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(>Pictures at the bottom!)

…towards the final destination in Tombstone (USA)!

On the way to “Tuxtepec” and the endless pineapple plantations, we reached the North American continent. The south-eastern provinces of this huge country geographically still belong to Central America (….and the experiences can be found in the part “Central America 3”). But for us it hardly made a difference – Mexico is and remains Mexico. We also wanted to avoid the hot and humid heat for once and climbed the first hairpin bends up the mountain to “Paso El Punto” and into the pleasant freshness of the mountains. Even in the lower-lying “Oaxaca de Juárez” it remained very fresh in the evening and finally we were able to experience a pleasant night again, where we didn’t toss and turn on the bed half the night, drenched in sweat.

To meet our group again in “Cholula/Puebla”, we chose the direct route. Thanks to the new “Autopista”, there was little traffic on the former main route, which followed long stretches over the respective hill ranges. In “Huajuapan” we turned off and followed a tip from travellers to definitely visit the private cactus park “Jardín Botánico de Zapotitlán Salins”.

A few minutes before six o’clock we reached the entrance gate to the park, which was already closed. Somewhat perplexed, we looked for an alternative place to spend the night. The sun was already low and I (Tom) didn’t want to drive far at this hour. Somehow I wanted to have a closer look at the entrance gate and, the chain was only around the pipes and neither a lock nor anything else prevented us from opening the entrance gate. So we moved into the park and a certain uncertainty spread: Are we doing something forbidden here? The office and the cash desk were also deserted and no one could be found. Again long faces and perplexity. The gate for the onward journey to the campsite was closed, but not locked. So we followed the path through the cactus forest to the campsite, where we found a suitably nice place for the coming night. For the suddenly present groundsman, our actions were not quite in order and with stern words he admonished us that we had trespassed here. Our choice of site was also a thorn in his side. But the longer we talked to him, the more moderate his voice became and finally we were allowed to stay at our first chosen place. As a gesture of reconciliation, Chantal handed him the cigar from Nicaragua and we had already made a friend. With shining eyes he told us what he would do now: make coffee and dissolve this cigar in smoke and steam on the veranda of his hut and enjoy the evening.

The next day, we cleared our debts at the cash desk and formally apologised for simply intruding in the evening. The nice lady at the cash desk laughed and told us that the gate was intentionally not locked, so that even late arriving guests could enter at any time and find a place under the cacti. Laughing, we left the office and were relieved that we had done nothing wrong. Maybe the groundsman just wanted to demonstrate his little power to us, although we did nothing wrong.

To get a whiff of the Spanish immigrants, we bypassed “Puebla” to the south and only reached the campsite in “Cholula” later in the afternoon. Although our journey was a lot shorter than that of the rest of the group, we were once again the last to arrive and had to take what was left.

“Cholula” and “Puebla” were once independent places and each had its own history among the different cultures. Cholula’s history goes back much further than Puebla’s, as the latter was founded by the Spanish. Today, both cities have virtually grown together and both centres would be connected by a tram. This line was officially discontinued because of the Covid19 pandemic. Behind closed doors, however, one hears that the strong taxi unions gave the rail connection a premature “out” and thus millions of Mexican pesos were put into the sand. So one struggles – whether by bus, car or taxi – through the traffic chaos from one centre to the next.

We explored “Cholula” together with our tour guide Maria, who led us very well through the town and gave us sometimes subtle explanations about the different parts of the town. The pyramid of “Tepanapa” – the largest pyramid ever built by man – was a thorn in the side of the Spaniards and so they built a church on top of the pyramid to show that the Catholic Church was above everything. The ruler at that time also wanted to build a new church for every day to wash his atrocities clean. You will hardly find more churches than in “Cholula” in any other place in “Nueva España”.

After “Puebla” we continued by bus and local tour guide. Unfortunately, our tour guide did not know that on the following day the Mexican president was supposed to come to Puebla for some holiday and that half the city had already been closed for this purpose. So the timetable got so confused right at the beginning that later we marched through the city at goose step. Beforehand, we looked down on the centre from above and were able to watch the military marching exercises. After all, everything should be well organised when the president comes to visit.

The centre of Puebla made a very clean and well-kept impression on me. I could have strolled through the alleys for hours, but the schedule gave us hardly any time and we sped from one sight to the next. The pace was so fast that we – Chantal and I – lost touch with the group and had to wait for more than an hour under the sun at the bus. No, we weren’t exactly thrilled at that moment and said goodbye to the local tour guide accordingly. 

Actually, we had already arrived at the epicentre of Mexican history. To get to “Teotihuacán”, we crossed the 3’680m high “Paso de Cortés”, just as the conqueror of “Tenochtitlán” – today’s “Mexico City” – once did. The “Popocatépetl” (active volcano) to the south of us steamed and rumbled as we passed through. The many eruptions tempted countless people to wait at the visitor centre for the next steam cloud. We skipped our plan to spend the night on the pass – due to the altitude – and soon drove northwards into lower areas.

“Teotihuacán” is located in a side valley of the Mexico Valley and has a great past. But before we shagged around these pyramids, we went to “Mexico City”. Even the journey to the city was full of impressions and this urban area is bursting at the seams. The pulsating economy attracts many workers from the countryside to this wide highland depression, where there used to be several large lakes. The houses around the metropolis gave us, or me, the impression of slum-like dwellings, which our local guide immediately denied. He said that the houses were not all finished, but they had electricity and water and were all connected to the sewage system.

In the centre itself, I was again surprised by the cleanliness. It was also almost inconceivable to me that there had once been a lake here. When the first people settled at this lake, “Teotihuacán”, which was 40 km to the northeast, was the centre of a huge empire that reached as far as “Guatemala”. It was not until the Aztecs created many no islands in the lake that they developed their Tenochtitlán into a well thought-out large city until the arrival of the Spaniards.

The Spaniards razed everything in a very short time, so that only a few remains of the former “Tenochtitlán” survived to the present day, and built their new city of Mexico there, the capital of “Nueva España”. The Spaniards not only wiped out the old site, but decimated the Aztec people to a fraction of the former population through introduced diseases, and did so in a very short time. The water channels of the Aztecs were drained and pompous buildings were built according to the European model. These buildings were, or are, so heavy that today the whole centre is sinking and many buildings, mainly churches, from the past are increasingly leaning. Elaborate measures were taken to stabilise important buildings so that no further leaning towers should occur.

In the southeast, the Spaniards did not drain everything and so a small piece of the old canal system was preserved for posterity, where today tourists are driven through on countless boats. It was also time for our lunch and so we boarded our lunch boat – divided between two boats. The whole trip through these old canals was a mix of Venice and Mexican traffic chaos. But somehow it worked and apart from the many flying traders who wanted to sell everything possible to the tourists by boat, flying musicians provided appropriate entertainment on the boats.

Actually, this boat trip alone was an experience in itself. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so generous with the food, as my digestion (and that of the others) was pretty much out of joint over the next few days. Well, actually, one could spend a lot more time in “Mexico City” dealing with the present as well as the past. You could probably spend several weeks or months there and still not have seen and experienced everything.

The next day in Teotihuacán, we had a guided tour of the archaeological site of the same name, which was once the most important city of the former empire. Via the “Camino de los Muertos” we went towards the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun, which is the third highest, is located on the right-hand side just before the Pyramid of the Moon and is a huge block of stone. It is impressive what people were able to create in earlier times with the simplest of means.

After so many stones in an urban area, we – Chantal and I – had enough of further visits to pyramids and museums. We wanted to get back out into rural Mexico. So we said goodbye to the group once again and made our way along countless side roads to the northwestern city of “Guanajuato”. It was my (Tom’s) wish to join this city tour again; I love cities with their pulsating life and thanks to the silver deposits in the mountains around “Guanajuato”, an impressive city was built in the valley basin. Anyway, the visit was more than just impressive and in the “Callejón de Beso” there was a tutorial on how to kiss better and if necessary you could put it into practice right away, provided the other person was there. 

Once again detached from the group, we headed for the “Lago de Chapala”. We didn’t want to stand with the group in some car park, only to have a short walk to the next restaurant. On the western shore of the lake we found a quiet campsite, where there was also a toilet as well as a shower and we could relieve our poop box. Until the tequila tasting, we had enough time to relax in the “Bosque de la Primavera”. Although there were many people from the nearby city of “Guadelajara” at their pick-nick on Sundays at the “Río Caliente”, we were alone at the river in the evening and enjoyed a quiet night. Wow, those were some soothing moments. 

Not in “Tequila” but a few kilometres before, we visited – in the group – a small distillery where the owner makes her distillate according to grandfather’s recipes and ways of making. And what was not neglected this time; an extensive tasting under the expert instruction of the guide. Some of us had probably drunk a little too much and the co-pilot had to take over the wheel; the drive to “Playa de Chacala” was exhausting and full of bends.

“Playa de Chacala” was really a typical Mexican beach; actually too beautiful for mass tourism, but people were driven to the beach in countless buses and in the evening, when all the spitting was over, there was rubbish lying around everywhere and the toilets were waiting in vain to be cleaned. We drove a short distance further along the sea to the next campsite, where there should be a bit more peace and quiet and I (Tom) could install the recently purchased new on-board batteries.

Part of our group and we signed up a long time ago for the Copper Canyon, i.e. for the train ride through this canyon. So we had to make up a lot of time to get to the first tour group of this year’s “Panamericana”. The race to catch up to “El Fuerte” also meant for both of us to choose the fastest route possible and to do without the detours into the hinterland. But hand on heart; the flat region along the coast would probably not have brought very many new impressions and experiences on the back roads.

The train ride with the Copper Canyon Railway (Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico), called “El Chepe” for short, was almost a must for me (Tom). Therefore, we booked this adventure with the last railway in Mexico that still offers passenger transport. In the newly formed large group (Group 1 and part of Group 2) we went by bus to the station of “El Fuerte”, which stood lonely outside in the vast pampas. Railway staff instructed us on the correct behaviour on and in the train, collected our luggage, checked our tickets and passports, and the horn of the approaching train sounded. The whole train ride has a lot to do with North American customs and, as a frequent train rider, I often couldn’t help smiling.

The ride up through the Copper Canyon was really a great experience and as first class passengers we were allowed to linger on the balcony at the back of the bar car. The construction of this railway line took over 60 years and was considered a masterpiece of engineering. The train wound its way through narrow valleys and loops, countless tunnels and bridges up to the plateau of “Chihuahua”. The constantly rattling diesel generators of every single passenger car as well as the three diesel locomotives steamed powerfully up the mountain and the tunnel passages were probably not the best for health reasons.

After the train ride up to the high plateau, the day’s stay at the top at 2,300 metres was rather sub-par. The hotel was in a prime location, but the staff were overwhelmed with the crowds to be served. The excursion in the “Creel” area was more like a trip from souvenir stand to souvenir stand. Only the evening walk with the local villager in the vicinity of the hotel had something authentic and was a great thing.

Unfortunately, we only had a tourist class seat on the ride down, which is not to be underestimated in terms of comfort, but there was nothing with the observation car at the end of the train this time. Then, halfway down the track, the car’s generator went out, so the whole interior climate rose to canned in seconds (over 40 degrees!). The steward explained the technical problem to us and organised other seats in cooler cars, but his explanation of the technical problem was rather implausible; probably the diesel simply ran out.

Down in the plain of “El Fuerte” it was oppressively hot and the flying blaggeisters (insects) buzzed around our heads. No, we would not stay here another night in the courtyard of a run-down hotel. The sun, which was still high up, enabled us to continue our journey to “Alamos”, where our remaining group had already gathered. Driving directly through the hinterland, it was only about 100 km. El Fuerte” was already behind us and after the weir of “Miguel Hidalgo (Río El Fuerte)” there was dust behind our jeep as if a whirlwind was chasing us. We made good progress. Optimistically, we were already planning a possible evening programme and whether we could visit a restaurant in the village together with the other group members. But in the end, a screw in the tyre slowed us down; wheel change. With a Formula 1 team, we would definitely have lost! In the meantime, the sun disappeared behind the hills and with a little more caution and high beams, we headed towards “Alamos”. We had dinner together the following day.

Now we were heading towards our final destination of the “Panamericana journey” in no time at all. It was only a few kilometres of monotonous flat landscape to “Guaymas” and we didn’t have enough time for a diversion through the hinterland or the mountains. In Guaymas, we moved into the RV park at the “Playa de Cortés” hotel, where we said goodbye to our guide Maria that same evening and were served Pan Am dinner. I would only like to say this much about the dinner: it was not top cuisine, the tortillas are often better and juicier at the street vendors.

Now we turned onto the home stretch and towards the main connection road “Santa Ana”. But as soon as we were in the fast lane, we turned left. The night before, Maria gave us a tip that there was a bio-reserve on the Golfo de California. We wanted to visit it, but probably took a wrong turn somewhere and were forced to turn back in a lonely valley. But instead of the motorway, we then enjoyed the country road to “Hermosillo”, a traffic chaos in this town and then motorway with donkey carts on the shoulder to Santa Ana.

At this campsite, our main guide Frank lit the barbecue for the last time, and a cosy evening by the fire virtually heralded the end of our joint journey from Buones Aires to Tombstone. In addition to the postponed farewell to the tour guide couple Natalia and Frank, there were already the first discussions about the onward journeys of the individual couples and their plans.

The last day had begun and today’s destination was clearly defined: Tombstone in the USA and a whisky in “Kate’s Saloon”. It was also quite clear that our tour guide had to enter the USA in the Pan Am car before anyone else, as without a tour guide’s licence for the USA they could have been refused entry. Chantal and I turned off shortly before “Nogales” and wanted to enter the USA via “Naco”, as this border post is somewhat remote and the procedures for customs formalities would have been somewhat easier. But we did not expect an incident on the pass road to “Cananea”, where an accident paralysed all road traffic. Gritting our teeth, we turned around and drove to “Nogales” as well.

Unknowingly, we drove to the border post in the middle of this double city. Without the necessary papers from Mexican customs, we would not have received our deposit for the car back and a later re-entry would have presented us with new problems. We turned right again and drove 25 km south out of “Nogales” to the Mexican border post. We almost drove through the almost inconspicuous border post twice and the crazy thing about the whole customs station is that you have to drive over the busy highway several times until you finally have all the necessary entries and stamps.

On the way back to the US border, we chose the route of the trucks rather than the one to the border post in the town itself. With a certain amount of tension, we approached the border and the first official, who poured the first questions over us with a stern face. The car scan was followed by the entry of persons, while our car was inspected outside. Already the official slammed the stamp into the passport and entered the departure date of 24 November 2023 in the open space and wished us a good onward journey. Hooray, we are in the land of unlimited possibilities!

It was only a short hop to Tombstone – in terms of the total distance – and the American road conditions as well as the traffic itself are much more pleasant than further south. So we drove quickly towards our final destination, where – how could it be otherwise – we were the last couple to arrive and had to get ready immediately for the evening drink at “Kate’s Saloon”.
In the saloon was also Frank’s last act: He served us all one, or was it several whiskies and a last “u-how” sounded through the densely packed saloon.

Well, the goal of the “Panamericana” has been reached – 7 months on the road with a group and everyone had their personal goals and desires; sometimes it was easy, sometimes it took a bit of getting used to and strict. But it was nice all the same.

Long live the gypsy life!

Chantal & Tom/June 2023

PS: After 7 months travelling with a group; maybe not everyone’s thing. See the following report: “Group travel – yes or no!

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