As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts in this series, Mexico City’s constant crowds will force most anyone with means to venture out from time to time. I toured many of the smaller cities in central Mexico during my four months there, usually on long weekend or over the holiday weekends for the Mexican bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, both of which occurred during my stint there. None of my journeys were quite the road trip in Y tu mama también, though they all had at least one memorable moment.
With two exceptions, they were also all by bus. That may sound terrifying, but the Mexican bus system between major cities is one of the country’s more impressive feats. It’s at least as comfortable as its American counterpart, and sometimes more so; on some buses, a few extra pesos will earn one in-flight snacks and warm towels. Buses feed out of four Mexico City bus stations in each of the cardinal directions, all easily accessible by Metro and well-located for swift escapes. These buses, at least, are on time, clean, and populated by pleasant travel mates. The only real annoyances are the dubbed bad American movies inevitably playing on the TVs, and a few realities of Mexican highway life beyond the bus companies’ control, from ugly wrecks that clog traffic to understaffed tollbooths to animals wandering into the road.
I wrote about my Mexican bicentennial journey to Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato some time ago, and it is hard to beat the sheer Mexican chaos of that long weekend. My only other trip to the north took me to Tequisquiapan, where my host family had a cozy vacation home in a gated community. Tequis was a lazy provincial town, though Day of the Dead festivities did drum up an anti-Halloween protest in its zócalo. The north is Mexico’s conservative heartland, and Gonzalo Junior bemoaned the incessant norteño music—Mexico’s answer to country—on the radio. On our full day there we ventured out early for breakfast in a sun-splashed village before a hike up the Peña de Bernal, a stone monolith, one of the largest of its kind. In the afternoon we made our way to a Mexican winery—not bad, for a nation new to the wine cultivation—and whiled away the evening with another game of cards.
Dreary Toluca rules the first valley to the west of Mexico City, though the majestic Nevado de Toluca with its year-round snows towers over the city and bestows some sense of grandeur upon the crowded plain. (One of my previous trips to Mexico took me up toward the Nevado and into the mountains beyond, though that’s a story for another time.) Some of Mexico City’s most extreme sprawl has been outward into this neighboring valley, though there are some pockets of solitude up in the pine forests that separate the beast from Toluca. One day the host family and some of their friends took my roommate and I up to the Desierto de los Leones National Park, the site of an old monastery, and then moved on for some horseback riding in the rain before a delicious meal in a little hilltop diner.
Further west, Michoacán is a state of great beauty, of rich indigenous heritage, and of serious conflict in the Mexican drug war, the only place in my travels where such qualms ever surfaced. The flavor of the month cartel at the time was La Familia Michoacana, not long after replaced by the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), both noted for their weirdly religious take on drug trafficking. They waver between rebellion and fractious alliances with the national cartels, building loyalty by pumping money into the small towns in the mountains of Michoacán. It was only in Mexico that I began to understand just how much geography—those towering hills and twisting mountains—can make it difficult for a state to assert any authority. La Familia grew bold during my time in Mexico, descended from the mountains, parked buses and trucks across the highways into the state capital of Morelia, and set them alight. Thankfully, my eclectic group from the university had no such obstacles.
The first stop in Michoacán was Pátzcuaro, a small city on a lake whose utopian origins I’ve discussed before. The Pátzcuaro of 2010 was no utopia, but it was a beautiful place, the wind whispering down its mountain lanes and cooling its plazas. We arrived late at night and wandered the silent streets in search of a hostel, finally stumbling upon one with a few concrete blocks disguised as beds. Woken by roosters the next day, we hiked up a mountain to survey the scene, then descended to the lake, where a boat ferried us out to the island of Janitzio. It’s a famous Day of the Dead destination covered in terraces and quaint homes, though on this weekend it was a poster child for indigenous poverty: there were only a handful of tourists on the island, yet it featured row after row of shops, all selling identical, tacky products, and no business on the way. In spite of it all there was beauty there, a sight best witnessed from the lookout in the upraised fist of a giant statue José María Morelos on the island’s peak.
None of the outlying cities I visited can quite match the scale of Morelia, whose entire city center is a colonial jewel. Our first day there became an endless walking tour of intricate buildings, but there was something worth seeing around just about every corner. We visited on a hopping weekend; an international film festival featuring a few big names was in town, as was a superb bread festival, with championship breads arranged in shapes of trains and eagles and Mexican flags. We split our time there between two hostels; the first was the Tequila Sunset, whose name tells you all you need to know about it, and the second was a far swankier establishment owned by a man who had just come back from a few years in Bloomington, Minnesota. Naturally, we bonded, and the evening of wine and cheese on the rooftop swiftly degenerated when he invited in all his friends.
One trip south of Mexico City was to a place I’d been before. My dad, a Spanish professor, has been running study abroad trips to Cuernavaca since the early 2000s, and I went down to visit for a time during one of the early years. It had been years since I’d last seen Gerardo, the Canadian expat who runs the program, but it was a seamless slide back into life in the City of Eternal Spring. My first night involved a dinner on the zócalo with Gerardo, who seemed to know everyone in the square and the nearby artisans’ market; after some shopping, I settled into his home on the outskirts for some quiet contemplation.
The next day, joined by Gerardo’s wife and his friend Álvaro the Marxist Economist, we bought some beer and went for a drive up into the mountains for lunch at a trout farm, where we mused about Mexican politics and joked about Rubén Aguilar and loved life beneath the pines. Back in Cuernavaca that evening I made the acquaintance of a young Canadian who knew Gerardo, and he took me on a novelty journey to a spa he often visited with his Mexican girlfriend (now wife). I sat in a temazcal, an Aztec sweat lodge filled with pungent herbs, and sweated away my troubles before a good, hard massage. After that we ventured down into the Cuernavaca club scene, though the pictures of that night have, alas, “mysteriously” disappeared. But there was no time to linger in that realm, as Gerardo took me to breakfast the next day with a woman from an outlying village whose life had nothing in common with the leisure of the past few days.
Somewhat less placid than contemplative Cuernavaca was an arranged trip to Taxco by the university for all the study abroad students. This was also not a first time visit, though this jaunt proved a bit different than a day trip with the parents when I was twelve. On the way down the bus stopped at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a large cave complex to the north of Taxco, and wandered through towering stalactites and stalagmites and other features I can’t possibly remember. Down its in depths was a spring pure enough that we could drink straight from it, the only water I’ve had that can rival the stuff that comes from Duluth taps.
Taxco is an old silver mining city, and one of the best-preserved colonial gems of Mexico. Even the major streets remain narrow cobblestone lanes, winding their way up the mountainside to which the city clings. Its centerpiece is the church of Santa Prisca, a stunning baroque icon on its zócalo with awfully translated English signs next to the Spanish ones. Thanks to a rainy season deluge, however, touring much of the city beyond the church and the silver markets proved a chore. We settled in a bar for a Mexican soccer humiliation at the hands of Ecuador, then skirted the raindrops on the way back to the hotel. (Two umbrellas were pressed into service as doors on our van taxi, as the real door was nowhere to be found.) The rain did little to dampen spirits, however, and the party raged on in hotel rooms for most of the night, culminating in a nighttime swim in the pool and an ill-advised journey back down into the city in search of tacos, which somehow managed to go off without a hitch. Most of the group suffered ill effects the following morning, though I was raring to go, ready to push through the mists of Taxco and on to the ruins at Xochicalco. I’d been here before too, and it was a good thing, because the rains drove us from the site far too soon.
I never did get to Puebla, another regular stop on the central Mexico circuit, though I did pass through on a week-long journey into the country’s southeastern reaches. The first stop was Oaxaca, yet another city rich in history. We spent our first day at Monte Albán, a large Zapotec ruin atop a mesa-like mountain overlooking the city, but Oaxaca’s real wealth is in its living culture. The city is a culinary paradise, home to the riches moles and the purest mezcal and other delicacies, to say nothing of some good, crunchy chapulines. (Yeah, fried grasshoppers.) Southern Mexico retains its indigenous roots as well as anywhere in the nation, and that night the zócalo was the scene of a whirling pageant of dance. The next day our hostel gave us a wide-ranging bus trip around the area, with a visit to the Árbol de Tule—the fattest tree on earth!—and a Zapotec weaving operation. Next came Mitla, a ruin small in size but intricate in its Zapotec mosaic work, and then, a long, bouncing road up to the Hierve del Agua, a petrified waterfall. The tour ended at a mezcalería, where the Australian in our party won us a free bottle through feats of epic liver destruction.
That night, I chaperoned us along on to another bus trip, this time to Puerto Escondido, the lone beach trip of my four months in Mexico. It involved normal Mexico beach activities, albeit in a sleepy town with just enough tourism to give it a hippyish edge. (One expat, when asked of her origins, told us she was from the stars, though she’d also spent some time in Cincinnati.) We found a couple of cabins far enough up the shore for some privacy, but close enough to walk into town along the beach. For once, I set my itinerary aside and devoted myself to blissful nothing: leisurely meals in seaside shacks, long nights of festivities on the beach, lazy scrawling in a notebook in a hammock before drifting into a nap and waking without a care in the world.
The next bus took us up to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the farthest southeast and the poorest state in the Mexican union. I covered our Thanksgiving day trip to San Cristóbal and the Zapatista community in rebellion in a previous post, but it was a valuable stop, one that made me think long and hard about how to find my place in the modern world. The next day the bus schlepped us along to Palenque, stopping at a pair of waterfalls along winding mountain roads before coming to the great Mayan ruins in the jungle. Its sprawling palaces peek out of the greenery, and its architectural variety and detail surpass anything in the center of the country. After declining numerous offerings of mushrooms and one last long overnight bus trip, my last Mexican road trip came to an end.
* * *
These reminiscences on Mexico tend to be gushing tales of discovery and dalliance. That reflects reality, up to a point. But that isn’t the whole story, and I’d be remiss not to mention the other side. In a way, Mexico was liberation: I was wildly free to reinvent myself and surrounded by excess, in which I participated willingly. And yet I still had a vague sense that I was in this world, but certainly not of it. I both poured myself in the fun and remained a detached observer from on high, an exhausting effort that can be hard to articulate. More than once, returning to my Mexico City flat, I’d slump back in the elevator and run a hand through my hair, drained by the fullness of the life I lived, wondering what it all meant. For the first time since I’d started my aggressive writing two years prior, I had writer’s blocks: suddenly it didn’t come naturally, the world I’d built through those words no longer quite held together. In my relentlessness I was missing something; I didn’t always know what, and even when I did, I didn’t have the ambition to seize it. It took a trip abroad to see what was closest to home; a confrontation with different worlds to learn my place within the one I knew.
People often like to talk about finding their “true selves.” I find this deluded. We have no one true self; we are a wide array of forces and histories, all wrapped up in one body and one mind, trying to make sense of the whole mess. For me, Mexico is one of those parts, thrown in there with everything else.
What did Mexico give me? I can try to put it into words. There was a host family that showed me what family life ought to look like, and a friend or two who showed me the meaning of companionship. Those bonds endure. It showed me how to push outward, how to surrender parts of myself to others, even as I struggled with deeper truths. It showed me a country impossible to paint in black or white, a nation that swallows everything up and makes it all its own. It made me rethink my politics and my worldview, and gifted me with the man I quote more than anyone else. Above all, it turned me loose, however haltingly, and at the same time underscored how much more there is to life than mere freedom. Five years later, I await a chance to go back—but I carry it all with me, part of a living history, and those four months live on, forever renewing an old belief. Viva México, dador de la vida.