Mexican Road Trip, July 05 | Magnificent Mountains, Charming Villages, Sumptuous Food & Friendly People


Michael, Lynda, author Josie & Paul on the road in Mexico.

"I’m in Love!" my husband Paul declared as he burstthrough the front door of our cottage in Alamo Heights, an old suburb of SanAntonio, Texas. I wasn’t alarmed. I knew it was something odd, probablyinanimate he was enamored with (we’ve been through this before). “Thereis the most amazing handmade pot, five feet high, made in the mountains ofMexico. I saw a picture of the artist. And I met the nicest people who ownthe shop where the pot is sold.”

So began our odyssey south of the border. To be honest, I had been feelingthe pull of Latin America, just two and a half hours from where we live. Ikept thinking, there is another country and culture a stone’s throw away—whycan’t we drive there?

The Insiders’ Scoop

Like many Americans, I had been to resorts in Mexico (Acapulco, PuertoVallarta, Puerto Escondido) and border towns like Nuevo Laredo and Juarez.The resorts were beautiful and the border towns were awful. Yet I rememberedthe romantic tales my parents had told me of driving to Mexico City in1936 on their honeymoon, of a beautiful city of one million people ona lake full of flowers (Xochimilco). Back then, some roads were stillunder construction, and they had to wait for dynamite to finish a tunnelbefore driving through it.

I began to ask people in San Antonio about driving to Mexico. As it turnedout, few do it. People said the roads were bad and it was dangerous.

That is, until we talked to Amy and Bob, the owners of Cosas, the shopwhere my husband’s pot came from. They sparked our imaginationswith stories of their travels through Mexico. “We have driven everywherein Mexico,” Amy said, “and we know all the best roads andvillages. We’ll tell you everything.” And so, over severalevenings of Mexican food, they revealed insiders’ secrets to drivingin Mexico.

Better Border Crossing

The first and in many ways the biggest hurdle to cross is the Mexican/Americanborder. Before crossing into Mexico, you must have current registration,proof of ownership and insurance, passports, and cash. Many differentwindows process different parts of this transaction, so it is a “standin line” kind of experience. We patiently waited, processed thecorrect papers, and met some new people. Once across, out of Nuevo Laredo,Mexico opened to us.

We decided to go in stages. Stage one was a drive to San Miguel de Allende,just 16 hours from San Antonio. Guideline #1 is stick to the toll roadswhenever possible. These are new roads comparable to our Interstate highways,with of course a few differences. All of the road signs are in Spanish.We noticed right away that the signs had a different quality to them—theywere encouraging and helpful rather than declarative and threatening: “Nomanaje cansado” (Don’t drive when you’re sleepy) and “Sitome no manaje” (If you drink, don’t drive).

Treasures of Northern Mexico

Northern Mexico is a high desert plateau. This year the rains had beenplentiful and the desert was abloom with grasses and many varieties ofblooming cacti. Joshua Tree forests were everywhere and bougainvillea,the brilliant magenta vine that symbolizes Mexico, adorned the humblestabodes. As we approached Monterey we saw the beginning of the beautifulSierra Madre Oriental Mountains—high, jagged, multi-layered peaksin soft colors forming a huge saddle cradling the city of Monterey, whichin disturbing contrast is ringed by modern factories spewing pollution.

There is a bypass to Saltillo, which circumvents Monterey and leads furtherup into the mountains. It is on the road from Saltillo to Matajuala thatwe found the Nomads Amy had told us about: “You’ll want tostop, but resist the temptation,” she’d said. They are nomadicdesert people who sell their wares on the side of the toll road—snakeskins, hawks and buzzards in cages, armadillos. It is a sight from anotherage.

Matajuala is a truck stop with a good restaurant, La Noria, on the wayto San Louis Potosi. Beyond that is the turn-off to San Miguel and thebeginning of an area that looks like the Tuscany region in Italy: beautifulgentle mountains, verdant fields filled with crops, and narrow roads sharedby cars, trucks, horses, bicycles, goats, and cattle.

San Miguel is built on the side of one of the gentle mountains, takingadvantage of a cascading river, which flows through and supplies thecolonial town with its water. Cobblestone streets, cathedrals, squares,and villas make this a unique city, which has been designated as a Mexicannational monument. Many Americans have moved here and an artist’scolony was begun in the first part of the 20th century. Although wehad heard it was touristy, we found it to be a beautiful place filledwith artisans and shopkeepers.

We had arranged to meet Amy and Bob at an open-air restaurant. Insteadwe ran into them in the street market and tagged along while they wentto Chilo’s craft shop, where he makes hammered tin mirrors and frames,and the pottery shops of Dolores Hidalgo, a village north of San Migeulwhere Talavera pottery is made.

For a few days we stayed in San Miguel at a beautiful bed and breakfast,Casa Schuck, owned and run by an American family for 50 years. Feelingadventurous again we drove to Guanajuato, the capital of the state ofthe same name. An old silver mining town, it is built on the side ofa mountain with a labyrinth of serpentine streets that is nearly impossibleto understand, with or without a map. Boys stand on the outskirts oftown and offer to navigate through the underground tunnels that leadto the center of town. There is also a first class university and agrand indoor market.

Zacatecas, The Pink City

Our return trip found us driving north on Highway 46 to the silver miningtown of Zacatecas. Some people say this is the best-kept secret in Mexico,even though it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Indeed,it is a beautiful, clean colonial city rich with cathedrals, a cable carthat spans the “pink city” (so-called because of the pinkstone used in many of the buildings), and the best little restaurant inMexico, Los Dorados de Villa.

It embodies what we love most about Mexico. In a small two-room site withmint green walls and hexagonal “saltillo” tile on the floor,the space is filled to the brim with iron candlesticks, copper plates,clocks, newspaper articles about days gone by, and old radios, all toppedby papel picado, colorful cut-out tissue paper decoration, hanging fromthe ceiling. Tables of Mexican families dine with children running hereand there on food that takes at least an hour to prepare. The entire menuis made up of regional specialties, each dish gorgeous and savory withall fresh ingredients. The lights are dim and the caged canaries in frontof the doors add to the mysterious yet warm atmosphere.

Crossing back into the U.S. we were stopped by a customs agent who waspracticing apprehending terrorists. After he found a garden tool lodgedin a side pocket, he barked, “Step away from the car, ma’am!” and “Whatother weapons do you have in the car, sir?” It was a momentary setbackin an otherwise wonderful trip.

The Soul of Mexico

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Amy told us when we showedher our pictures and purchases. “Wait till you go to Michuacan.” Wewere emboldened to plan another trip further into the interior.

Michuacan, “el Alma de Mexico” (“the soul of Mexico”)is the state in the central mountainous part of the country. Six thousandfeet and above, it is populated with indigenous peoples, colonial cities,villages of artisans, national parks, and butterfly sanctuaries. Our friendsMichael and Lynda flew into Morelia, where we met them with our HondaElement—a true road warrior. We had a box affixed to the top ofthe car for luggage, a cooler full of mango juice and diet Cokes, sanitaryhand wash, and little pillows for lumbar support.

Morelia is a colonial city of more than 600,000 people with an old citycenter, which is preserved and designated as a world heritage centerby UNESCO. There are walking tours through 17th century buildings, amonastery turned music school, the Michoacan state museum, the homeand museum of Mexican revolutionary Jose Maria Morelos, the toweringcathedral and square, and the old aqueduct. We stayed on the hill overlookingthe city in a beautiful terra cotta villa, observing the sunsets andlighting of the cathedral on Saturday night.

We took our first foray to the monarch butterfly preserve. In November,millions of monarchs fly from Canada to winter and mate in the mountainsof Michuacan. They land on Oyamel trees, close their wings, and settlein. Around the end of February, as temperatures rise to “flighttemperature,” they rouse themselves, usually simultaneously in aglorious flurry, and the grey and black “leaves” of the treesopen and become brilliantly golden with the soft purr of a million butterflywings flapping.

We stayed in a country inn in Zitacuaro called Rancho San Cayetano,with Lisette and Pablo as our hosts. Lisette, a French woman, cooksinternational cuisine with freshly baked French bread and homemade jamsof strawberries grown on their property. We needed her nourishment whenwe returned from the Cerro Pelon sanctuary, the newest and most remoteaddition to the group of designated butterfly preserves (in competitionwith the logging operations of the mountains). We had taken small mountainhorses to the 9,500-foot high sanctuary and laid down on the rocky groundto observe the amazing phenomenon.

The mountains of Michuacan in and around the national parks Jose MariaMorelos and Cerro de Garnica are sumptuous—thousands of feet highbut close enough to the equator to remain temperate, with ideal weatherthroughout the year—70s in the day 40s in the evening. The ruggedMil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks) are misty like the Smokey Mountains, withlayer after layer of ridges and peaks. Funky chalet-type homes line thehighways with flowers growing from all manner of containers nailed tothe sides of the houses. Palm trees, bougainvillea, and even cactus makeappearances from time to time even at 7000 feet—an incongruous sitethat caused us to look twice and wonder where we actually were.

On the way to the wonderful colonial city of Patzcuaro, just west ofMorelia, we stopped at a village Amy had told us about, Capula, the homeof the artist Juan Torres. He has a lovely estate there with an art gallery,greenhouse, workshop, and school. Torres makes daring, colorful, inspiredreligious art, and his workshop creates clay sculptures of Katrinas, skeletonsdressed in all manner of finery, for Day of the Dead, honoring those whohave passed away. Senior Torres’s wife took us on a tour and introducedus to her husband, a modest man despite his fame throughout Mexico.

Patzcuaro proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. It is a beautifultown of 50,000 overlooking a lake and surrounded by villages specializingin different crafts. The main square, Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, named afterthe 16th century bishop who dedicated his life to the indigenous peoplethere, is said to be one of the most beautiful in Mexico. It is surroundedby arched colonnades in front of two-story buildings painted white witha three-foot band of terra cotta color at the base. Full of gardens, thesquare hosts the lively Baile de los Viejitos (the Dance of the Old Men),clowns on stilts advertising local restaurants, and Mariachis, one ofwhom Paul joined in an impromptu duet.

Shopping is excellent in Patzcuaro, as many artisans from surroundingvillages bring their wares to the markets there. Or you can do as we didand drive to the villages and see where things are made. In Santa Clarade Cobre, which specializes in copper, you can see the workshops recyclingcopper wire into gorgeous copperware. In Paracho, where musical instrumentshave been made for generations, we bought a guitar from a man who wasa third-generation guitar maker.

Toqura & Zijuatanejo

Driving back to Patzcuaro from Paracho, we failed to follow Guideline#2, which is to never drive at night. We missed the toll road and endedup on the trucking road, also shared by animals.

One of the most interesting places we visited was a tiny village on theeast side of Lake Patzquaro called Toqura that specializes in carved woodenmasks. It is the home of Juan Horta, a master mask maker who has taughtin the U.S. Many of his masks are colorful and a little scary.

Patzcuaro is connected to the Pacific coast by a new super highway, whichpasses through Uruapan, the avocado capital of the world. Every fieldand hillside is covered with these exotic trees, and guacamole is servedabsolutely everywhere— it’s the best and freshest we haveever eaten. The beautiful lush mountains of Michoacan give way to thehigh desert region along this road and huge golden bridges crisscrossthe Rio Balsas where it has been dammed.

Here we failed to follow Guideline #3: always fill your car with gaswhen it reaches one half of a tank. We assumed the beautiful new roadwould have plenty of PeMex stations, the national oil company that servicesthe entire country. It is necessary to oversee the people who fill yourtank to ensure you get what you pay for, and also to give a small tip.As we drove further into the mountainous desert, it became increasinglyremote. No villages, no people, no gas! The red fuel-gauge light wenton. We finally saw a big PeMex—only to find the station had notyet been opened. We followed the narrow road to the outskirts of a village,stopped at the first house, and in our halting Spanish asked if therewas a gas station nearby. The sweet man pointed to six plastic containers. “Tengogasolina,” he said. Michael, Paul and our savior held the funnelwhile pouring the golden liquid into our car.
Our destination was Zijuatanejo, a fishing village and resort on a lovelybay in the Pacific where we were joined by our friends Lincoln and June.We stayed at a hotel Amy told us was the most beautiful in all of Mexico,called La Casa Que Canta, “The House That Sings.” It is sonamed because of the sound of the ocean breaking on the rocky promontoryon which the hotel is built. Fresh flower-petal designs were put on ourbed every night!

Suffice it to say, as charming as the city was, we barely left the hotel.
Our friends flew to their respective homes in Idaho and New Jersey andwe drove the two-day drive to the border without incident. Our crossingwas very smooth despite a new friend’s story of abduction and bribery20 miles from the border and a frantic call from our daughter Joey, whoinformed us of the state department warning about danger to Americansin Nuevo Laredo. We crossed in the morning at the Columbia Bridge 20 mileswest of Laredo and all was well.

We realize it’s not just the occasional adventurous Texan who drivesthrough Mexico. We remember our friends Ted and Bobbi, who well into theireighth decade would drive from Martha’s Vineyard in New Englandto their home in Guanajuato, or Joey’s art professor at the Universityof Iowa who drove his wife and children every year down to Oaxaca. Theyknew what we learned—that Mexico is a beautiful, exotic countrywithin easy reach of ours and that the Mexican people are gentle and welcomingwith a culture that is varied, interesting, and challenging.

Something magical happened on our drive to Mexico—we had a quietawakening of contentment as our hearts opened to the people of Mexicoand our minds and senses took in the startling beauty of their country.We are already longing to return, maybe to Oaxaca where they make beautifulrugs and delicious mole spices. One thing is for sure: our drives toMexico have only begun.