by Chris MacAskill
November 10, 2000
I got up early anyway. Guadalajara is a gorgeous city and I wanted to see it in the early morning. And I still held distant hope for traveling deep into central and southern Mexico. I was almost there.
Tepic and Guadalajara sit in semi-alpine settings with mountains in every direction. No wonder the road last night was so full of hills and curves. But the mountains that created a nightmare at night with trucks on a narrow road provided one of the finest rides of my life to Guadalajara that morning. Beautiful sweeping curves, mountain passes, breathtaking views, no traffic. Anyone who says Mexican roads are bad hasn't driven this one. Or the ones I'd ride over the next 5 days.
On a long hill approaching the city, a Cobra shot past me at 120. I had been cruising at 90, but I decided to follow this guy and see how it felt. Rather than bursting to 120 like it usually does, my bike sluggishly topped out at 116 and the Cobra got away. Eh? Was it the altitude? The slight headwind? The hill? The next morning I discovered my air intake was almost completely clogged by butterflies and when it was clean I was a man again.
After last night's debacle, I decided to relax and spend a lazy half-day in Guadalajara, city of 3 million. Good choice. It has beautiful boulevards and plazas, old churches... A huge fountain in the middle of a drive-around served as the informal gathering place of proud antique car owners who polished chrome as people like me paraded by and drooled. The scene was so wonderful I took pictures which I subsequently lost (more on that later), but maybe you could imagine fine cars around this one:
I could find no planos in Gaudalajara. Until I spied a Hilton and surmised that surely they must have a shop for Americans. They did, and a very fine buffet too. It was on to Mexico City with a full tank of gas, a map, and a fine toll road. Life was good. The speedo was back to 90.
It was dusk and the city lights were on when I rode over the mountain pass and got my first look at the world's largest city, sitting in a huge dry lakebed at 7400'. What an awesome sight. I had also heard it was dirty, dangerous, polluted, and that I would be a fool for riding through it at, ahem, night. I had no idea where to go nor anyplace in mind. I just followed signs to el centro and the historical district and tried not to get run over by the most aggressive bus drivers on earth.
I don't know why the buses don't seem to turn their lights on at night but it certainly makes you look twice in your mirrors. The cabs don't always either, but they're Volkswagon Beatles which aren't as quick and aggressive as The Yellow Death in New York.
Some rules you should know: (1) Alto (stop) signs mean you should probably slow down and look before entering an intersection, unless there is also a stoplight. Then you just ignore the Alto signs because they don't make sense in connection with a stoplight anyway. (2) If you see a motorcycle, it's okay to move your bus into its lane because motorcycles are usually narrow enough to fit between you and a car. (3) Turn signals? What for? (4) If you want to turn across several lanes of traffic which would get you killed in any American city, no worries. Just put your hand out the window to signal that you're doing something outrageous and most cars will find a way to miss you. (5) You probably shouldn't go the wrong way on one-way streets unless there aren't many cars on it, or unless you're in a hurry. Or maybe you just feel like it.
Everything else you've heard about Mexico City is wrong. It's a beautiful, modern city without the bags of trash or homeless people you see on the streets of London or New York. Don't ask me where we all heard otherwise, but two delightful days in it made me wonder. And The World's Largest City is a fraction of the size of Los Angeles. You can drive from one end to the other, on a beautiful boulevard with magnificent trees and fountains in the center, in 70 minutes. Try to do that in L.A., even if you use the freeway.
Definitely go to Zona Rosa. It's full of wonderful stores, internet cafés, restaurants, and street artists. It reminds me of University Avenue in Palo Alto. At one fruit café, a man who deftly handled his carving knife--and with great flourish--sliced bananas, mangos, papayas, oranges and various other fruits hanging from the ceiling, placed them in a tall cup, poured granola and honey over the top, and sold them to eager policemen and me for $1.50. Ooooooh, the fruit there is good.
I foolishly wandered into a scruffy neighborhood the first night there. It wasn't so bad as some I've walked in San Francisco, and it had the charm of street vendors peddling their wares. But I walked into a gathering of women whose profession even I could recognize. Among the grotesque makeup, fake blonde wigs, and skirts that didn't even cover their crotches, were two sweet-looking teenagers who seemed to want my business but were too shy to ask. I'm still haunted by the imagery of those sweet young faces when compared to the ones who'd been on that street a few years.
I stayed in bargain (some would say fleabag) hotels along the way, but not this night. Four stars with a weight room and a cardiac buffet. And I deserved it too: 2500 miles into the heart of Mexico.