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Barra de Navidad, Jalisco, Mexico

posted Jan 4, 2010, 6:02 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jan 12, 2010, 7:11 PM ]
Hello! Wow, a lot has happened since La Paz. On my last day there, I was sitting on the malecon (boardwalk) waiting for the laundromat to finish shrinking my underwear, when David and Martine rode by. (They're the couple I had met way back in San Vicente). They had just arrived at La Paz and weren't planning to do the southern loop of Baja, so we'd be on the same ferry to Mazatlan that night. The person at the information center said I could buy my ticket on the boat, but David and Martine were going to buy theirs at the office in La Paz, so I figured I'd do the same. After getting my laundry, I rode through town looking for a watch, and after getting a nice Casio for about $30, I rode to the ferry office where David and Martine were already waiting. We waited almost two hours in line to get our tickets, which cost about $100 each. After that, we went to the bike shop, then we split up again for the afternoon. I headed back to Leah's place to pack up and do a little housekeeping for her - it was the least I could do to thank her for letting me stay there. At around 4:30 I headed to the ferry, which was about 20km from La Paz. David and Martine shouted to me from a taco stand at the terminal, and we boarded the ferry together. We were surprised that while we were boarding, and during the rest of the trip, no one ever checked our tickets! 

The ferry was pretty nice, there was a cafeteria, a restaurant, a club, and even a pool, but unfortunately the pool was closed. I thought that one place in Mexico that I'd be able to escape the costant noise of dogs and roosters would be the middle of the Sea of Cortez, but amazingly there were both in the animal bay of the ferry. Since the ferry runs at night - 8PM to 8AM - people have two options for sleeping, either get a room, or sleep on the chairs or couches around the ferry. For us budget travellers, chairs and couches were the only options, so we slept in a lounge until they kicked us out in the morning. Martine and I slept pretty well, but I was surprised to find out that David (who sailed a 20ft boat from Florida to Cuba) gets seasick on large boats. He managed to get a couple hours of sleep in, but was pretty uncomfortable the whole time. In the morning a guy walked by and asked if we were touring (bicycle tourists have a sixth sense about this kind of thing) and we ended up chatting for a while. His name is Byron, and he's also headed to Argentina, and filming his experiences along the way. While we were talking, another cyclist came by - it was Scott, who Chris and I had met way back in the Yukon Territory. He had ridden from Florida to Alaska, then took the ferries down the coast of Alaska and BC to the West coast of the US. He's headed for Argentina too, then maybe on to New Zealand or Australia. When we got off the ferry, Byron and Scott headed straight for the nearest cyber cafe, and David, Martine and I rode around looking for a place to stay. Just as we had settled on the idea of staying in a budget hotel (a last resort) a Canadian woman named Susan rode by and told us about Isla de la Piedras, where we could camp for about 30 pesos per night. Even though it's really a peninsula, to get there by bike would have taken too long, so we took a shuttle boat from Mazatlan to the Isla. There was a pretty small community there, and it seemed like everyone we talked to was related somehow.

The next morning we took the shuttle boat back to Mazatlan and headed out of town. As we rode down a small road toward the highway, a young girl spotted us and shouted "Gringo!". I guess they don't see many caucasion tourists in that part of the city. 

A cyclist has two choices for riding in this part of Mexico, the Autopista, a toll road, or the free alternative. Both roads run parralel to each other, which might make you wonder why anyone would pay to use one of the roads. Luckily for us cyclists, almost no one uses the autopista, and we don't have to pay the toll! During most parts of the year, the autopista will be virtually empty, but there was a fair amount of holiday traffic headed from California to southern Mexico. Almost every vehicle was a pickup truck with California plates, a family of Mexicans and a huge pile of stuff in the back covered by a tarp and wrapped up in ropes. Even with the traffic the road was nice and we had a good shoulder to ride on. Before the free and toll roads split, there was a small town named Villa Union. This reminded me of the "strip towns" I had seen in Northern Baja. The town is probably less than a mile long, but there is one building after another from one end to the other, there are people everywhere, cars, bicycles, etc.. It reminded me of the bustle of New York City, on a much smaller scale. 

Our target city for the day was Escuinapa, and we arrived there in the late afternoon. There is a small road between the autopista and Escuinapa, as the main entry point to the city is via the free road. While we rode down the small road, and through one tree farm after another, I said to Martine that it was great going down a road like that not knowing where it would lead. Once we reached the edge of town, we stopped at the first food stand we found for a bite to eat. While I was talking to David and Martine, I looked over to see a young boy, looking at me very intently from not more than two feet away. I said "hola!", with what must have been a horrible Mexican accent, since he ran away shouting something in Spanish that ended with "You are from another country!". After eating, we rode toward the center of town, which ended up being a good sized city. I really liked it a lot. There was nothing touristy about it, it was just a classic, real Mexican city. It was a Saturday night and there were people everywhere, but not doing anything in particular. One thing we noticed was people of all ages riding bicycles, from teenage girls to old men. Seeing so many people outside was great (for lack of a better word). I don't know if it's because they don't have TVs or video games (maybe they have both), but I've never seen anything like it in Canada or the US. We need to get out more... We couldn't find a place to camp in town, so we headed back out to the access road looking for a dirt road we had taken note of on the way in. We got there just as it was getting dark, and found a good campsite in a field of Mango trees.

In the morning a guy rode up on a bike - he was in charge of security for the farm. He didn't seem too upset that we were there, but he waited for us to leave as we packed up. We decided to ride back into town and spend some time there before heading back to the autopista. We had a pretty uneventful day of riding. There was a toll gate toward the end of the day where we were able to fill up our water containers, then we kept riding in search of an access road that would take us down to a lake. When we could see the lake directly to our right, we knew we had missed the road, but we decided to keep riding to look for something else. It wasn't much later that we found a one lane dirt road/path that paralleled the highway, with a palapa just waiting for us to camp under. We pitched our tents under the palapa and started cooking dinner on the dirt road. It didn't look like it got much use, but while we were cooking a pickup truck drove up, and we scrambled to move all our stuff - including our hot stoves and pots - out of the way. After we had moved our stuff back into the road, we heard a rumbing heading our way. It was the farmer driving his tractor back home before it got dark. He was Mexican, but he spoke English had the accent of a Southerner from the US. Even though we had to cross a broken barbed wire fence to get to the palapa, he didn't seem upset and just said "I never thought anyone would camp there!".

In the morning David and Martine showed me a plant just across from the palapa. When you run your fingers over the leaves, they move - folding up towards your fingers. My high school biology teacher had one of these and I had never forgotten it, so it was pretty cool to see one in the wild. Today we'd leave the autopista and ride on the free highway for a while. Because of the huge amount of traffic and lack of shoulders, cyclists affectionately call this road "The highway of death". We weren't on it for long when a woman shouted to David and I that Martine had fallen off her bike. We rode back to her and she was pretty shaken up. She hadn't actually fallen, but was run off the road by a big truck. We were right near the small town of Chilapa when this happened, so David and I rode behind her into town, then we rested for a while while she recovered. 

Our plan was to head down to Villa Juarez, which was a long one way road, but there was a river near town, and a road heading to our next destination on the other side of the river - it seemed safe to assume there would be a way for us to get across! We weren't able to camp in Villa Juarez, but there was a beach about 6km away that we could stay at. We all went for a swim and did some body surfing (required!) then headed to one of the palapa restaurants on the beach. David had lived in Ecuador for a while and speaks pretty good spanish, but him and Martine each got a big plate of shrimp, and then a big plate of fish, instead of her getting just the shrimp and him getting just the fish. David had explained to the cook that I don't like seafood, and she said she would make something else for me. She came over with some tortillas, then some taco sides, then two bowls of meat in some kind of broth. She said something in Spanish that I didn't understand, emptied half of one bowl into the other, then gave me one bowl and left with the remaining half. Even with my "extra large" portion, there wasn't much there, and I had no idea if I was supposed to wait for another delivery, or if I should make my taco. While I was trying to figure it out, a girl came over with even more tortillas for me, so now I had a stack of about 20 in front of me, next to my few little pieces of meat. I decided that was all I was getting, so I managed to make two tacos, then I dipped the rest of the tortillas in the broth and that was the rest of my dinner. 

The next morning we packed up and headed into Villa Juarez, in search of the boat that would take us across the river. We rode through the cobblestone streets asking each person we met for the next set of directions, until we finally found the river. Someone we passed said there was no water shuttle service, but there were a couple boats tied to the shore and we could take those across. While David was talking to the person, a small motor boat rounded a bend in the river and we flagged them down and asked for a ride across. The two men in the boat were local fishermen and since they were heading out for the day their boat was pretty full, so we put our bikes and gear in one of the boats that was tied to shore, and he pulled us across to the other side. Once we got there and got our gear repacked on our bikes, we had to figure out where we were supposed to go next, since the road was Northeast of where we landed. We spent quite a while riding through acres and acres of farmland, sometimes on cow paths, sometimes on dirt roads, and sometimes just through the fields. After a few wrong turns that dead-ended at the river, we saw a farmer in the distance and David rode off to ask him for directions. Luckily we were in the right place, and we just had to follow a dirt road out to the paved street that would take us to San Blas. Finally we made it back to pavement and to the small town of Guadalupe Victoria. Of course, our first stop there was a taco stand, where I got to try my first tostadas. The stand was run by an old woman and she makes a pretty awesome tostada. I got two of them, with a Coke and a small chocolate bar, and when I asked for the price she said 20 pesos! I'm used to Mexican food being cheap, but my quick mental conversion came to $1.60! This place is just made for cyclists. We rode on toward San Blas and passed a couple net-fisherman who were wading in a shallow inlet, with the sun setting on our right and illuminating the fisherman and huge mountain range to our left. As we rode through a small village, a small boy yelled "Gringo! Gringo! Habla! Habla!" (Habla means "speak"). San Blas is another great town on the ocean, and we had dinner in the town square where the Christmas festival was taking place. There were different performers, each doing their own act, and the performances ranged from solo singers, to a stage full of dancers. This was a really great ending to a great day!

I was a little ahead of schedule so I told David and Martine that I wouldn't mind spending a day in San Blas. They instantly agreed to stay, and we all headed down to the beach in the late morning. The waves weren't great for surfing, but Martine rented a board and David coached her for a while. David is an extreme surfer, and surfs in below freezing temperatures with a 7mm wetsuit. I get antsy pretty quickly sitting on the beach, so I left David and Martine there and headed back into town. On the way back to camp, I got the best tacos of the trip so far. I don't know what their secret recipe was, but they could give definitely give Taco Bell a run for their money if they decided to franchise their taco stand. I should have known by then that exact change is required in Mexico, but all I had on me was a 500 peso bill (about $40 USD) and they couldn't change it for my 66 peso meal. Finally they sent a little boy running down the road with my 500 peso bill in his hand, trying to find someone who could break it. He didn't have any luck, but I told the women that I had 16 pesos in coins, and they found 450 pesos amongst themselves, so I was finally able to leave. I got online back at the campground and was able to take care of some business and call my sister. When I was done I headed back into town where I met David and Martine again, and we all got dinner at a Hot Dog/Hamburger stand in the town square.

Darn, out of time again! I still have two more weeks to write about, so stay tuned for more!

New stuff below!

The next day we hit the road again, and for the first time started riding through the jungle. It was very green, with trees arching over the road and vines hanging from the trees, and there were stretches that were very hot and humid, or cool and damp. It was also the day the hills started - there would be a lot more to come. While we were climbing one hill, we spotted a large snake on the side of the road that looked like it had tried to eat a small cow. Luckily for us (but not the cow) the snake was dead and we were safe for the time being. 

Unfortunately there are really no good maps of Mexico, and mine was more frustrating than usual today. The distances were wrong, and we passed through a large town named Zacualpan that was not mentioned at all. We ended up riding after dark and came to a place named Chacala, which, luckily for us, was a really nice little town on the sandy beach of a cove. Lonely Planet says "Like other small towns along this stretch of coast, the tiny coastal fishing village of Chacala is changing fast as its reputation grows as a travelers' destination. For now, it retains its status as a not-quite-so-secret-anymore paradise". Very cool...

David and Martine decided to stay at Chacala for a day. We had been riding pretty good distances since Mazatlan, and they prefer shorter days with more frequent days off. They decided that Chacala was a good place to rest and I rode off slightly jealous that they'd be staying behind. I also really enjoyed travelling with them, but their pace was just a little too slow for me and I had to keep moving. I rode to another nice town named Bucieras during the day and stayed at a hotel there for the night. I wandered around town a little after dark, ate some Tostadas at a taco stand and then just sat around in the town square for a while, watching all the activity. Today was Christmas, and as religious as Mexicans are, it was just business as usual - shops were still open and nothing was different than it would have been any other day.

Next was a short day to Puerto Vallarta. An overly helpful Mexican told me that it would take me about an hour to get back to the highway, even though the town was ON the highway, and then another 3 or so hours to get to Puerto Vallarta. As expected, it took me about an hour in total to get to Puerto Vallarta, which gave me time to explore the town and search for a place to stay. At first I was thinking that it was a shame that people go to places like Puerto Vallarta and think they're experiencing Mexico, but the more I saw of the town, the more my impression of it changed. It has a great malecon along the beach, and further inland the roads are cobblestone and there is some classic Mexican architecture. Lonely Planet called Puerto Vallarta "the San Francisco of Mexico" and that's not because they have a big orange bridge. The way they described it, I was expecting hourly pride parades down main street, but there was nothing like this at all there. While I was pushing my bike along the malecon, a girl named Rachel came up to introduce herself. She's a fellow traveler and was in PV with her family. She said it was great being in a place like that and not being hit on by guys all the time, so maybe I was just oblivious to the whole scene there. Anyway, PV is a pretty cool town and I'd actually encourage people to go there if they're looking for a place to visit in Mexico - it's definitely better than Cabo San Lucas! ;)

I found a campground in town to stay at for the night, and paid a whopping 370 pesos, which was more than my hotel at cost the night before. Not surprisingly, everyone at the campground was from Canada (everyone in Mexico is from Canada I've been finding out), but these Canadians were from Quebec and they all assumed that I spoke French for some reason. I spent some more time in PV in the morning, and finally left town at around 1PM. There were a LOT of hills and it was very humid. Before it started getting dark, I arrived at a small town and asked about camping. Two of the Mexicans there spoke very good english (one went to school in Fresno California) and they argued about whether or not I'd be able to camp at the Botanical Gardens up the street. I decided the best way to find out was to ride farther up the hill to see for myself. When I got there they were about to close, but the owner lives there and said I'd be able to stay for the night. In addition to the gardens, there is a restaurant there and a patio with chairs and beds for lounging on. I got the whole patio to myself for the night and had some great views of the surrounding area the next morning.

The next day had more hills, and at the top of the first I stopped to rest and get a snack at a small tienda (store). While I was eating, a young boy came over with a bike that was in pretty bad shape. The chain had fallen off, the wheels were loose, and the brake was broken. I did what I could, and even put some oil on the chain for him. Him and his sister seemed pretty happy that their bike was fixed and their mother told them to say "gracias" for the help. I couldn't find anywhere good to camp at the end of the day, so I ended up staying on a little access road just off of the main road, and every time a truck went by I woke up wondering if I was about to be run over. 

I rode to El Tecuan the following day where the camping was much better. There was a 6 mile, crumbling and overgrown access road that climbed through some big hills before heading down to a beautiful remote beach. There was a large abandoned hotel there, and a few houses that were probably very nice when they were built, but had since deteriorated. I have a thing for abandoned buildings, so I had to do some exploring in the hotel and one of the houses. The house was nice inside, and had great views of the ocean, but was occupied by about 100 bats that were getting a little too close for comfort - I didn't stick around for long. The hotel was also very nice. I could tell it was a pretty classy place in it's day, but sadly it is now beyond repair. My awesome map had a dot on El Tecuan, indicating there was a small town there, and I was counting on this since I had almost no water left. When I got there and saw only a vast empty beach and the abandoned buildings I knew I was going to have a problem. I scanned the horizon and saw a couple people climbing on top of a big rock, so I headed down there. It was a group of college kids who gave me some water, but were otherwise incredibly unfriendly. I did some swimming and took some pictures before going to sleep - it was a very cool place.

My ride into Barra de Navidad was the same as the previous days had been. Lots of very steep hills, and very hot and humid. Staying hydrated was a real struggle, and staying motivated to ride was a challege. There were a few tourist towns on the way that I took some time to explore, and at the second I stopped for a drink and talked to a Mexican for a while (in Spanish). I was struggling a little with the conversation and told him I needed to learn more Spanish, and that I might take a class in Manzanillo. He said there was also a school in Barra. On my way there, I took a quick spin through Melaque, the sister town to Barra, and I wasn't real impressed so I headed farther on into Barra and started the usual search for a place to stay. It was the day before New Years eve, and the hotels were either very expensive, or very booked. Incredibly one of the nicest budget hotels still had rooms available, which was great because it was one of the last ones I had to choose from. My neighbors there were Canadian (surprise, surprise), and while we were talking, I said I'd be heading down to Manzanillo for New Years and I'd be looking for Spanish lessons there. They said that Manzanillo is not a very good place to spend time and that I was better off in Barra. Incredibly, one of the women who was visiting with the Canadians was the Spanish teacher in town and could take students immediately and also through the holidays. This meant I had a good hotel in a great little town where I could spend New Years while getting five days of private Spanish lessons for $75! Sometimes I really can't believe my luck. 

The decision to stay in Barra was really a no brainer. Another fortunate series of events meant that I'd be able to see my mom, sister and her husband in Florida at the end of February. I'd be in Cancun at about that time, so a flight there would be cheap, and my sister would already be in Florida for a wedding. Perfect! It also meant that I'd be able to get a resupply like I had gotten from my Dad in California, so I could spend the week in Barra researching and ordering my next batch of stuff. Cancun is roughly my half way point, so I was thinking about some big things including whether or not I wanted to replace my trailer with panniers, and whether or not I'd want to replace my bike. I decided that as nice as it would be to get a Thorn expedition bike with an internally geared hub, I could live without one, at least until the next trip. I still had a page of other stuff to get, from socks to a new helmet to a new handlebar bag, so my mom will be getting a barrage of packages over the next few weeks. Besides my shopping spree, I spent a lot of time in Barra wondering around, especially at night - eating at food stands and taking pictures. Over the five days, I only went swimming once, but spent some time on the beach studying Spanish between classes.

My Spanish teacher, Bonnie, is Canadian and lives in Mexico for half the year teaching Spanish and singing at clubs. Since she had to learn Spanish herself, she knew a lot of tricks that would help another native English speaker learn the language. Most importantly, I learned how to speak in more than one tense, so instead of saying "I look for a place to camp" (Present Simple), I can say "I am looking for a place to camp" (Present Progressive). I can say other cool stuff now too like "I swam", or "I have travelled", and for stuff in the future I can combine the present progressive "I am going" with a verb to say something like "I am going to eat". Pretty important stuff to know. I also learned some new verbs and some other handy words that I'll be able to use during my travels.