travelog 56

A Three-Week Vacation

News about our capabilities as travel guides seems to get around. Soon we will not be able to save ourselves from the stream of visitors from Europe. Of course Mexico has many things to offer, especially when you want to take a holiday in February from the snow and cold in Switzerland. We have to pull out more stops for our friend Maggie than for the previous guests who where primarily interested in cacti. Maggie wants to get an overall impression of Mexico. She wants a little bit of everything: culture, beach, and plants. Because she's not at the age anymore where one loves to sleep in a tent, we have to store our PocoLoco and rent a small car. It's not an easy decision to do without the luxury of our own shower and bed, but equipped with plastic sandals and cotton sleeping bags we're prepared for not perfectly hygienic bathrooms and possible unwelcome critters in the beds.

We want to have everything organized for Maggie's arrival late that night in Guadalajara. That's why we drive along the main road out of town near the airport to check all the motels for rooms. The experts on Mexico of course already know what it means when somebody says he stayed in a "motel". These establishments look not unlike a fortress. You pay the portier or the maid. Every room has its own lockable garage. And the price is tempting, only 200 pesos per night (about $20). You'll not get a room in the afternoon, no vacancies! They tell us that we should try again a lot later that night, then we would have a better chance. Slowly it dawns on even the most innocent soul that he landed in a sleazy hotel.. But who cares, the location is perfect. Since we want to spend three nights in Guadalajara, we have to look for another plac to stay. We find a very beautiful bed & breakfast hotel in Tlaquepaque where we're invited for coffee first of all. With the responsible young man we finally negotiate a pretty good deal. We have to spend one night in the hotel which lets rooms by the hour. But the next morning we're already invited to have breakfast at the b&b place and we even get a discount on the price for the rooms. Late at night we're waiting at the airport for the plane from Atlanta which arrives on time. Maggie's one of the first to come through the door, heavily laden with chocolate and other supplies from Switzerland. It's no problem at all to get two rooms in one of the motels at this time of the night. The rooms are huge, but without wardrobe or blankets. The shower is very spacious. A huge mirror hangs opposite the bed and at the head end of the bed is a very practical endless distributor of tissues. You can order and receive pizza, cigars, beer, condoms, and pessaries through a hatch that is accessible from the outside and inside of the room. On the weekend you can have such a room from 11pm for 8 hours. The management kindly grants you one hour more in the morning and so we have to leave the room by 8am. Maids already scurry around with fresh linens. They prepare for another rush of visitors.

Sundays there's a huge market in Tonalá which stretches over many square miles. The roads are lined with booths and practically every private household sells something in front of their door. Tonalá is famous for its glass-blowing. To find the pretty Tequila shot glasses with a cactus or a century plant on the bottom of the glass, you have to cover some miles and examine all the stalls carefully. For the most part they sell the ugliest kitsch but the Mexicans soon carry around full bags. Christ crucified and bloody in all forms and colors. The virgin of Guadalupe (the national saint of Mexico) in glass, wax, wood, and metal. Kitchenware from Oaxaca and Puebla. Carved furniture with colorful covers. Black-market cd's, tapestry, pots from Guanajuato, parrots and other songbirds (alive of course). And in between food stalls with many delicacies and refreshement stands where the vendor will open a fresh coconut for you. The coconut water is emptied into a plastic bag. The meat is scraped out of the shell with a special utensil, put into another plastic bag and seasoned with chili powder, salt and lime juice. In the evenings we stroll over the main square in Tlaquepaque, have a look at the many galleries and antique shops, and end the day with a margarita or a Mexican beer.

The first stop on our little roundtrip is Tapalpa, a small mountain village with unique wooden houses and arcades along the main square. Near the village we hike to the Salte del Nogal where you can find many interesting plants. A steep trail leads to the bottom of the canyon. Tillandsia pamelae, a plant that reminds us more of a huge bromelia, flowers in the vertical cliffs. Between Agave pedunculifera and A. filifera ssp. schidigera shines Echeveria colorata in a beautiful light blue color from the grey rock. Sedum griseum covers huge areas at the canyon rim and Echeveria chapalensis hides from the voracious cows in thorny shrubs. Graptopetalum fruticosum thrives close to the water. A little bit further up grows Agave inaequidens, blooming right now. Of course there are also many cacti and other plants. The descent is very easy. Unfortunately it's not advisable to take a bath in the pool below the 100 f. high waterfalll because of dangerous eddies. Before we climb up again we fortify ourselves with a big piece of chocolate cake that Maggie smuggled from Switzerland into Mexico. The best way to end the day is having some beers and little things in one of the restaurants on the square. You'll get the best prices and food where there's the loudest music and the village youth.

The next thing we do is a little bit of disaster-tourism, though the trip to Colima was already planned before the big earthquake happened. The only problem we have now is finding a room in the city because practically all the lodgings are occupied by Mexicans working on the damages from the earthquake. Aamzingly there's practically no damage in the downtown area of Colima except for a few cracks in some buidlings. But the surrounding districts were heavily damaged. Only the front is left of the restaurant where we want to have dinner. They will serve food again in a week the neighbour assures us. The military helps clear away the rubble, and everywhere the reconstruction is under way. North of Colima we drive towards the two volcanoes, Nevado de Colima and Volcán de Fuego. Sugarcane fields and coffee plantations characterise the landscape. On tall trees we discover Echeveria fulgens and manfreda, epiphytically growing, and also hylocereus and orchids.

It gets more tropical and warmer south of Colima. Around Tecomán, the epicentre of the earthquake, there's again a lot of damage. Half of the restaurant where we eat is separated with a huge piece of fabric. There's a big bed, an improvised bathroom, and an entire wardrobe behind it. The rest of the house collapsed in the earthquake and now the people live a little more crowded and have sacrificed half of the restaurant. The owner is pleased about our visit from so far away and she deems herself lucky that only half of the house collapsed. "Gracias a Diós", they're still alive!

For the next week we rented a little house on the Pacific. The driveway is bizarrely steep and for sure more suited for a Unimog than for a little rental car with 3 persons and a lot of luggage. High above the Bay of Tenacatita and the little fishing village of La Manzanilla we reside like kings. The view over the semicircular sandy bay, the palm groves, and the azure ocean is breathtaking! Every evening we toast with margaritas, perfectly prepared by Martin, to another beautiful sunset. The kitchen is outside, as are the dining tables, but that's very pleasant with the summery temperatures. With enough mosquito repellant even these nasty bugs keep their distance. Instead of watching TV, there's none anyway, we gawk at the white wall where flat geckos hunt for moths. We're especially taken with a praying mantis in form of a brown leaf. She dangles from a pillar and swings like a real leaf in the wind to make herself invisible to us. Screeching parrots and other colorful birds wake us up in the morning. On the weekend we can also be awakened by the stereo which has to be tested for the village fiesta. Our week here flies by with snorkeling, swimming, and long walks along the beach.

A visit to Mexico without a tour of a tequila factory is of course worth nothing. We want to have a look at the old hacienda "La Herradura" in Amatitán, but they don't work on a Sunday. Besides, you would have to come on a guided tour and then they shepherd around 300 people through here at one time. But on the other side of the road, the shareholders of the tequila "Regional" have just finished their meeting, and we find a young man who is able and willing to show us the premises and to explain to us the entire process. All this despite his state of drunkenness. In the town of Tequila itself, practically every store sells tequila or glasses and bottles for tequila.

To give Maggie a little insight into the world of cacti in Mexico, we now drive to San Luis Potosí. We're greeted warmly at the house of friends and enjoy the luxury of a private home in contrast with a noisy hotel alongside the road. We make excursions to Huizache where you can see about the biggest number of different cacti in one place in Mexico. Amongst them also many rarities which are not that easy to find. On the east side of San Luis Potosí we visit the Sierra de Álvarez with our hosts, the Fitz Maurices. On small dirt roads we drive far into the countryside, pass remote villages and beautiful landscapes with many interesting plants.

In Santa Maria del Río we visit the museum of the rebozo. The little town is famous for the production of rebozos and has won many prizes. A rebozo is a woven scarf with macrame fringes. In the past, all rebozos were made from silk, but nowadays they more and more use rayon because it's cheaper and can be sold more easily. You can watch the women and men weaving rebozos in the museum. Others dye the silk or wind it onto a spool. In another room an older woman pours out her sorrows to us. She's finishing the rebozos, that means she's tying the macrame fringe on both ends of the rebozo. She can only work with glasses and receives for one rebozo (which she can finish in two weeks) just 300 pesos (about $30). She works 5 hours a day. But the weavers receive more money, she tells us. For a real silk rebozo you have to pay around 4000 pesos ($400). The rayon ones go for around 800-1500 pesos ($80-$150), depending on the pattern.

After one night in Dolores Hidalgo, a pretty colonial town with charm where Mexico's independence was declared in 1810, we make our last stop in Guanajuato. Since 1989 the town has been designated as "World Heritage Zone" by UNESCO and it's really worth a visit. Unfortunately, many other tourists already found that out too! Nevertheless it's still mostly Mexican tourists who stroll through the streets. We visit the famous "Valenciana de San Cayetano", the church at the silver mine with the same name which towers on a hill above town. Again we're impressed by what the faithful scrimped and saved for building this magnificent temple. We're flabbergasted by the amount of gold in this church, although there doesn't seem to be enough money around to dust the interior regularly. The city is squeezed between hills and has crept up the slopes over the past centuries. The higgledy-piggledy houses are painted in all the colors of the world. Around every street corner you'll see more colorful views. An extensive system of tunnels, once built by wise city fathers tp protect the city from flloding, provides easy access to the downtown area for automobilists.

Traffic backups occur only in the narrow streets and especially at night and on weekends. The smoking buses give rise to the wish that the very heart of Guanajuato will be made into a pedestrian area soon. There's a panoramic road around the entire city from which you have many good views of the colorful mass of houses. If you feel like watching tourists, you should go to the statue "Pipilá" that towers high above the city and is easily reached with a small Swiss mountain cableway. The "Jardín" is the best place to sit down and have a beer after strolling around for many hours. Every other minute there's somebody who wants to sell you jewelery, carpets, hammocks, or ponchos, but a wagging finger frees you of the vendors. If you feel like it you can get a group of mariachi singers to your table for about 50 pesos ($5) per song. Our neighbours seem to blow away their month's wages that way, buying beer and tequila, and enjoying themselves enormously with two female tourists who soon sing along with all their heart.

Three weeks are up amazingly fast and we have to bring Maggie back to the airport in Guadalajara. She would actually prefer to stay a little bit longer and asks if it wouldn't be nice to continue our trip down to Yucatán where we could enjoy the warmth a little bit longer. But unfortunately the employees at her company are waiting at home for the February pay-day. It's funny the way things turn out...

February 2003

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen