Zihuatanejo. The name should have been familiar, since we knew we’d seen the movie Shawshank Redemption, long time ago. The beach that Andy dreamed about back then, seemed like a place created by the movie industry. We never thought of it as real- until our friend Peggy decided to include Zihuatanejo in a travel article. She published it almost at the same time as our border crossing into Mexico, and although our travel style is totally different from hers, the article tickled my interest. Geographically, it was right in line with our idea of driving back towards Guadalajara by way of the Pacific coast.
With our business in Mexico city behind us, and no desire to return there for fun, (did ever I mention big cities get on my nerves?) we drove from Teotihuacan to Toluca, on the southern edge of Mexico City. Exhausted, we were happy to see an opportunity to spend the night in the shadow of the nearby volcano, in Parque National Nevado de Toluca, where we found a quiet spot with a beautiful view over pastoral fields towards the volcano. It felt good to be away from nervous urban energy and wake up refreshed in the morning with nippy temps that colored our surroundings white with frost.
The road we chose was the most direct way to Zihuatanejo, but it was a narrow country road, winding its way through steep mountains. In the sparsely populated woodlands the settlements were built in traditional style with thatched roofs and roughly cut wooden walls. We had entered Guerrero, the state known to be the most dangerous state of Mexico – “avoid at all cost…!” We cautiously paid attention and, apart from one intersection with two burnt-out cars (that must have been drug- cartel violence, we told ourselves..) we noticed nothing that felt unsafe. Traffic became increasingly lighter and politer, children played outside, women cooked in tiny open air eateries and some sold fruits in roadside stands. Men went about on horses and mules. Dogs, chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and cows roamed along the road’s edge, at times forcing us to slow down or stop to let them pass.
We did not make it to the coast in one day; the road was too slow- full of sharp turns and switchbacks, with a generous supply of potholes and topes (the famous Mexican speedbumps for those not in the know) It took us a whole day to drive about 300 of the roughly 400 km, so when we reached the highest pass with enough parking space at a roadside restaurant, we stopped for the night. “Oh, it is very safe here!” assured the lone woman who managed the place. The ramshackle lean-to where she and her young son lived, looked like the wolf could blow it over at first try, which affirmed to us that Fort Knox was not necessary here. A few people stopped by for a drink or some food, and one man dismounted his mule, found a hammock under the tarped roof, and settled in for the night. Across the street we saw a small shrine in the rocky mountain wall, where a votive candle burned all night in front of a Maria statue and faded dusty flowers. We felt very safe.
It was still at least an other hour before we reached the coast and Zihuatanejo. The town was bigger than I thought. For now, we drove past it and headed to Casa Rayo de Sol, a campsite further south in a no-name fishing hamlet on Playa La Barrita. We read good reviews about it, so we planned to stay there for at least a few days. The campground showed promise of nice things to come with landscaped camping pads, patches of green grass and raked earth, and an abundance of plants and young trees that was kept watered and pruned. The bathrooms were clean and all the people there were friendly. The southern half of the lot, however, showed ruins and foundation slabs of buildings flattened by past hurricanes. Tar sand heaped directly against the seawall. On neighboring beach properties, open air restaurants could seat hundreds of diners on grimy plastic chairs under flat palapa roofs, but they were empty except during the weekends.
We settled on a spot near the seawall, overlooking the beach with a strong surf of warm clear blue water. The sun was pleasant with a breeze from the ocean and shade from a palapa. From our chairs we could watch dolphins and whales jump out of the water or flights of pelicans skirting the waves. During our daily walks we spotted many tracks of turtles that must have come ashore overnight to lay their eggs – although unfortunately, most of them were already robbed by people collecting them as seasonal delicacies (leaving sand craters) or hungry animals (leaving eggshells scattered around). When we spotted one undisturbed nest, we frantically attempted to cover the tracks leading to and from it, and cover the indents of the nest. Silly us, with a beach as wide and expansive, our wipes to cover the tracks were just as obvious as the initial tracks…but when we returned the next day, we were happy to see there were no craters nor eggshell pieces, and we heard that after 24 hours the eggs become unappetizing, so….maybe they’re safe.
We washed our clothes, our towels and bedding, our car and ourselves. We did some repairs and maintenance. We caught up on writing and reading, and exchanged experiences with the other travelers. We were able to stream Shawshank redemption and refresh our memory. We tried the food in some of the local restaurants and enjoyed the fresh produce and buns delivered to our doorstep. We battled with the ocean’s surf and walked the endless beach until we were satisfied and decided it was time to move on. Time to explore Zihuatanejo.
With red tile covered galleries shading most sidewalks in the old town section and a cool, tree lined boardwalk overlooking an intimate bay dotted with small colorful fishing boats, I can see the charm that draws in a large volume of tourists. A bustling market overflowing with colorful fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and meats and other must-haves add an authentic feel to a fairy tale town. Free and easy parking set us in a good mood and ready to look around in search for “Carmelitas”, the restaurant that our friend Peggy insisted we should try. Without difficulty we found the shaded outdoor setting, where Kakao was allowed to come with us in a special corner near the entry. He was served a bowl of cool water while we enjoyed a second breakfast – mexican style – overflowing with gooey melted cheeses and crispy toasted tortillas.
Our camping spot was at the other side of town; a newer luxury development nestled against the hills of Playa la Ropa. (Why does google maps send us there through the steepest, curviest alleys? A main road connection exists, which can accommodate the giant Canadian fifth-wheelers and slide-out-everywhere RV’s and trailers…I could not imagine myself with one of those rigs through the google assigned route!) The campground was a walled in, sun burnt compound, which also serves as the parking lot of El Manglar, a nice peekaboo beachfront restaurant. This time we welcomed the full hook-ups so we could use our AC to keep cool at night.
The restaurant was not only shaded by a giant tile roof, but also by lush trees that line the adjacent creek where crocodiles, turtles and iguanas laze around. To get to the beach, we had to cross a bridge, go through a gate, and enter an other world. Playa la Ropa is a tourist beach; a place where you can get massages, or get your drink order served at a soft lounge chair…you could rent a catamaran to go sailing, or fly high up in the air with a para-sail. Luxury condos and hotels offered swimming pools and cloth napkin dining. Local hawkers moved from guest to guest offering their trinkets. Walking our dog seemed inappropriate here; relieving himself would be seen as shocking. We did enjoy the place for a day and a half, and loved the Mexican fusion dishes our restaurant had to offer, but the mundane beach atmosphere was not what we were looking for in Mexico, so it was time find what else this coast had to offer.
The coastal road is not as coastal as one might expect. Often it meanders inland through mountainous land, far from the ocean. Then at times, a beautiful bay with a blonde beach appears. The beach is not always accessible; sometimes the way down is to steep, sometimes wilderness or (private property) plantations prohibits us from trying. Overall, the coast looked barely developed. It could make you dream of buying a plot and settle down to live a simple life. Occasionally you could see that a few have done just that: just along the road past the small town of Caleta de Campos, there is a Palapa restaurant with a piece of coconut shaded beach. We stopped to see if we could spend the night there. The owner of the place, as well as the manager, friends and family all spoke fluent English and revealed their episodes in the US. Except for these guys, there were no customers, so they lazed around in hammocks that hung around the perimeter of the tall, round structure. Kakao made friends with Rocky, the tiny chihuahua who seemed in command. After our first drink, groups of Gringos arrived, containers of food in hand. Just like that we got invited to a potluck dinner with the small foreign retiree community that lived in Caleta. I can’t remember much of a conversation with them (tequila does that to you!) except one with Jorge (?) who reminded us of Jim, our Virginia Beach plumber and told us he was a rock musician and had worked in the Hollywood film industry….remember Die Hard? We excused ourselves early and went to bed. Next morning we received apologies for the noise we had not heard despite the fact that our stomach, stuffed with baked beans, potato salad and Texas BBQ kept us awake most of the night.
We moved on. Our goal was to visit the eco-tourist center of Maruata, where the beaches are creamy white, the water is clear, and the turtles protected. We arrived there by mid day. The sun was hot, and shade hard to come by. Soft sand and low canopies of the palm fond palapas prevented us from getting close to the water and catch a breeze. We walked around a bit and learned that turtle season was over and there was really not much to do at that time… We ate lunch and continued on to the next beach.
At Rancho Buganvilas near La Placita in Michoacan we found shade sun, shade, a cool breeze with a view over the palm trees and an endless beach to ourselves. One lonely attendant took care of a giant RV Park set up with just us there. Though it would be nice to meet some other travelers, we liked it enough to stay a while… until the weather turned the skies gray.
We looked at the forecast. All the way to Puerta Vallarta and Guadalajara the weather looked gloomy. In addition, there would not be much coast along the road from Manzanillo on. We stopped in the charming town of San Patricio to confirm that a beach without sun is no fun, and turned north towards Tequila, where weather plays no role in one’s degree of fun.
Tequila is an relaxing town to visit. In the old center, the streets are charming and easy to navigate. Around the central square you could chose to board a crazy contraption – like a giant chile pepper; a giant guitar or a locomotive – that double as a tour bus to explore one of many Tequila distilleries that are scattered all across and around the town that made the drink famous.
We picked the house of Sauza; partly because we found a camping spot in between the agave fields that were marked with that name on the hills overlooking those fields, and partly because the street in front of their main entry allowed for unrestricted parking. After entering Casa Sauza, a large courtyard garden invites you to walk around and relax, while a second, more intimate courtyard leads you to a private chapel, a restaurant, a small display room describing the history of the company, and a factory store, where you could sign up for a tour, sample the many varieties of Tequila and buy the bottles as well as souvenirs like T-Shirt or hats. When we wanted to sign up, we learned that day there were corporate meetings and no tours, so we should come back tomorrow. So that day we enjoyed a long lunch and we walked around town. Agave designs are everywhere: incorporated in metal gates, drainage grates, painted around doors and windows, or sculpted as art pieces in stone, bronze and other materials. The Jose Cuervo crow dominated several streets, especially around its distillery, factory store and theme park. Sauza’s rooster was less conspicuous except near their plant where a line of repeated banners led to the large logo at the entry. Everywhere in Tequila you could sample different tequila brands, buy mini distilleries and tiny barrels to store your drinks. We learned that 80% of the population works for the tequila industry and the town shows it is thriving.
The next morning we were given a private tour. First we drove in a fake trolley bus to the Sauza gardens outside of town, where a display of different agave plants showed the large variety of the species, and where the blue agave was singled out as the only agave used for tequila. After a short demonstration to show how the agave was cut and harvested, and only the heart – which then looked like a pineapple – would be cooked, strained and distilled, we went to town, to the storage rooms, where the drink was to be aged in- and colored by large oak barrels. We had to turn off our cameras, since the air inside would be so loaded with alcohol that a snapshot could cause an explosion. During an explanation of the aging process, we tried their highest quality, most aged version of Tequila (one we could not afford to buy) and samples of their more affordable varieties. Only after that we walked through the processing plant, where the Pinas came in, were first shredded, then soaked and cooked, strained and fermented. The distillery and bottling part was well explained, but not shown because of contamination concerns. At the end of the tour we were back in the Sauza restaurant with a complimentary red margarita in our hand. Before stocking up on some bottles, we had a nice lunch and another one of that margarita. Yumm!
After lunch we left Tequila and its surrounding blue agave fields, looking for Roca Azul RV Park; a sprawling but decaying vacation development in Jocotepec, Jalisco on the shores of Lago Chapala. Despite obvious age, this camping has a lot to offer: an olympic sized cool water pool, and a smaller one with hot spring water, all kinds of sports fields, an outcrop with a lighthouse, and a malecon looking over cow pastures and the length of Lake Chapala. The park is mostly occupied by Mexican-owned American trailers that get used during weekends and holidays. A future national soccer team uses it as their training ground, and Canadian “Snowbirds” fill up the gaps. And us…. we plan to stay here to get some necessary things done, after which we plan to leave again, in the rough direction of Oaxaca. But that will be another story.
Maybe not the clearest map; this is my first try at it. Follow the green line from A-E is Guadalajara to Mexico City. E-L shows the route back along the coast to Guadalajara.
A=Guadalajara B=Guanajuato C=San Miguel de Allende D=Tolantongo E=Teotihuacan/Mexico City F= Playa la Barrita G=Zihuatanejo H=Caleta de Campos I=Rancho Buganvilias J= Manzanilla K=Tequila L= Jocotepec
M and N will come up in next blog