To the Hills!

One of my regrets so far on our trip, is never having made it to the mountains of Baja. Beaches and fish tacos are great, but I’m most at home where the nights are cold and the air is thin and smells of pine. Our initial plan before taking the ferry to Mainland was to visit Mazatlan for a few days, and then high tail it for the colonial mountain town of Durango.

If you’ve read our last few posts, you know things didn’t quite go as planned. We wouldn’t trade our extended time in Mazatlan for anything, but it certainly set us back in our schedule. We chose to skip Durango altogether and take a more direct route through the country, aiming for the city of Guadalahara after saying our goodbyes to the fireflies and the Autozone.

In true Running From Monday fashion, we didn’t quite make it all the way, choosing instead to stop off in the little town of Tequila. Yep, that tequila. Though there are many places where liquor is distilled from the blue agave plant, to be truly called tequila it must be made in this small valley; much like Champagne or Bordeaux are required to originate from their respective regions of France.

If it says tequila on the bottle, it was produced here. Names like Don Julio, 1800, and of course Jose Quervo create their product from agave plants grown in the rich soil of the valley. Like any area known for its wine, there are dozens of boutique and small batch producers as well, offering a multitude of tasting and touring opportunities. We found time for both.

First created by the Aztecs long before the arrival of the Spanish in 1521, tequila has been mass produced in the city since 1600. The nearby volcano, Volcan De Tequila, last erupted around 200 thousand years ago.  It blanketed the valley in rich, red, volcanic soil. Soil perfect for growing large, sweet, blue agave plants. It was on the flanks of this volcano, the mother of all true tequilas, that we made our first mountain camp since leaving Arizona.

We wound out of town on an old cobblestone road, past cow pastures and agave fields to find ourselves in familiar surroundings- dirt roads to flat spots with fire rings. The universal sign of safe, free camping. We had finally made it to the mountains! There were even enough trees to hang the hammock, something we hadn’t done at all since beginning our surprisingly desert-dominated drive south.

The colonial mountain towns of Mexico are much different than the coastal towns we’d grown accustomed to in Baja. Whereas coastal towns are focused on a beach-front malecon, these inland villages are instead centered around traditional town squares, dominated by an ornate cathedral. Larger cities, both coastal and inland will have a multitude of squares, nearly all of them featuring a church. Most of these places were first established by the Spanish near the late 1500’s and have been inhabited ever since. Streets and buildings can be centuries old, with ornate rock work and narrow, haphazard pathways.

While we made a stop in the city of Aguas Calientes (Pop 1mil+) to check out a few beautiful cathedrals and their Museo Nacional de la Muerte (a wonderful exploration of Mexico’s fascination with death) most of our time has been spent skirting the larger cities and drifting from dirt road to dirt road. We’re still missing our friends the fireflies but are enjoying the solitude and quiet offered by the mountain backroads after so much time in the city.

Since arriving in Tequila we’ve camped near two reservoirs and high in the mountains along a World Rally Cross course. We haven’t spent a night under six thousand feet in elevation, and many nearer to seven or eight thousand. We have campfires nearly every night, and have even roasted a hotdog or two.

We roll over the stone streets of tiny villages and farming towns that rarely see tourists. People smile and wave, but look a bit confused or concerned as we drive by. One marvelously mustachioed man even waved us down to make sure we weren’t lost.

We pass cactus fields and grazing cows. We share the road with tractors, four wheelers, and mounted riders. Men with machetes burn brush and brightly colored laundry hangs drying in the mountain air. We parallel streams and climb steep passes. The trees have turned brown and gold and the days are in the mid 60’s, the nights drop to around 40°. The colorful trees, crisp weather, and smell of wood smoke remind us of early fall back home, sparking memories of my first deer season on Mt. Emily with cousin Mike.

While we’ll be at these higher altitudes for another few weeks, we’re already back in the city. Surrounded by perpetual fireworks, church bells, and traffic; but also friendly people, wonderful food, and a staggering number of museums, theaters, and historical sites. Next week: A beautiful hillside city and some big old pyramids.