Friday, May 25, 2012

The Key to the Cloud Forest

-“Buenos Dias. ¿Usted Sergio Garcia?”
-“Gracias. Adios.”
-“Buenos Dias. ¿Usted Sergio Garcia?”
-“Gracias. Adios.”
-“Buenos Dias. Usted Sergio Garcia?”
I was watching Aneta with amusement walking up bravely to random men in the Zocalo (square) of the little "puebla" of Casimiro Castillo looking for Sergio Garcia at 9:00 in the morning.  Senor Sergio Garcia was nowhere to be found so she picked up the phone and said: “I am going to call him.”  I said “good luck;” I had a feeling this would be tedious.  She proceeded to make her first phone call in broken Spanish as I listened.  Sergio’s wife picked up the phone and apparently he was not at his house.  After five minutes of trying to communicate, Aneta told her "Nosotros en al Centro, diez mas minutos aqui" (we at the center, ten more minutes here).  Surprisingly Sergio showed up within ten minutes and we found out that he did not speak any English either, "no problem" we thought.  First, we stopped at his house, where he picked up his friend who spoke a little English and had a cooler full of Coronas for the road.  We were in for our treat of the day…

The reason we were searching for Sergio was because we were looking for access to the elusive Cloud Forest.  After our time in Chapala we threw a coin on which route to take to the coast; with Semana Santa over we figured it was time to go back to the beaches.  The long, slow and breathtaking route it was... 
So far our route has been planned from guide books, maps and other travelers.  We started on our way up and down the winding mountain passes towards the town of Autlan.  On the map it shows that it is near Reserva of the Biosphere of Manatlan, which is a protected cloud forest.  We could not wait for the landscape to turn dramatic enough.
On our way with Bimbo (bread truck) on our tail.
We arrived in Autlan and continued through to the reserve.  When we arrived at the top of the pass, a man who was in charge of the gate said that the entrance on this side of the reserve was closed.  This was to better preserve the park; he directed us to go back down to the office in Autlan for more information on where to go.  At the office we put our Spanish into use in order to find out what area was worth going to.  This is where we chiseled our assumptions to stone that some people in Mexico will tell you information even if they don't know it's correct because they do not want you to think that they don’t know anything about an area, such as directions.
When we originally heard it was a cloud forest we had images of dew laden leaves and low hanging clouds over the mountain; what we saw from our vantage point at the valley floor was not it.  That may be true, however we were towards the end of the dry season and we would have to wait till the rains start coming to experience this.  
A pic from further way further down the coast
After an hour at the office we felt like we were pulling teeth to acquire information on access and info to the reserve.  We found that most areas to the cloud forest which are around 9,000 feet are off limits to vehicles and the only option we were looking at was a four day hiking trip which we were not up for.  I was sick and in no condition for this excursion unfortunately.  It is protected stringently and for good reason, it has some of the greatest biological diversity in Mexico.  Without these reserves the local ranchers and farmers will go into the forests to slash and burn.  We have seen the sad sight of entire mountain sides that are being completely stripped for cattle grazing.  The area is home to six cat species ranging from Lynx, Ocelot and Jaguar, 110 species of mammals and 350 birds.  At the valley floor it was mostly agriculture and tropical, as we drove up the pass we entered oak and pine forests and ended up in the cloud forest vegetation.  In the end the man who was helping us told us to go to Casimiro Castillo at 9:00 the next morning to meet Sergio Garcia with the key to the gate.  The whole situation was a little strange for us, but we went along with the idea.  After all, we were running out of options and had nothing better to do. We jumped back in the truck, went to Autlan and found a cheap hotel that had Internet so we could find out more information about the reserve. 
Pics never do justice, drive from Autlan to Casimiro Castillo
The morning greeted us with another amazing drive up and over the pass towards the ocean in order to gain access to the reserve and see what it was all about.  At first glimpse of Casimiro Castillo we did not want to even pull in due to the towering smoke stack that was billowing soot forming a cloud above the town.  
We were not sure of what types of factories were tucked into towns that were off the tourist radar screen.  We later found out it was a cane sugar factory, from what we saw without this factory the town would probably be nonexistent.  With the amount of sweets that are consumed here this town will be thriving for a long time.  We met Sergio in the Zocalo, then followed him and his friend up the very slow dusty road with several gates to keep the cows separated for grazing.  There were also crews who were repairing the water pipes for the town which were mangled by last years floods.  
After an hour we ended up at the end of the road where a couple of welcoming loggers who were up for a chat were cutting four foot wide dead trees into lumber with a chain saw.  It is rare to see logging trucks with larger logs on them; most of the timber is cut into planks with chainsaws on site, then loaded by hand onto trucks and sent to town to be planed and used locally.  
One board at a time
From there we hiked up the river where we were greeted by butterflies, lizards, and the songs of the birds.  We then turned around said our goodbye's and thanked Sergio and the other men for kindly showing us their world and headed down for the long drive back.  We figured out later that Sergio's job was to check on who was in this area of land and then basically hang out with them for the rest of the day.
Sergio in the middle flanked by his amigo
On the way back down the bumpy road we started to hear a knocking sound coming from the front of the truck. I had Aneta drive so I could walk next to it and identify the sound.  It turned out to be the right side strut that had loosened the nut which stripped the threads of the bolt on the tower.  It was only getting worse so we found a mechanic in town where him and I cut a slot in a nut, then miraculously slid it under the other nut to temporarily stop the noise.  An hour later and 120 pesos poorer :) we were on our way knowing the strut would have to be replaced down the road soon.
The only shot of the band aid repair
As we left Casimiro Castillo and drove through the sugar cane plantations and orchards, the landscape was turning tropically hot and humid, we could tell we were nearing the ocean.  Aneta fell back into her midday siesta routine during our long drives.  We made it to La Manzanilla where we spent the next day on the beach recharging ourselves and planned the next leg of our trip.

Click images to enlarge


Sunday, May 6, 2012

“Don’t turn on your left blinker”

We left Sayulita on Wednesday, April 4th, three days after Bill, Anne, and Maya left to go back to the States. After a three week stay, it was time to switch gears and head to the hills. Our friends packed up their gypsy caravan (sorry guys, ours is no better) and they hit the road back to the U.S. to work at the salt mines so they could return as soon as possible. 
Bill, Anne and Maya's last day in Sayulita
We don't blame them; Sayulita certainly has charm and a beautiful layout. We got used to it quick and what we thought was going to be a week turned into three, but it was worth it. We were able to make some minor repairs to the car, enjoy the most amazing sunsets, relax on the beach, check out the area, and get used to our new life on the road. Mostly we enjoyed spending time with our friends and meeting new ones.

We packed up our gypsy caravan and headed East towards Guadalajara; it was another sunny and warm afternoon. 
Last day in Sayulita
After an hour of driving Aaron thought it was my turn to drive so I am better prepared to drive in this reckless and high paced environment.  We switched at the gas station before a pass where the traffic shortly slowed its pace. Where do we stay tonight? Bill told us about a place called Rio Caliente that has inexpensive campsites as well as access to a hot river with water coming out of a hot spring. It’s about 45 minutes before Guadalajara. Since we left late in the day (about 2pm), we needed to find a camp spot before dark so we searched for Rio Caliente.

“Don’t drive at night” has been the only safety advice we have been hearing from the locals and other travelers around Mexico. First of all, because most of the bad incidents happen at night and secondly, because of the hazardous driving conditions in Mexico. Driving in Mexico has been an adventure in itself since one never knows what to expect after the next curve. When we see the sign “Curva Peligrosa,” we know something is coming up. What will it be? A tractor, a chicken bus, a guy on a horse or a bicycle, a cow or a kid walking with their donkey? Maybe an animal… alive or dead? Other surprises are the topes (speed bumps). They always show up out of nowhere and we usually hear them before we see them. Sometimes, they are not painted or marked with a sign and they vary in size from a few inches of the ground to big mounds of asphalt.
Aneta's favorite boys, she always gets excited when she sees them
Driving down the highways we have seen many police and military vehicles, some undercover. The men always have their rifles and pistols ready to shoot, but in reality they look much scarier than they really are.  We have been waving to them and asking for directions. One thing we learned on the road is not to turn on our left blinker as we most likely will be passed on our left before we make our left turn. That’s right! Most Mexicans actually turn on their left blinker, pull over to the right lane to let the other cars pass by, and then turn left from the right lane. Other than that, driving in Mexico has not been too crazy; it’s been much easier than we thought. But heck, what do I know? So far, Aaron has done most of the driving…
We were approaching Guadalajara as it was getting dark and since Rio Caliente was not marked on our map, we had to pull over and ask the paramedics for directions. “Derecho, derecha, derecho, derecha” they said and thank goodness pointed! “Muchos gracias. Adios” we replied and turned to our wonderful device called the GPS.

We spent the night at the Rio Caliente campground (50 pesos per person per night/about $8 US for both of us) and went in the hot river early the next morning. The river was shallow, but pleasantly very warm. 
A sleepy walk to the Rio

Soaking in Rio Caliente at 7:00 am, great way to start off a Tequila tour day
After a quick soak, we hopped in the car and headed to the town of Tequila, which is a very nice and clean tourist town with great food and unlimited tequila tastings. One can either pay for a tour (about 150 pesos per person) or visit the smaller, family owned distilleries. We opted for the latter. We already bought a bottle of tequila on the way to town in a small distillery called Marengo. 
Our first distillery stop of the morning!
Agave at Distillery
It was a bottle of Anejo, nice aged stuff for 150 pesos (about $12). In fact, I am drinking a tequila, Coca Cola, and lime drink with it right now. After a couple of hours of walking in the heat and a few shots of tequila in Tequila, I needed some lunch and a lot of water. Instead of a pricey restaurant, we chose the local Mercado and split an order of fabulous, deep fried Chile Relleno for 50 pesos (about $4 U.S.). Definitely not the healthiest option, but boy was it good! It came with chips and salsa and rice and beans. Rice and beans, my favorite!
Our third Tequila Distillery of the day
From Tequila to Guadalajara. I had to take a nap; the traffic was bad and the tequila was still floating in my blood. “Could you help me look for a hostel or a hotel?” said Aaron. I woke up and looked around in amusement. 
Complete madness before Good Friday
We were in Guadalajara right in the middle of it all. Hundreds of people were crossing the streets and not obeying the stop lights, horse drawn carriages were flying down the narrow cobblestone roads, food stands and street performers were on every little corner, and more and more people… none of them gringos. “Sure.” I replied “There is a hotel over there. We should park and ask how much it is.” And then we realized: “Park? Where?” We drove around for about an hour looking for a parking spot; it didn’t help that it was the Thursday of Semana Santa (Holy Week).
One of the many Churches in Guadalajara that we visited while there
We finally found parking on the other side of town and came upon Hotel Pino purely by accident.  It turned out to be the best deal in town; it was 160 pesos or about $13 for both of us. It was located right downtown, walking distance from the square. We stayed at a pretty clean room, with TV, Wi-fi, and a private bathroom with hot shower. We stayed there for two nights and got to explore the center of Guadalajara on foot. After we got settled at the hotel, we went to look for some dinner. Guadalajara was super busy with visitors and street vendors everywhere. Unfortunately, most of the food we saw was junk food like fried chicken and potatoes, chips, corn, sweets, and ice cream. Everybody was eating something. After a while we settled for cooked veggies: potatoes, broccoli, and eggs with cheese, mayo, crema (sour cream), and salsa on top.
More food covered in what else other than Mayonnaise, Chile and Lime
The next day was all about exploring this beautiful colonial city. Guadalajara looked a lot like a European city with a big market square in the center and an amazing, big Cathedral. We visited the theater, museums, government buildings, and many old Spanish Catholic churches. Guadalajara is definitely a powerful cultural center of Mexico. 
This guy was raking in the pesos, he would only play for 20 seconds or so then pause like a pantomime till more pesos were put in the dish then start playing like a mad man again.
The streets were filled with street performers: dancers, pantomimes, jugglers and clowns. I ended up participating in a street clown show with a large audience. As soon as the clowns spotted us, the two “turistos gringos”, we knew we were in trouble… I went on stage; it was hilarious. At that point, I really wished I spoke more Spanish, but I understood what was going on and laughed my way through it. One of the clowns tried to kiss me and by accident I knocked down his big, red nose. 
These two worked us pretty well.
He made me a souvenir, a pink balloon flower, which in reality looked like a fan. 

Aaron was laughing hysterically and was taking a ton of pictures and a video, but did not want to go on the stage. That did not stop the clowns from making fun of him.

Later, we came upon one of the largest Mercados in Mexico, Mercado Liberdad, as Aaron mentioned in the previous post about food. 
Fresh Chile Rellenos or Pescado anyone?
We had lunch on the second floor of Mercado Liberdad, which was packed with various restaurants and crowded with people eating foods such as seafood, chile rellenos, fish tacos, quesadillas, and much more. The strong smell of cooking and frying made us hungry and ready to try the wonderful cuisines. Since we were enjoying Mexican food for over three weeks now, we opted for some Chinese Chop Suey and shrimp for a change. It was delicious and affordable; we paid about 100 pesos or $8 for lunch for both of us, actually about twice as much as we would usually spend.

That night we went to church as it was Good Friday. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to see the Passion Play, except we saw parts of it on the Mexican news that evening. Apparently Guadalajara does not do the Passion Play; the largest Passion Play takes place in Mexico City and includes about 170 people.

On Saturday morning, we left Guadalajara and drove towards Lago de Chapala, which is about an hour and a half away. On the way, we stopped at Tlaquepaque, a small, very clean and beautiful town, full of amazing art, furniture, clothes, and jewelry. It was definitely the nicest little town we have seen so far.
Pope John Paul II is everywhere in Mexico, he is in most churches one way or another.  Everyone loves him still to this day.  When Aneta tells Mexicans she is from Poland they like her even more.  Tlaquepaque

Lake Chapala

We got to Lake Chapala about noon. There was a big traffic at the entrance to town as everybody was going there for the Easter weekend. A guy showed up at our truck window handling out flyer's. “Campamento Xochime” it read, exactly what we were looking for! We drove down to check it out and it was the perfect little campground for us, very clean, quiet, close to town, and with super friendly owners. The price was right too: 80 pesos or about $6.50 for both of us for a night. We ended up staying there for three nights and making good friends with the owners. In case you are ever there, we highly recommend it
We will miss this crew

Lake Chapala

Lake Chapala and Ajijic are great places to visit if you are in the Guadalajara area. The lake is the largest sweet water lake in Mexico; it reminded us of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (considered the most beautiful lake in the world), where we spent our honeymoon in August/September 2009. Unfortunately, Chapala is not very clean and we decided not to get in the water. After visiting Lake Chapala we headed back to the Oceanside. The ocean is where our hearts lead us back to.
Click on pictures to enlarge
At the gates of another Tequila Distillery 
The church in the main plaza in Tequila

The interior of one of the distilleries
A buffet that we smelled from the street.  We had to pop in and check out what was cooking for the buffet Argentinian style

The chic streets of Tequila
The Jose Cuervo auditorium ready for tasting. The final stop of the Tequila tour.
Agave by the truckload off to be baked
Theater in Guadalajara
This painting took up the entire ceiling in a grand stair well in one of the many historic government buildings
Aztec Indians giving free health rituals.  A quick back adjustment and some smoke in your face and you are on your way for free.

A small section of the largest Mercado in Mexico and Central America
Another way of making those pesos on the street
The Church which contains the painting of the Lady of Guadalupe that took us a few days to find.
Tlaquepaque, quite cosmopolitan 

This is what you get when gringo's take over a Mexican town.  This was 20 ft up in a tree so no one can take it down however it was hard to spot.