Note on Currency:
Border Crossing at Eagle Pass, TX / Piedras Negras,
Today is the day we cross the border and make a run through the notorious border region of Mexico. If one is to believe the reports of the media, never mind the Canadian and US governments, we are basically running a gauntlet of banditos and drug cartel bad guys who will be lying in wait to hijack our vehicles and harm us.
Well, maybe not hijack our “aging, unsexy people-mover of a white Ford van.” But our traveling buddy is driving his brand new, candy apple red Dodge pick-up 4x4. “Did you have to buy red?” I wailed when I saw it. The one part of all the bad press I maybe believe is that the cartel bad guys love hot 4x4 trucks and have been known to carjack those.
Otherwise, we have reviewed and questioned and researched this thing to death and just don’t buy the media hype. I won’t go into it all again here but I just don’t like agencies telling me what to do when they don’t have the data to back it up. Stray bullets in gunfights? Those are always possible. We were grocery shopping in Tucson, AZ last week and this week a gunman let loose in the Safeway there, killing 6 and gravely wounding 14. In the grocery store!
In terms of stray bullets in Mexico we would have to be very unlucky and by dark we are always safely ensconced in a secured RV park reading our books playing cards and writing road reports.
So today we got up at 6:30 to meet up with our travel mates and make the crossing at Eagle Pass, TX. There are many crossings and many roads into Mexico. We have specifically chosen this one because it is an area with considerably less crime and the paperwork will be straightforward. It is 8 am but the mobile taco vendor is already parked and ready to serve!
Where RVers sometimes get into trouble in Mexico is by inadvertently wandering into the wrong neighbourhoods while they are searching for the Migracion office to do the paperwork required to get a tourist card (visa) for themselves and the Vehicle Import Permit for their vehicles. You would think these things would be handled right at the physical border between the US and Mexico but they are not. Invariably they are at an office in a town up to 30 or more km into Mexico. Finding these offices can be a bit of an Easter egg hunt – in Spanish.
In this case, the Migracion offices are at a checkpoint some 30 km into Mexico, near a town called Allende. What makes this attractive is that you cannot go through the checkpoint without stopping into the Migracion offices right beside the checkpoint. No hunting around for them, asking directions in your lousy Spanish. They are right there – in your face. They won’t let you drive another inch down the highway without doing your paperwork.
The border guards are a bit bemused by our kayaks. We are permitted to each import one kayak for our own use. What is a bit unbelievable to them, I suppose, is that these oldies are bringing them in for their own use. “You go in dat ting?” a young fellow questions me. “Yes,” I smile. "When it is warm enough." Here's hoping.
At the Allende checkpoint we do the paperwork in record time. Having been through this before we have brought multiple photocopies of everything. To the disappointment, I am sure, of the fellow whose sole job it is to photocopy all your documentation for $1 per page. They accepted all our photocopies, except that we needed to show the original of the registration for the van.
Then we nervously (I’ll admit it) started down Hwy 57, some 440 km/ 275 mi to Saltillo, our first destination for the night.
The first bit of the drive was over desert plains – flat and uninteresting. Then we climbed into the mountains and they are truly beautiful. Ancient rock outcroppings thrust out of the meadowed foothills. Lots of cacti, many cows and horses. A few burros and ostriches. I forgot my nerves in the sheer enjoyment of being on the road in such a beautiful place.
We tip-toed through the notorious town of Monclova. Notorious because it is has been reported, over and over again, that RVers cannot get through this town without being fined by the policia who lie in wait, ticket books in hand. They will FIND something to fine you for, it is said. No one bothered us.
We came to Saltillo. The only RV “park” in town is a poor excuse for one so for just 650 p ($53) we have opted to stay at Hotel Colonial Alameda for the night. It is a bit worn, but it is an elegant old Spanish hotel in the historical district of town. Most importantly, it has an interior courtyard for our vehicles. The décor is a bit worn but bespeaks much former elegance of the Spanish style.
When we leave the hotel to find some dinner we experience the two realities of Mexico. Initially we turn right and for the several blocks we walk in this direction interact with the hard life of the working poor. It is 5 pm and the crowds at the bus stops are weary. Old men and little children crouch on the broken cement sidewalks, offering their baskets of candy with a resigned look of defeat. They already know you don’t want any. And when someone stops to buy a packet of sweets it seems as if it is an act of charity that motivates them, not the sweet tooth.
The sodas (little cafes) with their melamine tables and rickety seats are typical of these hardscrabble neighbourhoods. A simple dinner of chicken asado (roasted over an open fire and always amazingly moist and delicious) and fries, complete with two big glasses of pina (pineapple juice blended with crushed ice) costs 110 pesos, about $9 for the two of us. Later Steve reminds me that we are in Mexico and maybe the pina was not blended with ice from bottled water. You think? We’ll find out soon enough.
After eating we walk in the other direction and here, just a few blocks away we come on beautiful homes with gated courtyards. There is a huge public park, at least several blocks in length and width. It has been constructed in the style we often see in Central America. In the center is a statue of some general. From there, walkways extend out like the spokes of a wheel. Full-grown trees line the walkways with wrought iron benches beneath.
Virtually every bench is occupied by a courting couple in various states of their relationship – early days chatting and giggling, desperate days of necking heatedly, later days of planning and plotting. I expect there is so little privacy in homes that are bursting with extended family that parks are the places they flock to for privacy in the midst of a crowd.
Tomorrow we are on to Zacatecas.
Once we find it, we discover Hwy 54 south is in excellent shape – smooth, often four lanes. There was a little drama leaving Saltillo because some very aggressive construction projects had decimated the normal routing. A very kind taxi driver patiently worked through Steve’s mangled Spanish to make sure we found the detour.
In regards to signage on their highway the Mexicans are the bossiest people on earth. They go crazy, posting the same signs on both sides of the road, just so you don’t miss it.
“Stay in the right lane.”
At least this is my interpretation of the signage. I amuse myself, Spanish dictionary in hand, by translating them as we fly past. You don’t have to worry if you get the spelling wrong on the first pass. As soon as the full menu of “senales” has been worked through, they start at the top again: “Stay in the right lane.”
The Mexicans, by the way, pretty much ignore them all. A Mexican national we know tells us that signs are “only suggestions.”
Especially the mileage signs which flip around every few miles. From 110 kph to 50 to 40 to 80 all within a km is not unusual. We, of course, ever cognizant of all the bad press the local police get here for stopping and fining helpless foreigners, are madly increasing and decreasing our speed and obeying every senale we see.
That said, we have not been stopped by any police although we have seen many. There is a heavy police, military and federale presence here in northern Mexico. They are trying very hard to keep us all safe and we appreciate it. We have been through two road blocks in the past two days, both by the military looking for guns and drugs. We were not even stopped at either of them, just waved through.
We did stop for lunch at the side of the road today and about fifteen minutes after we stopped, a white truck with a big green strip pulled up to ask if we needed help. These are the famed “Green Angels”, mechanics who cruise the highways in Mexico looking for tourists who need assistance with gas, simple repairs or tows. I had heard about them and had seen several of these trucks pass us in the last two days. But until they stopped beside us and I could see the writing on the side I did not realize how prevalent they are. We did not need help but I was reassured by how quickly they found us.
We arrived in Zacatecas about 4 pm. This “deluxe” RV Park is a little strange. I cannot help wondering if the writers of our guidebook have been on the road too long. It is the parking lot of the Hotel Hacienda del Bosque. The parking lot is in front of the hotel, a big open area of flat stones. There are good electrical and water hook-ups. There are some shade trees.
But there are also major highways on two sides of us with big trucks rumbling past 24 hours a day, jake brakes screaming. And of course, every RV Park has to have its mandatory train. These rumble past on raised tracks behind the hotel – extraordinarily loud and spewing smelly smoke. The washrooms look okay but Steve says 3 of the 4 men’s stall are non-functional. In the ladies, a woman coming out of the shower says it is not warm.
I went to see the deluxe pool and spa. It is a strange set up with no stairs or entry ladder to the pool. You have to squat down on the floor then lower yourself in via the jetted tub, walk over to the pool. Then use the seat in the jetted tub to clamber back out. The water was very murky. The hotel looks like it has been quite “deluxe” in its day but it is currently completely under tarps and drop sheets as workmen redo the lobby.
The strangest thing though was the arrival of the birds at dusk in a row of trees behind us. First hundreds and hundreds of med-large white birds flew in with MUCH squawking and fluttering about. Watching them, we wondered how even one more bird could possibly fit in. Then it got a little darker and all of a sudden the sky was filled with swooping flocks of small black birds – literally thousands of them, flying in formation like swallows do, wave after wave undulating through the sky and into the trees. Now the white birds were putting up an insane racket as the black birds insisted on their right to a spot on a branch.
Even now, it is dark and some of them are still tweeting and chirping. The lights in the parking lot are keeping them awake. Steve’s black stowaway is now covered in white bird poop.
Tomorrow we explore the town of Zacatecas, one of Mexico’s fabled
cities of silver in the sky. The city sits at an elevation is 2445 meters
– some 7200 feet.
It was a noisy night shared with all those birds. The sound diminished the darker it got but some birds kept up the chirp and chatter all night long. We will try and get some photos of them arriving tonight. In the morning they left in a great huge wave that undulated up and over the hotel then wafted back down to them all sitting on the edge, waiting for the sun to warm them I guess. By the time I got out of the shower they had disappeared.
The RV Park is on the outskirts of Zacatecas so we took a cab into the city for 55 p. Started with the Teleférico, an aerial cable car that takes you from Cerro del Grillo next to the Hotel del Bosque up to Cerro de la Buffo. The bright red cable cars provide spectacular views of the city below. You look right down into people’s courtyards – some elegant, some functional – clothes on lines, cars parked, playgrounds for children, cars under repair, big messes. Felt just a little invasive looking down into their lives from above.
Very nice facilities where you take off and land from – bars with
tables and lounge chairs for having a drink and looking over the city,
lovely banos. We rode to the top and had a walk around. There we discovered
that we could have driven up if we’d brought the van. Although,
the hassle of travelling through the city would have been great and we
enjoyed the stress free ride in the taxi and the
The Teleférico delivers you to Cerro de la Buffo which loosely translated means wineskin of the sky. It has been developed as a memorial to the 1914 battle fought on the hill’s slopes in which the revolutionary Division del Norte, led by Pancho Villa and Felipe Angeles, defeated President Victoriano Heuerta’s forces. This gave the revolutionaries control of Zacatecas.
There is a museum, and big statues of Pancho Villa and his generals on horses. You can walk the hill behind him to the summit of Cerro de la Buffo where there is a metal cross that is illuminated at night.
La Capilla de la Virgen del Patrocinio is a church that is named after the patron saint of miners. Above the alter is an image of the Virgin said to be capable of healing the sick. Thousands of pilgrims come here every year to petition the saint.
Responding to the need for such pilgrims to buy mementos, there are dozens of stalls selling religious artefacts and more common souvenir type items. They were not busy when we were there, in fact many were closed. There seemed to be a few school groups there but otherwise we were the only tourists. The talkative Teleférico operator told us that Christmas and Easter are their big tourist season.
A few blocks away from where the Teleférico lands us we come to Mina El Eden. For 80 p each we had an interesting tour of the mine which opened in 1586 and was operational till 1950s. Our guide was a young fellow with excellent English skills. We walked along the mine shafts then took an elevator to the third level where they have done an excellent job of making it possible for you to get a sense of the depth of the mine – we were often standing on stomach-wrenching grates that opened up to shafts ending in flooded floors some 300 meters below. This was not a happy mine. Indigenous people and their children from the south of Mexico were enslaved to work and die in the mine during its centuries of operation. The mine was eventually closed because the city had expanded to its edges and the explosives used in the mine were disruptive to resident’s lives.
At the end of maybe 45 minutes of walking through the well-maintained shafts we were led to the area of the mine that is used as the world’s most unique underground nightclub on Thur-Sat nights. Near it are the minerals museum and a small gift shop featuring rock and crystal themed items. I was very tempted by the crystals, amazingly cheap but very heavy to carry for this early in the trip. I settled on a small angel made of colourful polished rocks and crystals; a great addition to my Christmas collection for a modest 60 p. A small train took us back to the surface, depositing us at the bottom of the mountain in which the mine was located.
From here it was a pleasant 20 minute walk into the centro historico district. We spent the rest of the day wandering the narrow, winding flagstone-paved streets. The architecture is 16th ct colonial, the buildings constructed of stone blocks. Some of that stone is just magnificently coloured, like a coral striped marble. I guess you just don’t tear those buildings down. They are built for eternity; thus their UNESCO status.
Near the cathedral there is a big public square and being just two weeks past Christmas, the decorations are all still up with an outdoor ice rink in operation for the chicos. A huge generator on the back of the truck kept the ice solid – it is t-shirt warm in the sun! But the kids were having a ball going round and round the outdoor rink on rental blades. Most were obviously at it for the first time but a few were doing better. The music was all wrong though – no Skaters Waltz here – just the boom-boom of Latino pop music.
We easily caught a cab back to the hotel again. I think they are watching for you because when I saw an empty cab I just began to raise my arm and he screeched to a halt, all the traffic waiting patiently on the narrow stone street while we clambered in. The 50p is money well spent when you consider how frustrating it would have been to try and navigate those streets. We had a hard enough time when we were walking and could stand on the sidewalk staring and staring at the walls of the buildings looking for that elusive little plaque that bears the name of the street that might match up with some marking on our silly little tourist map.
But we found everything we wanted to see and found our way home again. We always do.
Tomorrow we are off to Guadalajara a town renowned for its mariachi music.