I'm rarely as ready as I ought to be when it comes time to leave, and Friday morning was no exception. It was close to 11:30 before we were ready to leave on our overnight trip to San Sebastian del Oeste. We visited there last year for a day and were enchanted with this little mountain town. There was no question that we wanted to return there again.
We were finally all in the rental van and ready to go. Our first stop was the convenience store on the corner where Erik planned to get some money out of the ATM. Unfortunately the ATM there wasn't working so we drove downtown to where he knew there was another one. After a couple of tries he came back to the van and said that there must be a problem with our bank account as it was being denied. We drove back to our condo where I checked our account to see if I could figure out what was going on. There didn't appear to be a problem, so we left again, stopping this time at Mega, where there are several banks. I waited in the van with the kids and he came out again and said it still wasn't working. He finally tried yet another ATM and got money out with no problem! We still don't know what was going on.
By this time it was past 1 in the afternoon, but finally we were on our way. The poor kids though had already been sitting in the van for an hour and a half and we hadn't even left town! We headed south into Puerta Vallarta and from there turned east toward the mountains. I love getting off the main highway and out of the touristy areas and seeing more of "real" Mexico. We drove through little towns that gave way to ranches, then up, up a winding mountain road where frequent signs warned us that we were in a "zona de derrumbes", or landslide zone. Piles of rubble on either side of the road confirmed that we were indeed. The mountains are covered in thick jungle; orchids grow in the tall trees and yellow and purple blossoms stand out against the green. Although the road is what we would have called a "scenic route" (scary at times), it was very beautiful. We crossed over a high bridge, past fields of agave, a row of mango trees, innumerable banana and coconut trees, and to the tiny town of La Estancia, which is where you turn off to get to San Sebastian.
We didn't stop in La Estancia last year, but the thing I remembered about it were the large piles of pumpkins that seem to be in many of the yards. They're the ones we call "cinderella" pumpkins in the US, paler orange and fanciful in their shape. Well, they must grow abundantly there, and they also grow huge! I even saw these pumpkins for sale in the little "aborrotes", which are like mini convenience stores. One of the things they do with them is make a kind of candy, and I was very curious about it so I tried some. I think I prefer to keep my pumpkin and candy separate, but it was interesting.
We decided to stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant there, and we were pleasantly surprised. We sat outside in the shade where we could watch the woman cooking on their traditional clay oven, mixing masa with strong hands, pressing tortillas, flipping them deftly with experienced fingers. We drank freshly squeezed orange juice, some of the best I've ever had, and ate a delicious meal of carne asada, frijoles refritos, and hot thick tortillas.
After our late lunch we walked across the road to the "candy stand" where a man was stirring a thick mixture in a huge cauldron over a fire. I believe he was making "rollo de guayaba" which is a thick jelly like guava roll. There were two Mexican Grandmas who doted on Raphael and gave the kids samples of dried myrtle berries that were crystalized. They explained what the different types of sweets were, which was very interesting as we've seen these candy stands before with no real idea of what the different things were. They're traditionally made Mexican sweets, many made with fruits, coconut, and nuts.
It wasn't too much further to San Sebastian. You know you're getting close when the narrow paved road gives way to cobblestone and the trees grow close to the road. We passed by the coffee plantation where we'd stopped last year; it was wonderful then to walk among the coffee being grown in the shade of huge citrus and avocado trees. We hadn't booked a hotel ahead of time though and our first stop needed to be arranging a place to stay. We knew just the place; Hotel del Puente, or Hotel of the Bridge, a charming little place we'd scouted out last time. I'm not sure why we ended up there last year, but we'd gone in and seen the rooms surrounding the most delightful courtyard. Small paving stones make up the floor, set in patterns, and in between them grow tiny plants, forming a mosaic like "carpet". Scattered throughout the courtyard are rustic leather couches, chairs, and tables as well as other bushes, flowers, and plants including poinsettias, azalea, and bougainvillea.
Thankfully they had a room available for us, a large room with three double beds. (Hooray for Mexican family style rooms!) There were two large windows looking out onto the street and over the bridge. There was no glass in the windows, rather there were heavy wooden shutters and iron bars. The door to our room was a heavy wooden one and was opened with a key such as you might imagine would open a medieval dungeon! It was heavy iron and about 7 inches long!
After getting settled we decided to walk around town a little since we didn't have a whole lot of daylight left. It's a very quiet little town; we peeked into the church and wandered around the square. We walked up and down a few different roads, admiring the tidy houses with their lovely gardens. In one yard there was a poinsettia that must have been ten feet tall! There were pots of geraniums, profuse bougainvillea, bananas, avocado, lime and orange trees, succulents, and flowers. I love to see how people beautify their homes, and this town really exemplifies that. The town was very quiet; there were plenty of hotels but it didn't appear that there were many people. We passed by many restaurants but had a hard time finding one that was open. We ended up eating a late dinner at a little, overpriced restaurant on the square, simply because it seemed like our only option. The place was filled with the familiar smell of roasting coffee, and Erik and I shared a bowl of delicious tortilla soup. We were a little dismayed to walk out of the restaurant to find that someone had set up a taco stand just down the street and was selling tacos for 7 pesos each!
It took a while to get everyone settled down, as it always does when we all have to sleep in the same room. I was a little concerned about staying wam enough, but there were heavy blankets on the beds, and it didn't get as cold as I thought it might have. I guess the thick concrete walls serve as good insulation. The pillows were lumpy and the mattresses were hard, roosters crowed (all night long) and dogs barked, and babies woke up several times throughout that long night. It was one of those nights where I just wished morning would come so that it would be over and I could get on with my tired day. At last sun began to shine through the cracks in those heavy wooden shutters and children began to stir. A new day had begun.
We packed up our things and sat in a sunlit courtyard for our picnic breakfast of hard boiled eggs, yogurt, and chunks of papaya and pineapple. We headed out of town, hoping to stop at the coffee plantation, but it wasn't open yet. Instead we made a quick stop in La Estancia so Erik could get a cup of coffee. It was nice to find that it was real coffee and not Nescafe as is so common here.
From there we headed south toward Mascota, another town we wanted to visit. I'd read that it's famous for horses, and that people come from all over to buy horses there. Having a horse loving boy in the family, we figured it would be a good place to explore. The road was narrow and winding as we climbed further into the mountains, passing several more "zone de derrumbes" signs, as well as a number of interesting animal crossing signs: there were cattle, as you might expect, but also armadillo, rattlesnake, fox, badger, rabbit, and mountain lion! Erik has a good Spanish-English dictionary on his ipod and I kept busy looking up words we was on the road signs as we drove. There's no education like the moment!
Having reached the top of whatever mountain we'd been ascending, we began to wind down, down into a sprawling valley. As the land flattened out we drove by many cattle ranches. We also passed one place with what must have been thousands of open a-frame type structures about two feet high. Upon closer inspection we realized that there were beautiful roosters tethered to them, so that each one had his own little shady spot.
We arrived in Mascota and made our way to the town center; the square was full of benches and orange trees. We walked a little, then found a small restaurant where we had tacos. I get more adventurous all the time and tried some lengua, or beef tongue. (Last year I tried cabeza! What next? Maybe tripe.) We'd heard that in Mascota were the ruins of an old church, and it turned out to be right across the street from where we ate lunch. We walked across the street and entered the ruins of what must have been a huge church in its time. Some of the walls were still standing, but the only part of the roof that was left were great curved arches, silhouetted against a bright blue sky. Magenta sprays of bougainvillea spilled over the remains of walls built of volcanic rock. Where there must have at one time been a stone floor was now a grassy lawn, and we walked peacefully among the ruins of this ancient place of worship. I do not know the history yet of how the church came to be in such a state, but am curious to learn it.
We left Mascota around two, somewhat disappointed at not having found the horse paradise we'd envisioned. Personally, the ruins of that church were enough for me, and even Peregrine didn't seem to mind too much. On the way home we bought a roasted chicken from a roadside stand; we often make a meal of one of these. For about seven or eight dollars you get a delicious roasted chicken, tortillas, rice, sometimes beans or potatoes, and salsa. We got back to Bucerias by five and enjoyed our chicken dinner before driving to the town center where we got some fried bananas for the kids. We waited in line for what seemed like an age, as the fried banana guy is also the churro guy. I enjoyed a churro, which is one of those things that takes me back to childhood and our visits to Mexico. (Eating churros at La Bufadora!)