Colima: Langostino in the sierras
“Everything about Colima smacks of the sea or the sierra,” I said appreciatively, gazing from the balcony of travel-writer Susan Dearing’s condominium. The sun rose like a great gold marigold above the city of Manzanillo, Mexico. During the past five days, Rose and Josh (two of my teens) and myself enjoyed our week’s vacation stay on the Santiago Peninsula just north of the downtown commercial port. Swimming, snorkeling, boat trips and visiting ships, playing beach volleyball, dining out, dancing at the small city’s hot spots absorbed our first attentions. Today’s sight of the distant volcanoes in the voluptuous Sierra Madre beckoned the adventurer within.
“How would you and the kids like go visit the sierras today?” Susan asked, joining me on the balcony.
“You must be a mind reader! I was hoping for a visit to the mountains sometime.” I answered.
Susan added, “Sometimes I just need to take a day off. I write guide books about the natural wonders of Colima and then get too busy to enjoy them!”
”Isn’t that the truth! I live in the beautiful wilderness of British Columbia. At home I need reminding sometimes to tear away from routines and get outdoors too!”
“Besides,” Susan suggested, “I know this little restaurant up in the mountains that serves the finest seafood around.”
I questioned her logic, “You’ve got to be kidding! Good fresh seafood in the sierras? “
“That’s right! I’ve lived in Manzanillo for nine years and the restaurant in Camotlan is just the best. Actually the owner used to have a restaurant here in Manzanillo but he had to move.”
“Every place to eat or visit that you’ve recommended has been first rate. So, count us in! Is this place in your guidebook too?”
“Sure it is, along with many of my other favorite spots. You know. Like lakes, waterfalls, colonial cities, missions, archeological sites and, naturally, the volcanoes.”
Susan didn't need to say another word. I was hooked! Manzanillo is famous for the large numbers of fish caught and the valuable prizes given away in the International Sports fishing tournaments held annually since 1954. Icelandic ancestry passes fish catching genes along my family line, but to me “Gone Fishing” means ‘catching’ a fine seafood restaurant!
Susan’s sun-tanned face crinkled into a smile, “You and the kids can pile into the back of my Ford Econoline. It’s not that comfortable but it’ll get us where we want to go. First we’ll pick up my scuba-diving amigos, Vernon and Sid, at the Las Hadas Marina; then we’ll head up into the mountains for the afternoon.”
“O.K. I’ll pack the cooler and tell the kids it’s time to get ready.”
As one of Manzanillo’s few self-employed women Susan rarely takes a day off. During years of visiting Mexico, Susan fell in love with the land and its people. Eleven years ago she moved to Puerto Vallarta from the U.S.A., to open a scuba diving business. Two years later she re-located to Manzanillo to start Underworld Scuba. Today she’d have to trust her long-time amigo, Navarro Gonzalo Aguire, to take care of her business. It was Navarro’s uncle’s restaurant that served the legendary seafood in the sierras. In a convoluted family saga, Navarro’s story wound a twisted path between America and Mexico. Before his birth, his family of wealthy Guadalajaran tequila distillers decided they needed an American citizen for ‘business.’ Fifty years ago, Navarro’s mother was sent across ‘la otra lado’ to have the baby and raise him there. Following marriage and a career including the American navy, Navarro returned five years ago to Mexico. Now Navarro tilted back his chair in the Underworld Scuba office, his sharp brown eyes glinting behind his tinted glasses,
“ Sí. I am the black sheep of the family! I love my family but I try like heck to stay clear of their ‘business’. My uncle owned a most successful business here in Manzanillo but family problems drove him to open a new place in the mountains. Please visit Camotlan. Enjoy the best of seafoods at my uncle’s restaurant!”
I mused out-loud, “Navarro seems to know many sides to business in Mexico.”
A furrow lightly creased Susan’s brow, “Wendy. You remind me of myself years ago. Because of that, I hope that you don’t get too involved in anyone’s family politics down here.”
“Believe me, I won’t! It takes time and patience to get to know anyone well. I’m staying in Mexico only a month this trip. That’s barely enough time to scratch the surface of life down here. Besides I want only friends, not enemies.”
His dark, thatch of hair leaning conspiratorially near me, Navarro further advised, “ Verdad. You have to learn people. With patience, the way you learn how to fish.”
After we loaded the cooler with cervezas and snacks, Susan headed the van north on the coastal Hwy 200. By the glorietta with the sailfish sculpture, she turned east onto Hwy. 98 for Minatitlan. Vernon, Sid and my daughter Rose’s cheerful company mitigated the barest of vehicular comforts. Susan only invests in utility vans to survive the road conditions on off-the-beaten path adventures and slight insurance regulations. Perching on top of the cooler, I looked out the back window noticing the sheer drop below the margin free highway. Passing near the Peña Colorada, the world’s second-largest conveyor belt snakes loads of Mexico’s largest iron-ore down twenty-seven mountain miles to the Tapeixtles pelletizing plant near Manzanillo.
Thirty-five miles and an hour later, the van lurched into the small village of Camotlan. A nondescript thatched palapa restaurant on a dusty street leans towards a tire repair shop proclaiming, (translated) “Parking exclusively for Tire Repair, or We Punch Holes in Your Tires for Free!”
Gingerly parking the van, Susan offered this appetizer, “I admit the restaurant’s nothing much to look at. But wait until you taste the seafood!”
The place overflowed with families gathered at simple tables covered with immaculate plastic tablecloths. The concrete floor was swept clean and the flowering shrubs thrived in their watered basins. The ever-familiar mariachi music crackled loudly from a battered radio atop a plastered wall.
Silently I noticed, “Plenty of locals eating here. That’s always a good sign.”
After we sat down on kitchen chairs, a slim, well-mannered young man handed us the menus. Susan’s long blond hair bobbed close to the menu that she surveyed intently, “What kind of seafood do you like the best?”
I glanced at the long list of unfamiliar Spanish words.
“I have no idea what kinds of fish these are. Is it possible to order an assortment?”
“Wait a moment. I’ll ask the waiter.”
After catching the waiter’s eye Susan conveyed her regards to Navarro’s tío (uncle) before they discussed “ pescado” (fish) in Spanish.
When the waiter left for the kitchen, I asked, “O.K. So what’s on the menu today?”
“Raphael says that he’ll ask the cook for the catch of the day. Is that good for everyone?” The heads of Vernon, Sid and Rose nodded vigorously.
Minutes later, Raphael returned hoisting an astounding platter of fish. Arranged like a marine still life on their ceramic platter, translucent scales shone in red huachinango (snapper), silvery blue dorado (dolphin fish), lisa (mullet), beautiful bonito, jaiba (crabs), camarones gigantes (giant shrimp) and …
“What are those huge gray things?????????”
Susan’s blond hair flew back with her laugh, “Looks like you’ve never seen a Mexican langostino before! Stick your eyes back in your head. These are just small ones. These freshwater lobsters grow up to one and a quarter pounds in the fresh rivers and lakes of Colima.”
The fish platter left no regrets. In fact a second course followed the first. Bursting with beer and seafood, our party climbed back into the van for El Salto, the principal waterfall in the state. A few miles further, Susan pulled off the main highway to the right before a shade-lined path leading through a public balneario. Although the shady picnic tables and fireplace pits emptied of people midweek, weekend garbage still littered the park. A new, wide concrete staircase winds down and around the rusty canyon walls. Cool canyon breezes rushed my face as cascading water drowned my words. El Salto appeared around the next corner, sparkling and cascading into deep pools draining west towards the ocean.
“Last one in….” Vernon yelled as he jumped into the nearest pool. Soon everyone floated downstream on the gentle river current. Looking up at the tropical plants clinging to the canyon walls and the bolt of blue above, I reflected, “This is one of my favorite things to do in Canada. I can’t believe that I’m doing it in Mexico! It’s such a country of wonderful surprises.”
During my trips to Mexico, the discovery of such special places is always a highlight. Many are found in guidebooks with an adventure or ecological focus. Some of the most delightful are found only with the help of a Mexico friend or stumbled upon during off-the-beaten path travel. Susan’s guide book; ‘Manzanillo and the State of Colima, Facts, Tips and Day Trips’ describes these following detailed outings.
Lakes Mariá and Carrizalillos lie northwest of the city of Colima at the foot of the volcanoes. If you choose to bypass the capital of Colima and head straight for the lakes take the Coquilmatlan exit and head toward Comala. It’s a beautiful drive up into the mountains, past green pastures and thick forests. In the first small town of Villa de Alvarez, there is a lake called Los Pastores. The next town is Comala, surrounded by three rivers and famed local woodworker’s Cooperativa Artesanai Pueblo.
Continue two miles past Comala and look for the sign for Suchitlan. Around the picture-perfect old plaza, mariachis stroll every afternoon past Los Portales de Suchitlán. From the outside, it looks like a typically small, grubby rural eatery. But upon entering, it just keeps going back and back. The dining area is partly indoors, partly outdoors. Towards the back, it fades into a playground area on the edge of the high-mountain jungle growth. Three sets of ultra-clean restrooms are also progressively larger as one goes towards the rear. The food is excellent and very varied - from superb conejos (rabbit) to excellent puntas de filete (cut-up steak) or wonderful chiles rellenos and a very good mole. Top it off with at least one obligatory glass of local ponche fruit wine and then turn right for Carrizalillos. The small natural lake at the end of this road has campsites, a restaurant with a beautiful view and about a dozen cabins overlooking the lake. By continuing on the main highway, you will pass the ancient mission of San Antonio. Follow the signs to La Mariá. The site offers camping facilities plus a few clean, inexpensive bungalows. The 4000-ft. elevation and mild lake breezes make for comfortable days and nights. On the slopes of the fire volcano, there are the picturesque lakes El Jabali, and the refreshing waterfalls, El Calabozo, and Las Cuatas.
I longed to bath in a creek pool called fetchingly, El Corazon (The Heart). Another fifteen minutes up the road to Minatitlan, you come to a small u-shaped bridge (El Chicquerito, meaning “little pig pen”). Immediately past the bridge on the right, an almost invisible dirt road leads to a small parking area right along the creek. Following a twenty-minute hike, a small waterfall leads into a natural granite heart-shaped pool. From El Corazon, a rockslide drops you into a Jacuzzi-type shallow pool that whips you around and around in a jet of fast-moving water. Heading further up the creek treats you to some of Colima’s most beautiful flora and fauna.
About forty-five miles north of Manzanillo on Hwy.110 lies Los Asmoles. The Los Ortices exit takes you to one of the most interesting archeological sites in the state. Follow the small, hard-to-see signs to Tampu, three miles. Tampu’s privately-owned six room motel with perfectly groomed tree-shaded grounds is surrounded with walkways lined with large and small rock petroglyphs, hundreds of mortars and pestles, a ceremonial bed and covers from the two hundred plus tombs. Two restaurants with separate vistas of the deep gorge, Tampumachay Waterfalls and lazy river have delicious traditional Mexican food. A swimming pool, changing rooms and showers are available along with tour of the tombs, the pyramid and petroglyphs. Campsites for tents and RV’s line trails that lead down to the waterfalls and river. The waterfalls can be enjoyed from a distance while sipping a beverage at Tampu’s restaurant or hiking down into the gorge on a trail that starts near the hotel. It’s about an hour hike to the bottom. A path takes you up the river to the waterfalls.
The grottoes of Salitre (Las Animas) near Los Ortices form a labyrinth of tunnels drop-offs and obstructions with large limestone rooms up to one hundred feet with grotesque columns and a wide variety of colors and forms. These spectacular caverns are said to contain an enchanted lake and believed to have been the refuge of outlaws. Mexican boy scouts often visit this area on weekends, camping at the bottom overnight.
But dusk’s fast approach prompted Susan to say, “It’s time to get down from the mountains before dark. It’s so easy to hit a cow or a donkey on the road. I would really like to squeeze in a visit to the Volcan de Fuego with you and the kids before you leave Manzanillo. However I doubt that there is time to do it right. We need at least a full day. First we would need to check in with the federal-state tourism office in downtown Colima for up to date information. Although the last eruption was in 1991 but the volcano is still active. It is wise to check in also with Protección Civil if we went up on a weekday.”
“ Muchas gracias! You’ve been so generous already! A week barely scratches the surface of what to see or do around Manzanillo. The beauty and the bounty of the sea is famous. But little did I dream that I’d be eating langostino in the sierras!”
Related URLS and Travel Books
Ron Mader’s ‘Ecotravel in Mexico’
Bruce Whipperman’s ‘Pacific Mexico Handbook’ in the Moon travel series
Susan Dearing ‘Facts, Tips & Day Trips, Guide to Manzanillo and Colima’ A complete guide to make your vacation or retirement EASY and FUN, while SAVING MONEY, too! 1998
****A dollar from each book sold goes to local children’s charity
Before hiking to the volcanoes, check this URL for daily volcanic action: