Finally, Beach time

So we woke up early to leave Acapulco, in fact we set the first alarm since starting our trip. After our evening arrival in Zihuatanejo we wanted to ensure even if the drive was really long we would be somewhere we could stay before the sun set. At seven am we set out and we had a lot of ground to cover. At first the coastal highway heading out of Acapulco was similar to what we had been driving on to get into the city, lot’s of topes through small towns.

Along this route we were stopped at our first military police checkpoint. In Mexico every time you cross from one state to the next there is a police checkpoint. So far we hadn’t been stopped at any of the ones we each one we passed the guys were standing around talking, not paying any attention to the passing traffic. But there is a first time for everything and a driving tour of Mexico would not be complete with out at least one police stop story. The police flagged us down and we pulled over and opened the door. The guy stepped on the bus and asked for our passports. I grabbed all our documentation and handed over Trevor’s passport first. He began flipping through the pages looking at the collection of stamps from around the world. I then handed him Trevor’s Tourist Card and receipt and Aurora and my passports. He wasn’t really all that interest in any of that. He wanted to know where we were headed and we told him Puerto Escondido. He commented on how far it was and He and Trevor had a brief conversation about how there is no where else really to go between Acapulco and there. While that was going on another guy came on the bus and had a short conversation with me – he spoke English and commented on how well I spoke Spanish. I think he just wanted to check out the bus. And that was that. We were told we could continue on. No problems, no excitement.

Shortly after that we decided to stop and fill the tank with gas. We needed to get more cash and were hoping there would be an ATM at the convenient store at the gas station. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case but we confirmed that they did accept credit/debit cards and decided to just use that. Not the best choice. When we tried to pay the card kept coming up as an invalid transaction. The girl working the pump informed us that the nearest ATM was in town and the streets were too narrow for the bus. So Trevor set off to town while Aurora and I waited with the bus in the parking lot. Luckily Trevor was able to relatively quickly find a taxi to drive him there and back again. Still it took an hour to sort out the money issue and pay for our gas. No quite the quick pit stop we were thinking.

After that it was a long windy road to the beach. We officially entered into the state of Oxaca, which is known for it’s quality traditional handicrafts, impenetrable mountains and beautiful coastline. While we were still traveling along the coastal highway our route took us high into the mountains, on narrow twisty roads. Driving up to this region you understand how the culture here has been able to remain relatively unchanged over time. You have to be very determined to truly access some of these areas. It took us a number of hours to travel what in the end is a fairly short distance and climb back down to the coast again.  

View from the highway in the Oxacan coast
 We arrived in Puerto Escondido in the late afternoon before dark. We headed towards a campground located on Bahia Principal, which is the fisherman’s beach. The gate was locked when we pulled up, so I hopped out of the bus to check things out. As I was poking around an older French Canadian gentleman who was standing by a tourist shop outside the gate asked if I was looking to stay there. When I said yes he told me he would go around and see I was lucky and the guy was there to let us in. After a few moments another older gentleman came up to the gate from the inside. Speaking in Spanish, French then English it took us a few tries to settle on a language that worked well for us but we eventually worked out that if we thought we could fit we were welcome to park there. Trevor took a look at the obstacles and decided the bus could squeeze in. So with Richard, the French Canadian gentleman who let us in, directing and me watching Trevor negotiated the bus into through the gate and into a spot. This was not without a small bump in the road so to speak. As the bus crossed over the threshold from the street the bus rocked to the side and broke the hinge on the gate. Ooops. Remember though, this is Mexico and not uncommon. It would be a quick and easy fix with a welder in the morning.  

right behind the fishwives
  It also rapidly became clear that Richard, who let us in, was not an owner or caretaker as we had first assumed but another camper who had been staying there with his wife Mona for only a week. We spent some time chatting with them, they were full of advice on where to go and what to see. They asked the question we had been hearing a lot from the other RVers we had been meeting- “Do you have the book” which refers to the Church’s book on camping in Mexico and seemed shocked like everyone else when we said no. We seem to be doing just fine without it. 

 

   

  
   
The location was phenomenal. We were parked right next to the beach behind the fishwives. Every morning the fisherman came back with their catch and sold it to these women who then cleaned them and resold them. Fish doesn’t really get any better than that. If we walked out of the campground away from the beach the street was lined with souvenir shops and food stands. At night the streets were bustling with Mexican and foreign tourists shopping, eating and just walking around. We bought a hammock, and later bought another one. 

   
The day after we arrived the French Canadian couple who had let us in headed out and we had the place to ourselves. We spent the weekend hanging out, eating good food and walking the beach. One day we bought some fresh tuna and shrimp from the fishwives and made up some amazing fish tacos. We hung up our hammock and watched the fisherman. It was nice and relaxing after the rough road to get there. But we woke up Monday morning and it looked like the streets had quieted down enough to try and get the bus out so it was time to move on. 

    

  

         
   
We packed up and the manager helped direct us out of the campground. This time we made it out without any incidents. We were back on the road but our destination wasn’t far. We headed towards Mazunte and Zipolite beach area about an hour further south. We had wanted to explore around here when we were in Mexico five years ago but simply hadn’t had the time. After a relatively short drive we found ourselves in Mazunte, where we stopped to use the ATM. While there were definitely backpackers and surfers in Puerto Escondido, it was simply too big for us to really meet any, and we were parked closer to where the Mexicans were vacationing rather than the backpacking crowd we were looking for. While we were parked in Mazunte, both Trevor and I encountered people who wanted to talk to us about the bus. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found anywhere we could park the bus there so we headed onwards toward Zipolite beach about a half an hour drive further.

In Zipolite, the first place we thought we were going to park looked deserted so we headed off to another Hotel RV park that had been recommended but was a bit more expensive, Rancho Los Mangos. Los Mangos has beautifully manicured grounds bursting with almost ripe mangos. It also has an amazing pool. What’s even better is once you step out beyond the walls you are in town and about a two minute walk to the beach. We talked the owner down from the 350 pesos to $300 pesos saving us about $3 US an night. Once we parked the bus and got out we realized we were parked next to the same French Canadian couple, Richard and Mona from Puerto Escondido. It is a small world. And when we saw them again their first question was, “How did you ever get out of that spot!” to which Trevor responded, “Very carefully.”

 

At Rancho Los Mangos Zipolite
 
Zipolite is an interesting little place. It is Mexico’s only official nude beach so it definitely attracts the free spirits. I’ve got to say there is nothing that quite prepares you for walking down the beach and seeing the seventy year old man, naked, bent over forward, doing “yoga” on the beach with everything hanging out for everyone to see. But not everyone on the beach is naked and not everyone is old. We’ve met a number of people who are interested in our place on Ometepe. We actually met a girl, Kat, who used to work at the Cornerhouse on Ometepe. She recommended the location she works at, Calibre, to spend our St. Patrick’s Day.

 

St. Patrick’s Day Princess
 We had only planned to spend two days here before we headed on to Guatemala to spend Semana Santa, Easter week, there. However, we like it so much here we decided to stick around for a little longer. Trevor’s gone native and bought a sarong and we’re just starting to get comfortable. And I’m finally getting my beach time. Any other time of the year this decision wouldn’t have required much thought but it goes against my instincts to travel during Semana Santa. In the end we’ll find out of this was a good decision or not. As it stands now, the plan is to head out on Monday and hope most of the people are wherever they intend to spend the week by they and aren’t on the roads. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we have a few more days of beach time to enjoy before we hit the road.

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Over the mountains and to the sea

Wednesday we left San Miguel de Allende. We took our time getting everything situated in the bus before we left. The night before we had located an RV park along the route to the beach. The plan was to see how we felt when we got there and decide if we wanted to push through or not. So we got on the road and headed out of the city. The wind was gusting and it was a bit chilly out. The landscape was similar to what we had been seeing since Texas, dry and scrubby with lot’s of cactus.

Trevor had loaded the location of the RV park into Google Maps before we left along with the route to the coast. We had bought new SIM cards for our devices several days earlier but hadn’t put any money on them yet. When we bought them they came with fifteen days of free calls and texts to Mexico, the US and Canada as well as free limited internet- which is pretty much Facebook. Otherwise we had been using the wifi at the place we were staying and hadn’t needed the internet.

Around 2:30 we got to where the GPS said the RV park was and decided it was just a bit too early to stop. I’m not really sure who decided that- Trevor says it was me, I thought it was him, I think we were both anxious to push on to the coast. So push on we did. On into what was the most epic and beautiful drive we have had so far.

We began to climb into the mountains. Higher and higher we climbed. We reached a toll and the toll collector warned us to drive slowly. We soon found out why. We had climbed high enough that the intermittent rain we had been experiencing turned to sleet. We inched along the mountain passes. Then the sleet ended and turned to fog. But it wasn’t really fog, we were just driving through the clouds. It was a little white knuckle for Trevor and I as he hugged the lines on the road and I sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” to Aurora to keep her from crying. However once we crested the top of mountains the cloud cleared and a stunning vista opened before us. For the second time on this trip we had crossed a Continental Divide. 

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Driving the Continental Divide
 
After crossing over the landscape completely changed. Immediately we could tell we had moved into a tropical zone. I began to recognize mango orchards and see banana trees. There were still some cacti but gone were the dry scrublands. Now we were entering the lush tropics. The road continued to twist and turn and around each corner another stunning view was offered. The highway hugged the path of a river so as we slowly climbed out of the range you would turn a corner and see red mountain cliffs that descended into the blue water. It just got more and more beautiful. However there were no signs of civilization. We didn’t even see a gas station for probably 100 miles, which was making me a little nervous.

Finally, we climbed our way down out of the mountains and onto the costal highway, highway 200, which runs all the way down to Guatemala. Now we needed to find a place to stay. Which became an issue because we didn’t have internet on our phones to load any maps. We’ve been using an app iOverlander to help us find places to stay. It is user generated content of places you can park created by travelers who like us are driving Central America, really anywhere in the world. This let me pull up a list of places to stay and how far away they were but won’t create a map unless you are online. So with this app on my phone and the map Google maps had rendered earlier we tried to find a place to stay.

It eventually got dark before we arrived in Zhiuatanejo, the beach town we had decided to stay in. So we found ourselves trying to navigate through the narrow streets at night based on whether or not my phone said we were getting closer or farther away. Let me tell you that is a less than ideal way to do things. We stopped for directions several times, went up a narrow cliff side road following a sign that soon became clear wasn’t correct because in typical Central American fashion the arrow was pointing the wrong direction, turned around and found the right way but then had to back up and go the wrong way down the road because we wouldn’t fit under an arch. Yet in the end we finally arrived at one of the locations, El Mangler, listed as a place we could camp with our bus. Only to find the gate locked because it was so late. Just as we had decided we were going to park where we were outside the gate one of the guests camping there, an older French Canadian gentleman, unlocked the gate and let us in. It had taken us over an hour to drive one mile. We resolved to promptly fix our connectivity issue (which we did) and never to do that again (which we hope). 

El Manglar
  
Leaving Zhiautenejo
 
We woke up the next morning to the sound of surf, we had made it to the Pacific. By the light of day the long push seemed worth it. We had finally reached the coast but we still had a long way to go to get to the coast of Oaxaca, where we really want to spend our time. After a quick look at the ocean and short chat with the other guests we got back on the road. Our next goal was Acapulco, which relatively speaking wasn’t that far. 

   
The coastal highway in Mexico in many ways reminds me of the Pacific Coast Highway in the states, which makes sense when you think about it. The borders are political not geographical and both roads run along the coast of the same ocean. There are lot’s of twists and turns and ups and downs and the road follows the jagged coastline in and out of bays and inlets. Here is one of the biggest differences between the two- “topes” as speed bumps are called here. Every time you enter a little town you get into a zone with topes to control the traffic. These effectively double the amount of time your trip should take. Now these topes are poorly marked and in some cases quite high. So enterprising men go out to paint the topes and ask for a peso or two from the folk who slow down to drive over it. For all my libertarian friends, I see this as a prime example of the free market stepping into something that the government should handle but is neglecting. It is very typical of how Central America works. 

 Despite all the topes we arrived at Acapulco mid-afternoon and had no trouble locating the Acapulco RV Park Campground we were looking for. The location could not have been better. It is right on the ocean in area called Pies de la Cuesta, which is essentially a little sand spit just outside of the main area of town. The campsites were lined with coconut trees, you could hear the roar of the surf, it was right up our alley. We walked the beach, got a great fish dinner at one the beach restaurants next door and decided to get up early and try and push on to Puerto Escondido. 

   

While the beaches in Acapulco and Zhiuatanejo have been lovely the crowd is a little old for our tastes. I keep saying all these beach names make me think of watching the Love Boat on reruns when I was home sick from school in elementary school. And the crowd looks like it has been coming there since then. The Oxacan coast and Puerto Escondido area is supposed to have more of a hippy vibe and attract a younger crowd. It seems like it should be more of our scene and hopefully we will be able to do some promotion for the business in Nicaragua finally.

Now we’re really getting into Mexico- San Miguel de Allende

So we have been in Mexico about a week now and I have had some time to reflect on being here. Mexico isn’t truly part of Central America. From a geographical stand point, the Yucatan Peninsula is but in reality Mexico is it’s own region. It is a blend between the first world and the third world, second world if you will. You can still find Walmarts and Starbucks coffee here next to Spanish Colonial cathedrals. And as far as finding a place for us to stay goes, we have been told there are over 400 RV Parks in Mexico.

So far we’ve stayed in two RV parks. The first was after we left the Monterrey region. When we left there our goal was the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende in the Central Highland region. However the bus goes slow and distances in Mexico are far so we don’t always make it to our goal in one day. We stopped half way in Matehuala where we stayed at Las Palmas Midway Inn . This was a hotel along the highway with a gravel parking lot in back for RVs. It had all the facilities- water, electric hookups, bathrooms with hot showers, there even was a pool, playground and mini golf area. The location was less than ideal but it wasn’t bad for a night. It wasn’t so different from some of the RV parks we saw in the states- across the street from a Walmart just on the outskirts of town. Even with everyone speaking Spanish it felt more like Texas than what we think of Mexico. We took advantage of the hotel showers and the restaurant with waiters in tuxedos and headed out in the morning.

So in Mexico you have your choice of two types of roads- cuota and libre. The cuota are toll highways and the libre are free. We have been sticking to the cuota because we are driving the bus- it’s always better to be safe than sorry. I think if we were in a smaller vehicle without Aurora we probably would take the more adventurous route. As of now other than the altitude it has been smooth going. The roads are actually better than the roads in Louisiana. Trevor was bit concerned about the drive to San Miguel. To get to Matehula we had climbed some serious mountains- we had gotten up to 7,000 feet and the grades are pretty steep. But we didn’t have any problems and arrived earlier than we had been expecting.

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Mexican High way signs

San Miguel de Allende is an old Spanish Colonial city with narrow cobble stone streets that twist and turn. Historically the city was on the silver route between Mexico City and Zacatecas, where the silver was being mined. The architecture here is stunning and has attracted artists from all over the world, creating a vibrant cosmopolitan city. It is definitely a tourist town with local Mexicans as well as foreigners traveling to here.

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Simply amazing architecture
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Don’t want to drive a bus down those streets

While old cities are beautiful, they certainly weren’t designed to accommodate 40 foot buses. Three kilometers from town is Hotel San Ramon which has rooms for rent and a couple areas for RVs to park. They also have a swimming pool, filled with water from the local hot springs. When we arrived we were directed to their upper lot, which was essentially a large grassy lawn with water and electric hook ups. There were two other vehicles parked there when we arrived, a smallish camper from Alaska and a larger 5th wheel that belongs to a local ex-pat from Austin who owns a bar/restaurant in town. The views were stunning- fields on one side and out over the city and mountains on another.

Quiet with nice views

We arrived on Friday and the plan was to spend a couple days and celebrate Trevor’s birthday on Monday here and we were pleased to find such a quiet, relaxing spot. Shortly after we settled in our neighbor Shane from Texas came back and we quickly discovered we were kindred spirits, as is generally the case when we meet ex-pats from our generation. Saturday morning some of the folk from the lower lot came by to check out the bus. They were a nice retired Canadian couple, traveling in an Airstream trailer. They, like many older Canadians, winter in Mexico where it is warmer and cheaper than Canada.

After siesta time we headed into town to explore the city. And we weren’t disappointed with what we found. Everywhere you looked the was another stunning building or view. Restaurants and shops with artiseanal handicrafts abounded. It was difficult to even know where to look next. We wandered the center for a bit and stopped into a small restaurant for lunch. Yum Mexican food- even bad Mexican food is good, and I got some amazing tostadas. Eventually we made our way to the principal market where we were able to buy some lovely fresh fruit and veg for next to nothing. I had forgotten how much I love the markets down here. The food is all so fresh and so cheap! I saw the tortillas I bought coming out of a tortilla machine still warm when the woman wrapped them in paper and handed them to me.

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These are just the toppings for our tacos

Stocked up with supplies we headed back to our place thinking we would have a relaxing dinner with our fresh food. Before we had left Shane had said something about thirteen RVs arriving so we had tidied up our stuff a little but we really didn’t give it much credit. Little did we know. While we were gone an entire caravan of RVs had arrived and our quiet spot had been invaded by Quebecois retirees. Before we even got to the bus we were besieged by folk with cameras and questions. Trevor said he felt like an animal in zoo on display. I’d say the average age of our new neighbors was 65-70 and they we packed around us so close you could barely walk between the vehicles. So much for a quiet spot with nice views- now everywhere you looked all you saw were campers.

The Canadian invasion really highlighted for us that it is a different type of traveler here than we are used to. We cater to the young backpacking crowd on Ometepe and our previous travel through Central America followed that same route- “the gringo trail.” This was an entirely different generation of travelers, folk who have been driving into Mexico and along the Baja since before Mexico was considered dangerous. These are the people who keep the 400+ RV parks here in business. It was the same in the city. The ex pats here tend to be in there 60s. We have yet to see a hostel in town, though I’m sure there is a least one and there isn’t a crowd of college age backpackers wandering the streets.  Despite the great welcome we got from our neighbor from Austin, we still aren’t quite among our kind.

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After the Canadian Invasion

Aurora is loving Mexico and Mexico is loving Aurora. While we wander the city streets people stop and point and say “Que hermosa” and “muy preciosa” which “how beautiful” and “so precious.” We’ve learned Aurora is a very common name here, one old woman in the park told us it was both her sister’s and her aunt’s name and then sang us a song in Spanish about Aurora.  The waiters in the restaurants bring her treats and the waitress take her off into the kitchen. Luckily for us avocado and beans appear to be among her favorite foods. All the attention makes her smile and giggle which in turn makes everyone else smile. We are blessed that our daughter has such beautiful disposition and has taken to travel so well.

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The dancers all came to ooh and ahh over Aurora

After an amazing Thai dinner for Trevor’s birthday we decided to spend one more day here. The Canadians all left this morning and it is quiet again. We want to do some more shopping so we can decorate our place in Nica with mementos from our travels. One of my biggest regrets from traveling last time was not buying enough souvenirs, think I would pick them up later or find something better. Plus, when you have to carry everything on your back you tend to be discriminating.

Tomorrow we begin our true journey to the coast. It will probably take a couple of days to get there and couple more to actually find a beach we like. Fortunately, the winter up North is ending and all the snow birds should be starting to clear out. Hopefully my next post will be about the sound of waves on the deserted beach, while we lay about in hammocks. Stay tuned to find out.

Crossing to Mexico… And then back to the US

So we got up Monday morning to cross the border, hoping to make it to campground known for climbing located outside of Monterrey, Mexico by mid-day optimistically. We were out of the state park by 9:30 this morning, stopped for gas and so forth and headed towards bridge 2. For the last few days we had been checking out various blogs and forums researching the first leg of our Mexico trip. In all honesty, we not all that excited about Northern Mexico – we’re aiming for a beach as quickly as possible. But we do have some places we would like to stay as we are making our way there.

So we first got gas, breakfast and some cash and then headed out of town towards bridge 2 which is where all our internet research said we needed to go. There was a bit of Monday morning traffic that we encountered but nothing that seemed too bad. All and all we were thinking that the crossing didn’t look to terribly bad. Our excitement to get to Mexico was building. Now to get to Mexico you have to cross the Rio Grande, so all the crossings are bridge crossing. And these are large bridges- wide rather than long. The Rio Grande is certainly not like the Mississippi. There were still four lanes of traffic each way, with a number of jersey barriers that Trevor had to navigate his way through. 

The first thing you do is pay a toll to cross the bridge. We had some problems deciding which lane we were supposed to be in because there was a lane that specifically said BUS- which we took only to realize they were referring to large passenger busses, like Grayhounds, not busses converted to RVs. But we got through the toll and headed towards customs. And this is where we started to have our problems. IMG_1903

They began to explain to us that we were on the wrong bridge- that we were supposed to cross at bridge three. We had never heard of bridge three- my Internet had only talked about bridges 1 and 2. I explained this to the customs guy and he kind of smiled and then said he would need to call his supervisor to see if we could cross there or not. Once the supervisor came over it became clear that they seemed to think we were a commercial vehicle. After a couple of times of explaining we were a private vehicle and thinking they were going to let us through they ultimately turned us around and told us we needed to go back to the U.S.  I’m sure Trevor can explain in more detail how difficult it was to navigate the bus back around on a bridge with four lanes of traffic and jersey barriers but we did it and then headed to US customs. 

Of course being a big bus with solar panels and kayaks on top, US customs flagged us for an additional search. They all seemed a bit confused that we hadn’t even been into Mexico and everyone seemed to have a different idea of what the Mexicans had meant by bridge 3. Apparently what the U.S. refers to as bridge 3 and what Mexicans call bridge 3 are different things. But while I  had been waiting for all this happen I had done some more Internet research and found that there is another crossing about 20 miles away at the Columbia bridge and we decided to try there. 

The crossing at Columbia was much smaller and much less busy. There weren’t any lines and everything seemed to be going smoothly. The biggest questions customs had was did we have any beer or wine. Once we passed customs we thought everything was set. The next step was to get our visas and the visa for the bus. We proceeded to the immigration office, filled out our tourist cards and were told we needed to get the visa for the vehicle first so they knew how many days to issue our visas for. As we walked through the empty Aduna office the guy selling insurance came over to help us get copies of our documents. And here is where we ran into our next set of problems. 

When we registered the bus in RI we were unable to get a new title for it because RI doesn’t title vehicles from before 2002. So our title still has the previous owner on and says the vehicle is a bus. Also, rather than going through an inspection in RI to say we were a camper, we chose simply to register it as a private vehicle. The lady said we might have problems at some campgrounds, we never gave any thought to how it would effect the border crossing. Apparently, Mexico does not allow vehicles in that are private busses- who knew. After going round and round with the lady there- who understood our bus had been converted it was explained that unless we had a document that said “motor home” she would not let the bus into the country. 

So back to the U.S.  we went, through customs again. Which took quite some time because we were directed through the commercial line. I had read a blog from people who had written to us about volunteering with us, about how they had issues crossing the border because their VIN number was wrong. They had gone back to Laredo and gotten a temporary 30 day Texas registration and crossed with that. So that was our plan. Off we went to the County Assesors Office which functions as the DMV in Texas to get new documents. It took about an hour but TX issued a temporary registration saying the bus was a motor home. Just like that. 

We returned back to the same campground and spent the night, drank our beer and headed back to the Columbia bridge the next morning. Everyone, including the guy who collect the bridge toll, remembered us. Customs again asked us about beer and wine and this time I said “No cervezas. We drank them last night.” And with our 30 day temporary Texas vehicles registration we got a 10 year vehicle permit for Mexico. IMG_1906Welcome to Central America, where things don’t make sense. Then we went to buy our Mexican insurance and apparently the guy who sells insurance there wasn’t at work yet and no one could tell us when he would be in. So we jumped on the Internet, bought a policy and were on our way. 

We drove to outside of Monterrey, to La Posada El Potrero Chico, a spot that is well known for climbing.

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Can you see why people come here to climb.
 Once we arrived, We decided to spend two nights here while we figured out a little more of our route south. The next place we are really aiming for is San Miguel de Allende but it will take us an extra day to get there. Right now we are just enjoying good Mexican food, refreshing our Spanish and enjoying being here.