Sinaloa to Michoacan, January 13 – February 6
Vive Contento Para Morir Sorriendo: Live Happy To Die Smiling (Language: Spanish)
After 15 hours on an overnight ferry from La Paz in Baja, Mexico to Mazatlán on the mainland, we woke to sunshine and drove off, excited to explore. I lead us on a route along the old town and coast of Mazatlán. Unfortunately, Google Maps does not advise on what streets are too tiny for Francine. I got us in a jam, and patrons enjoying coffee at cafes ended up having to pull trees and umbrellas out of the way for us to pass. We lost a bathroom vent on our roof to a tree and quickly diverted to finding a way out of Mazatlán…quickly. Navigation battles are our biggest source of contention. We have learned that cities are not the place for driving Francine, nor for maintaining a happy marriage!
We rerouted to the nearest Walmart to stock up before getting out of town. Walmart has proven to be a reliable source for finding gluten free and familiar food options outside the US. We drove five hours, only stopping to pay tolls, fill up with gas, and purchase spicy mangoes on the side of the road. Dehydrated shrimp were for sale were everywhere along the way, but I got laughed at when I asked how to eat them and was still wise at this stage to avoid mysterious Mexican fish snacks (my “bravery” later left me sick for weeks!).
Throughout our trip we have relied heavily on a free, volunteer run app called iOverlander (https://www.ioverlander.com/). It can be used offline, maps out things we need know, and includes reviews and pictures from people who have travelled before us. We use it to figure out where to sleep, find food, propane, and dump stations, to be alerted of military check points and traffic stops, obtain information on border crossings, find points of interest, etc. Aside from networking with others, internet searches and PanAmerican travel forums, this is our primary tool for travel planning. My older brother (and I imagine countless others!) have been puzzled by what we do all day. I will never live it down by saying this, but travel planning feels like a part-time job!
From Mazatlán we were meant to stay in the town of San Blas, but I read on iOverlander that the sandflies are horrific. We found a place a bit further south and parked in the driveway of the home of a wonderful couple. Our back door opened to the ocean, a pool, a private bathroom, an outdoor kitchen area where I “worked” and a beautiful platform to do a little yoga with the waves crashing below. Our plan was to stay one night, but we stayed for three. The couple drove us to a crocodile sanctuary and to the local market in nearby San Blas. San Blas had short lived popularity in the 60s. Celebrities including Jim Morrison from The Doors visited, and it is said that is where he wrote the lyrics to LA Woman. Sadly, the mosquitos and sandflies have always prevented people from staying long, and the hotel the celebrities frequented has decayed. We still enjoyed some shopping and loaded up on straw hats, a grass rug, fruit basket and pork rib tacos…all for $11 USD. We watched as motorbikes whizzed by loaded up with families, babies strapped in by their mother’s arms.
Next stop was Lo De Marcos, just north of Puerto Vallarta, to stay with an Alaskan couple my college friends had introduced us to over email. We arranged to meet at a convenience store off the highway and follow our new friend on his side-by-side to his place. We had no idea what we were getting into and ended up driving 20 minutes up a gnarly and steep “road,” to park at their most pristine home, perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with the loveliest couple. We got acquainted over a gorgeous sunset dinner on their balcony and felt insanely lucky to be staying with them. We explored Lo De Marcos and the nearby beach towns of Sayulita and San Pancho and fell in love with the area.
The timing of our stay in Lo De Marcos aligned with a sailing trip we had booked in March 2021 to the US Virgin Islands. Friends from Minnesota asked us to join them for a delayed 40th birthday celebration. By that time Will and I had spent an entire year almost entirely in Melbourne hard core lockdowns (curfew, stay at home orders, allowed outside for one hour per day, travel only within 5 kilometers of your home, etc.) so we did not hesitate to say yes! We knew it would be added costs and a break from a trip we were already thrilled to be taking. However, we were beat up mentally by lockdown and had saved more money since we were not allowed to go anywhere. As the weeks lead up to the sailing trip, I was nervous about where we would leave Francine in Mexico while we were away. I reached out to our new friends to ask about parking options near Puerto Vallarta airport and was delighted when they generously offered to leave her in their gated driveway.
Anxiety built the days leading up to the trip as we all needed negative COVID tests, and the friends we were meeting had positive cases in their household the week before. One by one the negative results came through and we were off! Will and I had to spend overnight layovers in Atlanta on the way to and from the islands. We had a true American experience filling up at the garden bar at Ruby Tuesdays the night of our first Atlanta layover. Will must have wooed the waitress as she kept calling him “Big Daddy” and when he asked if we could buy a bottle of wine to go, she sold him an entire bottle for the price of a glass (atta boy Big Daddy).
We arrived in the Virgin Islands the next day and as soon as our phones received signal, we had an urgent message to call our friends. Turns out the captain of our boat had cancelled our sailing trip because his “wife tested positive to COVID.” I freaked out. Will bought an overpriced Corona beer and told me to chill. We went to a hotel and spent heaps of time looking for and booking last minute accommodation, including a chartered sailboat for a few nights. It was nowhere near the luxury of the beautiful catamaran we had booked almost a year prior, which was to be complete with chef prepared meals, drinks, paddle boards, lounging space, a dive instructor (Will and I had invested in getting our dive certification in Melbourne for this trip), etc. We would drool and feel heartbroken when we sailed past such vessels from our modest sailboat, but made the most of our time with wonderful friends enjoying blue clear water, snorkeling, and beach bars.
Sadly, a cloud of stress persisted through our trip as communication about our refund from our original captain went silent. When researching alternate boat options, another captain told me that our boat had been sold in September of 2021 and our original captain and his wife had left the Virgin Islands. We hoped this was a rumor, but unfortunately left the islands with no resolution. In the month that followed we continued battling to get our refund. In doing so we learned of several others who had recently been fed the same story by our captain, including couples who had sailed with him years prior. We were appalled and wanted to prevent others from enduring what we had experienced. I filed a police report over a Zoom call with a detective in the Virgin Islands. She found that our boat was in fact sold in 2021 and the captain was no longer living on the islands. We’d never experienced such a scam before, but were fortunate to finally get a refund through credit card protection.
Meanwhile, back in Mexico, life on the road continued to delight us. We spent a few more days regrouping in lovely Lo De Marcos, purchased new tires for Francine, and headed inland as my little brother had booked a flight to meet us in Mexico City! We stopped in the town of Tequila and gained new appreciation of this spirit that had given us negative experiences when we were young. We learned the tequila making process at a small family-run distillery and met entertaining people at a famous dive bar. After several tequila cocktails a local man repeated to us many times: “Nothing is easy in Mexico!” We laughed in the moment but ended quoting him many times throughout our time in Mexico.
I enjoyed a run among the agave plants in Tequila at sunrise and got energy from the loud music blaring from homes and businesses as the city woke up. To my delight, the only fear I felt running alone in Mexico was encountering stray dogs. This was another occasion where I stopped to confront a dog coming at me, only to have a human intervene and chase or yell the dogs away. Dogs typically shy away when I turn to face them, but I welcomed the added support!
We were blown away by the helpful nature of people all throughout Mexico. We asked a man for directions in Tequila and he stopped what he was doing to walk us where we needed to go. The warmth of the people melted away any anxiety we felt about travelling through this vast country.
From Tequila we drove to the Mariposa Monarca El Rosario Reserve, where we hoped our dream of seeing the monarch butterflies in their migration would come true. With excited anticipation we hiked up the mountain to the place the butterflies slept. For the first hour it was incredible to see thousands of them clinging dormant in the trees. We would have been happy if this were all we got to see. However, as the sun warmed the air the butterflies began fluttering around like crazy. They created an intense whirring sound, and we felt the vibrations of their wings. They landed on us, and one sat softly on my shoulder. We spent another two hours in their midst and could not believe what a dream come true it was!
With one massive life goal ticked off, we continued driving mountainous roads and arrived at a trailer park in the town of Teohuitican. We planned to stay a night and then leave Francine while we took an Uber to Mexico City to meet my brother for a few days. I was on a mission to spreadsheet, update expenses, and do trip research before hitting the city. However, Will made friends with a sweet Dutch couple camping across from us, so my “work” went out the window. I changed focus to making margaritas and hanging out with new friends with a similar life mindset. Live happy to die smiling, right?