By the way, there are toll roads everywhere in Mexico. Typically, whenever there is a toll road, the Mexican government technically mandates that there is a free option, as well. We've heard that these free options (the libres) can be somewhat rough (they're not very well kept, with big potholes, can take twice as long to drive, and they can have potentially large traffic like semi trucks, etc), so we always chose to take the cuotas (the toll roads). A typical toll fee was about $6, which could last for a good section of the road, or it could be a very short road. You'd never know what you were getting on to. Anyhow, the roads down were GREAT, and in total we probably paid $100 in total. COMPLETELY worth the reliability of the cuotas!
The next morning, we woke up and made our way through the busy city, to catch the toll road on the other side of town. We were hungry, so we stopped at a little open-air cafe on the outskirts of town. We ended up ordering a simple quesadilla, which was just a mini-tortilla with cheese. Mexican food here is nothing like the Tex-Mex that we're used to in the US (I really actually prefer Tex-Mex, to be honest). The actual Mexican dishes are VERY simple...but they "spice" everything up by adding a huge amount of toppings. So, with our mini-quesadillas, we went over to their toppings bar, and added pico de gallo (the closest thing to salsa down here), jalepeno soaked carrots, and some other things I can't remember. They also served us half a small cooked onion wrapped in tinfoil (and cooked over the grill). Yummy! Ella, of course, being the difficult eater she is...wanted something ELSE. We checked the pre-packaged items in the cafe, and found something comparable to a cinnamon roll. She also insisted that she get some chips, since she recognized chip bags on the counter. Problem was, EVERY chip bag had a picture of a hot pepper on it! So, we asked the server which one wasn't as spicy...and he looked at them VERY closely, finally picking one that he said wasn't as spicy. We opened it up...and YEP...STILL SPICY! But everything in Mexico is spicy!
(side note...I was walking through a grocery store earlier this week, and I was handed a sample of a tortilla chip with beans spread on it, and a cooked jalepeno cut in half. I thought "Well, it's cooked...it's probably not THAT hot." WRONG AGAIN!!! My mouth was on fire! And I LOOOOVE hot stuff!)
The whole meal, with Ella's prepacked food (roll would have cost $2 easily in the US, and the chips $1), and our quesadillas which turned out to be VERY filling, only cost us $50 pesos. Yup...just $5 USD. Sweet!
We continued on our way to San Carlos, a beach town that is very popular with Americans. We only saw one other American couple there, and virtually no one else. We spent an hour or two on Playa Algodones (playa=beach), which is where the 1970 film "Catch 22" was filmed. We've never seen it...but there you go. The town is definitely growing, and there is construction everywhere. High-rise condos and fancy resorts are going up left and right.
There were VERY few people around, and the beach was beautiful. The water was warm enough for swimming, and we tried to show Ella how to play in the sand. Maiya was scared to death of the tide, but finally calmed down when we took her all the way into the water. Eventually she warmed up to the sand, as well!
We got dried off, stopped at a local restaurant, and continued on our way. On the roadside, there were people standing everywhere trying to sell the local catch, "camarón" (shrimp). The street vendors wave bags of it at you, as well as other goods, such as breads, grilled corn, toys, etc. This is a theme you see all throughout Mexico! One thing for sure, the Mexican people are all entrepreneurs! I have heard that there aren't any registration fees in regards to owning or start businesses. You pay a small yearly tax, and that's it. Therefore, the enterprise in Mexico is astounding! Children wash car windows, adults sell tortillas, ladies and gentlemen cook up simple meals in carts on the roadsides, and you can even get your windshield wipers replaced in the parking lot, if you take the gentlemen up on their offers. Taxes here are riduculously cheap. For example, if you have a 1/2 million $$ house, you might have spent $50 in taxes a few years ago, but prices have gone up, and you might spend a whopping $200 now. Ouch. ;-)
In Mexico you are advised to never drive at night. Potholes in the roads (particularly in cities) can be damaging to your vehicle if they're not avoided, and wildlife (i.e. cows) can also pose a threat. So, you preferably just don't do it. As a result, our 2nd day of driving was very short...just 4 hours. We spent too much time in San Carlos, and we didn't want to be driving too late at night.
So, we spent the 2nd night in Obregon, and busy city that had all of the "comforts" of the US (Walmart [which has covered parking in Mexico!], office supply stores, McDonalds, etc). We checked into a Travelodge, and walked a block over to McDonalds for a quick snack (and to let Ella play on the slides). The menu posted only had value meal items (no thanks...we eat cheaper than that), so it was tough trying to decide how the heck to order a simple snack. As we were standing there, a young lady came up and handed us two goody bags FULL of candy. She was having a gigantic birthday party in the play area, and must have spotted us in the front (after all, we had the only blondie and redhead in town, it seemed). So, she gave one bag to Ella, and one bag to Maiya. Ella was thrilled to go through the bags and discover the tastes of Mexican candy. Unfortunately, not too many of the tastes actually agreed with US! Mexican candy is very VERY salty, although we found a few favorite treats (Polvorones are great little shortbread cookies, and the Bubu Lubu is to DIE for! It's a chocolate-covered marshmallow bar with a chewy berry strip. Yum! And I typically don't even like marshmallows!)
So, we went and joined the activity in the play area, and Ella took forever trying to make her way through the tubes and slides at McDonalds. A sweet mom sitting nearby tried to talk to me, asking me, perhaps, if I was here for the b-day party. I simply responded, "No espanol." She smiled and nodded. It stinks to be the one who can't communicate! Argh!!
The hotel was fine, and the next morning we continued on our drive south. As we drove further south, we met up with the coast once again (we had gone inland a bit). The scenery became more lush, and green. We arrived in Mazatlan just after nightfall, and this city had quite the night-life! There is a northern coastal part of the city that caters to tourists, and has huge, colorful resorts right on the beach. There are endless shops that line the streets, and the traffic is fairly horrific. This is the "Zona Dorada" part of town (golden zone). Not quite our style...so we continued south to "Old Mazatlan," the old city center. Our hotel was right across the beach, and was an experience in and of itself. As you walked in the entrance, it suddenly opened up into an open-air courtyard, with huge palm trees growing "inside" the hotel, and hotel rooms lining the courtyard. The heat and humidity was unbearable, so we were very excited to learn that our air conditioning in our room worked, and worked quickly!
We were eager to get out of our room and get some food, so we walked 3-4 blocks to the Plazuela Machado, one of the central squares in the old part of the city. It was a little square, lined with open-air (okay, so seriously...EVERYTHING in Mexico is open-air) cafes and restaurants. We found a tiny little cafe on the outskirts of the square, and settled in for a light late-night dinner for $10. The Teatro Angela Peralta (old opera house) is also part of this square. This summer we met a Music Professor that works here (he came into our store), and he told us to drop by and see him. We tried the next day, but he was in class.
The next morning we got advice (in Spanish) from the desk employee about where to eat brunch. He told us to go to Plaza Principal, where the old 19th century cathedral overlooks the city. We found the cafe he had drawn us a map to, and walked in, and we told to sit anywhere by the lovely ladies working there. There was a menu on the table (a sheet of paper with a list of items printed out), but of course, we didn't understand a lick. The ladies didn't speak a word of English, either. AND, we had forgotten our translation book. Yikes!
So, the ladies took me to the front counter, and physically showed me some of the different foods they had. Another customer showed up, and helped to translate a few words, and after lots of pointing at the food and menu, we finally determined what we were ordering. They went to go make it for us. And in all honesty, I had NOOOOOO idea what was coming to the table. I knew I had gotten a noodle soup for Ella, and I suspected we were getting breaded chicken, and something with "asparagus," as the menu suggested. When the plate arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find some thinly sliced breaded chicken (yummy!), noodles with an alfredo-type sauce, and steamed vegetables (no asparagus...oh well)! They also brought us a serving basket with a heaping pile of fresh tortillas (uhh...what do we do with that?!), and 2 crisp tostada shells (umm...and what do we do with that?). It was a yummy, filling meal (can we say DINNER for breakfast?), and it again cost us just $10. Sweet.
We then walked across the street to the old cathedral, and we sat inside as near to the large fans as we could. I fed Maiya in the sweltering heat, and then we continued on our walk throughout the Plaza. The upcoming weekend was "Dia de Muertos", the "Day of the Dead" holiday. So, in the square there were alters around, and people gathered to honor family and loved ones who had passed away. According to my book, the origins of the holidays were that the pre-Hispanic people believed the dead could return to their homes on one day each year. "The underlying philosophy is that death does not represent the end of a life but the continuation of life in a parallel world...The occasion required preparations to help the spirits find their way home and make them welcome." The alters they build include food offerings, and they traditionally believed the departed relatives joined the living to eat, drink, talk and sing. Nowadays, people often visit graveyards to decorate their family member's graves, and the modern Catholic belief is that the souls are in heaven or purgatory, and are not actually back to visit the Earth. They decorate the alters and graves with sugar skulls, toy skeletons, and chocolate coffins. It's certainly not Halloween, and has a much deeper meaning behind it.
We had intended to stay in Mazatlan for 2 days, but quickly realized it was too big of a city for us, and not really our style. So, we left that afternoon, and drove up into the mountains to Tepic, a bustling middle-class city.
More later...we're on our way out to the Avocado capital of the WORLD!! I think we may actually catch their big Avocado celebration, too! :-)