A Bump in the Road – Steering our Way Through Michoacán

So far, we have been pretty lucky with our automotive woes. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a well-placed bungee cord or a handy welder. But now we have a problem that just might stop us in our tracks. Or rather, keep us from turning along our tracks. We hit a significant pothole.

The sun was at that perfect low angle to obscure the gaping hole spanning the entirety of the road until it was too late to ease into it gently. We slammed it hard. I know that correlation is not causation but it was shortly thereafter that The Joan started to moan her way around the corners. We were heading up a narrow winding road that connects tiny mountain towns in rural Michoacán. With every turn she grew louder. I excavated the owner’s manual from under my seat as we drove. Of course, we were yet again racing the sunset which added to the tension of the evening. As The Joan’s moan turned into a roar I read aloud from the power steering section of the manual. It didn’t go any further in depth than how to read the dip stick and what fluid to use. We were headed for the tiny mountain town of Angahuan. As luck would have it, there was an automotive fluid store right at the crossroads entering town. We roared slowly into the driveway of the shop and checked our fluid while the local young leaders of tomorrow lit off firecrackers unsettlingly close to our feet. We were only a smidge low. But low is low so we bought a bottle of the requisite Automatic Transmission Fluid and gave her a wee sip hoping that quenching her thirst would shush her. We thought that maybe it had helped. Maybe a little. It had been getting harder and harder to get the wheel to turn.  Did the fluid help? It was hard to tell. We wove our way through the impossibly narrow streets of Angahuan until we arrived at a restaurant that was closed but had a nice big parking lot. They let us stay the night for $70 pesos. We roared our way to the back of the lot and set up camp hoping that the additional fluid would find its way into the appropriate nooks and crannies in the night and we would wake up to a perfectly functioning truck. 

The night was not restful. An unintelligible drone of announcements went on until at least 2:00 am. Neighborhood dogs did their best to add to the aharmonic caterwaul. The announcement drone started up again around 5:00 am this time accompanied by the ubiquitous roosters. We finally found auditory relief when the youth group camping adjacent to us commenced their morning teambuilding activity of dancing to the macarena which they played at deafening decibel levels. We macarena-ed our way through morning coffee and packed up camp listening to emphatic lectures (in Spanish, of course) on the dangers of drugs, sex and junk food. We checked The Joan’s fluid levels before starting her up. She was still a bit thirsty so we added a couple more tablespoons of ATF and hoped for the best. She hadn’t stopped moaning with every turn. There was nothing we could do for her in that tiny town so we opted to think about it later and spend the here and now time on seeing the sights. 

Angahuan’s largest attraction is a volcano that sprouted up in the 1940s. Over the span of a decade, the rolling farmland was transformed into a steaming cinder cone looming about 1200 ft over the surrounding countryside. The volcano slowly poured lava out over the town until it covered everything except the tallest towers of the local church. These days the peak still steams in the distance and the remains of the church are a tourist attraction. We chose to eschew the rental ponies and hike out to the church. Along the way we noticed bits of bark scraped away from the pine trees at their bases with cups to catch the sap. My first thought was that they were going to let the bark beetles in but I know nothing about forestry practices in Mexico and made a mental note to google it when we had service again. Apparently, resin production is big business in the area. Most of the information I found pertained to the battle between the indigenous resin harvesters and the cartels who forcefully redirect the truckloads of resin on their way to one processing plant (who already paid for the truckload of resin) in favor of a cartel-controlled plant. Civil rights lawyers got involved and put pressure on US companies purchasing the resin to avoid buying from plants known to be supplied by the cartels. I still don’t know if bark beetles are a problem in Mexico’s forests but I learned that resin theft is no longer big business.

Almost every tree had a collection cup at its base.
This man was freshening the cuts in the tree bark.

 Anyhow, back to our hike. As we approached the church we were waylaid by the slap-slapping of handmade blue corn tortillas. We couldn’t help but stop for a snack. We almost had seconds but decided to hike on a lighter stomach and return later to fill up on delicious tacos. Since we were saving our pesos by not hiring a guide we took a while to find the trail out to the church. We scrambled over the jagged lava rocks in the general direction of the prominent tower until we happened on the trail. Then the going was much easier. There were actually two sections of the church surviving. The bell tower (sans bell) and an altar at the opposite end that was lavishly decorated with banners, flowers and candles. It was an interesting sight but our minds were still on those blue corn tortillas. 

Mmmmmm tortillas…
The highest part of the church surrounded in sharp lava.
This is the altar at the back of the church. It is obviously still greatly cared for.

We hastily made our way back to the food stalls and decided to spread the wealth and check out a different stall. I got a chili relleno and Scott got some bean tacos. We also tried some of the salsa made from nopales (prickly pear cactus leaves). The best part was the array of items on the table for us to add to our meals. A paper plate held a pile of salt. Also, some sliced limes. A basket held a bottomless supply of fresh handmade tortillas. A large stone bowl held a roasted pepper salsa that tasted heavenly. Then there was the big bowl of ripe avocados with a knife for slicing. What???? All the avocado you could hope for at no extra charge?!?!?! All of that food plus a beer for each of us and we owed only $150 pesos. That is about $7.50 USD. Honestly, we were tempted to spend another night amidst the auditory cacophony for second chance at that food. So good! 

Buen provecho.

Once we returned to The Joan and saw that she had burped up most of the fluid we had added and heard her moan we knew we needed to get to a town with internet service and/or mechanics to figure out our steering problem. Uruapan, here we come!

After consulting with the iOverlander app, we settled on staying at a waterfall just south of Uruapan. It was a strange place to camp. They advertised camping on their billboard but there wasn’t a designated camping area that we could see. We settled on a mostly-level parking place at the far end of the parking lot. It was a bit of a tourist destination with a hiking trail down 500 and some odd stairs to a waterfall. Alternatively, we could have taken a pony or a zipline to the bottom. We walked because I am both frugal and afraid of riding horses. At the bottom of the fall we met a guy form southern California whose uncle is in charge of the water in the waterfall. He told us more than we wanted to know about those falls.  Apparently, the main fall is the effluent from the city of Uruapan. The minor side falls that flow out of the basalt are comprised of clean groundwater. Due to the thunderous input of urban water, the base of the falls looks like a foamy bubble-bath.  To take in the view from the bottom of the falls is to be coated in a fine mist of urban filth. Poop soup. Gross. We did not linger. 

Sometimes ignorance is bliss…

Back at camp, after the attraction closed for the night, we were left mostly alone. We spent our time consulting the various search engines for a fix for our steering problem. We decided that it was a strong possibility that the filter screen in the power steering fluid reservoir was clogged. Maybe our close encounter with the pothole had jostled some particulate loose and choked up the system explaining why she sounded like she was out of fluid despite being full of fluid. The waterfall parking lot was okay for the night but the vibe wasn’t right for full on truck maintenance. Plus, the bathrooms were $5 pesos a visit. Couple that with the chatty toothless guy who mourned the fact that God didn’t see fit to bless us with a truckload of children while making kissy faces at me when he thought Scott’s back was turned. It was a bit much. We moved on.

We stopped at the AutoZone to pick up some supplies to clean out our power steering fluid reservoir and headed north of town to secure some more expensive, yet more tranquil camping in the parking lot of a beautiful hotel called Pie de la Sierra (foot of the mountain?).

Scott jumped right into removing the reservoir form the power steering pump so that we (he) could give it a good bath. It was a disgusting process comprised of emptying the reservoir of fluid with a nifty hand pump from the AutoZone, sharing intimate space with The Joan’s greasy nuts and bolts, and catching the drippings of fluid that escaped our earnest hand pumping efforts. The reservoir got a good washing with brake cleaner and we were delighted to see the quantity of black filth pouring out. This was boding well for our supposition of The Joan’s steering problem. Once Scott’s ministrations with brake cleaner had become less productive we called it done, put everything back from whence it came, poured in fresh fluid, and took her for a spin in the driveway of the hotel. She sounded better. Was she easier to turn? Not really. Belatedly, we consulted with Scott’s brother, Dan. He kindly let us know that we were doing it wrong and likely needed a new pump and maybe a rack too. Note to selves: Call Dan sooner. Nevertheless, we crossed our fingers, washed our hands, cracked a beer and hoped for a morning miracle.  Maybe if she got a rest for the night the clean fluid would find its way into the appropriate nooks and crannies in the night and we would wake up to a perfectly functioning truck. 

Scott getting to the bottom of things.

That morning miracle came in the form of a mechanic shop dedicated to steering located only a couple of miles from our camp. We didn’t have high expectations as it was New Year’s Eve. Our limited Spanish makes phone conversations difficult so we muscled our slightly quieter truck over to Master Steering to see about getting an appointment. We were trying to describe our painstaking labors to fix our steering when the owner politely shushed us and asked for the keys. He started The Joan, looked into the reservoir (presumably saw no activity), and said we needed a new power steering pump. He told us he could fix it for $1800 pesos. We looked at each other and did the math. At first, we did the math wrong and thought he wanted $900 USD.  We knew there was a chance they would see a gringo coming and take us for a ride. Then we checked our math and realized that he had quoted $90ish USD. That’s better! When we asked for an appointment he said right now. He showed us to the waiting room offered us beer and snacks (which we politely declined much to Scotts disappointment). For the hour it took for the mechanics to replace our faulty pump with a refurbished pump we made small talk with the owner of the shop and his daughter. She was born in Las Angeles and was happy to act as a translator. We told them about how we were camping our way down to Argentina and the places we had stayed so far in their town. When we told them about staying at the waterfall they told us about a spot that was much cleaner and more beautiful. When I pulled out my phone to mark it on the map and they told us that we could not go there. We had too many things (muchas, muchas cosas) with us to go there. They were genuinely worried about us driving around with so many things. He told us not to drive anywhere alone and offered us the safety of his backyard in which to camp in but we were prepaid at the hotel parking lot already and felt safe there. Shortly, the truck was fixed and we were saying our goodbyes. He gave us his personal cell phone number in case we needed any help while we were in the area. I usually don’t like going to mechanic shops but this was a genuine treat. Plus, The Joan finally quit complaining when we turned the wheel!

Having our automotive woes out of the way, we were free to continue exploring Mexico. Our next stop was a big one on Scott’s bucket list. Paracho, here we come! Paracho is not just another tiny mountain town. It is a tiny mountain town known for its plethora of luthiers. The streets are lined with shops devoted to guitars in one way or another. Many are luthier showrooms, some are workshops, and there are even tiny guitar-specific lumber stores. I especially enjoyed the aroma of the lumber stores. Maybe we were looking especially Canadian that day because the guy in the wood store was really keen to show us all of the Canadian cedar in his shop. The guitars produced in Paracho vary greatly in quality. Some come from factories that are kicking out around 1500 guitars a week and some come from artisans who are working for months on single pieces. Most of the guitars we saw were turn and burn mass production pieces. Apparently, if you want to see the truly high-end pieces you have to make an appointment. Since we weren’t really in the market to buy a guitar it seemed like a waste of the artisan’s time. We chose to just see what there was to see without interrupting anyone’s day. One thing we saw was a bazillion Coco themed guitars. The animated movie featured a guitar designed by a luthier with roots in Paracho and ever since the town has been besieged by Coco-mania. They even redecorated the giant bronze guitar that welcomes you to Paracho in the Coco’s signature white style. It was fun to wander the streets hearing people strum away on guitars as we passed by their doorways. 

No mystery what this town is about!
Street scene in Paracho.
So many different kinds of stringed instruments!

We were also delighted to find a really good cup of coffee for sale. A young man with an espresso machine had set up shop in a narrow alley. We drank our americanos out of ceramic cups! This is a special treat for us as we only brought stainless steel insulated travel cups on the road with us. For two people who have made more than their fair share of ceramic cups in this world to be exclusively sipping from stainless is bizarre.  

Our alley coffee!

Aside from all of the fabulous guitars I was really impressed with the fabric shops. Many of the indigenous women in Michoacán wore their traditional dresses. Their skirts were long pleated iridescent constructions topped with a bright and lacey apron. They would pair that with a vibrant silky blouse. The fabrics were so ornate I wondered where they found them. Now I know. Of course, the fabric shop on the corner. It was a sensory treat to wander among the bolts of fabric and see all of the options the women had before them to make such beautiful clothes. The men were boring dressers.  

No shortage of colors to choose from.
Beautiful ribbons and needlepoint patterns.

Paracho was only a day trip for us and we headed back to our parking lot camp site in Uruapan. It was only a half hour away and we left with plenty of time to be back at camp before nightfall. Or so we thought. Traffic was completely stopped on the highway. It didn’t take long for us to attract the attention of other bored motorists and we had ample opportunity to practice our Spanish while we waited for traffic to start moving. One of the people we chatted with had gotten a call from a friend stuck in the same traffic but closer to the source of the hold up. Apparently, we were waiting for the remnants of taxi vs. semi-trailer to be cleared from the road. That combination is never good. We said a prayer for those involved and patiently waited our turn to pass by. 

We made it back to Uruapan with time to spare. Unfortunately, that time was spent getting our oil changed. I’m not a fan of vehicular maintenance. It is a good thing Scott has taken charge of that realm of our trip. We found a tiny shop on the side of the road to do the deed. With the exception of the work being performed on a piece of cardboard in the sole parking space allotted to them it felt like a shop we would find in small-town California. Complete with dusty outdated calendars and four mounted deer heads on the wall.  The guy at the shop was shy about a half a quart and offered to top it off with a different weight of oil. We told him we would take care of that and paid our bill. It amounted to about $35 USD. Not bad, even considering we needed to supplement the oil. Now that The Joan was properly lubricated and turning corners without a peep we were free to head off on our next great adventure! 

Inside the oil change shop.

But that is a story for next time…

5 Replies to “A Bump in the Road – Steering our Way Through Michoacán”

  1. I admire your perspective and perseverance. I’ve found that a bit of adversity can make for the most memorable stories. And you still had a good poke around while dealing with a challenging situation. Kudos. Cheers to a grand adventure. Stay safe and keep on keeping on.

      1. Good Morning Rach,
        You guys are the best role models for how to travel well, have fun, be in love, be respectful, be curious and then to so elequently and engagingly share it with us!!!! Thank you!
        And Wow, the Monarchs. So happy for you. Hugs

  2. Sounds like you got a bargain on the power steering pump , I just paid $181– for a Starter on Helga‘s car , and I had to install it. Glad you were able to get rolling again. Stay safe and keep having fun !

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