Patzcuaro and the Coast

Patzcuaro for us was just an afterthought. It was our original intent to head straight to the coast, but after having suffered through nightmarish traffic in the previous week trying to avoid the ridiculously priced tollways as you get anywhere near the capitol we thought we would take a little break in this quiet unspoiled gem. Being a bit hilly with elevated sidewalks it was difficult to find a hotel where we could pull the bikes inside like we were accustomed to, but after being assured that it was safe to leave them outside we picked a quiet spot called "Posada de la Salud" run by a grandmotherly sweetheart. It sits just down the street from a small plaza opposite the Basilica of  "Nuestra Senora de la Salud" (Our Lady of the Health).  Local beliefs regard this as a source of miracles, and during certain religious celebration believers can be seen crawling to the church in supplication. It is definitely a spot we will spend a bit more time at on our upcoming trip. I might point out that I am now writing about this trip nearly two years after the fact. Having visited Mexico more than a dozen times over the past forty years I had simply gotten too lazy to keep up this site at the time, and I have spent close to two years regretting that decision. When we inevitably try to recall an incident or a place from any of our trips this site serves as an adjunct to my increasingly failing memory. Fortunately, I have Karen's copious budget notes to help recall the order of the towns we visited, and the indispensable "Lonely Planet" which is always useful not just as a travel tool but as a fact check tool for hotel and restaurant names.  Part of my excuse is that the very next portion of this trip covers an area that I have been visiting for many many years, and it almost seemed as though there was little new to say about it and the reams of old photos we have made me a little lax in that regard as well. I realize now more than ever that these old photos, after so much time has passed, are unlikely to ever become digitized. We will try to incorporate the handful that have been into some of the pages to come. I should also point out that as I am working on these pages we are in the planning stage for yet another ride to Guatemala--but more on that later.

Situated just a couple of clicks north of the town, Lake Pátzcuaro is dotted with islands, the most popular of which is Isla Janitzio. This is no more true than during the two-day "Dia de Los Muertas" festivities when this becomes party central for students from the nearby Universities of Morelia. The figure at the center of this photo is a 40 meter high statue of the revolutionary figure José Maria Morelos y Pavón. While the guide books generally publish schedules of festivals in certain towns, in the case of day of the dead festivities on Janitzio Lonely Planet issues a "warning". With our visit coming just three days after the festival we elected to avoid it. Guide books give very little in the way of positive reviews of overnight accommodations for Janitzio, and following such an influx the town's notoriously underdeveloped water and sewage systems were not something we were anxious to experience. Ground zero for partying during these day of the dead festivals are the local cemeteries, and in all of Purépecha villages surrounding the lake we could see clean-up efforts proceeding in earnest.

The only place that we could reach the shore on the east coast of the lake without trespassing on private property involved a little bit of off-roading (left). While Patzcuaro is not famed as a gastronomic destination, the colorful restaurants there definitely underscore the the town's main claim to fame as the artistic center of the indigenous Purépecha peoples that make this part of Michoacán their home.

The free route to the coast comes out just above Playa Azul. As I have mentioned, I have been visiting Mexico for forty-plus years, and while I have been riding for nearly as long most of it has been in the midwest where I was born and throughout the US and Canada. Our first ride into Mexico, and the first ride that had us leaving the pavement wasn't until 1996. The pictures above and below are from that trip and they are from a spot just a few miles north of Playa Azul. We had ridden the coast road from Puerto Vallarta and I believe the last gas had been around Manzanillo about a hundred-and-fifty miles north. This "gas station" above was a welcome sight. Below, Karen holds the funnel while the "attendant" pumps our fuel.

Take a close look at our circus wagons here. As I have admitted, we had never left the pavement with the possible exception of the occasional gravel driveway. We had just sold our business in Chicago, and after riding out to Tucson by way of the Pacific Northwest the only thing that we were sure of in the way of equipment was that we were not going to be riding $18,000 Harleys to Mexico. We decided to buy some "disposables" for the trip. My choice, the Yamaha in the foreground could not have been more wrong. But in terms of our goal of purchasing disposables it was exactly what we got. This trip was one of the most enjoyable of my life, without high tech riding apparel or anything remotely like what we use today. We wore thrift store leathers with double knee Carhartts. All topped off with "cheater" half helmets and $20 Target rain gear. We were as happy as clams.
Notice the luggage. An eclectic mix of backpacks duffel bags black plastic trash can liners, all sitting on top of a wooden folding chair to make the luggage rack wide enough to accommodate all this crap. 
We got talked into buying the white TransAlp in the photo which I was convinced was not going to be big enough. Needless to say, it was far and away the most economical dual-sport choice we have ever made to date. We have owned three BMWs (the absolute worst and over the course of their lifetimes the most expensive by far). We have had two Africa Twins--excellent bike but too heavy--and like the TransAlp all but unavailable in the US (we bought ours in Bangkok). And finally the bikes we are riding on this trip to Brazil, the KLR 650. For use in this hemisphere, you can not find a better bike for the type of riding you will encounter in the Americas. These bikes were immediately fitted with upgrades to the suspensions, rear subframe bolts, aluminum skid-plates, upgraded Doohickey, radiator protection, as well as crash bars heavy serrated footpegs, luggage racks and aluminum panniers and Givi top bags as well as comfort amenities like heated grips. All of this and we have two brand new motorcycles complete with upgrades, for less than $18,000--barely the price of one new bare-naked beemer. The downside is that this is strictly a one up bike. If you have a companion who does not ride, than I suppose the beemer or KTM will make more sense. All of this said, the bikes that we used for six-and-a-half months through India and Nepal, while a far cry from a dual-sport would handle anything the Himalayas or the Thar Desert could throw at us, and those were also brand new 500 cc bikes with luggage and documentation and licenses at two for $5,300. Unfortunately, at 65 years old I find it inceasingly difficult to ride the thumpers. My joints simply aren't what they once were. For the upcoming Guatemala ride I've chosen the much smoother Triumph 800 xc. I am however not yet convinced and the KLR will always have a home in my garage.

After more than 40 years, Zihuatenejo still holds a special place in my heart. The above photo from the 1996 trip is an excellent yardstick for the change that has taken place here over the course of years. The wooden footbridge on the right side was a major upgrade since the last time I was here. It separates the Zihuat bay in the foreground from the inlet where Z's fisherman park their lanchas like the one in the foreground at night. On my earlier visits there was simply a rope stretched across the opening to the inlet. A "ferryman" in a row boat would use the rope to pull himself hand over hand from one side to the other ferrying passengers for one or two pesos, depending on what you could afford. When one of the boats wanted to enter the inlet he would simply pull himself out to the center and raise the rope with a long cane pole. The footbridge was a major improvement in terms of convenience and much less labor intensive. Below left is a shot of Karen on the bridge in 1996, and on the right as it exists today.

A few more words on change in Zihuat. On my first visit Z had a population of 1400 including the colonias that dotted the hillsides around town. The town had three main streets--one of them cobbled and the other two dirt. The 140 mile bus ride from Acapulco took 11 hours. On my second visit there had begun work on an International Airport. Former Mexican President Luis Echeverria and a consortium of cronies had begun the process of pushing out the handful of fishing families that had lived for generations near the beaches about 10 miles north of town, and begun the construction of rows and rows of high rise hotels and a "town" where no locals live. This is a model often repeated in Mexico. By the time of our visit in 1996 the population of Zihuatenejo was listed at 80,000. It currently approaches 200,000. The woman in the photo above is one of my oldest friends, Ernestina. When we first met La Ropa beach was serviced by a dozen or so people like Ernestina and her husband Silviano who would prepare food and sell it up and down the beaches. Her and her husband were divers, and each afternoon they would sell fresh oysters and clams off of a wooden orange crate on the beach. Although Silviano has passed, Ernestina now runs one of the most successful restaurants on La Ropa. Restaurant Elvira is named after her daughter (seated) who I have known since she was three years old.

Another buddy from the "old days" and now a local fixture in Zihuat is my friend Tanya, who came for a visit in the early seventies and never left. She owns a lovely home in one of the most fabulous settings you can imagine on a hillside above La Ropa. There she has raised three beautiful daughters.

Above, Karen makes her weekly 7 am. conference call to Chicago and San Francisco from her "office" on Playa La Ropa. Below is the only other commerce being conducted at that hour.