After an action packed and fascinating week in the high altitude, hustle and bustle of the Mexico Megacity, I headed west on a downhill-dominated overnight bus ride. Indeed, after the short climb up and out of the city basin, where the altimeter peaked at around 3000 m asl. (on a motorway!), I was swayed to sleep in the comfort of a primera class seat as the coach rolled on down, down and down to the Pacific Coastal town of Zihuatanejo (0 m asl.). After a week of early starts, late nights and non-stop business, I was ready for a coastal wind-down, bobbing up and down in the tropical surf. Zihuatanejo provided the perfect transition to this new way of life. Dawn was just breaking as I stepped from the air-con coach into the heat and intense humidity. The small bus station was located a couple of kilometres inland from the town centre and its perfectly formed horseshoe-bay. The tropical birds (mostly parakeets) were fluttering around in large flocks as the dawn light gradually revealed steaming, densely vegetated slopes all around. In a sleepy haze, I gradually adjusted to this new climatic experience.
Possibly a result of a combination of the high altitude and air pollution in Mexico City, I had suffered from an element of mild pressure and congestion in the sinuses throughout my stay in the City. The rather instantaneous displacement to sea level seemed to provide instant cure. Zihuatanejo was a great staging point for the 400 km journey that lay ahead along the Pacific Coast. Over the next 6 days I planned to traverse the states of Guerrero, Michoacán and finally Colima before a fleeting visit to inland Jalisco (if only to access Guadalajara airport).
A full day in ‘Zihua’ was ample time to wander through the cobbled-brick streets, traverse the seafront and visit the Playa la Ropa, one of Mexico’s finest beaches according to the Rough Guide. It certainly lived up to expectations and was a great introduction to Mexican coastal life. The first time indeed that I’ve not felt cold in the sea without a wetsuit. I enjoyed the evening floating around in the waves and watching sunset with a fruit smoothie beneath a thatched parasol at one of the beachfront restaurants. My airbnb hotel was located in a residential area of the town and following my twilight walk back from Playa la Ropa, I was able to cool off in the courtyard pool whilst the lizards darted around the potted cacti.
Moving on from Zihuatanejo on the Monday, the next objective was around 200 km north along the coast; the Michoacán village of Playa Maruata. Objective, was the key word, as it had been impossible to obtain information on the bus times in this remote and rural part of Mexico. Putting full trust in ‘the system’, I headed out early on a bus to Lázaro Cárdenas a bustling, industrial city just into the state of Michoacán. Upon disembarking the bus, I must have looked like I was ‘winging it’ as the driver asked me with good intentions (and in Spanish of course) where I was heading next. Following a rather cobbled together conversation, involving several people from the bus station and pointing at my destination in the Rough Guide, the net result was that I was swiftly escorted on foot by a kind fella a couple of blocks through the dusty streets to the other bus station and correct one for buses onwards along the coast! After just a couple of hours on the ground in Lázaro Cárdenas, I was on the bus that would take me right through to Maruata, some four hours or so away along the intricate, precipitous and vegetation-clad coast of Michoacán.
This part of the West Coast contains some of Pacific Mexico’s most untouched landscape, with a few small coastal villages dotted along coastal highway 200. As a major south-north artery, this road is unfortunately noted for its role in Mexico’s ongoing drug-smuggling battle. This is largely fought between rival drug gangs and the police. Roadside checkpoints and truckloads of heavily armed police were a very visible insight into this ongoing and notorious problem.
By early evening, I found myself deposited roadside at the village of Maruata. A sleepy little place formed of blockwork single-story shacks with sheet metal roofs and a whole raft of beachfront lean-tos complete with palm thatch to provide much-needed shade from the heat of the day. The village, along with many others in Michoacán, exists largely on the laid-back beach tourism of itinerant travellers. I had been attracted to Maruata by its focus on ecotourism, and was aiming to stay at the Centro Ecoturistica Ayult in a thatched Cabaña. As I wandered through the village, I was once again hit with a spot of travellers’ good fortune as a local guy in a shirt with the easily recognisable turtle logo of the eco-centre embroidered-on was wandering through with his kids. As I was clearly identifiable as a ‘tourist’, he stopped and after a short and broken Spanish-English (him speaking the former, me the latter) conversation and some gestures/pointing (which seemed to work), I found myself being escorted by his ten year old boy across the ford and on to the cabañas of the eco-centre.
Maruata and in particular the positioning of the eco-centre cabañas, was spectacular. Intense Pacific swells have carved a series of intricate bays, headlands and islets, with the cabañas themselves having been built on successive terraces carved out of the steep granite cliffs of the northernmost bay. I spent all of the following day exploring the coastline, walking several kilometres south from the village of Maruata along the long, sweeping and steeply shelved sands. The most striking feature of the beach was the sheer frequency and density of turtle trails leading up the beach to egg-laying pits above the high-tide mark. The turtles themselves were conspicuous just off shore splashing in amongst the breakers, awaiting the cover of darkness before coming onto the beach. The tropical heat and humidity rendered physical activity tiring though the afternoon so I waited until early evening to head to the main beach to take some time bobbing around in the breakers with the locals, largely school children putting in some impressive rides on surfboards.
After this, it was a case of waiting a couple hours after the incredible sunset for a unique wildlife spectacle on the beach right below the cabañas; the aforementioned haul onto the sands of the turtles, to lay their eggs. Thanks to the efforts of the eco-centre team, with support from the locals, the turtles in Maruata are celebrated and well protected from illegal egg collectors. I saw no-fewer than three of these incredible and peaceful marine reptiles during a short wander on the beach under the moonlight.
Next day (Wednesday) it was onwards and northwards. Given the ever-elusive bus timetable, I aimed to pitch up on the main road around lunchtime and be ready for what could be a wait of up to a couple of hours in the midday heat. Again, travellers luck was on my side as shortly after dumping the sack on the dust, a bus pulled around the bend! I was soon back in the world of air-con, heading for Tecomán and the state of Colima. My destination for my final two nights in Mexico was the small hispanic city of Colima, nestled at around 800 m in a wooded basin. The city is overshadowed to the north by the twin stratovolcano complex of Nevado de Colima and Volcán de Colima the former topping out above 4000 m and the latter being the most active vent. After roughing it and making do in Maruata with little in the way of vegetarian food to be found, I was a little under the weather and settled in for the night at the hotel room to recuperate for a final day of exploration.
Colima is archetypal Nueva España; hispanic, neoclassical architecture, with roman style churches, courtyards and lush garden squares. Under the Spanish conquest of Mexico, forces were sent west to establish strongholds during the 1520’s and Colima was settled as a direct result of this (Ref 1: History.com). After a wander around the historic centre on Thursday morning, I took a classic heavy-duty Latin American bus out to the nearby town of Comala for an even closer view of the volcano across relatively lush agricultural fields and woodland. In the evening, I stocked up on some good veggie food on offer in the hotel bistro and prepared for an early start next morning.
My time on the ground in Mexico concluded with an early morning primera coach from Colima to Guadalajara airport within the inland state of Jalisco. Guadalajara, at 1500 m altitude on an arid plateau, surrounded by dusty mountains was an appropriate end-point for the journey. The landscape had a similar appearance to that of Mexico City and gave a somewhat satisfactory sensation of having come full circuit. Stepping off the coach outside the airport, the early morning mountain air even felt a little on the cool side!
In the space of a little under a fortnight, Mexico had provided a unique and unforgettable travel experience. A taste of life in a global megacity, outstanding monuments to the pre-Aztec civilisation that have stood the test of time for nearly 2 millennia and the diverse wildlife of the tropical Pacific Coast. The bus system had introduced me to a very new transport experience. Who needs a timetable after all!? But for all these great experiences, one thing was clear; as much as anywhere, the impacts and pressures of modern human life are coming down hard on Mexico’s environment. Probably the most visible of a wide range of issues is modern consumption and the waste it generates. The widespread practice of bottled water being the source of reliable drinking water coupled with a fairly inconsistent approach to recycling and waste collection is creating a serious problem with plastic bottles littering river banks and beaches. As a rather emotive reaction to this problem, my hold bag for the flight over the Baja California contained no-fewer than 6 flat-packed plastic bottles, holding out hope for a recycled future via a U.S. recycling plant.