Up and Down the Sierra Madre and the Butterfly Massacre

We left Los Azufres early Thursday in anticipation of a long drive to the Pacific Ocean that we would be able to complete in one day. Silly us. We finally arrived in Zihuatanejo (Zihua, to the locals), in Guerrero state, on Friday afternoon at 6 p.m. after driving back to back 7-hour days - in which we broke two of our road rules, not to drive longer than four hours in any one day and not to drive consecutive four-hour days. The entire distance was less than 300 miles, but our map is not topographical and no one told us our chosen route - route 51 to route 134 - required us to climb and descend two spurs of the Sierra Madre mountain range - the Sierra Madre Occidental (West) and the Sierra Madre Sur (South). Let me tell you, these are big mountains and we climbed most of the way in second gear, with an occasional downshift to first gear, and we descended most of the way in third gear, with an occasional downshift to second gear, for the numerous "curva peligrosa" - dangerous curves. I can sum up the drive this way and then I will only accept money to talk about it again - we climbed one mountain, dangerous curve by dangerous curve, while passing through a bunch of two tope towns - (a two tope town is what we call a town with one speed bump at the bottom of town and one at the top and nothing in between but wild animals, a little store selling Coca Cola and Rancherito's, Pepsico's Mexican Dorito brand, and dirt) and we descended the mountain, dangerous curve by dangerous curve, while passing through a bunch of two tope towns only to do it over again, and then again and again.

Can you see the mountains extending forever into the background? We drove over those, and the ones behind them.

Oh, we also got stuck behind this stinky garbage truck and had to watch stuff fly out the back of it - notice also the guy sitting on top of the pile.

At various times I could be heard muttering "Out of the way, chicken" or "Move it or lose it, dog", and we had to slow down for a goat crossing, to give a cow time to run out of the road (yes, cows run when about to get hit by a car!), and to avoid the numerous potholes that hadn't been patched (ha!) and rock falls that hadn't been cleared from the road. One time we stopped to take pictures of a drift of piglets suckling at their mother in the gutter of the road.

Too bad we couldn't take a picture of the sound as well - all of them were squealing and grunting - everything you expect from a pig

Most of the ride was through butterfly country - this region of Mexico is the site of a Monarch Butterfly migration from as far away as Virginia and we are a still debating if we might be in position to see it when it begins in November when trees are bent over by the aggregate weight of the butterflies on their branches. While a drive through butterfly country sounds great - it was a massacre. Try as I might, I could not avoid killing hundreds of them, maybe a thousand of them, as they flittered and fluttered carelessly in front of Wesley's windshield and grill. The ones that died on the windshield I got to see up close and they were really beautiful if you could ignore their guts, while others would go up and over the van and I could see them land on the pavement behind us apparently intact but internally damaged enough to die, or to be nearly dead. I thought this was an easier way to catch butterflies than chasing after them with a net like we see in cartoons and we could have had some beautiful specimens, not all of them Monarchs, if we had stopped to pick them up.

One of the thousands of butterflies I ran into during our epic fourteen-hour drive through Michoacan state and Guerrero state to the Pacific Coast

The only thing going in our favor on this ride is that apparently the locals know better than to travel this route, opting instead, perhaps, for the less curvy and less free toll road, so there were hardly any cars traveling in either direction. At one point, probably the highest elevation we reached, it started pouring rain, fog rolled in, and we got to the curviest point of the journey according to our GPS map. Visibility was near zero, but we were too damn fed up to stop so we kept on, and finally, the sky cleared, the fog lifted, and the mountains ended at the ocean.

Boy, were we excited to finally get to the ocean

Overall, it was beautifully awful. The drive was awful, as described, but it was pretty spectacular to be climbing to the top of the world like that with nothing but really, really, really tall mountains in view in every direction - and I do mean there was no way out but to keep going. Wesley met the challenge, but no one wants a repeat. We are staying put in Zihua for a few days - maybe through Mexican independence day on Wednesday. We rented a two bedroom apartment with an ocean view for $50 a night, which is a bit more than I would like to pay, but we earned it.

The room from our two-bedroom apartment. We might stay here awhile.

At some point during the first day when we realized the trip was not going to be made in one day, we settled on Huetamo as a stopping point, not because we knew anything about it, but because it was the only named place within a reasonable distance on our map that wasn't in two-point font. It turned out to be an interesting stop.

To start, while I waited in the van with Coconut and J on a busy market street while R went to check out the hotel, I told them not to expect Wifi, a pool, or air conditioning (it was seriously hot and humid in the valley where Huetamo sits). R came back and said, the hotel is clean, they have Wifi, a pool, and air conditioning, proving, thankfully, in this case, that I don't know what the heck I am talking about; everyone got a kick out of that.

In the morning while R and I were preparing Wesley for another grueling day on the road, a young Mexican guy introduced himself to us in perfect English - a lot of people speak some English here, but you can tell when someone is real comfortable with the language.

E is a 32-year old Mexican who grew up in Houston. He moved there when he was 2-years old. He proudly told us that he graduated high school with a 3.02 GPA and was a manager at Olive Garden. At some point he "got locked up" for drugs and has been living in Mexico for the past 3 years. "Life here is hard," he told us. He has an 8-year old daughter in TX and his mom and sisters are still there as well. He came back to Huetamo, after he was presumably deported from the US, a place as foreign to him as to us, because that's where his grandmother lives.  "It would be too hard to start over somewhere else."

He seems to be settling in. He emphasized that he doesn't know anything about the crime situation in Huetamo, preferring to keep to himself and stay away from trouble. He didn't even want to talk about it in English, for fear that someone would understand our conversation.  He suggested that the reason the market street we stayed on was vibrant by day and deserted at night was due to months-long rumors that there was a coming turf war between the rival gangs. Thankfully, it didn't come the night we were there strolling the dark, deserted streets looking for a hamburger stand.

This vibrant market street was completely deserted at night and we wondered whether it was safe to be out - people we asked at the hotel where we stayed had different opinions.

E and his girlfriend run a juice stand in the central market (past the meat, vegetable, and household goods vendors) and for $5 in hand squeezed fresh juices, R and I chatted with him about his life and work. Rent for his stand is 900 pesos ($55) a month. He pays his 3 employees 500 pesos ($30) a day - that's for all of them, not each. To make ends meet, he also works as a waiter and beer vendor and can make about 500 pesos ($30) to work an all-night party, but that's not consistent work. As he said, life is hard.

It was especially fascinating for R to talk with him, like a glimpse into the world that awaits her clients if they're deported. (For the record, only a few of her clients have ever been deported.) We left town about an hour later than we anticipated but the insight and conversation was well-worth the delay.

Huetamo is in Michoacan state - and most of our second day's drive was in Guerrero state. These are the two supposedly more dangerous non-border Mexican states. I'm not even sure as a U.S. government employee that I am allowed to drive through them. You may recall that about a year ago in Guerrero state, a local police force in cahoots with the local narco-gang, executed 43 free-thinkers from the area school that were protesting for change and dumped their bodies in a gulley. Of course, you may also recall that in June a terrorist opened fire in a church in South Carolina killing nine black worshipers, but no one suggested we avoid driving through that state.

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we'd climbed, we just had to stop and pee

I'm not sure how we ended up driving for 14 hours over two days through the heart of Michoacan and Guerrero - we didn't plan to - but we didn't have any trouble and didn't ever feel at risk. Though, whenever a pick-up truck loaded with a bunch of boys showed in my rear view mirror I couldn't help but think they were there to pull us over and ransack our van or take a small "propina" or bribe to avoid any hassles.

We've heard the bribe for some imagined road violation or to support the local "philanthropy" is common in Mexico, but we haven't experienced it ourselves and our drive to the beach was uneventful in that regard. Most everyone we've encountered has been very friendly and helpful - many have welcomed us to Mexico. The only dishonesty we've experienced was on our first day in Mexico while paying a toll - the collector kept 100 pesos ($6) for him and his buddies. My Spanish being rusty as a pull tab beer can found in the woods - I didn't understand how much he said the toll was and didn't realize we'd been swindled until we had driven away and R looked at the receipt against our change. We've also had a gas station attendant charge us an extra 4 pesos but that may have been because we didn't move our van while we went to the toilet after he gassed us up. I'm not sure, but the gas station attendants may work on commission as there are often more than one attendant at the station and they will each try to wave us into their lane as we pull off the road - this doesn't fit the stereotype of the lazy Mexican. Sometimes they will clean the windshield as well and we will pay a 5 to 10 peso tip.

Well, anyway, we made it to the beach and rented this great apartment. We spent the entire day in the water today and are all red as fire engines. The kids are watching a movie now on the WiFi with R and I'm typing this out. We had some fish tonight that I got from the fish market on the beach after the boats came back this morning - Zihua retained its heritage as a fishing village even though the tourist industry has arrived - and we are hoping to check out some more of what there is on offer tomorrow and over the next few days before we turn the wheels south again.

Same view - different day