Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guanajuato, Guana-WOW-to! My New Favorite City

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If your travel destination is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, chances are its going to be a pretty good place to visit.  Guanajuato made the list in 1988, and after my first day of exploring the town I wondered what took UNESCO so long?!!!   This is the first city I’ve ever visited where you, literally, can close your eyes, point your camera in any direction, and never fail to capture something quite wonderful!

Although the town is properly spelled Guanajuato (and pronounced “Gwahna-WAH-toe”), I soon started calling it “Guana-WOW-to” as each evening’s downloads from my camera became more and more incredible. 

But Guanajuato was much more than pretty colors and historic architecture.  The people, the music, the clean and safe streets, and its wholesome, youthful, exuberance quite simply charmed me off my feet. I’ve been all over the U.S., much of Canada, and some of Europe, and yet, little Guanajuato, Guana-WOWto beats them all!

So, how did I start my explorations of this city?  Well, the RV park owner, Carlos, suggested I catch the city bus that stops out on the highway near the front entrance to the park.  He also offered to call a taxi if I’d prefer to get transported that way.  It seems no tourists are stupid or CRAZY enough to try actually DRIVING into the city.

Why?  Because it’s a geographically-constrained compact city dating back to the 1500’s with houses literally built on top of each other up the sides of steep hills surrounding the city center.  These steep, narrow, alleyways (callejones) are hard enough just to try and even walk!  Therefore, most vehicles actually get around town via an ingenious network of underground tunnels (remnants of the city’s days as one of the foremost silver mining capitols of the world).

Now what tourist would be stupid enough to try driving a town like this?  Yep, that’s me!

But, I actually carefully did my homework online first, consulting various maps, satellite views, and online travel forums. Then, I printed each map out before I attempted to drive them (as GPS doesn’t work so well from under ground!). 

I started my adventure with a terrific 10-mile rim road tour of the city called the Panorámica:

Panoramica Drive

The entrance to the road (point A) was a bit dicey and some intersections not well marked, but I just followed a city bus that seemed to know where it was going and it kept me on the right road as we climbed up to the rim.

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We came to a crowded narrow bend in the road and I realized we were at the top of one of the most popular attractions in town, the giant statue of Independence war hero El Pípila (point B on the map above).  Click the link for his fascinating story of leading the rebels to their first victory in Guanajuato!  While gazing at the monument, I happened to notice a nice city parking lot right next to it (which made it super-convenient to drive back to for a sunset photo shoot the next night)!

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For tourists without cars, there’s an excellent funicular (incline railway) that brings you up to the monument’s overlook from the city center.  The views from the top are quite something during the daytime…

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But even more stunning at dusk!  The gold building is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora, and white gothic structure behind it is the University of Guanajuato.

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As we zig-zagged along the Panorámica, we reached point C on the map above, the lovely Jardin de Las Acacias  next to the city’s original water reservoir, Pressa de la Olla.

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The northeastern section of the Panorámica went through more humble neighborhoods (between Points D and E on the map).  Less color on their houses here, but still visually interesting.  Can you imagine walking up those stairs everyday? (and that was just from the rim road--at least 3 or 4 more sets of stairs just like them down into the town center below).

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We slowly snaked our way to the west side of town where some of the hillside casas seemed a bit newer, as in only a hundred years old rather than three hundred!

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Finally, we ended our drive (point F on the map) back onto the main Highway 110 and slowly crawled our way back out of town.  More time to take more photos out the car window!

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And to experience my first drive through one short tunnel on Highway 110!

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That tunnel was so much fun that I knew I had to drive more of them.  The next day, I set out to find the underground parking lot that is supposedly right in the center of town.  After a few wrong turns (thankfully, all still above ground), I finally found a super-simple way to get to and from the main downtown parking lot:

Guanajuato Parking

Now bear with me a minute for the detailed instructions—I want to remember these for next time I visit!

While driving north on Highway 110, following the signs for Dolores Hidalgo and “Zona Centro.” At Point A on the map above, you’ll come under this large arched bridge:

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and will see Point B immediately after the bridge.  Here, the main highway jogs left and up to the double tunnel (seen below on the far left).  The “Zona Centro” exit takes you off to the right where you’ll start going down a two-way cobblestone street and then into a one-way tunnel beneath Juarez street heading east. 

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The parking garage is very well marked (look for the “E” signs to your right at Point C on the map).  The garage entrance is also at a small section where the tunnel opens up to the sky above, so you’ll see some daylight shining through here as well.  

The multi-level, modern parking lot will hold regular passenger cars just fine, but is likely too tight for larger pickup trucks to navigate due to the sharp turns needed to drive to each level.  The price can’t be beat, though--- only 14 pesos an hour (US$1.08)!

When leaving the parking garage, you take the first tunnel to your right and follow the signs for “Leon.”

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This will lead you down a single long straight tunnel out to daylight again and Guanajuato Blvd (point D on the map where there’s also a large Mega grocery store shopping center up to your right).  Guanajuato Blvd. takes you straight back to Highway 110.  A super simple loop right in and out of town!

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There’s a staircase across from the parking garage that puts you out right onto Juarez street across from the Plaza San Roque and within just a couple few blocks of all the major tourist sights in the historic town center.

You’ll only be 2 blocks from the Mercado Hidalgo, where you can find all sorts of tourist t-shirts, souvenirs, fresh produce and meats, and a variety of other foods.

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Juarez street links up just about all of the city plazas and churches, so it’s a pretty easy town to walk and get around in.

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Sadly, you can even find a KFC and Dominos Pizza on Juarez street (at least they’re located in historic buildings and are prohibited from using neon signs!).

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The rest of Juarez street more than makes up for these minor failings…

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But, oh, this is still just a taste of this fabulous city!  I’ll share more photos of the plazas, churches, music, and callejones in the next post.  Stay tuned!

Monday, February 24, 2014

From Tepic to Guanajuato

Day 2 of our “Tioga George Trail” (taking us from the beaches of Mexico’s west coast to the central highlands) began with more hill climbing.  The area between Tepic and Guadalajara is where the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains meet the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt that runs east-west across the country (roughly between Guadalajara and Mexico City).

We weren’t far enough into the range to see any big volcanoes, but we did see lush green valleys (a result of the rich, volcanic soil).  Just beautiful!  I look forward to exploring the southern half of Mexico in future years.

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As MsWinnie climbed even higher, we began to see pine trees as we crossed the border into our 5th Mexican state of Jalisco.  I would have taken pictures, but the road had one curva peligrosa (dangerous curve) after another and needed my full attention!

The valleys coming down the eastern side of the range were much more arid.  Perfect conditions for blue agave to grow, and this was, indeed, their capital region.  The town of Tequila was just north of the highway and had I not just done a tequila plant tour, I would have made a stop here.   Another place to add to the “Next Time” list!

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Perhaps the reason why I didn’t wish to meander on this Monday morning was due to being laser-focused (and honestly, stressed out) to make it through Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara, in one piece! 

I’ve read a few horror stories about RVers missing turns and ending up in parts of town absolutely impossible to navigate.  Even Contessa and Colin once ended up smack dab in the center of downtown Guadalajara with their 40-foot motorhome with car in tow!  So, as I got closer and closer to the city,  I kept my eyes continuously jumping between the road ahead and my Google Maps navigation screen to be absolutely sure I made the right turn.  I kept hearing Contessa’s voice repeating: “Perifico, Perifico, PERIFICO!”. 

Well, all I can say is, thank God for Google Maps and my Nexus 7 LTE tablet!!!  There were a couple signs that prepared you for the “Perifico Sur” exit, but absolutely no clear sign once you actually reached the exit!  If not for the real-time GPS dot on my Google Maps screen showing that I was, indeed, at the exit, I may have continued straight into downtown to become yet another RVer horror story! 

MsGoogle did a fine job leading me along the 6-lane Perifico Sur around the city once she “recalculated” to no longer take me downtown (sure wish there were an “RV/Truck” routing option for Google Maps rather than it always assuming you’re always driving a car—trucks and any dual rear-axle vehicles are prohibited in Guadalajara’s Centro). 

The Perfico was sure not the scenic route, though!  I’ve heard that Guadalajara has some very nice and pretty areas, but I sure did not see them on this day’s drive!  There was also an enormous layer of smog over the city that made it difficult to breathe and impossible to look at.  “Get me the hell out of here, MsGoogle!!!”

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But, there was some humor to be found here too.  As I was stopped on a lateral waiting to get onto the last section of highway to exit the city, I had to laugh at the various modes of transportation crossing the intersection….don’t think I would have seen this in Chicago!

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Finally, the sign I’d been longing to see for the past hour:  “thank you for visiting Guadalajara”!

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We traveled northeast from Guadalajara and began climbing onto the vast “Altiplano” that covers much of central Mexico between the two Sierra Madre mountain ranges to the east and west.  These arid plains are dominated by livestock ranches, and dotted with a few fields of agave as well.

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Within a couple hours, we turned east to cross into our 6th Mexican state of Guanajuato.  (The sign says “Pride and Commitment of All--- Welcome!”)

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The toll roads nicely skirted us around the state’s largest city of León and it’s big automotive production town of Silao.  If anyone wonders where all those good-paying middle-class auto factory jobs in the U.S. went a few decades ago, take a look here.  Lots of well-educated, middle-class workers in this part of Mexico employed by the big GM and VW factories.  There are also a host of other US multi-national brands vying for their pesos here as well, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Auto Zone, Holiday Inn Express, and Applebee’s.

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Finally, one more little 14 kilometer toll road brought to our destination, Guanajuato. Our total tolls for the day’s 250-mile travels racked up to a whopping 1827 pesos (US$140).  It sure will be nice to not have to drive another cuota (toll) road for the next couple of weeks!

We pulled into our second “Tioga George stayed here” night camp, Bugamville RV Park, and were greeted by it’s friendly, English-speaking owner, Carlos and his family.  Carlos has been renovating the park for the past couple of years (since the park’s previous owner, his father, died) and now has full hookups for each of the 2 dozen sites.  The only thing still left to do is get the Internet installed (Carlos promised that it’s coming within the next couple of months).  No worries, though, the Telcel internet hotspot-sharing on my Nexus tablet worked just fine for me. 

There were only 4 other rigs in the park, so everyone had plenty of space and I enjoyed the wide-open vista of the hills and fields behind my site.  I can’t believe I failed to take any pictures of the place (as all the ones I’ve seen on the Internet are of the older, pre-renovated park)!   I guess I must have been too busy taking thousands of pictures of the beautiful city of Guanajuato.  I’ll share those in my next few posts, but here’s a small taste!

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Following the Tioga George Trail

One cold winter in Chicago a few years ago had me discovering and following a few blogs of folks RVing in Mexico.  No blog was more innocently charming (and popular) than that of the Grand-Daddy of all Mexican RV bloggers, Tioga George.  Ironically, the year I finally make it to Mexico is the first year George has not (he stopped blogging and moved back to the U.S. last year).

George spent his recent summers in the highlands of central Mexico and winters on the beach south of San Blas in a small town called Aticama.  Whenever he needed to go to town for extensive shopping or repairs, he would drive up the mountains to the city of Tepic (pronounced “Tay-PEEK”), and stay at the RV park in town, Los Pinos.

Since we were headed to central Mexico and Tepic was right on our route, “Winnie Lynne”, Ms. Millie, Ms. Winnie, Mr. Tracker, and Ms. Powershot decided to make Los Pinos our “Night Camp” in honor of Tioga George.

9 AM – Driving to Tepic

Ms. Millie is in her “navigator” position right between the cab seats as we make it off the long, dirt Isla road and back onto pavement.  We are headed south along Highway 15 to Tepic!

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I doubt Tioga George ever took a toll road in Mexico, but we on the WinnieLynne team are still new to driving solo in this country, so we drive the more cautious, and more expensive cuota (toll road) route.  How much does this little 160 mile stretch end up costing us?  A mere 1123 pesos (US$86 !!!).   Yes, bringing the toad does make it cost about 35% more, but still…

This section of toll road is only 2 lanes, but has wide shoulders on either side.  Why the dashed lines?  It’s actually a pretty smart system--- basically, whenever there’s a dashed line, slower vehicles are to straddle that line and drive over to the edge of the road so that faster vehicles can go into the center of the highway to drive around them.  If one sees a oncoming passing vehicle, you straddle onto your dashed shoulder lane as well to give them room to pass.  Imagine how much less the US highways would be to build and maintain if we had adopted such a system through our rural areas!

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Soon, MsWinnie is driving into our 4th Mexican state, Nayarit.  Things are starting to look greener, and we begin the 3000 foot climb up into the hills of Tepic.

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1 PM – Los Pinos

Los Pinos RV park has a most unusual entrance—a simple archway within a half-circle shaped strip mall!  Just drive right through and curve up around a slight hill, and you’re at a lovely, lush green little RV park of about 15 sites.  A tall brick wall borders the park to provide added privacy and security.

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We pay our 200 pesos (US$15) for one night’s stay and MsWinnie backs into nice, cool shade beneath the trees.  Could we be parked in the same spot MsTioga used to stay at?

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Meanwhile, Lynne discovers a long-lost friend in the overhead storage bin for MsMillie to play with—hip, hip, hooray!  It’s Mr.Frisbee!!!

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3 PM – Off to Town!

After the expensive tolls, the WinnieLynne team needs to find more pesos for tomorrow’s continued journey.  So, MrTracker takes Lynne and MsMillie to town in search of an ATM.  It’s a warm, sunny afternoon so we first do a quick drive through the downtown centro area around the cathedral and main square.  Pleasant enough, but not a “Pueblo Mágico” or a Mazatlán!

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We make our way over to the other main road through town and this one has all the “modern conveniences” including a nice bank ATM, and a big Wal-Mart.  MsLynne decides to go buy some groceries while MsMillie takes a siesta in MrTracker.

We follow an old VW Bus across boulevards and side streets to make our way back to Los Pinos where MsWinnie has been waiting patiently for us.  Tomorrow, we shall continue the “Tioga George Trail” to another RV park he stayed at over in central Mexico!

Where ever you might be now, George, we thank you for giving us (any many others!) the inspiration to RV to this beautiful and historic country.  May you continue to have good health and peaceful days!

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