travelog 96

Forced Vacation in Aguascalientes & Zacatecas

"Erupción de volcán?" and "Islandia, dónde queda esto?" asks the friendly lady at the Aeromexico counter in Guadalajara. What we have already read early in the morning in a Swiss newspaper, obviously did not yet get through to Mexico. The Icelandic Eyjafjoell volcano spews dust and ash and threatens to paralyse airtraffic over Europe. Slowly it dawns on the lady that she indeed has heard something about a volcano but, she assures us, that doesn't mean troubles at all. On this April 15th Maggie gets her seats with KLM all the way to Zurich and even her luggage is checked through. Everything seems to be working out miraculously well. We drink an iced coffee at Starbucks and say goodbye to Maggie.

Back home the newspapers report one nightmare piece of news after the other. On the KLM website we can see that all flights to Amsterdam have been canceled for the time being. Therefore we expect a call from Maggie pretty soon. Around 10PM our phone finally rings. Maggie has made it to a hotel room and describes her odyssey. Everything was normal when she got to Mexico City. The passengers went through all the check points, had to take off shoes, their luggage was screened, and finally they met at the departure terminal only to read on the message board that their flight was cancelled. They then had to find their luggage at "lost & found". If you know the Mexico City airport you also know that this involves miles-long trudging. The culmination was that the stranded passengers had to go through customs. That was the last straw for Maggie and the customs officers let her through without checking her luggage. After all, she had not even left the country yet! KLM had problems accommodating all passengers in hotels. Maggie now spends two nights in a four star hotel at KLM's expense. Then they'll see what they can do. On April 17th KLM makes an official announcement saying: “KLM is not responsible anymore for hotel accommodation” and everyone is thrown back on his own resources. The passengers receive two telephone numbers where they can get more information and rebook their flights with no additional charges. Since Maggie's already at the Mexico City airport she buys the next flight to Guadalajara. Two days after we delivered her there, we pick her up again for a few more days of forced vacation.

We spend the following Monday basically on the phone. The two toll free numbers listed on KLM's website for here in Mexico are also valid for Delta Airlines and the numbers the passengers received from KLM are either wrong or don't work. Dialing one of the numbers connects you with the "El Universal" newspaper in Mexico City. The other number is out of order. Therefore we make the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, owner of the Mexican phone company Telmex, a little richer and wait more or less patiently for hours until we finally have a young KLM employee on the line. It's no problem to rebook Maggie's flight free of charge. The first flight she can be on is on May 1st, two weeks from now. Quickly Maggie decides on the other option and accepts the refund for her Guadalajara-Zurich flight. We spend the rest of the day on the Internet looking for flights to Zurich. The best, but of course not the cheapest solution, seems to be Iberia over Madrid. At least Maggie can count herself lucky that she was able to come back to our place, compared with other stranded passengers that were stuck without hotel cost support and knowledge of Spanish in Mexico City, having to explain to angry superiors why they had to take more vacations. We soon find out that Maggie's not that urgently needed at the office. She gets the workdays done via Internet. She only has to get up a little earlier but after the job's done she can enjoy her vacation.

What to do until Maggie's return flight? A women's trip, of course! After studying a few issues of "Mexico Desconocido", a Mexican travel magazine, the choice falls on Aguascalientes and Zacatecas. After a few hours we have seen Aguascalientes. The center of town is beautifully renovated and all decked out. Small Italian style coffee shops invite people walking by to sit down. Huge Jacaranda trees shade the main plaza. Billboard pillars in front of old buildings narrate their history. We go for a walk through all the churches and temples of the city center. Then we stroll out to the Feria San Marcos, the largest and best known fair in all of Mexico. There's nothing going on here around noon. We can't even find something to eat. After so many decked out buildings, galleries, cafes, and fashion boutiques with expensive brand names, we want to see the Mexican side of Aguascalientes. Two streets north of the main plaza the shoe stores with special offers suddenly start. Street food vendors offer chopped fresh fruit with lime juice, salt and chile. Crowds of people are window shopping. Then we reach the entrance to the public market. Inside, vendors recommend their fruits, fish and fresh cheese. Next, girls behind steaming pots serve as live menus. The daily selection is rattled off to the passer-by. If you only hesitate for the shortest bit, their torrent of words intensifies and chairs are offered to the potential clients. We decide on "tortas de carnitas", a kind of sandwich. Crispy pork comes in a crusty roll with spicy salsa. Depending on the cook this is accompanied by pickled chiles, onion rings and "nopalitos", a cactus pad salad. In the afternoon we visit the "Museo Nacional de la Muerte" that opened its doors in 2007. Objects from the prehispanic era, the colonial period and the present day that have something to do with death are on display on two floors. There are death masks, statues, paintings, textile printings, stone figures, archaeological objects, wax and wooden figures, miniatures, and much more. A large part of the museum is taken up by cartoons, paintings and printings of Jose Guadalupe Posada, an artist native to Aguascalientes. The most interesting things for us are the many clay figures, the miniatures and "catrinas", the fragile clay skeletons from Michoacan.

The best road between Aguascalientes and Zacatecas is the toll highway. About halfway to Zacatecas you come over some beautiful mountains with Agave schidigera, a small form of A. applanata, Ferocactus histrix, Yucca filifera, a Dasylirion and a huge Mammillaria. Past these mountains you'll drive over wide plains with the most incredible Yucca filifera forests for miles around. The old road still goes almost through the center of Zacatecas. Parking spaces are a rarity in the narrow streets of the city centre. First we stroll around downtown looking at various hotels. In one of the "Mexico Desconocido" journals Maggie had seen the two-page advertising for a very special hotel, the "Quinta Real". She insists on having a look at this hotel. She even wants to invite me there if she likes the place. We follow the signs and soon arrive at the elegant entrance to the hotel where a porter opens the car doors and helps us get out. Our car clearly is the most ordinary car around and certainly the dirtiest. The bull-ring from the 19th century saw its last bullfight in 1975. The "Quinta Real" opened its doors exactly in this bull-ring in 1989 and won the "International Architectural Award". At the reception area we chat with Antonio, the friendly young man who is responsible for arriving guests. I tell him Maggie's story about her forced vacation because of the Iceland volcano. I also tell him that we would love to stay at the hotel but only in one of the rooms with the same view that we have seen in the travel magazine ad and on the Internet. No problem at all, he offers us a very special room and even asks if we would like to see it first. Of course that's what you usually do in Mexico but somehow it seems weird to do this in a luxury hotel like the "Quinta Real". Maggie coolly produces her Swiss credit card which, sure enough, is promptly rejected by the hotels machine as invalid. The second try doesn't work either. Now Antonio starts to look at us askance. We perfectly fit the picture of two shady middle-aged women who made a slip in their choice of hotel. While Maggie's on her cell phone with the 24-hour service of her credit card (the card was blocked after Maggie bought her ticket at the Mexico City airport), I'll pay the room in cash. With all this excitement we completely forget the glass of champagne Antonio had offered us when we arrived. The porter carries our bag up to the room. The car key is left at the reception desk, as they have a valet service. When the porter opens the door to our room we're overwhelmed. He explains that Antonio indeed gave us the best room in the "cheapest" price range. It is located right next to the presidential suite and has a 360° view of the bull-ring. The other rooms in the same price range are arranged around a patio in the back part of the bull-ring.

Now that we have found an adequate accommodation for the night, we explore the rest of the hotel. From all the tables in the restaurant you can see the entire bull-ring. The former boxes for the bulls are now a bar. One look at the menu is enough to convince us of the cheaper variation of a taco stand. At an altitude of 8200 feet, a cold wind blows through the city. In front of the former market where small art galleries and souvenir shops are housed, the brass band of Zacatecas gives a concert. There are about 50 young women and men playing, trumpeting, and hooting and tooting on their instruments. Their conductor is an energetic man with blowing white hair and wild arm movements. It's a spectacle on its own, although not always a joy to hear. Slowly it's getting dark in the city and the lights go on. The pink stone of the cathedral reflects the yellow light beautifully. The government building looks even more imposing when illuminated. We stroll through the narrow streets for hours and pass buildings worthy of our admiration after every other corner. Near the Plaza Santo Domingo we find a small restaurant that seems to be popular with the locals. The specialty is "pozole rojo" and "pozole verde", a prehispanic Mexican soup cooked with hominy and pork. You can spice your soup as you wish with lime juice, spicy salsa, minced onion, radishes, and julienned white cabbage. Back at the hotel we enjoy the spectacular view down into the illuminated bull-ring that has been transformed into a the huge patio seen from our balcony.

For breakfast we go down to a small market south of the city center. "Birria" and "barbacoa" are offered early in the morning. When Maggie wants to know what "birria" looks like, the cook lifts the towel from his steaming food and the first thing that appears is a goat's skull. That was it then for the "birria". Maggie quickly decides on a "cafe de olla" that smells deliciously of cinnamon. Later we visit downtown by daylight. One of the musts is a visit to the "Museo Rafael Coronel" housed in the former Franciscan monastery from 1567. To get to the museum's entrance you wander through an enchanted and overgrown garden in the collapsed rooms of the monastery. 4000 masks that were used in dances and ceremonies throughout Mexico are on display in the many restored rooms of the former monastery. The entire collection holds over 10'000 masks, but after you have seen the 4000 or so beautifully displayed masks you'll have seen enough of them for quite some time. Mezcal, a distilled spirit similar to Tequila, is sold in many stores. A bottle of apparently good Mezcal from 100% agave juice can go for as much as 500 pesos. Since you don't know exactly if the end product is as smooth as a good 100% blue agave Tequila, we refrain from buying a bottle of this expensive spirit. Back at the small market Maggie still remembers the empty staring eyes of the goat's skull. We walk a little further along some small shops and find another market where we stumble right into the food section. Instantly the cooks cry their menus. Stews, soups, beans, and vegetables are offered from colorful earthen ware. We decide on "asado de boda", a dish usually served at weddings in Zacatecas. It's a thick stew of pork in red sauce with vegetables. Hand-made tortillas and beans are served with it. From our table we have a good view over the bustling market life and can observe how the young girls at the street food kitchens loudly recommend their specialties. The culmination of our visit should be the ride to the Cerro Bufa with the cableway, a Swiss product. At the valley station we're informed that we can't cruise up the mountain because of high winds. They ask us to come back later. Turns out we have to postpone the cablecar ride for another visit because the wind does not stop. It seems as if the employees have an easy job. They are sent home around noon very often because of the heavy wind. Our last visit is the center to see the silversmith's craft in the former Hacienda Bernardez. We had imagined that the hacienda would be better preserved. There are wide roads and housing developments surrounding the greenery but at least you can admire the art and craft of the local silversmiths in one place. Small studios where you can see the silversmiths at work and where you can buy jewelry and more, are arranged around a green lawn.

Unfortunately the forced vacation is drawing to a close. Passing the ruins of Chicomostoc, also known under the name "La Quemada", we head back to Jalisco. With a 10-day delay Maggie indeed flies back to Switzerland. The Nordic volcano gods have mercy and have stopped the ash rain. Air traffic is finally back to normal. Maggie will remember her vacation for a long time. The overnight stay in the "Quinta Real" in Zacatecas was certainly the culmination of our camping trip (see our travelog 93) with nights in a tent. The beautiful city of Zacatecas was worth the trip too. Forced vacations can have something going for them!

May 2010

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen