Guanajuato

It’s a short drive from Angahuan to Uruapan, a good sized city with a scenic national park. I get a camping spot in the lot of a resort hotel, it’s a very nice resort type place with a big pool. There don’t seem to be many people in the hotel at the moment, but there are two Policia Federal camped out in the hotel lobby 24/7. I had thought about going to the national park in the afternoon but I am still sore from the horse ride so decide to spend the afternoon soaking in the pool and sunshine.

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In the morning a guy and his dog stop by to say hello. He hands me a couple of avocados, I ask how much and he tells me they are a gift. He lives next to the hotel and is happy to see travelers from other countries.

Still not feeling like a lot of hiking so I set off for Guanajuato. It’s a full day drive through the mountains and small towns of Michoacan. Coming into one town I go through this

Roadblock in Michoacan town

which seems pretty sketchy. Around the corner is a small bus stop all sandbagged up and converted into a makeshift toll booth. I drop a couple of coins into the woman’s cup and she seems happy enough, but I decide not to stop here for lunch.

Later in the afternoon I arrive in Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a beautiful town but extremely hilly with narrow streets and tunnels going everywhere.

Here is the last few minutes of the drive, arriving at the campground overlooking Guanajuato

Guanajuato Hills

The campground is really just someone’s back yard, with space for four or five trucks or small RVs and a couple of bathrooms. One effect of these hills is that the noise of all of the thousands of barking dogs are reflected and blended together, so there is a constant continuous barking roar in the background day and night.

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It’s a great walking town once you get down the hills. Lots of little squares and parks, many great restaurants.

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I spend three days here doing a lot of walking through the city. It’s still pretty cold  and cloudy most of the time although the sun comes out for a few hours here and there.

 

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Volcan Paricutin

I had been thinking about continuing down the coast to Acapulco before turning inland, but I’ve been on the beach or in the desert for so long it’s time for something different. I head east out of Puerto Vallarta up into the mountains toward Guadalajara. The road climbs quickly up over 5,000′ and the change in temperature is dramatic, from 95 to 75 in a few hours.

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It finally feels like fall. All of the little farms along the way are harvesting their crops.

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Skirting the huge city of Guadalajara I find a very nice campground on the shores of Lago de Chapala. Next day on to the little mountain town of Anaghuan near the Volcan Paricutin.

This volcano appeared in 1943, when a farmer plowing his fields saw the ground crack in front of him, then smoke, steam, and eventually lava erupted. The volcano grew to 1,400′ while lava flows engulfed the towns of Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro. Luckily of the villagers it was slow moving and everybody was able to evacuate safely. The only trace left of these towns is parts of San Juan Parangaricutiro Church which still stand in the lava fields.

There is a large visitor center just outside the town of Angahuan, which is where I plan to camp for a couple of days. It’s a short walk to the church ruins from the visitor center, but if you want to go to the volcano you need a guide as the route is not marked. Turns out I have no trouble finding a guide, as I am bumping along the cobblestoned streets of Angahuan a guide comes galloping up on his horse and trots alongside me through the town. I tell him I would like to hike up to the volcano rather than going on horseback, but it seems like he doesn’t want to walk all that way. He says it’s $500MX to walk with a guide or $600MX for a guide and two horses, and the trip is about 8-9 hours walking or 6 hours on horseback. I sign up for the horseback tour leaving a 8am tomorrow. Just after I get set up in the campsite it starts to rain, which feels strange as it’s been over 6 weeks since I have seen any rain. The visitor center is at around 7,900′ so it got a little chilly at night. I could also feel the elevation, having spent a long time at basically sea level, so horseback option may be the best way to go.

Next morning is clear but chilly. My guide Rodrigo meets me with our horses and we set off towards the volcano, over many unmarked back roads and trails following the edge of the huge lava fields. Steam rises from vents all around the volcano.

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After about 2 hours riding we arrive at the base of the volcano. Surprisingly, Rodrigo stays with me the whole way. All of the reviews I’ve read on this trip say that the official guide will sign you up and set out with you, then after the first half mile or so will turn you over to an 11 year old boy for the rest of the trip. I guess because it’s a slow period I get the official guide for the full trip.

These vents are very hot and you can hear the steam whistling out of them.

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There is a kind of a trail going up the side of the volcano from the gate at the bottom, but Rodrigo sneers at it, saying something like “Oh that’s for tourists.” Instead we head pretty much straight uphill. It’s steep and slow going as the volcano is mostly loose ash with rocks so you slide back every third step. After a couple of rest stops we arrive at the crater rim, the high point of the rim is at 9,200′. Plenty of hissing steam vents all along here as well.

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The volcano hasn’t erupted since 1952 so there is no seething pool of lava inside the crater.

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Walking around the crater rim I can see the smoking lava fields stretching out in all directions. Somewhere under there are two towns.

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This is the way down, from the highest point on the crater rim down the steepest slope. You can see the buildings of the gate below. It’s kind of a chute going about 1,000′ straight down, filled with loose volcanic ash. The idea is you take a big step, land in the loose ash and kind of boot ski down 6 or 8 feet at a time. Just have to keep your balance.

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It goes pretty quickly, Rodrigo stops me about half way down for an action shot. It probably took about 4 minutes to go all the way down, much quicker than the way up.

Back on the horses, about an hour and a half back to the famous San Juan Parangaricutiro Church. There is a good paved trail from the visitor center but the last hundred yards or so you have to thread your way through the lava fields. The places where you step are worn down from thousands of people walking through but the rest is all razor sharp lava.

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It’s quite a sight, it seems like something from a movie set. All that is left is the front of the church with its bell tower and the second story window. The second bell tower on the left was under construction when the volcano erupted and was never finished.

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At the other end of the church the altar is almost completely swallowed by lava, you have to walk down into a little grotto to see the altar.

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Back on the horses for the last time, it’s only about 30 minutes more back to the visitor center. I have ridden horses before but this one is very uncomfortable. The saddle is small and hard as a rock, and for some reason my horse keeps wanting to break into a trot. So I have to keep reining him in, every 30 seconds or so, for four hours. Even when he’s walking it’s not a smooth walk, a little bouncier than I would have preferred. When I hop off at the end my butt is very sore, and for some reason my knees as well.

Camped for a second night at the visitor center, no rain but it got pretty cold as the sun set. They have a good restaurant right there so no need to hike back into Angahuan for dinner.

The cemetery in Angahuan decorated for Dias de Muertos

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Beach Living

Driving south out of Mazatlan the scenery is completely different from what I’ve been seeing for the past month. Trees everywhere. You really don’t see any in Baja outside of a few in the town centers.

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Arrived in San Blas and found a good campground/restaurant right on the beach. The weather is perfect as usual but there are a lot of bugs here. Fortunately 98% DEET keeps them off pretty well. The only problem was in the morning when the DEET had worn off and dozens of tiny no-see-ums had found me in the tent. These are the first bugs that are small enough to make it through the screening. I escaped unharmed, but there were a couple of guys who were sleeping in a thatch cabana on the beach side of the restaurant who were covered in red blotches, like the people in the third week of Survivor.

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With the bugs at bay I decide to spend a second night here, it’s a perfect beach spot. I guess San Blas is well known for its bugs, there are not many tourists here. I did remember to bring the bug spray up into the tent so I didn’t have to bail out of the tent first thing in the morning.

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Leaving the bugs of San Blas behind I continue down the coast to Sayulita. It’s a popular tourist beach town, and when I arrive on Saturday afternoon it’s a madhouse. Streets are all jammed and gridlocked with traffic, hundreds of tourists roaming around. It takes quite awhile to make it to the center of town, where I decide this is not for me, then another long while struggling through traffic on the way out of town.

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I go a few miles back up the coast to the little beach town of San Francisco aka San Pancho. There is a basic campground right on the beach, with no apparent bugs. There is a pretty good sized wave just offshore so you just hear surf all night, no cars or barking dogs.

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This little dog comes around every couple of hours looking for a head scratch and a handout.

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There are several restaurants right on the beach where you can eat dinner with your toes in the sand and watch the sun set.

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After sunset I walk up the main street and find Game 4 of the World Series. After awhile a couple of Americans sit down at the next table to watch the game, it turns out one of them is also from Chicago and used to own a Nissan dealership in Joliet. Small world.

Next evening after sunset on the beach I return to catch Game 5, which goes much better for the Cubs.This is a BBQ restaurant so I tried the house special, a big plate of barbecued meats: ribs, chicken, steak, sausage.

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Moving down the coast to Puerto Vallarta. It’s been four days camping on the beach so time for something different. I get four nights at the Plaza Santa Maria, just off the beach, for $26US per night. It’s a very nice place with a huge pool, large suites with kitchen and balcony.

 

For some reason I didn’t take any pictures, I guess walking around town I thought “Oh I’ll bring the camera tomorrow” and never got around to it. I really liked Puerto Vallarta though, it’s a modern bustling town with a great old section.

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Spent two nights at Garage Burger watching the last two games of the World Series. The garage part is bigger than the restaurant part with an interesting collection of cars. It was pretty calm here when the Cubs won

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Mazatlan

It’s been three weeks touring Baja, time to go to mainland Mexico. It’s a couple of hours drive from Los Barriles up to La Paz. I figure I will do the paperwork to import the Land Cruiser into Mexico and see about a ferry ticket to Mazatlan. The ferry runs Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday, today is Tuesday so if I can get a ticket for tonight’s ferry I am off otherwise will be spending another couple of days in La Paz.

The import office is right at the ferry terminal, which is convenient. Unlike most countries, in Mexico you don’t have to import your vehicle at the border if you are going to Baja so I’ve put it off until now. It costs $59US for the import plus a $300US deposit on a credit card which I will get back when leaving Mexico, and I get an official sticker for my windshield and some new paperwork.

They won’t sell my a ticket until I go through customs, a brief search of my stuff then on to the scale where they weigh and measure the Land Cruiser, giving me a receipt I can use to buy a ticket. Finally at the ticket office, stuck in line for a long time. There are two guys ahead of me from California towing a boat on a trailer and there’s something wrong with their paperwork. They speak even less Spanish than me so it takes awhile. The ferry ticket is $160US for me and the Land Cruiser, and I decide to splurge an extra $40US for a cabin instead of a seat. The ferry take 13 hours to Mazatlan overnight, leaving at 8pm and arriving at 9am. Since it starts boarding at 5pm and probably wont’t deboard until at 10am or so that’s a lot of time to spend just sitting in a chair.

When it’s time to board I drive in the back of the ferry, following and endless line of trucks and cars up to the second level.

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then back up the length of the ferry and squeeze into a spot at the back

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The cabin is very nice, a room with 4 beds (2 are foldup beds on the wall) bathroom with shower, plus a little TV room at the front. They offered me a DVD at reception but I didn’t feel like watching Despicable Me in Spanish.

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The ferry leaves at 8pm on schedule, it’s a fairly smooth ride just a little bit of rolling. Next morning at 9am we are nowhere near Mazatlan though.

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Finally around 10am the ferry pulls very slowly into the port. It takes awhile before they call for people on the second deck to go down to their cars, around 11am I drive out of the ferry and into Mazatlan. Not much of a customs checks here, he just checks my new paperwork against the VIN on the Land Cruiser and waves me on.

I stay the night at Hotel Llerma in the historic center of Mazatlan. It’s very basic, just a room with one light bulb and a powerful ceiling fan. Rustic bathroom and no glass or screen on the window, just bars. The shower is hot and the room is clean though. Secure parking in the courtyard below.

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Walked around Mazatlan in the afternoon, this is a much more typical Mexican city than those in Baja. Lots of good food.

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Sitting on the waterfront taking in the view, a double decker tourist bus pulls up in front of me and the tour guide puts chunks of fish on spits and calls in the giant frigate birds for a snack. They swoop down and grab the fish, stick and all. The guide is braver than the tourists, he holds the stick in his teeth while the tourists hold it in their hands as high as they can go.

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Baja California Sur

Moving back to the Pacific side of the peninsula, I cross from Baja California to Baja California Sur. There’s an inspection station at the border where a guy asks me if I have any fruit or vegetables. I admit to a couple of apples in the back and he just shrugs, then asks me for 20 pesos for decontamination. He gives me a receipt so it seems legit, then I pull forward over a hose that sprays something up onto the bottom of the truck.

The town here is Guerrero Negro, which is famous for its whale watching tours and a huge salt factory. It’s not whale season yet so there is not much going on. I grab a hotel room on the main street and go out looking for an ATM. On the way I ran across a really good coffee shop. Upon returning to the hotel, there’s a guy working on his Moto Guzzi in the courtyard next to my room. Turns out he is from California and is also making the trip to Ushuaia Argentina, but much faster then me. He is also just retired and his wife has given him 4 months to make the trip; once he arrives in Ushuaia he’ll just fly back home with the bike. His luggage rack cracked and he has spent the afternoon trying to find someone in town who can weld aluminum.

Moving back across Baja towards the Sea of Cortez, San Ignacio is a small town on one of only 2 rivers in Baja. It’s a little oasis in the desert, covered in palm trees. About 30 minutes away, I pass a flock of buzzards on the side of the road eating a dead cow or something. Just as I pass they all take off and one flies straight at the front of the truck. I’m thinking “Oh come on, not the new headlamp!” At least it bounces off so I’m not driving along with a dead buzzard sticking out of the grill.

Video – Baja Buzzard

There is an army checkpoint right before entering San Ignacio and I’m really hoping that the front end is not covered in blood as I pull up, but they just wave me though. Once I’m parked on the town square I check it out and all is intact and non-bloody.

The Mission San Ignacio was built, or at least completed, in 1786.

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I spend a good part of the afternoon sitting in the town square at a little sidewalk cafe eating lunch. For some reason they are having a lot of trouble pulling together a couple of enchiladas but they have plenty of chips with excellent salsa to keep me occupied.

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There is a cool looking campground just outside town nestled in among the palm trees, but it’s about 99 and with the river right there is it very muggy and buggy. I opt for a motel with AC just off the highway instead.

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Arriving at the coast, Santa Rosalia is a town built around a copper mine. It’s known for its wood buildings, as there are no trees in Baja to speak of. In the old days ships would carry the copper ore up to Washington and return with lumber.

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There’s a famous bakery, I picked up a box of cookies.

Then continued on to Mulege, at the entrance to Bahia de Concepcion. Camped at a little RV park along the river.

Had a great dinner at a nearby hotel.

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On to Bahia de Concepcion, one of the most picturesque spots yet in Baja. There are dozens of little sandy coves and islands scattered along the bay.

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This beach does not have a lot of frills, just some palapas and a couple of outhouses, but it’s the perfect spot to hang out for a couple of days on the beach.

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The water is warm and perfectly clear. While you’re wading around you can look down and see the schools of little fish swimming in the shallows. Further out are much larger fish, around 18″-24″ long.

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For dinner I drove a couple of miles down the coast to a larger campground in another cover that had a couple of restaurants. Next morning a guy drove through the beach selling chicken tamales out of his car. I was a little skeptical at first, but they were fresh and hot out of the oven, pot, whatever you cook tamales in so I gave it a shot and they were delicious.

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Very relaxing just hanging out in the shade of the palapa in between dips in the water. Watching schools of fish jumping and skipping across the water, a couple of dolphins slowly crossing the cove, and some kind of rays jumping straight up in the air about 6 feet then landing on the water in huge belly flops.

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After two days on the beach it’s time for something more civilized. Loreto is a very popular tourist town. I spent two days here in a little hotel a block off the malecon

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It’s a good town to walk around and take in the sights. Lots of great food.

You can’t eat tacos every day. This was a good margherita pizza with some thousand island on the side.

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Still moving south, to La Paz. It’s a good sized city, the capital of Baja California Sur. I stayed a couple of days at the Hotel and Art Gallery Yeneka. It’s a weird little place, rooms around a central open air courtyard with the craziest stuff hanging everywhere.

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La Paz has a great waterfront boulevard with lots of shops and restaurants.

I got my first Mexican haircut at a little place around the corner from the hotel. It went pretty well, I only forgot the word for clippers and had to resort to pointing. At the end she surprised me when she pulled out an old fashioned cutthroat straight razor to clean up my sideburns and neck. I sat very still.

Back across to the Pacific side, the town of Todos Santos. Stayed here for two days in a  basic little hotel across the street from the much fancier Hotel California. Every time I walked past the Hotel California bar they had the Eagles playing. It’s known for its art galleries, of which there are many. Lots of good restaurants and coffee shops. I go out in the morning and have some coffee and read the news, wander around the town until it gets too hot, then back to the hotel for a swim in the pool and a siesta in the AC. After it cools off in the afternoon out and about looking for something to eat.

 

On to Cabo San Lucas for a couple of days, the bottom of Baja. Fun town to walk around, packed with drunk gringos. First place where people followed me down the sidewalk pitching things: boat tours, golf outings, timeshares. They all ask me how long I am in Cabo, I say about two days and they shake their head. Then I explain I didn’t fly in or come on a cruise, I drove here. From Chicago. That always gets them. Poked my head in Cabo Wabo and El Squid Roe but did not hang around long. Lots of fun smaller places though.

Leaving Cabo San Lucas I drive east through San Jose Del Cabo. Beautiful beaches and lots of luxurious looking resorts. Continuing north I end up at Los Barriles, a little beach town with lots of smaller resorts lined up along the beachfront. I find a camping spot at a combined campground/RV park/hotel  resort. Most of the RVs in the campground area are permanent, they have walls built up around and into them making them like small houses. There’s a hotel at the front with a pool, bar, and restaurant. As usual the weather is perfect for hanging out on the beach.

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