Published February 2002
After bumping into Lorena in Ajijic and telling her about our really special trip, she asked me write it up for the website. So here it is.
Bob and I have both spent many years traveling and living in Mexico, spending time on land as well as sailing on his boat, Kestrel. In 1998 we both had to return to the states, he to work and myself to help my parents.
During the 3 years that followed, he sold his boat and we both saved some money. Finally, it was time to travel again.
We started in Oct. of 2000. We flew to La Paz, and spent 5 great weeks sailing with our friends Jim and Estrella on their boat, Sea Otter. The Sea of Cortez is always wonderful, full of luscious seafood and beautiful scenery.
We parted company in San Carlos, took the bus to San Diego, got our motorhome out of storage, and started on a 10,000 mile -- 20 state trip through the U.S. In Sept. of 2001, we again put the moty in storage and bused to La Cruz de Huanxtcle, north of Puerto Vallarta. This once small town had been my home for 10 years, and was the place where Bob had sailed into my life on Kestrel.
We were shocked to say the least at the wild growth of the once small fishing village.
We housesat for our good friends, Judy and Joe while they made a run to the states. It was not an unpleasant task at all, as they have a wonderful home 4 blocks from the beach. After 4 weeks of lolling by the pool and stuffing our faces with the worlds best street tacos, Judy and Joe returned. We were ready to travel again.
I had always wanted to see San Sebastion, Talp, and Mascota. These small mountain towns are located east of Puerto Vallarta on the back road to Guadalajara. However this road to them is narrow, very steep and gravel. We decided to take the bus; it ran once a day.
We boarded the bus at the crucero (crossroad) for Juntas, about 8 miles north of P.V. The bus comes between 7 and 7:30 am. It was an old style bus, what we used to call a chicken bus (as people carried anything from iguanas to chickens on them). However, in concession to modern times, this one had a sign as you boarded that read, "No Alcohol, No Animals, and if you need to barf, do it in your bag." (We saw no bags provided, so if you are prone to barfing on the bus, bring your own.)
We started off and went at a good clip through the town of Los Palmas. It was after this town the road turned to gravel, and we slowed down considerably. Our average speed on this leg of the trip was a maximum of 20. The road became very steep and every turn was a hairpin, as we wove our way up, and up and up. The scenery was very junglely, as the rainy season had just finished. Lots of orchids, poinsettias and hanging ferns.
The scenery was so pretty it was no big loss to be going so slowly.I guess the biggest distraction was the shrieking of the brakes, (or was that the sound of metal on metal??), as we inched our way around the turns. At one point, the driver assistant, a 12 year old boy, got out and walked in front of the bus throwing rocks in front of the bus as he went. I guess to see if the road would hold and not slide off down the mountain.
We arrived at the crucero for San Sebastion about 10:30 that morning. We piled out and started asking about the "bus" to San Sebastion. The driver pointed to a man leaning against the wall. I walked over and asked him when the bus left. He looked at me and said, "Manana".
Humm I thought this raises a problem. Then, as I started to leave, he said 3:30 in the afternoon and it would be 150 pesos. (about $16 U.S., 9 pesos to the dollar). Well, as we had paid 57 pesos each for our ride so far (about $6.50), I made the brilliant deduction that he had given me the gringo price. (We were the only gringos in town.)
About then a woman ran up to me and told us to go with her. We went over to a small toyota pickup and she threw her stuff in the back and told us to do the same. The driver was a man from San Sebastion, on his way home. We piled in and continued our winding upward climb. It was about 10 miles into San Sebastion. The driver was a sweetheart and was very happy with the 50 pesos we offered him for the ride.
San Sebastion is a small colonial town founded in the 1600's by the Spaniards, when gold was found there. Many of the buildings are adobe and very old. As the elevation is about 9000 feet, it was way cooler than the coast, with lots of apple, peach and other fruit trees. There is a coffee farm and processing business that you are welcome to walk through and buy some coffee if you wish.
We looked at two hotels on the plaza. They ranged in price from 450 pesos a night (approx. $47) to 250 pesos (approx. $26). This being a bit more than we wanted to spend, we moved off the square to the "quartos economico," and found a satisfying room for 60 pesos ($7) -- bathroom down the hall, bed with sheets and blanket, windows and a door that locked. What more could you as for?
We stashed our stuff and spent the rest of the day walking -- all over town and along the river. Theres not a lot of things to do in San Sebastion, although a tour group from Vallarta flew in (there is a landing strip outside of town). We saw them from time to time, roaming the streets, until they flew off about 2 pm.
Since the 3 restaurants we walked to for dinner either weren't serving yet or were closed, we ate bolillos (rolls) and cheese in the plaza. Then we went back to sit on the porch of our building and drink a bottle of wine we had brought with us. (This after we carried it to several tiendas to borrow a corkscrew.) The next morning, after having asked several people when the autobus came, we hauled our backpacks down to the corner at 6 am. to wait for the bus.
I started talking to a young girl also waiting for the bus. It was a good thing she was there, as the "bus" turned out to be a local man in a pickup with 2 50-gallon drums of spare gas wedged up against the cab. There was a bench to sit on. However it was so cold that after the girl got off at the crucero, Bob and I huddled against the barrels, sitting on the truck bed.
On we went to Mascota. This road made the previous days drive look flat. We climbed and climbed. At one point we could almost see the ocean. I am sure we were at least 11,000 ft. The cliff side was straight up and the drop off was straight down. Same hairpin scenario. I leaned over and said to Bob, "He (the driver) does this every day. He does this every day. Just keep telling yourself he does this every day!!"
We pulled into Mascota about 3 hours later, partially frozen and very glad to get upright. We hobbled over to a coffee shop and had 2 cups of wonderful cafe de la olla. Rich Mexican coffee laced with cinnamon and sugar. Wonderful!!
We walked over to the bus station (yes, real buses here) and asked about the bus to Talpa. There were several, so we left our packs at the bus station and explored the town of Mascota.
The town appeared to be mostly farms, set in a beautiful valley, with a good size river running through it. It was gorgeous and not a condo to be seen. This was more like it. I was enchanted.
We took a long walk down by the river, where we stopped to visit to a woman walking home from the market. She was so happy to share her town with us and so pleased we thought it was so nice. She invited us to her house, up in the hills and near the river. Had our bags not been waiting for us at the station, we would have followed her home.
One thing we noticed about most of the mountain towns was how very clean they were: no litter in the streets, storekeepers washing the sidewalks in front of their shops, no garbage to be seen. Quite a change from the coast,where trash in the streets and on the beaches is a real problem.
I was totally taken with Mascota, and will go there again. However today it was on to Talpa.
We got on the bus and wound our way up and out of the Mascota valley. Looking back out the bus window, we could see the town nestled at the foot of the hills. Lovely!
It was a 45 minute drive to Talpa. As you come into Talpa, you descend into a steep valley (brakes screeching). It is beautiful as the town unfolds beneath you. Talpa was one of the prettiest towns I have seen in Mexico. Cool, because of the altitude, but so green and pretty.
Talpa is known for the religious pilgrimages made to the church there. People walk for days to get to the town, then crawl on their knees into the church. There they pray to the Virgin of Talpa for healing. When people are healed, they return and leave a lock of hair and a letter pinned to the wall of the church, telling of their healing.
Thousands of Mexican nationals make this pilgrimage each year. The months of December to April can find the streets of Talpa filled, the many hotels, rooms and posadas bulging. One woman told us There are so many people that you have to walk in the street and cars can't get by. We felt fortunate that we had arrived in an off-time, as we got to wander the streets, climb to the wonderful Cristo de Rey (Christ the King) monument on the highest hill overlooking the town and do it without being trampled!
We got a lovely room (bath included) for 80 pesos. Again, the lady in charge was very kind and friendly, so happy that we liked our room and the way she had decorated her hotel.
We spent the day walking all over town, down by the river, and through the city park. We had a wonderful meal, reasonably priced. I had chicken mole and Bob had carne asada. We each had a beer and our bill came to 75 pesos ($8). Again, the owner was so kind, and so pleased that we liked our meal. The people in these regions seem so untouched by tourism that they still feel happy to see you enjoy their town. We felt so welcome and cared for that it was hard to leave.
If we made one mistake on this trip, it was to not allow several days in each town.
The next morning we headed out for Ajijic and our next housesitting mission. We went through the large town of Ameca, busy, big and noisy after the peace of Mascota and Talpa.
We changed buses 6 times from Talpa to Ajijic. Some of these stops were just cruceros, where you would stand by the side of the road and wave down the next bus with the correct destination written on it.
If we had take the main highway from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara,the trip would have taken us 4 hours in a modern bus. Going the back road had taken us 3 days, and we would have liked to spend a week and a half.
Both of us were happy to realize that "old Mexico still exists, even though you may have to get off the main highway to find it.
As we shared our trip with our friends in Ajijic, we realized these are places we would visit again, places full of beauty, warmth and the true spirit of Mexico.
Always keep exploring,
Karen Kulik and Bob Adams