Puerto Penasco, or as it is better known, Rocky Point is just a two hour drive south of Ajo, Arizona or can also be reached by a new road from Yuma. It is also referred to as Phoenix’s beach since it is only 4 hours from that 4 million plus city. Puerto Penasco is in the Sonora desert at the northern apex of one of the most fertile bodies of water anywhere: the Sea of Cortez also known as the Gulf of California.
We first drove through Rocky Point some 20 years ago and only remember a feast of local shrimp and lobster in a noisy bar perched atop a rocky outcropping and a crowded RV park across the road. Not much else. This time around we were guests of our friends who rented a luxury apartment for a discount price at a sprawling upscale development called Sandy Beach west of the original town and harbour. Up to sixteen stories high, several of those condo developments clustered along the shallow beach, guarded on all sides by security check points with guard shacks and guards armed with walky-talkies and clad in snazzy khaki uniforms. Hundreds of these high end condos built in the past 20 years sprawl along the sandy beach, all equipped with gourmet kitchens, rain showers and flat screen TV’s with several heated pools (replete with pool bars) and hundreds of lounge chairs spread throughout the manicured compounds, surrounded by golf course and dune buggy tracks. Very deluxe and very much affluent Americana and nothing to do with Mexico apart from the soil they are built on. Some of the buildings were abandoned in the 2008 crash waiting patiently for a developer from up north to finish them. I spent most of my week reclining on a lounge chair under an umbrella behind a rope separating the haves from the have-nots, watching the endless parade of local peddlers go by trying to sell anything from a song to a massage, from mangos to jewellery, from hammocks to hats.
The best whale watching tour I’ve ever been on leaves every morning from the active small harbour in Puerto Penasco. Two decks filled with about 100 sightseers, all drinking cocktails and beers from the minute we left the dock. The most efficient waitress of all time served the whole upper deck. She never missed a special request, a conversation or a drink all morning long, running up and down the steep stairs in the bobbing boat. She had my full admiration. We saw several breaching humpback whales, hundreds of dolphins and flocks of seabirds to a point where we became blasé and over stimulated by the fabulous sights and the abundant sea life.
We walked along the beach into town, which had a distinctly Mexican tourist market flavour with plenty of Mexican souvenir shops and water front restaurants. We feasted on fresh shrimp and flounder, giant clams and oysters in one of the many seafood restaurants while watching the pelicans fish along the rocky shore. All of the eateries were fronted by hawkers with bins and containers full of the fresh bounty from the sea of Cortez.
Guadalajara wasn’t what I expected, based on previous visits. The cathedral is still there and so is the Degellado Theatre as well as Orozco’s murals and the old Spanish buildings around the Plaza de Liberation and the city’s historic centre. Nothing much has changed there and also nothing much has changed with regards to the city’s pot holed sidewalks, the slummy neighbourhoods adjacent to the historic center or for that matter the threadbare sheets at the hotels. The disappointment started right at the airport where a phalanx of taxis is waiting to extract the first blood from visitors by charging the exorbitant fee of 450 Pesos for a ride into town. One should consider that Mexico’s daily minimum wage is 80 Pesos and a hotel room at the Francis Hotel, Guadalajara’s oldest hotel (last renovated in the 80’s) costs 800 Pesos per night. In comparison we paid 300 Pesos for a delightful one hour horse and buggy ride into the Zona Rosa and around the historic centre.
In general the people seemed poorer, more marginalized and desperate than 10 years previous, the infrastructure is dilapidated, the shops and restaurants half empty and more buskers, shoe shiners and peddlers hounding the tourists then ever before. Maybe it’s my vantage point, clouded by the years between visits but I couldn’t shake the general feeling that the lives of the average Mexicans has not improved, that in fact their lot is worse now than a few years ago, even though Mexico is the fastest growing economy in North America. Is it the tired old cliché of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer or is it a complete lack of policies starting with the underfunded and shallow pubic education system right through it’s healthcare and social systems to a lack of proper pensions and old age security. The president’s wife is building an US$ 80 million palace, Telemex and Pemex are monopolies owned by a few powerful business people close to the PRI; the army and the police are held hostage by the drug cartels and the rural population exists in third world squalor and dusty shacks with a bare light bulb and no proper sewer with the kids running around in bare feet selling chicklets to passing motorists.
Mexico is building better roads and is improving its tourist centres along the west coast and the Yucatan but a couple of kilometers back from the beach the same old crowded poverty sprawls through shanty towns. We pay as much for a breakfast in a trendy restaurant along the beach as a labourer’s day wages are. The discrepancy is unsettling which translates into expectations of big tips but generous tips at overpriced restaurants doesn’t assuage our latent, simmering guilt. We felt uncomfortable and disappointed.
We spent a fantastic Sunday starting with a noon concert for $ 20 at the magnificent Degallado opera house, modelled after the famous La Scala in Milan. A world class pianist fronted the local symphony orchestra and played Schumann for an hour while we gawked awestruck at her slender figure and those long dancing fingers that could evoke such magic virtuosity.
In the afternoon we hopped in a taxi, which took us to Plaza de Toros for a Sunday afternoon bullfight. We witnessed 6 bulls killed by 3 Matadors and thanks to a local man who explained all the intricate moves by the matadors and his crew as well as the bull’s we enjoyed ourselves. Left to our own we would have probably been a bit peevish about the bloody display which is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart or for that matter the bleeding hearts. It’s a 300 year old tradition and all the costumes, the art and the culture has not changed in 3 centuries. It’s a trip back in time, which is enjoyed by whole families, kids, grandmothers and everybody in between. The argument that the bulls have no choice is a valid one but then neither do the cows and sheep who we know better as steaks and lamb chops.
Guadalajara used to be known as the city of roses due to its temperate, year round climate but I didn’t see any flowers along it’s congested streets and the money from the Tequila industry must go else where, definitely not into infra structure and social programs. I doubt that I will go back to Guadalajara in the future. I would rather remember it as it was when I first saw it some twenty years ago.
Mexico City is a sprawling colossus of a city, with extreme contrasts between wide, generous boulevards and modern glass and steel high-rises, classic colonial cathedrals and shrines sinking and leaning into the former Lago de Texcoco, from where the former golden city of the Aztecs rose when Cortez came into the valley. Today the endless sprawl of barrios are draping the hills on the outskirts like a big, multi coloured quilt. Apparently a former mayor and owner of a paint factory handed out free paint with the effect of turning the monochromatic, grey cinder block slums into a cheerful and picturesque tapestry of misery. Cars, taxis, trucks and buses fight for a spot in the choking traffic, leaning on their horns with loud music blaring from every vehicle creating a cacophony of noise, a permanent wall of sound that never abates.
Mexico City is home to the world’s best Museum of Anthropology on Mesoamerica with vast exhibits from the Mayas, Olmecs, Toltomecs, Aztecs and all the historic epochs housed in separate buildings accessible from the central, massive courtyard which is covered by a seemingly floating flat roof supported with cables on top of the four sided waterfall cascading down the central column. An architectural masterpiece.
We stayed in the Zona Rosa, the gay quarter, because it features the best restaurants, shopping, street malls and is central. We took a cab to the historic center with one of the words largest cathedrals fronted by a giant plaza to rival St.Peter’s or Tiananmen square for size. The baroque cathedral is leaning precariously to the left with the front right corner sitting on the templo major foundation, which has been unearthed right next to the church. We were lucky to obtain tickets for the Ballet Folklorico show at the imposing white Opera House that again compares to the big European Opera houses in Paris and Milan for sheer opulence and size. We marvelled at the gilded, red velvet seats in the third tier balcony overlooking a proscenium surrounded by murals of Mexican history with a glorious baroque ceiling. What a treat !
We didn’t experience the famous smog that the 22 million inhabitants and their fossil burning activities exude in this mile high city, but neither could we see the 5400m high volcano Popocatepetl that rises threateningly close to the metropolis into the baby blue sky with it’s peak always shrouded in white clouds. No visit to this beehive of human activity is complete without a tour of Teoituacan, where the sun and moon pyramid pay witness to a civilization that was extinct when the Aztecs entered this valley filled with massive temples and wide avenues flanked by more temples and shrines. The sun pyramid is the second largest manmade structure after the Cheops pyramid in Cairo and to stand on top of it, we felt indeed much closer to the sweltering sun, dwarfing us mere mortals. Luiz, our guide, a well educated man, passionate about his city and culture but a bit sad, with his charcoal puppy eyes and droopy moustache, assured us that his city was the best in the world and that it’s challenges and problems only make it more so because it is a city close to god, evident by it’s many saints. In particular the Virgin of Guadeloupe which is the venerated image of Mary, imprinted miracously on the cloak of the indigenous Shepard and saint Juan Diego, in 1531, just in time to bring the remaining 10% of indigenous people that survived the conquistador’s diseases and war into the fold of the catholic church. The shrine consists of a massive new church which can seat 4000 worshippers, designed by Pedro Ramirez Vasquez (who also designed the Archaeological Museum) which displays the original, golden framed cloak above a system of horizontal escalators below and behind the main altar. Thousands of curious, mere tourists like us, and true believers, go back and forth before this holy image, snapping millions of digital photos. Several older and lopsided churches surround the main square, which can accommodate several hundred thousand worshippers. It’s scale and unquestioned popularity is the source of a lucrative souvenir, swag and relics economy that sprawls throughout the immediate neighbourhood.
We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed this large behemoth of a city and it’s people and we did not experience any of the pre-conceived phobias and fears that made us wary and hesitant to visit this New World capital and location of so much history and suffering.
Zihuatenejo is a vibrant, busy beach town clustered around a lovely bay and spread along several beaches. All the roads and sidewalks in the tourist zone have been fixed and improved, there are a dozen fantastic bronze sculptors permanently arranged at various points along the waterfront and the touristy part of town. 270 restaurants vie for your dollars and entire streets are literally filled with side walk restaurants spilling into the streets catering only to the tourists, most of whom come from the US and Canada.
Again, big tips are expected and the tourist industry is without a doubt the economic driver here which also includes the artificial enclave of Ixtapa which has been built in the 80’ies and is a clone of resort towns anywhere from Cuba to the Mayan Riviera from the Caribbean to Florida. Zihuatenejo has a sizable snowbird population which is engaged in the community and manifests itself in programs for clean beaches, pet control and cultural events to raise money for local projects ranging from education for the most impoverished to bursaries for individuals.
Zihuatenejo at night is noisy with competing speakers and boom boxes blaring hip-hop or salsa at full volume until 5AM, muffler-less cars and motor cycles at all hours, banging, shouting, carousing and throughout it all the barking of feral dogs and crowing roosters. Anywhere in Mexico the nights are filled with a cacophony of uncontrolled noise and it is hard to get used to. Many nights we laid awake, listening to somebody fixing what sounds like an oil drum or tuning up the old pickup or off key singing at full throttle at 3 or 4 AM. Good thing we didn’t have to get up early.
La Ropa beach curves in a long arch on the south side of the cliff which is built up with hotels, cascading terra cote coloured condos, and several villas. We rented beach chairs for P$ 100 for the day which came with full service. Watching the parachute surfers and the multi million dollar yachts out in the bay we felt no pain and read our paper back novels while acquiring a tan and a pleasant tequila high.
Madeira beach is smaller but features several beach front restaurants, meaning that the tables and umbrellas are set up in the sand. From Madeira a concrete board walk snakes along the shore into the heart of town where all the fishing boats are beached and the majority of bars and shops cluster side by side all the way down to the government wharf and ferry dock. Several arched bridges cross over the two canals and are favourite hangouts for young lovers. On long weekends and Holidays the beaches fill up with Mexican families with kids and grand parents who set up day long picnics under umbrellas. They come from the interior as far away as Mexico City to enjoy the sun and beach, just like us. There are plenty of good restaurants catering to us tourists with lavish breakfasts and charcoal grills, fancy drinks and Mexican music.
About three blocks in from the beach and tourist strip is the bustling Mexican town with its corrugated steel shuttered storefronts, side walk displays and taqueterias with their open grills and plastic furniture. It’s where we shop for groceries, along with the locals. I like Zihuat: It’s still a fishing village as well as a tourist mecca. The locals are friendly and helpful and although it is in the state of Guerrero, there is no evidence of narcos or cartels, at least not to our eyes. It’s a holiday town after all with direct Westjet flights to and from Canada.
Did I mention the weather ? The primary reason any of us migrate south. There are only two options for winter survival in the north: Hibernation and migration. I’ve tried both and the first option is definitely the more entertaining. As soon as one approaches the Tropic of Cancer the weather improves markedly. Puerto Penasco, or Rocky Point, averages around 20°( 68 F) in the winter and spring while Guadelajara goes from 30° in May to 25° in January. Mexico City has an average temp of 18° with December being the coldest month at 13°. Zihuatenejo on the other hand offers that tropical, hot weather year round between 26° in January to 29° in July. If you want sunshine, large margaritas and lovely beaches, Zihuat is your kind of town.