Feb 4, 2012

From Sails to Wheels, But Not Sitting Behind One

One thing you should never 
Eat at the dinner table 
Is your words.

Old cobble stone street.  When it rains here it comes in torrents so good grade and drainage is essential
This is the beginning of month four of our journey and we are going on our first foray inland, where we trade our sails for wheels and leave our driving to someone else. We decided to stay away from the sailboat while it was being sanded in the boatyard and visited Copala, Sinaloa, for a couple of days.

Although the charm of this small town of 500 people is undeniable, it was our hosts who made all the difference. Gary and Lois are ex-cruisers (can you ever truly be an ex-cruiser?) and they had a lot of great information to share about the Sea of Cortez and the Gold Coast of Mexico, etc. They were certainly very helpful and gracious to let us ask them many questions about sailing and the town they now call home.

Copala was established in 1565 as a silver mining town; it is located in the Sierra Madre Mountains at 2,000 feet, and about 40 miles East of Mazatlán. It is a fairly well preserved Colonial Town full of cobblestone streets, numerous historic buildings and a small central plaza. Well worth a day visit.

The choices to get there are numerous and mostly low cost: taxis, arregas, pulmonias, bus, or tours. We all know what taxis are but here in Mazatlán, they are not necessarily your most expensive choice – there is room to bargain. We hailed a green taxi to the bus terminal after haggling over price, which you always do before getting a ride in this country. Once the price was confirmed and we hopped in with puppy in tow, another taxi came to park parallel to the one we were in. At that point the drivers exchanged some words then our driver asked us to move into this other red taxi. I later read that taxis are yellow (when they come from the airport), red or green (depending on the zone they cover and/or the company they work for). In the end, it doesn’t matter which way you go, you will usually have the chance to listen to local music once on the road.

Great colorful buses - slowly becoming extinct however
At the bus depot, we hurried into a dedicated bus to Concordia (1/2 way to Copala) that was just about to depart. We paid when we first came aboard to later find out that this is not how the locals do it. They pay when they leave or when someone who usually sits near the driver goes down the aisle to request the fares. 

Most of these buses are refurbished old school buses and the drivers seem to delight in the sound of grinding gears. Their favorite gear for downhill is neutral and the trick seems to be to shift in the highest possible gear as soon as possible so you can lug the motor at very low RPMs when the hill ends. Two partners, the driver and the helper (ayudante) seem to work on the bus. The helper loudly announces the destination, collects fares, and at times, helps with luggage. Road signs don’t seem to mean much to Mexican drivers – they often pass on solid double lines – this also applies to bus drivers. When we arrived back in Mazatlán, we saw a drab yellow school bus from Grand Prairie, Alberta…. They hadn’t had a chance to repaint it to the local colors yet…

Typical arrega from www.mazatlantoday.net
In Concordia, we transferred to an arrega, a pick-up truck, normally painted red with seats in the bed and covered with a tarp, usually large enough to sit 8-10 people. We didn’t have time to ‘argue’ over price but the driver did make a joke/reference to the fact that we would have to pay extra for Nikki. We were surrounded by kids and locals. As usual, since we were the only Norte-Americanos on board, we encountered quite a bit of staring and shyness from them but once we allowed the kids to pet Nikki, the ice melted and although we couldn’t exchange much in terms of words, smiles were quickly spreading around and locals seem to be more relaxed.

Pulmonia - not a colorful one in the case
We have yet to try the pulmonias as they are usually the most expensive way to get around since they are the most “touristic” attraction. They are only found in Mazatlán, made of VW parts with fiberglass body. They started being used in 1965 and since the taxi drivers didn’t like the attention they were getting from the tourists, legend says, they started a rumor that you could get pneumonia if you traveled in them since they have neither doors nor windows. The name stuck and more than 45 years later, they are still very popular and come in a wide array of colors.

One the way back, we took an early bus (7am) back to Mazatlán. It was packed with school children and workers. Arregas and buses are a great way to be with the locals whereas taxis and pulmonias tend to be used by tourists. Copala only has schools up to grade 9 so if kids want to further their education, which unfortunately they seldom do, they need to take the bus to Concordia. Even the driver’s kids were in the bus. At one point, the bus stalled and a lady in the right front seat quickly jumped in the driver’s seat as the driver went outside to do something to the motor. She helped restart it and it seemed she had helped him do that a few times before. She went back to her seat when the driver came back in and off again we went. These drivers, as private owners, seem to have certain connections to various small businesses along their routes. You often see exchange of money for newspapers, food, coffee, etc. Since they spend long hours each day on their particular route, they get to know what to get where and when and all these interactions are very quick.

Everything went well on this first inland foray. We even had the good luck of sitting next to a third generation resident from Copala, who was able to continue the conversation we started with him when we met him in the small town (More on that in Copala, a Charming Colonial Town).

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