On the road with a dog

20180812_121557_film1Kakao, our German Shorthaired Pointer mix, recently turned twelve years old. It has been over ten years since we adopted him when he was twenty two months. In the beginning he had some food and toy aggression, which was probably the reason why he was repeatedly returned to the SPCA. His issues were nothing compared to the problems we had with Lobbus, the French Mastiff we adopted at the same time, and within a short period of time Kakao’s aggressions were a thing of the past. He will still express his dissatisfaction when strange dogs touch his food or even his water, but he won’t fight over it.

When we were ready to start traveling, Lobbus had already passed away, killed suddenly by cancer of the spleen. But even if he would have lived, he would have joined us on our travels, however complicated it would have made our life. We consider our dogs part of our dependent family; you don’t leave your dependents behind. So, Kakao is with us on the road – and he loves it. Even though he mellowed with age, he keeps us on edge at times.

There are the obvious challenges during border crossings, where besides (rabies) inoculations, recent and short lived health certificates are demanded. We also fear losing our dog. Kakao tends to wander off. Even when we are in an enclosed property, the first thing he will do is check out the perimeter to see if there is any escape to the bigger world. That’s why we keep him on a long leash most of the time. We would like him to have some freedom, but then he abuses our trust by disappearing for quite some time and not returning when called. When that happens, images of Kakao getting hit by a car, or getting stolen to end his life as a chained-up guard dog, or getting lost without finding his way back and starving to death, haunt me.

Two weeks ago, after a rather restricted day, we thought it would be nice to give him a short period of freedom within the walls of the San Nicolas campground in San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico) Within minutes he had vanished into the woods that cover the steep mountainside in the back of the camping. He had been up there before, and it must be interesting, because it would take multiple calls, whistles and searches before he would return. This time I tried to be patient and trust him to eventually come back. After about an hour, he showed up. I noticed that one leg gave out under him before he crashed on his bed. I tried to make him get up again, to see if he was alright. He could not pull himself up; he looked like he was drugged. Was he poisoned, and would he die? What could it be? With the help of the camping manager and a bilingual friend we found a vet in town who could help us right away. Fortunately our truck can be made travel-ready in no time, and soon we rushed through the narrow streets of historic old town of San Cristobal. The vet was a twelve minute drive away and we could park on the street in front of the office. I carried Kakao inside where, without delay, the vet checked and felt for sore spots while we answered his questions as far as we knew what and how. He must have eaten something wrong, was the conclusion, and after three shots – one anti-histamine, one pain suppressant, and one antibiotic (plus one more shot to go, for us to inject later), and were out the door. In and out the door within ten minutes, for a total of 200pesos (about $10US); we love Mexico!  By the time we were back on the camping, we all felt a lot better already.20180825_144902_film1

Kakao does not get off his leash for a while. Poor, stupid dog…I wish he would finally learn!

Why is it that Kakao has no problem leaving us behind on his adventures, but he does not like us leaving him?  He has always been an independent dog, not one for much cuddling. He used to not care being left by himself. But something changed.

Since we took him on a flight to Amsterdam and back, he has separation anxiety. We cannot leave him behind in the camper anymore; he will raise hell and howl, making us feel like terrible parents – so we take him along to just about everywhere possible. Now we limit our museum visits and our outings to other places where no dogs are allowed, knowing that, by doing this, we reinforce his dependency. And here’s the next problem: our spoiled prince refuses to lay down on any hard surface, like packed dirt, concrete or any tiled surface: when we like to sit somewhere for a drink or lunch, he will just stand there with a droopy face, looking miserable…unless we would bring his bedding along.

But what do you do? We love him, and enjoy every moment we see him happy. So we adjust.

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From Cancun to San Cristobal de las Casas

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It was hot and humid in Cancun. Except for 15 or so camping vehicles in the long-term parking, the campground was deserted. As soon as we arrived, back from our four-month stay in Amsterdam, we checked our camper for damage by dreaded pests like ants, roaches, mice, snakes or rats. Relieved to find no sign of pests, we did notice some mildew and dust deposits, though nothing we could not handle. After a few days of cleaning and grocery shopping we were eager to leave for a cooler location.

It took us about a week to reach Oaxaca on the western side of Mexico. A day before we would arrive at that city, we made our way through some high mountains. The road tested our truck with steep inclines, curves and descents. When, nearing the end of the day, we saw a sign along the road that indicated a place to camp, we decided to take a look. Alpine meadows filled with horses and cows greeted us. The grass was sprinkled with a rainbow of flowers; the sun was bright and gentle. We found paradise! Llanos de las Flores was…a place where lumber trucks come to get their lumber measured and counted…where city people can rent a cabin and enjoy a weekend in the mountains…where schoolkids can go on a field trip – perhaps summer camp- to sleep in dormitories, hike, ride on horseback, or rent a bike to explore the mountain trails, and learn about horses and cows…where people like us can camp (anywhere) in the meadows, and relax… Curious cows came to check us out. One courageous cow almost climbed inside, but that was just a little too much for Kakao! The horses observed us from a distance. We noticed that, despite the presence of cattle, there were no insects. We settled in for a cool night; a night when we could sleep under a warm blanket.

The next morning, we went for a beautiful hike through flower fringed alpine meadows, pine forests and along clear creek pathways. We were told that we could choose between short and long hikes, but could not figure out which one was long or short. At one point I was about to give up when I thought the trail would go all the way down to Oaxaca- when we reached a waterfall with a rope beside it, indicating the trail pointing up and turning back towards our camp. I was relieved to see the point of return, but Kakao did not feel like climbing that sheer rock. Too bad he did not wear his backpack with handle, (we had no idea what challenges awaited us) so we just had to pull, push and encourage him. Several times he turned around and wanted to go back, but after a lot of coaxing we all reached the top. The trail was clear from there on and it did not take long to recognize where we were. In the distance we spotted our camper, surrounded by curious cattle.

We would have stayed longer at this lovely place if our supplies were not close to depletion, and we had to go to look for food.

Our plan was to stay in Oaxaca for a month or so and take a few weeks of badly needed Spanish classes – but…..it was just not as pleasant as we imagined, with the one dog friendly campground just too far out of town, with a well- represented biting -insect population, but practically devoid of shade and people (just one other camper, ready to leave in a few days). We stayed one week, and felt lucky to have caught the tail end of the colorful Guelaguatza festival in Oaxaca, when we happened to be at the right time in the park where the final street parade started. Gorgeous people from all indigenous representations of the state of Oaxaca wanted to show off their finery, their dance moves and music. Drunk from all the colors, moves and music, the campground felt dreadful, especially after the newly found friends in the only other camper departed. So we drove on as well, on towards the highlands of Chiapas.

On our way to the state of Chiapas we made a short stop at the archeological site of Mitla – a little overrun by tourists and not the most outstanding of all Mexican ruins, but interesting to see yet another, different decorating technique on the out- and inside of the ancient buildings. That night we decided to spend the night near the Cascadas Hierve el Agua; calcified waterfalls with bathing pools in the mountains above Mitla. Thijs red about a spot to park, higher op in the mountains, off a quiet steep gravel road, overlooking Hierve el Agua.

We never reached that spot. Halfway up the mountain, the engine stopped. We were stalled in the middle of the road, on a steep incline, with a motor that did not even click when Thijs would turn the key. We had no idea what happened and what to do about it. A little downhill, there was a small, almost level spot in the sharp curve of the road. While Thijs tried to manage the non-powered brakes and steering, I made an effort to push the truck downhill, without much success. A pickup truck came down the road, and could not pass us. The driver, who introduced himself as Juan, helped us push the camper to the side, though not all the way off the road. Then he offered to drive down to the village below and get us some help – and within half an hour Juan was back with a long metal rod and the news that a mechanic would be coming soon. He dove under the truck and removed rocks and dirt to provide a smooth way down and, with the help of the rod, forced one of the wheels to turn. Another driver had jumped out another car to also help push the camper to the spot beside the road. Assured that a mechanic was on his way, we settled in for the night. It’s good to have a kitchen and a bed everywhere you go!

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Before nightfall, we walked a way up the mountain, curious to see the spot we were planning to go to. Would it be nice enough to make it worth all the trouble we with were in? It was farther than we thought, so we gave up when we passed a spot that had WiFi connection. With phone service, Thijs could call Dr. Andy, his Sprinter specialist connection in Clemson, SC. to ask what could be wrong. Next day after some back and forth, the problem was found and fixed, and we were on our way again. It turns out, a metal mosquito screen that Thijs had installed in front of the radiator and claxon, had made a short – burning the fuse. The fuse to the claxon also services the computer system, which regulates everything…. you just have to know it.

San Cristobal was as we remembered it: cool, friendly and comfortable. The town is small enough to be pleasant and relaxing, but big enough to have everything you’d need. The dog friendly campground is a mere 20 minute walk from the center square, from where several pedestrian friendly streets spiral out. The center accommodates the right kind- and the right amount of tourists to fulfill our creature comforts: many artisan bakeries with fresh whole wheat bread and mouthwatering pastries, delicious coffee and chocolate shops, and a variety of cuisines – both Mexican and International- are interspersed with small stores selling intricately woven and embroidered clothes and derived articles, leather goods, and jewelry with or without locally found amber. Even now, during the rainy season, the days start with bright sun and mild temperatures, so outdoor seating is popular for those who want to relax and don’t mind the offers of trinkets by the indigenous people from nearby villages.

A little away from the center, tiny shops pop up out of doorways, selling produce, chickens and meats, delicious pastries, sweet and savory snacks, beauty products and massages, among many other services. There seems to be a laundry service every hundred yards. Many language schools answer to the call for Spanish classes. We found ours at an easy 15 minute walk distance. During 3 weeks of daily 3 hour semi-private instructions (Thijs and me) from Nico for grammar, and Norma for conversation, we learned as much as our poor old brains could hold. The difference is amazing, even when there still is lots of room for improvement, which we could consider in future, somewhere in South America.

During the weekends we took a few daytrips to the villages surrounding San Cristobal. Here, just like in Guatemala, the majority of the village women and some of the men still dress in colorful, traditional home-spun and embroidered clothing. Many homes where weaving looms are in use welcome visitors to show their techniques, of course in the hope of selling something.

However, San Juan Chamula, the one village considered the most influential and powerful, has the focus on the church rather that home industry. While the outside of the building shows like a regular church, the inside has a completely different feeling. Without benches or seats, the entire floor is covered with fresh pine needles. Overhead, satin banners of forgotten colors reach from the sidewalls up to the high center of the soot-black ceiling, creating a tent-like feeling. The forest-like floor and mountain shapes overhead are elements that are meant to re-create the sense of outdoors, where the Chamulans used to worship. Against the walls -along the perimeter of the building- are saint statues, each of them wearing a mirror on their chest – supposedly to ward off evil spirits. In front of all statues- each representing an older, indigenous deity with specialized powers- are banks of candles. Throughout the building, small groups of people were seated, surrounded by grocery bags filled with food and drinks…do I spot plastic bottles with water, and Coca Cola…? We later learned that the water bottles sometimes contain water, but are often filled with pox (pronounce as posh) – a local clear spirit – used, just like Coca Cola, as an aid to make you burb, in order to clear out the bad spirit in an affected person. Yes, this place is used as a hospital, where people come to for healing, both physically and mentally, by pleading to the deity specialized in curing the ailment of the patient. We saw people in front of a bank of candles of different shapes and colors- each color addressing a different deity or totem with healing powers. While some groups arranged themselves in front of a statue, others wiped clean a patch of floor to set up their rows of candles. A person leading one group pulled out a bag of eggs, one at another spot a rooster, circling these items above the head of the person to be healed, while murmuring or singing a rhythmic cadence of sounds. A feeling of connection within the group is intense…it is clear that those close to the one(s) affected wanted to help in the cure. At one point, the rooster got killed, and the eggs got broken in order to absorb the evil extracted from the patient. At the end of the ceremony there is a sense of relief; the groups would relax and start talking to each other while eating and drinking, as if in a family gathering. In the end, before leaving, the candles got extinguished and the wax scraped up and taken away. I was breathless, impressed by the otherworldly sense of mystery that I witnessed. I felt honored and privileged that we, as outsiders, were allowed to witness such intensely private ceremonies. The fact that we had to agree not to make photographs inside was totally understandable and that agreement should be honored. So, no pics of this; just close your eyes and imagine.

This was the fourth time we visited San Cristobal and it got better with each visit. Tomorrow will be our last day in San Cristobal. I don’t know why we feel the need to leave – this is such a pleasant place- but sometimes you just need to pick yourself up and see what else is going on in the world.

Maybe in the future we will be back, and I hope that if it changes -which is inevitable- the essence of this place remains the same: cool, relaxed, comfortable and friendly.

Welcome back to Mexico!

Standing in line to get through immigration, I can already see Kakao’s kennel waiting next to the luggage belt in the cavernous Cancun arrival hall. I see a lady bent over the kennel, obviously concerned about the dog inside. There is nothing I can do but wait in the slow moving line – one person every three minutes or so – with ten more persons in front of me. A wailing howl reaches me across the hall. Five more people to go…and I am through. I can’t get to my dog fast enough and let him out of his confinement right away. He is not interested in the water I poor for him. The worried lady next to Kakao’s kennel asks me in French how long my dog had been traveling and if anything is wrong with him, as she observes Kakao’s shaking hindleg. I tell her his age and explain that this is happening lately when he is stressed and has not moved much in a while.

Kakao looks at me; I know he needs to go out and pee.

When our luggage finally arrives on the belt, we have to get in line again for the luggage to be inspected by customs. With Xrays and individual inspections this, too, takes forever.

Kakao does not understand why he just can’t go outside when he needs to so bad…

At our turn through inspection, our luggage gives us no problem, but we are pulled to the side: have we gone through the Oficina de Agricultura, Ganaderia (etc. etc.) yet, to show our papers for the dog? That Oficina is past the custom’s checkpoint. No, I reply, while I show Kakao’s brand-new pet passport and the paperwork. The customs officer stops the inspection line and proceeds to lead us to the Oficina, where a short, stocky man is looking at his computer and a young lady is busy with her smartphone.

O, brother, I think, I hope it is not going to take as long as the last time I was here, when every paper I had of Kakao had to be entered letter by letter into the computer, to be printed in duplicates, stamped and signed, then checked for mistakes, to be corrected, printed and stamped once more. Questions arose at that time, about why Kakao was never vaccinated against parasites (is that ever done, we have pills and creams for that, right?) I had to explain that Belgium –the airport we would fly into- does not require that, which had to be double checked before that was accepted. That first time, the procedure took an hour.

The short man behind the computer checks Kakao’s passport. Fortunately I had remembered the parasite issue from our first encounter and made sure our Amsterdam vet entered the recent parasite applications in the passport, although it was not known to be a requirement. In Cancun, however, it is.

But… “Where is the health certificate?” He asks this time. He does not agree with my answer that the Mexican consulate in the Netherlands confirmed my findings on the IATA webpage that the normally required health certificate – not older than five days and certified by the government – would not be necessary when returning with original official Mexican health papers.

The man pulls up declarations saying otherwise. I pull up my information which I had kept on my phone, but to no avail. A vet needs to come over to declare Kakao healthy enough to enter this country. This takes a Mexican half an hour. While we wait, we have the opportunity to fight a fine for bringing in an uncertified dog. This time  I seem to be convincing enough about my talk to the consulate. The fine gets waived. Thijs thanks the guy respectfully. The man wallows in his power.

Kakao looks at me with pleading eyes, restless and wailing: I REALLY have to go!!

Finally, the vet arrives and immediately starts copying the paperwork given to him by the short man who, then, out of the blue, asks around for a flashlight. The young woman hands him her smartphone with the flashlight on. He demands to look in Kakao’s ears and decides that they look so bad, Kakao need antibiotics for a cure. (I know his ears are clean and healthy) The vet faithfully makes a note of it on his papers without checking the ears. Just like the vet who wrote Kakao’s health certificate when leaving Mexico, this guy also never comes close to our dog. We pay the vet $60 and promise to buy the medication. The paperwork is signed, stamped and duplicated one more time, and we are free to go. We make a run for the door where a tree is waiting for Kakao, but are stopped one last time at a point where we have to take the luggage and dog kennel off the carts and drag everything outside. No carts allowed outside – sorry!

Two and a half hours after arrival, Kakao has the longest pee ever.

On our drive to the campground where our camper is waiting for us, we barely avoid hitting a skin-and bones dog, almost hairless from scurvy and absently shaking his head with swollen, fly-covered ears.

Welcome back to Mexico!

Things I liked about living in Amsterdam

After four months in Amsterdam, we are preparing to return to our life on the road. We’re heading back to our camper in Cancun next week!

We enjoyed living in our own home, and getting used to the Dutch culture again after decades of absence.  I’ve loved everything about it, but regret not having been able to get out more, to visit some museums or see more performances and attend some events. Our dog Kakao threw some water on the fire: he did not like being left alone in the apartment, and howled to the extent that our neighbors were getting worried. So we took him everywhere we could take him, which here in Holland is often no problem. We could take him on the bus or tram, and many restaurants and stores tolerate or even welcome dogs. But we could not take him along on bicycle rides – he is getting too old for an extended run. Theater performances are also out of the question, as are official business appointments and such. We love our dog, so we adjusted.

We had a lot to do in the apartment: the fridge needed fixing , the oven and dishwasher broke down, scuffed walls needed a new coat of paint and odd projects that were left to be done before, had to be done this time around. In between, we stayed a week on our little houseboat in Friesland, also to make sure our properties will be taken care of when we are on the road again.20180410_165513_HDR

20180418_121058_hdr.jpgWe experienced the King’s day celebration with our son Floris and his love Juel in Amsterdam.  Friends came for a visit in our apartment, and Thijs and I went (separately!) to a theater event  where Juel performed. We walked a lot with Kakao, mostly three times a day! From our bedroom window, we have a gorgeous view over Rembrandt Park and the old city center in the distance. We like where we live – just within the beltway, but only a ten minute bike ride away from the center of town. The Kinkerstraat is our neighborhood street where we can find just about everything, from bank to bakery, from hardware store to doctor’s office.  On the other side of the apartment building, through the underpass of the beltway,  supermarkets are just a stone’s throw away. Here you mingle with a mainly  Middle Eastern population. We don’t feel any tension – it feels like everyone belongs here – and we feel very safe. With 180 nationalities represented in Amsterdam, it is no surprise to hear many languages spoken, many of which we don’t recognize. English is the unofficial second language, and chances are, when you lost your way, you’d have to ask a non-dutch speaker for directions.20180427_150525_Film1What is it about Amsterdam, that attracts people from all over the world? We enjoy the tolerance and easy going attitude, especially living along the edge of Rembrandt Park.

The park is enjoyed by many people.20180408_144740_HDRA lone musician regularly plays his heart out, enjoying the acoustics of nature … as we hear the sound of his saxophone, we often spot him near the bushes along the water’s edge. We noticed that musicians play for their own enjoyment; not to collect money from passersby.  Last Sunday, we stopped and chatted with a guitar player who loves Elvis Presley’s music. He asked if he could play a song for us, and I asked him if I could take his picture. I honored him with my best rock and roll moves to his version of Jailhouse Rock.

The park contains children’s playgrounds, gym machines, soccer fields, sunning lawns and benches. There is a petting zoo, a place for children to build forts, and school gardens. Bicycle lanes and walking paths pass through sunny lawns and shaded woods, over bridges across ponds and canals. On our daily strolls, we meet other dog walkers, runners, bicyclists, parents with babies in strollers, or people just enjoying the outdoors. We had a chat with a man who brought out his beloved song birds in pretty cages. A Swedish transient who hangs around the park for the summer, connected with us through our dog Kakao, who decided to go over and say HI. Totally covered-up Muslim families ignore sun-worshippers in various stages of un-dress. Their families prefer to gather in the shade, divided in two groups: the men circled around the barbeque, the women and children a small distance away with the rest of the food and drinks. On the lawns, we see birthday parties, meet-up groups, weddings (of different cultures), yoga and tai-chi groups, body-builders, and many people eating and barbequing.

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Doggy freedom. 

Lucky for Kakao, this is a dog friendly nation. We can take him into many stores, restaurants and public transportation. In more than half of the park, dogs are allowed to run unleashed, able to socialize. Our park is kept pretty wild, and to our surprise, nobody seems to care when a dog digs a hole in chase of a mole. There are many moles and many holes.1030293

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Bicycle nation.

Bicycle lanes are everywhere in the Netherlands. In the Amsterdam area, you can reach and do just about everything by bike. In the morning, around 8:15 in Rembrandt park, the main bicycle lane running the length of the park is like a bicycle highway, full and busy, but soundless except for some voices, some chains cracking and the swish of tires over the tarmac. You can see people on their way to work, often on their phone, sometimes in business attire. Relatively speaking, there are few cars on the city roads.

Dutch bikes are utilitarian, made to get you from A to B, to carry groceries or, for moms and dads, to bring their kids to school: one in the front, one on the back seat, and sometimes with an infant attached to the parent’s body. Dogs and groceries sit in a crate which, just like the small child seat, is attached to the handlebar. Cargo bikes are used to move kids, furniture, dogs, or anything that remotely fits…Dutch style school buses carry 6-8 kids in a heavy duty extra- long cargo bike, or sometimes powered by a Segway.  At an early age, kids learn to ride their bikes to school (first under guidance of the parents, later by themselves, or in a group of friends. For school outings, a long line of school kids ride their bikes; two by two, with an adult in front and one in the back.  At around age 10, school kids learn about the traffic rules. At the end of the school year, they get tested, both in theory and in a practical driving test. For one week, you will see them everywhere, recognizable by a vest with a number. Their traffic skills get scored by volunteers located at critical locations in the neighborhoods.20180426_143718_Film1

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Finally, there are the elements of nature, like cool summer nights after ever-lasting, warm summer daylight hours (dawn 4:30 AM, dusk 11:00 PM) We have been very lucky with the weather!

A stork flies by every day … seen from our apartment’s 14th floor, we are sometimes at eye-level. I think it is the one from Vondelpark, heading for the larger Sloterplas lake and forests. Green parakeets, pigeons, magpies and crows are the most common birds to be seen here. The melodious song of the merel (blackbird) is the most pleasant sound of summer. Ducks, geese and coots share the ponds and canals with ball- or stick-chasing dogs.

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On quiet mornings, we spot a black rabbit that inhabits the space along the Montessori school. It is not the only rabbit in the park. Kakao discovered an enormous rabbit warren under the trees in front of our apartment towers.

After dark the hedgehogs come out. Shy and too slow, they roll up in a ball and trust their spines to defend themselves against the excited prey drive of our dog Kakao; it is a reason to keep him leashed during our last walk of the day.

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Next week we will continue our traveling life again. With fondness we look back on this short section of home experience, knowing that at any moment, when we are done with our gypsy way of life, we can return to the country we are proud to call ours.

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To and from Patzcuaro

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We’d heard that the view from Rancho La Mesa would be spectacular. Still, when we drove through the gate, we were in awe. In the distance below us, we saw the lake with a scattering of islands and its surrounding chain of cone-shaped mountains. Between us and the lake, as if staged behind a line of low trees, we looked down on the compact town of Patzcuaro. Our feet were planted on pastures of paradise, where chickens, geese and turkeys, horses, dogs and cats peacefully co-mingled.

Just a few days before, we departed from Jocotepec on Lago Chapala, destination Morelia. We drove along the southern shore of the lake where we could buy loads of local raspberries, blackberries and strawberries to indulge ourselves for days. Turning south away from the lake and for the rest of the day, avocado groves dominated the mountainous landscape. Pick-up trucks filled with young men and bunches of long metal poles passed us along the whole stretch of the road. Thijs pointed out the fabric on the end, which I thought to be a protective cover for the extruding metal, but at closer look, there was a bag at the end of each pole, to pick avocados. We later learned that this is the largest avocado growing area in Mexico.

We don’t like to take toll roads. Along the free roads there is much more to see, like villages – large and small – and some of them very pretty. Every one of them has a respectable amount of topes – the infamous Mexican speedbumps that force you to slow down to a crawl. So we get to see a lot, but don’t get very far. Around 3 o’clock, I normally re-evaluate the distance we could still cover before dusk, and look for a spot to spend the night. That’s how we arrived in the small indigenous village of Angahuan, where the Centro Turistico offers camping facilities in their wooded park. The next morning we went to explore the village. We navigated around piles of horse manure and puddles of last night’s rain, and soaked in the crafty building style the village offered: wooden houses with roofs covered by long, slim wooden shingles and intricately carved doors and pillars (so beautiful after too many contemporary, albeit gaily colored concrete cubes!) The main attraction of Angahuan, however, is not the village. The villagers profit from taking tourists to the nearby volcano Paricutin, which erupted around the 1950s and created a lava field that swallowed several villages. You could visit it on horseback, however we chose to take Kakao along on the two hour walk. The San Juan church partly survived the lava flow and its bell tower and sanctuary eerily stick out of a sea of black. There was something mysterious and sacred about being there. The sanctuary, partly destroyed, was still decorated with vases and votive candles. The mounds of lava cut off the surrounding sound. We spent a while there, relishing the silent peace before returning to our camper.

From Angahuan we continued to Patzcuaro. The campground was reasonably easy to find with the right directions. Through the gate looking left, just past to a small horse run, we saw a long, green expanse along the highest end of the property. At regular intervals, a low retaining wall was interrupted by full hook-up blocks. A row of fifth-wheel campers, Canadian flags ablaze, filled the top half of the set-up; some more large RVs closed the row with respectable distances in between them. Down a slope, on the other side of a driveway, a cluster of roof-tiled, mud-colored buildings held a restaurant (with awesome view!), some party rooms and guesthouses, separated by small gardens and surrounded by horse pastures. We settled ourselves close to a traditional looking wood cabin, where the groundskeepers stored their possessions and where the turkeys, geese, chickens and pigeons gathered to be fed. Two small dogs came to greet us; one black and white, very pregnant Chihuahua mix, and one lactating black mini schnautzer kind of dog, who later introduced us to her two adorable babies. It was clear that these two little mothers kept separate from the pack of bigger dogs on the property, and actively worked the campground charming everyone into gifts of food and cuddles. They hit the jackpot with me!

From the campground, a 30 minute walk brought us straight down into the historic center of town. Cobblestone streets and white buildings with red base and roofs had a relaxed, off the beaten track feeling. Around the main square, two sides were broken up for new pavement, leaving two galleried sides available for sidewalk cafes and restaurants. When the piped-in music on the square was overpowered by a ruckus of trumpets, we went to take a look. The first “Torito” performance had arrived in honor of Carnaval! When the second troupe arrived and started a performance competition with the first one, we learned from one of the performers that each neighborhood has their own troupe, consisting of male-only persons playing a bull, a “girl” taunting the bull, encouraged by more well-endowed sexy “girls”, a horseman and/or cowboy and a clown or a military guy – shooting off fireworks at the right moment…and a live band. The interpretation of dress, traditions and music varied and that made every troupe’s performance so interesting. The first one we saw was young and hip, with “girls” tight jersey dresses and colorful wigs; the second one was a little more subdued in looks, but more aggressive in performance; a third had visual interest with indigenous dress with colorful ribbons around the bull and horseman. A fourth was a wild mix of everything. After several performances they moved on, meandering through the streets of Patzcuaro.

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We spent several days exploring the historic area, where only a turn away from crowded streets and plazas you could find yourself in a dreamy, serene corner, like the area around Once Patios, a medieval former convent that was transformed into a labyrinth of art galleries around a variety of the convent’s courtyards. Many forms of crafts, like pottery, metalwork, weaving and embroidery, masks and dolls were on display here; a representation of work by the neighboring villages that edge the lake Patzcuaro. At the perimeter of the bustling Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, you could feel the energy of the market section, and the taxi and collectivo stops, but you will also find peace in the old library named after the same national Heroin of the plaza that church-turned-library faces. Like most libraries, the air was hushed, though only a small collection of books and outdated encyclopedias occupied the shelves. The mural on the tall end wall told a story of Mexico’s struggles in history. That kept us quiet for a while.

One day, we decided to visit the island of Janitzio, a small island town, crowned by an a giant statue of Jose Maria Morelos. The island rises out of the lake, which reminds me of Mont St Michel in France. We boarded one of the many people ferries –no cars drive the steep narrow streets on the island- and enjoyed people watching, the wind and water on our faces and the performance of a local musician, who made a living by creating a party atmosphere for us, boat passengers. Vendors hitching a ride made sure no-one would go hungry or thirsty during the 30-some minute trip. Close to the island, the boat slowed down to give us an opportunity to photograph fishermen lifting their trademark butterfly nets out of the water and into their narrow boats. We knew it was a show performance, but it looked nice nonetheless and we were happy to give them a few pesos when they came alongside to collect. It has to be said, people here know opportunities to make some money, and most make it so that you’re happy to give – be it for instance at a red light, with a windshield washer, a juggler or acrobat; musicians on the sidewalk; or at a parking lot where, while we shop or do some sightseeing, someone could wash our whole dirty camper!

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We arrived on the island and looked at the masses of restaurants and souvenir shops – along the shore and crawling all the way up to the summit. Tempting fish dishes and intricate crafts tried to pull us inside, but we decided to climb to the top and into the statue first. From up close, the statue is impressive by virtue of size. The structure on the inside however was more beautiful than the outside. We climbed into the raised arm up an ever narrowing spiral staircase – after allowing a family to make their way down first. From the very top we could see the other islands in the lake and a few towns along the shore. We searched above Patzcuaro to find the camping that offered us the view over this island and the lake, without success. Closer, below us, we picked the restaurant with the nicest looking view to eat at. Tiny spicy fried fish was the specialty of the island, so that’s what we had, along with a large, colorful, fruity cocktail. On the way down, we admired the handicrafts but decided not to buy: from former travels we have too many beautiful crafts stored in boxes, why should we add to that? When something would be really beautiful, I’d make a picture of it. Souvenir saved.

On the ferry back, there was music again. This time there was a group of musicians, standing cramped in the narrow space left in the center of the boat. We enjoyed group’s music, even with us in the very front of the boat, and they with their backs turned towards us. We struck a conversation with a family seated across from us. They were visiting from Morelia and did not see themselves as tourists, although they came to see the Patzcuaro sites. Tourists would be people from other countries, according to them. Once retired, they hoped to travel around; just like us.

We planned to stay in Patzcuaro for about a week, and we let ourselves be convinced it would only take three days to have us a package sent from the US. It was a necessary item that had broken, so we went ahead and ordered a new one. And we waited… and waited… and waited some more…. In the meantime, Thijs had decided we should go to the Netherlands since our apartment was vacant and we needed a new place of residence and health insurance. He booked us tickets out of Cancun for next month. All of a sudden our life changed around: we had to plan a much faster trip and skip some places that now seemed out of the way. When finally, after several inquiries and ten days, our package arrived, we left right away. We decided to travel north around Mexico City, to include in our itinerary a meeting with some travel friends who were staying along the Costa Esmeralda, on the Gulf of Mexico.

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The first night on our way was the last night in cool weather country. I consciously enjoyed the crisp temperatures in the Central Highlands. Then we made a run for the coast. Just a half day of country roads full of topes, mountain switchback curves and potholes convinced us that this was the best time to splurge on expensive toll roads. It was so worth it! Within a day we reached our friends at an east coast campground, where we could float in the pool, walk Kakao on the beach, and socialize while enjoying an excellent meal. After the second night we continued towards the Yucatan peninsula. Beaches are not that great here, so we didn’t feel like we rushed through it. We took a short break in Campeche, where I remembered last year’s lunch: Filete Relleno de Mariscos, Banado en Salsa de Cangrejo (Shredded seafood wrapped in fish filet, covered in a creamy crab sauce), the best meal in Mexico, which I wanted to savor again. I don’t think it was quite as good as before, but still very delicious!

Since we visited the beautiful city of Campeche last year, we could now hurry through and continue to the archaeological site of Uxmal. There are so many Mayan ruins in this part of Mexico that you can’t see them all, but Uxmal was one we should not skip. We were able to spend the night on the parking lot beside the entrance and visit first thing in the morning before the crowds arrived. To be alone in such an ancient place, you sense the ghosts of the past show you the way pointing out the sculptural highlights, royal residences overlooking expansive plazas, sanctuaries crowning tall pyramids…Nature has reclaimed parts of the site and piles of building blocks are still waiting to be re-assembled. In a few years, it will look different again, as we witnessed before at the Palenque site, where on our first visit, forty years ago, the only buildings to visit were still covered by mosses and ferns, and silence was part of the experience. Now Palenque is a large and well visited site; still awe inspiring and with some uncovered mystery left, but the crowds everywhere make it hard to feel the spirit of the place.

Uxmal also offers the opportunity to learn more about chocolate. We’d been craving a good piece of dark chocolate for a while – isn’t it strange that in the land where chocolate was introduced to the western world, a good chocolate bar is almost impossible to find? The chocolate museum is spread out over several structures built in traditional Mayan style in a well landscaped botanical garden, where samples of locally significant plants are highlighted. A few animals, like the puma, were also on display. The first building contained exhibits about traditional Maya way of living, with utensils and clothing. Another exhibited how chocolate was produced, both in traditional and more modern ways. A Mayan ceremonial show interrupted the self-guided tour. The culmination was however the kitchen building where we could sample the cocoa bean, dried or roasted, and a chocolate drink made according to an ancient Mayan recipe; with chili pepper and vanilla, or if you prefer the western way, with cinnamon and sugar, but without milk or cream. Still, it tasted very rich and creamy! In the end, we were happy to buy a variety of chocolate bars in the museum shop, for on the road.

The road from Uxmal to Tulum is in excellent condition, without topes and with very little traffic, so within hours we reached the town of Tulum. We did not feel like submersing ourselves in the tourist scene, and instead found a quiet place in Chemuyil, a little north of Tulum.“Cavelands in the Jungle” is a hippie-friendly resort, where you could camp in your own tent or camper, or rent a rustic looking bungalow, and even a teepee. The heavily wooded grounds are littered with caves, holes and at least one cenote – one of Yucatan’s famous underground swimming holes. This one was not too large and exposed to the skies, with clear green water hosting small fish and a turtle. With not many other guests there, we could settle ourselves right next to the cenote, like it was our own private pool. Kakao had a ball! He was fascinated by the fish and could not figure out how to get to them without going under water. The two owner’s dogs were friendly and allowed Kakao a free run of the property; he could crawl into many of the holes and caves…what an adventure for him! While we enjoyed the perfect weather and environment, we started getting organized in preparation of our departure to the Netherlands. This would take a number of days and we did not want to do it all in Cancun, where the campground is fine, but not as pleasant and much more expensive.

With our departure date coming closer, we drove to the campground in Cancun, from where the serious preparations could be done: clean the camper inside and out, get the oil changed and the undercarriage greased and protected; buy a sky-kennel and get the necessary paperwork done for the dog; find rat-, ant-, and mice-proof containers for non-perishable food items and eat all our leftover food; insulate and leak-proof the camper in anticipation for months of storage during hot and wet weather….so much to think of! When finally we sat in the plane and looked down at the turquoise water beneath us, we regretted not having spent a single day enjoying what most people come to Cancun for…but we will be back in a couple of months!

In and out of patzcuaro
The route of this story in green
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Our camper gets a special treatment
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Back there in the shade sits our camper, waiting for us to return from the Netherlands.

Beach Time along the Guerrero/Michoacan coast

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.

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Mexico Jan-Feb 2018Maybe 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

 

 

 

 

 

Guadalajara to Mexico City

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Guanajuato hillside

To return our Green Card, we accepted the first available appointment on Tuesday, January 16 at the US Embassy in Mexico City. This left us with eleven days to get there, so we could relax and plan a route to see some places we’d missed on our previous trip through Mexico one year ago. Although Guadalajara was not as stressful as anticipated; the parking lot/campground was clean and quiet enough, and conveniently located within the center, city life is not for us. We drove to nearby Chapala, a popular lakeside community with perfect weather and beautiful views over the large, but surprisingly underdeveloped lake Chapala, where fishermen still used rowboats to checked their traps in between the coastal reeds. Flocks of white pelicans followed them, waiting for rejects. Close along the coast, quacking coots broke a channel through floating greens and suddenly dove down in search of goodies from the lake bottom. Added to that scene, a concert of water splashing, some far away voices, and frogs – heard but not seen- accumulated into a serene theater of nature.

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After a fried fish lunch along Chapala’s Malecon (= Esplanade) we decided to find a spot along the shore where we could spend a day or two. We found that place on a half-finished outcrop on the outskirts of Chapala, close to the expatriate settlement of Ajijic. With some of the trash cleaned up, the place looked descent with wetland vegetation on the lake side of a natural stone bulkhead, and patches of grass on the land side. Apart from kids fishing, and a few couples in cars making out at night, we and some Italian campers had the place to ourselves. Sunset and sunrise took our breath away….life is good.

Peaceful Lago Chapala

We enjoyed two quiet days on the lake, when it was time to start driving direction Mexico City, with a stop in Guanajuato and Tolantongo (we heard these are a must-see places). Both were located away from our originally planned route, but now right on our way to the Mexican capital.

At the end of a long day’s drive, we arrived in Guanajuato. The campground would be on the other side of town, up on a mountainside. We were warned not to take the navigator’s route through the city, but rather go the long way around. The map however, showed a jumble of roads, and none stood out as a clear beltway. I was not sure if we were driving around, or through the city…but streets got tight and confusing…, by the time we discovered we were indeed driving through the center, it was too late. Luckily it was a Sunday with relatively little traffic. The road got steeper and narrower. The cobblestones indicated one track through the center of the street, which still happened to be two ways. Sooner than expected, we arrived at our destination, with a sharp right turn down and leaning us dangerously to one side. With inches to spare, Thijs made an effort to get the camper inside through the gate, but could not quite make it in without hitting a building at the entrance. He backed up a few possible inches…the camper leaned …then forward again…and we made it! Later we heard we should have continued to turn at a T in the road and enter from the other side. But we made it. Now we could get ourselves a drink and take in the view over clusters of rainbow colored houses on the other side of the canyon.

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View across the canyon in Guanajuato

Last year we’d visited the historic silver town of Zacatecas, and were impressed by the opulent baroque building style, and the show of wealth that drooled from many a building. When afterwards we were asked why we had not visited Guanajuato, we saw disappointments on some faces when we answered we visited Zacatecas instead. There seemed to be nothing that could top Guanajuato, so this time we made it a point to spend a few days there. Guanajuato was founded in 1559. Rich silver and gold deposits attracted people to this region, and just like in Zacatecas, wealthy silver barons had lavish mansions, theaters and churches built. We expected something similar and were disappointed to discover that Guanajuato is less sumptuous, though much more colorful and livelier. Like Zacatecas, Guanajuato is also a Unesco World Heritage site, but it looks like they are more behind in renovating the old glory of the downtown area. With an enormous, new-ish, grey-white block of university building in the middle of the historic center, this is a place for young people, and the volume of cultural sites show it. Our campsite, hard as it was to get to, was in walking distance from the historic center, so we could easily look around. We peeked inside some churches, hung around the shaded square, walked through the market, and visited the birthplace of Diego Rivera; a middle class house that was partly kept with the period interior of his youth, and partly converted into a museum which housed mostly art of other Mexican artists and some of Diego’s early work and studies. No cameras allowed, so you’ll have to come see for yourselves!

Guanajuato impressions

After a few days we decided to move on: direction Tolantongo, a place where, we’d heard, deep in a valley between high volcanic mountains, hot water springs out of a large cave, then flows into a river of pale blue water, divided into warm water pools. For our slow camper though, the distance would be just a bit too long to make in one day, so we decided to stop on the way in San Miguel de Allende. Having heard so many rave reviews about this admittedly pretty place, we were somewhat disappointed when we stopped there one year ago. For us, San Miguel catered too much to tourists which, to us, lost a sense of authenticity. This second time around, we were more prepared, and more receptive to the comforts and charms of a gringo town. We liked it better this time.

San Miguel de Allende

Late Thursday we arrived in Tolantongo. The resort complex is quite large with multiple hotels, rental apartments, restaurants and shops. We knew it could fill up with thousands of visitors by the weekend. We had one day of relative quiet before the crowds would move in. The spot assigned for camper vehicles was at the end of the river basins. We had the place almost to ourselves, and could set up just steps away from the warm blue water.

Tolantongo

The next morning we made our way up to the caves. As we were getting close, the mountainside across the river became lush and green. Lacy waterfalls appeared above, separated and re-divided by heads of moss and calcified hoods. The cave in front of us could only be entered though a cold waterfall shower before we could sink in a pool of warm water. After we got used to the low light, we noticed the steaming hot water source gushing out of the cave’s ceiling and a few other places. In the rear we saw headlights of people appearing out of a pitch black tunnel. A couple of guys approached us “You should go in there and take a look! Here, you can borrow our lights!” We graciously accepted their offer and, with the help of a rope, worked our way against the strong warm current into the total darkness of the tunnel. In the spot of my headlight I saw a gush of water coming out of the rock wall, a roped-off area that seemed to continue into the depth of the mountain, and a young couple enjoying the privacy of darkness in a sea of steamy warmth. Going back down the tunnel was easy; you just float back to the entrance. As the crowd size grew, we enjoyed the rest of the day at our campsite, with an occasional dip in our own private pool. What an enjoyable day.

Hot Springs in the Grutas de Tolantongo

San Juan de Teotihuacan, near the famous archaeological site at some 30 km north of Mexico City, is already familiar to us. With a pleasant campsite in the center of town, it is a perfect jump-off point for a visit to Mexico City. When we arrived, we had time to spare before our Tuesday appointment at the US Embassy. We socialized with some fellow overlanders, did a load of laundry, went to the same restaurant that we frequented before, savored the giant croissants from the local bakery, and enjoyed the crisp warm sun on the green camping lawn.

Teotihuacan

With the instructions from Mina, the campsite owner, we boarded the direct bus to Mexico City at 7:30 AM, where we arrived within the hour. There, a helpful young man pointed us to the Metro Bus, which would bring us within walking distance of the Embassy. The way we were packed in that bus, it felt like a miracle that we were able to squeeze our way out of the sardine-tight crowd! At the Embassy, frustrating lines worked on our spirits. We thought, if you have a 10:15 appointment and you arrive at 9:45, you should be talking to someone at 10:15, right? Instead, we were sent from the “appointments” window to the line on the outside corner with a lady who gave us a purple ticket and instructions to get to the line towards her from the other side. From there, to the line to get through the gate where our bags were searched, then to the line where our bags and ourselves were scanned, then to the line to get a numbered tag, then wait our turn to be heard in the immigration room, and wait for the appropriate officer for a required interview – did we really want to give up our Green Card, since afterwards we could only enter the US as tourists- and finally wait for our paperwork to be returned. At 12:30 pm we were back on the street, free of our permanent residency card. We still have to find out if the requirements were good enough (since we now had returned the cards in a new tax year, and the Dec 31 US exit stamp in our passport apparently does not count) but we did the best we could, and hopefully that will be recognized. That night, back home in our camper, we celebrated with a glass of bubbly. We are now free to travel for longer than six months! YAY!

After our Embassy visit we had a few moments to look around in Mexico City before returning to our desperate Kakao in Teotihuacan.