Down The West Coast of Mexico

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The state of Colima is on the west coast in about the middle of the country. Colima is one of the smallest states and one of the most prosperous per capita. On Hwy 200, heading south, you pass from neighbouring Jalisco at the Rio Marabasca. One of the first prominent features is the endless vistas of mature coconut groves. Coconuts are sold at every roadside stand. Truckloads of coconuts pass by. There is a definite coconut presence. Interspersed with the coconuts in the groves are citrus, mango and other marketable crops.
We stopped at a roadside stand where a middle aged woman with a big machete prepared a few coconuts for us, first by hacking off the top and inserting a straw so we could sample the coconut water, then with a few quick strokes she opened the nut and carved out the meat which she put into a small plastic bag along with some chilli pepper and lime juice. What a treat! We had seen many large hanging fruit at the stands which we first took to be breadfruit, but on closer inspection we found to be jackfruit. The fruit stand lady had one of these opened and carved us out a sample which tasted not unlike mango. The fruit, about the size of a football or larger, is roughly 75% pith and seed and you have to work to get at the good stuff. We also bought a bunch of quite small sweet, bananas, a few cucumbers and tomatoes for a Greek salad and some plantains which are like bananas but more starchy. We fry the plantains in coconut oil as a side dish with supper.
We note that there is no shortage of food on the west coast of Mexico. Beginning around the south end of Sonora state there are great expanses of flat farmland growing crops of corn, sorghum, potatoes, most vegetables and many sub-tropical fruits. Through southern Sinaloa and most of Jalisco, mangos grow everywhere. In parts of Colima it was banana groves and coconut groves, in some places as far as you could see.

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It would seem that there are no restrictions on setting up a roadside or beach front restaurant. All you need is a palapa, some plastic chairs and tables and a supply of whatever is produced locally. Chicken, beef, pork and a variety of sea foods are on the menu. Driving through town centers during mid-day affords the opportunity to sample the many scents of fish and meats cooking on hardwood-fired grills, usually right on the sidewalk or right in plain view of passing traffic. Mariscos (shellfish,) and pollo asado carbon (bbq chicken) seem to be the main attraction. You can’t usually judge the quality of the food by the outward appearance of the premises, but the presence of truckers and other hungry travelers will let you know which establishment might have the best grub.
Roadside hawkers and window cleaners assault you at most urban stop lights and at many of the speed bumps, called topes (more on them later.) Hawkers come in all ages from youngsters selling plastic trinkets, to elderly folks, often selling small handcrafted goods, sometimes worth a quick look. The windshield cleaners, usually young guys although there was one young lady who appeared to be in her early twenties and offered quite a show as she leaned over the windshield obviously looking for a better tip, are the most intrusive. They appear from nowhere, first squirting some juice on the window from a distance, then quickly working with a clean rag to shine things up, sometimes with a partner who does the other side. They expect a small tip, 5 – 10 pesos, and you need to be ready with some small change, otherwise you might have to fork out a 20 peso bill (which is the smallest paper money.) Although payment is not mandatory, if you decline you then get the opportunity to see some real Mexican “stink-eye.” It doesn’t seem to matter that you have just spent 10 minutes cleaning the windshield yourself. Everyone is equally subject to the same treatment and this all takes place in the few minutes before the light turns green. “It’s Mexico!”
Topes, (tow-peas) which we call speed bumps, are just one of the frustrating, potentially dangerous and effective parts of navigating Mexican roads. In a society where much of the minor policing is left up to the public including the control of excessive speed in areas where there are many pedestrians, topes are a fool-proof way of slowing traffic. Most topes are clearly marked and if they are on major highways there are advance warning signs. But not all, thus the frustration. Topes can range in variety from small, gentle reminders to sharp and abrupt lumps protruding from the highway surface to about axle height. Some are painted yellow or white, others are well hidden in shaded areas. On urban streets there may be a series of topes placed at intersections, in advance of school zones or other areas where traffic should be slowed down. As you transition from country to sub-urban to urban areas on major highways there will be topes placed as reminders to slow down for an obvious reason – or not. Either way if you happen to miss the signs or if you simply don’t see the oncoming speed bump until it’s too late then you have a great opportunity to see if all your brakes are still working followed by a thorough testing of your entire suspension system and a re-arrangement of whatever isn’t tied down or secured in your vehicle. As mentioned above, topes also give an excellent venue for beggars who approach your vehicle shaking a jar into which you are expected to deposit money on the premise of a good cause. There may also be a series of palapa stands selling everything from fresh fruit to cooked shrimps to local craft, all in the hopes that since you are already slowed to a snail pace as you creep across the tope you may also enjoy a cool drink, a small bag of cookies or candy or a fried fish. In one place there were a few good looking, albeit scantily clad young women who appeared to be marketing some small cookies in plastic bags. After we passed by, the co-pilot demurely observed, “I don’t think cookies were the only thing on that menu.”

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Michoacán State Feb 27 – March 10, 2012
South of the small state of Colima and bordered by Jalisco on the north, Guanajuato on the northeast and Guerrero on the south, Michoacán is a state not unlike BC, with high mountains, crystal clear lakes, deserted white sand beaches on the Pacific and a variety of fast and slow moving rivers complete with waterfalls and alligators. Oh, did I mention that it’s a whole lot warmer?
We are currently parked at a small campground about halfway through the state on the Pacific coast. This small resort is comprised of a large peaked grass roofed restaurant, several small cabanas of various types and about 10 back-in campsites with water, power and sewer. A swimming pool and a few small palapas complete the picture. Beer is kept in a freezer, awaiting your request and costs C$1.00.

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Hammocks are strung under the palapas for the use of the guests and by noon on a sunny day they are very welcome. In the direct sunshine the temperature feels like it’s about 150 degrees, but under the palapa, with a refreshing sea breeze you feel almost chilled by contrast. About 100 paces from the hammocks there is a beach that stretches in a wide arc for a couple of miles in each direction. The last time I took a dip the beach was entirely deserted. I walked out from shore at least 100 meters and the water was only waist deep. There were many colorful and curious fish darting about and I wished that I had a mask and snorkel. Currently we are the only guests at the resort. Last night we enjoyed a sunset dinner in their restaurant.

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Fresh fish (pescado) and camarones (shrimp) prepared Mexican style with salsa, hand cut fries and some quite hot things in a sauce, couldn’t tell if they were vegetable or animal but they were good. Four dinners with four beers came to M$185, about C$14.

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The cost for using one of the campsites is $100 pesos per night without electricity which, if required, adds another $100 pesos per night. In Canadian dollars that is $16 per night with power. Some campgrounds charge you for the power that you use, each site has its own meter and the rate is about $3 pesos/kw (24 cents.)
All the travel books suggest that you make reservations for campgrounds and RV parks well in advance. We pondered this and decided against it for a number of reasons. What we have found is that RV tourism is down according to some, by roughly 75%. This means that when most of the travel books were written, 2 – 4 years ago, there was the likely possibility that campsites might be full when you reached them after a long day’s drive. Most of the RV parks in larger tourist zones are still full or near full. These parks mostly cater to those travelers who set up there for the whole season, then make a bee line for the border in the spring. Again, we tend to stay away from the larger centers where the streets are crowded with folks just off the plane and who are looking for the best bargain in the T-shirt and dress shops. Prices for everything seem to be 20–50% higher in those places. I think the most important reason for not sticking to a schedule is, of course, the fact that we don’t have to stick to a schedule! If we find a piece of paradise and want to stay an extra night or three, we just do it.
Only once, so far, have we been thrown off course, when we reached the turn-off to a resort that we had chosen from the travel book and their website. The first clue was that there were a few bushes growing up around their sign on the highway. Once we turned off the highway we were committed. Our rig is about 50’ long and I need, as the song indicates, 40 acres to turn it around. As we proceeded down the lane, the willows and overhead branches began to close in and scrape the sides of the truck and top of the trailer. We looked at each other and both thought, “Something is seriously wrong with this picture.” Our traveling companions, Maggie’s brother Grant and his wife Anita, were hot on our tail in their truck/camper and must have been wondering, “Where is he leading us now!”

When we finally reached the resort after bush whacking our way through about a kilometer of trail it looked as though it had been closed for at least 3 years. Odd, because that very morning I had found their website complete with glowing descriptions and beautiful pictures of their little resort. When we rechecked the listing in our book, which was written in 2009 it said, “This park was nicely under construction, has about 30 sites all serviced and a quaint little restaurant overlooking a coconut grove and the ocean beyond.” Obviously they didn’t survive the downturn in tourism and simply dropped everything and went away. We wondered why they would leave their website up and not put a “Closed” sign on their sign at the road. Oh well, “That’s Mexico!”

As it happened, we carried on down the road another 20 km or so and found a better place, on a surfing beach where we stayed for three nights. We were a bit hesitant to stay at this campground since it was mostly occupied by young folks who were camped under the long palapa and we were the only ones with sizable RVs. The campground attendant sauntered out to assist us in getting set up. He directed us to a spot adjacent to the open wash house, telling us that this was where the electricity outlets were. We were a bit dubious but followed along as it seemed he knew what he was doing. He fished around in the long wet grass for a few moments and finally produced an electrical outlet complete with bare wires and no case. Gingerly he plugged our cords into the outlet while mumbling some incoherent message about there being limited amperage and not to blow the breaker. We finished setting up camp and by that time it was ‘Happy Hour.’

One night was all we could stand of this location. It wasn’t the squeal of the hinges and the banging of the door by the steady stream of other campers trekking to the latrine throughout the night. It wasn’t the rather interesting display put on by some of the the other campers as they went through their morning ablutions in the wash house that convinced us to relocate. It was only the tiniest of buzzing, biting no-see-ums that hung out near the drain water of the wash house that convinced us to move about 100 meters away.

The village was called La Ticla. There wasn’t much to it, like most Mexican villages. A small plaza, a couple of run down cantinas, a variety of thin mangy mutts, and the ever present Catholic church, this one in a state of reconstruction that may have been going on for years.  Below the village the beach stretched out from the river southward for about two kilometers. There was a large sand bar near the mouth of the river which created a strong right hand break in the relentless waves. The small group of surfers in the camp ground took turns throughout the day putting on a show for us. Some of them had been camped there all winter and their makeshift homes under the long palapa reflected the ease and relaxation offered to those who can accept life on a beach.

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A few had young children and we were visited by a couple of smiley and inquisitive kids who boldly asked a never ending stream of questions, mostly, we learned, in the hopes that we might offer them a cookie or other tidbit to shut them up. Ah, they learn fast. Took us a while, though.

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La Ticla

Other visitors to the campground included a young craftsman and his son who displayed a number of interesting handcrafted items made of local woods. We bought a few small things and soon after he left, there was another fellow selling a variety of Mexican hammocks. We negotiated what seemed like a fair price to us and came away with two ‘matrimonial’ size hammocks made from very strong nylon string. One is bright yellow and black and the other purple and black. Not my colours of choice but superior to the alternatives, either fluorescent pink or green. The word soon got out to the rest of the peddlers that there were a couple of gringo suckers in the park because throughout the day there was a steady stream of folks trying to sell us everything from prickly pair cactus to sandals made from used tires. Sorry, didn’t need any of those although I did recognize that they would probably never wear out. He even had some made from winter tread. He said they were great for walking in loose sand.

During the heat of the day I took one of the new hammocks along with a couple of ice cold cervezas and a book over to the palapa and secured the hammock between two poles.

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I thought that I would likely bake under the roof which was made from a thatch of long reeds however I soon realized the unique purpose of the structure; that being to eliminate the need for air conditioning. In fact, after falling asleep in the hammock for a couple of hours I was ready to step back into the hot (40c) sun to warm up a bit.

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The campsite begins to wind down just after sunset. There may be a small campfire or two on the beach if it’s not too windy and travelers are generally welcomed to join in whatever discussions, music or even dancing that might be happening. Some folks just sit and enjoy the warm night breezes, the chorus of forest frogs and insects, and the gentle rumble of the surf. During our last night at La Ticla we chose to sit quietly and take it all in. We heard that there would be some sort of festival in the village but we weren’t prepared for the loud, raucous music that ensued and lasted until well after midnight. At least the music was speedy and hot so we assumed that a good time was had by the locals.

We continued south on Hwy 200 which wove its way between ocean vistas and narrow winding sections that skirted river valleys, clinging to cliffs and ledges in places. Large trees overhung the roads and some branches hung low enough to do serious damage to the top of the trailer. We did lose a couple of plastic parts but mostly I was able to save what was left of our air conditioner, which had previously met its Waterloo passing under a hidden overhead steel pipe.     “Ah, Mexico!”

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We stopped for a snack and coffee at a roadside cantina with a view of the coastline. It was quite obviously a family run business as we were served by a young girl of about 14 years old.

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She presented us with the menu, then went for the orange juice and coffee that we ordered. There was a number of siblings, each appearing to have some part in the operation and all flew into action at our entrance. The mamacita barked curt instructions in rapid fire Spanish and somewhere in the back we could hear gram ma grumbling about something or other. We all ordered an omelet which caused some consternation in the kitchen whereupon a girl of perhaps 12 was immediately dispatched to buy extra eggs, we surmised. While we waited we took the opportunity to marvel at the view and we were entertained by Junior, a boy of maybe 4 or 5 years old who babbled away to us, informing us, we thought, of all the family secrets including those of his mama, papa, older sisters, younger brothers, aunts, uncles, (uncle Jose drove a big truck, we deciphered) and who was otherwise occupied with the close inspection of our RVs, the lady’s purses, our cameras and everything else that caught his eye.

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A younger brother lurked nearby but obviously had less seniority and frowned a lot.

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A few chickens wandered about and we cautioned them to make themselves scarce before lunch time.  Eventually a mighty breakfast was produced with many smiles from the sisters and from mama, the cook. Coffee was refilled, toast kept coming and in the end we paid them the bill of about $10 dollars and gave mama a tip of about the same. She was a hard worker and we saw she had many mouths to feed.

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There were many times throughout our travels in Mexico where we were reminded of our luck and good fortune on being Canadian and when we tried to help with what little we could offer it was always received with a friendly smile and a word of thanks. At times we felt like aliens making our way through a foreign land, riding shining white horses on some kind of pilgrimage to warmth. In reality, that was it in a nutshell.

One revelation that I had, somewhere along the way was that if we were to do another foray into Mexico it would not be in a shining white truck with a glowing white trailer with grizzly bear decals tacked on the sides. Although it may have been viewed as an object of desire by some Mexicans, I believe it was also likely viewed by others as a perfectly legitimate target. We had only to put it and ourselves in the right location at the right time and trouble would most certainly find us, post haste. Traveling with a large dog, in our case a German Shepherd, did offer some protection form the curious, but we felt that any criminal with premeditated intent would likely be well armed and would dispatch anything or anyone who got between him and his intent. As in other countries, firearms are generally prohibited and especially when carried by touristas, but likewise desperate persons of malcontent care not about such rules and there may be, per capita,  more of those persons in Mexico than in other countries.

Eventually we arrived at Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa where we made our way to an RV park on the beach at the north end of the community.  Originally, Zihuatanejo was a small port with a relatively sheltered harbor, making it an ideal place for the Spanish to establish a fort. Now, during winter months the harbor fills with cabin cruisers and sailboats from around the world.

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More recently, with the construction of an international airport, the area has become a tourist destination with a full compliment of restaurants, trinket shops and other facilities although without any docking suitable for cruise ships the town is relatively free of the swarms and throngs usually disgorged by the big boats.

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As with most coastal communities there is a small fleet of local fishing boats and these were pulled up and secured in the harbor. We did see larger shrimp trawlers further north, in the gulf where the ocean depth is relatively shallow, but along this coast the shelf is narrow with depths ranging down to 4000 m at 75 kms offshore.

Subsequently, the government has established a sister community, Ixtapa, which consists of many resort hotels strung out along about 5 kilometers of beachfront to the north.  At the end of the four lane divided boulevard there is a well developed RV park, constructed in 2006-7. With the recent downturn in RV tourism there were only about a dozen sites occupied out of the 100 or so available spaces. Many of the facilities were not available and I noticed that although there was a wonderful outdoor kitchen complete with full commercial appliances it had never been used. The wrapping was still on the stove, causing the salt air to erode the steel surfaces. There was a fully equipped laundromat but the attendant told us that it simply was not available. The park was run by a couple of teenagers who didn’t do much more than collect the fees and chat on the computer in the office. The place was literally falling to pieces. “Ah, Mexico!”

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We stayed for a few nights and two of our party came down with what we believed to be the H1N1 virus. (we found out later that it had been prevalent in the area just prior to our arrival) The other two of the party had some sort of intestinal distress so the four of us were not in great spirits throughout our stay. With daytime temperatures reaching into the mid-40s centigrade even the dog fainted. Although we had vaguely though we might try to make it as far south as Acapulco we decided that perhaps it might be best to head for higher and cooler ground. It took a few more days for us all to get back to normal whereupon we started up into the mountains to the small town of Patzcuaro, home to a variety of local crafts people.

Next up: The Long Road Home

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