COAL 1968 Beetle – A Drive Through Mexico, Part II

The Palacio de Gobierno, in Guadalajara. Built in Churrigueresque style, also known as Spanish Baroque. An exuberant architectural style that proliferated in the New World throughout the Spanish Colony.

After my arrival to Guadalajara, I was ready for some sightseeing the next day; to walk, let my mind wander and leave behind –for a moment- the worries of the trip. The Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) was my first stop that morning, a stately Churrigueresque mansion dating back to 1643. In this site, independence fighter Padre Miguel Hidalgo decreed the abolition of slavery in 1810. Also here, the country’s first indigenous head of state, Benito Juarez, was almost assassinated by his enemies in 1858. This before Don Guillermo Prieto stopped the would-be-killers with the now-famous phrase: “The brave do not kill” (I assume some arm wrestling took place as well).

The Palacio de Gobierno’s main attraction is José Miguel Orozco’s dramatic mural “Social Struggle.” Orozco is one of Mexico’s most renowned muralists and this, one of his most prominent works. A giant mural where a white haired father Hidalgo leaps away from the chaos of war, fascism, communism and ecclesiastical oppression (quite an editorial!). Orozco used the stairwell’s concave ceiling to add dramatic impact, achieved with great success. The leaping father overwhelms the viewer. The color scheme is striking and works wonders: A mix of heavy reds and oranges, contrasting with various shades of gray and black, conveying all the turmoil of the times.

José Miguel Orozco’s “Social Struggle” mural.

The Cathedral was next. Originally completed in 1618 after 57 years of work, Guadalajara’s Main has undergone various modifications, resulting in an eclectic mix of Baroque, Renaissance, Moorish, and Neo-Gothic styles (architectural purists, stay away). Its most outstanding features are the twin yellow-tiled towers added in 1854 after earthquake damage, with a colorful interpretation of the Gothic style popular at the time. Inside the Cathedral a fine collection of religious artifacts that encompass Guadalajara’s colonial wealth. Amongst its many riches, the sculpture of Our Lady of the Rose, a gift from King Carlos V in the 16th century.

The Cathedral’s towers. Coming from LA and SF, were history is measured in decades (On this street… houses from the 40’s!), Mexico had too much history to absorb.

I exited the Cathedral. The city’s dwellers were already out and about tending their daily chores. Elderly men read newspapers while sitting on benches, young couples walked by holding hands, while shoe shiners were attending clients in their stalls. The latter played a major role in Mexican life; in just about every plaza, town or open space, the shoe shine guys would be, always with plenty of business (looking sharp is a Mexican tradition). Guadalajara had rows of them in all of its plazas.

Rows and rows of lustradores (Shoe shiners).

On the main plaza, right across the Cathedral’s entrance, a photo exhibit destined to follow me across the globe: “The Earth from the Sky”, by Yann Arthus Bertrand. A series of impressive aerial photos I had first seen it in Barcelona some years prior. Being a favorite of mine, I took my time to get reacquainted with the photos.

Noon was approaching and streets were getting packed with holiday shoppers, again. I reached La Plaza Tapatía, a seven block pedestrian pathway that allows visitors to see several of Guadalajara’s attractions by foot. Here, all kinds of items are for sell by street vendors, candies, handicrafts, cheap trinkets, and even canaries. It all unfolds against a backdrop of statues, fountains, and reflecting pools.

The Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara’s Plaza Tapatia.

Teatro Degollado lies at the west end of Plaza Tapatia. A neoclassical opera house inspired on Milan’s La Scala, dating from 1866. Above the stately Corinthian columns flanking the entrance is a relief of Apollo and the 9 muses. It’s the place to enjoy all kinds of live performances, which are rich and varied thanks to Mexico’s cultural wealth; from live orchestras, to dramatic art performances.

Midafternoon, I went to pick some toiletries I had left in my Beetle at the 24 hour parking valet it stayed overnight. Explaining I just wished to retrieve items from my car, one of the attendants drove me up to its location in the top floor. Being Mexico, not surprisingly, he took me on another Beetle. Climbing the spiraling ramp with screeching tires and steering wheel locked in ‘position’, the attendant drove on, in robotic manner to the top, foot pressing heavily on the accelerator. Unnervingly, marks on the ramp’s walls made clear that those attendants had, in more than one occasion, left a few unsatisfied costumers behind. Once we came to a stop, I jumped out of the passenger seat as if propelled by a released compressed-spring. I was a rattle of nerves, but still, managed to gather my belongings.

After another heartbeat-skipping blitz down the ramp, I stopped by the entrance and casually asked the cashier if there was no problem in leaving the car one more night.

  • No! We close on Sundays!

Not wanting to engage in further communication, she made sure to shut the communicator. Unable to get any guidance, I took on foot and spent the next hour and half in desperate search for overnight parking (Good thing I wanted to leave worries of the trip behind!). Eventually I found an underground parking structure under the photo exhibit plaza. It was to close at 10pm, and to open 8am the next morning.

Beetles galore in Mexico.

Mind somewhat at ease, I grabbed something to eat and afterwards, went to move the Beetle. Finding my way into the underground parking, it had already closed – it was only 9pm!  I left the car at the parking’s entrance, right on the plaza’s sidewalk. A Guadalajara policeman approached me.

  • Sometimes they just close earlier! – The policeman told me.
  • And where can I park now? – I inquired.
  • Most parking lots are closed by now… How late are you going to leave it here?
  • Until 6am or so…
  • Well -he said- you could leave it here, I have to guard the photo exhibit all night long. As long as you pick it up before 8am, it should be Ok.

The car was obviously illegally parked, there was no doubt about it. If someone wanted to impound it, there would be no way of negating they were in the right to do so.

“Ok” I said, stepping out hesitantly and leaving my fate in the hands of a complete stranger. He took a close look at the Beetle, noticing the California license plate.

  • That’s so weird. You coming from the USA and this is the car you bring?

Plaza Tapatia, Guadalajara.

I laughed, nervously, and took to the hotel. The night was a restless one, and tried to distract myself with a James Bond movie on TV. I came to notice how Mr. Bond could arrive anywhere in the world, be it Nairobi, or Kingston, and move about as if being a native. All it took to get by was panache, which I was obviously lacking from the looks of things.

Sleep deprived, by 6am I was in the plaza. And the Beetle?

There, just as promised, looking even more awkward in the morning light. The city still in lull mode, streets pretty empty, and the light blue car sticking like a sore thumb in the lonely plaza, parked very illegally over the sidewalk. After a brief exchange, the police officer wished me a good trip and I was free to go.

The policeman’s patrol?

Now it was time to go south. After much thinking and against all better judgment, the shortest route was through Mexico City. I would be crossing the city on a Sunday, which I thought would make it ‘manageable’ for an outsider. Not that the thought eased my nerves.

Hour after hour went by, crossing much agricultural landscape and even a few national parks (were monarch butterflies season). Bullfight/Rodeo plazas became very prominent after Guadalajara. Every few miles one would appear. Spain may be the country of origin but it definitely got a hold on Mexican culture. Street bumps and Bullfight/Rodeo rings seem as essential to Mexican towns as a landmark skyscraper is to a US city.

Reaching Mexico City, I adjusted the carburetor, as the altitude was playing havoc with the mix. That done, I immediately lost myself in one of the largest, most populated, and most confusing cities in the world (no hyperbole). Even on a Sunday, I barely managed to make it through, somehow, after an hour and half of pointless stressful driving. Rickety cars, buses and trucks took to the road as if looking for revenge, or a way to finish with their lives by killing each other in dramatic accidents. I never knew buses and trucks could lean to such degrees without topping over. Remarkable. Eventually two kind youngsters in a mattress shop guided me to the Puebla exit. I was now back on La Libre and out of Mexico City, alive and in one piece.

Further south, signaling got increasingly confusing.

La Libre to Puebla climbed up ever higher, probably close to the 2,800 meter mark (8,000 feet). In a matter of 15 minutes, the temperature around me dropped like a pound of steel. It was freezing outside, with  the road very solitary and dark. The moonlight shone brightly through, illuminating a large portion of the road and my car’s interior. For those accustomed to city life, it is always a revelation to rediscover the spectacle of natural moonlight. The objects reveal themselves slowly, engulfed in a subtle blue light, fascinating to look at.

By 10pm I was in Puebla, after 16 hours of nonstop travelling from Guadalajara. 15 years earlier, the surrounds of Puebla hadn’t looked inviting to me, with poor houses in rickety condition stretching for blocks and blocks. But now, arriving to the city’s downtown, there were rows of beautifully preserved colonial buildings and monasteries. A lovely plaza surrounded by pedestrian pathways made an inviting proposition to stay for more than a night. Tired and spent, I decided to splurge whatever credit I had on my ATM card. Would I regret it later? Probably.

Early next morning, it was time to discover historic Puebla. A city of more than a million, of relevant prominence in colonial times (as the numerous convents show), nowadays bypassed by many travelers.  The city was worth the detour, with most major attractions within short walk from the main plaza. After breakfast, I strolled calmly the sober cobblestoned plaza, where I circled the central fountain a few times. Meanwhile city dwellers either sat on the plaza’s iron benches, or rushed to early mass.

Puebla’s main plaza.

Colonial buildings in remarkable state of conservation surrounded us. Many of these were decorated in vivid Talavera tiles, a tradition dating centuries in Puebla. Back in the day, tile makers from Talavera de la Reina, Spain, introduced this colorful form of decorative art, now commonplace all over the city, still made to this day in the city.

I explored the usual sights, the Cathedral, the pedestrian pathways filled with modern stores, and colorful convents that seemed to appear every 4 blocks or so (Before TV, video games and social media, joining a convent seemed the way to pass the time). For the record, Puebla’s Cathedral has the tallest –or second tallest- bell towers in Mexico, depending on which book one reads (some sources claim it is Mexico City’s). Regardless of what the truth might be, the towers looked rather impressive, elevating over the plaza in rather arresting form.

The Cathedral’s bell towers.

Out of the way from my visit, but still worth a mention, the Loreto and Guadalupe fortresses. Here, on May 5th 1862, 4,500 poorly armed Mexicans defeated some 6,500 invading troops in France’s frustrated effort to annex Mexico. Their victory over impossible odds has generated one of Mexico’s biggest holidays, 5 de Mayo, to the point that even up north, Americans join drinking a few margaritas in celebration.

I ended the day finally tasting one of Mexico’s most popular dishes, the Mole. Two traditions compete here, with both Puebla and Oaxaca claiming to be its origin. It is a rich plate, with a sauce where chiles, raisins, plantains, chocolate, cloves, cinnamon and anise are mixed, usually served with chicken. The mix overwhelms one’s tasting buds with the various complementing flavors. According to local legend, Puebla’s mole was invented centuries ago by the Aztecs as a topping for human flesh. Sure, why not? A more plausible explanation? The recipe comes from Puebla’s Santa Rosa de Lima convent, dating from the 18th century. Whatever the origin, it is heavenly stuff, if one is into spicy food.

Monastery in Puebla.

The following morning, well rested and ready to go, I was set for Oaxaca. A mere 4 hours away from Puebla ($21 on the toll highway), the city had been fixed on my mind since the beginning of the trip. Many travel brochures declared it the city that “embodies the essence of Mexico”. No small claim, and time to find out if they were right.

Riding on the toll freeway, I found myself in a landscape very different from any other I had been to until then. The highway crosses right through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range at a high altitude (5,000-6,000 feet), with bottomless crevices by the road’s edge, and far away valleys in the distance.

Closer to Oaxaca, icame an unexpected query by the toll booth attendant: “Sir, would you mind giving a ride to one of our employees to the next toll station? It’s about 80kms away.”

Say no more. At last, after days of solitude, I was there with a new found companion.

Colorful Puebla architecture.

We had a pretty good talk in those 80kms of travel, mostly about Latin American affairs, with him putting me up to speed on current politics (always in turmoil). Lastly, him being a natural of the region, forewarned me that: “Oaxaca was a never ending FIESTA! You’ll see!” Great, more expectations.

After dropping my unexpected friend at his destination, I went straight to Oaxaca. As it invariably happened, I arrived around 6pm, in the middle of rush hour. Traffic was once again at a still. Tired of this never ending ritual, I just parked in the first available space and went on foot in search of a hotel room.

La Virgen de la Soledad church, in Oaxaca.

As I walked into the town’s center, I found nothing but a TRULY partying Oaxaca. Streets around downtown were closed to traffic, with street vendors and onlookers covering every single inch of available surface. It was an overwhelming scene with color and music bursting from every corner. Every other stand would be selling pirate CDs with music blasting from cheap boom boxes. Colorful Indian garments were at sale and added much brightness to the scene. Nearby, in the cooking stands, all sorts of peculiar dishes were prepared. At a nearby church, people were lining up, bringing offerings to the local patron while intoning Gregorian-like chants.

I kept coming across plazas every couple of blocks, each one seeming more festive than the previous. I went from Tex-Mex events, to salsa orchestras. Finally, in the main plaza a huge Mariachi event was taking place, along a dance contest for older people. The whole city looked like a collection of Mexican postcards. With my senses overwhelmed, I almost got sidetrack from my mission, which was to find a room.

Oaxaca fairgrounds.

Navigating the congested streets, I eventually reached the cheap Hostel my travel guide recommended. A pleasant, hip, backpacker lodging place with beds for $7 bucks a night. Perfect for my budget. With room secured, I took to the city.

I ate at a small street kiosk where a photo teacher from UNAM (Mexico’s National University) helped me with some pocket change. (Always carry small change in Mexico, those street kiosks are not ATM ready).  “So, what’s the big occasion?” I asked my new acquaintance. “Oh, tomorrow is the day of La Virgen de la Soledad, the local patron. They celebrate for about three days in a row, and it’s probably one of the biggest parties in town all year long.” For once, was my timing right or what?

And the band played on.

He accompanied me for a short while afterwards, and we ended up at La Virgen de la Soledad’s church –the first one I had come across earlier- and watched as night’s procession took place. Flowers and offerings were brought to the Virgen’s effigy while a small brass band played slow ceremonial tunes. He then advised me to check out the fireworks display the following evening, and to make sure to visit the Santo Domingo Church during daytime, arguably one of the most breathtaking Colonial naves in the New World. I told him I would certainly do so.

Back in the hostel, the young and alternative clientele was still up, despite the late hour. Most accordingly, Pulp Fiction was playing on TV when I stepped in. Being years since last seeing it, I decided to get down with the crowd and watch again this statement of hip cinema. Having those happy pictures in my mind –Travolta and Jackson cursing and shooting people’s heads off- I went to bed feeling great about human kind.

Church of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca.

In the morning, the city was pretty quiet. Local folks were at work, while tourists –most likely- were in hangover recovery mode. At the Soledad church, a long line of worshippers were praying and bringing offerings to the Virgen at an outside altar. It was a very pleasant scene to see that chilly morning, with elderly women and men patiently waiting their turn to pay homage to the local patron.

In general, Oaxaca has much to see and a few days are needed to enjoy the whole experience (it’s so advised in all travel books). My visit would be limited to the city’s core though, as I was to leave the next day. By midday, I made my way to the obligatory Santo Domingo church. While the exterior looked relatively sober, the interior was fully Spanish Baroque, were sculpture, architecture and painting melted altogether, providing a truly overpowering sensorial experience. It’s an elating, breathtaking site.

Church of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca.

As the sun went down, the crowds slowly emerged with full vigor, ready for another night of fun. The carrousels and merry-go-rounds started to run after hours of inactivity, with kids filling more and more seats as the night advanced. Pirate CD booths started to blast music again and live bands could be heard rehearsing in the various plazas.

After having Mole for dinner, I came across a local ritual. In one nearby table, as a family finished their meal, they threw their dishes against the floor, smashing them into smithereens. An old tradition meant to bring good luck for the coming year (or some nonsense like that). The plates were plain ceramic ones, specifically made for the occasion. From what I could see, food kiosks on that row catered to those wishing to engage in the old custom.

Kids playing with el Torito Pinto (Fireworks bull).

It was almost 9pm, time for fireworks. A large crowd had formed in the Virgen de la Soledad’s church patio. Mass was coming to an end and shortly after, the show went on. The crowd had gathered in a circle, leaving an open area at the church’s entrance. Here, a bunch of kids eagerly gathered next to a bull made of sticks and paper. Then, one of the kids grabbed the bull and held it above his head while someone lighted up fireworks attached to the frame. The kid started to run gallop-like until suddenly, fireworks started to shoot in spiral motion from one of the bull’s sides. The boy was having the time of his life! He started to run frantically, up and down, getting close to the crowd, trying to get us covered with the fireworks’ sparks. Whenever he got too close, the crowd would scream and move away, all in good fun. This went on for a good 15 minutes or so, with kids taking turns with the fireworks bull.

Lightshow at the end of the night.

Once this was over, the main event followed. A large wooden structure got lighted up with firecrackers and lights going off brightly and loudly, lightning sparks going from corner to corner all over the structure. It ended up with a shower of lights falling from the church’s main entrance. As the lights dwindled quietness settled in. We all knew it was over, and the crowd slowly began to disperse.

Tired and without much else to do, I went to the Hostel. Next day’s goal, Tapachula, right next the Guatemala border, was to be another tedious drive. 10 hours on La Libre, with no major cities or sights inbetween.

Broken ceramic dishes, Oaxaca.

Before bed time, I decided to check on emails at the Hostel. One of the messages was alarming: “BEWARE OF THE MEXICO-GUATEMALA BORDER!” A link took me to a Salvadorian newspaper with distressing news: corrupt Guatemalan authorities were charging foreign vehicles $150-300 USD in order to cross the border. Some travelers –mostly Salvadorians- had been waiting for days, stranded, unable to enter.

Quite an irony. After traveling the whole of Mexico to end up running into trouble in the shortest bit of the trip, Guatemala, normally a 5 hour drive to reach El Salvador. Little did I know, I was still three days away from reaching home.