costs. Good to know. Man I hope Mike is ok. (Edit: I have received proof of life from Mike – yay.)
I only had a few days until my Spanish language intensive in Puebla, and I knew I wanted to see San Miguel de Allende – so I made a beeline from Puerto Vallarta. It ended up about 9 hours of driving and I’m guessing $80-100 US in tolls on the autopista (toll freeway). At one point I accidentally got off the autopista and spent 30 minutes or so to go 5km behind more of those slow hill-climbing trucks. So yeah, the same route on the libre (free) road probably takes days. But how many people in Mexico can afford $100 to drive for one day?
San Miguel de Allende
I got to San Miguel de Allende about 4pm and just figured I’d drive into the center of town to check it out. Not the best idea.
As an aside – contrary to some of the blogs I’ve read – I’ve actually found driving easier than backpacking to this point. Moving day is infinitely easier when you don’t have to stuff everything you own into a bag, then carry it around with you until you find a new place to stay. I always feel like a vulnerable hermit crab outside its shell when I’m sitting in some new city with my suitcases or backpacks – especially when traveling alone and I have to deal with my bag and look for a place at the same time. Also I can usually find free camping, or sleep in my car if I have to.
Now having said that – San Miguel de Allende brought me back to reality on the car utopia. Imagine deciding to drive through some medieval European town with impossible narrow cobblestone streets, and traffic, as dusk rolled in. Also I was pretty fatigued from the day’s driving. At one point I almost caused a wreck to sheer stupidity, and have been kicking myself for it for days. No more fatigued driving in crazy towns.
A little tight
I saw a few places that offered parking – but they all had low overhangs that would knock my car carrier right off. For the first week or so I forgot I even had that thing on the top of my car – luckily I was in central Baja where parking garages don’t exist. But these days I am always aware of it (watch me forget now).
Finally I found a parking lot with no low overhang. I pulled in just to get my bearings for a bit and was greeted by a couple chained-up barking dogs. Oh yeah – street parking is about as easy to find as San Francisco – non-existent. Turns out the parking lot was for a hostel. Ok great. I walked in the back way – up to the front desk. No one was there. I peeked out the front door just to see if anyone was out front – which set off an alarm bell. Ok they’ll come now. Nope.
So I sat and waited for a bit. No one came. I set off the alarm a few more times. 15 minutes or so – and no one showed up. Furthermore the hostel seemed completely deserted and was mostly dark. I decided to wander around to see what it was like or if I could find anyone. The upstairs was not lit up at all, and the sun had set. So there was a nice eerie gloom. Some areas were unfinished, there were some closed rooms, but pretty much zero sign of any habitation.
I started thinking about how much not fun it would be to stay at this place, given the cold gloomy vibe. Then of course I thought of the movie Hostel. I was so unnerved I didn’t even get any pics. But dammit that parking was perfect. So while I was still sitting in the empty lobby, I decided to check on booking.com just to see what was out there. I found a crazy fancy looking resort place just outside of town, with parking, for $60/night. Sold. I got the heck out of there. The next day I kept trying to find the place to take some pics, but couldn’t find it on any hostel guides or booking sites. Creeeepy.
The next day I taped up my heel and had the hotel call a taxi for me into town. I was already blown away by what I had seen the night before, and with more chance to explore the next day I was even more fascinated with the town. Apparently most of the exiting town was built during the Spanish colonial days – between the 16th and 17th centuries. Apparently in the 17000s it had 30k people, which made it one of the largest cities in the New World at the time. The architecture is a mix of baroque and neoclassical, not that I really know the difference. I just know it’s massively photogenic.
Enough people had told me to go to San Miguel de Allende, that I just put it on my list and didn’t research much beyond there. I like having no idea what to expect when I roll into a new place. I was worried SMA would be another Sayulita, but in the mountains. IE – cute town overrun with tourists. But once I got there and was blown away by the architecture – I immediately wanted to read up on the history of the town. I guess by the early half of this century the town had fallen into some disrepair and was in danger of ruin, until it was discovered by artists from America and around the world. Oh yeah, apparently it also claims to have invented my old friend – the serape. When I get back and write my Bryson-esque travel memoir, I’ll have a ton more fun historical tidbits.
I did my best to explore with my bruised heel on hard cobble-stones and rock side-walks. It’s just killing me that I can’t walk all day and explore cities like I usually do. But I still managed to get in some nice pics, a very tasty pork meal, and wandered up a step path to apparently the sunset spot (see pics in the album above).
I love hidden steps especially when they lead somewhere cool.
I was entertained for a good 30 minutes by these kids and their dad playing with balloon toys
At night the temps dropped pretty quick. I hung out until 8 or so then grabbed a taxi back to my resort. I passed the resort restaurant where some poor waiter was just standing there surrounded by dozens of tables loaded with finely polished glass and silverware. The resort was pretty deserted. I wonder if they got one customer all day long. Deserted restaurants and resorts freak me out for some reason.
I decided I liked San Miguel de Allende enough to stay another night. Really I could have stayed two weeks there, and I don’t say that about many places. I talked to some locals who said there’s some interesting art exhibit or cultural presentation every night. I could easily just wander meeting local artists and taking pics for days on end. Well – assuming my heel would cooperate.
So I checked with my resort – sure they could extend my stay – for 3200 pesos. Let’s see “tres mil, dos-cientos … thinking … thinking … hmmmm … I’m pretty sure that’s 3200 pesos. Well that’s like $160.” So I asked again just to confirm I didn’t screw up the numbers somehow. Yep $160. Nah. I think I’ll pass. Enjoy losing 25% of your guests! 😀
Apparently they wash your car overnight at this resort – unsolicited (I tipped the guy a couple dollars and he seemed happy). But dammit now I have to go get it dirty again. Dirty cars get a lot less attention, and I know my car is happier when it’s dirty. It’s like a dog.
So this is where I’m thinking having a car is pretty sweet. I can just load up my car, find somewhere to park in SMA, explore the city some more, then find some place to stay as the sun goes down. Well not exactly.
First I checked out the arboretum outside of town. It had a lot of cool plants, some art sculptures, and an old water wheel from the 1600s or something. Apparently the history of SMA is tied to bringing water into town from outside. It’s like a mini-LA.
After that I headed into town – l figured I’d drive around looking for a hostel – as I had seen a few in the previous days. I decided I’d even stay at the creepy hostel for one night, since it had parking and might make a good story. Naturally I had zero luck finding any hostel, or parking.
Finally I got lucky and saw someone leaving in a spot near el centro. I pulled in feeling pretty pleased with myself. I looked around and didn’t see any no-parking signs (E with a slash through it). However I didn’t see any yes-parking signs either – and they were usually pretty good about those. Also the guy behind me was sitting in his car, napping. And I was in the front of the row. These are called warning signs.
But hey what’s the worst that can happen? They’re not going to tow my car. So I set off to explore a little and try to find a place to stay for the night. One thing I wanted to find was the hat store I had seen the night before. All the locals and ex-pats seem to wear Panama hats or the wider-brimmed straw hat, whatever that’s called. I figured my grubby hiking hat could use an upgrade when I’m being man about town. Amazingly I did find the hat store and asked the clerk if they had any cabeza grande (big head). Only one variety of Panama hat fit me, but I liked it. The shop girl was adamant there was no bargaining, and her body language made it abundantly clear she’d really rather I just leave so she could get back to her iPhone. So it wasn’t cheap. But I’m happy with it. The cheap ones didn’t even come close to my size. They fit me about like like one of those silly hats they put on monkeys.
Hat secured, I tried a few hotels that looked like they might be cheap but were not. So finally I found a hostel on booking.com that had private rooms (but shared bathroom which I can deal with). Of course it was on the other side of town. I hobbled over to it, checked in, and rested myself for a bit in my very Spartan room that for some reason needs 5 light switches.
I needed things out of my car, which was of course, on the other side of town. I spotted some parking close to the hotel and decided to get my car and bring it back there. When I got to my car, someone was sitting in their car in front of me – almost blocking the intersection and clearly not in a legal spot. I thought – it’s your lucky day sir as you can have this spot. When I got in the car he was gesturing at me. I noticed a ticket under the wiper blade.
Ah – yep not a legal spot. Oh well, what are they really going to do? I mean I will pay it online if they make it easy. But somehow I doubted they had that option. Nowhere on the ticket did it even say the fine.
So I parked my car in the overnight lot, but not before taking a chunk out of my side mirror housing – trying to back in to an impossible angle between two cars and a tree. First injury of the trip. Noting superglue can’t fix.
I got everything I thought I would need from my car and headed back to the hostel where I rested my heel for an hour or two. After it got dark, I got hungry. I opened my door to a blast of arctic air. There was no heater in my room. But apparently, the room was small enough that my body heat had kept it quite comfy. I realized I only had my shorts. My jeans were in my car and the lot was probably locked up for the night. I could have frozen my ass off to walk a few blocks to try to get my jeans. But that seemed to defeat the purpose. I found a hot dog stand a block away and wolfed down a shivering hot dog. So much for any plans for a night out – which I really didn’t have anyway. I checked and it got down to 32 degrees that night. Mexico es muy frio!
The next day I had a wonderful albeit cold (the environment, not the food) breakfast at the hostel. I really like chilaquiles (fried chips with rojo sauce and sour cream) for breakfast.
I checked out and headed to my car. I had to roust the parkng attendant at 10am. Luckily someone was there who knew where she lived. This is not an early-rising country.
The drive to Puebla was a fairly uneventful autopista excursion of about 5 hours and maybe only $25 in tolls this time. People were burning brush and fields all over – so there was lots of smoke which unfortunately mostly obscured the nearby volcanoes – the tallest of which is some 18,400 feet!
Driving into town I saw a young girl of 11 or 12 working on her mother’s nails as both sat by the side of road along a big roundabout. I assume they were taking a break from panhandling or selling some small items. The young girl had a look of innocence and devotion as she was 100% focused on helping her mother. The scene was poignant, heartbreaking, and somehow not without hope at the same time. I wondered if maybe that young girl can get an education and lift the family to make a better life for her mother somehow.
(I talked to Scott, who owns the Spanish school I’m staying at. He didn’t seem very optimistic about the chances of someone born into that kind of poverty here – which is probably true in most places. When I get settled, I am going to look into charities where you can sponsor a child to get an education, and also help the family out to replace the work or income they were expecting the child to bring in. Basically whatever it takes to make sure a child in poverty gets an education. Something like that has to exist right? Yeah of course it does. I just need to get on it.)
I arrived at the school, my home for the next week, and unloaded some things from the car. Scott, the owner of the school, looked at my car and asked how I got a Temporary Import Permit without a front plate. All that was there was my empty license plate holder – screwed back in and even the little caps over the screws put back on. I thought – “What kind of thief screws the license plate holder back in?” He said that the cops do that sometimes, to make sure you pay the ticket. Which I have to admit, is certainly an effective strategy. And oh yeah – I did get a parking ticket in San Miguel de Allende. I thought I was in a legal spot, but as mentioned – there were some warning signs I should have heeded.
So as what I thought was an extreme long shot, I posted in the Pan-American Travelers group on Facebook, asking if anyone was in San Miguel and on their way to Puebla. Since I will be here for a week learning Spanish. (Edit: turns out to be two weeks as my motorcycle friends are struggling to get across Texas in the snow and cold.)
A fellow “overlander” named Bruno Rey responded that night. The next day, he was kind enough to print up copies of my documents, then make the pilgrimage into the center of town – which as I have covered – isn’t the easiest driving or parking in the world. He paid the fine – 151 pesos (about $7.50) – and is now in possession of my license plate.
Muchas muchas gracias San Bruno! See you in a few days my new friend.
Next: two weeks studying Spanish in Puebla and eating many great things. Puebla is a foodie’s dream.