We've been in Mexico nearly a month now, long enough to have allowed the culture to sink in and to formulate some thoughts on my time here.
This isn't the first time I've been to Mexico. I backpacked here for a while a couple of years ago in Mexico City, Guanajuato, Michoacan and the Yucatán peninsula. I did this mostly alone and using mostly local buses and to be honest I didn't read too much into safety issues at the time. I just used my common sense and needless to say it worked out just fine. This time I read a little more and while I like to keep things in perspective wherever I'm travelling, I must admit I did think more carefully about the route we've chosen to take this time.
We crossed at Tecate and after some confusion at the border - basically they let you ride right on through without doing any paperwork, stamping your passport or getting your tourist card if you so wish - headed for Ensenada. It was only because I knew I had to cancel my Esta visa card that I walked back through in the opposite direction, much to the confusion of the US border agents, who promptly discovered I'd been given the wrong visa waiver card in Washington and so added another half an hour to the charade. Our plan was to head down Baja before catching the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan.
Upon arrival in Ensenada my mood went from mildly irritated (mostly because it was so damn hot and just stopping at traffic lights was like sitting in a sauna with five layers of clothes on) but also because all the things that pissed me off about Mexico came flooding back. We haven't been searching out accommodation in advance on this trip, just showing up in a place and looking for a place to sleep. Our timing was totally wrong on this occasion, we'd arrived mid-Baja 1000 race, too late to really see any of it but not too late for opportunistic hotel owners to hike their prices five fold in the hope of catching a few mugs willing to pay. Everywhere we went the neon signs outside shouted between 200 and 240 pesos for a room, yet upon enquiring we were quoted as much as 1400 pesos for a night. This was just about the last straw for me and I turned into bitch from hell (sorry Evan!) until we finally found a nice enough little place on the way out of town for a reasonable price.
A word on where we've been staying - it's a difficult one to get the balance right on when there are two people travelling together. I really like the social side of staying in hostels, but it makes no sense price-wise when there are two people. Pretty much everywhere we've been the price of two dorm beds is significantly more than a motel room. Just tonight for example, we asked first at the hostel by the dock for a price on a private room - 500 pesos with a fan, 700 with aircon. Fifty yards across the road we found a local tienda-owned motel type room with a ceiling fan (admittedly no wifi or toilet seat though) for 200 pesos. And the rather large cockroach on the floor was already dead, which was another plus.
Baja was pretty cool though. Not stunningly beautiful as I was expecting it to be, but it has a charm. We ate fish tacos for most meals and met some lovely people, such as Emma and Glenn from Merritt, BC who we crossed paths with several times, and later Sandy and Denyse with their old car, Edgar, heading back to Kelowna, BC. By day we rode increasingly further south, doing our best to avoid the variety of dead things on the road - tires, horses, cows, dogs, boars, even an armadillo. There were plenty of live versions of a few of those things too and they were a little more unpredictable.
We eventually arrived in La Paz and after three attempts to figure out our ferry crossing to Mazatlan we finally managed to get on a Sunday sailing. On our first visit the ticket office was closed for the day. The second time they had electrical failure in the TVIP issuing office, so we had to sit around for 3 hours to get our import permits, only go discover that the ferry that night had been cancelled due to the impending hurricane. This gave us ample time to explore the rather touristy La Paz and go marvel at the sheer number of shoe shops that occupy it, along with shops selling watches and calculators (?). We checked out the motorbikes for sale in Sears, drank mojitos and ate lots more tacos and very soon were well and truly ready to move on again.
The ferry crossing was OK as ferry crossings go. We left late and arrived even later. The bit in the middle was filled with chatting with the other bikers on board, eating the inclusive meals and watching movies with a disaster-at-sea theme in Spanish. Oh, and sleeping. Another guy, a Canadian on a KLR, kindly offered us a bed in his cabin, which was something of a godsend for Evan who struggled with seasickness from about 20 mins after the boat left port until we docked again in Mazatlan.
From Mazatlan we rode mostly along the free Mex 15 road to Tepic and then on to Jocotepec and then down into Patzcuaro in Michoacan. The plan was to stay here a couple of nights and then head towards the big, bad city to visit some friends but unfortunately we both crossed paths with some dodgy pollo asada on the way to Patzcuaro and ended up unable to be more than ten feet from a toilet for a solid 48 hours. It wasn't pleasant and we still don't feel 100% even after trying half a dozen different remedies and a couple of weeks having passed. It hasn't helped that we both now have very bunged-up heads from the time we've spent in the city, especially riding for hours in traffic fumes. The smog in Mexico City really is awful and coupled with the altitude there, isn't pleasant at all. Luckily we stayed just outside the main city in La Era.
All the way down Baja we met people who looked at us aghast when we said we were going to cross to the mainland, like we'd just announced we were going to throw ourselves to the lions. To be honest, when enough people react like that it does start to make you wonder if you're being too laid back about the risks. What we've found though is exactly what I experienced the last time I was here. Friendly, curious locals who on the whole are happy for us to be here and beautiful countryside. In areas less frequented by tourists a few people eye us suspiciously, but that's fine. If I only had a better grasp of Spanish (something I am trying to resolve) then I'm sure the ice would be easily broken. But contrary to popular belief, no banditos hiding behind every tree or cops chasing us around for easy money. The scariest thing we've encountered so far is a cow standing in the road and a few deceptively high topes!
That said, I'm well aware that the situation in some parts of the country is volatile and can change very quickly, but to the people making comparisons to war-torn countries and exclaiming that people are idiots who risk their lives by visiting Mexico, please don't comment unless you have personal experience. We've found that most of the people dishing out the advice don't. I'll admit that it was a little disturbing to hear of the sad fate of the two Australian surfers a couple of weeks ago just as we arrived, even more so to read about it while we were only 70km away from where their van was discovered on virtually the same route we were taking, but these kind of things happen in every city in the world every day and the full story is rarely known. What we do know is that they broke two of the cardinal rules - they drove at night and they tried to defend their property. To do either of these things in the area they were in was foolhardy in the extreme and sadly for them it didn't work out. I'm glad that we didn't decide to skip the places we've been to, or race through on the cuotas, and I'm looking forward to seeing a lot more of this country as we head south.
What has surprised me most is how few tourists we've seen. Last time I was there Patzcuaro was full of tourists and this time we saw maybe three non-Mexicans. Same on Janitzio and everywhere else we've been as far as Oaxaca City. It's really sad that people don't come because Mexico has so much to offer.
As some of you may have seen already from a Facebook post I made a couple of weeks ago, riding in Mexico is like being in a real life version of the old Atari game 'Paperboy'. You constantly have to dodge missing manhole covers, dogs, rocks, potholes, even firemen standing in the middle of the dual carriageway collecting donations! And of course the highest, most unnecessary speed bumps you could possibly imagine. They're everywhere, even going up steep hills. Miss one and you can catch air, that's how vicious they are. The skid plates on the bikes have paid for themselves many times over. It's no different as a pedestrian either, you're just playing 'Frogger' instead. The most streetwise creatures on the streets are the dogs - to see them flit between the cars is quite amazing.
I was going to say that the worst we've had it when it comes to riding in urban areas was Mexico City, but actually I think getting out of Oaxaca City was worse. At least in Mexico there are lanes; in Oaxaca it's a free for all, a traffic version of the Black Friday frenzy. Also, we've both been bumped by other drivers since we left Mexico City - Evan by a truck that hit him from behind at a road toll booth and me, by a car that obviously didn't see me at a junction in a little town and pulled out into my side. I accelerated away as I saw him coming at me so he only hit my case before driving off without stopping, but apparently he lost his indicator so he came off worst. Luckily neither of us sustained any damage.
Mexico City was fantastic, as always. I was a bit apprehensive about riding into it, but in actual fact it wasn't so bad, despite a bit of a baptism of fire on the way in. We met Garry, our tentspace host, at a BMW garage just outside the city and a plan was made to follow him the last 45 mins to his house in the south of the city. Not long into the journey, already made more difficult by the luggage we were carrying making it impossible to lane split, we happened upon an accident that was blocking the dual carriageway ahead of us. Patience isn't a Mexican trait, so all at once everyone started turning their vehicles around in the road and heading back the wrong way. Garry and Evan managed to get through but by the time I had space to turn the road was well and truly gridlocked. I squeezed my way through a certain distance and then could go no further. We waited a bit and then everyone decided it might be clear now and started to turn around a second time. This meant that I had to verbally fight my way past several people who had appointed themselves traffic wardens in order to continue heading the wrong way in the hope of finding Garry and Evan again. It wasn't long though before people found the road still blocked and turned a THIRD time! Absolute chaos.
We survived though and went on to spend a fantastic week staying with Garry, his wife Yvonne, son Lloyd, daughter Lesley and granddaughter Emily (as well as pitbull, Olympia, whom Evan got quite attached to). Yvonne's mother lived upstairs, so there were four generations living in the household. We spent the week visiting various museums and historic buildings in the city. We went up the Latin America tower for a view over the city 30+ floors up. We walked the markets, we wore ourselves out.
Perhaps the highlight for me, and it was a totally unexpected one, was the Soumaya Museum. A modern building housing the art collection of one of the richest men in the world, both the exhibits and the building itself were breathtaking. I've never seen so many Dali sculptures in one place, not to mention examples of the work of pretty much every notable European artist/sculptor of the past two centuries. We followed this with an unplanned visit to the Antara Fashion Mall for dinner (actually we were just trying to satisfy a sushi craving). Christmas was in full force there complete with fake snow foam blown from the roof, in fact we could have been in any first world city at that moment in time.
Our week ended with a trip to watch the wrestling with Garry and Lloyd. Great fun, theatre at its best, even if there was no midget wrestling on the bill as we'd hoped. Thanks Garry for your wonderful hospitality. We'd never have been able to do half the things we did if it hadn't been for you opening your home to us as you did.
So now we're on the southern coast of Oaxaca having spent a couple of nights near Teotihuacan and another in Oaxaca City, which was surprisingly bustling for a Monday night. We rode down a horribly twisty road for 250km yesterday and another 200km today to get here, both of which took all day. There were some cool little towns along the way and some stunning views which made it worthwhile, but I'm afraid I'm still firmly of the view that mile upon mile of twists and turns, especially when the road surface is bad, are tedious. I know most other riders will disagree with me on that, but honestly, I can take or leave them. It didn't help that my head is totally blocked up from traffic fumes and I have the promises of a nasty head cold brewing, so I've been feeling very lightheaded all day. Evan still isn't right either after the dodgy chicken episode either so I think we'll hang out here for a couple of days. We've found a cheap little hotel owned by some very sweet people who happily allowed us to ride the bikes through the front reception and park them in the courtyard out back.
Today has been a day of laundry, mailing stuff and generally sitting around dealing with the 32 degree heat and drinking agua frescas. Tomorrow we're going to set off further along the coast in search of beautiful beaches and hopefully turtles. I'm looking forward most to the clean(er) sea air. Who knows what we'll find, but then that's all part of the adventure.