Mexico – Part 3 of 9: Volcanoes, Butterflies, and Cites Big & Small (Manzanillo to Mexico City; Jan 14 to 30, 2017)

In Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima with the active Volcan de Fuego behind us.

After 15 days traveling down the Pacific Coast (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip through Mexico, spending the next 17 days inland in the states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Mexico.

Click HERE to go directly to the full photo album or click “Continue reading” to read more about our road trip adventure through this part of Mexico!

From Manzanillo, on the Pacific coast, we took Rutas 200 and Ruta 54 and a long, bumpy secondary road to Parque Nacional Volcán Nevado de Colima, a national park straddling the Colima–Jalisco border that includes two volcanoes: the still-active Volcán de Fuego and the inactive Volcán Nevado de Colima. It was a Saturday and the campgrounds were crowded with other campers (all domestic). After driving further up the mountain road, we found a spot close to the trailhead. It was a picnic site with a covered table, a fire pit, and a great view of the inactive Volcán Nevado de Colima. We couldn’t see Volcán de Fuego but we could see its plume of smoke. Being at nearly 12,000 ft (3650 m) it was cold but the fire Mathieu built and some tequila helped warm us up. We both had a sleepless night (a side effect of the altitude) but luckily neither of us had headaches after going from sea level to such a high altitude in one day. The hike to the summit of Volcán Nevado de Colima wasn’t particularly long but parts were very steep and at that altitude, it felt difficult. We shared the trail with many other hikers, all of us excited to see the huge plume of smoke coming from the 12,533-ft (3820-m) Volcán de Fuego. This was our first hike up a volcano and the view from the summit, the 7th highest in Mexico at 14,015 ft (4271 m), was gorgeous. After the hike, we returned to our campsite to find Genevieve (my 4Runner) covered in ash. After another sleepless night on the volcano, we left the park, giving the park guard a papaya on the way out (now just one left). (See previous post for the papaya story). I didn’t realize how steep the hill to the park was until on the way down, Mathieu calmly said “we have no brakes.” What?! We used the emergency brake to come to a slow stop then let the brakes cool for a bit. The fluid level was OK and there was no burning smell. Hmmm….After making it safely down the hill, we stopped at a PEMEX where the gas station attendant told us that it was common for the brakes to go out on the way downhill from the park. I’ve driven Genevieve down many steep hills, many steeper than that one, and that was a first (and the last time so far). NOTE:  Volcán de Fuego erupted “violently” four days after our hike and has since erupted multiple times. Thankfully, no one has been hurt and no property has been damaged. It would have been a bit scary to be there when it erupted but super cool too!! (Click HERE to see a video of the eruption.)

From the national park, we drove Ruta 54 to Guadalajara (population ~1.5 million; Jalisco) where we stayed at a hotel, our first hotel since entering Mexico on December 5th. We had secure parking, wifi, a hot shower, a TV (that we didn’t use), and a small but comfortable bed. After eating a papaya (our last!), we explored the lively, colorful city center, first visiting the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas, formerly the site of an orphanage/hospital that functioned from 1791 to 1980. Per Wikipedia, the site houses the oldest and largest hospital complex in the Americas and as such is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is also famed for its series of 57 frescoes (murals) by Mexican painter, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), including one of his most famed creations, the allegory of The Man of Fire. Orozco specialized in political murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance together with murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others. After appreciating the amazing frescoes, we visited the Palacio Nacional and Palacio de Gobierno, renowned for their colonial architecture and for more politically-charged Orozco frescoes.

In Guadalajara, we also visited a few of the large mercados, including Mercado Libertad. Also known as Mercado San Juan de Dios, it is, per Wikipedia, the largest indoor market in Latin America with an area of 430,556 sq ft (40,000 sq m). The U-shaped, 3-story building was crammed with stall after stall after stall (apparently ~2,980 stalls in total) of merchants selling everything. We started on the 3rd floor which consisted mostly of shoes and clothes, then went to the 2nd floor which consisted mostly of thousands of copied DVD movies, electronics, more shoes and clothes, and some food stalls, then went to the 1st floor which was filled with stalls selling cooked foods, fruits and vegetables, meats, sweets, and painted masks, trinkets, and housewares. Oh yeah, and there were stalls selling leather saddles, bridles and cowboy boots, jewelry, parakeets and other birds, and tonics and potions for various uses, including a cream with marijuana for joint pain. I love these markets! After sharing a dish of pork mole (Mathieu’s first time trying the rich, delicious mole sauce), we continued walking the streets, stopping at some of the many churches and exploring many of the small, quiet side streets. On one such street, we found a local barber shop, Peluqueria Hernandez, providing uninterrupted service for the last 40 years. It was the perfect place for Mathieu to get a much needed haircut and to have his bushy beard trimmed (he hadn’t shaved since we entered Mexico). The barber, whose hair and beard were immaculate, spent almost an hour clipping, buzzing, and razoring, and Mathieu emerged a new man. Qué guapo! That night, we enjoyed a nice dinner at La Chata, a popular restaurant in the city center. We savored the nice meal and tasty red wine then slowly walked the quiet streets of the city back home.

The next day, we drove to Tlaquepaque, a popular suburb of Guadalajara known for its colonial architecture, bright colors, and local handicrafts. It was also the first place where we saw the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). Per Wikipedia, the dance is an ancient Mesoamerican ritual still performed today in isolated pockets in Mexico. The ritual consists of dance and the climbing of a 30-meter pole from which four of the five participants then launch themselves tied with ropes to descend to the ground. The fifth remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum. The ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. The ceremony was named an Intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in order to help the ritual survive and thrive in the modern world. The area was touristy (domestic and foreign) but charming. It was a nice way to end our three day stay in Guadalajara.

From there, we drove Ruta 54 to Parque Nacional Lago de Camecuaro (Michoacán). This tiny  park (~20 ac, ~8 ha) surrounding a small lake had been recommended to us by friends and people on iOverlander, a very useful road trip app we’d been using throughout Mexico to find out-of-the-way places to camp. After chatting with the friendly guard at the entry gate (too bad I was out of papayas), we entered the park. This was a national park? Past the gate, the street was lined with rows of food stands (closed at the time). And the lake with a surface area of ~ 4 ac (~1.6 ha), was more like a large pond and was surrounded by mowed grassy areas with picnic tables and a playground. Oh and you could rent paddle boats to cruise around. It was a nice recreation area and the spring-fed “lake” was crystal clear but it was not what I expected of a national park. However, we realized the beauty of the small park the next morning as the sun shone through the fog rising from the water and on the tall, beautiful cypress trees lining the shore.

After the strange little park, we continued on Rutas 16 and 37 and a secondary road to Pátzcuaro, also in the state of Michoacán. The city (population ~80,000) is one of 111 “Pueblos Magicos” in Mexico. Per Wikipedia, a Pueblo Magico is a designation by federal and state agencies given to towns that offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance. Pátzcuaro is located in the hills near Lago Pátzcuaro and is known for its colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and artisanal handicrafts. We wondered around the touristy (mostly domestic) but charming city for a few hours visiting churches and plazas including the Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga, “the most beautiful plaza in Mexico” (according to our tourist map), and small shops selling artisanal crafts. We especially enjoyed the Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra, a former convent converted into a library that housed an impressive mural depicting the history of the area. Later, we drove to Cerro Estribo, a mirador overlooking the city and the lake. The view was nice and since it was already nearly 5pm, we decided to camp there for the night. First though, we returned to town and had some food and drinks at a bar with live music. It was a great way to pass the time before climbing into our tent in the dirt parking lot of the mirador. Similar to the last mirador we camped at, we were greeted by early morning runners, walkers, and bikers as we ate breakfast the next morning. Ha! We were above 7,000 ft (2100 m) so it was a chilly morning. After chatting with one nice woman for a bit, she offered me some of her hot tea to help warm me up. It was a nice way to start the day.

From Pátzcuaro, we continued east on Ruta 15 to see the monarch butterflies in the Reserva Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Michoacán). The drive there was lovely, winding through the mountains overlooking deep valleys and more high mountains in the distance. The Reserva Biosfera contains four or five butterfly sanctuaries; we chose to go to Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca Chincua. We arrived to the entry gate at about 4pm where Nico, a local who would be our guide the next day, directed us to the adjacent grassy field to wild camp for the night. The gate was the entry to the sanctuary but it also served as a permanent post for the federales. As we were setting up camp, three federales came over to write down our names and license plate number. There were very friendly (as usual) and gave us the OK to camp there. After throwing frisbee for a while, Mathieu started a fire. The federales returned to tell us fires were prohibited due to our location in the sanctuary but then told us we could sit in their cafeteria to stay warm and even cook our dinner in the kitchen there. Wow, so nice! We were above 9,800 ft (3000 m) so it was very cold. One of the officers, whose name I wished I asked, walked us to the cafeteria to make sure the kitchen staff knew we’d been invited to sit inside and use the kitchen. In the process of letting the staff know, he asked if there was enough food for us to have dinner. The boss said yes and we had a warm meal consisting of a large piece of pork topped with verde sauce, quesadillas, hot corn tortillas, and pan dulce for desert. Wow, so, so nice! They also served us individual boxes of breakfast cereal and milk which seemed a strange addition to the dinner menu. We found out later that they serve the cereal and milk to help offset the spicy heat of the verde sauce (wimps). We ate our delicious hot meal surrounded by groups of federales eating and chatting with each other. None sat with us at our table but all said “hola” and “buen provecho” as they passed us. After dinner, we stayed in the cafeteria until it closed at 8:30pm then climbed into our bed in the back of the 4Runner and watched a movie on the laptop. The next morning everything was covered with a layer of ice. As we were making hot coffee and trying to warm up, our federale friend came over to say good morning and invite us to have breakfast in the cafeteria. Seriously?! So we enjoyed another nice meal (scrambled eggs with green beans, quesadillas, cereal, sweet bread, and coffee) surrounded by the friendly federales. Wow, so, so, so nice! (I wonder if this type of experience is possible in the U.S? Hmmm…..)

After breakfast, Nico returned and we joined Connie and Jacob (Austria), who arrived to the “campsite” in their camper van sometime during the night. They’d shipped their camper van from Austria and were teaching at an Austrian school in Querétaro (~3 hours north of the sanctuary) for the next few years. They spent their weekends exploring various parts of Mexico. The four of us followed Nico into the sanctuary stopping at a few miradors along the way to enjoy the stunning views of the valleys below, and stopping to read the excellent kiosks offering information about the butterflies, their life cycle, and conservation efforts. After a short hike, we arrived to where the butterflies were congregated. There were thousands of monarchs. In the shaded areas, they hung from the fir tree branches like heavy clusters of grapes. And in the sunny areas, the magical creatures were alive with activity, fluttering through the sun’s rays. It was a truly amazing sight. Per the park kiosks, the Purépecha, the indigenous people of the area, considered the monarch to be the soul of the dead and interpreted its arrival as the announcement of the visit of their dead loved ones, with their arrival coinciding with the 1st and 2nd days of November (aka Dia de los Muertos). We, along with many other spectators (mostly domestic), watched the monarchs for over an hour. After flying ~2,800 mi (~4500 km) from southern Canada/northern U.S., the monarchs arrive here in the central mountains of Mexico to overwinter. The hardiness of such delicate creatures always amazes me.

After communing with the monarchs, we drove south on Ruta 15 to Valle de Bravo (population ~62,000; Mexico), a lakeside city known as the paragliding capitol of Mexico. While we didn’t paraglide, we enjoyed watching the many sailboats, motorboats, and jet skis cruise around the lovely lake. We found a lakeside campground (per iOverlander). It was crowded with large RVs and motorboats used by locals for their weekend getaways from the nearby big cities of Toluca and Mexico City. We were the only tent campers and were directed by Augustine, our campground host (who we nicknamed Ray due to the cool sunglasses he wore at all times), to set up our tent between a trampoline loaded with 5-6 jumping, laughing kids and a giant RV that was currently unoccupied. As we set up our tent, our neighbors in another large RV nearby decided to serenade the campground. Not everyone with a microphone is a singer. Oh well, at least the trampoline quieted down when the kids were called away for dinner and the view of the lake was nice. Despite a bad night of being serenaded by our neighbor off and on until about 5am, we stayed there another night. Since it was a Sunday, we rationalized that it’d be a quiet night after our neighbors returned home after the weekend. And we were right; we enjoyed a nice day relaxing in the shade of the nearby unoccupied RV, playing in the good wifi at the office, and chatting with Ray. The next day, we explored the city, a lovely Pueblo Magico, visiting the church and the main plaza, the lakefront maleson, and the Velo de Cascada, a large waterfall located in a lush forested city park. Based on the large and expensive lakefront houses and the expensive shops in the city center, it was clear that Valle de Bravo was a resort town for wealthy Mexicans. And given its location on the lake surrounded by pine forest, it looked like a nice place to spend time.

From Valle de Bravo, we drove east to Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca (Mexico), a park established to protect the Nevado de Toluca volcano, the 4th highest peak in the country at 15,387 ft (4690 m). The volcano has been long extinct and has a large crater with two shallow lakes, Laguna del Sol y Laguna de La Luna. After a night in the back of the Runner, we joined the local hikers on the steep trail up the volcano. It was a mostly clear, sunny day but given the altitude and the breeze, it was cold. We hiked for a few hours up one side of the crater then down to the lakes. Then I hiked up the opposite side of the crater to the peak. It was amazing to have the trail and the peak to myself. As I started back down, I noticed what appeared to be a trail directly from the peak to the lake. Great, a short cut. It only took me a few minutes to realize that while it was a short cut, it was definitely not a trail. By the time I figured this out, I’d slid too far down the scree to backtrack. So, I slid down the volcano crouched on one foot and with the other foot extended in front of me to slow my descent. Thank goodness I had gloves on because I also had to dig my fingers into the scree to slow down. It wasn’t a death defying descent but, at times, it felt like I was racing down. Since I didn’t hurt myself, it was actually fun. By the time I rejoined Mathieu at the truck I was exhausted. I’d only hiked a total of ~5.5 mi (~8.63 km) that entire day, but it took me ~7 hours and I/we had spent the entire day above 14,000 ft (4267 m). It was a great day!

From the volcano, we drove east to Mexico City, the largest city in Mexico (population ~9 million) with the most populous metropolitan area (~20 million) in the Western hemisphere. With these stats, I didn’t expect to like it much. I assumed it’d be an asphalt jungle with too much traffic, too many people, bad air quality, and very little charm. I was right about the traffic and about there being lots of people, but I was very wrong about the charm (and the air quality was OK when we were there). We left Genevieve parked at the hotel and explored the city primarily via our bicycles. Many of the city’s main streets into and around the historic center and around Chapultepec, a large forested city park, have bicycle lanes. Yeah! We also used the extensive, and very cheap, metro system to get around. During our six days there, we explored the history of Mexico by visiting a few museums, including the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (natural history museum) and the Museo de Artes Populares, and visiting historic buildings where we marveled at the works of a few of the city’s famous artists including Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and Orozco (whose work we were introduced to in Guadalajara). It was especially interesting to visit Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s childhood home and later her home/studio with her husband, Diego Rivera, and the Museo Mural Diego Rivera which contains one of Rivera’s most famous murals, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central) with its elegantly-dressed female calavera (a representation of death). To see more amazing artwork, we visited the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which per Wikipedia, is the largest university in Latin America and a UNESCO World Heritage site that was designed by some of Mexico’s best-known architects of the 20th century and contains murals painted by some of the most recognized artists in Mexican history, such as Rivera and Siqueiros. We found six of the ten or so giant murals. We also visited the zocalo (main plaza) which encompasses the Plaza de la Constitución, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielos (Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven), the largest cathedral in the Americas (built 1573 to 1813), and the Palacio Nacional. Besides admiring the architecture of the historic buildings and the centuries-old ornate cathedral, it was cool to stand in the plaza where the Dia de los Muertos scenes from the 2015 James Bond movie, Spectre, were filmed. Ha! We also had a lot of fun just riding our bicycles down the side streets, finding interesting street art, small plazas, local bars, and busy street markets with delicious food.

One day while bicycling down Reforma, a main street through the city center, we came upon a protest. The mass of people extended for at least a mile down the street. It appeared to be an organized event, with the police having closed the street to traffic. While many of the police were in riot gear, the vibe of the protest was peaceful. People were demonstrating against the President’s decision to denationalize the country’s oil company, PEMEX, and open the oil market to foreign companies. Since January 1, 2017, when the new regulation went into effect, the price of gas and oil-dependent products had increased substantially. We’d heard and read about many protests occurring all over Mexico and definitely noticed the roughly 20% increase in gasoline prices since January 1st, but this was the first protest we’d seen. It’s always inspiring to see people take action against that which grieves them.

A big reason for going to Mexico City was to visit Mathieu’s friend, Gustavo, a Mexico City native who Mathieu met in France. The two hadn’t seen each other in several years, so it was a good reunion. One night, we joined Gustavo, his girlfriend, Renata, and Gustavo’s son Emilio for a night of Mexican wrestling. Yes, Luche Libre. Per Wikipedia, the history of Mexican wrestling dates back to 1863, during the French Intervention in Mexico, Enrique Ugartechea, the first Mexican wrestler, developed and invented the Mexican lucha libre from the Greco-Roman wrestling. Then, in 1942, lucha libre would be forever changed when a silver-masked wrestler, known simply as El Santo (The Saint), first stepped into the ring. He made his debut in Mexico City by winning an 8-man battle royal. The public became enamored by the mystique and secrecy of Santo’s personality, and he quickly became the most popular luchador in Mexico. His wrestling career spanned nearly five decades, during which he became a folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man through his appearances in comic books and movies, while the sport received an unparalleled degree of mainstream attention. The arena wasn’t full but the noise of the crowd cheering for their favorite wrestlers and booing their opponents was deafening. It was funny to watch the fans, particularly the ladies of all ages, scream at the giant wrestlers. We all got into the action, shouting and cheering. And the costumes were……amazing. I love a man in gold glittery spandex! Of the six matches, each with three rounds, there was one match featuring female luchadores. Wow, you wouldn’t want to mess with these badass chics! It was especially fun to watch 7-year old Emilio, in his blue and gold luchador mask, get so excited while watching the matches. Our visit to the metropolis of Mexico City was a good blend of history, politics, art, and fun with friends.

We had a great time traveling through inland Mexico, hiking volcanoes, marveling at beautiful monarch butterflies, exploring charming, interesting cities and towns, meeting new people, and visiting friends. During this 17-day section of the road trip, we drove ~800 miles (~1275 kilometers), traveling mostly on the free roads (longer but cheaper and often more interesting). We stayed in hotels for 8 nights (the most expensive being 240 pesos, ~$12) and camped 8 nights (5 nights wild-camping in our tent or the back of the 4Runner and 3 nights in paid campgrounds, the most expensive being 150 pesos, ~$7). We felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip with my wonderful road trip partner Mathieu continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts!

Here are a few pictures.Click the link to see the full album:

And click these links to see Mathieu’s drone videos of us in Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca and in Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima:


Our route.


Fun in Guadalajara.


Danza de Voladores in Tlaquepaque.


Patzcuaro at the Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga, “the most beautiful plaza in Mexico.”


Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca Chincua.


Camping in Valle de Bravo.


A short cut from the peak back down. Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca.


Diego Rivera’s “Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central”
 in Mexico City.


Mural at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.


Delicious street food in Mexico City.


Fun night of Luche Libre with Renata, Gustavo, and Emilio. Mexico City.

2 thoughts on “Mexico – Part 3 of 9: Volcanoes, Butterflies, and Cites Big & Small (Manzanillo to Mexico City; Jan 14 to 30, 2017)

  1. Another exciting and very informative travel adventure! The way you portray Mexico is like being there with you guys. So happy you all are having one- hell-of-a-time. Tons of……you know, DAD


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