Wednesday, April 1, 2015

On the Road for seven days

Day one Matzatlan

the blue bus
7am and waiting
Up at 5am - we need all the time we can get and not knowing if taxis would be ready we were leaving early. Locking up unit #2 we felt safe leaving our second home. The taxi was there and we arrived at the pickup point earlier than planned - 7am. Finally the big blue bus arrived and Noel, our guide, jumped out and asked if 
relaxing after the bus ride
Noel - the Guide
we were, "The Burds?" Bags on board we settled back for a seven hour drive. Two pee stops,and four checkpoints later, we disembarked at the Crowne Plaza in Mazatlan. A four star hotel complete with four star prices (good job we had a package) - very nice.
another checkpoint
looking for illegals
The seven hour trip took us though Tepic, and the first part of this journey on Route 200 was not a new road, just a two lane highway to Tepic, winding through the coastal mountains North to the Port City of Mazatlan. Passing Tepic  the trip was uneventful for a Mexican but with a little drama for us 'gringos'. The bus was boarded by an immigration officer who wanted to check for illegals as Route 200 was the main Continental North-South highway and habituated by transients who sneak rides on anything that moves. Passing through two more checkpoints - one military and one agricultural we arrived in Mazatlan. An old settlement based on the harbour for years morphed into an early tourist Town but is showing its wear. We stayed in the Crowne Plaza located in the North end of the hotel zone, twenty minutes away from downtown. Driving downtown the impression was that Mazatlan had seen better times and the renewal typical of tourist Mexico was in full bloom. Not so many renovations of old establishments just closed up places next to new ones trying to start up. Definitely in transition. We will be seeing more on the last day when we return and do the City Tour.
dancing girls

On the Malecon
a float
another float

Noel has explained that we would not be doing the City Tour today; it was Carnivale time. So a couple of hours spent downtown, not seeing much because the instructions were wrong and we were at the wrong end of the Parade. What we did see was colourful and enjoyable.

Day 2 El Fuerte

checking luggage
Posada del Hidalgo
Up early again - it will be the norm - breakfast finished and bags stowed and on the bus at 8am for a five hour road trip to El Fuertes. However this road trip was not without drama. Four checkpoints to pass through, one was an immigration check – these guys poked and prodded the bus and even asked us to identify luggage which we had to  open.

After a couple of hours we encountered another problem – the air conditioning packed up. One of the passengers told of a trick to stop slipping belts (engine belts) – drop antifreeze on the belt – it worked for about thirty minutes. So the rest of the trip was spent hunting fresh air. But we did get to buy beer at the truck stop!

Inside the Posada
Posada courtyard
Finally arriving at the hotel Posada de Hidalgo, checked in found the light switches (Mexico hides the switches) clean up and get back down for lunch. The Posada is an amazing place, full of history and supposedly the birthplace of Zorro. Part of a modern hotel chain there are no bargains here. A walking tour was arranged and we saw the local museum – “El Fuerte”. A traditional Spanish battlement this one had been restored and the interior space normally left open had been built upon. The water cistern for the Town was built here in 1940. The interior of the exterior was the museum and 

A view of the Town
Zorro and his band
housed local artifacts and art works; the standard stuff. A little walk around the town, which appeared to be a sleepy little place with astounding architecture. We both said to ourselves “We could stay here a while”. Evening time – time for the ‘happy hour’ and the appearance of Zorro. Complete with his own band they turned up to serenade us and hug the ladies. Back to the room and another early start tomorrow.

Day 3 the train

The journey really begins. At the train station by 8am we climbed aboard at 8.20. Found our seats, after initial confusion as the guide was struggling to organise the luggage and have us seated in our numbered seats. Settling down to a four hour ride it was ‘miller time’ again; another expensive libation but worth it.

The train on a bridge
The Hotel garden
The countryside was at first open scrub and non-noteworthy, but as we climbed it changed. Ninety minutes into the ride the first engineering marvel, the longest tunnel on the line – 1.2 miles long and three minutes of travel. Three hours into the trip the train entered a passing place and we switched tracks with a freight train. Ahead now we still have an hour before getting off at Bahuichivo station then a 40 minute bus ride to the Hotel Mision located in Cerocahui. With the rock cuts and tunnels the scenery is less than advertised. Dismounting the train and then getting on to the bus we were ready for the forty minute trip to the hotel. This road was being redone and we were in single file and stuck in road works for some time, just a taste of what was to come later that afternoon.
Urique Canyon
Lunch at the hotel and then back on the bus – we were off to the Canyons. This time the bus ride was ninety minutes of hairpin bends and edge nudging driving. The vertical drops were considerable and would be fatal. We climbed to seven and a half thousand feet and stopped at a scenic lookout. Beautiful panoramas were before us. Twenty-eight camera clicking tourists got to work doing touristy things and then we got back on the bus and descended the mountains. Back into the confines of the hotel and drank some more wine. By this time the woodstoves in our rooms had been set on fire and we finished the dinner to return to cosy rooms. To sum up - a long day on the train and bus, compensated by a spectacular view of the Urique Canyon.

The viewing platform
Another view of Urique Canyon

Day 4 Ceracahui

A misty morning
I went walking these folks
drank coffee in front of the fire
Up early to cool rooms, the fires long burned out and most of the wood gone. Plenty of hot water in the shower and the bathroom soon warmed up. Early morning mist covered the Town and a morning stroll uncovered the small Town’s sights. Something wrong here large new houses built on small lots, asking the guide all he said was “You know where the money comes from”. Nudge nudge wink wink! Being in the gang State of Sinaloa  my guess would be dirty money and everybody likes it. Another sleepy Town but a couple of interesting features. One was a small brick building with bars on the front and two cells side by side, my guess the gaol.

The Town Gaol?

Back to the hotel for a large Mexican breakfast and then the official walkabout. Saw the Church, local grocery store and the Square. Next stop the railway station after another trip down the new construction and one lane road. Since the problems with the missing bags ( a couple of bags had not been transferred from the last train and were found at the end of the line) everybody was herding their bags much more carefully today. This train ride was only ninety minutes – hardly time to down an expensive beer.

Charles and his mother's
The cliff houses
The outhouse!!
Arriving in Barrancas and the Hotel Mirador, straight to lunch; keys handed out at the time. The next tour was a walking tour to see the people living in the caves. Bit of a stretch – the caves were only adobe huts built into the cliff face but the indigenous people were really living in cliff houses. One even had a pig sty attached. The important part of this walk was the fulfilment of a family obligation. Brother in Law Charles who had joined us on this trip had an ornamental bell from his dead mother’s bell collection. He told us that he had promised to take a bell back to the Copper Canyon some day as she had always wanted to visit the place. Charles really didn’t know what to do with the bell once he arrived at the Canyon. Thinking between throwing the bell from a high point or just dropping it  on the roadside. Once he was faced with yet another set of indigenous peoples selling the same stuff he encountered a young girl selling pots. He knew exactly what to do – he gave it to her. She immediately gave it to her smaller brother. Two happy people. Some people even heard the bell tinkling in the morning presumably the little boy with a new toy! 
The boy and his bell

Apparently these dwellings have been against the cliff for about fifty years proving some people will build where they can and now are part of the local tourist trade. All we know is that the climb consisted of two hundred and fifty steps both ways.

Entertainment at six consisted of one man on a guitar and a good looking women dressed as a cowgirl. Singing a mixture of Mexican and American songs his one hour medley was the lead in to Dinner. With no internet or TV the conversation at dinner was long and lively – twenty eight people had blended well. The highlight of the day was the discovery at the Barrancas rail station that a member of the group was still on the train. Noel the trusty guide hustled to the next train station, he described the driver as a maniac (hard to imagine since all Mexicans normally drive like maniacs) and they pulled into the next station just as the train pulled in. Hauling the miscreant off the train to rejoin the group, the tour resumed.

Hotel Mirador,
on the mountain
Local vendors selling pots

A native mother

Day 5 Hotel  Ziplining and the Cable Car

Sunrise in the Canyon
Cable car
Breakfast at eight but everybody was up before sunrise, an easy deal as all the rooms faced the sun, to see the sunrise. Today was a bit of a disappointment as the clouds diffused the sun and we did not get a nice round ball – just sunlight. On the bus again to see the entertainment site of the Federal Park. This complex was where the zipline and the cable car set off. Also an entertainment complex of miniature golf, trampolines and mini-bungee jumps and a climbing wall was located – a veritable cornucopia of Mexican fun. I headed off to the zipline and Doreen and Charles played it safe choosing the cable car.  Eight minutes of there and eight minutes of back and a hike in between – ledges to climb on and more baskets to look at.

Suiting up
A zipline
The zipline was another choice  – one line seven thousand feet, claimed to be the longest in the world, or a line with seven stages. I chose the seven stages. The adventure started by signing the waiver form, upon which one line was a beneficiary’s name, then a visit to the hut  where one was fitted out with the harness. This harness was a seat strap where the loops wrapped around one’s thighs and rear-end to form a seat. This harness was connected to the rolling device with carabiners attached to short lines. The actual act of ziplining consisted of hanging from the rollers and lifting one’s legs waist high and leaning back with both hands clasping the top of the roller. The higher one lifted one’s legs the faster the zippier the speed. As the cables between the start and finish hung down (sagged in the middle) the weight of the zipper defined how fast one would arrive at the end. We were instructed to brake by placing a gloved hand on the wire and pressing “Do not grab the wire with a closed fist as it may snag and dislocate your shoulder!” If one did come in too fast there was a braking mechanism that consisted of a sliding block of wood that would make contact with another block of wood which would contact the rollers. The sliding piece of wood was held fast to a length of rope which was pulled hard by the human catcher to slow the speed of the zipper. The operation of each zip was
Ready to go 
started by the worker taking the roller from a backpack, each one of us wore, placing it on the wire and then attaching the carabiners from the harness to the roller, and when the wire was free from the other zipper let us go. The rollers screamed, we hung on and tried not to get to upset when the wind would catch us in the middle of the ride. Hoping that we had gauged the correct position of our legs, it dictated how fast we would come in to the catcher. Keep them too low and we would be stopping feet away from the catching stand. When that happened one was instructed to swivel one hundred and eighty degrees and then haul ourselves hand over hand to the stand. More on that later.

One of two footbridges
After the first zip there was a footbridge to traverse. This bridge was a suspension bridge 150 meters long. Normally a challenge for even the hardiest but when there was, like today, an arsehole of a person of Slavic origin who in trying to scare his girlfriend ended up rocking the bridge and bouncing up and down like a maniac, it just made the crossing more eventful and scary. Another bridge between stands four and five was a bit better after we had shouted at the guy to tone it down.

The double zip with the addition of the 'catcher'

On to zip five – eleven hundred meters long, it was the longest of the runs. Because the lines were not tensioned really tight the weight of the line made it sag considerably. Consequently to make the weight needed to be able to get to the other side two zippers had to join together. One would be in front of the other assuming the normal zipping position the other would be hanging close and wrap their legs around the body of the front one. In theory it was good. I was paired with a sturdy Mexican lady and all should have been well. But we ended up ten metres short. Not able to perform the usual drill – swivel one-eighty and then hand over hand, I wondered what was to happen as we hung there. I attempted to hand over hand from the back but found it difficult. Help was at hand; the catcher had zipped to our position and hooked his roller to ours and he was able to hand over hand us back to the stand.

Finishing the remaining stages without mishap we arrived at the cable car location and were soon in the entertainment complex. Back to the hotel and then the station to catch the train back to El Fuerte, connect with the bus and on to a new hotel – The Santa Anita hotel in Los Michos. The last free dinner – a seafood plate, a little dry and warm but we were supposed to be here two hours earlier!

Day 6 Back to Matzatlan

Leaving dead on eight we left the City of Los Michos, founded by an American who built the railroad now an industrial City set in the marshes of the delta, for five hours on the highway back to Matzatlan. The A/C has been fixed and now we are in comfort but the A/C only has two positions high and off so wait for the complaints. Fifty minutes into the trip the complaints have started; too cold, now too hot. We can report that after the first pee stop two hours in, the heat came up and we needed the max A/C then we heard no more complaints.

The fields South of Matzatlan
Downtown restaurant
The flatland that we pass today is irrigated from the mountains and is one of the ‘breadbaskets’ of Mexico. The rich soil can provide three crops a year for corn and other vegetables. Roadworks are slowing us down repaving is taking place. Nearer to Matzatlan the land becomes less flat and we see in some fields acres of plastic tents – greenhouses for tomatoes. Standing about six feet high and tan in colour they look like large ‘yurts’ (complex tents used in Mongolia). Some fields are devoted to large acreages of corn. Obviously cheaper to grow than labour intensive tomatoes.Back at the Crowne Plaza time for lunch and then a walking tour of Maz. Driving along the 20km Malecon the whole of the City comes into view – hotels and establishments on the left and the sandy beach on the right.
Downtown Mazatlan
Downtown is of the old and tired, just waiting for renewal. The jewel in the crown was the small Town Plaza, mainly because of the ambience of the bars and restaurants that line the square. But the main square is more utilitarian fronting the Cathedral and Civic Centre. To sum up Mazatlan has three distinct areas – Marina/Hotel zone, the Gringo hangouts/Hotel zone and Downtown.

Other pics of the area

These pics didn't fit the narrative but I liked them

Acres of greenhouses

undercover vegetables
A street vendor

Waiting for a customer

Day 7 Back to PV

On the bus by eight and no stops until the refuelling two hours in. Next a lunch in Las Valas, totally Mexican, the mesaritas certainly did not speak English, but we made it through with the help of Noel. The last two hours passed quickly as we recognised locations from earlier trips or the way up last week. The last act of kindness was the dropoff at the condo location – sparing us a taxi ride.

Thanks to SuperiorTours of Puerto Vallarta