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.
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!
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.
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!