La Costa Michoacana
UPDATE: I WROTE THIS POST IN MARCH 2009. SINCE LATE JUNE 2009, THERE HAS BEEN MUCH TENSION IN THE AREA JUST SOUTH OF LA PLACITA BEFORE REACHING LA FARO AND LA TICLA, WHICH AS OF WRITING THIS UPDATE IN MID SEPTEMBER 2009 HAS LESSENED. I WOULD HOWEVER RECOMMEND THAT ANYONE WANTING TO TRAVEL ALONG THE COAST CHECKS THAT THE AREA IS SAFE.
Last week, I drove about 500 kms from where I live – Ciudad Guzmán, in the south of Jalisco – to Troncones, an enchanting small beach town in the state of Guerrero, just west of Ixtapa. The first part of the drive from Ciudad Guzman is south to Colima, which is a great drive, (either taking the autopista or the slower carretera libre), with ever-changing views of the two huge volcanos of the Nevado (ice) and Fuego (fire). The route then continues south to the city of Tecoman (the lime capital of the world), before heading east on Highway 200, and crossing the border between Colima and Michoacán (marked by an army checkpoint).
More or less, as soon as you enter the state of Michoacán on Highway 200, the road starts to follow the coast, and continues following the coast for about 200 kms before reaching the city of Lazaro Cardenas and then crossing into the adjacent state of Guerrero.
I think this coastal route is the most beautiful drive I have ever done, beating my previous two favourite drives – the famous Highway One between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and also the route across the Canadian ice-fields through the Rockies from Jasper to Calgary. The route traverses lovely virgin tropical beaches, some of which are clearly visible by the side of the road, and others of which are just glimpsed from a distance, or from the heights, as the road climbs through the hills of the Sierra Madre. Each beach has its own character. Some are long flat stretches of sand, others are small bays enclosed by rocks and backed by hills.
The extraordinary thing is that not many people know about or take this drive. This is partly because it is in a region of Mexico that is generally outside most typical tourist destinations. The other reason is that this road has a certain reputation for being dangerous. Some people have said to me that the road is difficult to drive, but I found it in good condition. The principal reason, however, for its danger is that it is one of the main routes used by the narcotraficantes to transport the crops of marijuana harvested in the inland area of the ‘tierra caliente’ of Michoacán, to destinations from where the drug can then enter the US.
The general advice is not to drive this road at night. In the past, there were frequent reports of robberies at night, especially as the road goes through some very deserted areas. I was never sure how seriously to take this advice until one day I was talking to a Spanish university teacher, who was working on an exchange visit at the University of Colima. She told me she had been been driving along this road at night with a friend, had rounded a bend in the road, and come across a huge trailer, with armed guards sporting AK-47’s. Not knowing what to do, she panicked, accelerated, and just about managed to drive around the trailer. However, since the deployment of the army in the fight against the drug cartels, I was told that the road is now controlled more closely, and is safer, even at night.
Driving from the Colima-Micoacán border, once you get past San Juan de Alima (around the 203km road marker), there is a succession of beautiful beaches. One of the best known is El Faro, as this is a safe and protected bay to swim in. Just before reaching El Faro, there is a long beach at La Ticla (at the 182 km mark), which is now re-inventing itself as a surfing eco-tourism center.
Just 2 kms along from La Ticla is the small village of Ixtapilla, where the indigenous people have created a very successful project to conserve the marine turtle. In 1994, they reckoned that only 300 turtles arrived. Concerned by the lack of numbers, they mounted guard over the beach, and began their work to conserve the turtle. Last year, 2008, it was estimated that 300,000 female turtles arrived to lay their eggs. (I have written more about this project in another post).
Another 2kms from Ixtapilla heading south-east is a delightful, simple place to stay at La Manzanillera. The rooms are traditionally constructed palapas, located right on the beach, and the hotel restaurant is on the hill overlooking the bay.
El Faro is another 2 or so kilometers further east. The next small town to stop in is Maruata at the 150 km mark. This place has a mixed reputation. It is yet another beautiful bay which has become something of a hippy resort. I have heard stories of people’s cabañas being broken into and their possessions taken, and also tension between the hippies and the local people, caused by incidents like drug taking and naked bathing. When I stopped for breakfast, it was very quiet, so quiet in fact that it took an hour or more for breakfast to be served at one of the restaurants on the beach. Even my friend, who is Mexican, and less effected by my western sense of efficiency, thought it was slow.
Just before Maruata the road starts to climb, curve, and drop as it winds its way along the coast through the hills of the Sierra Madre del Sur. The next small town of any note, a further 100 kms away from Maruata is Caleta de Campo, around the 50 km marker. In fact, this is the first place where there is a petrol station since La Placita, way back around the 200 kms mark. There are, however, a number of small grocery shops along the road which also sell petrol. This part of the drive is the most spectacular, and also the slowest because of the many curves.
Just beyond Caleta, there a number of delightful beaches – Playa el Tunel, Playas Arenas, Playa Linguillo, and Playa Soledad. From here, the road tends to straighten out past plantations of mango trees, until arriving at La Mira, which is the T-junction that takes you either back to the coast at Playa Azul, or further east to Lazaro Cardenas and beyond to Guerrero.
The only distressing part of the journey is the amount of rubbish that exists at some places alongside the road. As in many other parts of Mexico, at points where there might be a particularly beautiful view or location, rubbish is strewn everywhere. When I have talked to Mexican friends about this, they usually look pained, sigh, and say that there is not a culture of caring for public spaces in Mexico in the same way that there is in other countries.
The owner of the hotel where I stayed in Troncones told me he thought it was because people have no appreciation for what they have in Mexico, as they have no other frame of reference from which to compare it. He said that when Mexicans travel, and then return to Mexico, they are much more concerned with looking after their local environment.
Thankfully, however, the rubbish sites are not that numerous, and do not detract significantly from the overall magnificence of the coastal drive.
FOR A LATER POST ON THIS COAST CONNECTING IT WITH THE FILM ‘VIVIR A MORIR’ CLICK HERE