About 1997 I read the book "Mexico" by James A. Michener. It is placed in a fictional
fair in a fictional town, but with flashbacks, describes the history of Mexico. The
story is so detailed that I felt it must be based on an actual fair. In searching
the internet I found "La Feria National de San Marcos" (Saint Mark's National Fair)
in the city of Aguascalientes in central Mexico. It fit Michener's description perfectly
and we decided to go to it.
Over the last 20 years we have toured (on GoldWings) everywhere west of a line drawn
between Edmonton, Alberta and El Paso, Texas and then west to the Pacific Ocean.
But we had never been to Mexico. Some research showed that there were many interesting
things to do and see; the town of Tequila (named after our favorite liquor), the
town of Magdelena (second largest opal mines in the world), Tlaquepaque (an artist's
colony suburb of Guadalajara), Zacatecas (the gold and silver mining town mentioned
by Michener), Mexican food (our favorite kind), and, of course, Aguascalientes and
La Feria (www.laferia.com.mx).
La Feria is typically held the last two weeks in April and the first week in May.
We left Washington State on Saturday, April 8th. We made it to Nogales (1605 miles)
in 2 days, bought our Mexican insurance and crossed the border on Monday morning.
I had taken night classes in Spanish at a local college for 6 months. Now I would
get a chance to practice. After some (expected) confusion, we had all the necessary
papers and cleared customs and were on the road south.
We drove 200-250 miles a day, stopping in major cities at hotels or motels and eating
in restaurants or cafes. The average motel was nice, clean and cheap (less than
$20 USD). We couldn't get lost, all we had to do was follow Highway 15 south.
In Mexico there are two highways on major routes. The four lane divided toll highway
(cuota) and the two lane older free road (libre) running roughly parallel. Toll
roads can be very expensive and the price is not tied to the quality of the road.
The worst were in the state of Sonora, the best in Jalisco and the most expensive
in Sinaloa. We spent over $175 USD in highway tolls during our month in Mexico.
One pays by the axle, not the number of tires. We had a trailer and telling them
we had only four tires, "like a car", didn't work. The tolls seem to be a form a
taxation on the portion of the populace able to afford travel. The "cuotas" are
generally high speed and lightly used. We traveled the "libre" from Culiacan to
Mazatlan on our way south and decided that the tolls were worth it. The "libres"
are heavily used by semi's, farm trucks, older cars and new and old buses. There
are few passing zones, but that doesn't worry anyone, go ahead and pass, it'll all
work out. Did you know that two big trucks and a motorcycle will fit side-by-side
on a two lane road? Whenever entering or exiting a town on the "libre", you have
to drive over speed bumps (topes). Everything slows down to about 1 mile per hour
and creeps over it. Some "topes" are a row of 12" wide steel hemispheres across
the road and some are a 18" wide by 8 to 10" high ridge of concrete or pavement.
Often there is a local resident, standing on the "tope", selling food or handicrafts.
The other hazard of traveling is the checkpoints. These can be either military
or state or federal police. During our month in Mexico, we were stopped at least
a dozen times, but only twice did they want to look inside the trailer. Generally
we were asked a question or two, which we seldom understood, and then were sent on
The town of Tequila is about 50 miles west of Guadalajara and was our first real
destination. We arrived traveling on the "cuota", paying the toll, and took the
Tequila exit about eight miles past the tollbooth. Around the bend, out of sight,
there is another tollbooth just to get off the highway. On entering the town we
had our first try at driving on cobblestones, sort of like driving down a river bed.
We followed some signs and found the town's plaza and a very convenient parking
space in the shade. We immediately drew another crowd of curious people whom we
asked for directions to the Cuervo plant. It was just around the corner on a cobbled
street, but tours were closed that day. We met a wonderful restaurant owner named
Mario who tried to get us a private tour, but was told there were no tours at all
that day. We wandered around town for a while and then went to the only hotel with
secure parking. It was out on the edge of town, so we took a taxi back to the plaza
to have dinner. That evening the town was having a celebration, for being 470 years
old, with dancers, comedians and magicians. We ate, drank tequila and watched the
show. The comedian was well beyond my level of Spanish. Early the following morning
we signed up for the 1:00 tour and went to the nearby opal mining town of Magdelena.
In Magdelena it was market day and a 4 or 5 block long street was filled with farmer's
market type booths. We parked at the plaza and wandered the street all the way down
and back, stopping at the main opal shop in town, "Opales de Magdelena", where we
bought a beautiful opal for a fraction of its US price. In the plaza several independent
opal dealers approached us with raw and finished opals, but we'd already spent our
money. Back to Tequila and the Cuervo tour and then on to Tlaquepaque and our reservations
at a wonderful bed & breakfast named La Villa del Ensueno (The House of Dreams) (villadelensueno.com).
It has eight rooms, a patio, a bar, a pool and a wonderful staff.
Tlaquepaque is a suburb of Guadalajara which is the second largest city in Mexico
(7 million, including suburbs) and has traffic to match. We entered from the west
with a general idea of where to go. We dove into the traffic on the ring road to
get around to the east side. Mexican drivers are quite a bit different than drivers
in the US. They take advantage of every opportunity. They pay attention to everything
going on around them and they know how big their vehicle is. This means they cut
in and out and change lanes often. After a week driving of with them, I no longer
feared them. I knew they weren't going to hit me, it just looked like it. I heightened
my attention level and increased my following distance and went with them. In some
ways they are better drivers than their American counterparts because they are paying
attention! Except for the few four lane main boulevards, streets in the city are
narrow one lane, one way passageways with blind corners. This makes driving interesting
because they only obey the stop sign if there is cross traffic.
We spent 5 days there and took taxis and busses, or walked, everywhere. Tlaquepaque
is an artist's town where a lot of good Mexican glass, metal, pottery and painting
is sold. Nearby Tonola is where much of it is made. We walked all over both areas.
Downtown Guadalajara has the world's largest market (Mercado Libertad). It is many
huge floors of very small booths selling everything imaginable from oriental junk
to fine handicrafts, including food and live birds. The aisles seem to go on forever.
We regretfully said "adios" to the staff at La Villa and headed on to Aguascalientes
and La Feria. It was a short two hour drive north on another "cuota". Another flurry
of city traffic and we again found our hotel without getting lost. This is a small,
inexpensive, hotel for Mexicans. It is at the other end of the scale from La Villa.
We wonder if we have a room because we didn't ever get a confirmation to our, paid
by postal money order, reservations. No one here speaks English, but when I show
them the carbon copy to the money order, everything is fine.
On our first day we went to the tourist office and were offered a walking tour of
the central city, which we gladly accepted.
Our guide, Erica, told us about the origins of the city and it's part in Mexican
history. The church of San Marcos was started in 1585 and was the start of Aguascalientes.
La Feria started in 1604 and has run nearly continuously since. It is a lot like
a state fair in the western US. There are carnival rides, game booths, cow barns,
fireworks and vendor booths, as well as bullfights, cock fights, rodeos, a nightclub
area, booths giving away free samples of tequila and mariachi bands wandering the
common areas. Over the next week we did all of these, spending money like we had
some. (There are ATM machines everywhere and they give the best exchange rates.)
We stayed through San Marcos Day (April 25) and watched the parade and fireworks.
La Feria would continue for two more weeks, but we had to get on. Before we left
Aguascalientes we went to Wal-Mart and bought a dozen bottles of various fine tequilas
to go with the 4 or 5 we had bought at the fair grounds. (Tequila, like whiskey,
comes in fine sipping quality as well as rot gut.) Next is Zacatecas, a very small
city when compared to the last two, and about two hours north of Aguascalientes.
Zacatecas is famous for it's gold and silver mine (La Mina Eden). Twenty percent
of the wealth that Spain took out of Mexico came out of this one mine. It was started
in the late 1500's, was a major pawn in Mexico's war for Independence and was finally
closed in the 1960's. In the 1970's it was opened for tours. A similar mine plays
a large part in Michener's book. Where the other cities were very flat, Zacatecas
sits in a valley with a Swiss built overhead cable car system between the two hilltops.
This gives a fantastic view of the city.
After one night there, we had planned to continue north along the top of the Copper
Canyon and into the US. But we had heard about a motorcycle rally to be held in
Mazatlan starting the next day (www.motoclubmazatlan.com). We couldn't pass that
up. We headed for Durango and then over the Sierra Madre mountains to Mazatlan.
Guadalajara is at approximately 6,000 feet, and we had climbed slightly since then
to about 7,000 at Zacatecas. The Sierra Madre's are over 9,000 feet high with pine
forests on top. Mazatlan is, of course, at sea level. Dropping down the west side
of the mountains is the windiest road we have ever seen. With about 100 miles of
constant sharp turns, it is a fantastic motorcycle road. Someone should measure
the distance and count the turns. We'll bet it compares with the best in this country,
and goes on longer.
In Mazatlan we decide to throw out the budget and stay at one of the hotels in the
Gold Zone (and around the corner from the Motoweek center). The next day we registered
at the sign-in booth and wandered the vendor area, checked out the event list and
went wandering through the Gold Zone. The Gold Zone is the hotel/resort area on
the north beach. Prices for merchandise were about double what we had paid for the
same thing in the interior.
That evening we wandered and talked to other bikers (mostly Harley and sport bike
riders) and admired each other's bikes. We met Oscar Ibarra, a member of the sponsoring
"MotoClub Mazatlan". Oscar is a great gentleman who helped us out with advice and
translations. He went out of his way to make sure we were happy and well cared for.
On Saturday morning, we went to the beach where I rented a Hobie Cat and spent an
hour on the water. After lunch we rode over to the drag strip for the races; drag,
slow and slalom as well as stunt riding by a factory sponsored stuntman. That evening
was the rock concert.
Sunday afternoon was the grand parade. Four or five hundred motorcycles gathered
in the side street that had been set aside for our use. There was a wedding just
before the parade and the happy couple led the way south into Old Mazatlan.
When the parade started we were near the front. The parade was not like any we had
ever been in before. There was no riding in formation. They rode the parade the
same way they drive the streets. It someone leaves an opening, slip into it. When
the parade finished after a complete tour of town, we were near the back. I leave
lots of following space, which nearly everyone took advantage of. But we still had
a good time. It's hard to get mad at Mexican drivers when they ALL drive that way.
It gets so you laugh at their antics. If they weren't paying so much attention
to each other, it would be disastrous. You just have to pay equal attention.
That evening the "best", "worst", "oldest", etc awards were held. I entered in the
"Major Moto Turismo" (best touring motorcycle) category and won! Oscar thought
we would also win "La Procedencia Mas Lejana" (long distance), but that went to someone
from Alberta, Canada. The contests lasted several hours and were accompanied by
much drinking, laughter and friendship.
Monday people slept late and wandered in for the free lunch of shrimp quesadillas,
fish taco mix, beans, rice and tortillas. All washed down with two cans of free
Tecate Beer. That evening a general gathering of bikes, riders and lots of local
residents was held in the blocked off side street. Again much talking, laughter
and friendship. Many of the Mexicans spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish. Between
the two we got along fine.
GoldWings are rare in Mexico. There were only about five or six in the hundreds
of bikes at Motoweek. In the interior they are even rarer. The average person we
talked with in a gas station or parking lot asked how much it cost and just had to
touch it. I don't think they realized they were doing it, but a hand would stretch
out and just lightly touch the mirror or the trunk or seat. At Motoweek, many parents
wanted to take a picture of their young children on the GoldWing, and when I would
lift the children onto the seats, everyone burst into giant grins.
Everywhere we went the people were friendly, courteous and helpful. Before we had
left the US, many people had told us they "had an uncle, who had a friend, who had
been robbed/hurt down there". That may have been true, but we never once felt fear
for our possessions or persons. We found the people to be very friendly, helpful
and curious about us. Many wanted to know where we were from, what it was like to
travel that far on a bike, what was it like where we lived, and many other questions.
Finally our month long vacation is nearing the end and we have to leave and head
for the border at Nogales, AZ. (If you have been counting, you know we have about
15 bottles of tequila on board., about $200 USD) We declared it, intending to pay
the federal duty on the amount over the two liters we were allowed duty-free. What
we didn't know was that Arizona has a state law that only two liters can be brought
into the state, no more. We could drink it right there, pour it down the storm drain,
or go back to Mexico. We went back to Mexico! Our plan is to go to west to Mexicali
and cross into California where they don't have such a silly law. When we got to
the US Customs at Mexicali, they never asked us, or gave us a chance to tell, how
much tequila we had. They just hustled us on through.
We then took three days to do what it had taken us two days to cover at the beginning
of the trip. And we make it home safely.