Tuesday, April 05, 2005

MEXICO, DAYS 11-14: The Michoacán coast

After an hour’s drive west and downhill from Colima, we could tell we were nearing the coast, as the temperature and humidity soared, and the landscape became dominated by groves of palm, mango and papaya trees. While many of the palm trees here are planted in groves, it’s obvious that this is not for aesthetic reasons (such as around Los Angeles), as evidenced by the occasional large piles of harvested coconut shells.

The region we had chosen for this leg of the journey was the coast of the state of Michoacán, the same state in which we’d already spent several days inland. This particular stretch of coastline was the last in Mexico to become accessible by a highway. Only 10 years ago, it was a complete backwater, and it is still mostly undeveloped compared to other parts of the Pacific coast. Here we hoped to find some pristine beaches with cheap camping, minus the hordes of tourists that flock to other coastal areas.

Our guidebook had recommended El Faro de Bucerías as a lovely beach with yellow sand, plenty of camping, and good surf for swimming. The book was right on all of the above; however, due to its proximity to the highway heading back inland to the larger cities, it apparently has become very popular with Mexican tourists. Hundreds of Mexican families had already set up their tents in the sand under the many thatched-roof enramadas, and little kids, rowdy teen-agers and crappy music were everywhere. Nevertheless we decided to stick it out for a night here, as the price was nice compared to what we’d been paying – about $3US to pitch our tent in the shade, with free access to bathrooms and a shower. Staying here at El Faro was not such a good choice, though, as it turns out, since a group of boisterous drunks partied less than 5 feet from our tent until what seemed like 2 in the morning. The next morning, Friday, the neighboring children made sure we couldn’t sleep until past 8am, so we packed up and headed out.

The beach at El Faro

On Friday we back tracked a bit in search of a public telephone which was surprisingly hard to find in the beachside villages. We finally found a larger town, where Carley was able to call and sing “Happy Birthday” to her mom. We stocked up on provisions there, and after a 20 minute drive, we rolled into a very promising-looking beach called La Ticla. The beach was much less crowded, and there was plenty of wide open space under the enramadas for setting up a peaceful camp. We quickly gathered that this was a surfing beach, judging from the huge waves and high percentage of California license plates. The camping price was even cheaper here, about $2.50US. The owner of the enramada was a lovely local Nahua (indigenous) woman named Amalia who made us feel right at home. We enjoyed our one-night stay here, though we didn’t end up socializing with the gringos – there seems to be a tendency with surfers to be a bit snobbish toward non-surfing tourists here. Since our primary water activity was to be swimming, this beach was not really our style, since the enormous pounding waves made it rather dangerous to be out there without a board. Also the black sand here (evidence of nearby volcanic activity) was much more persistent in getting into and all over everything.

Carley and the surfers (La Ticla)

Rob and Kina at La Ticla

Amalia, our gracious hostess at La Ticla

On Saturday we rolled about 50 miles down the coast to what our guidebook describes as probably the most beautiful beach in Mexico – Maruata. Now we were really out in the middle of nowhere, in a small village with no other villages anywhere nearby. And as promised, this beach is extremely picturesque. Several very large rock formations here divide the coast up into several smaller beaches, some with large pounding surf, others with nice swimming areas. In a few places, the ocean had carved tunnels through the rock formations, and sight of huge waves exploding out of these caves on to the beach was a sight to behold. These turbulent areas were definitely not safe for swimming!

Beautiful Maruata

Our camp at Maruata

Kina's not afraid of the approaching cave wave (Maruata)

Schwirl at Maruata!!

There was one area which Rob dubbed “the kiddie beach” that was great for floating around in the ocean without fear of being dragged 20 feet by a ridiculous current. All of us swam at this beach – Kina included. As Carley was swimming back to shore during a brief swim, she noticed that all of the people standing in shallow water were staring wide-eyed at something passing them in the water. Upon closer observation, that something proved to be Kina. We think that she either a) likes to swim; or b) has such severe separation anxiety that she would prefer risking a watery death to being without her parents. She also has a tendency to bark at us every time we exit the ocean, as if she’s not sure whether or not we’re the same people who went in.

Maruata seems to be a party spot for Mexican teenagers and 20-somethings (not many families here, and almost no gringos), and the campsite next to ours smelled like a Grateful Dead concert all day long. However things never got too rowdy or boisterous. This turned out to be the perfect spot for us to celebrate Fest-Fest, in solidarity with some of our friends in northern California. Fest-Fest is a mostly obscure holiday celebrated in early spring, originating in northern California – though it has reportedly spread to Thailand due to migration – and always involving tequila!

Rob celebrates FestFest at Maruata

Thanks to the tequila, we were a bit hung over on Sunday morning. Nevertheless, we decided to push on down the coast, in search of complete solitude. While generally we like party spots, especially if our friends are around, the feeling is different when it’s just the 2 of us. About 30 miles south, we found a real jewel, a tiny peaceful village called Pichilinguillo. (We decided to shorten the name and call it Peachy, in honor of our friend by the same name who is also a gem.) Pichilinguillo is still in the middle of nowhere, on a small beach situated on a tiny bay surrounded by cliffs on 3 sides. The beach had just one enramada, and it was empty – we would be the only campers here! Here we felt we were in heaven! We swam to our heart’s content, and enjoyed almost complete privacy on the secluded beach (with the exception of a few occasional children and dogs from the village).

Our own Blue Lagoon, Pichilinguillo

All alone at Pichilinguillo

The proprietors of this enramada are a very nice family, headed by the beautiful Flora and her talkative husband Ignacio, that live in a house on the cliff off to one side of the beach, and they operate a modest restaurant with a lovely patio over-looking the crashing waves – a very convenient luxury. After getting to know the family, we discovered that they had lived in the Bay Area for a number of years. “íEl mundo es chiquito!” laughed Ignacio when we told him we just left Oakland. The world is small indeed.

We definitely felt tempted to stay here in Peachy a few days; however, with so much more ground to cover in the next 2 weeks, plus the rather immediate need for Internet access, we decided to hit the road again on Monday morning. However, this is a place we would definitely like to visit again sometime. In fact, the whole area around Pichilinguillo is extremely enticing, as we passed by quite a number of absolutely deserted beaches that were just beckoning us to come on out and stay awhile. With the rural ambience of this region due to the lack of over-development, this area is one of Mexico’s last hidden treasures – though we doubt it will stay this way for too much longer.

A few hours south of Pichilinguillo, we came upon the next major inland-bound highway, and suddenly our surroundings were much more urban again, with a huge increase in traffic, speed bumps and roadside vendors. Around this time we crossed the state line from Michoacán into the much more developed coastline of the state of Guerrero, which is home to two of Mexico’s mega-resort cities, Ixtapa and Acapulco. Shortly we drove past Ixtapa, catching a glimpse of its resort hotel towers in the distance, but opting not to pay for a $150 hotel room here amidst the golf courses, water slide parks, dolphin shows, and booming discos – this was not the Mexico we were looking for.

Just 10 minutes past Ixtapa (still a couple hundred miles northwest of Acapulco) we arrived in the laid-back seaside tourist town of Zihuatanejo (locally known as Zihua – pronounced see-wah). Decidely more seedy and low-key, but packed with bars, restaurants and Internet cafes, this seemed like a decent place to re-charge and get the sand out of our ears.

On to DAYS 15-17: La Costa Grande - Zihuatanejo and Acapulco

MEXICO, DAYS 7-10: Uruapan, Volcanos, and Colima

Chillin' on a lava boulder by the ruins of Templo San Juan, near Paricutín

After a few days of roughing it in the woods to escape the Easter weekend vacation crowds, we were seriously ready for a shower and clean laundry. A friend had recommended the small west-central highland city of Uruapan (oo-roo-WAH-pun), so we decided to alight here for a couple of days. It was a relatively comfortable place, surrounded by avocado groves, with a noticeably youthful population due to several universities. We enjoyed some pretty decent live music in one of the bars – a trio of acoustic guitar, electric bass, and percussion, playing a variety of Latin folk songs, including several works by the famous Cuban musicians Silvio Rodriguez (one of Carley’s favorites) and Pablo Milenéz. The bar also featured some interesting cocktails which we’d never seen before; our favorite was the one with tequila, pineapple juice & grapefruit soda. However, Carley’s favorite treat in Uruapan was undoubtedly her dinner the second night, an aguacate relleno, which consisted of two halves of an avocado filled with Mexican shrimp cocktail (baby shrimp in a mild tomato-based sauce). Uruapan also boasts its own national park right next to the city center, which was constructed to resemble a tropical jungle, complete with a number of waterfalls. However we decided not to pay the admission price, opting to wait for the real thing in our upcoming travels. Ultimately, the high prices and noisy traffic jams of Uruapan made us happy to be on the road a few days later.

Our next adventure took us to the site of one of the world’s newest volcanoes, the famous Paricutín. This little fire-breathing mountain first burst onto the scene only around 60 years ago, right in the middle of a farmer’s field. According to the story, the farmer was plowing his field when the sparks and ash first started spurting from the ground, and he tried to cover it with dirt before finally giving up and fleeing. Eventually the lava completely covered 2 small towns, leaving only the top of one tall cathedral, Templo San Juan, poking up through the surface. (Apparently nobody died, since the lava moved very slowly) Today the remains of the cathedral still stand, and this was our destination.

The ruins of Templo San Juan, poking out of the mass of black lava boulders

When we reached the village nearest the volcano, we were immediately surrounded by local guides with horses offering to take us to the volcano for a price. We refused, pointing out our dog who was simultaneously barking at and trying to hide from the horses. But one of the guides stuck with us anyway – Miguel. And, of course, we ended up paying for his services since he was very nice, informative, and we learned during the hike that his wife was expecting twins. He was a local Purépechan who had learned some Spanish in school and picked up the rest by talking with tourists. He told us that the two villages destroyed by the volcano were resettled, but as a result, neither village has maintained much of their indigenous language or culture. In his village, Angahuan, most people still speak the indigenous language (few speak Spanish), dress in traditional indigenous fashion (the bright skirts of the women were particularly striking), and maintain at least some of their pre-conquest religion (though they identify as Christian, they still worship old gods, especially the Rain God, which is easy to understand in light of all of the dust).

Our guide Miguel and his horse take us to the ruins of Templo San Juan (background), the only remains of a village wiped out by Paricutín (also in the background)

After a 2-mile hike from the village, first down a road of black ash, then across jagged black boulders, we were able to climb on parts of the church and even enter some of the rooms. In 1943, as the volcano continued to grow and spew lava and ash, the local people became convinced it was the end of the world and gathered in the church to await the rapture. Miguel showed us black & white photos of these townspeople gathered in the church with lava on either side of the building. Eventually the Army was called in to forcibly remove them. As things turned out, the altar of the church remained intact, leading many locals to call it a miracle…and it did seem a bit miraculous, since a high wall of lava rock had stopped abruptly only a few feet from the altar.

The altar of Templo San Juan, miraculously spared from the lava of Paricutín

The volcano itself was still several miles away and quite small compared to the other mountains in the distance, due to its having only erupted once in its life so far. Rob was really hoping to hike all the way to the crater itself, which still emits wisps of steam; however he changed his mind once he learned it would be at least an 8-hour walk with puffs of black ash rising from every footstep.

After a 4-hour drive west, we arrived at the base of a couple of huge volcanoes, the twin peaks of Volcán de Fuego (fire) and Volcán de Nevado (snowy), about half an hour north of the city of Colima. Although Nevado didn’t actually have a snowcap in late March, Fuego is very aptly named since it seems to erupt every few years, forcing local villages to evacuate rather frequently. We visited the village closest to the base of the volcano, Yerbabuena, and it was practically a ghost town. Besides one local resident, the only people we saw were army soldiers who were there to prevent people from going any closer to the volcano, and probably there to make sure people evacuated in case of emergency. From this vantage it was easy to see steam rising from the massive peak.

Volcán de Fuego (with wisps of smoke) and Rob (not afraid)

Yerbabuena - the "ghost town" next to Volcán de Fuego

We spent the night at a nearby campground next to a lake, but got very little sleep due to the noisy goose population and the free-roaming horses grazing near our tent.

The next day we checked out the nearby west-central city of Colima, a small, beautiful city with lush green plazas and a rather up-scale sophisticated vibe. Here we decided to spend a night to get rested and ready for our upcoming long drive down the coast. We ended up eating all of our meals at the same restaurant a block from our hotel, the veggie-friendly Centro de Nutricion Lakshmi. Although Rob is quite the omnivore and has no problem devouring most flavors of meat, he’s not opposed to a break here and there from the usual Mexican food. Besides, how could we go wrong with their broad selection of veggie sandwiches and soy-burgers and a buy-two-and-get-one-free Wednesday night special. (We are on a budget, y’know) And the breakfast the next morning was absolutely scrumptious: a huge plate full of fresh sliced fruit, covered with fruit-flavored yogurt, granola and honey – definitely a nice change from the usual eggs, beans & tortillas. After that we were ready to go hit the beach!!

Jardín Nuñez, the park in front of our hotel in Colima

Centro Naturista in Colima - veggie burger heaven

On to DAYS 11-14: The Michoacán coast