Road Trip: Mexico

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Mexico City, Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Morelia, Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta

Posted by Bill on Mayo 12, 2000

Some of you might find the following article interesting in which the author describes his road trip. The story follows.

Travelers who would think nothing of renting a car and eating their way through Tuscany or Provence quiver at the thought of doing the same thing in Mexico.

Hey, I quivered at the thought — and it was my thought. But I wanted to try this thing.

What I found in eight days of meandering from Mexico City to Puerto Vallarta was an experience every bit as beautiful and culturally rewarding and delicious as exploring the countrysides of Europe. Different, for sure, but just as much fun. And unlike Italy and France, Mexico is right down the road.

The plan was to fly to Mexico City, stay there just long enough to see if it’s really as bad as some people insist, then rent a car at the airport and get out into the country. The route would take in some of central Mexico’s old colonial towns — Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Morelia and Guadalajara — and finish with Puerto Vallarta’s Pacific beaches.

Yes, I had the same questions everyone does: Will there be out-of-control buses careening around every blind turn? Pigs on the roads? Banditos everywhere? Impoverished children hustling gum at every stop sign? Corrupt cops with palms forever out? Bad gas, bad food, bad water?

The answers came quickly and emphatically: No, no, no, no, no, no, no and no.

And even though it has its share of problems, I really liked Mexico City.

Mexico City to Querétaro

I’d arranged to pick up my rental car at Mexico City Airport because I did not want to drive in the heart of Mexico City. I followed the Hertz woman’s directions and wound up driving in the heart of Mexico City.

A few quick words about Mexico City: It wasn’t all that smoggy, the food was good, the pyramids were awesome, and driving in the city was no crazier than driving in Boston. A little sign on my hotel-room dresser said getting into any random cab would be a really dumb thing to do, so I walked a lot — but I still would have liked more than 36 hours in Mexico City.

Back to our story.

I eventually got turned back around — I think only one turn was illegal — and saw the sign I’d missed for Querétaro. Soon I was on a road that was slow, industrial and crummy until another sign appeared: cuota.

Cuota means “toll.” Mexican toll roads are not cheap, but they’re a lot like ours, which means they’re fast, they’re in good shape, and they generally have lots of lanes. Use them.

An hour out of the city, much of the countryside is cactus-studded hilly grassland with occasional clusters of simple houses and with mountains in the distant haze. After another hour or so, as you approach Palmillas, billboards tout barbacoa.

There, on a tollway service road, half a dozen modest joints sell the local specialty: tender barbecued mutton (I think it’s mutton). A pile of the stuff at Barbacoa los Arcos, accompanied by a stack of freshly made tortillas with chopped onions and red and green salsas for garnish, went for $3.50.

Farther down on the road, irrigated fields of bright-green vegetables replace the cactus and grassland, and about three hours after I’d left Mexico City, signs (in Spanish, but with icons anyone can understand) brought me into Querétaro’s historical center.

It was here in 1866 that puppet emperor Maximilian’s brief reign was ended by a firing squad. And the country’s constitution was signed here in 1917, in a theater still in use as a theater. There is much history here.

Querétaro is a quaint, immaculate and prosperous state capital of narrow streets, public gardens, small plazas and lovely churches. It is a place to explore on foot — much of it was built in the 1700s and is well-preserved — and when the exploration is done, it is a place to sip a beer or cappuccino at one of the outdoor cafes that line the gardens and plazas.

Those same cafes serve meals. Dinner at the upscale Los Magueyes Restaurant-Bar on the Plaza de Armas was three enchiladas and a quarter of a chicken for $3.80

.

For those who visualize Mexico as dust and adobe or as tourist-clogged beachfront or as Tijuana smarm, Querétaro is an early revelation.

Nonetheless, the road beckoned.

Querétaro to San Miguel de Allende

Mexico Highway 57 is four lanes out of Querétaro, through heavy industry that gives way again to dry grasslands, hills, cactus and, here and there, a cluster of houses.

The exit for San Miguel de Allende is onto a good, fairly straight and fast two-lane road that eventually climbs and slows, and shrinks to a street with speed bumps. After one grand turn I arrived at a scenic overlook with 10 parked cars.

I parked mine. And when I looked over, I saw, for the first time, San Miguel de Allende.

It was a splendid scene — of church spires and domes and winding streets and walls painted in pastels, all shimmering in the bright Mexico sun. My camera couldn’t capture it; having better luck was a woman seated on a folding chair at the far end of the overlook, working in watercolors.

San Miguel de Allende (population about 60,000) is gorgeous. That San Miguel has become known as an “art colony” trivializes its magic. Mining and missionaries built it, and time mellowed it; the artists came much later, in the 20th century.

Lunch at the Cafe Colon was rich chicken-rice soup, chicken enchiladas in a green salsa and a Corona — $3.

Andy Andersen, a retired educator who lives most of the year in Montana near Yellowstone National Park, was spending his fourth season in San Miguel. An accomplished artist, he was here working with a local painter.

“It’s just a great place to be,” he said of San Miguel. “And of course I love the people. I’m talking about the people that work the ground, lay the brick, drive the taxis, who make their living in normal ways.”

And one more thing: “I pay $180 a month for an apartment.”

What I saw was a place where every doorway, every wall, every flower, every face begs to be put on canvas or photographed or, at the very least, remembered.

San Miguel is a town that wins you over instantly. Then it grows on you.

But I had more places to see.

San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato

The direct route from San Miguel to Guanajuato takes about an hour, but I took the slow route — about twice as long — so I could see Dolores Hidalgo. It was the site of an important moment in Mexican history: On the steps of its central church, in 1810, Father Hidalgo called upon Mexicans to rise up against Spain, which they did — and lost. But it was a start, and today the church presides over one of the country’s more pleasing plazas.

A wedge of chicharron (fried pig skin) with red salsa from a plaza vendor cost me 20 cents.

The region also is famed, along with Puebla, as a center of Talavera tiles and pottery, and Talavera factory shops line the roads into and out of town. Before I saw it, I had no notion of what Talavera was. I stopped at one shop, bought two Talavera tequila glasses ($1.20 each) and wanted to buy everything in the store.

Mexico Highway 110 leaves Dolores Hidalgo as an interesting, mildly winding two-lane road with mountains in the distance. Then mountains and road meet.

Then comes the sign: curvas peligrosas. Then come the curvas.

The next 20 miles or so are mountain driving. Experienced palms sweat on drives like these. The payoff is spectacular views. These were mountains I’d flown over. Now I knew them.

After one last bend, the sight of a giant dome almost took me off the pavement.

The Valenciana mine was started in 1760. Tons of silver and gold have been brought out of its pits (the mine remains active), and untold lives have been lost in the process. The dome belongs to a church alongside the mine: the Templo la Valenciana (1788), whose grand exterior gives only a hint of the wealth of gold within. This is a building capable of dazzling even the most church-weary tourist.

From there, the road snakes down into Guanajuato.

How do you describe Guanajuato? It’s like San Miguel de Allende, only there’s more of it, and university students sing and play guitars in the streets while wearing Renaissance costumes and passing out mini-jugs of wine.

The small wedge-shaped main square, Jardin Union, is lined with restaurants. At one point, mariachis and two other bands were playing within 30 feet of one another while a street entertainer was drawing big laughs from hundreds of folks seated on the front steps of the Teatro Ju?rez.

Dinner at Truco 7: a quarter-chicken in a wondrous mole sauce plus two Coronas for $4.50.

Guanajuato is where painter Diego Rivera was born. The house, now a museum, has some of his work. Father Hidalgo’s severed head once dangled from a hook at a granary, La Alhéndiga de Granaditas, today also a museum. The head’s gone, but the hook is still there.

It’s a town with local mummies (there’s a museum) and real cantinas. It’s a town that honors Miguel de Cervantes with a major cultural festival (in October) and a delightful gallery-museum containing interpretations of Don Quixote ranging from serious art (by Salvador Dali, as serious as Dali ever got) to silliness (Quixote ashtrays, Quixotes fashioned from nuts and bolts, etc.).

It’s a town where folks sell handcrafted, husk-wrapped meat tamales on church steps after Sunday Mass, the best you will ever eat, for 25 cents each.

And it’s a town whose stone-paved streets are so steep and slick that anyone trying to negotiate them in bad shoes will look almost as goofy as anyone trying to drive on them.

I stayed two days, not long enough.

Guanajuato to Morelia

A tollway out of Guanajuato (no more curvas peligrosas) quickly and easily connects with southbound Mexico Highway 45, another first-rate four-lane. Not long after the junction, the roadside signs begin, each connected to a ramshackle stand and all saying the same thing: fresas con crema.

Fresas are strawberries. Irapuato, the next town, calls itself the “World’s Strawberry Capital.” The berries were in season.

I pulled to the side of the road and asked a family that ran one of the stands if I could photograph their strawberries. They welcomed me with a smile. Then they offered me a strawberry. It was large, red, sweet and luscious. I offered to pay. They refused. I shook hands with the father, and the family sent me on my way with more smiles.

“I love the people. I’m talking about the people that work the ground. … ”

The road narrows as it skirts Irapuato and then, a few miles south, it finds a village called Magdalena de Araceo. Here I walked for a time with a crowd of children, most wearing red school sweaters and heading home for lunch. Before long, they knew that I was from Chicago, that I knew Michael Jordan (just a little bit) and that I spoke almost no Spanish.

For the next 10 minutes, these beautiful kids taught me colors in Spanish, and I taught them colors in English.

They especially liked saying “purple.”

The approach to Morelia is flat. The streets are straight. The cathedral announcing the center of the town comes into view early, and getting there is a snap.

But Morelia itself is something of a shock. While Querétaro and the other towns feel like old colonial but also indigenous Mexico, this city of nearly a half-million feels like old Madrid, urban and sophisticated. Colorfully painted walls give way here to dark natural stone buildings; its people, most of them dressed well, have a formality about them I hadn’t seen since Mexico City.

Ah, but this is still Mexico. Breakfast at a stall on Plaza San Francisco was menudo (tripe) in a spicy red sauce with a stack of tortillas for $1.20.

Morelia was not only the easiest city to negotiate on my trip, but also the friendliest, maybe because tourists are a relative novelty. The following was an actual street conversation:

Me: “Excuse me (then bad Spanish asking about the location of a restaurant).”

Woman: “Si (then perfect Spanish, pointing and gesturing).”

Me (in English): “So down one block, then left?”

Woman (in English): “Exactly.”

Morelia to Guadalajara

It’s almost all four-lane tollway from Morelia to Guadalajara, much of it through rich farmland, some over mesquite- and cactus-covered hills, framed by mountains. This is pleasant, stress-free driving.

I stopped in a little town called Huaniqueo and found a shop that sold straw cowboy-style hats.

Me (in bad Spanish): “Do you have one just a little larger?”

Old man (in perfect Spanish, something like this): “Look, pal, this hat is for the sun, not to pick up babes. Twenty pesos.”

Lunch at the town’s only restaurant: chicken soup with a large chicken breast in the bowl, a stack of freshly made tortillas and a Coke — $1.40.

Guadalajara, about three hours from Morelia, is a big, modern city of about 5 million, a city of broad boulevards and tree-lined streets. Its core is mostly historical and pleasant. Some of it is ragged and tired, but even there, the nervousness that many feel when walking Mexico City’s streets is less evident.

Dinner at La Rinconada: beef tongue la Veracruzana for $5.20.

Within Guadalajara is the once-separate village of Tlaquepaque, a crafts center that would be tacky if the crafts sold and sometimes produced there (primarily glassware, stoneware, ceramics, pewter and furniture) weren’t so extraordinary.

There is no adjective to describe the José Clemente Orozco mural in Guadalajara’s Palacio del Gobierno, painted shortly before the outbreak of World War II. At its center is Father Hidalgo, the patriot; alongside him are Nazis, communists, clerics and the victims of war and injustice. It is a brutal, challenging work.

Guadalajara also is the city given credit as the birthplace of mariachi, that uniquely Mexican style of music made by various stringed instruments, trumpets and voice.

Late on my last night in Guadalajara, in the Plaza of the Mariachis, I heard a mariachi performance of the classic Cielito Lindo. It might have been the worst rendition of Cielito Lindo ever performed anywhere.

But, as I said, it was late. Or maybe I needed a beach. A playa.

Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta

It’s a five-hour drive from the city to Puerto Vallarta. On the way is the town of Tequila, which is famous for … well, you know what it’s famous for. Half-day tours from Guadalajara carry travelers eager to sample the stuff straight from the distillers. But I was driving.

The first two hours of this drive are especially fine — four-lane toll road, some of it through mountain desert filled with giant saguaro and organ-pipe cactus.

At the Puerto Vallarta cutoff, near Chapalilla, the road shrinks to two lanes at the final tollbooth and stays that way for the rest of the run. The last couple of hours are pretty slow.

But that was OK, because at that last tollbooth, the young man taking the money spotted my new straw hat.

He: “La playa?”

Me: “Si.”

In perfect Spanish. Without a quiver.

Published or Updated on: May 12, 2000 by Discussion Thread Forum © 2009
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