Day 53-56 – Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico to San Felipe, Guanajuato – 11,213 km
‘I’m ashamed to because of how dirty they are,’ she said.
‘That’s the whole point!’ I said exasperated because she had used this same argument all throughout Baja California and again for the past several days on the mainland. ‘You wouldn’t need to do it if they were clean.’
‘I know, but it’s like I want to clean them before I let anyone else touch them,’ she said.
‘Well, I’m sorry but there will be no more putting it off,’ I said. ‘Your boots are filthy and it’s well past time to have them shined.’
It was late afternoon and we were walking through the central plaza of San Felipe in our street clothes because we had decided to end the day’s ride a little early and stretch our legs a bit. San Felipe is a quaint, midsize town along Carretera 51 between Zacatecas and San Miguel de Allende. If it were a town in Baja California where the pickings are slim, I’m sure it would be a tourist attraction; but having the misfortune to be surrounded by so many exception colonial cities, San Felipe is generally considered unremarkable by those who live in the region or who pass through it.
‘¿Cuánto cuesta una polida?’ I asked the shoeshine man who sat relaxing beside his stand.
‘How much for a polish?’
‘Son veinte,’ he said and began to raise himself and take up his instruments. ‘It’s twenty.’
‘¿Treinta para dos?’ I asked. ‘Thirty for two?’
He considered and then he replied, ‘Sí. Está bien.’
I took a seat and placed my boots on the platforms and the shoeshine man, who had lately been so casually lounging, immediately began to show his vigor.
‘It looks like being in the stirrups when you’re at the gynecologist’s,’ Jess said from where she sat watching on the bench opposite me.
The shoeshine man began by scrubbing the dirt away with a brush and soapy water and then he dried my boots and began to apply the black polish. When the first coat of polish was applied he buffed away the excess and then laid on a second coat and let it set. Then he buffed the boots once more and lastly he applied a clear waxy substance to finish the treatment.
‘To me, this is as good as any massage,’ I said to Jess as my boots began to transform before my eyes. ‘They do it so well and it’s been just this good every time.’
I thought about this and it made me realize something that my mind had been circling around for the past few weeks.
‘I’ve noticed this with other things too,’ I said. ‘So many Mexicans that you see doing what seems like menial chores seem to take a lot of pride in what they do. Maybe it’s because it’s their own small business or maybe it’s for another reason. I know that generalizations are bad and all that but, if you watch them paving a road, or cooking tacos, or washing a car, you’ll probably see what I mean.’
‘It’s like they see it as their trade instead of just a job?’ Jess said.
‘Yes, I think that’s it exactly,’ I said and, considering this for a moment, I added another thought to it. ‘I think that’s what I really struggled with in Africa. You don’t get the same general sense of pride in doing a job. It’s like everyone’s just going through the motions and to do the full, proper job is the exception.’
‘Yes, love, I can see that,’ she said. ‘Like how you shine your boots back home but if you were to do it the way the shoeshine man does, you would have to practice at it.’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘I like the idea of living in a world where a shoeshiner considers himself an artisan.’
I thought about this as Jess and I switched places and she placed her more slender but equally filthy riding boots upon ‘the stirrups’. When the man was finished shining Jess’s boots, we considered our footwear and decided that the boots looked better now than when we first bought them. As we walked through the plaza in search of someplace to take a drink, I felt this unusually strong surge of positive energy.
‘It feels really good to have your boots shined after you’ve dirtied them up from riding,’ I said.
‘Yes, love,’ she said, ‘but I was embarrassed for my boots.’
After the 17-hour crossing of the Gulf of California, we had disembarked at Mazatlan and by the early afternoon we were riding east on Carretera 40 away from the Gulf coast. As we ascended into the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, the highway meandered from the dry, coastal landscape into lush, forested peaks and slopes to create a 100 km stretch of absolutely unparalleled motorcycling.
In Mexico there are generally two classes of highway. The autopistas are first class and these generally charge a toll because they offer the most direct route between the major cities and the tarmac is usually pristine. But, like our interstates highways, they are far less scenic and bypass the more pleasant small towns and fields that are so wonderfully experienced on a motorcycle. To my mind, all the other highways – state and national – comprise the second tier. Most are perfectly safe with all the signs that you would expect to warn you of sharp curves, icy roads, and when trucks or livestock might be crossing. But these highways will have – almost without exception – a crucial section that is under repair or badly in need of it and also they will be littered with topes (‘speed bumps’).
‘You will probably find them when you enter a town and when you leave it and at 200 meter intervals throughout it,’ I had explain to Jess back when we first entered Mexico and now on the mainland my words were becoming prophetic. ‘If you encounter one tope you should expect there will be another soon to follow it, and if you encounter a second you can be sure there will be a third, and so on.’
This was exactly the case on Carretera 40 Libre (‘free’) – the autopista, which runs roughly parallel is denominated 40D. After 100 km of gorgeous scenery during which we weaved in and out along mountain slopes, we suddenly saw signs for Tramo Bajo Reparación (‘Section Under Repair’) and our beautiful afternoon ride came to a crashing halt. We waited with engines cut off for twenty minutes while a tractor dumped fresh gravel onto our lane of the highway. When we were finally permitted to pass, the ride had sudden become a dangerous traverse of fresh, deep gravel through sharp curves, plummeting temperatures, and engulfing fog. This forced halt made what had been a gradual transition from warm costal climes into winter, high elevation conditions appear to be sudden and dramatic. We slogged along carefully for another 45 minutes to an hour until we reached the town of Ejido La Ciudad where the highway began to descend out of the mountains.
It was a half hour or so before sunset when we arrived and we were tired and had seen very few hotels along the highway since entering the gravely stretch. So when we found a recreation area called Mexiquillo about 1 km outside of town where we could rent a wood cabin, we leaped at the opportunity. The cabin rented for 700 pesos (USD 65), which seemed quite overpriced for a local retreat during the offseason but by the time I had haggled them down to 600 pesos it was getting dark and the clouds were beginning to portend a rainstorm.
At the cabin we unloaded the bikes and then I hopped back on Penelope and bolted down the dirt track back into town where we had seen a few small restaurants and a grocery. I bought four tacos to go at the restaurant and at the grocery I bought drinking water, milk, eggs, and bread for tomorrow’s breakfast. When I got back to the cabin, Jess had showered and collected enough wood for us to start a fire. Once the fire was burning warmly in the fireplace and we had eaten our tacos, I collected all the large pieces of firewood I could find and then Jess tended the fire while I showered. The rest of that evening passed like something out of a romance novel. We reclined together in a tight embrace near to the fire so that we could hear the crackling of the logs over the music from my laptop and feel the lapping warmth of the fire sweep like brushstrokes upon our faces.
During the night it rained and the next morning it was still drizzling when I went plodding down the main path on my morning run. The fields were covered with puddles, which all trickled downhill and intermingled so that it was like a thousand new creeks had sprung up overnight. After a few kilometers I reached the waterfall, which was the highlight attraction of the Mexiquillo recreation area. On the way back the drizzle began intermittently to become a rain and, between the rain and the washed out landscape, my already poor sense of direction entirely failed me. I wandered into an area of tall, smooth boulders where a sign read Jardin de Piedras (‘Rock Garden’) and, after trying to cut through the boulders to reconnect with the trail, I suddenly came to a sharp descent into forest and high undergrowth. Eventually with the help of the GPS program on my iPhone I was able to backtrack enough to extricate myself from the tall boulders and return to the muddy trail that lead back to the cabin.
It was a late in the morning before we emerged from the cabin because of the time I had lost during my run and then restarting the fire and cooking scrambled eggs and toast over it. Back on Carretera 40 we had passed the bad under-construction stretch the evening before and now it was mostly smooth tarmac for about 100 km until we reached Durango. Durango is a city of about half a million people, which was founded about 450 years ago as a center of trade for nearby silver and iron mines. This was our first visit to one of the many beautiful colonial cities in mainland Mexico and it was truly a breath of fresh air after the unremarkable cities and towns of the Baja peninsula. However, after more than a 1,000 km traversing Baja, we had become so accustomed to blowing through one uninspiring town after another that, when I pulled us into a parking space beside the 400 year old cathedral in the centro histórico (‘historical center’) of Durango, the first words from Jess after removing her helmet were, ‘Why did you park us here?’
We ate lunch and took a short walk through the central plaza admiring the handy crafts and thumbing through a few books on sale at the market booths.
‘What is one important thing you notice here?’ I asked Jess as we entered the central plaza.
She took a moment and then she frowned as she replied, ‘There are lots of places to get your boots shined.’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘What do you say?’
‘I told you. I’m embarrassed,’ she said as she had said every time I had suggested it before.
‘Ok, I’m letting it go for now,’ I said, ‘but only because I’m ready to get back on the bikes.’
From Durango the highway took a gradually sweep southward until we left the state of Durango and reached Sombrerete in the state of Zacatecas. What I didn’t realize before my first incursion beyond the border towns is that the Mexico we think we know is actually the Estado Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States) of which there are 31 states and one Distrito Federal like our District of Columbia. Often the states are named for their capitol city as was the case in Durango and now in Zacatecas but is not always so as we had seen in Baja California, Baja California Sur, and the day before when we disembarked from the ferry at Mazatlan in the state of Sinaloa.
Sombrerete is another 400+ year-old colonial town, which was founded by a group of Spaniards, Franciscan friars, and allied indigenous peoples, who chose that location among the surrounding hills because of the presence of a natural well and nearby gold mines. Here we pulled in shortly before dark, deciding to push on from the town of Vincente Guerrero despite the setting sun for the lack of a decent hotel. Sombrerete is one of the Pueblos Mágicos (‘Magical Villages’) and, unlike the disappointment we received back at Todos Santos on the Baja peninsula, Sombrerete was everything I had learned to expect of the Magical Villages from my first motorcycle trip through Mexico. In the evening we strolled through the uneven streets of paving stones and cobblestones to see the Templo de Santo Domingo illuminated against the night. In the plaza we each took a locally brewed artisanal beer in a small, quaint bar filled with a few antiques mixed with sundry, valueless old trinkets. Then we went across the plaza to a taco stand and stuffed ourselves on tacos al pastor.
The food stands and, in particular, those dedicated to tacos are one of the most pleasant aspects of Mexico and, to my mind, the country’s most important culinary experience. If at first appearance, one taco stand looks the same as all the others, a taste of the various tacos on offer reveals the variety in kinds and flavors. Throughout Baja and on our first night on the mainland, we had most frequently enjoyed tacos de carnitas, which is a cut of pork fried in its own lard, because that was what was generally on offer. But here we had our first encounter of the trip with tacos al pastor. The al pastor describes tacos that are also of pork but are given their distinctly rich flavor from the marinade of spices, ground chili, and achiote, which is a tree fruit native to the tropical regions of the Americas. The discovery of al pastor tacos gave this evening’s meal a note of distinction and I tried to describe the thoughts that had been formulating in my head since our first taco dinner back in Tijuana.
‘Where I have been in Africa the traditional food tends to be very meat heavy and without a good diversity of vegetables,’ I said as we shoveled one small, three-bite-size taco into our faces after another. ‘The natively grown vegetables are always so measly and expensive and it seems that few but the wealthier can afford to eat them. You can really appreciate why nutrition aid is so important because if children don’t get the variety of vitamins and minerals from vegetables when they are growing up, how can their brains fully and properly develop?’
I ruminated on this for a while as we continued to stuff our faces but, as per usual, it was Jess who summed up the beauty that is the taco with characteristic accuracy and brevity.
‘I love that you get to put the salsa fresca and the salsa picante on yourself just how you like it,’ she said with the red and green tinted juice from each dripping down her lips and onto her chin.
The next day my morning run was more like a Cross-fit session. It went something like this: run to the Templo de San Francisco de Asis, raise camera, take picture; run to the Jardin Zaragoza, raise camera, take picture, shuffle to other side of the jardin and repeat; run to Jardin Constitución, raise camera, take picture; and so on for 45 minutes.
After a breakfast of milk and cereal in the hotel room, we loaded our bikes and made what was to be a quick stop at the Pemex for petrol. As we were leaving the parking lot, Jess waved to get my attention.
‘You’re rear tire look a little flat,’ she said. ‘Maybe you should check it.’
On my first glance I saw that she was right and on my second glance I saw the small stone that had lodged itself in my tire. As I worked at it with my finger, I could hear the pressurized air seep out from the puncture. Unable to extract the deeply lodged stone with my finger, I fished my patch kit out of the pannier and worked it out with the metal awl. Once the stone was removed, Jess and I read the pocket instructions that came with the kit and I followed each step to clear the puncture hole, insert the rubber plug, remove the excess plug stem, and finally re-inflate the tire. The plug held securely throughout the morning ride and I felt good for having completed my first emergency tire repair. I also felt very much relieved that we were running tubeless tires because tubes would have required me to remove the wheel, break the bead, patch the tube, and then replace everything without catching the tube on the rim and tearing it.
With my rear tire repaired, we made a beeline for Zacatecas about 170 km southeast along Carretera 45. Zacatecas is, in my opinion, truly one of the gems of Mexico and a highlight from my first Mexican motorcycle trip. We decided to end the riding day early here and then we changed into our street clothes for a stroll about the city. It was a Sunday afternoon but the streets were bustling with the many locals and mostly regional tourists who were out to enjoy the beautiful weather and exquisite colonial architecture. Zacatecas is another colonial mining town from the sixteenth century that was built among the ore-rich hills of central Mexico. In fact, one of these mines was lately converted into a discotheque into which you enter by a converted railcar, but it is only open on Friday and Saturday nights so we had to forego the experience.
We began our tour of the city by climbing the stairs of the pedestrian streets up the hillside to the Teleférico, which, as I sat trying to think of the words to describe it is actually best said in Jess’s words: ‘It’s a car that crosses on a cable from one big hill to another big hill.’ The Teleférico gave us a spectacular view of the city, which was only bested by the view of the sunset over the city from La Bufa hill where the cable car let us off. As the sun set, we walked down the hillside and back into the historic city center where, quite by accident, we discovered the Museo Casa del Inquisidor.
The museum is barely noticeable as you stroll along the busy Avenida Hidalgo but turns out to be located within the very colonial building where many local victims of the Inquisition were judged. Jess noticed it first and my eyes lit up when she pointed it out.
‘Bean, this is perfect for you!’ I said. ‘You’re always choosing to read the news articles that talk about death, injury, and antisocial behavior.’
The entrance was 60 pesos (USD 6) for the two of us and, during the 30 minute guided tour, the docent lead our group through four rooms consisting of 25 torture devices and several well preserved mummies from the era. The tour guide provided a rapid but uncomfortably detailed description of each device and, unaccustomed to quickly switching between languages, I did my best to whisper a rough translation to Jess without losing my place. Among my favorite instruments of torture – if that’s not too perverse a way to say it – were these:
The heavy iron Masks of Shame with spikes that gouged the neck and upper torso if the wearer let his head slump.
The Coffin Torture in which a metal cage immobilized the victim’s legs and torso so that he was picked and torn at by birds and the cage was not brought down until the very last bone fell through the metal bars.
The Saw Torture in which women accused of witchcraft were hung upside down by their ankles and then sawed completed in half from crotch to forehead.
The Head Crusher where a screw was turned to force a metal cap to gradually and excruciatingly compressed upon the head, causing first the teeth and jaw to shatter, then the eyes to squeeze from their sockets, and finally the skull to break.
By the end of our tour through the Museo Casa del Inquisidor, we had built up quite an appetite so we ambled through the bustling stone streets and alleyways until we found someplace to have dinner.
The next day we left Zacatecas somewhat reluctantly but feeling that we had gotten a good glimpse of what I think is one of Mexico’s most beautiful places. We took the long way out of the city along Paseo la Bufa because this offered similar views to what we had enjoyed on our way down that hillside the evening before after the Teleférico ride. Once out of the city, we followed a short stretch of Carretera 45 and then connected with the 144 at the town of General Pánfilo Natera because it offered a more direct route to San Miguel de Allende and bypassed the much larger city of San Luis Potosi. It also allowed us to pursue our own detours and, during the late morning and into the early afternoon, I led Jess down a series of rural roads, passing through the towns of Pedregoso, el Nigromante, and various others, and traversing intermittent stretches of dirty roads to add some additional excitement to the day’s ride. We returned to the main highway going into Ojuelos de Jalisco and from there we took the 51 into San Felipe where we decided to end the day and I lead us out in search of a shoeshine.