Mexico – Part 8 of 9: Mountains, Missions, and Cities Big & Small (Mexico City to Zacatecas; Apr 18 to May 1, 2017)

After 9 days exploring beautiful mountains and checking out amazing folk art in the state of Oaxaca and climbing Mexico’s highest volcano in the state of Puebla (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip north through Mexico. We spent the next 14 days exploring the interior states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas. And, for this segment, we were joined by a very special guest, Mathieu’s mom, Marie.  

We got to Mexico City a day before Marie was due to arrive from Paris, France, and spent the day relaxing in our comfortable hotel room using the strong wifi to catch up with friends and family. While I lounged in the room, journaling and watching movies, Mathieu took Genevieve (my 4Runner) to have the side window replaced. The space had been covered by duct tape since being smashed during a late-night break-in about one month prior. He also took advantage of the pouring rain to wash the layers of road dirt off the truck. Good man! Now clean on the outside, we cleaned the interior and rearranged our gear to make space for our new road trip partner.

Marie arrived the next afternoon. I’d hung out with her in Paris last summer and it was wonderful to see her again. And, she’d brought us some wonderful gifts from France, of which the perfume and variety of delicious cheeses were especially appreciated. We spent the rainy evening catching up over a beer and some food at a small, “vintage” diner across the street from the hotel.  

The next day, we toured around CDMX (Ciudad Mexico’s nickname), taking Marie to the zocalo (central plaza), the Metropolitan Cathedral, and to a few of the small street markets Mathieu and I had found during our visit in January (see previous post). We also visited the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) to see the large murals painted by Mexico’s world-renowned Diego Rivera. It was interesting to see his depiction of Mexico’s restless history. Marie had visited Mexico City many years prior but was pleased to visit the lovely city again, and to do so with us.

After two nights in CDMX, we hit the road. With the addition of Marie’s small amount of luggage, we couldn’t see out of the back of the truck but the seat belts were accessible and we were all comfortable, even me sitting on pillows and camping mattresses in the back seat (We’d removed the bottom part of the back seats for the road trip.) Our first stop was the ruins of Teotihuacán, less than an hour northeast of CDMX. Per Wikipedia, this archaeological site, thought to have been established around 100 BC, was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with an estimated population of 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its period. We walked around for ~3 hours, enjoying the historic site and the views of the surrounding area from the tops of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. In addition to the many tourists there (mostly domestic), the site was peppered with vendors selling masks, silver jewelry, trinkets, swords, bows and arrows, etc. While the constant bombarding by the vendors made it difficult for me to get a sense of the site’s history, it was an interesting place to visit.

From there, we drove north on Ruta 85 to the city of Pachuca de Soto, crossing into the state of Hidalgo. Pachuca (population ~268,000) is located in a small valley surrounded by tall hills. While the central plaza was nice, the city overall was not so charming. We explored for a bit then found an auto hotel on the outskirts of town. After spending several hours walking around the ruins in the hot sun, it felt great to relax in our aircooled room. With Mathieu and I laid out on one bed and Marie laid out on the other bed, we chatted and laughed like kids at a slumber party.

The next morning, we visited the city’s brightly-colored Las Palmitas neighborhood. We’d glimpsed a flash of the brightly-colored buildings from the highway the day before. From that distance, there appeared to a giant rainbow spreading across the hillside. Per The Guardian, a group of muralists, working with the residents, painted over 200 homes in bright lavender, lime green, and incandescent orange in an effort to bring the working-class “barrio” together and change its gritty image. The government-sponsored project, called “Pachuca Se Pinta” (Pachuca Paints Itself) was so successful, there are plans to paint another nearby low-income neighborhood in the future. Driving through the narrow streets, we could see that every part of every house had been meticulously painted in fantastic colors. The walls of some of the corner houses were also covered with huge, beautiful murals. The artwork was really stunning! [Click here to check out Ella Eyre’s music video filmed in Las Palmitas. Great song!]  

After, we drove north to Mineral del Chico, a small town (population ~8,000) recently designated as a Pueblo Magico. The town is located in a deep valley surrounded by high mountains, a large portion of which are within the Parque Nacional El Chico. The drive through the thick forest and down into the valley was really lovely. We explored the small shops along the main street then, while Marie continued to explore the charming town, Mathieu and I took a hike through the forest to a mirador overlooking the picturesque valley and the surrounding mountains. Back in town, we joined Marie for a cold beer at a street-side cafe then got back on the road.

From Mineral del Chico, we took Ruta 105 then secondary roads as we continued north. As we drove the curvy, mountain roads, the scenery changed from mixed forest to shrubs and cactus then changed again as we drove into a large valley with a lovely wide river. The entire floodplain was farmed and therefore appeared very lush. Along with corn and other veggies, it appeared they were growing almonds as well. We passed only one hotel and a few small stores and restaurants. This was obviously not a tourist route. It was super cool to again be off-the-beaten-path.

After driving through the valley, we drove over another high mountain (at 6,200 ft; 1900 m) and down into the next valley. The road was steep, very narrow, and without a guardrail, making for an especially exhilarating downhill ride. And, the views of the deep canyon we drove along and of the river valley below were awesome. At the bottom, we pulled off the road and found a great place to wild camp. With cold beers in hand, we enjoyed a very international happy hour (aka aperitif) of tortilla chips, spicy salsa, and delicious French cheese. Ha! As we relaxed, we watched swallows and bats fly overhead and marveled at the view of the steep cliffs in front of us. After eating dinner under the stars, Marie climbed into the tent and Mathieu and I climbed into our sleeping bags and fell asleep underneath the stars. It was a lovely night and we had it all to ourselves.

The birds were already singing around us when we woke up the next morning. After breakfast, we continued on the narrow, curvy road for about 2 hours to Grutas de Tolantongo. Per Wikipedia, the site is most famous for its volcanically-heated river flowing out of two large caves and into various small pools located in a deep, narrow box canyon below. Along with the heated river and natural pools, the site contains a dozen or so man-made pools built into the hillside and three large hotel complexes containing swimming pools, restaurants, and souvenir shops. We’d read that it was a very popular tourist attraction but holy crap! The number of people there (all domestic) was staggering. Before arriving, we’d planned to camp there but the “camping areas” looked more like tent cities with tents set up in any available space. Despite the crowds, we enjoyed the day soaking in the warm water while overlooking the beautiful box canyon below. Once sufficiently pruned, we continued on another curvy “off-the-beaten-path” secondary road over several more mountains and through more valleys, driving through the small towns of Nicolas Flores and Truncas to Ruta 85. The drive was lovely but long and we were happy to finally get to the small town of Jacala, where, thankfully, one of the two hotels in town was open.

The next morning, we continued north to Ruta 120 and entered the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda in the state of Queretaro. Per Wikipedia, the reserve, also a World Heritage Site, is the only one in Mexico to be declared due to grassroots efforts. The reserve consists of rugged mountains, canyons, lush valley and “sótanos” or pit caves carved out from the limestone of the Huasteca Karst, and is also home to several 17th century Franciscan missions. Of the five missions in the Reserve, we visited three:  Misión Landa de Matamoros, Misión Jalpan, and Misión Concá. All were small, simple but elegant structures of stucco and stone with elaborately detailed facades.

After a night in a hotel in the charming small town of Jalpan, we drove to the northern part of the Reserve to visit the Sótano de Barro, apparently one of the deepest pit caves in the world at 1,345 ft (410 m) deep. While Marie relaxed at the trailhead, Mathieu and I climbed the steep path up the mountain. At the top, we peered over the edge of the cliff and into a deep hole. The sides were green with different types of plants and we thought we could see tree tops rising from the pit’s bottom. This deep hole is habitat for the guacamaya verde, the green macaw parrot. We could hear them squawking then finally saw several pairs flying below us. It was an awesome pit cave and we had the place to ourselves. That night, we wild camped under bright red flame trees along a wide, shallow river. It was another night under a lovely starry night.

The next day, we visited the Cascada Chuveje. After a short hike through the forest along a gorgeous creek, we reached the small falls where the three of us immediately disrobed and waded into the inviting pool underneath. From there, we continued east on another steep, curvy secondary road exiting the Reserve. Suddenly, as we were coming down the hill, the truck turned off. There was no engine and no electricity; everything just completely shut off! Thankfully,  Mathieu was already driving slow and it happened just as we were coming to a small side road where we could pull off (a bit of an anomaly). At the moment the engine shut off, Mathieu had seen a small puff of smoke from under the hood and noticed the temperature gauge shot into the red zone. Oh crap. Oddly, when we opened the hood, we saw nothing unusual. We’d assumed the engine had overheated but there was no steam gushing from the radiator and the belts appeared normal. Hmmm…After more probing, Mathieu figured it out. The 6-inch screw holding the truck’s battery in place had fallen out (likely due to all the hours of driving on rough roads) causing the battery to shift which caused the cable grounding the battery to the truck to snap. As a result, the cables connecting to the positive and negative terminals had sparked, hence the smoke, and the engine shut off. So it was a battery problem and not a problem with the radiator or the engine. Whew! Mathieu taped-up the fried battery cables, reattached the ground cable, and we were on the road again. We found a hotel in the small town of Bernal and toasted a cold beer to yet another adventure-filled day.     

The next morning, we explored the town. Besides being a Pueblo Magico for its colonial architecture, Bernal (population ~2,900), is home to the Peña de Bernal, a 1,421-ft (433-m) tall monolith, one of the tallest in the world. After breakfast, Mathieu and I climbed the short, steep trail to the top of the massive rock where we joined about 75 high school students. The view over the town was nice but was a bit difficult to enjoy it with all the energetic, super chatty, selfie-stick wielding teens darting around. But I was happy to see them outside enjoying nature (even if only to post selfies on Facebook from the peak. Ha!). After the hike, we rejoined Marie and walked around the charming city center, visiting the plaza, the small brightly-colored Templo San Sebastián, and the small shops, all within view of the Peña. We were joined by our high school friends from the peak and the peaceful plaza quickly erupted with the sounds of laughter and screaming as they ran around spraying each other with canned suds. Their fun antics added to the charm of the plaza on that lovely, sunny day.          

From Bernal we drove east to visit two more Pueblos Magicos. In Cadereyta de Montes (population ~51,800), we visited the lovely, palm tree-dotted plaza and its three small, brightly-colored churches:  Templo de la Santa Escala, Templo de la Santa Soledad, and the Templo de San Pedro y San Pablo. While we strolled through the last temple, we were treated to a concert. The sounds from the large pipe organ reverberating through the old church were amazing. Next we drove south to Tequisquiapan (population ~55,000). While Mathieu took a siesta in the truck, Marie and I strolled through the city center, visiting the plaza and the Templo de Santa María. While its neoclassical architecture was similar to other churches we’d seen, this small church was constructed using pink sandstone from the region. It would be the first of many pink churches still to come. We also visited some of the shops lining the plaza, admiring the expensive housewares, jewelry, and pottery as well as the local handicrafts. We had a great time chatting and window shopping.  

From there, we drove west to Querétaro to visit our friends, Jakob and Connie, and their fun, feisty dog, Filu. We’d meet the three of them in January at the monarch butterfly reserve (see previous post). We had a wonderful evening with them, enjoying good food, wine and conversation. We were a very international group made up of an Austrian, a German, two French and an American. It was great to hear the various accents as we chatted, mostly in English but in Spanish as well. We ended the evening with a tasting of a few liquors Jakob had collected from various parts of Mexico. It was a perfect end to a fun evening.    

The next day, Jakob and Filu took us on a tour of Querétaro (population ~805,000), a Pueblo Magico. Per Wikipedia, the city has repeatedly been recognized as having a superior quality of life and was listed by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 15 historic destinations of the world. We started in the historic center, visiting the Plaza de Independencia and the Plaza de Armas, then strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets to a hill overlooking the city and the remaining parts of the enormous, ancient aqueduct that previously supplied the city with water. It was an impressive structure. We also visited a few of the city’s ornate churches and stopped to check out handicrafts at some of the many small shops. Our furry guide, Filu, ensured that we also stopped to enjoy a few of the city’s many fountains to cool off. That night, back at Jakob and Connie’s house, Mathieu cooked dinner for us all, making delicious burgers. We had another night of good food and drink, and great conversation.    

The next morning, we said farewell to our wonderful friends and drove north to San Miguel de Allende, a Pueblo Magico in the state of Guanajuato. The city (population ~72,000) is known for its historic center with cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. It is also known as a haven for artists and expats. We had fun walking through the narrow streets lined with dark red, orange, and yellow buildings, contemplating artwork, and window shopping in the numerous quaint shops. We also visited the Jardin Principal, a beautiful plaza with sculpted trees, well-trimmed bushes, fountains, an abundance of flowers, and fountains. While there, we relaxed on one of the many benches and enjoyed the sounds of a mariachi band serenading a couple at a street-side cafe. The plaza was also bustling with vendors selling balloons, ice cream, and churros to the throngs of tourists (domestic and foreign). We then crossed the street to visit the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a large, ornate church constructed of pink sandstone which per Wikipedia, is one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. We had a fun day exploring the colorful, festive city.

From San Miguel, we drove west to Guanajuato. We’d read on iOverlander about a place to camp with nice views overlooking the city. After navigating through the narrow, hilly streets, we arrived to the “campground.” Hmmm…it was a dirt parking lot overlooking a hillside neighborhood. It appeared that people parked there for the day to visit the city. The bathrooms were nice and the showers had hot water but we’d have to sleep between the parked cars. Since it was already late afternoon and we were tired, we had a beer and decided to make the best of the situation. Thankfully, the owner agreed to let us sleep on the terrace of their house that overlooked the parking lot. So, we set up the tent for Marie and laid out our sleeping bags. It was weird to camp on someone’s terrace but it worked out OK.  

After a wakeup call by the owner’s cute dog, we had coffee and breakfast at our terrace camping spot then drove to the Templo San Cayetano. The large, hillside church, constructed of pink volcanic rock, was beautiful and had a lovely view of the city below. Next, we drove to the historic city center. Per Wikipedia, Guanajuato (population 171,709) is in a narrow valley, resulting in many narrow and winding streets impassible by cars, and many alleys with long sets of stairs up the mountainsides. We joined the masses of tourists (domestic and foreign), walking through the city exploring the colonial mansions, plazas, and shops. We also visited a few of the 23 churches in the city, including the Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, located on the main plaza, Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace). The large, bright-yellow church seemed to glow in the sunlight.

The city was festive, vibrant, and alive with music. In the Plaza de la Paz, we were treated to a Beatles cover band belting out well-known hits. Then, in front of the Juarez Theater, considered one of the most beautiful theaters in the country, we were treated to a long parade of musicians dressed as 16th-century trou­badours, playing mandolins, guitars, drums, accordions, etc… Throughout the day, the streets were infiltrated by hundreds of “troubadours.” It was wonderful. From the historic center, Marie took the funicular (tram) and Mathieu and I walked through the narrow alleys and up a million stairs to visit the Monumento al Pípila, a hilltop statue commemorating the city’s war hero. The panoramic view of the city was worth the effort to get there. On the way down, we took a different route, enjoying some fantastic street art on the way.

After a fun day in Guanajuato, we drove northwest on Ruta 45. Before nightfall, we found a place to camp. Per iOverlander, we could wild camp in a small reserve a few miles off the main highway. After going through the small town of Mesa del Pinos, we drove some miles on a dirt road and found a flat area to camp. We had to move some cow patties (cow poop) but the spot was otherwise ok. It’s possible that instead of being in a reserve, we were on someone’s private land where they grazed their cows. Oh well, there was no one around and from our hilltop spot, we could see the lights of the small towns below and enjoy the lovely starry night above.

The next morning, we drove to Zacatecas (population ~138,000) in the state of Zacatecas. We went to the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and strolled through the streets lined with colonial buildings constructed of pink sandstone. We also visited the beautiful Catedral de Zacatecas, also of pink sandstone. Per Wikipedia, the cathedral is known as one of the most outstanding examples of Baroque art in Mexico. After visiting the church, we watched for a bit as some local kids did amazing tricks on two large bike ramps in the Plaza de Armas, adjacent to the church. It was a fun mix of old and new.

We continued walking around, window shopping in the small shops along the main streets then went to the Gonzalez Ortega Market, a historic market that has since been modernized into a mall with stores selling silver, leather, Zacatecas wine, antiques, and local handicrafts. One of the shops showcased beautiful, hand-painted calacas (skeletal dia de los muertos figurines). I pondered buying one of the large, intricately painted (and expensive) female figurines but in the end left the shop with only pictures of my favorites. At another shop, Marie and Mathieu bought some beautiful, brightly-colored beaded figurines, necklaces, and bracelets. It was great to talk to the shop owner/artist and her husband who explained how the pieces were made. That evening, we relaxed on the rooftop terrace of our hostel and enjoyed the view as the historic center, especially the nearby cathedral, lit up for the night. It was our last night with Marie, so we toasted glasses of red wine and recounted the wonderful adventures the three of us shared during our two weeks together.  

The next day, we went to the bus station and said farewell to Marie. She would spend a few more days enjoying Mexico City before returning to Paris. As for Mathieu and I, we were on the road again, continuing northbound.       

We had a great time exploring the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas, visiting archeological ruins, historic towns, Franciscan missions, beautiful natural areas, and meeting new people. This section of the road trip was especially wonderful since we got to share the adventure with Mathieu’s mom, Marie, a longtime explorer always open to new adventures (including camping in dirt parking lots!). I look forward to more fun adventures with her in the future.

During this 14-day section of the road trip, we drove roughly 850 mi (1,368 km). We camped 4 nights (3 nights wild-camping and 1 night in a paid campground), stayed in hotels 7 nights (the most expensive being 500 pesos, ~$26), and stayed with friends 2 nights. And, we felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip through Mexico with my wonderful trip partner, Mathieu, continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/8SCWHYQH7yvfS2p98       

Enjoy!

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With Mathieu and Marie in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City.

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At the Teotihuacán ruins. 

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The brightly-colored Las Palmitas neighborhood in Pachuca de Soto.

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Mural in the Las Palmitas neighborhood in Pachuca de Soto.

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One of many narrow, curvy roads through the mountains. No guardrails!

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Marie and Mathieu at our awesome campsite under the cliffs.

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Marie and Mathieu soaking in one of the many warm pools at Grutas de Tolantongo.

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With Mathieu above Sótano de Barro, apparently one of the deepest pit caves in the world (1,345 ft; 410 m deep). Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda.

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Mathieu and Marie cooling off at Cascada Chuveje in the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda.

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Marie admiring the Templo de San Pedro y San Pablo in Cadereyta de Montes.

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Dinner with our friends Jakob and Connie in Querétaro.

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Filu patiently waiting as Mathieu and Jakob discuss chocolate-covered churros in Querétaro.

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In San Miguel de Allende at the Jardin Principle and the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, one of the most photographed churches in Mexico.

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With Mathieu and Marie enjoying a beer as we ponder our “camp site” on the outskirts of Guanajuato.

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The brightly-colored Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. 

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A parade of “troubadours” in front of Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato. 

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The three amigos at Monumento al Pípila, overlooking the lovely city of Guanajuato. 

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The lovely nighttime view of the cathedral from the rooftop terrace of our hostel in Zacatecas.

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