travelog 61

Tierra Caliente

You already know George, known in Mexico as Jorge (pronounced Horhay), from earlier travel reports. Our friend George will stop at nothing and so he came to visit us in Mexico, and this from mid to the end of March! THere's no problem with that at all, but if you are, like George, a man from the north, then March can feel like high summer in the heart of Mexico. Of course this is where opinions differ. Some like it and they can't wait to escape the grey and raw end of winter in Europe, but others feel on top of the world at 5° Celsius (41° Fahrenheit), in their t-shirts. But, actually, we want to tell you about our trip through Michoacan.

George wanted to see a little bit of everything that there is: culture, nature, and the beach. We too wanted to explore a new region, so what could be more obvious than a round trip through Michoacan. Michoacan is a Mexican state in the heart of the country that gives you a little bit of everything. Many corners of Michoacan are still totally unexplored and they appear more or less as white spots on the map where there are at the most some bad dirt roads and isolated Indian villages. Michoacan is especially famous for its capital, Morelia, a city protected by UNESCO, but also for smaller cities like Patzcuaro. The arts of pottery and wood crafting from Michoacan are also well-known. The Pacific beaches, however, are still an insider tip.

It was the first trip to Mexico for George and understandably he was fascinated by different things. Driving on Mexican roads, he first noticed the "topes". George called these obstructions to traffic that serve to slow down traffic in strategical and dangerous places, aptly, "jumping hills". Every little town creates its own topes that are built in different shapes and heights according to village taste. Most of the time they're signposted, but if you're unlucky and drive over an unannounced tope too fast, not only your back suffers but also the suspension of your car could be seriously damaged. On the other hand, topes are often the only way to force Mexicans to take their feet from the gas pedal in villages and towns. Another notable difference from Germany, where George comes from, are the completely loaded pickups. At least three people sit in the driver's cabin and the entire family and everything you need for a Sunday outdoors is packed onto the payload area. Kids and young people sit in the back, but also the police drive around with their crew sitting in the back of the pickups, sometimes with their weapons raised. This is quite a normal sight for us but George is shocked and says that the police in Germany would instantly take away the licence of the driver and give him a steep fine, because with an unexpected stop, a crash, or an unannounced jumping hill, the passengers could be ejected from the back of the pickup.

We started our trip in Patzcuaro. At 2100m altitude (6000 feet) Patzcuaro was not a temperature problem. The two of us had to wear our fleece jackets in the mornings and evenings, but George thought the climate was perfect and he always walked around wearing only a t-shirt. During the day we walked in the shade of the narrow lanes or we did some people watching from a shady bench in the park. The city was preparing itself for the coming Easter week and everywhere the painters were at work. The rows of houses are painted white and bordeaux-red with overhanging tiled roofs, the wooden beams of which are also painted in red. Everywhere it smelled of fresh paint and we all wound our way through the temporarily put up scaffolding. Two large green squares form the downtown area from where you can explore everything easily on foot. The men want to dress up a little bit too and so we first visit one of the many shoe-shiners around the square. George ascends the throne first and the shoe-shiner goes to work. With various creams and polishes and different clothes and rags he rubs and polishes George's dusty shoes. Finally they look like newly bought. Of course, Martin's sandals receive a general overhaul and the brown leather that was hidden under an inch-thick layer of dust soon acquires new splendor. Now we can go exploring. The market is full of nooks and crannies and stretches into the small lanes of the city. Guavas, mangoes, and granadillas were on sale right now, all from the fertile regions around Uruapan. The "pescado blanco" (white fish), a specialty of the region, looked ridiculously tiny to us. You had to buy some pounds to be able to prepare a full meal. The fish population in the lakes of Patzcuaro and Zirahuen is obviously not doing very well. The lake of Patzcuaro is completely filthy dirty and overfished. The lake of Zirahuen in the mountains nearby seems to be a little more protected but it's also suffering from overfishing.

Lunch is being prepared at small stands in the market. Flames blaze under copper kettles from Santa Clara del Cobre. With other market visitors we're sweating at lunch and are tempted to quench our thirst with a cold beer. Of course there are also some old churches with miraculous altar figures to visit. And a museum with pottery art from all over Michoacan. In its courtyard you can still see the walls of a Spanish prison with the calendar marks made by the prisoners. These walls and the building itself, which dates back to the 16th century, were built on the construction of the Purepecha Indians, the native inhabitants of this area. You can still see parts of these Purepecha ruins too. In the evenings we sit comfortably in one of the many cafes around the main square and observe the hustle and bustle. Near the city lies Santa Clara del Cobre, the centre for copper craft in Mexico. There are no copper mines near this little village but nontheless the inhabitants specialize in working with copper. Every other store offers huge kettles and pans, but also bells, door-knockers, figures of saints, souvenir plates, lamps, and masses of kitsch. We linger a little in the small main square and enjoy a real "cafe de olla". It's coffee made with beans from the region that is brewed in a ceramic pot and prepared with cinnamon and piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar).

Near Patzcuaro, around the lake, there are various Purepecha ruins. Tzintzuntzan probably has the most unusual name that means "place of the hummingbird". The walls don't look very impressive from far away but as soon as you wander around the round pyramids, called Yácatas, you're amazed by their size. In many of the rocks you can still see petroglyphs. What interests us very much is an echeveria that grows in these ancient walls. Tingambato is another excavation site where the guard shows us a grotto where skulls and human bones, as well as burial objects, were found. There's a step pyramid and a ball game square on this site. But the majority of the ruins are still hidden under soil and mostly private property. Avocado plantations still bring more money than Indian ruins.

Uruapan is the self-appointed avocado capital of the world and so you're driving for ever and a day through avocado plantations where the workers are busy with the harvest. Other than that Uruapan is a modern city where you find a hotel easily but where it's difficult to find a restaurant where you can sit outside to drink your cold beer. Situated at 1500m (4500 feet) the temperatures are exactly right to visit the national park of this city. It's a huge park with very old trees. Everything is overgrown with greenery and innumerable streams run through it. Visitors take each other's pictures at artificially made waterfalls and you can imagine very well the commotion on weekends. In the mornings it smells deliciously of coffee and chocolate made around the main square. In some of the little stores you can buy Mexican chocolate and various sorts of coffee beans from the area. Of course coffee and hot chocolate are also served for breakfast in some street cafes where we strenghten ourselves for another hot day.

South of Uruapan the road winds further down into the lowlands. But first we visit the waterfall of Tzararacua. You have to pay an entrance fee and as soon as you leave your car, you're surrounded by Mexicans who offer you their donkey or mule for the descent. We say no thank you and prefer walking down ourselves. The path stays in the shade most of the time and we can hear the waterfall from far away. At strategic points we find little stalls and even a restaurant where you can take a breather. The vegetation becomes greener and greener and suddenly we can also smell the waterfall. It must be the entire sewage of Uruapan! It's a beautiful place in itself with interesting plants. The water falls over steps into a big basin or gushes out of the porous volcanic rock. Orchids hang in the trees and on the other side, far above the water, we discover Echeveria calycosa which obviously doesn't like the sewage either. The plants grow on the opposite side of the rocks.

From here on we can only go lower and lower, and the temperatures go higher and higher. If we want to climb up some hills, we leave George in the shade of a big tree. But soon he can't even stand that anymore and he waits in the car with the air conditioning on maximum speed. When we come back the car always feels like a freezer compartment. This is the "Tierra Caliente", the hot land, where opium is grown in inaccessible places. Before, this road was notorious for highway robbery and the legend survives, but increased police controls have eliminated most of the bandits, at least during the day. There are no tourist attractions here. We're out in the country. The hotels are correspondingly thin on the ground and certainly not worldclass. There's the missing shower curtain, a lonely, naked light bulb lighting the room, or you make the acquaintance of all sorts of critters that clear off into darker corners with bright light and fast movements. But at night there's always a cool breeze and you can enjoy some bottles of beer and delicious Mexican food. As the only customers we're truly well treated.

After some days we finally reach the sea. There's always a cool breeze from the Pacific and the water is a very nice temperature. We arrive in Playa Azul before the big Easter commotion and can choose between many small hotels. At night we're having fish and seafood in a little restaurant, everything freshly caught. Along the coast between Playa Azul and Tecoman it's not as easy anymore to find a place to put your head to rest, but the coast is all the more spectacular. The paved road was only finished in 1984 and many beaches will never be discovered. Most of them are completely inaccessible and far below the road, but the views you get from this height down to the rough stretch of coast and the roaring surf of the Pacific is extraordinarily beautiful. There are only a few little villages and at some hidden beaches a small palapa where you can get fresh fish and beer. We try our luck in Maruata where they have cabaņas for rent. The girl at the entrance is too busy with the soap opera on TV to help us. Her sister who looks under age swings her little baby so strongly that we fear the little girl will get seasick. She can't help us either but she sends us to a lad who's shuffling around on the street. It's her brother and he really has cabaņas for rent. "Can we see one?" He rolls his eyes about the outrageous wish of these tourists and opens us a shed. The walls and the roof are made of corrugated iron that has heated up to an oven with the summery temperatures. On the sandy soil, after all, the beach is just around the corner, there's a wooden bed with an old mattress. There's neither a table nor a chair to put something on. The showers and toilets are around the corner beside the kitchen. When we have the impertinence to ask for the price, he leaves us speechless. That little lot would cost us 150 pesos ($15). We can only laugh dryly. In his eyes we might be stupid gringos who can be fleeced, but first of all we cannot expect George to put up with this oven-shed or he really would break off our friendship forever, and secondly we know our way around Mexican prices a little bit and know that we can get a somewhat decent hotel room with a window, a fan, mosquito netting, and clean sheets for the same price. We drive past the Faro de Bucerias where we would have loved to stay - but the heat, says George, the heat - and towards Tecoman. The same evening we decide to change all the plans and the route.

By the shortest route, past the huge Colima volcano and its smaller but all the more active brother, Volcan del Fuego, we drive to Tapalpa in Jalisco, a little mountain village in the highest mountains around Guadalajara. Here, to some extent, even George feels like a normal human being again, sitting in the shade. Since our last visit the hotel has been renovated and we get all new rooms. Every night we treat ourselves to some sips of tequila, admittedly only from plastic cups, but it tastes fine anyway. Of course we give George a hard time and take him to yet another waterfall, where the descent and ascent are very hot. But the reward is a specialty of Tapalpa, Borrego al Pastor, tender lamb halves that are roasted on spits on an open fire in front of the restaurant. Served with it are handmade tortillas, beans and, of course, cold beer. With all that you can easily forget the strains of the day.

We spend the last two days in Guadalajara but we'll tell you about this city in one of our next travel reports. We stay in a cute little hotel with many plants, a cozy inner courtyard, and differently painted and decorated rooms. In the mornings we have breakfast outside with lots of fruit. And this courtyard is also the place where we end our evenings with a glass or two of tequila.

The last night we bring George to the airport and around noon the next day he's back in cold Frankfurt. On the trip back to his home he passes by some last remains of snow along the road. And once again we have to say that we really prefer the warmth of a Mexican summer to cold European days.

March 2004

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen