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Often we’ll see  Caseta de Cobro signs warning us of toll booths ahead; just as often we may see Caseta signs leading to toll booths that have long since been removed or closed. That’s Mexico!

Las Distancias de Mexico

It’s 220 miles from Celestino Gasca, Sinaloa, to Tepic, Nayarit, and then another 150 miles to Roca Azul on Lake Chapala, Jalisco, our final destination for a while.  Looking at Google Maps, point-to-point distances don’t seem to be that great, but distances are relative on Mexico’s highways and deceiving on maps.

Before leaving Villa Celeste, I asked Noé, el dueño del lugar, about the drive to Tepic (Side note:  I also call him el mosquito comedor because one evening while chatting, a mosquito suddenly flew into his mouth; after a momentary fit of gasping and hacking, and without missing a beat, as if this sort of thing happens all the time, he continued his conversation as if nothing happened).

He told me, “It’s no, problem, my friend.  It is only a four-hour drive to Tepic.  It’s not that far. So why not drive all the way to Chapala?  To there only six hours, my friend.  And you would be there so much sooner, which is better, no?”

Noé, eternally affable, was in the habit of always referring to me in English as “my friend” and to Jackie as “my lady.”  In return I started referring to him as mi amigo—emphasis on mi amigo.  He smiled at me every time I did this, amused by my Gringo sense of humor.

At least part of understanding the reality of Mexico, however, requires the Gringo Traveler to conceive of time and distances in a far different way from that which exists in Gringolandia.

Tony Cohen, Mexico travel writer, refers to this idea as Mexican Time—the difference between stated and actual time.  Perception of distances in Mexico involves a similar kind of reality.  Just as time in Mexico is relegated to personal interpretation, so also are distances. “I’ll be there tomorrow” has the same semantic weight and ambiguity as “it’s not that far.”  Tomorrow could easily become a week;  a hundred miles could easily become five hundred.  Not so strangely then, the opposite is also true:  “I’ll be there in a week” could mean expect them tomorrow; “It’s very far away” could also mean “It’s closer than you think.”  Such is the reality of time and space in Mexico.

Add to this the unexpected challenges on Mexico highways that Guia RojiMexico Tourist Road Atlas, probably the most comprehensive Mexico “paper” map, and the wildly popular Google Maps couldn’t possibly account for.  Despite Noé’s calculation and Google Map’s estimation, the reality is that it took us over five and a half hours just to reach the Tepic Trailer park.  As I said, such is the reality of time and space in Mexico.

The Challenges of Mexican Highways

The lines in this photo are small, however, there are multiple booths. Often there is only two booths that are actually in service, which causes long lines and waits. Pero no hay problema!

A combination of different challenges conspired to slow us down.  For one, toll booth stops: we encountered eight or more stops at caseta de cobros along the way.  And at each one not only the lines of cars and semi-trucks waiting in front of us to pay their tolls slow the flow of traffic down, but also the locals, hoping to make a few pesos, staking out the entrances to theses casetas, trying to sell everything from pan to coconuts, will slow traffic down as well.  If I’m not 100 percent  alert, there is a strong likelihood that I could run into someone.

Vehicles waiting in lines to pay their tolls make for perfect potential customers by locals who are selling just about anything to folks waiting in their cars and trucks.

Often we’ll see muchos jovenes running around, in front of, and behind cars, trying to get paid for washing your windows, whether you want them to or not. On one occasion, a young boy held up a crumpled American dollar and started waving it back and forth in front of the window for no apparent reason I could tell.  Maybe he wanted to exchange dollars for pesos?  Haven’t been able to find anyone who can explain that to me yet.

El Diablo está en el Tope

There are times when the cuotas or toll roads will take you through very small villages, which means encountering Mexico’s dreaded, yet very effective, topes.  Drivers are immediately forced to slow down for these speed bumps or risk serious vehicular undercarriage damage (VUD).

Because the Mexico Dept. of Transportation just can’t get around to all of the topes in Mexico to install tope warning signs,the residents themselves will put up their own signs to ensure traffic slows down enough to create potential customers as is the case below:

Most often there are clearly signs that warn us of impending topes, and sometimes there are a series of topes pequeños that gradually lead to the ”big one.”  As I have mentioned before here, often these topes are like phantoms—sometimes visible to the eye, sometimes not. However, sometimes you can spot them because local villagers will hang out on both sides of these topes hoping to sell you something when you slow down..

Standard size topes do not exist: they come in all shapes and sizes. All can be dangerous and destructive if not seen in time. Some are painted in yellow stripes; some are virtually invisible like this one.

Demonios de Velocidad Mexicanos

Then there are the Mexican drivers themselves who drive as fast as they possibly can with seemingly complete disregard for the safety of their fellow drivers.

Buddha riding on the dashboard of my truck, a pickup, out of nowhere, passes me doing at least 100 mph. If I see them behind me in time, I usually pull over to the right as far as I safely can (photo by Jaxter).

Mexican truck drivers can be particularly dangerous if you aren’t prepared. As you can see from the photograph, I’m straddling the white line on the right giving the trucker as much room to pass on my left as I can. The photo shows him in the process of pulling in front of me, cutting it pretty close. But these drivers are very experienced and know these roads like the backs of their hands (photo by Jaxter).

Small truck passes me too close on the left. All too often we’ll see these small pickups going at insanely high rates of speed full of people in the back. Is this not dangerous? Yes, of course. Yet, this is the “way of the highway” in Mexico (photo by Jaxter).

 

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Celestino paradise: truck camper just visible in the center.

This is my eleventh post in the eight weeks we’ve been in Mexico, and my last one for 2018.  We’ve been camped here for two weeks and because of the poor internet throughout the campground, I haven’t been able to post anything about our experiences here.  So here it is:  my first blog post of 2019.

Where to start?  Maybe from the end of our stay.

After two weeks at Villa Celeste, we’re getting Rocinante ready to move on to our next two destinations: an overnighter at Los Pinos RV Park in Tepic, Nayarit, and Roca Azul on Lake Chapala in Jocotepec, Jalisco.

The mini-paradise of Celeste lies about a mile south of the little fishing village Celestino Gasca.  You must first come through the village on the way to Villa Celeste.  There are 740 inhabitants who, like in many other similar villages, are very poor but lead relatively happy lives.  The main road weaves its way through the center of town and has its share of mostly invisible topes of which only the locals know of their location.  People going about their daily lives line the narrow streets, and whenever a tourist (particularly yours truly) hits one of those invisible topes, someone always shouts out “¡Tope!”

These are very proud people who live here.  They don’t sense that they are particularly poor; in fact, I feel certain from meeting many of them that they are proud of their village, their families, and the life that they eke out of the sea that has provided a kind of “wealth” that enables them to build schools, run businesses, and lure norteamericanos to their pristine beaches.

Celistino Gasca Escuela Primeria: On the surface the school may not look like much compared to our standards, but the children are educated in the village where they grow up and the people are proud of that.

 

Local Abarrotes in the center of town.

The Villa Celeste RV Park is down a very poorly maintained dirt road that shows the effects of weather and over use.  Celeste has about fifteen or more sites with hookups, but when we arrived, other than two trailers, there was no one else in the entire park.  I find this surprising because the location of the park is in an area of the exceptional natural beauty.

But as we stayed, campers started to come and go, including two different pan-American travelers driving identical FIAT diesel van campers, though they did not know each other.  Just one of the many ironies of traveling in Mexico.  One set of FIAT van travelers was from Holland, and the other from France.  Both shipped their vans overseas to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then began their lengthy road trip south.

There are only two couples staying in Celeste all winter long: one couple from Wyoming, Murf (and he does surf) and Linda who live in a little 24 ft. travel trailer; and Ben and Pauline from Quebec, who live in 36 ft. fifth-wheeler he somehow backed in to an amazing site just up from the beach.  We backed in to a nice, level site and unloaded the camper so we would be free to cruise to La Cruz (20 minutes north of Celeste) for supplies.

Truck camper nestled into its little spot.  Area behind camper shows some of the guest rooms that stayed empty until the New Year’s Holiday.

At first look, Celeste is a page right out of National Geographic magazine.  You know the ones I mean:  tropical paradises with wind-blown palms, palapas for shade and miles of pristine beaches with no one in sight.  That’s Celeste.  Unlike the El Mirador in Huatabampito, the park does not sit directly on the beach.  Instead, the RV park is situated on different levels atop built up areas above the beach.

View of observation deck in front of unloaded truck camper.

Sheltered among the palms are palapa-covered viewing decks, grass-covered knolls, and patio areas tiled with large, flat, marble-like stone and Saltillo tiles for social gathering areas.  Just below where we are parked is a raised viewing deck perfect for morning sunrises and evening sunsets.  Various guest rooms with magnificent views of the ocean, built above and around the Celeste sites, are painted bright yellow, each one with individual names like Buena Vista (of course), Las Estrellas, and others.

Noah, el dueño de Villa Celeste, the English-speaking owner of Celeste, is very helpful, and always wants to be certain we have everything we need.  When we first arrived, we were low on diesel and groceries, and he offered to take us into town for supplies.  In fact, everyone here is willing to help each other out if they can.  He also arranges the social events at Villa Celeste like pot-luck barbeques and the catered New Year’s Eve dinner and breakfast the following day.  Shared kindnesses seem to be an effect of staying in a beautiful place like this; it brings out everyone’s generosity.

One of the principal occupations of Celestino is oyster harvesting— ostiones.  At any given time, one can find ostioneros with their inner tubes attached to tube-like nets floating offshore, diving to dig out the oysters, bringing them to the surface, and then dropping them into the net hanging from the inner-tube.

Here is a video of ostioneros at work:

Here are some photos of ostioneros who insisted I take their pictures. When I told them, Por favor, sonreír señores, on gentleman kept saying, “Whiskee, whiskee…”

Ostioneros: white bag in foreground is full of ostiones. Shirtless guy is diver, while the other three are negotiating a price. It’s common the ostioneros will sell their pickings right on the beach to the highest bidder.

Some of the ostioneros who may not be able to afford diving equipment, harvest the oysters the old school way by digging them out of the rocks at low tide:

An ostionero digging oysters out of the rock reef using a heavy metal bar.  He throws the oyster into a bag that he will later haul to town on his bike to sell to local fish markets.

 

Sunset over the Sea of California as seen from one of Celete’s viewing decks.

View of the beach from a pathway that stretches through palms and palapas.

Looking up from the beach, palapas provide shelter from the sun.

 

From one of the lower Celeste viewing decks, the beach stretches south to a point that juts out into the Pacific

Jackie takes Louie on one of his daily walks along the beach. Louie loves the ocean and fearlessly romps in the tide pools while Jackie searches for the perfect oyster shell with mother-of-pearl.

View of beach looking north. The village of Celistino Gasca is just beyond the point in the distance.

As mentioned earlier, from here we travel southeast away from the ocean toward central Mexico.  While the pacific coast of Mexico is unquestionably beautiful, both Jackie and I long for the Mexican culture that we will find in towns and neighborhoods of central Mexico.  Stay tuned, dear reader.

A Night at El Jíto

Beach front at La Playa Huatabampito El Mirador. Truck Camper visible at the end of the beach.

Huatabampito’s allure is strong; it’s hard to break away from a place so beautiful. Even so, we had to move.  Still cities for us to visit and explore:  Guadalajara, Lake Chapala, Patzcuaro, Paracho (I hear those guitars playing to me), San Miguel de Allende, et al.  But our next major destination, Lake Chapala and Roca Azul, is still twelve hours away, this according to Google Maps which means it could be even longer.

Jackie and I tossed around some ideas about how we could break up that twelve-hour drive (our running rule is no driving more than four hours a day).  My suggestion was an overnighter at an undeveloped RV park I had heard about just north of Los Mochis, then a two-day recovery stopover at Villa Celeste, a campground ninety minutes north of Mazatlan, and then another overnighter at Trailer Park Los Pinos in Tepic, Jalisco.  From there it’s only a two and a half hour drive to Roca Azul on Lake Chapala.

Because the drive from Huatabampito to Celeste was about six or more hours south, too long for a one-day drive, the plan was to stop for the night somewhere.  I had recently read a Facebook posting from “Tequila” Paul, a Mexico caravan operator out of Texas who generously posts current information about road conditions and RV campgrounds, that mentioned a new campground that was being built just north of Los Mochis.  It had no utilities installed yet, but the owner was allowing acampar seco, dry camping inside his gated compound.  If this was good information, the campsite would make a perfect stop for the night.

Mexican cattle grazing at the side of a busy highway. This is something that is part of the challenge of driving in Mexico. Photo source:  Cozumel4you

We left El Mirador and Huatabampito at 1:30.  Google Maps calculated the route as a two-plus hour drive to the aforementioned campground.  Fully aware of possible traffic slowdowns and potential nasty road conditions ahead of us, we had little time to spare to get to this “possible” overnighter before it started to get dark.  One thing you hear over and over again about driving in Mexico is never drive at night.  During the day you can easily see why this is so.  Rural Mexico has a lot of farm and ranch land.  Vegetable farms are everywhere.  I’m impressed (I don’t know why I should be) how rich the agriculture industry appears to be.  Even organic farming.  Also interesting, and unlike the states as far as I know, is the prevalence of open range for livestock grazing.  It is very common to see livestock wandering freely along the roadside, usually, but not always, with someone who keeps them off the highway.  I’ve seen cattle mostly, but I’ve also seen horses, burros, even pigs and, of course, chickens.  Open range.  Imagine, if you will, driving at night with no lights other than your headlights.  Disaster waiting to happen.

While on the subject, a few more thoughts regarding “nasty road conditions ahead”:

Perfect example of the kind of road condition drivers can face in Mexico.  Photo source:  Mexiconewsdaily.com

I’ve learned from experience (I don’t mean to sound here like an old road-worn Mexico traveler, which I am definitely not), when driving in Mexico, one must always assume that at least 30 percent (maybe more in some areas) of the roads are going to be in piss-poor shape.

Road diversions in Mexico allow traffic on one side to proceed while the other is being reconstructed.  Photo source:  pizzamanagement.com

That could mean anything from an undivided highway without shoulders or markings of any kind, to the hated (and feared) las desviaciónes, road construction (actually a good thing) diversions that appear suddenly, without warning, and switch the unsuspecting driver back and forth between a two-lane south-bound highway to a north-bound two-lane, and then back again, and again, and again.

Or it could mean what I like to call “phantom potholes,” those axle-cracking, tire-flattening, bone-rattling, knee-deep craters that suddenly appear out of nowhere in the middle of a perfectly good highway.  Or it could mean the kind of endless stretches of rough, ground and broken pavement that you see in highways that are waiting for new pavement.

Traveling in Mexico requires an open mind and a calm spirit in all things.  Road conditions like these are simply one of many facts of life in Mexico and you can choose to accept them or not.  One fact, for example, is that cuotas or toll roads (autopistas) don’t automatically equate to smooth road conditions.  Just not reality.  Bad road conditions can exist regardless of whether or not the road is a toll road.  I’ve driven on non-toll libres that were in near-perfect condition.  Paying a toll on a Mexican highway doesn’t guarantee that the road you’ll be travelling on is going to be in good condition.  It doesn’t work that way in Mexico.  Remember, this is the land of “magical realism” where “nothing is/But what is not” (sorry, I’m a retired English teacher; I’m always looking for an opportunity to sneak in a Shakespeare reference; Macbeth no less).  The “magic” of Mexico comes in part from the unexpected.  In the states expectations are always high.  Just don’t bring them to Mexico.

Back to the overnighter:

Rocinante parked inside electrified fence of El Jíto as dusk descends.

We did arrive at the campground about an hour before sunset.  I was fortunate to have accurate GPS coordinates supplied by Tequila Paul.  I would have driven right passed the campground if Jackie hadn’t noticed a woman off to our right waving frantically at us.  I turned around and drove back towards a very nice señora who opened the gate to the compound for us.

The campground was made up of both an outer fence and an inner fence.  The owner, Adrian Felix Gutierez (Yani Felix for short), was the gracious and friendly proprietor.  He had created two separate camping compounds: a fenced outside compound intended for larger rigs, and an electrified fence (¡No toques la valla, señor!) inside compound for smaller rigs.  The inside compound is also Yani’s farm, full of ducks and geese, pigs, and other farm animals.  He has fruit trees all around.

Yani charged us ten American dollars to spend the night, a little spendy considering the lack of utilities.  I wasn’t about to barter; we just wanted a good night’s sleep.  It’s easy to understand he was a business man.  He had big plans for his campground.  He assured us that the next time we stayed, he would have all the utilities we would need.  “Even internet?”  I asked him. “Of course, señor,” looking a little hurt.  “¡Tendremos todo!”

As a way of convincing us how serious he was about his future campground plans, he had his son pull out a freshly painted sign from under his newly constructed palapa that spelled out in very bold, black, if not slightly uneven, letters EL JÍTO on a white background.  He had his son reluctantly hold it up high over his head so that we could get the full effect of what it would be like as we drove our RV up to his brand new gate.  “El letrero es muy bonito, ¿no?”  ¡Claro que sí, señor!  Of course, I told him.

View of the electric El Jíto’s electric fence at nightfall with mountains north of Los Mochis in background. Site was actually perfect for an overnighter.

Before we left the next day, I told Yani I was so appreciative that he flagged us down so we could stay at his campground that I was going to let the whole world know where he was located by posting a review on ioverlander.com.  All I needed was his name.  He was so thrilled that I would do such a thing for him, he gave me his business card which, besides his name, also indicated that he was an owner of a thirty-room hotel in Los Mochis. Señor Yani was quite the business man.