We are home… back in the USA. But that doesn’t mean the blog is finished. Quite the contrary. I have lots of posts to go up from the last two weeks in Mexico. We drove so much and had wifi so little that the blog had to wait, but some of the best stuff is yet to come. I wrote it mostly as it happened so its still present or recent past tense. Hopefully you are still with us. If not no worries. There will be a few post mortem posts too, but back to the story. I think this is one of the better, albeit way too long, and colorful, posts. I tried to tone down the swearing a bit but it just didn’t sound right. It sort of betrayed the emotion of the moments, so if you are offended, sorry, sort of.
Popocatepetl Volcano from the Puebla side
Today was the worst day of the trip… No the van didn’t break down and we didn’t run out of gas on the side of the road. Natalie didn’t run off with some swooning Mexican suitor tsssst, tsssting at her from the steps of a passing doorway. We didn’t hit anything with the van or break off anymore parts. We got lost. We got lost at least twice depending on your definition of lost, maybe 5 times. We haven’t really been lost yet. We’ve made a few wrong turns and gone out searching for something that wasn’t there but for the most part we’ve had an idea where we were going and how to get there. Usually we know where we are and where we need to get to, but getting on the highway or cuota is the tricky part, that happened today too.
We left Puebla and headed for Taxco early in the afternoon with plenty of time to make the three and a half hour drive by nightfall. A seemingly simple day that starts on one side of the volcano and ends in the mountains on the other side. It all started when I missed the turn for Cuautla and ended up heading south on a toll road. We exited and found ourselves on rural roads paralleling the highway but not finding any on ramps. After more than an hour of never-ending 10-tope villages (albeit with some pretty churches) we found an illegal dirt road entrance, prayed for no federales and four-wheeled it onto the toll road – high fives, back on track. Right as we merged off of the shoulder and on to the highway a Green Angel came passing by, we held our breath that he wouldn’t care about our foray. He passed, unimpressed with our exploits. Three minutes later a swoon of state police came firing down the highway behind us, sirens blaring and lights blazing. Damn, that Green Angel called the real cops on us – we are going to jail. Mexican jail. Not white collar, 3 squares, movie watching, get ripped while working out seven hours a day American jail; but rather the don’t drop the soap, hope you live from the multiple stabbings, come out a serious drug-smuggling criminal cartel member – Mexican jail. Either that or this was going to be a really expensive bribe, the kind of mordida with a really expensive phone call home for a loan that will take the rest of my life, should I survive, to work off.
Random billboard of a steer
And then they drove right by us, apparently they have better things to do than ruin the lives of two gringo tourists that have a bad habit of making their own ramps and exits from the toll roads. High fives all around.
The new toll road towards Cuautla is one of the best roads we were on the whole trip. Smooth, fast, empty. High fives for new roads. For an hour. It seems that the closer you get to the Distro Federal the worse the signage gets. El D.F. itself is part of the problem, it is a source of endless confusion for gringo tourists. We know it as Mexico City and if you ask a Mexican denizen of the capital in English where they are from, they will tell you Mexico City. Straight forward so far, right? Except none of the signs in the country are for Mexico City, nor are they for Distro Federal or el D.F. as it is most commonly referred to by Mexicans in Spanish, the signs are simply for Mexico. To make matters worse there is a State of Mexico in the Country of Mexico, in which Mexico City, which is signed as only as Mexico does not reside in said state. If you understood that sentence the first time than maybe you are smarter than me and could figure it out, but for us the simple word Mexico on a road sign potentially has many, many meanings that may or may not help you actually drive in the right direction.
For the most part Mexico is easy to navigate, pretty uniformly designed, constructed and predictable. Cuautla does not fit into those categories. As you roll into town there about twenty signs for exits to roads that according to said signs all go to the same place, but as soon as you exit you realize that none of these really go where you want and none of them match the map. The map itself is part of the problem. It shows two major highways towards Cuernavaca. One, more direct to the south and another toll road that goes considerably out of the way, both are symbolized as divided federal or state highways. We chose the southern direct (free [libre]) route that did not appear to wind and curve its way into the mountains and back down again. Usually when you have a libre and a cuota the choice and the navigation is rather direct, do you want to go to this town by paying a toll or not? There is no sign for the libre to Cuernavaca in Cuautla. After no less than two hours and seven retornos (such a better word for u-turn) we found ourselves in Cuautla centro in a hour long traffic jam around an overturned car in the main glorieta. Luckily the traffic was creeping slow enough that we spied the smallest road sign ever, tucked neatly behind an overgrown bougainvillea, obviously discarded as unnecessary after having obviously been the victim of some drivers’ foray onto the sidewalk – it pointed to, wait for it, Cuernavaca. Holy shit! Back on track again, I was starting to think we were going to spend the night in a Walmart or Pemex parking lot. Slightly less exuberant high fives all around.
Save your high fives for someone who gives a fuck. This is the worst road ever. Copious unmarked topes (speed bumps) lead to never ending stop lights through winding, curving, streets that share a distinct resemblance to a major divided highway only in the respect that it is divided. Trusty Mexico road atlas has let us down in a big way. In fact, the word street is a stretch, much less “highway”. Street would imply that there is some sort of drivable surface. And by drivable I’m not being picky or specific: dirt track, cobblestones, graded gravel, concrete, pavement, whatevs. This thing looked liked a war zone. Some sort of IED is the only explanation for potholes the size of fish-bearing ponds surrounded by fragments of asphalt, concrete, rebar and whatever other debris that litters path in front of you with such reckless abandon that I seriously considered getting out, locking the hubs and going 4X4 – urban assault style. I would have but the whole almost getting arrested once today kept me on the proverbial, but by no means literal, straight and narrow. There is a brief instant where the road opens up a bit, traffic dies down and I hit 55 mph, savoring the open road and relaxing the tension from my white knuckle death grip. This is a trap. I should have known. As I snake around the blind corner blissfully enjoying my new found freedom I smack into a tope at full speed, no last minute brake slams, no dodging half my tires to one side to lessen the impact. Nope, full speed ahead, direct hit. And this isn’t one of those longer, friendlier topes that more launches us out of control in to a terrifying 9000 lb flight but one of the smaller, sharper, less round mounds of asphalt that shakes the core of La Bestia when we hit it at a more manageable, brake skidding 15 mph. The collision is tremendous, I think I would have rather hit a brick wall, testing the push bar and deer mower on the front. At least the bricks would have sustained some collateral damage too and I could point and sneer like some redneck, over-compensating my shortcomings with the size and power of my truck. But no, the tope was just fine. Amazingly the van survives as well, at least mechanically and structurally. The contents of the van are now strewn about every possible nick and cranny, and of course we are immediately stopped and searched at a military checkpoint, our casita viajera looking like we are some slovenly, nomadic, vagabond, hoarders. Incredibly no neck braces necessary either. This 60 kilometer nightmare lasts roughly two hours but eventually leads to Cuernavaca, where it is now rush hour – awesome. But also where an unmissable, giant, green and white sign gleams for the Acapulco-Taxco Cuota. We’re back, again. Half hearted high fives.
Popocatepetl from the Cuernavaca side
Rush hour turns out to not be so bad, and we are coasting towards Taxco in no time. Wide open toll road finally twisting and winding away from the volcano, our ever present reminder of just how far we have not gone in all this time. By now we are exhausted, cranky, and slightly less enchanted with Mexico than we were just the day before. But the smooth, silky cruise has us soaking in the audio book adventures of Nick Twist and trying to calm down. Calming successful. So successful that I completely airmail the turn off from the Acapulco-Taxco cuota to the Taxco-only cuota. In my defense, there was very little warning and the last minute maneuver to make the ramp would have tested the outer limits of the van’s top-heavy aerodynamics. And there is, of course, no exits or retornos for 12 kilometers. 24 kilometers and another 26 minutes later and the crisis is adverted, Taxco or bust, with bust a likely, but rapidly diminishing scenario. With the realization that we may need to conserve every last drop of remaining energy to survive, we abandon the actual extension our fingers for a high five and resort to the weakest, most un-celebratory fist bump of all time.
I’m pretty sure the cuota into Taxco is a tourist trap. It essentially parallels the libre for 80% of its 60 kilometers with very few villages and thus little to no topes along the way. It is almost like the libre is teasing you along the way, entirely visible with traffic moving along at the same clip, and numerous chances to exit the cuota, seriously, you should exit dummy, no, ok we’ll take a little more money at the next booth and then give you another chance. Any other day we would have gotten off and saved the cash, I have no clue how much it was but it didn’t matter, the home stretch.
Descending into Taxco is amazing, the hillside city, all black and white with red tile roofs, has this cohesiveness that we haven’t seen anywhere else in Mexico. It seems that there was actually some urban planning and some zoning laws. Planning a long, long, time ago. Planning at a time much before the descendants of Henry Ford imagined a behemoth e350 and well before someone lifted that e350 into the beast that it is; and certainly before I added a two-bicycle rack that extends the total length past 18 ft. There are no campgrounds in Taxco, but there are a bunch of hotels and frankly at this point the thought of setting up even the smallest of camps is wretched. Natalie has marked a selection of hotels that sound decent, have parking, and are in our shrinking price range. We decide on one near the central zocalo. The instant we saw the turn up the mountain we knew it was the wrong choice, but the days’ events have exhausted our ability to make any sort of intelligent utterance much less a decision. Taxco is a maze of impossibly narrow, incredibly steep, switch back cobblestone paths that are overrun with Volkswagen Beetle taxis and scooters swerving around seemingly unmake-able corners at speeds only legal on the Autobahn. About half way up the street a bug comes barreling down at us, realizing its not going to win this game of chicken it reverses its way up the hill to the intersection to let us pass. We stop, waiting for the path to clear. Meanwhile a scooter has come from below and is about 10″ from the vans’s bumper, I come off the brake to the accelerator to follow the retreating bug up the hill and she stalls, sending us drifting backwards into the scooter. I’m pretty sure he honked in an effort to salvage the life flashing before his un-helmeted eyes but what could I do? I managed to stop our momentum with the e-brake and he continued honking wanting us to get the hell out of the way. Not wanting to kill him and him being unwilling to back down the hill even a few meters I signal for him to pass. This takes a solid 5 minutes as he has to lift the scooter over the concrete steps that flank the van’s tires because it isn’t wide enough for both to fit, actually its not wide enough for us to fully open our doors to yell at the guy. Finally he gets by, La Bestia roars back to life and we are climbing, climbing to an intersection with a transit cop directing traffic down the one-way street we had intended to turn on, directing traffic in the opposite direction than the direction the street actually goes in. We ask him how to get to our chosen destination, he says go left down the hill back to the main street, circle back two more streets and start your ascent again.
Abort. Abort. You have derailed. No way in hell is that happening. So we turn back down the hill, full white-flag surrender to a hotel with a gaping archway and plenty of flat, open parking. We check in, its a decent hotel with hot showers and a small living room with a balcony and a fantastic view. We test the bed and decide that once again we will be sleeping in the van. We watch the end of the college football national championship game , an experience that is rather surreal considering we know nothing about either Auburn or Oregon and the play by play in Spanish is a bit beyond us. We shower and hike up the hill to town in search of some street tacos and adult beverages. High fives are definitely in order over some delicious al pastor and Victorias: three and half hours turned into nine.