Journeys get longer, landscapes sparser and buses more luxurious when desert overlanding in Mexico on week nine of my Central and North American overlanding trip. I return to Guadalajara to see some old friends, visit the silver mining town of Zacatecas, and pass through the desert to Chihuahua, Juarez to the US border.
Arriving in Guadalajara is, for want of a better word, emotional. It’s been thirteen years since I was last here and it’s always a little difficult to confront your own memories with reality. Strolling through the colonial downtown, scenes are familiar but somehow less imposing than I remember.
That is until I revisit San Juan de Dios, the largest indoor market in the Americas. Separated into three levels, it’s the size of a couple of football pitches, and a rabbit warren of commercial activity. If you can buy it, they sell it here. There are areas for clothes, food, knock off DVDs, saddles, cowboy hats, tourist tat and more.
There’s even a section for witchcraft, further evidence of Mexico’s unique fusion of Catholic and pre-Colombian religions. You can buy various potions, icons and herbs to treat maladies or simply for good luck. I always loved this place, and I still do.
I base myself in the cheap and charming Vilasanta, a colourful colonial guesthouse a few blocks from the city centre. There’s a warm Guadalajaran welcome and it’s by far one of the most comfortable places i’ve stayed on the whole trip.
There’s also a chance to catch up with some old friends. When I arrived last time a timid whelk of a boy, some friends of friends of friends called Silvia and Silvano, welcomed me into their home and made me feel like family. They helped me to learn Spanish, gave me tequila, and were generally unbelievably kind.
It’s a joy to see them again, and they’re just as hilarious and warm as I remember. It’s a shame to leave after only a few days but the trip must go on and this week we are heading from Guadalajara to US border crossing the Chihuahua desert.
Five hours’ luxury coach ride away (hey, I’ve done more than my share on chicken buses) is Zacatecas. Located in the middle of the desert, it’s a prosperous city with (yet another) UNESCO Heritage Site centre.
Ornate theatres, an intricately carved stone cathedral and flag stone streets reflect what must have been immense wealth from the silver mines. However, a visit to El Eden mine, via an underground train, shows another side of the silver trade.
Hideous conditions and child labour saw up the five deaths a day during the height of the mining boom, while the citizens on the surface reaped the rewards of their toil.
My granddad was a miner and to think that he spent years working in places like this can’t help but make me reflect on my current ‘life choices’ as taking the easy way out. Still, I’d really rather not work in a hellhole.
In the evening, there’s a party in town. Or make that several parties. I join the back of a roaming fiesta. A rowdy brass band marches through town, followed by a couple of dozen actual cowboys (hats, boots, shirts – the lot). They’re all drinking mescal from a giant bottle that’s being passed around, picking their partners from the local girls and having a good old shindig.
They offer me a cup and some mescal, which I accept, and try to get me to join in the dancing, which I politely decline. Once a song is over, the band moves on to its next destination, followed by its posse. I leave them after a few hours but I’d like to think the party’s still going somewhere.
It’s another twelve-hour bus ride to Chihuahua, capital of the state of the same name (and the biggest in Mexico). It’s more or less in the middle of the desert and is pleasant without being spectacular. But there’s something about being surrounded by countless miles of nothing that’s a little depressing, worrying even.
There are more genuine cowboys and I have to do everything in my power to stop myself buying some boots and a hat. The look might work here but back in the UK I’d just look a bit of an arse.
On the plus side, I stay in a weird hotel with a deserted lobby that’s only a couple of creepy twins away from being in The Shining, which is in no way disconcerting. My doors get double locked in the evening.
From here it’s off to Juarez, where drug cartels do battle, and then the US, where the people buy the drugs. I’ve been warned to be careful in Juarez, but then I heard the same about Mexico City, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua – everywhere really.
I’ve learned that unless someone has direct experience, it’s best not to take what they say too seriously. They’ve probably just read about it on half-baked travel blogs. Oh……wait.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about out desert overlanding in Mexico travelling from Guadalajara to US border. If it inspires you to head to Mexico then check out the AWE365 Club Mexico discounts.