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

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

The problem of a Green Card

When we crossed the Del Rio border to Mexico, we almost went too far: the toll booth would lead us straight to the Mexican border leaving the US border office on the other side, across the divided and fenced-off highway.
“How do we get to the US Customs and Border Protection office?” we asked the guy in the toll booth.
“Oh, you have to turn back, then across the highway, and into that street back there. Let me help you…” he replied, as he stepped out of his booth and asked the cars behind us to back up so we could get out of the line.

According his instructions, we ended up at a parking area, where visitors where allowed a maximum of one hour parking. If one hour is what is allowed, we should be good, we figured. Inside the building we were directed to a crowded waiting room, where a row of booths were manned by a lone official studying his computer screen. I found the ticket dispenser for our number in line – out of order. Several people pointed their fingers towards a roll of numbers laying on the adjacent desk. I tore off number 09. Looking at the number display, we were still at number 00. There seemed to be little action behind the desks, though slowly a few more officers set their coffee cups down and started conversations with each other. Thijs, hoping that our special request would get us a special place in line, was told we should sit down and wait our turn – they were really swamped today, so just be patient.

Without the use of the numbered tickets, the crowd slowly got their turn thru the “next?” system. It was good to see many had come in large groups. Within an hour we were called to come forward.

“We are here to return our Green Cards” said Thijs, as he handed over our permanent residency cards and all the necessary documents.
“You are… what?” asked the officer, surprised. “Why would you do that?”
“We don’t need them anymore, we are returning to our home country.”
“Well, hold on a minute, I’ve never done this before, I’ll have to ask my superior.” She first went over to ask her colleagues, who were as clueless as she was. Then she called around for her boss, who was nowhere to be found.
“I am sorry, this can take a while” she said.
“That’s okay, we have time” I said, “but our parking time may expire.” That’s when we were told we were on the wrong side of the building; we should already be on the Mexican side, since without a Green Card, we could not set foot on US soil anymore. We were directed to go through the toll booth, then cross the highway on the other side and park there. When we returned to the officer, she told us that they could not accept our Green Cards, and we had to go to maybe Brownsville or El Paso “But there is no way we can get there within this day” we replied, and we explained how important the before the end of the year timing was…
Well…then we should just cross the border and hand in the cards at any of the US representations in Mexico…was their next suggestion.
“But then we would still not officially be un-registered by the end of this year!”                               “Well…I’m sorry about that, but there’s nothing we can do…” was the answer from the officer. Thijs then suggested to get our passports stamped as proof that we left the US by the end of 2017, hoping that would good enough according to the rules of leaving without being forced to pay the punishing exit tax. There was no objection to stamping our passports, so with that, we crossed into Mexico, on our way to the US Consulate in Guadelajara, in the area where we were planning to visit anyway.

The northern part of Mexico along the Texas border is not very inviting. Like Texas, it is bone dry cattle country, fenced off from the highway, leaving little room to stop and take a brake. The nights were still freezing cold, so we raced south as fast as we could.  That night we pushed on to get to Quatrocienegas, to the first available campground on our iOverlander list. It looked crappy and deserted, but we only needed a place to spend the night, so we drove in – but were sent away, because it was New Year’s Eve, and the manager had family over. He pointed us to a spot at an old mill down the road…but the entry was locked. Along the way, Thijs had seen a winery and, thinking how in the US sometimes wineries let you camp on their property, we drove up, bought a bottle of their sweet wine, and asked. They sent us to the school across the road…that place was locked as well. 

The night had set in. The wind was howling and kicking up clouds of dust. We just gave up and parked on the side of the road, in front of the winery, near the scant protection of a giant old tree. All together it was not a bad place. There was not much traffic, and we heard only a few fireworks crackers to welcome the new year. After a few glasses of bubbly, we slept well, and were surprised the next morning to see a big chunk of the giant tree broken off, just a few feet in front of our camper. Luckily we didn’t park right under that tree! 

Happy New Year!The weather warmed up. The landscape started looking friendlier. We still rushed to get to Guadalajara to get the Green Card thing taken care of. Until that time, we could not fully enjoy our trip. The first night of the new year we spent at a Pemex gas station – the go-to place where you can always stop for the night. This one, with a small patch of grass and some plants to be devoured by a tied-up goat, was pleasant. The big, noisy trucks were assigned a distance away from us.

On January 2, we had a perfect day on our drive through Mexico…first, the weather was warm and beautiful! Then, just in time for the lunch break, we found a peaceful lakeside spot a few hundred yards from the road… At the end of the day we stopped in Teul de Gonzalez Ortega, a pretty but sleepy “Pueblo Magico” with sparkling clean cobblestone streets, shaded by happy garlands and neatly cropped orange trees, heavy with fruit. There was ample space for us to park in the center of town, so we took a stroll through the quiet streets. Most stores were closed, and not even a dog was moving around. On the square, some folks sitting on a bench greeted us and followed us with their gaze. We were totally charmed by the pueblo, although we actually had been attracted to this town by the extensive advertising of its ruins. These ruins turned out to be disappointing, but they were free and they were a nice hike up a mountain, from where we saw a lake that looked like the perfect place to spend the night at.

The first thing we did when we arrived in Guadalajara, was go to the US Consulate. Outside, a long line of people meandered around the neighboring blocks, waiting for their turn to get in. Of course Thijs did not feel like joining the long line, and started looking for an other entrance around the block. Indeed, on the other side was another gate with a little booth containing a lady who barely spoke English. After some back and forth, she handed us a note with some phone numbers and addresses where we should be able to turn in our Green Cards, making it clear that this Consulate here, was not the place. We had to call the Embassy in Mexico City and make an appointment. We settled for the first available appointment on January 16th in Mexico City.

The saga continues….

 

 

 

We are leaving…now for real!

We are giving up our green card and plan to permanently leave the US by the end of the year. Leaving by the end of the year is important -tax wise- but that is another long story.
Everything is on a fast track now… After saying goodbye to our son Robin and his family in Richmond and our best friend Amani in Virginia Beach, we left from our last stop at our friends Peter and Peggy’s house on a freezing morning. The day before, Thijs gave up working on our diesel heater after many frustrating attempts to fix it. He ordered a new one to arrive at our final US address in Florida.

Driving south, we anxiously watched the outside temperature, hoping for a comfortable night around the South Carolina border. No such luck – it was still freezing – and did I mention our state-of-the-art–diesel cooktop was not working either? Now, having a warm meal is no problem- you have restaurants for that- but the nice side effect of cooking in a small space is ambient heat. Our little house was getting very cold! Then I remembered the Sterno cans (you know, the stuff you use to heat your fondue pot) we’d been dragging around in our camper forever…for just in case. This was the case. Who knew a little blue Sterno flame could give us comfort with a few extra degrees of warmth! The next day, we made a stop at a Camper World store, where we stocked up on insulation foil to cover our windows, hoping to keep the worst cold out.

Before sunset we arrived in Clemson SC, where our camper awaited a last look-over by the renown Sprinter specialist Andy Bittenbinder (also known among the Sprinter crowd as Dr. A), for a trustworthy vehicle on the long journey ahead. While waiting our turn, still in the freezing cold, I fitted the ceiling windows with shiny bubblewrap, and Thijs took the diesel cooktop apart – after reading the instructions again. I am happy to say that he fixed it. We can cook again, plus we have ambient heat! 

After the all-clear from Andy, we continued our drive south. We passed Atlanta, where, unbeknown to us at that very moment, the airport was in complete disarray from a power outage. (what happened?)

Driving south in Georgia, the temperature finally started creeping up. Througout that afternoon, we replaced our wool sweaters, socks and heavy jeans with T-shirts, slippers and shorts.  Just past the Florida border, we stopped for the night at Osceola National Forest. The campground was filled with people enjoying an evening around the campfire. It felt like summer. We opened the windows and let a gentle breeze flow through. To think that only about 40 hours before we cold-proofed our windows!

We arrived at our last scheduled stop in Crystal River at Steve’s ‘Green Shed Conversions’ where we had our solar/lithium battery system installed a few years ago. Things (like an electrical storm?) happened in between, and the system was not working as it should anymore, so Steve would do some adjustments and upgrades before we’d travel on to Mexico.Camping out at Steve’s place has always been a joy with nice warm weather and a large and quiet yard surrounded by nature. Kakao had a lot to check out : Sissy the dog always wanted to play ball, the resident gopher turtle grazed off juicy greens, and four roaming chickens scratched and pecked the soil…but this time there was also a floppy-eared rabbit! Kakao was obsessed by the rabbit –and not in a good way- so he stayed on the long leash. 

While the guys were working, I took Kakao on long walks in the surrounding wilderness. The area behind Steve’s place was special. Stands of palmetto palm bushes filled the spaces between the tall long leaf pines. Brown pine needles and soft grey-green globes of deer lichen covered the white soft sand. A multitude of gopher tortoise burrows surprised me…these are endangered animals, yet  I saw several of them feeding on grass and succulent greens.  About half a mile in, a sandpit created a clearance in the forest.  One part was filled in with grasses and rust-colored bushes, the other part exposes white sand which shows tracks of regular abuse by All Terrain Vehicles. This spot reminded me of the central area of the Netherlands, where heather and pine grows on loose sandy hills.  Kakao obviously enjoyed walking off-leash, stopping for a sniff, or pricking his ears to listen. However, being the hound that he is, he followed scent trails and regularly  wondered off, which worried me that he would not find his way back, so when he would finally return after many whistles, I decided to leash him before returning to the camper.

After several days of charging and discharging the batteries, Thijs and Steve came to the conclusion that most of the batteries were no good and we would never get the set to work properly. We had to buy a new, better vetted set. Work was becoming intense. Christmas was around the corner and a whole buildout and new installation had to be done before the holiday. With joint efforts we got it done, just minutes before Steve and Audrey were set to leave and visit their daughter and grandson for Christmas Eve. We accepted their invitation to stay on the property for the night, said our goodbyes, and then rushed to the store to get some food before closing time. That evening we got our house in order, took Kakao for one last walk in the dunes and settled in for the night. On Christmas morning we departed direction Mexico. The roads were beautifully empty and the weather was crisp and sunny. We made a good distance, almost to the Florida / Alabama border. The night it turned frigid again, and our new heater still had not been installed – no time! But our stove was working, so we used that to get the chill out before bed time and as soon as we woke up the next morning. In Louisiana the weather became miserable with solid rain on top of cold temps. In Texas, still the same…how was this possible… in the deep south?! Past San Antonio we decided to stop for the night in Seminole Canyon State Park. We’d already been there before and liked it. We chose for a hookup, so we could use the electric heater that we almost threw out in Florida.

It remained cold, and the forecast was not looking up. Our plan was to cross the border in El Paso by New Year’s Eve – with three more days to go, we figured could just make that. In Mexico we would then drive to Chihuahua and Copper Canyon, which we heard would be so worth our while… but it is also at a high altitude, where temps could plunge to freezing and snow is not uncommon… would we really want that? That night we decided to switch plans: we’d stay for another day to install the heater and cross the border at Del Rio, which was just over an hour’s drive away from where we were. We would skip Copper Canyon, and instead drive south, to the warmth.  This way we had a warm, toasty camper and a little more time to enjoy the area before Sunday morning, the day we would cross the border and give up our Green Cards.

On Sunday, New Year’s Eve, when we arrived at the border, ready to turn in our Green Cards, the customs and border protection agents refused to accept them.

Overland Expo in Asheville, NC

OVERLANDING – verb [over.land.ing] : Self-reliant adventure travel across land (typically by off-road vehicle) to remote destinations in which the principle goal is the journey.

I had to read this definition first, before I understood what was going on at the Overland Expo in Ashville, North Carolina.

At this seasonal event hosting thousands of visitors, we hoped to exchange experiences and make friends with more “overlanders”- which we understood to be a definition for people that travel the globe, across land, in a self-reliant vehicle.

After some confusion about our designated spot within the camp, we arrived at the special non-commercial “Show Vehicle” section, where we were expected to share information about our experiences on the road and how our vehicle performed so far. Our next door neighbors on either side owned vehicles they were looking to sell. In a travel sense, they had little or nothing to offer, but their rugged looking vehicles attracted enough attention from a public that was especially interested in all-terrain power, size and cool accessories. Compared to our neighbors, we looked puny and insignificant, and only a handful of people approached us to ask what overland life was like on the other side of the US border (…“How long have we been traveling?” …”Where all have we been?” …”Do we carry a gun, and what kind is it?”)

 

When we met our sole fellow globetrotting neighbors, we shared our expectations of this Overland Expo. Like us, they’d expected to meet more fellow travelers, and they as well encountered little interest from the Expo visitors. From our previous Overland Expo/Flagstaff AZ experience, we could tell them that the spring expo in Arizona had a different feel, since that location is on the main drag of Pan-American travelers. We concluded this expo was more like an “Off-Road” Expo, since the majority of the visitors arrived in off-road vehicles like 4WD pick-up trucks, Land Rovers, Jeeps and Toyotas, or on off-road motor bikes. Many camped in roof-top tents, and several of them pulled a small trailer with pull-out drawers revealing a cooker, a sink, a fridge, and enough space in the covered center for a bed, but little room for extended travel necessities.

The commercial section of the Expo offered more short-term outdoor accommodations, like small trailers and a large variety of slide-on campers and rooftop tents. Rustic outdoor furniture was offered for sale, as well as fancy accessories like saddle bags and camping gear. The high-end camper section showed models of Sprinter vans with beds in the back that lifted up to the ceiling to make room underneath for a set of motorcycles or a small ATV. Giant Global Expedition-Vehicles drew a crowd by virtue of their size and rugged looks. The top of the hood could reach as high as an adult; changing a tire is a winch and crane job, and you had to climb stairs to enter the living quarters in the box on the back. We entered one of the smaller models, where we were welcomed by a friendly lady- the proud owner of that vehicle. The slick white interior featured the comforts of home, like a bathroom, a king sized bed, and a modern kitchen including a dishwasher. From her we heard that she had not- and was also not planning to travel outside of the US. She preferred a fortnight in the desert with it.

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On the other side of the Expo grounds, off-road tracks had been built, featuring a waterhole and a soft mud trail, a rough boulder track, a soft sandy path leaning to one side, and a series of steep inclines interrupted by sudden dips. Visitors could sign up to practice off-roading, either with their own vehicle, a Land Rover, or other vehicles of their choice. Before the actual driving started, students had to listen to a long explanation of techniques and consequences. Then, carefully, leaving wide distances in between them, the individual vehicles crawled through the track.  Some of the students had difficulty getting their vehicle in low gear and got stuck in the water, or in a deep dip, or in the soft sand. Some drove too close to the side of the track, and they were forced to back up and correct themselves. But we witnessed no overturned vehicles; only proud and joyous finishers.

Next to the off-road track for the 4wheel-drive vehicles was a dirt bike track. The motorcycle drivers showed a little more action with speed and risk taking. Their bikes went flying through the air, howled through high dust, slid through slick mud and kicked up rocks while taking risky sharp turns. Getting dirty looked like fun and child’s play!

In the meantime, along the path that connects everything,  people and their dogs, kids on hoverboards, and celebrative passengers on ATVs amused us while just sitting outside our camper.

We did not visit the lectures and round table sessions this time, since we promised to be available for questions or interviews about our travels. We know from our previous Overland Expo experience that there can be interesting talks or films about far-away- or hard to reach places, or promotions of travel tours.  They can provide some people help deciding if-, when- and where they’d like to go….or just dream about it. Certainly the beautiful grounds of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC helped boost the romantic idea of overland travel…however far, and however rough or luxurious you dream it to be.

The Overland Expo is organized by Roseann and Jonathan Hanson, for more information check out the very informative website: http://www.overlandexpo.com

Starting Over

solar eclipse 2017
The Sun’s corona, only visible during the total eclipse, is shown as a crown of white flares from the surface during a total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017 from onboard a NASA Gulfstream III aircraft flying 25,000 feet above the Oregon coast. The red spots called Bailey’s beads occurs where the moon grazes by the Sun and the rugged lunar limb topography allows beads of sunlight to shine through in some areas. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

Thijs and I just came back from witnessing the total eclipse of the sun from a high mountain ridge in the southwestern part of North Carolina. This unique natural event seemed like a turning point, and the right moment for a new blog site, with resolutions to keep everyone who is interested in our travel adventures up to date.

It is not that we did not report about our experiences before, but we noticed that many of our friends did not like to join Facebook just to follow us, and the efforts I put into the stories posted on my website seemed to get lackluster reception, probably because the ability sign up and follow us there was close to impossible. Two and a half years into our Second Time Around The World, it was time to find a real blog site. And here it is! Let’s hope for an enjoyable, adventurous journey together.

As a short recap of the last two years: our house in Virginia Beach, VA (USA) sold in July 2013, but both us and our camper were not ready to hit the road yet, so we rented a house for a year before our move into our tiny house on wheels. After New Year’s day of 2015 we started driving, first south to Florida, then along the southern parts of the US to the west coast, and north to the Canadian border, to return east by way of Yellowstone and the Black Hills of North Dakota. On this tour our camper pulled a trailer full of paintings  – work that was offered for sale during art events around the country. Between art shows, the many natural and cultural sites in the US were worth a visit. After almost a year, with an almost empty trailer, we returned to Virginia Beach, where our very best friend Amani opened her home to us.  I had to have a few medical procedures done, but soon after the recovery in the spring of 2016, the east coast of Canada was on our mind. After the summer months in the cool provinces of the Canadian Maritimes, our kids awaited us back in Virginia. One son and girlfriend came along on our second cross- country trip. When they flew home from Las Vegas, we drove south for the winter. Six months in Mexico and Central America went by quickly. Our route zig-zagged through Mexico and meandered around in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama…and back to the US again. (Our Green Card did not allow us to stay away longer. We are now looking for ways to solve this limitation, plus there are still some other administrative issues that need to be addressed before we can leave for a more extended time.)

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We first heard about the total eclipse of the sun from fellow travelers in Guatemala. They’d already arranged with friends to meet up at a location somewhere in the western US. Thijs and I would be in the east at that time and, since it would probably be the only time in our life to witness such an event, I searched for an ideal spot to see this…  August on the east coast could still be oppressively hot, so I looked for a spot in the mountains, where the altitude could give us some relief. When our friend Peggy mentioned a town in Tennessee (right on the path of totality) that would have a balloon festival in conjunction with the eclipse, it did not take long to find a nearby location to camp in the Nantahala National Forest in the Appalachian mountain range of North Carolina. Good old freecampsites.net, though sometimes tricky to navigate, is our friend in showing us some of these unique spots in the US.

That Friday afternoon, two other cars had already established themselves on the parking lot at the end of the forest road near Bear Creek Hunt Camp . From here, hiking trails spidered out in many directions. As the weekend approached, a few more cars trickled in, people spilled out, organized their backpacks and disappeared up and down the trails. We decided to stay with our camper, together with some others who set up camp in a grassy corner of the lot.

On Saturday, the Hangover Lead trail called for a trial run, with a steep climb towards a ridge where a wide view would make the eclipse experience all the better. Our dog Kakao knows a nice, long walk is coming up when he sees his backpack appear. He was so excited, it was hard  putting it on him.  Two hours into crawling up the steep incline of the trail, Thijs’ shoe started falling apart – the sole came off. With his laces, he tried to keep everything together, but it was no use; we had to turn back. Going down the mountain went fast, and we could spend the rest of the day watching more people arrive and disappear into the woods. Our fellow camper from Michigan seemed to have met up with his friends, who all left with his car, while blocking off our mini campground with the new one. They returned in the evening with tales of traffic jams at the nearby town with the balloon festival, and of balloons that never went in the air. Afraid to loose our spot on the increasingly filling parking lot, we were relieved to hear that we had not missed much by staying put.

There was one more day before the big day of the eclipse. Sunday, the air was cool, the forest was silent, and a variety of vegetation enchanted us along an other trail – this time down, to waterfalls and clear pools surrounded by moss covered boulders .

The day of the eclipse we started out early, with our packs with water, nuts, fruits and sandwiches. Kakao carried his own supplies of water and snacks. The sky was overcast and the temperature had risen. Thijs had re-attached the sole of his shoe with the strongest glue on hand. The trail was still as steep as it was before. We recognized and admired some landmarks, such as fallen trees, boulders, fungi, mosses and ferns. After our former turnaround point, the trail became less steep, but more overgrown. The  path through growths of rhododendron and queen Anne’s lace was barely visible. Our feet slipped on washed out footholds, like root-steps and rocks. Where water trickled out of the mountain side, the earth turned into a soft, black, shoe sucking mud pool. After a four hour hike, we reached the breathtaking view of the mountain crest.

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The outcrop of ragged rocks near the ledge, which offered the best 360 degree view of the lands below us, was covered with people, waiting for the spectacle to happen. Here, the dense man-high bushes offered no shade when the sun was out. Our Michigan friend had managed to stretch a hammock between some of them for some makeshift shade. A little way back from the outcrop, tents were tucked between bushes and in the light shade of low trees. With still an hour to spare, we decided to wait at one of the camps, where a family offered us a comfortable grassy spot under a tree.

When the time came to start looking up to see the moon covering the sun, we walked back to the ragged rocks with the open view.  Through the narrow path between the high bushes, ooohs! and aahs! sounded ahead of us. People stared up with their cardboard eclipse glasses covering their eyes. Looking back and up, there was nothing to see; a cloud obscured the sun. We settled in as best as possible along the sharp edge of one of the protruding rocks. Then the oohs! and aahs! started again. The sun was still covered by clouds, but a new set of sungazers appeared around the corner and, just like us, were teased into a fear of missing out. A jovial group spirit developed, and when the clouds did on occasion reveal the spectacle, the shared admiration was genuine. As the moon covered more of the sun, I expected the light to diminish, but the the sun kept on shining, albeit ever more like a watery winter sun. Close to the total eclipse, a big cloud threatened to spoil the anticipated drama but, just in time, it moved on to give a grand reveal of the big show. Within seconds, under howls and exclamations of wonder as the moon totally covered the sun, the light went from sunny to dusk to dark and stars became visible, while a light breeze made us realize how comfortable the temperature had become. A pink sunset sky appeared all around on the horizon. In the valleys below us, signs of fireworks travel from west to east.  I looked at the dogs present, but none seemed to be phased by this unnatural phenomena – I guess they are all too used to artificial light during the night, so what’s the difference when it happens vice-versa?

The total eclipse lasted only a minute or so. Within seconds, daytime sunlight returned. The gathering on the ridge dissolved; after spending an hour watching the eclipse increase, not many were interested to see the slow reverse spectacle. The climax had passed. Watching our steps on the treacherous trails down the mountain, a surprise show appeared on the ground: multitudes of little eclipses played a pinhole projector game with the light cast down through the bushes. How magic, and what a perfect finale of a sensational spectacle.

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