Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it – my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.
For the most part, we’ve stuck to the mountains for the cooler temperatures and because we know that Wesley can handle the steep. Our first night back in Guatemala we spent on a former chicken farm overlooking the capital, Guatemala City, a big sprawling metropolis. I couldn’t spot a single church steeple poking up through the haze that hung over the city, which was surprising given the devoutness of the people. As we were driving through the city I saw a woman cross herself before stepping into the street, I regularly see drivers cross themselves when passing a church, and I’ve seen people weeping in church – weeping! – at cartoonish sculptures of Jesus in the different stations of the Cross. And it wasn’t even on a Sunday,
In Chichicastenango, a big market town in the Western highlands of Guatemala, we took a guided tour to learn how the Mayan have merged some of their own voodoo-like beliefs into Catholicism. For example, a shamaan and his wife will smoke enormous cigars for you and somehow this will hex people who are more successful in business. They can also perform honest ceremonies for loved ones.
On market day, we made sure everyone was successful by treating Quetzales like popcorn, including buying 15 yards of fabric to have Wesley’s seats reupholstered in Mexico where we think the cost of services will be less.
The ride out of Guatemala along the Pan American winds through the mountains at 2,100 meters and periodically, when the rain clouds broke up, we were treated to some expansive vistas. It was long and arduous driving as the road went not only up and down, but up and over dozens of topes – that speed bump in the road designed to take the place of traffic lights and slow everyone from flying through town – but the route chosen was worth it to see a part of the country we had not seen on our first pass through.
We were all excited to get back to Mexico where we spent four months at the outset of the trip. We made a short stop of two nights in San Cristobal de las Casas – where we spent over a week in December. The city was as great as we remembered, but the campground we loved before was different in that it lost the people we enjoyed the first time through and was instead full of people who don’t clean the pots and dishes after using them. I don’t care if they are working on world peace in their room, those are the worst kind of people.
We did meet two interesting folks in San Cristobal this time around. Guido is a German adrenaline junkie with an Italian name who likes to ride his motorcycle on horse trails. He left his medical marijuana business in Canada and has been driving south for more than a year with no end in sight as long as his stock keeps returning dividends. He’s 46, the same age as R and me. “It’s a good time to retire,” he said.
Diana, the sauerkraut woman, used to live in Olympia, WA and learned to ferment cabbage with R’s Aunt Lilly. Now she works in a bookstore in San Cristobal and sells probiotic kraut on the side. Diana and R were like giggling schoolgirls talking about Lilly and trading recipes and I expect to eat a lot of cabbage once I get back to Alexandria.
We’ve driven only toll roads since we left San Cristobal and we hate it. It’s expensive – several tolls have cost more than dinner for four – and characterless – nothing to see except rolling green vistas stretching as far as you can see in any direction. There is no doubt that Mexico is naturally beautiful, but I miss waving at people as we drive through town.
One of the toll road exits took us to Cordoba, in Veracruz State, where we spent one night. Our guidebook raved about its Zocalo (central square) and it was here where the terms of the Mexican Independence from Spain were agreed upon in 1821. After wandering around the square with Coconut and J and taking some photos for Coconut’s project on the Revolution, and then marveling from the balcony of our hotel room at a downpour that flooded the streets, R and I left the kids with tacos and had a date night – strolling around the plaza while the mariachi bands serenaded diners. A government building looms over one side of the plaza, and we were delighted to watch the windows light up in a choreographed sequence to classical music that blared from speakers hidden in the building’s facade. There is no place like this in the States.
The next day, with nothing much better to do besides drive, we were persuaded by a billboard to detour to the town of Orizaba and ride the teleférico to the top of Cerro something or other to wander some trails and see the ruins of an old fort where the French massacred a division of the Mexican Army while it slept. In the park at the foot of the mountain a monkey had escaped from its enclosure and we watched a dozen authority figures – both zoo officials and police – try to lure it back into its cage while families played in the massive playground and vendors hawked flowers, food, balloons, and anything else you can imagine. We’ve been stopped at intersections by people walking around selling electrified tennis rackets as fly swatters.
After this detour we managed to still reach our destination of Puebla – which is positioned on the outstretched fingertips of Mexico City. We had a great room in an old colonial house a few steps from the zocalo for $40 and spent the weekend wandering around this modern, university city. It boasts a lively zocalo, a variety of food choices, hundreds of stalls selling artesania – including talavera – the painted tiles for which the area is known, and dozens of churches.
Our favorite church, Templo de Santo Domingo, housed a chapel with enough gold plating to make you wonder if the clergy couldn’t have purchased some grain instead and still won the prize for shiniest church. On the macabre end of the spectrum, Templo de San Francisco is home to the 400-year old mummified remains of Friar Sebastian de Aparicio – the builder of the first Mexican roads. He is now recognized as the protector of those who drive so we purchased a few stickers to put on Wesley.
From Puebla, we took another detour to Teotihuacan, which was once Mesoamerica’s greatest city (circa 200-600 A.D.). Its main attraction now is the Piramide del Sol, a 70 meter high structure that ranks as the third highest pyramid in the world (behind Cheops in Egypt and one in Cholula, Mexico). Of course we climbed it, as well as its smaller companion Piramide de la Luna. These pyramids are connected by the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), which after centuries is still in better repair than many of the roads we’ve traveled.
Coconut and J were in great spirits despite this being a site of educational merit, but were particularly enthralled by the souvenir vendors. Coconut brought a decorated skull made out of alabaster and cow bone and J added knives made of bone and obsidian to his collection of sharp-edged weapons. These are exactly the kinds of things I would have wanted on my shelves when I was that age.
After being stuck in a traffic jam reminiscent of our Beltway days, we got caught in a rainstorm and waning light so pulled into a Pemex to camp for the night. Pemex is the government run gas station and that is popular as an overnight resting spot and comes in various states of repair – though most are nice. We got an exceptionally nice one this night with a restaurant where we could warm up and eat before going to bed early – there isn’t much to do at a gas station in the rain.
From there it was a short drive to San Miguel de Allende and our friends Sean and Mittie. We spent a few days here in September when we were very green. Now we have stories to tell and a willing audience – Sean and Mittie are preparing to launch their own adventure to Patagonia early next spring.
So, as our adventure winds down, theirs is set to begin – reminding us that even though we’ve traveled 1,000 miles towards home in a week, we are getting closer to our own next big adventure.