On April 16th, we picked up our rental car and set out on a road trip around central Mexico. We had a rough itinerary, a bag full of snacks, and a little white Chevy Aveo, aka the “Prizefighter.” Back in Oakland, on his way to work, Drew would pass through a parking lot just before getting on BART. In this lot, he’d often play a game examining the lettering of license plates and try to make words that contained the three letters, in that order, in his head. Some are harder than others, and our rental, with the letters PZR on the plates, was a real challenge! Pizzamaker was one contender, but Prizefighter somehow seemed a more stately title for our chariot (also, incidentally, the name of a bar we really like in Emeryville).
We headed out of Mexico City – an altogether simple task relative to all the warning we received about driving in CDMX – and headed first to Querétaro. As this was our first real day as drivers in México, we’ll share a few brief reflections. While not without quirks, it’s pretty easy. And if you’ve ever been in a car on the BQE around 6:30pm on a Thursday, it’s a cake walk. I can say that, since I have the important task of sitting in the passenger seat and alerting Drew to all the imminent dangers – real and imagined – that I see (we opted to save the money on paying for permission to have a second driver, which means Drew is Chief Maneuvering Officer, and I am Pothole Identification Staffer, Associate Director of Navigation and also Manager of Snack-to-Mouth Delivery).
The most perilous aspect of driving, which seems to be a nationwide phenomenon, are the topes. Topes refer to “buckets” but also “speed bumps.” We learned the former meaning on our first day in Mexico City when we had ordered too much pozole and they sent it home with us in a small orange tope with a handle. Yay! The second meaning was made abundantly clear within our first moments in the Prizefighter. Topes are everywhere. Here they are more like abrupt mounds of clumpy asphalt than the smooth hills of American suburban speed bumps. Equally importantly, the amount of warning you receive about one’s imminence varies from very little to none. This could result in broken axles (we’ve more than once been reminded of this same danger from the Oregon Trail and acknowledged that we certainly don’t have the skills in our wagon to repair and continue on to the Snake River) or a little airborne journey, but fortunately neither fate has befallen us to date.
Mostly, drivers ahead will notice the tope (sometimes at the very last second), slow down to a near crawl (from 60 to 0 in two seconds or less), put on their hazards (the universal Mexican signal for ‘something is happening’) and lob themselves over it. So we learned by doing, and Drew has now navigated hundreds of topes with great finesse.
Though I’m sure you’re very anxious to learn more about the peculiarities of car handling and road dynamics in Mexico, I’ll return to the real purpose of this post: the trip itself. As mentioned, our first destination was Querétaro. This is the fastest growing city in the country, located in a state by the same name (there are 31 states in Mexico, and as of writing this on May 4, over 1,500 miles in, we have spent time in only seven!). We assumed from its designation as “one of Latin America’s most dynamic places” and the fact that its industry is largely built on IT, that we’d find a modern, glassy city. To the contrary, Querétaro’s architecture and vibe turned out to be thoroughly mellow, and quite idyllic. Here are some photos:
A few hours and a stroll around a beautiful urban park later, we returned to the Prizefighter and headed further west towards our destination for the next few nights: Guanajuato. Guanajuato is a topographically curious place, built into a bumpy valley such that much of the city is, by necessity, constructed out of stairways and underground tunnels – to get anywhere is a labyrinth of short ascents and descents only achieved on foot. Fortunately, said labyrinth is just full of color, excellent stonework and charm.
We stayed in a house on the edge of town, just under the Cerro de la Bufa – a mountain full of rock formations that could easily have been somewhere in the American Southwest. This familiar desert climate brought wild winds, piercing blue skies, and a truly excellent nightscape.
We explored Guanajuato’s market, checked out the famous Teatro Juarez, watched a soccer game at an outdoor café, paddled around a reservoir, and enjoyed enchiladas mineras: the local specialty prepared with potatoes and carrots, and named for the fact that the area has been a center of silver mining in the country.
We also spent more time than might be reasonable hanging around our lodging, on account of two outstanding resident cats, Cosita and Francisca. The former is a Maine Coon, striking in resemblance to my last cat, Mazy the VII. Both share(d) a sweet, slightly neurotic personality and penchant for kitty dreadlocks in their abundant fur. Cosita slept with us most nights, and this only further confirmed our suspicion that our next home will be one with a(t least one) cat; the future is feline.
We took a day trip from Guanajuato to the nearby towns of San Miguel de Allende and Dolores Hidalgo. Ninety minutes of desert driving (in which the Shakey Graves cover of Neil Young’s ‘Unknown Legend’ earned its rightful title as Song of the Road Trip) put us in the center of the “Greatest Place to Live in the World” according to, I don’t know, Travel & Leisure magazine? San Miguel de Allende is also known as Gringolandia, as thousands of U.S. Americans have made it their home over the last half century. We had to see what all the fuss was about. We arrived just before noon on Good Friday, so spent a few hours watching an Easter-related processional make its way through the streets, and then we ate some gorditas.
San Miguel is undeniably lovely. The streets are cobbled and lined with art galleries, the built environment colorful, the pace slow (and not just because there was a morose Catholic processional going down). We concluded that there was fuss to be made, but no more so than any other magical place we’d been (seriously, when is the Tourism Board going to send us our commission?!), and there was maybe one too many hip, aging Californian ladies with red spectacles, patterned long skirts and chunky silver earrings for our liking (no offense meant to those stylish broads, though!).
Onward, we went to Dolores Hidalgo. But not before stopping at La Gruta hot springs on maybe its most popular day of the year. Hot Springs in the Hot Desert might not sound like a winning combination, but the hundreds of families who had descended on La Gruta clearly felt otherwise. A collection of roughly ten hot pools were filled (and I mean, filled) with people of all ages splashing in floaties, drinking Tecate, taking selfies, or attempting to drown their brothers. It was a scene of the best kind, and we enjoyed a few hours of people watching and pool-hopping (well Drew did. I kind of wimped out at the sight of the mysteriously cloudy waters teeming with so many human bodies).
Then on to DH. This town was once just called “Dolores,” but then Miguel Hidalgo had to come along and be a hero and get his name added in there. No, but seriously. Below is the statue in front of the church where Priest Hidalgo rang some bells from the bell tower, yelled “Death to Bad Governance!” and helped start the Mexican War of Independence. He was later executed by the Spanish, and is on the record as saying to his executors something along the lines of: “Though I may die, I shall be remembered forever; you all will soon be forgotten.” Bam!
Anyway, Dolores Hidalgo is like the introverted younger sibling of San Miguel – same genes, less gravitas. We shared some tortilla soup and guacamole and played cards in a leafy courtyard restaurant where the maître d’ invited us to come live in Dolores Hidalgo forever (perhaps he’s on the tourism board and can help us with the matter of that payment?).
We then sampled the local ice cream, which is regionally famed for its unique and/or downright strange flavors. We played it relatively safe with avocado and Mexican chili chocolate for me and for Drew, whiskey cream and elote (astute readers may recall elote from our first meal in Mexico City: it is, basically, corn).
We drove back to Guanajuato with a sugar high as the sun began to set over the mountains. It was a sweet day, followed by sweet slumber, and the launch of the next leg of our road trip: to Guadalajara and the Bosque La Primavera!