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Old 01-25-2008, 02:20 PM   #16
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The Bike

[Originally posted January 12, 2008]

[Remember this was copied out of my blog, which is read by many non-riders - I know nobody here needs KTM explained!]

My partner in this journey is a 2007 KTM 640 Adventure. Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else down here. KTM is an Austrian maker of racing dirt bikes, but in recent years they've moved into dual-sport and street bikes. They usually come in only one color: bright orange.

My bike, the 640 Adv, is the redheaded stepchild of an already rare breed. 2007 is the last model year, the last of the Mohicans. The bike didn't sell well and KTM didn't import many into the US, probably around 500. It occupies a niche that has never been popular with Norteamericanos, the rally bike. It is a big-bore single, carbureted, kickstartable (as backup), weighs in at 350 lbs (almost 100 less than my BMW F650), and has over a foot of suspension travel. A seven gallon tank gives the bike about a 300 mile range on just about any crud that vaguely resembles gasoline - with a switch, it will run on sub-80 octane. A variant of this particular model is what won the Paris-Dakar rally for the last seven years in a row and it has a cult following among the more extreme RTW motorcycle crowd.



On the downside, the LC4 engine vibrates... a lot. This is by no means a comfortable freeway cruiser, and long stretches of highway are grueling. I plan to stick to nice, twisty, choppy, un-or-barely-paved backroads as much as possible. So far Baja has been great.

Another downside is that the bike is obscure, so knowledgeable mechanics (and parts) will be very hard to find. There are KTM dealers in the major cities along my route (Mexico City, Guatemala City, etc) but I'm counting on the bike being brand new and (cross my fingers) reliable. If I have a breakdown that I can't fix myself I'll be trucking the bike a considerable distance.

My original plan was to ride my '99 BMW F650 with 30k miles; not necessarily the most reliable bike but it's cheap, effectively disposable, and I can fix just about anything on it. Unfortunately a few months ago the 2nd gear shift fork bent and the repair would cost more than the bike is worth. It was either ride without 2nd gear or buy a new bike. I just needed the excuse.

I bought my KTM "slightly used" with 474 miles on it from a guy on advrider.com. I was flying to LAX to buy the last brand new 640A on a showroom floor in California (I called them all) when, checking my mail on the plane, I finally got (weeks later) a return email from a guy selling his in Marina Del Rey. Good timing and a quick phone call saved me over $2k, including the 5-year warrantee, and even got me a ride from the airport.

Modifications made by the first owner:

* Initial 600 mile service.

* Carb rejetted and KTM high-flow airbox cover added. This is a very common procedure and apparently it runs far better than it did stock. I get about 40mpg.

* Heated grips + gel grips.

* Touratech rear luggage rack

* Two extra electrical ports; an additional BMW socket in the dash and a long molex-type power connector coiled on the dash.

Modifications made by me:

* Renazco Racing seat. I didn't get a chance to do any long rides with this seat before the trip, so it was a bit of a leap of faith. Honestly I'm not sure I love it much more (if at all) than the stock seat.

* Barend weights from Stenhouse Racing. These dramatically reduced handlebar vibration at speed. 90mph is comfortable now.

* Garmin Zumo 550 hardmounted in the dash and wired to unkeyed power. Don't make the mistake of hooking up to keyed power, it's highly annoying. This is the Best Motorcycle Toy Ever. I will elaborate later.

* SW-Motech sidestand. It's amazing that this bike only came with a centerstand; it's *really* hard to find a flat enough place to use it when you're riding muddy mountain roads.

* Luggage mounts are from Happytrails. I'm not sure I love the design. I've already had one precariously-long bolt shear off in the subframe from a *very* gentle parkinglot spill. However, they work.

* The panniers are Pelican 1550 cases modified by Caribou with locks, lid lanyards, and retention straps. I drilled them for the Happytrails mounting kit. The cases are pretty much indestructible, but the downside is that they are side-loading instead of top-loading. So far I have no major complaints. You can read my luggage research. All-told the racks and cases cost about $500, half what the KTM hardparts (aka Touratech) mounts and cases cost. I mounted one lid-in and one lid-out so that stuff doesn't fall out when the cases are opened on the sidestand:



* RKA 9-liter tankbag. I wanted something small and easy to carry around. I don't need a lot of gear on this trip. My only complaint is that the small mapcase requires odd folds of a map, but this simply attaches with velcro so I will replace it with a larger one. Other than that the bag is perfect. It doesn't get in the way when I stand on the pegs.

* Random cheapie paper fuel filter added just aft of the petcock.

* Bent subframe, from a slow get-off on a very wet Usal Road a couple months ago. You can see it in the pic; the license plate doesn't point exactly straight at the tire.

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Old 01-25-2008, 02:22 PM   #17
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Iron Butt Status Update

[Originally posted January 12, 2008]

This is the first motorcycle ride I've taken that ran longer than a three-day weekend. After 2500 miles, the body parts that hurt are not the parts I expected.

My butt and my back are fine. The parts that hurt are:

* My outer ear canal, the part that holds the foam inserts of my headphone earplugs. Seriously. It's hard to wear these every day. Since I can't ride without earplugs (or music), this may become a problem. I have extra foam parts so I will probably experiment at reducing their diameter.

* My hands. After the two days of riding high-speed dirt south of San Felipe, my hands looked like this:



Fortunately, after a week of lounging on the East Cape, I now have big mean calluses where the blisters used to be.
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Old 01-25-2008, 02:24 PM   #18
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La Paz Revisited

[Originally posted January 15, 2008]

I've changed my mind about La Paz; once again, it is my favorite city in Baja. Yes, redevelopment has changed several blocks of the Malecon and hotels economica are now $20-$30 instead of $10-$20, but the cute old La Paz is still there.

I returned to La Paz for a night before taking the ferry to the mainland. This time was better; I think the shock of the change wore off and I was able to appreciate the town for what it is now rather than what I expected it to be. I stayed at a neat backpacker's haunt called Hotel Yeneka. I ate street food. I drank cebeda, which is like horchata but made from barley instead of rice. I had cebeda ten years ago in La Paz and I've been searching unsuccessfully for it since. It reminds me of the carob milk I used to drink as a kid (another product that has, sadly, eluded me).

Outside my door, the courtyard of Hotel Yeneka:



The great thing about La Paz is that while downtown is fun and adorable, civilization (and an international airport) is just down the road. What I needed from civilization was a Mach 3 razor to beat back the unsightly fuzz protruding from my face. If this beard gets any longer someone might mistake me for an intellectual. Lo and behold, I hit the motherlode:



Soriana puts Wal*Mart to shame. It's like a combination of Safeway, Costco, Target, a video arcade, and "the mall", including a vast food court. They had my razor.






Oddly enough I didn't go out partying. Partly this is because I'm still recovering my health and party this is because I'm starting to get tired early and wake up early. Go figure.
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Old 01-25-2008, 03:05 PM   #19
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I Believe In Ferries

[Originally posted January 15, 2008]

I considered staying for a couple more days in La Paz just to explore, but curiosity got the best of me and I set out for Pichelingue, the ferry terminal about 10km north of La Paz. The ride reminded me why I love Baja - the coast is full of little coves with blue water, white sand beaches, and palapas. I started to regret my decision.



There are two ferries that depart La Paz for the mainland. A fast 6-hour trip leaves daily for Topolobampo and a much longer 18-hour trip leaves MWF for Mazatlan. I love boats so I would have preferred the Mazatlan trip, but Saturday was not an option so I departed for Topo, figuring the four-hour distance to Mazatlan would be quick work the next day. This was a mistake.





The ferry ride was fast and efficient - my least favorite kind of boat ride. Then I got to my destination. My initial reaction to the mainland: OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?!? I left paradise and arrived in grimy urban slums with big highways, mega truck stops, graffiti, and a population that appears to already have adjusted well to south-central LA. As soon as I got off the ferry and looked around, every fiber of my being wanted to return my ticket (and my location) for a full refund. It doesn't help that I got off the ferry sometime after 10pm and immediately started looking for a hotel in an industrial wasteland. Not pretty.

The first couple hotels I tried (of the infamous and apparently very popular no-tell mo-tel variety, each little room with it's own private garage so nobody will recognize the car) were full, so I had to ride about an hour before I found something in a little town south of Los Mochis. The first thing I noticed about this town is that *all* the young people (ie, between the ages of 16 and 25) were driving around in circles up and down the main block. This seems to be the standard form of amusement here, kinda like "cruising" in 50s americana (see: American Graffiti). The second thing I noticed is that the gate to the one hotel in town was locked with a chain.

There was a bar next door, so I went in to ask. This was mistake #2. No less than two short, pudgy, *very* drunk middle-aged mexican men got up to repeatedly alternate between shaking my hand and making threatening, mumbling gestures at me. I mentally verified the route between me and the door for emergency purposes and looked around the room for someone a little more cheerful. Immediately a very attractive Mexicana materialized in front of me (oddly, the only girl in the room), had some harsh words with the two (I think she kicked them out), and walked me out, telling me in good English that I should be very careful around here because "they're crazy". She also banged on the gate, introduced me to the hotel owners, and even walked me to my room just in case I didn't understand once. Friendly little thing. She was actually very nice and had I been in a more curious mood I would have accepted her invitation for a drink just to find out if, in fact, she was a "professional" or if she was just out having a good time like everyone else. I suspect I already know the answer.

In any case, here's the location for my drama:





I hope the coast pretties up south of here.
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Old 01-25-2008, 03:13 PM   #20
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Mazatlán

[Originally posted January 18, 2008]



The road does indeed pretty up south of Topolobampo. I got off the cuota onto the libre, which travels inland through some reasonably cute little towns. Not Baja-cute but still more entertaining than toll booths, Pemex stations, and truck stops.

Pemex is weird. In the US, anyone with a leaky steel tank and a crony at the EPA can open a gas station. Here, there is only one gas station, the state oil monopoly: Petróleos Mexicanos. Furthermore, Pemex stations are placed rather haphazardly around the country. Sometimes you will go 70 miles without a gas station. Sometimes you will find FOUR stations surrounding an intersection. The prices very slightly from region to region but it all seems to be in the neighborhood of $2.50 per gallon.

In the US, nearly every gas station has an attached convenience store. Pemex either hasn't figured this out or is prevented from getting into the food business, so across the street from almost every Pemex station is an OXXO, which near as I can tell is Spanish for 7-11. OXXO doesn't sell prepared food, so next to that is usually a taco stand. Oddly enough, the only part of this ecosystem that seems to stay open 24hrs is the taco stand. You might not get back on the road until morning, but you won't starve in the mean time.

At any rate, the inland road is two-lanes, goes through towns, and doesn't suffer too badly from the scenery. The foliage is thicker and less cactus-like on the mainland, but it still feels like desert. After several hours, I'm finally in Mazatlán.

Baja has ruined me. Mazatlán is a poor man's La Paz. It's bigger, dirtier, smoggier, more crowded, and seems altogether less agreeable in every respect. I've only been here one evening and I already want to leave. Part of the problem is that unlike La Paz, Mazatlán does not seem to have a coherent centro. The city just sprawls on, with beaches and hotels along two long sides.

On the other hand, I have a remarkable 5th-floor oceanfront room at the Hotel Belmont. It was probably spectacular in it's 1960s heyday (the wood paneling is gorgeous) but it's a crumbling wreck now. I love it, well worth the 450 pesos.





The elevator doesn't quite reach the bottom floor:


Note to self: I'm in the 2nd hotel in as many nights where the sole power outlet in the room is inconveniently located. Go to hardware store and buy a lightbulb-socket-to-plug-socket adapter, it will come in handy.

Leaving Mazatlán, I climbed the tallest faro (lighthouse) in the world and got a decent picture of the whole city:



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Old 01-25-2008, 03:24 PM   #21
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"Unlimited" time on your hands
I wish I could do that...
Keep the reports coming, this is very interesting.
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Old 01-25-2008, 03:25 PM   #22
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San Blas

[Originally posted January 18, 2008]

I rushed south from the peak of the Mazatlán faro. I wasn't sure where I would stop but I wanted to stay someplace cute. The only place south of me that I recognized was Sayultia, just north of Puerto Vallarta, where Lesley and I spent a lovely-but-crowded long weekend about six months ago. It was a little too far for my late start, though.

Fortunately my motorcycle seems to be a social magnet; I had two different conversations with other residents of the Hotel Belmont while I was parked in the (once glamourous but now crumbling) courtyard. One of them casually mentioned the delicious seafood in San Blas so that immediately became my obsession. Still, it was a stretch, especially after a little detour that involved getting stuck in sand and rescued by two kids that happened to motor by on a panga.



I don't like to ride at night in Mexico. The cows and burros and dogs (and other things) like to sit on the asphalt at night because it's warm - and there are no fences to keep them off the highways. Plus, it's DARK here. Every guidebook I've read says in big bold letters "DON'T DRIVE AT NIGHT" as if Federico Krueger is sitting around the corner waiting for a gringo in a hurry. Honestly, the warning is fair - only people with a death wish drive at night in Mexico both because of the free-range livestock and the questionably sober opposing traffic. But there is a secret.

The road to San Blas is the worst kind of Mexican road. It's twisty, potholed, and rural. Dogs and burros hovered near the tarmac just waiting to throw themselves in front of a passing vehicle. Combined with the hours-away destination and the late hour, everything was lined up to crunch our humble narrator into a little pile of Austrian metal, Mexican cattle, and Norteamericano driver. However, the Coca-Cola Company came to my rescue.

After dark I had been following a small Toyota driving at absurdly (read: sanely) slow speeds, nearly stopping for every pothole in the road as if to inspect for pungi sticks. It was driving me crazy but like any surviving Vietnam-era soldier I sure as hell wasn't going to volunteer for point duty. Then, the "flow of traffic" finally caught up to us - a red truck painted with the Coca-Cola logo, clearly delivering an emergency supply of sugary liquid to a desperately thirsty neighboring community. I ditched the Tercel for the Kenworth, which took me on a road rally at 70mph (at the slow points - I'm not kidding, I had a hard time keeping up on my freaking MOTORCYCLE) nearly the entire way to San Blas. From behind, I watched little furry animals dive out of the way - something I feel confident they would not have done had the driver not been Mexicano, driving a big truck, and a representative of the Coca-Cola Corporation.

San Blas is cute. It's the kind of cute that Mazatlán isn't; I liked it immediately, even in the dark. I stopped at the Hotel Bucanero (recommended by my lonely planet guide) and when the desk clerk offered me a discount on two nights I didn't hesitate. 150 pesos each.

Then it got crazier. I went to dinner and found myself drinking with two Canadian girls (Linsey and Terri), a colorful local (Donberto), an Australian (Tom), and a Brit (Dave). Tomorrow morning at the ungodly hour at 7am the seven of us are getting breakfast (read: beer), getting on a boat, and doing some weird combination of deep-sea fishing and whale watching. I have no idea what this will actually entail abut I'm certain it will be fun, mostly because of the first item on the agenda (read: beer).




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Old 01-25-2008, 03:28 PM   #23
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San Blas, Continued

[Originally posted January 18, 2008]

San Blas is exactly what I hoped to find in Mexico. I stayed for three nights and I wonder if I shouldn't stay more.

I met cool people.



I went whale watching. There were dozens of Blue Whales. They got quite close to the boat, some less than 10 meters.



I met more cool people, including a guy (Robert) who is riding his KLR south. The couple (Chad and Erin) are headed to Costa Rica with an old suburban loaded up with surfboards.



I went on a crazy jungle boat ride. I thought this might be fun-but-silly tourist crap but it turned out to be AMAZING. 10-foot crocodiles, countless species of strange birds, mangroves, turtles, fish, leafcutter ants, strange lemur-like creatures... and of course cerveza.











To top it off, we visited an old stone fort from the 1700s perched above the city.

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Old 01-25-2008, 03:30 PM   #24
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Death of a Hotel

[Originally posted January 20, 2008]

Heading south from San Blas with my newly acquired riding buddy (Robert), we rode by this abandoned hotel. Someone in San Blas told me that it was a magnificent place in the 50s, popular with Hollywood moviestars including Humphrey Bogart and Liz Taylor. It was ravaged by a hurricane and never rebuilt.











We stopped in a beach town and had tea with some friends of Robert's family who were wintering in Mexico. I noticed this seems to be a common pattern among Canadians. Robert headed inland; he only had a few weeks and was on a pretty tight schedule.

Next I spent a couple uneventful days in Sayulita, a cute surf town that Lesley [a girl from Seattle that I dated for a while] and I spent a lovely but crowded weekend about a year ago. We had inadvertently arrived in the middle of the town's major annual festival, so it was full of tourists. It's still full of tourists, but I had internet access in my hotel room so I stuck around to read documentation about Facebook applications. I have a plan.
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Old 01-25-2008, 03:39 PM   #25
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Puerto Vallarta

[Originally posted January 20, 2008]



Puerto Vallarta is hard to wrap my mind around.

For one thing, it's huge. The "main drag" through town goes on for kilometers, cute little restaurants and shops everywhere. The main drag is also several streets wide. The sheer number of eating options is staggering and makes San Francisco look only slightly more sophisticated than Dillon, Montana. I'm serious.

Puerto Vallarta has civilization, at least what would be recognized as such by a San Franciscan. There are martini bars. There are raves. There are gay clubs, complete with rainbow flags. There is a goth club with elaborately-dressed (and extraordinarily hot) goth latinas making out in the doorway, which nearly compensated for the blaring industrial music of exactly the type I find irritating. I even walked past a drag queen on the way back to my room, just like home!

Puerto Vallarta's civilization is not an artifice created for tourists. Almost all the clubs and bars were filled with fashionably dressed spanish-speaking people in their 20s and 30s.

It probably helps that I'm in the southern district, where the hotels económica and (apparently) all the cool people are. Still, despite the proliferation of megahotels and condos along the (very well maintained) beachfront, Puerto Vallarta feels like a modern, vibrant urban community. This is in sharp contrast to Cabo San Lucas, where tourists go to die.

I wasn't expecting to like PV but it's one of the few Mexican cities that I would both enjoy living in and remain entertained for more than a few months.

Nevertheless, I'm leaving after one night. I'm headed inland towards Guadalajara, which has a KTM dealer that can service my bike. The maintenance interval on the LC4 is short, only about 3k miles. This may become a problem later in the trip.
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Old 01-25-2008, 03:49 PM   #26
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Cool2 Wow! Good on ya...

What a great diary of your trip! Keep the story and pix coming. Safe travels to you.
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Old 01-25-2008, 04:41 PM   #27
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San Sebastián de Oeste

[I screwed up the order - this should have been posted just before "Puerto Vallarta"]

One of the nice things about riding a pretty, somewhat-exotic motorcycle is that it makes friends for me. I rode into Puerto Vallarta and pulled over under a tree to flip through my Lonely Planet, looking for my home for the evening. Within five minutes a guy about my age with a helmet under his arm walked up to me and started a conversation. It turns out that Eduardo is a long-time enduro rider, currently saving his pesos for - you guessed it - a KTM 640 Adventure. In the mean time he's riding a Yammie 125.



The conversation turned from motorcycles to rides in the area and the next thing I knew we're speeding into the hills to an old mining town called San Sebastián de Oeste.



San Sebastián is the cutest town I have ever seen. It's nestled in a valley with perfectly preserved 400-year-old buildings and twisty narrow cobblestone streets. The tourists haven't discovered it yet, but they will.









We arrived on the afternoon of their biggest festival of the year, celebrating "the virgin". Eduardo explained the history to me: The spaniards were very clever, taking the name of the local pagan goddess and changing the meaning of her name to "virgin". So the festival procession starts with dancers in native garb, followed by the catholics, followed by the people:





We rode a mixed dirt-and-cobblestone road up to a place called La Bufa, at 7500ft. This is a view of San Sebastián below:

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Old 01-25-2008, 04:42 PM   #28
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The Road To Talpa

[Originally posted January 22, 2008]

The KTM LC4 (the engine used in my 640A) has an irritatingly short service interval, 5,000 km (about 3100 miles). I'm a couple hundred miles over that now, so it's time to find a KTM shop. The nearest one is in Guadalajara, a couple hundred kilometers inland.

Eduardo had recommended a dualsport ride along the Rio Cuale (the river that bisects Puerto Vallarta) to a town called Talpa de Allende. No road showed on any of my maps (including the one in the GPS). I did find Talpa and verified that a good road does go east from there to Guadalajara... so what the hell, it sounds like fun. I set an "off road" (ie, straight-line) route to Talpa and set off down the road that parallels the river.

Christ, what a road. It turned out to be 60 miles of dirt and sand that went up, down, up, down, 1000 meters at a time. The switchbacks were often steep on the turn and covered with deep, soft sand. There were ruts that could swallow the entire bike (no joke). There were water crossings. There were tiny ranches and livestock (cows, goats, pigs, chickens, burros, horses) all over the road. There were no cars in either direction... if something went wrong, I'd probably be out there overnight.

It took all day. It was fun.

Deep, powdery sand:


Adobe building in the middle of nowhere:


Water crossing:


Nice road, eh?


Mexican cattle guards:


A log cabin at altitude. Note the pine trees:
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Old 01-25-2008, 04:48 PM   #29
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Talpa de Allende

[Originally posted January 22, 2008]



I rolled into Talpa around dusk. The first thing I noticed about Talpa de Allende is that every third building is a hotel, most with dozens of rooms. This place is not on any of the tourist maps and isn't even in the index of the Lonely Planet, yet this town could seemingly house half the population of Guadalajara. Talpa is clearly a destination for Mexicano tourists, but there are no beaches or lakes or even attractive scenery to be found. However, Talpa has an enormous and ancient-looking church:





Apparently Talpa de Allende is a destination for Católico-tourism, and this is off-season. The town was cheerful but placid. However, it provided me with my favorite hotel experience on the trip yet.
A short digression on The Perfect Hotel Room. The perfect hotel room has the trifecta of:

* Less than $20 per night
* Agua caliente
* Internet access in the room

I have yet to find The Perfect Hotel Room. I'm lucky to find just one of the three, and hot water has been the most rare - even in $80 rooms. Mexicanos apparently enjoy tepid showers.
My room at the Hotel Chuyita was priced at 100 pesos (about $9) and for the first time ever, produced nearly scalding-hot water.

Mine was the top-right room:


The view of "downtown":


The room itself is little more than a door, a bed, and a combined bathroom/shower. Perfect:


The vendors were more interesting than the usual tourist-bait of zapaterias, electronics, and beachwear:







In line with family-oriented tourism, most stores seemed to make and sell candy. The yellowish bottles on the shelves contain rompope, Mexican eggnogg. It usually contains rum and Claudia once told me that it is very popular with the kids in Mexico.

[Claudia is an ex-girlfriend, her father is from Mexico City]
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Old 01-25-2008, 04:52 PM   #30
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Caught up!

Well, caught up as much as the blog is. I have yet to log my three days in Guadalajara or my time in Zihuatanejo, where I sit now.

Time for more cerveza!
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