Zacatecas: Live To Fight Another Day

04.09.2009 – 07.09.2009

Zacatecas: Live To Fight Another Day

At what point do you cut and run? I was so Hell bent & committed to making good distance away from Puerto Vallarta before I slipped into even more days of lazy balmy leisure… that I kept telling myself that the black cloud mass would just “burn off” like JR had speculated. But, it got just got darker and more ominous. Even still, I told myself that it would likely only be a quick summer storm and I’d pop out the other side of it in a matter of minutes. And, that it’d easily be a welcome and refreshing shower that would make the rest of the ride a little more delightful.

I was wrong.

The two-lane from Puerto Vallarta towards Zacatecas is actually a pretty cool road to ride on a motorcycle, and in great condition too.  It ascends dramatically through thick jungle foliage canopy, whipping back and forth through sharp technical curves with no shoulder at all. The only problem is that this road can be very congested with buses, cars, semi-trucks, and local motorbikes. You’re constantly leap-frogging around blind curves or doomed to crawl at a snail’s pace behind a semi-truck,  inhaling huge plumes of diesel exhaust as you climb up from sea level.

Imagine you’re focused on the sudden road curves and obstacles while managing as best you can… trying not to get creamed by someone behind you who's trying to skip their turn in the leap-frog game.  Or, you've timed your blind-curve pass inaccurately and risk becoming a gooey smear on the front of a bus flying down the mountain with a full load of tourists all excited about long week of basking in Puerto Vallarta’s moist romance. Now imagine this scenario darkened with heavy black cloud cover, gusting wind and giant tropical raindrops falling as your vision is obscured down to almost nothing. You try to maintain constant speed so as not to lose pavement traction and thus risk getting squashed by the truck driver behind you who likely can’t see very well either.

You decide that perhaps you should give up, pull over and seek shelter. But, guess what? There’s nowhere to get shelter and not even a shoulder to pull over on. You’re locked in and have to look death in the face as he laughs at your bull-headed decision to ignore all of the clues to stay put in Puerto Vallarta that would be perfectly clear to just about any sane person. The clear-cut writing on the wall that one should have paid heed to all of the available intelligence that plainly spelled out, forging ahead was a very bad idea.

Lesson learned, but now I’m caught and have to stay focused on the road in front of me and not panic. It seemed like an eternity, but the worst of it was really only a couple hours. After that, it calmed down to a light right for the next hour or so and had completely stopped about the time I’d entered Guadalajara.

Sailing from one end of Guadalajara, straight through the middle to pop out the other side, went surprisingly well. Or, maybe I was just so desensitized from my previous terror-ride through Mexico City in the rain, and the Hell ride up the mountain from Puerto Vallarta in what seemed like hurricane level winds and rain... that a dry ride through Guadalajara was a wall in the park by comparison. In any case, I was at least quite seasoned now and ready for just about anything.

I hadn’t really decided where I was going yet, but a split in the highway came and it was either Guanajuato, Aguas Callientes, or Zacatecas. I really didn’t think I’d make Puerto Vallarta to Zacatecas in one day, but I was now making such great time that it was now a viable option. Still couldn’t decide, but since I’d been in Guanajuato only a year and a half prior I took the left turn toward Aguas Callientes. This option would also leave the Zacatecas option open since they’re basically in the same general direction. I'd still have a couple options without having to make up my mind yet. I adore Guanajuato and think it may be my favorite city in all of Mexico, or, at least in my top five. Something about Guanajuato never fails to stimulate my mind. I'm betting it's all that wild architecture and color all crammed together. But this time I was committed to seeing more new places and at least, places I haven’t seen in many years.

The last few hours, the weather was absolutely perfect. The toll highway after Guadalajara is mostly straight and perfect for decent high-speed cruising. Actually, after the winding part from Puerto Vallarta the toll highway is also a great ride with stellar vistas of the plains and big swooping dramatic curves as you continue to slowly ascend into the highlands.

Before I knew it, I was entering Aguas Callientes. It mostly looked industrial with more modern architecture and large tracts of what appears to be cookie-cutter residential block-houses. I’m sure there must be some very nice parts of Aguas Callientes and it looked like it is likely a pleasant enough place to live, but it was a bit disappointing and I really wasn’t feeling it. Onward to Zacatecas.

Just a little over an hour, I was at the foot of the centerpiece mountain called La Bufa that Zacatacas is wrapped around the base of. Navigating Zacatecas is a bit tricky since the typical city grid evidently doesn’t adapt so well to being laid over partly at the foot of a mountain, but I managed well enough.

Rooms were mostly full due to “vacaciones” (the time in the summer before school starts and all Mexican families take to the roads for vacation). And, the hostal I chose didn’t have any private rooms left, so I had to stay in a dormitory with four bunk beds in it.

Luckily I was the only one there so it was like having a private room anyway. The bathroom and shower were right outside the door across a little courtyard. It was nice and cool at this higher altitude so all was quite good. I made such great time that I still had time to get out on the street before last light to get a few images before looking for some tasty street food. And, after the day I’d had… I was famished!

Zacatecas is very similar to Guanajuato in that it’s in the higher plains and more of a desert region. Like Guanajuato, the architecture is also very geometric and colorful… built on hillsides with steep passages and great for getting those colorful, stacked-house looking images. In some ways, I think Zacatecas has a slight edge for capturing that look photographically, in that it’s a bit more open and easier to get wider shots than in Guanajuato’s dense neighborhoods. Both are great though. I think I love them both for different reasons and will definitely add Zacatecas to my pantheon of places I like to return to.

There were posters all about town advertising a bull fight coming up on Sunday. Personally, I find the “sport” abhorrent. But, I do sometimes fancy myself a bit of a journalist with my photography and bull fights are a part of the culture that won't likely cease anytime soon, so I thought maybe it would be something I should at least try to document. I had enough time left to extend my stay an extra day for it, and it just so happens that I hit the city right when they were having them, so… why not?

For some strange reason, I found myself trying to find the most difficult route up the mountain they call La Bufa overlooking Zacatecas. There are taxis that go up to the top. There’s a sky car that goes up. My motorcycle was parked outside so I could have easily just taken the bike.

I decided to pick the roughest side of the mountain and hike up instead. I kept thinking about that line regarding the road less traveled I suppose. It seemed like a good idea until the pathway got really harsh and it appeared that I was hugging the bottom of a cliff face that wouldn’t allow me to pass the last few meters to make it to the top.

There were a couple of abandoned mine shafts that seemed to plunge down into a very deep void with rusted steel cables dangling into the darkness. I kicked a rock into one of them toward the top and it took a good while before I could barely hear it splash into water  somewhere in the abyss below.

It was clear I was going to have to retreat and go back the way I’d come… so I spent awhile perched up on a large rock just enjoying the sprawling city below. The terrain was harsh, dry and the trees looked lightning burnt. Below was the colorful toy-box houses that blanket the valley. The colorful liveliness contrasted with the lifeless dry and stony mountain terrain was very peaceful.

On my way back down the same path I’d chosen to get up the mountain, I noticed a small path that looked like it might wrap around the cliff face and I thought there might just be a way to get up the last bit without having to go all the way back down.

I was right! Just a small path for servicing the cable car system I suppose, but it got me up the last several meters.

As I climbed over the last ridge. There was a Mexican family standing there waiting their turn in line for the cable car. They just all quietly watched the ledge in amazement as some sweaty gringo with cameras dangling off of him, clumsily scrambled over the stone ridge and breathlessly called out, “Buenos tardes!”. They just stared at me in disbelief at I brushed myself off and walked up beside them to take a few images of the vista. It was a little comical to them I think.

After spending a couple hours studying the amazing views from La Bufa, I began my descent. I discovered there was a great, easy stone pedestrian path all the way down with steps in the steepest places and lovely benches along the way to rest if one needed to. Perhaps I should have asked around for the best route before I’d taken off overland the hard way.

When exactly it was that I stopped being interested in finding new bars to drink in, I can’t tell you. Now, for some reason, that didn’t interest me in the slightest anymore. The hostal owner asked if I wanted to play dominoes with him. At first I declined. I then thought,” what the hell?” dominoes actually sounds like fun. At first I'd declined, then reconsidered. After I told him I’d changed my mind and would play, he was so excited and called for his two sons to bring the dominoes. He also had them bring a pile of peso coins to bet with. They all filed into my dormitory room and he pulled up some 70’s music on his cell phone speaker for our domino-party entertainment.

The first night, I think I finished with more pesos then anyone. I was crowned “El Champion.” The second night, between he and his sons… they won it all back. In the end, I think we all finished with exactly the same amount of pesos we’d all started with. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way I could have spent a Friday and Saturday night in Zacatecas, Mexico.

Sunday, the day of the bull fights, it rained off and on throughout the day. Some of the day I spent checking out the Huichol Indian Museum. They have a great collection of the colorful yarn paintings and animal beadwork the Huichol Indians are famous for. The paintings depict scenes from peyote visions that are so bizarre and amazing, that I began to wonder if perhaps I haven’t been actually eating quite enough of the psychedelic plants all this time during my own ceremonies within the sacred desert called Huiricuta.

Then, I realized they’ve got thousands of years of uncorrupted cosmological context to draw from and perhaps my mixed mongrel background, with lost history and very little context would likely never produce the same sort of visions anyway. In any case, since I was going back to the Huiricuta desert after Zacatecas, I thought perhaps their amazing vision-inspired yarn paintings might give me a taste of that same pure context to draw from on my next desert vision quest.

It continued to rain and I asked the hostel owner if he thought the bull fights were covered from the rain. He said that they weren’t and that they’d likely cancel it because the bull fighters can’t really do their fancy turns and such so well in the mud. Not to mention that it’s pretty dangerous to be slipping around in the mud with an angry bull charging at you. He suggested I should just stay behind and play another round of dominoes instead.

Did I listen to his advice? No. I was again Hell-bent on not changing course in the face of glaring evidence that I should definitely scrap the bullfight plans. I guess I didn’t really learn my lesson after the Hell-ride through the hurricane-like wall of rainfall and gusting wind just a few days prior after all.

I won’t bore you with every detail of everything that went wrong on the bull fight quest, but I will just sum it up with the fact I spent the better part of the evening walking in the rain, not seeing a bull fight, getting my camera gear wet, and then waiting in a kind Denny’s sort of café called Vip’s listening to some family’s screaming brats running throughout the restaurant terrorizing all the patrons who were also trapped and waiting for the rain to let up. I definitely should have stayed at the hostel playing dominoes. When will I learn?

One silver lining though, at least the bull fights were cancelled early and at least two glorious bulls lived to fight another day.

I’m sooooo glad I decided to give Zacatecas another shot. The last time I was in Zacatecas several years ago, nothing fell into place and I ended up completely writing the place off for any possible future visits. Aside from the evening spent getting soaked by passing vehicles sending waves of dirty street water my way… I really enjoyed Zacatecas and will definitely be coming back, if for no other reason than to win back a few pesos playing dominoes.

Only one more stop before I head back toward the Texas border. One more stretch of days in the Huiricuta desert region where I started this journey and ample time to reflect upon the odyssey.

I think the ride to Wadley should be an easy one and I’m looking forward to sharing my new stories with Señor Mescalito. I’m sure he’ll be quite entertained with tales of my perpetual foolishness.