Fresh-faced and bushy-tailed after parading with the Amazonian women of Pátzcuaro, we made our way South into another unknown Mexican state, Colima. Much like Michoacán, Colima is a state many locals will tell you not to visit.
The threat of violence has become too much for many, even many locals feel that they need to travel with security. As we drove the seven hours down to the capital city of Colima, we passed countless army barricades while simultaneously passing heavily armed cartel soldiers parading down the streets in armored vehicles. To a lot of locals, these barricades feel more like a show of power from the government than a legitimate force of security. The army has certainly been accused of their own atrocities, and in some cases escalate the situation by kidnapping their own civilians for their own malicious deeds. In Mexico, one often has to wonder who really is in control, and who lined the pockets of those who make the rules. A Mexican politician must always remember who helped them get into power in the first place.
The roads felt like a warzone and the countryside of Michoacán outside of the occasional Pueblo Mágico felt equally unwelcoming. Dusty towns with dusty goats and even dustier faces, potholed roads, and hills lined with scraggy volcanoes. Every red light we stopped at in a passing village felt like it could have been our last.
Yet the Gods of Travel were on our side this day, and after seven hours we made it to Colima unharmed other than the intense sunburn on my left arm from sitting next to the window all day.
From the relative feeling of chaos and war outside of Colima, the actual center of town felt quite serene. Pastel sugar-coated houses and a town square reminiscent of the Caribbean with brightly painted buildings and a cool breeze. We only saw one other Gringo couple staying here, a mark of how rarely visited this corner of the Mundo Mexico is. And perhaps for a good reason, Colima is a cute city but not necessarily worth all of your time. With a nearby volcano for trekking, one could stay a day or so before heading to the coast.
After walking around the center and stopping for some dinner, Fine and I reminisced in the garden of our hotel. Little bats darted and dove around catching mosquitoes as an opossum weaved through the barbed wire fence to wander in the dusk air. I asked Fine if, after having lived in this country for two years, Mexico had changed her in any way. When she first arrived in 2018 to live in Querétaro, she felt an overwhelming sense of freedom. After a cold winter of Denmark, coming to the warmth and vibrance of Mexico can cure any blues. The freedom of doing what you please, salsa dancing nights in the streets, and the vibrance of daily life enticed and enlivened her. On her second time back, living mainly in Oaxaca, she experienced a different taste of Mexico. In Oaxaca, a state much more indigenous in identity than Querétaro, Fine experienced a much more challenging atmosphere to connect with locals. For the non-indigenous gringoes living in Oaxaca, there is almost no chance that the locals will ever consider you a part of the community. For many of the months in the mountains of Oaxaca, it felt almost like a jail sentence. Not being able to connect, in the depth of the pandemic, feeling like she would never fit into this distant land.
The next morning we awoke to a mild sticky humidity from the sea, with a brilliant fresh chill from the morning air as the birds chittered away in the hotel garden. Today, we would drive to La Manzanilla on the Jalisco coast, not to be confused with Manzanillo just down the road in Colima. To get there, we drove straight south to the coastal town of Cuyutlán before heading up the coast through the port city of Manzanillo, likely the center of drug trafficking in the state of Colima. As we drove past the burgeoning port, I wondered just how many of these storage containers were filled with contraband or worse.
La Manzanilla, a cute little beach town sitting along a long stretch of beach in Jalisco, turned out to host a surprising community of quiet aging Canadian expats. They come down for the Winter months in their motorhomes, showing off their long white hair, feet black from decades of barefoot walking, constantly shit-talking about North American politics. A town of old washed-up hippies spending some pension money growing redder in the intense heat of the Jalisco sun. An attractive flute-playing hippy girl with her local not-so-attractive guitar-playing boyfriend busking on the dusty streets. Expats bringing in stray dogs to get clipped at the local veterinarian, which had open windows to demonstrate the procedure on splayed, passed-out pups. A Canadian woman with her little misbehaving son running into the local market. A Mexican shopkeeper confiding in me “my son, he’s only ten months old and he just started walking. Finally, he can start working!”
La Manzanilla was indeed a cute town with a strong expat community that seemed more respectful to the locals than most. We had rented a small Airbnb up the coast a bit, on a quiet stretch of the beach. While this may be the Pacific, the beach was protected and calm offering plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water without getting sucked in from the infamous Pacific undercurrent. Here, we spent several days cracking coconuts, enjoying the ocean breeze and the terns squeaking as they flew through the air.
Like many of the other snowbirds, my mother was traveling through Mexico on a mission to find a second home, a second life South of the border. So we were technically on a reconnaissance mission, finding the best communities and towns to settle down. This meant we had to say goodbye to our little paradise in La Manzanilla and test out another beach up north, in San Pancho.
Dusty horses and more armed drug cartel cars lined our five-hour route North through Jalisco, through the beachside resort of Puerto Vallarta. We did not stop but merely peered into the other world of white-washed resorts and tanned gringoes who never get off the reservation to experience the real Mexico.
Along the way, we stopped at a holy spot for the local Huichol people. A sacred river running through tall palm fronds, exposing a holy site of pilgrimage. To get there, we ventured off the main road, turning down dirt road with a lone figure standing in between two tall trees casting a shadow down upon him. He asked for 20 Pesos to enter, telling us he once lived for eight years in Redwood City before being deported on a DUI.
The day was one of the few overcast days we experienced in our month and a half around Mexico. We parked in a dry riverbed lined with passionfruit plantations before a tall barbed wire fence with a small hole large enough only for the bodies of pilgrims to pass through. The minute we entered the energy was sucked out of our bodies, as we seemingly became one with the passing stream and tall verdant palm fronds.
As we walked up a stream, rocks were dotted with petroglyphs carved centuries ago. Images of peyotes, galaxies, and the corn man (the Huichol creation story) dotted the megalithic boulders as we advanced through the serene valley. Mourning doves cooed lightly as the rolling stream gurgled passed us over rocks carved smooth by millennia of passing water. This valley has been inhabited for centuries by the Tecoxquin and later the Huichol, who found it represented a holy gift of water from the Gods. At its crux, a small waterfall with offerings scattered around for those who come to pay homage to the spirits that live here. The story goes that the ancestors come, appearing as completely white beings, from the hills to worship among these rolling streams. In the pure silence of this location, I can imagine a white spirit emerging from behind a frond at any point.
San Pancho is a town entirely taken over by men who look like me. Long-haired, scruffy-faced, artsy tattoos, and with dirty toes riding dusty skateboards from the hostel to the bar to the beach. The town consists entirely of upscale boho establishments with vegan poke bowls and avocado smoothies. Dreadlocks, mandala tattoos, toe rings, and the thick all-pervasive smell of patchouli with a hint of body odor. We would not be staying with the hippies, however, as we opted to stay in the jungle in a bungalow just East of town.
Our bungalow, deep in the jungle, was a half thought our hippy paradise. The beach, much rougher than the one we enjoyed in La Manzanilla, was a 20-minute hike through the palm fronds and mosquitoes to reach. Rocky sand and unswimmable waters are populated only by a large Mexican family collecting driftwood to make crafts with.
I ended up loving the jungle. Sleeping under a mosquito net to the chirping of geckos and an annoying cat that my mother kept feeding, which kept trying to climb through the ceiling at night to raid our pantry. For my mother and her boyfriend, their trip was soon coming to an end as they went back to Guadalajara to return to Florida. I’d be there with them soon, to help my mother sell her house, but first Fine and I would adventure alone through the dry hills of Nayarit in search of a new unknown piece of the Mundo Mexico.