Music, Art, and Conviviality

Written December 6, 2015

We actually got a pretty good night’s sleep in the dead girl’s room (See the previous blog post.).  I think I slept better than Jalene, but I was a little puzzled at how I could simply not care about the fact that someone was probably murdered right here.  I’ve often thought that the years spent in Alaska in the late 1970’s probably hardened me in ways still undiscovered.  In the commercial crab fishery there, I saw some pretty gruesome things at a young age.

We took off out of Apizaco without finding anywhere open for breakfast.  It only took us about a half-hour to get to our destination that day, Tlaxcala.  On the way, the highway came up and over a rise, and we were treated to our first view of Popocatepetl, the volcano that rises to 5,426 meters (17,802’) over the valley floor.  It was pumping out a massive amount of pure white steam, a grand sight in the still-clear morning air.  Later in the day, the warm rising air tends to form condensation clouds and hide the summit.  Beside it is another volcano, the dormant peak of Iztaccihuatl, its peak covered in snow.

Our home for a week in Tlaxcala with Airbnb hosts Sharon and Jaimie.

We were headed for Quinta Amada, which we’d found on Airbnb.  We planned to take a week-long break from riding and get to know the valley around Puebla, the fourth-largest city in Mexico.  There are many Mayan ruins in the area, as well as the wonderful museums and architecture of Puebla itself.  Tlaxcala is a smaller town outside of Puebla that has a significant history, it being the place where Hernan Cortes made an alliance with the four tribes that enabled the defeat of the Aztecs.  Inside the Palacia de Gobierno in town, there is a remarkable mural that runs up the stairway, illustrating the history of Mexico and the role that Tlaxcala played in it, well worth seeing if you come to this beautiful town.

Our home for the week was a very nice little casita which was part Quinta Amada, a bed and breakfast on a hill just west of Tlaxcala.  We had perfect privacy, a secure parking area for the bikes, and yet had the company of our hosts just a few steps away in the main house.  It’s a short walk down to the main street and food vendors.  The view from our little front door was of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.  I went out early each morning and checked, and Popo was sometimes steaming, sometimes quiet, but always a beautiful sight.  It was much like being back in Tacoma again, with Mt. Rainier an ever-present neighbor.

Funky bathrooms delight me. Need to blot your lipstick? Los Contenedores has just the thing.

One reason we wanted to stay the week in Tlaxcala was that Thanksgiving was coming up, and we wanted to be at a place with reliable internet so we could Skype with our families on the holiday.  Our hosts at Quinta Amada, Sharon and Jaime, an American woman and her Mexican husband, are very gracious people to say the least.  They invited us to have Thanksgiving dinner with them, which was bound to be fun as they were having the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry dressing, the works.  They were also inviting several Mexican friends to join them, so it would be a superb Espaniol session for Jalene and I.  We ended up having a marvelous time, and, like always, it was noisy with laughter and stories told, never mind the language obstacles.  Sharon and I had made apple and pumpkin pies the day before, and they got devoured.  All agreed it was a wonderful evening.

After dinner, one of the invited couples asked if we’d like to go into town and see the bar they owned – sure!  Turns out they had a piece of land along the river, and they wanted to combine music, art, and conviviality.  So they brought in six 20-foot trucking containers, set them down, and turned each container into one component of a nightclub.  One was the bar, one was the restrooms, one was an art gallery, another was a comfortable living room, and the other two held more stuff to be brought out onto the large covered patio to form a wonderful outdoor bar-café.  On top of that, they make delicious artisan beer featuring Frida Kahlo on the label.  The remaining land was covered in grass, where music is played on a regular basis, with outdoor concerts and shows.  When it’s time to close, everything goes back into the containers, the doors are locked shut, and it becomes just another semi-vacant lot beside the road.  It’s kind of like a flower that opens at night, unfolding into chairs and tables, lights and propane heaters, music and fun, and then folding back in on itself to await another day.  If you’re in Tlaxcala, stop in and enjoy a relaxing time at Los Contenedores (The Containers).

Eventually though, it was time to climb onto the bikes and continue exploring Mexico.  We had a three-day weather window at hand that would allow us to visit the “Magico” city of Cuetzalan, back up in the southern end of the Sierra Gorda.  So we headed northeast for a beautiful ride across rich agricultural land.  Popcatepetl faded into the brown haze of pollution to the west (it’s pretty bad some days), but soon we had another big volcano rising on the horizon ahead of us.  This is Pico de Orizaba, also called Citlaltepetl, the highest mountain in Mexico, and third-highest in North America at 5,636 meters (18,491’).  This mountain comes right up out of the plains to the west, making it seem even more spectacular in height.  There is a huge set of glaciers off the north side of the peak, which shone brightly for us in the sun.  The flat fields around were planted with corn, vegetables, and other staple crops, and looked to me like first-class growing land.

Soon we were off the main highway, and taking the little roads up into the mountains toward Cuetzalan.  Twisting and turning, go up, up, up along canyons and rivers, we were treated to spectacular views as we wound through high farms and ranches built on ever-steepening slopes.  It reminded us very much of the farming practices we saw in Ecuador, where they used little or no tilling on the steepest slopes, leaving the last crop to rot back into the soil as the next one sprouted or regenerated.  On somewhat less steep fields, we saw where they tilled with horses, which could traverse the field without tipping over or sliding.  This was the beginning of the dry season, so there was less risk of heavy rains and erosion in the coming months.  The freshly turned soil was dark and rich with promise.

Once in Cuetzalan, we wound up, down, and around in the steep old streets until we found our hotel.  Jalene turned thumbs-down on the room however, disliking the mold on the walls.  As I watched the bikes, she hiked down the hill to another hotel, and pronounced it fit for habitation.  Cuetzalan is a tiny, compact town of steep and slick cobblestone streets, mostly one-way, and so we had to circle through it twice before finding our way back to the hotel only two blocks below us.  Jalene did a great job of negotiating difficult terrain on a packed bike, and at last we parked the bikes in the courtyard.  This area of Mexico is noted for the local ceremony, the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) where four men hang from ropes as they circle and descend from a tall pole.  Here in Cuetzalan, the pole is in the town square, and 30 meters high (about 100’).  A fifth man stands atop the pole, with no safety lines or net, and performs a dance for about 5 minutes before the other four tip backward and swing from four ropes as they unwind from the top of the pole and they slowly descend toward the ground.  Finally they are on the ground, everyone starts to breathe again, and the brightly costumed performers mingle with the gathered crowd like stars.  Look it up on the web, it’s an amazing thing to watch, especially the guy dancing on top of the pole as he arches waaay back at times, looking straight up at the sky.  And of course there was another of those incredible, temporary markets that pop up here in Mexican towns, only to vanish leaving hardly a trace by the next morning.  Anything imaginable is to be found, and it’s so much fun to jostle through and look at shirts and hats, tools and vegetables, pig’s heads and pencils.  But soon we were sleepy after a meal overlooking the cathedral, and we wandered back up to our room and tucked in for a snooze.

We had decided it was now time to start our journey southward to Oaxaca, which would take several days at our pace of travel.  And so back south we rode, down through the canyons and mountains, coming out onto the plains again and approaching the giant Pico de Orizaba.  We spent the day taking photos in the clear air and sun that day, and as we wanted the little roads, we departed the lines of trucks and headed off across the fields toward the big volcano.  Soon we were at its foot, and found a little town called Ciudad de Seran, right at the base of the cone.  We found a nice, inexpensive hotel right in town, and we were able to park the bikes very securely.  Off we went to explore another town, this one with the massive volcano and glaciers always in view directly above us.  Soon we found the cathedral square, and a huge, packed market all set up with music blasting and people all dressed up for some kind of ceremony.  Lots and lots of stuff is happening in the lead-up to the Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadelupe on December 12, when tradition holds that she first appeared on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City in 1531.

We dove right in - adventure!


Photos here.

Jalene's sharing the top ten lessons that traveling has taught her so far. Here's the first lesson.

The All-Night Price

Written November 24, 2015

Six days of mountain riding has delivered us to Tlaxcala, where we have booked an Airbnb casita for a week.  We’re finding that after several days of riding, we‘ve moved far enough to seem like we’ve entered a different land, and we need to stop for a few days and get to know the place.  Indeed, since leaving San Miguel de Allende, it’s become more difficult to spell and pronounce the names of towns and cities, as the native culture in the south exerts a stronger influence over everything.  Time to stop and find out what’s going on.

Photos from the narrow "bike" lane can be tricky.

We have spent the last week in the Sierra Gorda range, which lies to the northeast of Mexico City, separating the wet Gulf of Mexico lowlands from the dry interior.  These are tall and high-relief mountains, and we found our elevation to be over 2,800 meters (~9,200’) high.  Crossing and then re-crossing this range over two days, we found ourselves in the thickest fog I’ve ever ridden in at the highest points, and our speeds dipped well below 20 mph for 10-15 miles (jeez, people, turn your lights on!).  Daylight turned to near darkness with the thick fog and trees hanging over the road.  The Sierra Gorda separate desert from jungle rainforest.  Once over the top, the change is quick and dramatic, in the same way that Douglas fir gives way to Ponderosa pine when you cross the top of the Cascades, but the transformation is even more dramatic, as though you’d gone from Burns, Oregon to the Hoh rainforest in one jump.  Vines and banana trees yield to high, thick-canopied pine forest and, as you top the highest pass, the fog instantly clears and you are in brush and cactus in literally seconds.

Another photo from the road.

Pinal de Amoles is high, near the very top of the mountains, and we stopped there on the way east.  A very small town, we found a snug but somewhat dirty room for very cheap, and found out only later that there was no toilet seat.  At that, Jalene offered to take over the duty of selecting a room for us, and I agreed happily.   Some things are better left to her, and we both agreed that with no sign of a woman present, we should have been suspicious of this hotel.  When a woman runs the place, it’s generally a much cleaner and well-managed place to stay.  After a great dinner at the restaurant next door, we wandered through town and found some chocolate flan for dessert.  Yum!  Next day found us over the mountains and down, down, down to Tamazunchale, a super-busy river town about 150 meters above sea level.  It was hot and humid here, and we got lucky and found a nice, cheap hotel in town.  This one was clean and nice.  With the letter missing from one tap handle and the other marked “C,” it was the usual puzzle to find out of it meant Cold or Caliente.  Jump right in and you’ll soon know.

I had my own adventure in town.  I had forgotten to leave the keys with our friends in San Miguel de Allende, and I needed send them back.  After chatting with a police officer and finding out that the post office had been closed down two years prior, I went looking for a padded envelope and found out from the proprietor that there was an “Estafeta”, which sounded like the local UPS equivalent.  Sure enough, the Estafeta office had a scale on the counter and packages piled for pickup, and they were able to deliver my envelope in a couple of days.  While most things here in Mexico are much cheaper than similar US things, this was one that was not, costing 195 pesos, about $12 US.  Ce la vie.  But it was one of those simple tasks that turned into a small, interesting adventure, involving many different people trying to answer the gringo’s halting Spanish questions, and the gringo trying to figure out what he was being told.  Each one ended with a new friend, and a lot of laughter at our mutual efforts to communicate.  I’m smiling as I write, remembering the fun of it.

The forecast called for rain by mid-day, so after sending the keys off, we hit the road.  We crossed back over to the west side of the mountains over an incredible road that twisted and turned, rose and fell without letup for about 150 miles.  We went from near sea level to over 9,500 feet.  On the west side, the land opened up, but the road continued to twist and turn down through canyons and arroyos, up and down and up and down.  The riding became faster as the vegetation disappeared and the sight-lines opened up.  We had terrific fun this day except for the super-thick fog again at the very highest points, but that was just another adventure to have, one which I wish I could have photographed somehow to show you how ridiculously bad the visibility was.  The road became wet and so slick in the fog that I could spin the rear tire just by rolling the throttle open, and on our little loaded 650s, that is seriously slippery pavement.

On our way over the mountains, we briefly talked with a couple from Canada on motorcycles, but we didn’t have a safe place to pull off and talk, and so I gave them a card and hope they see our website and contact us.  They are headed south and seemed like nice folks, and she was riding a 650GS like ours…

The next town was called Ixmiquilpan, a busy highway town, and so we grabbed a reasonable and new-looking concrete box hotel, and were surprised at how nice our room was and how cheap it turned out to be.  Dinner was great, but with the excellent margaritas and slow sipping shot of mezcal approached twice the cost of the room – oops!  Oh, well, we’re having fun, and we can splurge once in awhile.

Onward we rode, and spent a night in Zacatlan, a kind of touristy town in the Puebla Magico, an area promoted as the Magical Mountains and Magical Towns.  Indeed, Zacatlan was very cool, with lots and lots of vendors around the cathedral square, and we also met an English-speaking coffee shop owner, whereas there was no English almost as a rule in the towns we had recently been in.  It started raining as we walked around, causing us to check the weather forecast for where we were going the next day (Cuetzalan).  We saw nothing but rain for a week at least, and so we decided to head southwest instead, where there was nothing worse than partly cloudy forecast.  We booked an Airbnb casita in a town called Tlaxcala, which would give us a break for a week or so, and assure us of a good wifi connection for Thanksgiving Skype sessions back to families in the US.  Such are the things our plans revolve around.

Funny thing about Zacatlan – we had breakfast in a small restaurant just off the square, and there was something about the feel of the place that made you believe you could be in Hood River or Astoria or even Newport.  Friendly, lots of little tables, obviously a local favorite, people coming and going, the staff laughing and smiling, and just a relaxed atmosphere.  Really a nice way to start the day.

The next day was some fairly flat riding, but it had some fun stuff thrown in early in the day as we crossed over a short but high pass and then started a slow slide down, down into the agricultural area which occupies the great valley area of which Puebla and Mexico City are central.  This is fine farming country, and seems to have plenty of water and good soil.  Volcanoes dominate the horizons to the southeast and to the west, contributing to the rich fertile land.  Our Airbnb would not be available until the following day, so we stopped short in Apizago, tired but happy, and found a place to stay for fairly cheap at one of the many “Auto Hotels,” which we had not tried to this point.

An Auto Hotel is a place where one (or more likely two) can drive into a walled compound and rent a room (for a specified time).  Best for motorcycle travelers, each room has a secure, out-of-sight garage where no one can see the vehicle.  We asked for the all-night price (mucho macho!), pulled the bikes into the space below the room and drew the curtain across the garage front.  Jalene Googled the name of the hotel out of curiosity, and confirmed we were in a “kiss-no-tell” hotel, and we chuckled about it until she saw the news article about the girl who was accidently (?) strangled during some rough sex 5 years earlier in OUR ROOM.  We talked about it and when Jay realized I didn’t care, she put it aside and we stayed in the room, feeling we were just getting a little more adventure for our pesos.  Too bad we’d missed the Diaz de Muertes by a couple of weeks.  Aw, screw it, let’s forget it and get some sleep.  (Note from Jalene: I did a fair amount of praying during the night!)

Tomorrow we head down into the crowded valleys below Mt. Popocatepetl, home to the huge metropolises of Puebla and Mexico City.


Click HERE for the photos.