Mexico is a huge country so you have to visit it in segments; this trip, we decided to focus on the areas that can be reached within a few hours of Mexico City, the pulsing center of the country. Since prehispanic times, the area known now as Mexico has been dominated by a highly centralized government in the Mexico City valley. Mexican culture is defined by what Mexico City does, and nothing gets done without Mexico City’s approval. So why not start our first, of hopefully many, inland tours in the heartbeat of the country? We saved Mexico City itself for the middle of our tour, to be there for Independence Day, and went first to Cuernavaca instead. After Cuernavaca, which is south of Mexico City about 90 minutes by bus, we headed west to Taxco, the famous city of silver.
Rick fell in love with Taxco. It is hard not to, especially if you have never seen before, a compact Mexican city of 70,000 residents (plus lots of Mexican tourists on the weekends) with matching red tile roofs nestled up along the side of a mountain; streets paved with brick and narrow, steep cement stairways mysteriously winding up hidden passageways between tightly packed homes, hotels, restaurants, markets and shops; all built around the focal point of a marvolously ornate double steeple church on a circular drive surrounding the main square.
I had always loved Taxco too; that is why I wanted to take Rick there. I used to help drive vans to take foreign students on excursions to Taxco. I had never seen anything like it anywhere else in Mexico until later in this trip, when we went to Guanajuato. But that’s for a later post!
We found throughout our trip that it took a few tries to find the perfect hotel if our stay involved more than a few nights; this was also true for Taxco. You need a place booked for the first night just so you aren’t lugging around your luggage until you find a place; after that, you can take some time looking. But in Taxco, our first place was actually quite nice; we probably wouldn’t have moved except they were fully booked for our third night.
The next day we enjoyed exploring Taxco. It is filled with silver jewelry shops although the actual silver mining dried up years ago. We weren’t interested in jewelry since there is not much room for it while sailing; we were mostly interested in just getting to know the streets and the squares and the markets and the general flavor of the town. Our day culminated with a fine dinner of Chiles en Nogata at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Cathedral. Chiles en Nogada is a meal served especially around Independence Day because it includes green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag. It consists of a poblano pepper (the same pepper that is used in a chile relleno) stuffed with spiced ground beef and covered with a white nut sauce with red pomegranate seeds.
While relaxing on our second night in our first hotel on the rooftop patio outside our room, we heard music. Really NICE music. Solo acoustic guitar and an awesome voice singing original ballads in Spanish. From our third story vantage point above the hustle and bustle of the local square, we looked in the general direction of the music and saw a purple glow on the otherwise dark hilltop to our right. It was late and we had already learned that buying margarita fixings in a store and making them in our hotel room was the way to go, so we had had a few already. But the music beckoned us. As if following the pied piper, we dressed for a bohemian night on the town, scurried down the two long flights of irregular stone stairs to the street below, and headed right. Within a few blocks we came to a set of stairs framed in purple lights. This must be it!
After quite the climb, we came upon the music venue. They charged a concert price to get in, as if the performer were someone very special, and he was. The venue was loosely affiliated with what was called a hotel, but I am not sure the hotel itself was open for business. A crowd of only about 20 people were seated outside watching a sole performer, but the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic. Most knew the words to every song. Rick ordered a beer and I ordered a shot of tequila, and we sat back to see what we had we had stumbled upon.
The performer’s name is Rodrigo Rojas. He is from Bolivia. He writes and sings all of his own songs. Other famous singers have sung his songs too. He is incredible! Research him on the net. This was one of those rare opportunities to hear an incredibly talented musician in an incredibly small venue, like dropping into an open mike night at the No Name bar in Sausalito and finding Carlos Santana on stage. His songs portray the heart of a political activist, a feminist, and an incredibly romantic, charming personality. The songs are poetic, passionate, melodic and contemporary, and the music is ballad, Latin son (kinda Cuban-like) combined with mellow rock, if that is even a fair debasement of the real thing. I was taken in by the line “I don’t want to be your owner… I want you to be a free bird” in a love song called “Amor Adentro” (linked below – quite revolutionary in the Latin culture). Rick knew instantly from the music that this was no ordinary musician. We bought both of the CD’s they had for sale and still can’t stop listening to them.
About halfway through the outdoor concert, it started raining. Within 10 minutes they had the sound system reestablished inside a small room about the size of a coffee shop. We all gathered the tables and chairs around Rodrigo and he continued to play song after song. I think it all ended sometime after 3 am, and we stumbled home, completely enchanted.
Here is a link to a video of my favorite song: Click here for Rodrigo Rojas “Amor Adentro” The only thing I would change in this video is that the woman in the video should be our daughter Sarah, throwing her arms up to the sky on the beach or climbing mountains, not just starring off passively at the horizon. If you don’t understand Spanish, find someone to translate; the words are really beautiful.
But that was only the beginning of our adventure in Taxco. The next day, we timidly entered the fancy bed and breakfast we had inquired at the day before, hoping for the best room at the cheapest price, and to our surprise, we got it. Okay, write this down: El Studio room in Mi Casita in Taxco. If you ever get to Taxco, stay there! We loved it. The owner Lucy gave us the best room in the house: a separate entrance, two separate bedrooms, a refrigerator and a large patio with a view of the cathedral, for $40/night! She felt sorry for us because we pleaded poverty, it was the middle of the week in the off season so she would have no customers anyway, and she wanted to do a good deed. The room is normally $60 USD per night. I know that sounds ridiculously cheap from US standards and not significantly different from $40, but we were on a budget and hadn’t quite figured out yet how much we could afford per night. The place was probably the best place we stayed in all of our trip, at any price.
We went on a hike through town the next day and came upon the entrance to the tram that takes people to the top of a hill to get a city view. Before we got to the ticket office, a local guide stopped us and told us for the price of a round trip tram ride for two, he would give us a taxi-ride tour of all of the high points of Taxco. How could we refuse? We took the tram up to the top of the hill and he picked us up there, then had the driver take us to the very top of the town where there is a statue of a priest, and then to a silver store where they explained how silver is extracted from the ore, and finally to a mock-mine where we got a tour of the mining process.
The most remarkable part of our tour was at the end: we held out our hand with money to pay our guide and his hand did not meet ours – he was blind! Very impressive.
If you have heard that driving in Mexico borders on insane, then driving in Taxco is like driving in a straight jacket inside the halls of the insane asylum. There is really only one principal road in town. It makes a circle from the center of town down the hill and back. Everyone who is driving is on that road, bumper to bumper all the time. The road is so narrow that taxis are required to be volkswagons. And heaven forbid you should have to walk on that road, which you do all the time, because it has no sidewalks – you are sharing the road with the cars.
Getting tired of fancy dinners out every night and knowing that our budget wouldn’t sustain that, we started in Taxco to earnestly begin experimenting with food from street vendors. We started eating elote there – corn grilled on the cob and then lathered in mayonnaise or Mexican crema, then dusted with crumbled cheese and chile powder, and topped with a squeeze of limón. Rick preferred it just like that; I had the same thing but in a cup instead of on the stick. It is an incredible combination of sweet, salty, creamy, chunky, spicy and tart; an explosion of flavors and really filling. And we bought tacos from the sidewalk grill – usually thin slices of grilled beef on a tortilla with salsa and maybe some other condiments like chiles, veggies marinated in peppered vinegar, onions, and sometimes, avocado. We would often take the meals back to our room to eat. They were satisfying and only a fraction of the price of a restaurant meal. We did have a few stomach upsets during our trip but none were directly attributable to eating street food as far as I can recall. Some of the tastiest food of the trip, we bought from street vendors in portable carts.
Probably the most long lasting effect of our trip to Taxco was Rick’s discovery of an ex-hacienda-turned-university where he wants to study Spanish next off-season (summer). This satellite campus is affiliated with the best public university in Mexico, the Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico (UNAM). They provide 6 week intensive courses in the Spanish language for foreigners, 5 days per week, 5 hours per day, and will place him based on his test scores in one of 8 levels. And they will conduct a class with as few as 2 students. All for about $600 tuition. And the setting is magnificent, a colonial hacienda in a secluded wooded area within walking distance of the town square. He is really stoked. Here is a link to a photo of the ex-hacienda:
So, we will see – maybe next summer will find us back in Taxco!