Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mexico, Part 1: Guadalajara, Zacoalco & Playa Azul

I love Mexico. Its culture is vibrant and welcoming, and surprises pop up at every turn. My trips there included my beachfront wedding in Riviera Maya and subsequent honeymoon, and a quick stop at a border town, as told in the post on Texas. My fondness for this country wouldn't be nearly as strong if it weren't for my first trip there, an authentic, off-the-beaten-path tour that left me wanting more, more, more Mexico.

Mrs. Tires met her good friend Sara while they were working at a restaurant in downtown Chicago. Sara was a local artist at the time, and also a world traveler. Her travels brought her to Mexico, where she met Luis, her now-husband. Sara and Luis eventually moved to Luis' home town of Zacoalco, which handed us a tremendous opportunity to visit in 2008. The plan was to get the true local experience by hanging around Zacoalco for a few days, then hit the road for some more tropical, vacation-style traveling. 

After making our way through customs and fumbling with my broken Spanish to order a coffee in the airport Starbucks, Luis picked us up in Guadalajara. On our way out of town, a stout, strange-looking man with scraggly hair jumped out in front of the car while we were stopped in traffic and started doing cartwheels. He did two or three rolls, then held his hand out, indicating a few pesos would mean more gymnastics. It was quite amusing, and also a bit of a shock. We kept our pesos in our pockets, and with the hairy gymnast in the rearview, we headed onward to Zacoalco.

Sara and Mrs. Tires had a wonderful reunion when we arrived. They showed us around their place, which was amazingly colorful, and had a huge back patio with palm trees and a garden. 

Mrs. Tires fit in quite well with her surroundings. 
After settling in and catching up, we headed out for a brief tour of the town. It was full of old brick buildings with lush green trees, a few churches, and a wonderful domed gazebo in the center of town. The streets were full of people on bicycles, and the old-world feel was broken up by many advertisements for Coca-Cola. 

At the end of the tour, we popped into a restaurant for some dinner. It definitely wasn't the kind of restaurant I was used to, and in fact, it was in an extension of a woman's house. The custom there was that you just show up at her place and she offered you a few different meals options. Then she cooked them in her kitchen and brought them back out to you. No wait staff. No menu. Just her. Apparently a lot of the restaurants in Zacoalco operated that way. Hey, nothing like a home cooked meal!

We spent the rest of the night catching up over beers on their back patio. Sara told us about her exploits from teaching English at the school in town, and Luis told us about his handful of jobs, including lawyer, real estate agent and farmer. We shared many laughs and chatted late into the night. 

Sara and Luis' pad introduced us to some unexpected Mexican customs. The most shocking of which was that the Mexican plumbing system couldn't handle toilet paper, so one discarded their toilet paper into a waste basket next to the toilet instead of flushing it. Fortunately, stores in Mexico sell scented toilet paper. 

After getting the lay of the land in Zacoalco, we hopped back into the car the next day and headed to Chapala, a beachside town where Luis was conducting some business. The town was popular among retirees from all over North America. I could see the appeal. It was a lovely, peaceful town with a great view of still waters. 

We cruised down the boardwalk and tried to picture ourselves retiring there someday. It wasn't too hard to imagine. 

After our stroll, we took up residence at a seaside bar with a lovely view of the water. The watering hole was quite Americanized, as the juke box featured mostly American music and the menu pushed the margaritas, a drink that's actually not that popular in Mexico. We tried our first Michelada there, a drink made up of a pint of beer, a lime and various spices and served with a rim of salt. The taste was sharp and took some getting used to, but after a few sips, we understood the appeal.

With Luis' business wrapped up, we jumped back in their Volvo and headed into Guadalajara, where we would hit the town for lunch and some shopping. We ate at a sandwich joint that sold a succulent pork sandwich we ate with a spoon. The sauce from the pork soaked through the bread, making it hard to hold, making the spoon the perfect utensil to devour it. 

Our next stop was an enormous multi-level market called San Juan De Dios, which sold all kinds of goods. The market was surrounded with outdoor merchants selling trinkets from wheeled carts. I picked up a marionette clown souvenir that I treasure to this day. 

When we entered the indoor portion of the market, we were overwhelmed with the enormity of the place. The first floor offered practical things like clothes and groceries. The second floor was full of restaurants and specialty food shops. Floor #3 was where it really got interesting, as it was filled with knock-off designer clothing and pirated DVDs. We ventured into the bootleg DVD area, and Luis chatted up the salesmen to figure out which bootlegs were of the best quality. We scored ten DVDs for $15, including such gems as El Curioso Caso De Benjamin Button and Mi Nombre es Harvey Milk. 

As dusk settled upon Guadalajara, we wandered over to El Convento del Carmen, a public square with lots of outdoor seating. We settled in and ordered drinks and snacks, and as our drinks arrived, music started playing, which caused our heads to swivel towards the center of the square. A pair of dancers in decadent outfits had just started their routine. They moved elegantly to flamingo music, performing many impressive coordinated steps that inspired thunderous applause. Before long we recognized the song they danced to - a flamenco version of Bohemian Rhapsody.

That night we shared some laughs and recapped the day while we ate at an Egyptian-themed restaurant and bar. It amused me to no end that I was seeing another country's version of yet another country's culture. 

If you look closely, you can see Darth Vader selling Sol beer on the poster in the background. 
We arrived back at Sara and Luis' place fairly late that night, but we were up and at 'em early the next morning. We had to hit up the market in Zacoalco, as we needed supplies for our upcoming road trip. The market was a lot different from the supermarkets I was used to back home. It was amazingly colorful, and it emitted some interesting odors. 

With provisions in hand, we loaded Luis' van with tents and hammocks, then made one more stop on the way out of town. Birrieria El Rancho de Pedro was Luis' favorite restaurant, and he recommended their specialty, the goat soup. We went for it. The goat meat was delicious, and much like the cliche says, it resembled a more flavorful version of chicken. The whole meal was quite tasty, but I must say that some of the pieces floating in the soup were rather unappealing. 

Full of goat, we hightailed it out of town and cruised towards the coast. We were headed to a beach called Playa Azul, where we'd be camping on the beach for a couple of nights. The ride down there was beautiful, and featured lots of interesting plant life. 

Along the way we were halted at a checkpoint where young, armed military men stopped every vehicle for a mandatory inspection. The men were totally calm and methodical during their search, and they clearly had no intention of using the automatic weapons strapped to their backs. Still, it was quite unnerving. 

After a five minute search, we were allowed passage onward. Shortly after, we caught our first glimpse of the beach we'd inhabit. 

Just based on the view, I knew I was going to love Playa Azul. 

Upon arrival, we lugged our things to a thatched hut that was divided into several plots, each with enough room for a tent and a hammock. We got two adjoining plots, which allotted us some extra gathering space.

With our campsite set up and some daylight still left, I hit the water in short order. The ocean water was the perfect temperature, so I stayed submerged for over an hour. The current was extremely strong, so I started rolling along the beach, letting the waves pull me in and push me back out again as I stay in a pencil position and rolled in the sand. Eventually the others joined me and we floated and splashed around until dusk. 

That night we lounged on the beach, watched the sun set, and lit a small bonfire.

We awoke the next morning to a comically unfortunate development. Our cooler had been invaded, and the tasty chorizo we were looking forward to had been taken. Based on the condition of half eaten plastic bag left next to the cooler that used to hold our breakfast, we deduced that the wild dogs were the most likely culprits. There were several of these mangy mutts wandering around the beach, and I'm sure we weren't the first victims of these crafty thieves. Dogs weren't the only wild animals mulling about. A pack of unsupervised pigs wandered around as well, as did several chickens. 

There were also a few roosters in the area, though they were usually tethered to buildings, an odd site.

Things were too laid back and peaceful for us to dwell on the forfeited meat for too long. It was another gorgeous day, and we had nothing planned but swimming, sun bathing and hammock lounging. Still obsessed with the perfectly temperate water, I hit the waves for another swim, this time outfitted with snorkeling gear. 

There wasn’t much of a fish population within view, so I spent over an hour swimming around, spying interesting shells and colorful rocks and diving to retrieve them. I still have the colorful collection I amassed. 

After my swim, I snagged my pillow, hopped into the hammock and settled in for a nap. 

 I could live in this moment forever
Later in the day we headed out on a field trip, a hike over to the nearest watering hole. When I say it was a hike, I mean it. The bar was perched atop a rocky cliff at the far end of the beach, and the only way to get there was to scale a small mountain. The hike was rockier and more difficult than we had anticipated, but it afforded us some great views, and it made the Coronas we sipped at the end of our hike that much tastier. 

We were having so much fun that day, it was hard to believe it was almost over by the time dinner rolled around. We all pitched in to make an evening feast, and I made my first and only batch of pico de gallo. Dusk arrived while we cooked, so we made sure to take a break from the food prep to enjoy one last sunset.

The brilliant show by the sun was the perfect backdrop for a photo that is one of my favorite shots of all time. The expressions on our faces perfectly captured the mood of the day, and I love the fact that it came out faded, as if capturing not only the moment, but my memory of the moment.

We enjoyed the heck out of our feast, and then busted out the dominos and the tequila and Squirt for another evening under the thatched roof. 

It was tough to leave the next morning. Playa Azul left quite an impression on us, and the perfect weather persisted.

Fortunately we had another fun destination in mind that helped take the sting out of our departure. We were headed to Manzanillo, where we would spend two days and a night at the Vista Playa de Oro all-inclusive resort. It was to be our first experience at an all-inclusive, though certainly not our last.

When we arrived at the resort, we had mixed emotions. While the grounds were beautiful, the resort had received an unexpected facelift since Luis had visited there the last time, and had been transformed into a kid-centric, pirate-themed resort. While it’s hard to hate anything pirate-themed, the renovations took away some of the elements we were looking forward to most. The biggest offense was the removal of the swim-up bar and its conversion to a kids pool.

After we checked in, we wandered around the grounds for a bit and got the lay of the land. You can see our varying levels of enthusiasm in the photo below.

While the resort wasn’t the tropical paradise we had envisioned, our attitudes changed once we hit the pool.

In addition to the perfectly temperature-moderated water, the pool area offered a huge selection of tasty adult beverages.

With the drinks being part of the all-inclusive package, I decided I’d start at the top of the drink list and make my way through until I could drink no more. As we started in on our second round, a whistle blew and some staff members started unfurling a huge net over the pool. It was time for pool volleyball, and we were nudged by the staff to participate. We were hesitant at first, but we gave in, and we were glad we did. The game was a blast, and the staff was a riot. They joked around with players as they kept score, and a botched play resulted in a hefty helping of an unidentified alcoholic red liquid, straight from the ref’s squirt bottle into the mouth the offender. 

We stayed in the pool until nightfall, pausing our steady stream of drinks a few times for some photos, including this one, another one of my all-time favorites. 

We were a bit concerned about how we were going to get our tipsy troupe from the pool to dinner, but fortunately the resort provided transportation via large golf carts. We accepted a ride to the main outdoor dining area, where we were treated to dinner and a show. Little did we know we’d be part of the entertainment!

After a few song and dance numbers by the staff, the entertainment turned into one of those Mexican game shows you might accidentally stumble upon when you channel-surf to Spanish television. One of the games was a couples competition, and Mrs. Tires and I were chosen to participate. The game involved using our bodies in various ways to pop balloons. According to the pre-game audience poll, we were the favorites. Unfortunately, we didn’t live up to expectations, as we failed to pop the balloon that we were squishing between Mrs. Tires’ butt and my chest. 

Luis also found himself up on stage when he somehow became part of the dance crew. 

All the while, the drinks kept flowing. It was hard to believe we were still standing after dinner, but we managed to get ourselves back to the pool area, where we enjoyed one last round of cocktails and were entertained by the poolside magician. 

Mexico served up beautiful weather for the final day of our road trip, and we soaked it in while having breakfast by the pool. We finished our stay with one last dip and a couple more drinks. I made it close to the end of the drink list, but didn’t quite get there. Next time! Mrs. Tires and Sara got friendly with one of the staff members (who, by the way, were rock stars).

Vista Playa de Oro wasn’t quite the tropical paradise we were hoping for, which was an inspiration for the destination wedding we would host three years later. However, it was a heck of a lot of fun and it provided some long-lasting memories. 

With our excursions now over, we made the long and slightly hungover drive back to Zacoalco. We took it easy that night and watched the pirated version of Zach y Miri Hacen Porno we purchased earlier in the week. 

We still had a day and a half in Mexico, so we spent the next day kickin’ it around Zacoalco. Luis’ family owned a farm, so we spent the majority of our day there, where we got a tour of the fields and met several of the farmhands. 

Mrs. Tires and Sara went for a cruise on the family scooter. 

Later we attempted to go horseback riding. Unfortunately the horses didn’t seem like they were in the mood. Mrs. Tires went first and got a pretty good ride. 

I went second and did my best lonesome cowboy impression. The horse was certainly slowing down towards the end of my ride. 

We should have taken the horse's cues more seriously. Instead, Sara hopped on for a ride, and at that point, the horse had had enough. As Sara mounted the horse, he bucked, knocking Sara backwards, and then he kicked her to the ground with his hind legs. It was a scary moment that was over in a split second, and resulted in Sara lying on the ground, pained and shocked. Fortunately she wasn’t seriously hurt and was able to get herself up off the ground. It took a while for all of us to get over the shock, and she was sore for several days.

Once Sara had some time to recover, we headed out on the most bad ass cooking endeavor I’ve ever been a part of. We encountered the cactus shown below and Luis cut off a couple of choice pieces with a machete. 

We took the cactus back to their place and started the painful process of removing all of the thorns. Luis offered to do this himself, but I was feeling brave (and stubborn) and insisted that I help. We carefully removed each thorn with a knife. The large thorns were easy to extract, but the cactus was also covered in many tiny thorns, maybe a tenth of an inch long each. We spent an hour shaving the cactus, and then I went to work removing tiny thorns from my fingers while Luis fried up the cactus for us to eat. The resulting snack was delicious, and the flavor was enhanced by the toughness involved in preparing the meal. 

The cactus held us over while we drove into Guadalajara for the last time. Thorn extraction kept me busy in the back seat on the way. We had one last stop before we took off for home. I was tickled by the idea of experiencing a foreign culture’s take on another foreign culture when we went to the Egyptian-themed bar earlier in the trip, and at my request, we followed that up with a meal at a german-themed restaurant in Guadalajara. I am sorry to report that I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, and truthfully the food there was passable at best, but it was still fun to see Mexico’s take on German cuisine. 

With our bellies full of sausage, we headed to the airport. After saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts, we stopped at the airport Starbucks, and I ordered using much more confident Spanish, as it had been enhanced by my week in Mexico. With frappuccinos in hand, we boarded the plane said adios to Mexico.

Coming soon: Mexico, Part 2: Our Tropical Wedding on Riviera Maya 

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