Journey Home: San Miguel de Allende

After our long stay in Oaxaca, we made our way to San Miguel de Allende on Sunday, September 4th. It was another big drive, but we left early and had plenty of time to make the trip. That was the part we got right.

This is a good time to remind anyone traveling the toll roads through Mexico that you want to carry plenty of cash.

About six hours into our eight hour drive, we stopped for gas and got a couple cups of coffee. We paid cash for the coffee. This would turn out to be an unfortunate error.

A little further down the road, we arrived at a toll both where they asked for 315 pesos (about $16.50). We were short on pesos and they didn’t accept credit cards or dollars, so we had to back out of the toll booth through the oncoming traffic, pull off to the side of the road, and climb up to the office area to get this sorted out.

After lots of waiting and a bit of confusion due to my imperfect understanding of Spanish, I learned that the solution was for me to hop in the employee shuttle that would take me to a bank in Jilotepec where I could withdraw cash, then take the shuttle back to the toll plaza. Emily and I were not thrilled about being separated with no means of contacting each other (we have one SIM card and it’s usually in my phone), but given that we had no other option, I took the shuttle. About 90 minutes after we arrived, we were on our way with *plenty* of cash on hand.

Even with our delay, we arrived in San Miguel de Allende well before dark and got moved in to our lovely apartment. The next day was Labor Day (thanks, unions), so Emily and I had the chance to do a little city exploration. We started off by walking the dogs to wear them out, then went back out for a trolley tour of the city. That helped us get our bearings, to a certain extent, and we spotted some places we’d end up visiting later in the week.

 

On our last day in the city, we went to the artisans’ market. It’s subsidized by the city, so the vendors are able to keep their prices low. It’s a huge market, about four blocks  lined on either side with stalls full of lots of great crafts. We picked up a sweet mirror with a metal and talavera tile frame (photo soon!).

We stopped in at a free concert by a string quartet at Bellas Artes, an art space in the courtyard behind the Templo de la Purísima Conceptión. Formerly a convent, the building was later named for Ignacio Ramírez (aka El Nigromante), a famous writer, lawyer, and atheist and repurposed as an art and cultural center. It was a great place to hear a concert and you can watch a clip below.

San Miguel de Allende is a pretty magical city and we had a great stay. Next stop, Guanajuato!

Journey Home: Two Weeks in Oaxaca

That’s right — two weeks in Oaxaca! It was awesome.

We drove from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca on Sunday, August 21st. As we drove toward Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, we passed through toll booths that were abandoned by the government and taken over by groups of people. It wasn’t clear where our money was going, but we paid and continued along our way. We passed through the capital just in time — a couple days later we saw on the news that protesters were blocking the roads.

We stayed at a centrally located apartment with a nice patio area for the dogs to run around. It was a great spot that allowed easy access to restaurants, the Zócalo, and various markets in the city.

Emily remembered the Zócalo being a wide open area from her previous trip to Oaxaca eight years ago. This was not the case this time, due to the ongoing protests by one of the teachers’ unions in reaction to President Peña Nieto’s education reforms. Protesters had set up camps in the Zócalo and along many of the surrounding streets. Apparently the camps have been cleared for the upcoming Mexican independence celebrations. You can read a bit about the background of the situation in this article.

The food scene in Oaxaca is ridiculous. There is delicious food everywhere, from carts on the street to fancy-time restaurants. Impressive for its number of ingredients, mole is one of the local foods we learned to make during our cooking class at Casa Crespo. The chef teaching the class, Oscar Carrizosa, did a great job of explaining what was going on and giving each one of the six people in our class the opportunity to participate in the process. Luckily for us, we should be able to find most, if not all, of the ingredients back home in Austin.

During our second week, I took a Spanish class at Oaxaca Spanish Magic. In spite of their advertising group classes, I ended up with a one-on-one course at a very reasonable price. My teacher, Lili, was fantastic. She taught me a lot, helped me identify the holes in my Spanish knowledge (hello, subjunctive), and gave me a great list of topics to study and work on with a future teacher at the end of the week of classes.

On our last day in Oaxaca, we took a tour of the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The building was originally a church and monastery for the Dominicans who worked tirelessly to convert the native peoples to their brand of Christianity. You can read more about the construction on Wikipedia, but the main points are that it was an active church and monastery until the mid-1800s, after which it was occupied by the military and used as a base. The military made a mess of things, destroying lots of the original art before moving out in the early 20th century. The church and monastery were restored starting in 1993, and the monastery now serves as a museum.

 

We spent last week in San Miguel de Allende — more on that soon — and are currently spending our last week on the road (!) in Guanajuato. It’s hard to believe how close we are to home.

Journey Home: Antigua and Huehuetenango

We drove into Antigua from Copan after crossing the border on Sunday, August 7. The descent into this beautiful city encircled by mountains and volcanoes is impressively steep and serves to transport you to its cobblestone colonial paradise. We stayed at a cute and quiet guesthouse in the southwest part of Antigua about a 15-minute walk from the central park.

Unfortunately, our arrival in Antigua coincided with my getting a cold. That put a bit of a damper on city exploring, but we still managed to go out every night and I did a ton of walking to run various errands, including navigating the labyrinthine market. It wasn’t a super eventful week, but we came away with a few souvenirs and memories of some awesome food experiences.

In anticipation of our drive to Mexico, we drove to Huehuetenango, Guatemala on Saturday, August 13. That put us within two hours of the border. We didn’t have a hotel reservation when we rolled into town, but I had found a couple options online. The first one we arrived at, which I had tried to call the day before, was obviously completely booked. There were tons of cars parked behind the hotel, and when I walked in to try to find the reception desk, I came upon a wedding reception instead! We bailed on that one and drove to our next option.

The Hotel Premier, which sounds fancier than it is, had rooms available. However, the receptionist informed us that there was a disco that night from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Emily and I discussed it, then opted to book a room anyway. The price was right, and we had earplugs and sleep aids. We actually managed to get some decent rest that night and got up early to make our way to the border.

 

The border crossing into Mexico was relatively uneventful. Nicaragua let us out, and Mexico let us in after a bit of back and forth with the dogs — we missed the agricultural/animal checkpoint and had to backtrack. As soon as we could, we stopped to get tacos (yay, Mexico!). We ended up pulling into San Cristóbal de Las Casas at about 4 p.m. local time.

We’ll be posting updates on our week in San Cristóbal and our subsequent trip to Oaxaca shortly!

Five Days In!

We’re on the road! We ended up leaving Austin on Saturday morning rather than Friday night. The trip south from Austin initially felt like just another drive. However, once we hit the border and crossed the bridge into Mexico, we started to feel like this thing is really happening.

Picnic at a rest stop

Our last meal in Texas for a while!

The border crossing itself was surprisingly easy. We were stopped at a checkpoint on the Mexican side of the border. We told them we had dogs, so they didn’t open up the back. We let them look in the windows, then they sent us on our way to the CIITEV to get our Permisos Vehiculos (vehicle permit) and visas. We were lucky enough to find a blog detailing this process, since it isn’t obvious to the border-hopping newbie. As instructed, we followed the nice blue and yellow signs down a very non-official-seeming road, made the craziest U-turn in our lives, then made it to the CIITEV!

Crossing the border!

Crossing the border!

Due to our being slightly frazzled and tired because Penny whined and woke us up every 40 minutes while staying at Silas’s house the previous night (thanks Silas!), we accidentally waited in the line of cars that were waiting to be inspected and have their temporary vehicle permits cancelled in order to leave Mexico. Whoops. While waiting in this line, Penny freaked out and forced her way past the barrier keeping the dogs in the back and ended up on top of all our gear. After figuring out that we were dorking up this whole process, we hopped out of line, parked, left one of our two keys in the ignition with the AC running, moved the dogs to the front seat, and locked the car.

Now, it may seem like a super sketchy idea to leave a car running in the parking lot to keep our dogs cool, but it worked really well. There are also windows all along the front of the building, so we were able to run out and move the car so we could see it at all times. Our dogs being slightly scary-looking helps, and they LOVE being in the front seat.

Inside the CIITEV, there were a bunch of government-employed helpers available to assist with filling out the necessary form for entry into Mexico. The forms were in both English and Spanish, but it was nice having someone guide us through it quickly so we didn’t make mistakes. After visiting windows 1 (Imigracion), 2 (Copia – copies of forms) and 4 (Banjerecito – pay refundable import fee and get permit) we were on our way!

Signs were plentiful and helped us relatively easily get out of Nuevo Laredo and on to 85 / 85D to Monterrey. Emily pointed out that this might be the quickest way to get to see some mountains from Austin, especially if you have the vehicle/visa process down.

We arrived in Monterrey, our first big city in Mexico, and after successfully navigating a few turns, we got a bit lost. Luckily, our spidey-senses were tingling and we were able to turn around easily. Retorno = “Here is a gift from the Mexican transportation and highway authorities. You screwed up, but we’ve left you an out — you’re welcome.”

Retorno sign

This will save you when you make a wrong turn.

We did end up at the Novotel we were looking for. It’s a fine place to stay, if a bit uninteresting relative to our subsequent lodging. Also, not the best for travelers with dogs — the elevator trips to take them outside were kind of a pain. Luckily, there was a nice open area at the Lincoln dealership next door for them to romp around.

The next day, we made the trek to San Miguel de Allende. By the way, if you want to get somewhere as fast as possible in Mexico, the autopista (toll road) is the way to go. It costs some money and I’m sure we’re missing out on some cool stuff, but it saves loads of time and the roads are generally in great shape.

After getting lost shortly after arriving in town (this will become a pattern) we arrived at the San Miguel RV Park and Tennis Courts, a fantastic place to camp that is just a few blocks from the action in San Miguel. We also met Pat Williams, who happens to be from Wimberley, TX! He’s riding around the world on a motorcycle over the next year and was about a week into his journey when we crossed paths. Check out his blog!

Our campsite in San Miguel de Allende

Our campsite in San Miguel de Allende

Before setting up camp, we had heard from the proprietor that it had been raining the last few nights and would probably rain again. “No worries,” we thought, “we’ll just throw on the rain fly and we’ll be fine!” Satisfied with our preparations, we walked into town to find some yummy food. We totally lucked out in that regard: we found a great restaurant that served chile relleno en nogada, one of Emily’s favorite dishes. After stuffing our faces, we walked back to camp feeling great.

As we were sitting in the tent texting our families and checking on some emails, it started raining. After a few minutes, I noticed that my edge of the tent was getting wet. Then it started raining harder and there was thunder and lightning. And water started dripping from above. Our tent, as it turns out, is not waterproof! Emily had the great idea to move the tent under a covered library/hangout area near our camp, where we stayed the rest of the night. Not the best night of sleep, but we survived. All in all, we really enjoyed San Miguel and wished we could have stayed longer — we’ll just bring a better tent next time.

On Monday we got up bright and early, packed up our wet tent, made coffee, and hit the road for Córdoba. There’s not a lot to say about this drive, except that there are lots of awesome suspension bridges in Mexico!

Mexico loves suspension bridges.

Mexico loves suspension bridges.

Take that, Sundial Bridge.

Take that, Sundial Bridge.

We stayed with a lovely couple, Frank and Ania, at a chalet on their property in Córdoba. The place was very cozy and we had a great time. We went into a nearby town, Fortín de las Flores, to find dinner. We ended up at a small restaurant on the square with three things on the menu: gordas, huaraches (I think), and tostadas. One of the proprietors explained what each item was — gordas were explained as “like a gordita” and we already knew what tostadas were — but it was way beyond our abilities to comprehend, so she just brought over an example of each one. We saw them and said, “Yes.”

Chalet!

Chalet!

On Tuesday, we got back on the autopista to San Cristobal de las Casas. After we got lost, then unlost, we ended up at yet another great house just a few blocks from the pedestrian-only section of the Real de Guadalupe. We met Megan from Asheville, North Carolina who was about to leave San Cristobal after being there for a month on a grant to learn more Spanish for her career teaching ESL classes. We went out to a fancy dinner on the Real, got some hot cocoa (a little different than we’re used to) and headed to bed in anticipation of our next border crossing.

Fancytime in San Cristobal

Fancytime in San Cristobal

Wednesday was a huge drive. There were lots of two-lane twisty roads through mountains that reminded us of being in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the way to the border at Cuauhtémoc.

Feels like California

Feels like California

It was easy enough getting our paperwork sorted when exiting Mexico. The offices we went to were in a somewhat sleepy town, only made busy by the traffic through it. The border crossing on the Guatemalan side, in La Mesilla, is also fairly straightforward, but it is a crazy stretch of market stalls and loads of pedestrians and scooters.

In Guatemala looking back into Mexico

In Guatemala looking back into Mexico

The border at La Mesilla

The border at La Mesilla

It took a little time, but we got through, managed not to hit anyone on the way out, and continued along a very twisty set of roads down to Panajachel, on Lago Atítlan. When we arrived at our lodging for the night, Emily proposed that we stay an extra night to take a break from the road. I agreed, so we’ve had a full day of no driving at a beautiful home right on the lake. We’ll share more about our experiences here in a future post. In the meantime, here are a couple photos!

Casa Jucanya

Casa Jucanya

The view from Casa Jucanya

The view from Casa Jucanya

Hasta proxima!