Scratching the Surface of Mainland Mexico

Our ride on Baja Ferries ended much as it began. With Scott and I taking the role of last people to check out of the cabins and last truck off our parking level and even last passenger trolley to leave the ferry terminal. We are nothing if not consistent. The free plastic-wrapped pastry and wee little cup of coffee provided on the boat had barely taken the edge off of our morning needs. The promise of a big plate of breakfast and a frou-frou cup of coffee lured us to the waterfront malecon in Mazatlán. With all of our needs met we wasted no time getting out of town. Actually, we did have some navigational difficulty and we wasted only a little time getting out of town. 

The Baja Ferry getting ready for landfall.
Oh, what a feeling!

Our senses took some time to habituate to this new world we were driving through. It is really strange to wake up to an entirely different world than the one you went to sleep in. We had been communing with cacti for weeks and suddenly we were surrounded in lush green blooming countryside. The sudden change emphasized that we were in for so many more changes in our future. Although we had transitioned over to the mainland of Mexico we were not quite ready to let go of our beach life so we headed down the coast to find some prime beach camping. I had a couple of spots picked out for us to check. I probably should have done my homework a little better. The further south from Mazatlán we got, the more torn up the landscape began to look. Mango orchards were missing most of their branches, buildings were missing their roofs, and palm trees were lying on their sides. It was not until we were face to face with this huge destruction that we remembered back to when Hurricane Willa visited Mexico. Our families reached out to us to make sure we were not in harms way. At that time, we were safe and sound hugging cacti and snorkeling with starfish. We saw that the storm was going to hit somewhere on the mainland. Well, a short visit with the internet told us that we were driving through the exact place that Willa made landfall. Knowing this, it was not a surprise that the first campground we were hoping to stay at was very closed. They seemed to be so overwhelmed with the amount of work that they had in front of them to repair the damage they wouldn’t even entertain the idea of just letting us stay in their yard. We headed even further south in search of a place to stay. We were really hoping that the search wouldn’t take too long as we were driving through Sinaloa, a state in Mexico that the US State Department has classified a “Level 4 Do Not Travel” state. We definitely wanted to be ensconced in a safe campsite before nightfall. The other places we visited were beach restaurants where they would let you camp if you purchased a meal from them. Well, Willa took out all of those restaurants. There were brightly painted posts reaching out of the sand to hold up a palapa roof that was no longer there. Having exhausted all of the options listed in iOverlander, we just drove the beach looking for a place that reminded us of our not so far removed boondocking days in Baja. We ended up out on a point where a river entered the ocean. It was beautiful and had a sweeping view of the town of Teacapan in the distance. We almost stayed there. Then we remembered two basic rules of the road. Don’t camp alone. Don’t camp in sight of the road. We usually camp alone but almost never in view of passersby. This spot was in full view of the town yet very isolated. A truckload of gringos might be very tempting to someone who just lost everything in a hurricane. So, we decided to cruise into town and check to see if it had anything to offer us. It was obviously once very cute. Not so much now. A racoon we can only assume died in the hurricane dangled from a tree at the entrance to town. We took a lap down the main drag without much luck until we spied a sign that advertised rooms for rent at an Eco Hotel. Only $390 pesos. The sign looked flimsy enough that it had to be recent as it would have been blown away by the hurricane. The Eco Hotel ended up being our home sweet home for our first night on the mainland. It smelled strongly of paint and mold. The Wi-Fi was only good for frustration. We ate some of my mom’s homemade granola for dinner and slept the sleep of the asphyxiated. The next morning, we had the whole place to ourselves as the proprietors left to visit family shortly after we arrived. We took full advantage and had a leisurely morning sipping the coffee that we made in the fresh air of the open-air dining room of their restaurant. Eventually we had to leave as we do our best not to drive at night and we had about five hours ahead of us to get to our next destination.  We breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief as we exited the Level 4 “Do Not Travel” state of Sinaloa and entered the Level 2 “Exercise Increased Caution” state of Nayarit. Most of the time on the mainland major cities are connected by both a toll road “Cuota” and a free road “Libre.” The Libre will invariably add time to your drive but it will also add interest. We chose the Libre and were rewarded with roadside tamales de camarón (shrimp tamales) for only $10 pesos each. I got two! Scott was kind enough to allow me to enjoy this gastronomic treat without even a hint of vegan condescension. I dug right in and was swooning at the delicious flavor of the masa. A tad disappointed when I got a bit of tail in my mouth. Super disappointed when I realized that all of the shrimp in the tamales were whole. Heads, legs, tails, shells, poop veins and everything. Eating whole crustaceans is not my bag. I scraped all of the critter out of the tamale, threw it out the window, and resumed swooning at the delicious flavor of the masa. The rest of our roadside stops were devoted to buying fresh fruits and vegetables. Hopefully free of surprises inside.   

The innocent (looking) tamales de camarónes…
The do not pass solid line in the road was over a foot wide.

With about 15 minutes of daylight to spare we arrived at the hippie beach resort town of Sayulita. It felt like we were on a vacation… from our vacation. We secured a slot at a the most expensive campground of our whole trip. Totally worth it.  We had an ocean view, flush toilets and hot showers. Plus, a gazillion delicious dining choices at our fingertips. After setting up the tent atop The Joan we walked into town and found a delicious falafel restaurant that even had the word vegan printed on the menu. Scott has been such a good sport these past couple months in Mexico wading through a sea of beans. Delicious, yet rife with potentially dubious animal ingredients. It was time for him to get some vegan redemption.  We both ordered large vegan falafel burritos. So delicious. While we were eating a parade happened by. Parades, we are finding, are quite common in Mexico. We were still in the days leading up to Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe. This meant many parades were to be had and many explosives were to be exploded. The first twelve days of December are punctuated at dawn (pre-dawn) and dusk by massive explosions in honor of Guadalupe. Explosions like fire crackers on steroids. Heart-stopping explosions. And many of them.

Sayulita in the night.

While in Sayulita we actually went running for the first time in a long time. It was hot and humid but it felt good to get the blood pumping. We ran up and down all of the steepest streets the town had to offer followed by a tumble in the ocean. Our entrances and exits from the ocean were not graceful by any means. The waves saw to it that we left with swimsuits full of sand. It was fun. I’m fairly confident that being force-fed ocean water (a little too close to the city runoff “river”) through the nose left us both with a touch of gastric funk. Live and learn.

Our other highlight from our days in Sayulita was seeing the baby sea turtle. We had caught the tail end of turtle birthing season. The first to hatch out of a nest that had been harvested from the beach and relocated to the sanctuary grounds was ready to go out to sea while we were there. The rest of its nest mates were likely to follow the next evening as they hadn’t surfaced from the sand yet. This little guy had a bum flipper so his fate might not be to dominate the open ocean but it was great to see him head out into the waves. It was quite a sight. About a dozen people were crowded around cheering him on as he got tumbled by the waves we knew so well. 

Lefty heading out to sea!

Our budget dictated that we escape Sayulita and its inflated gringo prices after about four days. Yet we weren’t quite done with the beach. So, we headed about twenty minutes north to the town of Lo de Marco.  This was a decisively less polished town. The RV park was nicer and less expensive (although not by much) and the restaurants were not catering to gringo tourists so the food was more affordable (although likely less vegan). On the north side of town, a tall hill looked down on us beckoning us to come and visit. I made the mistake of sampling my first ever torta de birria (spicy goat stew sandwich) before the hike. It was served with a bowl of pickled hot chili puree for garnish which I liberally applied to my torta. I was so very full. It was painful. Scott had vegetables (most likely sautéed in butter) wrapped in tortillas. He was not in pain. The hike started off zig zagging through farm fields. We had to brave a horde of attack geese and one overzealous puppy before beginning our assent of the hill. We ran into a Canadian snowbird out for a walk mentally preparing for his upcoming poetry reading. He gave us some tips on finding the right trail to the top of the hill and let us know to look out for some petroglyphs protected by fences. Good tips. Most of the hike was on a steep dirt road but we did eventually get on a narrow trail. Scott, ever the gentleman, took the lead and thus a face-full of spiderwebs. I kept taking breaks under the guise of photographing beautiful bugs but really, I just needed a moment to breathe around my belly full of torta de birria. When we reached the top, it looked like there was some surveying going on. White strings were staked all around and the forest was full of the sound of machetes hard at work. We followed some freshly macheted trails and were rewarded by a beautiful view of the whole of Lo de Marco as well as the beaches to the north. By the time we made it back to town I was still whining about my torta de birria. 

Peaceful Lo de Marco.
Oh, beach life. Why are you so alluring?
Mexicans make the best color choices!
Mesquite bugs are real show stoppers in their nymph stage.
The view from the top of the hill in Lo De Marco.

Finally, it was time to leave the beach. Kind of. We were weaning ourselves off of beach life by visiting a lake inside the crater of an old volcano. It was only a couple hour’s drive to Laguna de Santa Maria del Oro. It was at the lake that I met my new favorite bird. The chachalaca! Really, I just love it for the name. It is closely related to the turkey and hangs out in trees making a huge ruckus. So fun. There was an ever-revolving suite of interesting neighbors there. We especially enjoyed Merry and Chuck from Oregon as they regaled us with tales from their many years of travels in Mexico. Also, Lourdes, who was both vivacious and full if tips on where to go to see beautiful sights and avoid ending up in “Narco Land.” We always appreciate getting a local’s perspective! While we were there we took advantage of the kayak rentals and paddled around the lake. On the weekends it is a real hopping location. The lakefront restaurants had music blaring and grills smoking. One restaurant had a bit of conflicting entertainment. They had super loud ranchero music on the loudspeakers and a guy going from table to table playing the harmonica for tips. The funny part was that he was playing his harmonica into a bullhorn to be heard over the music. I don’t know how the diners felt about it but we got a laugh. 

The transition from beach life to inland life was going smoothly.
Glamour shot of The Joan as we leave Laguna de Santa Maria del Oro.

After a few days of relaxation at the lake we were finally ready to head for dry ground. Tequila! We rolled into town with about a half hour of light to spare looking for a place to sleep for the night. The spot we were hoping to stay, which was really just glorified street parking by someone’s workshop where you could use their facilities for $100 pesos a night didn’t work out as there was nobody around and the shop was locked up. Truth be told I wasn’t too fired up at the prospect of sleeping on the street in the back of the truck. Tequila is a pretty kinetic town and I knew that peaceful slumber was out of the question on that street. There are no campgrounds in Tequila so we ended up at a lovely little hotel very close to downtown. It was a budget buster at $35 USD a night but for only two nights we couldn’t resist! 

The exclamation point is implied…
Many of the distillery tours involved riding around in a truck shaped like a tequila bottle or barrel!
Twilight in Tequila!

We went on two different distillery tours while we were there. First, we went to La Cofradia which was recommended by my guide book as a boutique distillery with beautiful grounds. We were not disappointed. My favorite part of the tour was their barrel “cave” which was built above ground without removing any of the trees on the site. There are live tree trunks extending though the building and providing shade to help keep it cool. The pottery studio was a treat as well. They make all of their own ceramic bottles on site so we got to see people producing the bottles and hand painting the ornate decorations. Also, we got to taste the product at its many stages on its way to becoming tequila. We sampled steamed agave that tasted like stringy yams, tequila from the vat at 50-something percent alcohol (eye burning strong), fresh tequila at 40 proof, reposado (rested) tequila, and the añejo which had spent over a year in a whisky barrel and was thus delicious. The grounds were quite beautiful and just in case we had not sampled enough tequila, the tour ended with a delicious margarita in their cantina.

Ever want to sleep in a barrel? They look a bit too closed off for my mildly claustrophobic taste!
Agave piñas waiting to be transformed into tequila!
Through that door is the kitchen at La Cofradia Distillery.

After visiting La Corfadia we walked across town to see what it would take to get a tour of the Fortaleza Distillery. Our friend Steve, who we met in Baja, strongly recommended touring Fortaleza. We knocked on the door to inquire about a tour and after proving that we knew how to ask for a tour in Spanish, were lucky enough to get our names on the list for the next day at 11:00 am.  When we arrived the next day, they told us that they had bad news. We thought that perhaps the tour was cancelled but they said that it was only in Spanish and offered us a slot on the 4:00 pm tour in English. We had to be in Guadalajara by 6:00 pm to check into our Airbnb so that wasn’t going to work. We decided to go on the Spanish tour and maybe learn some new words. It ended up being quite the epic tour. We joined two brothers from California and a group of mezcal producers from Oaxaca. The brothers from California were great about translating for us if we were missing anything important or funny. That was awesome. The group from Oaxaca brought some of their mezcal to sample as well so we got a very diverse experience for our palettes. We got to see the agave processing area, the barrel room, the agave fields and ended the tour in a cave enjoying an unusual and unexpected visit from one of the owners. The two-hour tour was edging close to five hours and everyone was making plans to go out to dinner together but we needed to get going so we had to sneak away or we were never going to get to Guadalajara!

Waiting patiently at Fortaleza…
The first of many tastings at Fortaleza.
Looking up at the tower that we could not help but climb.
The proper vessel for sipping tequila is a champagne flute. Who knew?
A visit from one of the owners where he let us know all of his favorite places to eat in town. We had already visited every one of his recommendations! Great minds!

We had reserved an AirBnB in the outskirts of Guadalajara for the week surrounding the Christmas holiday. We wanted to make sure that we would be somewhere with reliable internet so that we could be sure to be in touch with our families of the holidays. Also, I had a ton of low budget Christmas movies (my favorite genre) to get through on the Netflix. It was a perfect little place for us and had secure parking for The Joan Wilder. We really enjoyed the treat of being able to unpack for a spell and live the easy life where the kitchen doesn’t have to be put together to make some soup, coffee drips out of a machine, hot showers and flushing toilets were guaranteed, and a soft bed is available for mid-afternoon naps. It was a Christmas gift to ourselves. It even had a washer and dryer! We also took advantage of the restaurants in the area. Indian food! Twice! On Christmas day we video chatted or phone chatted with our families in the morning. Then we were left to our own devices to celebrate the holiday. On a whim I looked up the Lucha Libre wrestling schedule and lo and behold there was a match scheduled for that evening! What a perfect antidote to the twinges of homesickness we were fighting! The arena is in a sketchy neighborhood so we took an Uber there. Our driver was quite a character! He told us all about his trip to California to play a gig when he was in a band. He played some of his band’s music for us and did his best to share the history and rules of Lucha Libre with us. We absorbed about 30% of what he wanted us to know and we all left the ride smiling (we’re good tippers- especially on Christmas!). The Lucha Libre match was off the hook. The wrestlers could be better described as scary acrobats! It did all seem a bit scripted at times as the wrestlers prepared themselves to be flung or body slammed but there were other moments that looked genuinely off the cuff. Occasionally a wrestler would end up ass over tea kettle in the crowd. Beer was thrown. The crowd in the cheap seats taunted the crowd in the expensive seats and vice versa. Geriatric luchadores did their best to keep up with their teammates but honestly, I was a bit worried about their backs! The whole event lasted about two hours and was followed by a rousing game of limbo set to live drumming outside the arena doors. Our Uber driver on the way home was markedly less charismatic, but got us there safely. I guess that is what matters most. We were back home to our place in time to fit in one more Netflix Christmas movie…

Our home sweet home in Guadalajara.
Do you think we had enough lights on our tree?
As students of automotive security we were very interested in this tactic.
A rare moment of stillness for the hero of the night, Diamante Azul!

The final highlight of our time in Guadalajara was finding a guitar to replace the one that was stolen in Baja. Scott did some research and settled on an instrument that might not fit all of his parameters for a perfect road trip guitar but fit enough to be the right one for right now. Scott was toying with the idea of getting an electric guitar because he really only needs it for recording. I was lobbying hard for something that would sound pretty around a campfire. The day after Christmas we welcomed a Fender acoustic electric guitar into our lives. Scott is enjoying getting to know the ins and outs of the new guitar and I am enjoying getting to hear him play again.  

2 Replies to “Scratching the Surface of Mainland Mexico”

  1. Alan and I first visited Sayulita over thirty years ago when it was just a sleepy fishing village, then watched as it developed into a resort. Rachel, your writing is so entertaining and you are beautifully photogenic. Your happiness on the road with Scott is palpable!

    1. Well, there is nothing sleepy about Sayulita now! We truly are so happy with our lives on the road. Such a blessing we have given ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *