Mascota: Our First Mexican Road Trip

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Continuing from where we left off nearly 18 months ago, the following is a newly published “catch-up” post from our time living in Sayulita, Nayarit.


30 March 2021

Today, we’re back on the road in I don’t know how long with our first trip out of Nayarit in, well, quite a while.

We’ve lived in Mexico for five months and this is the boys’ very first road trip in this country. I blame that on two things: Covid, and our golf cart, which has a functional range of only about 10 miles or so.

It’s not the golf cart’s fault. It’s perfectly suited for our day-to-day needs. But 10 miles roundtrip doesn’t make for much of a road trip.

Years ago, Lori and I did a fun two-week road trip around the Yucatan peninsula with her parents. But this is certainly our first in a while, and we’re pretty excited.

I’m also excited today because this will be my first time back behind the wheel (of a car, not a golf cart) overseas since South Africa in 2014 (with the exception of a brief stint in Laos).

We left Sayulita just after breakfast, bound for the high plateau of the Western Sierra Madre. Our destination, roughly three hours away, is the Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) of Mascota in neighboring Jalisco state.

We rented a car through the National rental car office in Sayulita. Gone are the days of apparently snagging $5/day rental vehicles from random outfits in the area.

Booking online (using the Mexican .mx version of the website) and prepaying got us the best deal by far of any legit rental outfit here in town.

It was also quite a bit cheaper than what it would have cost to rent the car at the Puerto Vallarta airport and get a taxi between Sayulita and PVR.

We ended up with a rate of around US$40/day (including insurance) for an intermediate size vehicle (Chevy Aveo).

Not the best deal ever, but much less than what cars are renting for in the U.S. right now.

The Road Trip

The quickest route to Mascota takes us south on highway 200 into Puerto Vallarta, where we’ll then take a left onto Highway 544, head east and climb from sea level to 6,000 feet in about an hour.

Then, we’ll descend down into Mascota at 4,000 feet elevation.

Apparently, this route had some issues with cartel activity years ago, but is now the recommended route to the highlands from Puerto Vallarta.

Interestingly, it is NOT the best way to drive to Guadalajara from PV. Clocking in at 300 km, it beats the most popular (and much less direct) route by 30 km.

However, the more popular, roundabout route is largely made up of controlled access high speed autopistas, making for a quicker and slightly less harrowing journey.

Driving wise, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Once we left Vallarta, the road was smooth and well maintained with very little traffic. The sun was shining and the weather was perfect. The car drove great.

Despite all this, there was one tiny little problem.

Riley’s stomach didn’t exactly agree with the car ride.

So, we found ourselves stopping every few miles. And a three hour trip up the mountain turned into a five hour trip up the mountain.

In Riley’s defense, the road up the mountain was very curvy. But his tummy troubles began before we were even out of town.

We briefly stopped in Nueva Vallarta to run a couple of errands before heading on. Not ten minutes after getting back in the car, Riley wasn’t looking so good. He was pale and clammy and quiet, which is very unusual for him.

We pulled over, walked him around a bit and got back in the car. He was fine for about twenty minutes before going silent and clamming up again.

Of course, the curvy road to just compounded things. The relatively high elevation (or at least the change in elevation) didn’t help matters either.

The next time we stopped for some fresh air, we couldn’t get Riley back in the car. He vehemently insisted on continuing the rest of the way on the foot. “I want to walk to Mascota! I want to walk!” I admired his gusto, but 80 km seemed like a bit much for a 2.5-year-old.

A fierce battle of wits ensued until he was begrudgingly buckled back in his carseat. And so it went, for the next couple of hours (yes, hours), until we crossed over the 6,000 foot pass and descended down to the plateau.

It definitely made us wish we had some good old fashioned Dramamine, which immediately went on our shopping list ahead of the return trip.

Finally, a straight stretch of road.

Eventually, we made it to Mascota. All of us were thrilled to finally arrive, but especially Riley, who told us in no uncertain terms he was never getting in a car again.

Our Lodging in Mascota

Another superb AirBNB stay. We’ve been on a roll lately.

A two-bedroom house a short walk from the town center. It even had a grassy yard and secure carport to park the car.

It’s really hard these days to justify booking a room at a hotel or guesthouse, when for the same price (or cheaper!) we can have all the comforts of an entire house for the four of us.

It’s certainly a different type of traveling than we were used to not too long ago. But it suits us right now, particularly with two nappers in the mix.

Exploring Mascota

After nap time, we headed out to explore the Pueblo Magico of Mascota. Needless to say, we’d be doing so on foot.

Our first impressions of Mascota were really positive. We like our beach town life back in Sayulita, but it’s always refreshing to get away from home for a while, explore new places, and enjoy a change of scenery.

From the start, Mascota exceeded our expectations. The town was more charming, well-maintained, and picturesque than we imagined. The dry and cooler mountain air was a nice change, and the stark, mountainous scenery gave the city a remote frontier feel.

Of course, the Spanish colonial architecture (some of it dating back to the 16th century) is a main draw for visitors to Mascota.

But a combination of Covid, Holy Week, and Mascota being a bit removed from the beaten path meant that we nearly had this picturesque little colonial mountain town to ourselves.

The church in the main plaza blows away Sayulita’s small central church. Not only is Mascota four times larger than Sayulita, it was a prominent administrative center between Guadalajara and the Pacific Ocean in colonial times.

The main route connecting Guadalajara with the coast now bypasses Mascota (and takes about half the time), so these days Mascota sees far fewer travelers than it once did.

But the town has seen renewed interest in recent years from tourists since the government named it one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos (Magic Towns).

This retro-styled late model coach caught my eye. Most of the public buses and coaches that we see in Mexico tend to look pretty plain (or like a Franken-bus). This one almost made me want to hop on, regardless of where it was going. Jalisco State Penitentiary? Great!

So many great restaurants to choose from. We’re looking forward to trying them out over the next four days, without the Sayulita hustle and bustle.

Owing to its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, Lori and I felt echoes of other places we’ve visited, particularly Antigua Guatemala.

It struck us how much more seriously residents here take the pandemic than in Sayulita.

In reality, folks here in Mascota are probably taking the same level of precautions that a lot of places around the world are, like wearing masks, for instance.

We just don’t see that in Sayulita. Most visitors to Sayulita these days seem to come to “escape” the pandemic for awhile, which we’re learning is not necessarily the case elsewhere in Mexico.

Yerbabuena abandoned stone temple

The Pilgrims’ Circuit

The next day, we ventured out of town a bit to explore some of the smaller communities around the municipality.

There’s a ton of history in and around these parts. Too much for a short blog post. One way to get a sense of that history is by driving the Pilgrims’ Circuit, a 50 km loop starting and ending in Mascota that connects the area’s historic communities, including the birthplace of Raicilla (a popular regional agave spirit that up until recently was illegal).

Our intention was to drive the entire loop in a day. However, most of the route is a harrowing at times one-lane cobblestone track. Completing the loop became less attractive with every oncoming vehicle we had to inch around.

Driving the circuit counter-clockwise, our first stop was the picturesque little town of Yerbabuena (Good Herb).

In addition to the intriguing stone temple (two photos above), Yerbabuena has a charming little plaza and main church, as well as a very worthwhile walking path to a lake.

If the one-lane track had been this nice along the entire circuit, we would have continued. Once it began to narrow and climb higher into the mountains, it seemed like a good time to start heading back.

But not before visiting the birthplace of Raicilla, Cimarron Chico de la Raicilla.

Cimarron Chico was an agreeable little village with an ornate church, but failed to impress in one big area. We couldn’t find a single restaurant or bodega selling Raicilla. Suffice it to say, we did not stay long.

Fortunately, there was plenty of Raicilla to be had in the restaurants back in Mascota.

After dinner, we took the long way back to the Airbnb, via an unfinished cathedral.

We thought it might be nice to stroll the grounds in the cooler evening rather than the heat of the day, but alas, it was already locked up. We’ll try again tomorrow.

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