It was hot here in Puerto Vallarta, really hot and steamy as a Chinese pork bao. Then hurricane Nora brought torrents of water, rain, thunder and lightning. We were tied down tight and got by with no damage, but we witnessed two sailboats that did not fare with as much luck. In front of our very eyes we watched as both boat’s anchor lines apparently severed or dragged and after being tossed around like a wash cloth on the final spin cycle ended up on the beach…one after a brutal and continual battering on a rock jetty before it laid over and died. By morning, the 36 ft sloop was stripped of all stainless steel, water maker, sails and any other equipment that might bring a peso or two or on the black market and was lying on its side, mostly submerged, in the shallow, murky post hurricane waters. It’s hard to express how it felt to see that boat knowing, like us, only yesterday it was someone’s home and most likely someone’s chariot of dreams of adventure on the high seas. We watched with an eerie sadness as it gave way to nature’s boxing match and the TKO suited up in 80 mile per hour winds.
It was time to get outta town. The weather was oppressive, Samsara was safe and secure but it was too early in the season to venture into the Sea of Cortez, our next destination, as we await the borders of French Polynesia to open to cruisers’ traffic. So, we rented a car at $43.00/day including insurance and unlimited miles, and mapped out a 3139 km route into the interior mountains of Mexico that would satisfy both of our interests: the prolific ancient ruins of Meso America, the arts and crafts of central Mexico and the diverse indigenous cuisine from each of the different regions! We set aside 21 days, packed our gear including our foldable bicycles (which we used once in Mexico City where, right off the bat, I crashed into a metal gate leading with my left cheekbone) and tons of clothes we never even wore, let alone unpacked! We learned a good lesson about how little one really needs on a trip into a land where the cost of having our laundry done averages $4.00 US, and not even the nicest restaurants required anything more than our tennis shoes, t-shirts and shorts. Many people told us we were crazy and warned that our plans could even be dangerous, but we chose to listen to those who offered tales of a similar adventure and lived to tell about it.
After being here in coastal Mexico for nearly a year now, it feels familiar. So, delving into parts unknown felt like sitting at a sumptuous 10 course tasting menu of what we had not yet discovered inland. In Mexico, there are towns or villages that are designated as “Pueblo Magicos”. In order to gain such status and the government funding that comes along with it, the locations must have a population of at least 5000, be in relatively easy reach of a city and must commit to honoring the “magical” qualities of each destination by preserving the original architecture (including the traditional colors of the buildings), unique traditions ( such as mural painting), history and local culture ( crafts, cuisine, etc). There are 121 such Pueblo Magicos, a some of which we had visited already on our sailing excursions, but we were excited to add a few more to our log that are accessible only by land.
We began our trip steering our well-worn Nissan X-Trail toward our first stop: Teochitlan a small village south of the town of Tequila. Teochitlan is home to the ancient ruins of Los Guachimontones, unique for their round pyramids. Our hotel, Hacienda Labor de Rivera, about 20 minutes outside the town, was far more magical than the town of Tequila. A 500 year old hacienda turned hotel accessed by a long and very muddy road, this amazing property sits on hundreds of acres of land with gardens and stables and even a building that previously served as a school for the children of the workers. Equally intriguing as the gorgeous setting, was the fascinating history of “El Patron” ( the big boss) from early last century whose corrupt and murderous ways was a sordid tale made for the big screen. It was documented that a man in the surrounding town which housed many of the haciendas work force, had made “El Patron” jealous. In retaliation, el patron brutally shot everyone who lived in the village but worked at his Hacienda. The hacienda even had its own currency, minted by the boss, that was used to pay the workers and had to be used by them in the tiendas and mercados, also owned by el patron. We were entranced by the beautiful property… and its creepy history. And, as the hotel’s only guests, were very well attended to by the large and lovely staff.
From the Hacienda Labor de Rivera, we ventured out on an obligatory pilgrimage to the town of Tequila to do some tasting and get educated in the art and process of distilling Tequila! We found the town actually slightly overrated and very crowded, but a designated Pueblo Magico that we got to add to our list! On the road into town from our hotel, we were stunned by the gorgeous countryside with endless fields of blue agave, corn and sugar cane.
Next, we traveled to the town of Ajijic, also a Pueblo Magico, on the banks of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in all of Mexico, with a maximum depth of only 35 ft! This little town came highly recommended by many (we found ourselves scratching our heads as to why) and is populated by a sizeable number of American and Canadian ex pats. Our hotel there was relatively new, only 4 rooms with tall thatched roofs tucked behind a wooden gate off a nondescript side street and looked and felt like we were living in a set out of Swiss Family Robinson! While it was obvious that Covid had thwarted some of the “magico” of the area, two nights in Ajijic and we were ready to move on.
Next stop, historic Guanajuato! Yep, you guessed, it another “Pueblo Magico” and an UNESCO world heritage site, too. Surrounded by beautiful hills, Guanajuato is a city maze with streets so incredibly narrow that they make the cobblestone streets in the 6th Arrondisement of Paris
(San Germain) feel like freeways. In fact, one of the city’s claims to fame is that they have the narrowest street in the world, so narrow in fact the upper floors of the balconies on either side of the street almost touch! Its name is El Callejon del Beso (the alley of the kiss) and it is rumored that if a couple kisses on the third step of the alleyway, they are sure to experience 15 years of bliss. A kiss on any other step is said to bring sadness and heartache to the lovers. The lore is that an irate father once caught his young daughter kissing a boy on exactly that step and subsequently beat him to death. His spirit, apparently remains very much alive and is rumored to overlook and protect any such young lovers from similar harm. We decided we did not need any more marital bliss, so we avoided the tourist spot. But we did enjoy the city’s incredible small cafes, spectacular colonial buildings, and noted an abundance of young residents. In fact, I nick named it the city of love in my mind because it seemed everywhere we went, we saw young 20 something’s walking the narrow streets hand in hand, or staring lustily and longingly into each other eyes at some outdoor café, hands stretched out across the table as their fingers caressed, or couples head to head whispering privately and quietly to each other in the corner of some museum, an occasional sweet giggle bubbling over. It was lovely and we felt old, but enchanted. The average age of the city’s population is quite young because of the high percentage of college students. We loved our hotel in the city, too! Casa del Rector is a totally refurbished early 19th century boutique hotel that once was the home of the rector of the local cathedral. It was majestic with high beamed ceilings, old stone floors, rooftop bar, sculpture garden, and lovely attentive staff. We had some interesting meals in Guanajuato, visited the museum that was the family home of Diego Rivera and moved on to San Miguel de Allende where it was our turn to fall in love.
We expected to be smitten, which can be dangerous because disappointment looms large sometimes when expectations are so high. However, SMA (also a Pueblo Magico) did not disappoint in any way. And like falling in love, our senses were continuously rapturous in this quant, charming, beautiful, artistic village we had heard so much about for so many years. Founded in 1542 by a Franciscan monk, we spent hours walking the city’s cobblestone streets, with smiles on our faces….even kept track of our “steps” on our iphons for the first time in our lives. The well preserved Spanish colonial architecture, the elevated food scene, the history, the people, the peace, the vibe, the harmony. It’s almost indescribable! There’s just a feeling coupled with a feast for one’s eyes that makes SMA totally unequivocally magical. Our hotel was new (well old, restored to new), modern and equipped with all the luxurious amenities you might expect to find in any cool US hotel, like nice linens, good shampoo and soap, and soft pillows… even though we spent little time with our heads on them. The city center location made walking to and from completely enjoyable and a seemingly new adventure each day. Making our time there all the more mystical, one of our days was spent at the archeological ruins about 20 miles outside of town: Canada de la Virgen. It was the kind of excursion that made Jeff deliriously happy, and me calculating how many hours looking at art and shopping I was racking up to even the score. SMA lived up to every travel guide’s boastful verbiage, and we left thirsty for more but on a schedule. Hard to leave…very hard to leave, especially when our next stop was the bustling, hustling, enormous, and slightly foreboding….Mexico City.
Before we set out from SMA, I said to Jeff that we needed to be aware that we were about to leave a sort of Mexican paradise an land in a place potentially equally as interesting, but not as calm. I suggested that adjusting to city life after the peace and quiet of SMA might take some serious mindfullness so that we could really take in what the city offered. And, by god, it did! We were not within the city’s limits more than 5 minutes when we were flagged down by a motorcycle cop who informed us, in Spanglish, that our rental car had a license plate that prohibited us from being on the freeway on Saturdays and Thursdays! It was Saturday…. After plenty of banter between Jeff and the cop, it became clear we were being extorted. I have to hand it to Jeff, I was ready to just pay the f-ing 400.00 US he was demanding and go about our way, but Jeff talked the cop down to 150.00 and all the threats of “impounding our car” and taking us “down to the station” melted away as the cop put our 150.00 greenbacks in his pant’s pocket and off we both went. So corrupt and not the most welcoming experience. We had been warned a lot….to be careful in Mexico City. We thought that meant watch your wallet and your purse on the streets, don’t ever leave anything in your hotel room and double check your receipts at restaurants and stores, etc. We, naively, did not expect to get robbed by the local police.
With that behind us, we forged on to our hotel where we stayed in the lovely, treed neighborhood of La Condessa, a chic area with an abundance of green parks, small cafes, boutiques and lots of bike riders and dog walkers. We, unfortunately, did not get to visit the many museums on our wish list, especially the Frida Khalo Musem, either due to Covid closings, limited access, or just because it’s Mexico and that’s the way things go. We settled in for our time there and noticed how really different people who live in such a large city occupied predominantly by Mexicans of Spanish descent were from our previous stops in the more rural villages of the mountains of Mexico. The impact of the Spanish conquistadors’ invasion was apparent in the features of the more European like faces in the city. In general, the people were taller, the women were beautiful and very modern. In fact, the contestants for the Miss Mexico pageant were staying at our hotel and they were stunning! We ate at a highly recommended Polish restaurant (go figure), took a deep dive into street food, which we had avoided up until then for obvious reasons, and visited the fascinating ancient ruins at Teotihaucan in the hands of a highly knowledgeable and likeable guide named Enrique, who confided in us that he was abandoned by his parents at 14, went to work for the cartel smuggling cocaine in his pant legs, then turned his life around by using his drug money to attend college, funding not one, but 3 degrees: law, computer science and archeology! The site of the ruins was fascinating….even I thought so…made more so by the insights of Enrique. We really lucked out.
All in all, we wrung out as much fun as possible in one of the worlds most populated cities and were not regretful to move on. In fact we were totally jazzed to leave because, ahead, was another much anticipated stop, Oaxaca, a mecca of artisans specializing in everything from food (dozens of different types of mouth watering moles), to beautiful hand thrown ceramics (the intricately carved jet black is most typical), to hand loomed textiles ( gorgeous wool rugs of every size and color, dyed by hand with extracts from local plants and fungi), to colorful hand embroidered fabrics(made into pillows, table runners, or bedspreads), to meticulously and colorfully hand painted wooden “spirit animals” whose imagery is rumored to be evoked by the hallucinations that result from ingesting peyote and other mind expanding local plants.
Set amidst impressive lush green mountains about 7000 ft high, Oacaxa was heaven. Our hotel was stunning and chic and if it were plopped down in the hippest areas in New York or LA, would not have looked out of place. We paid about 75.00/night and had an amazing gourmet 8 course dinner for 40.00 US.
Much like San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca (also a Pueblo Magico) did not disappoint. In fact, I could have cried when we left. The small town surrounded by beautiful lush green mountains was quaint, the architecture original and meticulously maintained, the temperature just cool enough to feel divinely comfortable. The majority of the inhabitants still live simple family centric lives, the streets and town square are incessantly busy with locals selling crafts or manning street food stations, essentially mobile kitchens hitched to bicycles planted on nearly every corner of the town offering tacos, empanadas, charred corn, tamales, or tyludas (local quesadillas). It reminded us of Bali. In both places, it seems like everyone is engaged in doing something creative, and almost everyone appeared muy contento. We ate at Criollo (our most expensive meal of the trip), where the owner is the most Michelin starred chef in al of Mexico and owner of the renowned restaurant, Pujol, in Mexico City. It was good, but honestly, we fell in love with our dinners and lunches in smaller cafes that, in the end, were not much more than 35.00 US. Outside of Oaxaca we visited the ruins at Monte Alban. Some of the oldest and most impressive and grandest ruins in all of Meso America. Our guide, Mario, was a wealth of meticulous information and his lengthy and thorough descriptions of the site afforded all the time in the world for the local mosquitos to feast of our legs to their hearts content. Even now, weeks later, I am still itching!
Our rental car contract was for 3 weeks. So, hesitantly, we left our Mexican Valhalla and made the long trek to another Pueblo Magico, Cholula, site of the largest pre-hispanic pyramid…oh, and did I mention that the Spanish conquistadors, in their garish tendency to display their dominance over the ancient meso American people built an enormous cathedral right on top of the pyramid? Hard not to view it as a big Cortes “F you”! Cholula ( a Pueblo Magico) was a very colorful town of 2-3 story buildings with cafes and coffee shops, but other than the charm of the myriad of colored buildings, it was not really hard to bid adieu.
One more stop in Morelia, and then were on the road back to Puerto Vallarta and our floating home base. Located in the state of Michoacan, Morelia is laden with large, heavy, overbearing colonial government looking architecture. It is a city and a state pretty much run by the drug cartel we were told. The streets were buzzing with people coming and going and tacky touristy “artisans” markets. We ran across few, if any Americans. It was here we saw our first homeless tents pitched right on the concrete streets of the city square. For us, Morelia was an overnight stop to break up the remaining part of our trip back. We tried to find the charm, but it was difficult when every other car on the street was a truck with 6 stern looking men dressed in camo with helmets riding in the back holding machine guns. The best thing about our less than 24 hrs in Morelia was our hotel room! Again, it was a super cool, brand new hotel in a 500 year old building, under 100.00/night. Our room was bigger than the entire square footage of Samsara, with décor straight out of Architectural Digest. And….not for the first time on our trip, we were the hotel’s only guests!
After a dinner of sauteed local trout and chiles en nogada ( a local dish of chiles stuffed with ground meats and topped with a walnut based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, served cold), we braved the throngs of people out and about and headed back to our hotel. We woke up with a long 8 hour drive back to PV ahead of us.
We made the best of the final leg of our journey by finishing up an audible book, Apples Never Fall, by Lianne Moriarty of Dirty little Lies fame, and by making a midday lunch stop in yet another Pueblo Magico, Mascota, about 3 hrs outside PV. If we were not listening to an audible book, we often listened to music downloaded on our phones while traveling the back roads of central Mexico. To avoid any arguments about what to listen to, I put myself in charge and I simply started with songs in my musical library whose titles began with an A…then B…then C, etc. We heard everything from Ylang Ylang play “Ave Maria”, his musical piano notes so astonishingly expressive and eloquent like feathers falling from the heavens; to Yo Yo Ma interpreting the solemn music of Appalachian folksongs on his cello; to Eric Clapton singing “Don’t think Twice”, a tribute to Bob Dylan; to Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, singing impeccable and often hilarious harmonies; to lots of Latin sambas and cumbias. Between music and the book, we ate up our time between stops and relished having the undivided attention to just listen.
1950 miles later, we were at our marina unloading our gear from our rental car, which held up surprisingly well against the numerous, enormous potholes and speed bumps we encountered everywhere, very ready to sleep in our own bed aboard Samsara (also a Pueblo Magico) as the sea surge gently rocked our weary heads and bodies to sleep after our long drive. Home intact and with our hearts full of new memories (and a just a few souvenirs) from an adventure that few could replicate.
Viva Mexico! Where people love to sweep ( even city streets), paint colorful murals on buildingswear hats, drink coca cola, love their dogs, routinely walk long distances, wear clothes that are mismatched, love their kids, talk to their dead relatives, are kind, helpful, hardworking, trustworthy, eager to please, love to sing and play guitars, and who are content with the duality of existence, something I think people with many more material comforts cannot come to grips with, and a recurring lesson in my own life as I have traveled from Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, to Turkey’s enchanting Istanbul, to the remote and pastoral country villages of Columbia and Ecuador, to the various white sand islands of the Caribbean, to the banks of the desolate Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, to the wondrous cities in old Europe, to the streets of Manhattan and Los Angeles, to the remote hill tribe villages deep in the jungle of Thailand, to the smog filled cities of China, to the palm tree lined beaches and islands of Tahiti and Tonga and to parts beyond still yet to be experienced. Needless to say, I am grateful for my life.