Some of Our Favourite Mexican Cities

at the Tropic of Cancer between Real de Catorce & Zacatecas

Our first stop after Real de Catorce was Zacatecas – capitol city of the state with the same name.  It’s not a small town and getting into it was a little hectic, so we were happy when we found a parking spot right away.  We only walked a few hundred steps before finding our next hotel, which provided a huge room, wifi, was close to the main square and offered secured parking for the motos right in the lobby.

When we were in Real de Catorce, our Mexican friends helped us with a bit of Spanish.  One of the many lessons was with the word ‘chingon’ which they said means very good and ‘chingado’, which is not good at all.  We watched a few football matches with them one evening and heard a lot of ‘chingado’ / ‘chingon’ at missed opportunities or successful plays.  We also happened to run into another gal from Monterrey while grocery shopping, and she invited us out to a local bar that she described (in a raunchy, cigarette-laced voice) as “chingon, ha ha ha!” I had my suspicions about this word…

When we arrived at our hotel in Zacatecas, the quiet, polite, and very proper manager, Arturo, gave us the okay to park our bikes in the hotel’s inner courtyard.  We moved them back and forth, back and forth to squeeze them between the potted palms and stone fountain without breaking anything (okay, Jordan did this – those bikes are heavy!).  Once in, Arturo asked if we were okay with the placement.  Jordan responded with  “Es chingon!”.  Arturo’s dead-pan face confirmed my suspicions… Jordan had effectively told the nice man that the parking spot was ‘fucking awesome!’.  Sorry my husband is so foul-mouthed, Arturo…

Parking at Hotel Soledad, Zacatecas

We loved Wendy’s Tacqueria (NOT to be confused with the hamburger place) so much we visited it twice, we roamed in and out of the various buildings in the city’s center, Plaza de Aramas to find a fabulous mural dedicated to the history of the area, we popped our heads into the Zacatecas Cathedral, and (confession) enjoyed some Starbucks Coffee – more than once.

We liked Zacatecas.  It is built into a gorge, surrounded by hills, so the streets are winding, steep and very narrow. And, it was a ‘real city’, it wasn’t touristy – well, no gringos, anyway – and whether Jordan was personally thanked for visiting the city by a complete stranger, or I was pointed at by a toddler jumping up and down (we presumed at my ‘white hair’) to the chagrin of his father, we really felt like Zacatecas liked us, too.

streets of Zacatecas

Plaza de Aramas

Sculpture homage to the silver miners - Zacatecas

After a couple of days in Zacatecas, we pushed on to San Miquel de Allende (SMA).  A few days prior, Jordan connected with a fellow rider who has apartments in the city who was able to rent a gorgeous suite to us for 4 days.  Getting into SMA was easy enough, but according to our maps there were 2 streets with a very similar name – Las Moras or simply Moras? the apartment we were renting was on one of those streets.

SMA's Zocalo

We parked near the centre square as we usually do, but this time, we had to get a hold of Geoffrey so we could confirm the address.  If you recall a few posts back… we are running without a cell phone.  First, we bought a phone card… but we couldn’t figure out how to use it (30 pesos lost), so we stood suspiciously near bakeries and coffee shops trying to get some free wifi to make a Skype call or send & wait for email.  30 more minutes of standing around in full riding suits, and we we were sorted… now, if we could only navigate through the steep, unnamed streets to the correct address.  Our first move was down a one-way, the wrong way, around the zocalo in front of the Cathedral to a barricade and down a pedestrian street.  While people watched and rolled their eyes, we simply got off our bikes, moved the gate, drove through, got of our bikes again, and closed it behind us, just another example why traveling by motorbike is the way to go.  15 minutes later we arrived 5 minutes away from our starting point.

typical central street - San Miguel de Allende

Men creating decorative stone work for buildings BY HAND

The stress was completely worth it.  The apartment was fabulous – all of the floor-to-ceiling doors and windows opened to the street, the terrace or the courtyard, which was dominated by a 20 ft palm tree.  Laundry facilities were outside close to the drying line, and a hammock was the icing on Jordan’s cake.  We settled in very quickly and wondered out loud about living there.  Did I mention the apartment is for sale?

We got to know the central zones of SMA quite well (it’s also a UNESCO site due to its role in Mexican Independence & preservation of its colonial architecture).  One evening, we met up for beer & Texas BBQ with a group of American & British ex-pats (& fellow riders) who now live in SMA and have formed the Motoclassico motorbike club.  We listened diligently and took notes on some good rides in the area.  When we casually bumped into one of those riders on the street a few days later, we felt like we were part of the town.  It was time to move on.

Cheers, San Miguel

Our ride from SMA to Tula (de Allende) was unforgettable even if the town of Tula was.  As instructed by the riders we met in SMA, we chose tertiary roads for most of the ride, cutting through mountain passes and numerous villages along the way.  It was a long ride as we missed some key turn-offs more than once, and riding through small towns always adds time, but we didn’t care too much about that.  We also found the best roadside sandwich ever – chorizo grilled over charcoal and then smashed before joining peppers and salsa between a heated bun.  And, even as I write this 3 weeks later, we haven’t found better.  It was a fantastic day in the saddle.

Carnitas "el coyotito": great chorizo tortas!

As we neared Tula, the road started to deteriorate and we could see road construction was underway, though the road looked fine and no workers were present.  We’d heard of the variety of road blocks that may be used in Latin America (tires, rocks, barrels – anything handy), and now we were witness to it.  Before us was an entire road randomly laced with large rocks so to say “don’t drive here”.  All traffic was forced to ride along the small, bumpy shoulders.  But, because we hate traffic (who doesn’t), we were hot, and (most significantly) we were on bikes, we chose to ride through the rocks and get ahead of the traffic.  Not only did it improve our efficiency, it was a fun obstacle course!

All was going well until the mass amount of topes that followed (toe-pays: giant speed bumps whose purpose is to slow traffic) and the accompanying ‘reverse’ topes – deep, diagonal troughs across the entire width of dirt road which we can only imagine was to assist in drainage.  Picture it; cars, in both directions had to approach these reverse topes at an angle opposite to the trough – in this case; toward each other.  So, all traffic, including us on our bikes was very much slowed.  Grrrrrrrrr.

Our tracks: through the rocks. Driving (for others) restricted to the left of the rocks

The city of Tula de Allende doesn’t have much on offer, but it has a really great authentic french bakery (the baker studied in France & Jordan had a long conversation with him in French), a single, super yummy taco shop (possibly better than Wendy’s), and the town is 10 a minute walk from some very cool Toltec Ruins.   The ruins are also noteworthy for the fact that they inspired the book ‘Chariots of the Gods’, which claims aliens came to earth and helped the Toltecs and other ancient cultures with their technology.  The ‘proof’ the author points to is the item some of the statues appear to be holding.  Apparently (I have not read the book and have no plans of doing so) the author identifies these items as possibly being ‘ray guns’.  Not sure if I buy it… check out the photo and judge for yourself.

So, is it a ray gun?

Look closely: a snake eating a man

Toltec Ruins at Tula

For sale on the streets of Tula: these chicks are REAL and ALIVE! poor things...

The roads took us from Tula to Tlaxcala, capitol of its state and a very pretty town.  It was the launching off spot to our trip to Izta-Popo National Park (see our previous post:  Volcanoes and Dirt Roads).  After Tlaxcala & the volcanoes we landed in ‘magical’ Tepoztlan with more hiking on our minds.

After parking to look for a hotel, Jordan spotted a guy across the street wearing MEC hiking boots – yes, a dead giveaway that he was a fellow Canadian.  We thought we’d take a short cut to finding a place and simply ask him where he was staying.  Plus, its always nice to start up a conversation.  Only a few minutes passed before he told us his unbelievable story about riding on MEX180 north of Veracruz.  He was riding in a rented Volvo with his wife and young son on a toll highway (everyone says they’re safer but we avoid them), when another truck would pass them, slow down and look, pass them again, slow down again, until they rode beside them showing off a their assault rifle!  One shot was fired, and the truck cut them off and blocked the highway.  He and their son ducked down while his wife (driving the Volvo) punched it, steered around the truck and outran them (she sounds amazing!).  They arrived safely, and shaken at their destination where they decided to lay low for a week.  Crazy shit!  He wasn’t trying to frighten us, or even warn us… it’s just such a crazy story, we think he needed to tell someone (who spoke English).

The town of Tepoztlan

Tepoztlan is really charming, home to an impressive Dominican Convent-turned-museum (free entry), one of the largest markets in the Mexico City area, & and a humble, though very pretty Cathedral.

Pretty Cathedral

…but we were there for Tepozteco, the Aztec Pyramid built high upon a hill, protected by jungle and surrounding mountains and waterfalls. We were in the mountains during the rainy season, and it rained a lot, however, was a small break in the weather, so we walked up the street from our hotel to the trail head.  The climb is up a steep, natural staircase of rock that crosses over and through numerous streams on its way up.  It is sheltered by jungle – good when it is hot and sunny.  As we gained altitude and walked into the clouds and mist, we were completely, happily soaking wet (though it was wet, it was still jungle hot and I turn red at any level of exercise… (my red face was likely alarming to all the tan-skinned people that surrounded me).

600m staircase of stone

jungle protection for the pyramid

Tepozteco

Jordan on the edge, as usual

600 meters later, we approached the Aztec-era jungle pyramid deprived of hand rails or other form of public safety.  We stood on top of the pyramid in the clouds and rain and watched others pose for photos on the slim edge of pyramid after climbing up drinking the regional alcoholic delicacy (a giant cup of beer w/ chili in it).

We raced down so we could have ‘nachos & marguerites’ at a local restaurant.  Guys, this is only something that exists at resort towns, Tex-Mex restaurants, and in our living rooms.  Both were completely awful.  We’ll stick to ‘chili-laced beer & tacos” – which were among the excellent street food we had in Tepotzlan.

Chili-Beer & popcorn

Somehow, leaving Tepoztlan, we ended up on a toll highway.  Though they are straight and fast, they avoid miss the area’s charm and tend to be expensive. In most countries with toll roads, motorbikes are treated as a two-fer.  In Canadian National parks, up to six motorbikes can get in on one paid ticket – that’s fair.  In Mexico, however, each bike pays the same cost as a car.  We wondered if we held a stick between us and pretended to be a convertible, would they change their minds?

Well, at least this rode to Cuernavaca was an easy one…only 19km, the shortest day of the entire trip, so far.  In no time, we were at the main plaza staring at a giant sculpture of Emiliano Zapata, Revolutionary War hero for the State of Morelos while a bus load of Mexican tourists stared at us securing our motos.

We loved Cuernavaca and, we’re not the only ones.  Moctezuma I built his summer home here and, once the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, Hernan Cortes built his summer home here after being given the town of Cuernavaca as a gift from Spain ‘for a job well done’.

The city has a large foreign student population as well as 16 local Universities.  You know what that means?  Yes – great coffee shops abound in Cuernavaca!  Like the cobbler’s shoe-less children, Mexicans do not enjoy good coffee even though they are a major coffee exporter, we’ve been missing good-tasting coffee since August 18th.  The best we found in Cuernavaca was at the excellent, though unfortunately named, Gringo Cafe (so called because the owner is from Seattle).  He also roasts his own coffee on site… they saw quite a bit of Jordan & Sandra.

mmmmmm coffee.....

The city hosts one of the best museums we’ve seen on this trip through Mexico.  The museum is located in the Cortes’ Palace, built in 1530 (a spectacle in its own right).  Unfortunately, we arrived only 1 hour before closing and the following day was Tuesday (world-wide Museum closure day?), so we  zipped through the museum, which tells the history of the state of Morelos from its prehistoric formation to modern day, and focused on the last 100 years.  The highlight was the impressive Diego Rivera mural; a depiction of the history of Cuernavaca from the time of Spanish conquest to the Mexican Revolution in 1910. We made sure we had enough time to study the massive mural and the museum staff were very kind and let us stay a little longer to admire it.

The extent of the Diego mural

Indigenous people forced to build the Cathedral while their conquistadors watch over

We spent a great deal of time in and around the Cuernavaca Cathedral – built on order by Cortes just 10 years after the Aztec conquest and subsequent conversion to Christianity.  Apparently, the Spanish did not feel secure that their new Aztec ‘converts’ wouldn’t rebel, so they built the church within a fort.  In the 1960s, extensive renovations took place inside the cathedral which resulted in what we’ve read described as ‘an alter that could be featured in DWELL Magazine’.  The alter is stark, and modern, to be sure, and offers a beautiful contrast to the ancient, 17th century mural uncovered during that renovation.  It is probably our favorite cathedral in all of Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter.

skull & crossbones are the coat of arms for the Franciscans

inside the grounds of the fort

modern alter

ancient walls

For some reason, we also spent at least 30 minutes watching a group of toddlers experience day 1 at swimming classes – held at an outdoor park.  Like all of these scenes the world over, 20% of the kids loved it and were born to swim, 60% were indifferent, but obedient, and 20% screamed their heads off without stopping even once. We couldn’t walk away!  Would the ones who were screaming and sobbing (whose parents were forced to leave them there) see the others having fun and join in and stop crying?  (no, they would not).

Their “coach”, a 60-something year old man, would literally push the children into the pool if they wouldn’t go in on their own.  Okay, not ‘push’, but take them by their arm, pick them up and dangle them over the water, then drop them in!  If they’d float to the side of the pool for safety, he’d push them away from the sides with a long stick, reminding them to kick their legs.   We could tell he loved them, but man he was a hard ass!  I felt so bad for the scared ones – I was one of them at 4 years old.  But I’m okay and I’m sure they will be too.

swimming lessons

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