With a whole lot of time to kill in Mexico City, and not a whole lot more to see, we saw a pretty picture on a magazine cover of a colonial town and a large volcano and decided to go there. After quizzing our Airbnb host-turned tour guide, we ascertained that the picturesque town in question was none other than Puebla, and it came highly recommended. A solid 2.5 hour drive away (which in Mexico terms equates to more like 4 hours on the road), we had two options to get there: bus, or rental car. Being the brash young individuals that we are, we chose the latter option, and subsequently our ridiculous road adventure began.
Renting a car in Mexico
Before I recount the various aesthetic delights of this particular foray into Mexico’s colonial past, I feel the need to dwell momentarily on the perplexing process of renting cars in this curious nation. Feel free to skip through to the next section if you “don’t got the time” or, frankly, don’t give a crap. I won’t be offended.
The benefits of a rental car are many, including the ability to throw all your bags and travel items into a conveniently large, locking receptacle (i.e. the trunk/boot), and the ability to go wherever you choose, in relative comfort and without Mexican hawkers trying to elicit money from you via atrocious acoustic remixes of popular 90s power ballads (as we’ve found is often the case on buses). However, having been through the process of renting a car twice in Mexico, I’m of two minds as to whether these benefits are really worth the stress.
Having suspected possible legal and financial ambushes while renting a Mexican car, I had done my research and determined that you can reserve a rental for next to nothing (I’m talking a dollar a day; essentially the same financial commitment as sponsoring an African child, but with considerably less gratification) but that the rental companies ALWAYS insisted that you buy additional damage and liability insurance, even if you had purchased insurance online already when you made the reservation. This, they maintained, was because the Mexican government imposes additional requirements for rental liability insurance that goes above and beyond what they offer as a standard package. This is, by and large, bullshit, and I read in the fine print of my reservation that I was automatically given standard liability insurance and that this, while not recommended, was sufficient for legal purposes.
Despite this, the rental process was an unenjoyable one, and upon walking into the Thrifty Rental office at Mexico City Airport I was immediately bombarded with strong recommendations, warnings, examples of people who had not bought additional insurance and so were throwing away their life’s savings to pay for the damages, and so on. My resolve began to waver, but with Liivi as my moral support crew I rallied and refused all insurance extras, with a resultant epic pout on the rental man’s face.
Mountains of paperwork
Next came the signatures, and I believe I may have signed upwards of 20 different papers, all in Spanish, and all covering this or that thing which I of course didn’t understand and didn’t have the time to translate. Eventually, my credit card was whisked away and swiped multiple times for various kinds of security deposits amounting to $4000 USD, then the real fun began – the inspection of the car.
The man who conducted the inspection was, we surmised, the devil himself. He had greased back hair, a long hooked nose, a smarmy expression and an absolute reluctance to mark down any pre-existing scratch or mark on our car. I would point to a scratch or ding and he would say “no problem, no problem” and walk on. Suspecting that this was, in fact a problem, I insisted and thus ensued a long argument, with most but not all of these instances resulting in him recording the damage. At the end, he thrust the carbon copy at my chest and stormed off.
The driving experience
Paperwork and devilings complete, we were free to drive our rather sad-looking Chevrolet Aveo wherever we damn well pleased, however we had been smugly warned that if we drove on the highway the cops could stop us and ask for our additional liability insurance, which we had declined to purchase. So, I drove out the gate with a sense of trepidation, and was immediately immersed into a world of Grand Theft Auto-style driving, which was as hilariously enjoyable as it was dangerous. We spent the the next couple of hours weaving, braking and honking our way out of Mexico City, and soon found that driving on the highway was really the only way of avoiding crashing into the crazy taxi and bus drivers who slam on their brakes every 10 metres for no apparent reason.
The toll roads
Next came the tolls. Now, toll roads really aren’t that bad if the tolls are reasonable and the roads are well maintained. As a rule of thumb, however, these roads were not well-maintained, and the toll prices were astronomical – we ended up paying close to $40 in the 2.5 hour drive to Puebla, and on another 4 hour trip to Morelia we estimated a round-trip toll total of well over $100. Which really made me wonder how anyone in Mexico could actually afford to drive on these roads, considering a typical street taco costs around 2 pesos ($15 cents).
The speed bumps
Worst of all was the speed bumps. They are freakin everywhere! And they’re small, steep, vicious little things, which cause the car to make alarming thumping sounds no matter how slow you drive over them. Plus they’re not marked at all – no signs, no striped yellow paint, nothing – so every so often you’ll look away for half a second and wham! the car is flying through the air, your head has smacked the ceiling and you’re thinking that you probably SHOULD have bought that additional insurance, after all.
Returning the car
With all this foreshadowing, you’ve probably moved to the edge of your seat waiting for some epic rental car disaster to befall us. Well you’ll be sorry to hear that such an event did not come to pass, so you can scoot back to an ergonomically agreeable position and make yourself comfortable once more. At the end of the trip, we pulled back into the Thrifty Rental lot with not an extra scratch on our trusty Aveo, but still feeling strangely nervous about the key handover. This feeling was justified, as upon arrival our friend the greasy devil shot outside and spent a very long time inspecting every inch of the car. Eventually, he made a triumphant sound and informed us that there was a new scratch on the side of the car, pointing to the very same scratch I had shown him at the beginning and which he had refused not to note down, saying “no problem, no problem”. I was furious with the sneaky bastard, and essentially blew up in his face, at which point he sensed mortal danger and thankfully backed down. But I can tell you that this is standard practice, as the second time we rented a car from the same place (yes, we did it a second time for some reason) we observed an unfortunate couple being framed for a shallow ding they insisted was already there before they drove it, but which our devil-man had declined to record and so they were being forced to pay up.
Tips for Mexican Car Rentals
Sorry for the rant, but anyone wanting to rent a car in Mexico needs to know what they’re getting themselves into. My words of wisdom for the whole thing would be to scour your rental agreement to see what insurance it covers you for, be prepared to be bullied by the rental guys into buying extra coverage, and take plenty of photos of your rental BEFORE you drive it away. This proved very useful the second time we rented a car, as when we brought it back the agency once again tried to blame us for damaging one of the brake lights, but then we busted out a photo which clearly showed said damage being present at the time of renting, and they backed off with instant smiles and apologies.
Oh, and one other thing – if you can, bring along a local for the ride. We had the comparative good fortune to be carrying a Mexico City local during our second trip, who saved our backsides when we were stopped by the cops on the highway and were being shouted at for various paperwork that we supposedly didn’t have. It turned out that we DID have that paperwork, it just took somebody who knew the process and could speak Spanish to point it out to these guys, who were clearly hoping I didn’t understand (I didn’t) and were heading towards a hefty bribe.
Rental car misgivings aside, we arrived in Puebla with our minds largely intact and our wallets only a little worse for wear from the tolls. At one point, the drive had come close to being pleasant, with some tunes pumping on the radio and some rather spectacular views of Popocatepetl, an active volcano and the second highest peak in mexico (5,426 m/18,491 ft). After a flustered process of determining where our hotel’s “free parking” was located (on the street, it turned out), we were checked in and ready to explore on foot.
Puebla was a breath of fresh air (metaphorically. Definitely not literally) after the craziness of Mexico City, and we took time to idly stroll the pedestrian areas surrounding the city’s Zocalo (Mexican for plaza or square). Puebla is famous for having a ridiculous amount of churches and cathedrals, so much of this area was filled with some impressive Catholic architecture, but between the churches was a vibrant assortment of brightly coloured shops, stores and houses selling everything under the sun. We easily covered the area by foot within a couple of hours, and got a good feel for the city in the process.
The next day, we walked from our hotel in the historical district to the “Zona Historica de Los Fuertes”, which was a decision made in the absence of topographic considerations. As such, we soon found ourselves sweating profusely as we wound our way up some very steep ghetto-esque cobbled side streets, and regretting not taking a taxi. Eventually, we crested the hill and found ourselves in a nicely landscaped but strangely deserted area below a museum of some kind. We obtained some palettas (a Mexican take on ice blocks, generally consisting of water or milk, fruit juice, and presumably food colouring) in the hopes of stemming the rivers of sweat, and strolled around the area. The views were reasonable, there were some nice fountains and a strange ladder pole which looked like one of those things that African tribesmen stand on without eating for 3 weeks as some kind of ritual. You know what I’m talking about! Otherwise, not too much excitement to be found up here.
During our 3 day jaunt in Puebla, we stayed at the rather curious Casa Del Callejon, which was very conveniently located only a couple of blocks away from the Zocalo. The hotel itself had some real character, with large enclosed courtyards with interesting artwork and plants festooning the walls, old high-ceilinged rooms, and strange little bathrooms that had recently been renovated. There was also a nice breakfast service in the morning, which was brought directly to your room and you could sit outside in one of the courtyards and sip your coffee whilst nibbling on an unhealthy but very tasty Mexican sugar bun.
As such, this place had potential. However, it let the team down due to a number of factors. Now, these things may seem small and petty to the chilled-out traveller, but people don’t read this blog to hear about how we frolicked in fields of flowers all day and slept on a bed of marshmallows at night.
- The bed was tiny, and had an even tinier sheet which didn’t even stretch from one side of the bed to the other. When we asked for a sheet that was the same size of the bed (i.e. a double sheet, rather than single), we were met with confusion and subsequently ended up with a large woolen blanket.
- The staff who worked there manned the desk 24/7, and seemed to have a “ruccus” room directly above ours, therefore on a number of occasions we could hear music and atrocious Mexican tv sounds blasting through the ceiling in the early hours of the morning.
- Worst and weirdest of all, the bathroom seemed to be a gathering point for all the resident mosquitoes of Puebla, and as soon as we would turn out the lights at night there would ensue an impressively loud droning from that direction. This droning would eventually increase into a crescendo, at which point said residents would tire of their mundane bathroom surroundings and decide to make a foray into our bedroom. Thus, the nights were spent in an unfortunate state of half-wakefulness, with conscious filled with real and imagined buzzings and unconsciousness filled with dreams of the little bastards.
In all, I would recommend this place only if they tidied up their act a little, bought some proper bedding, and reigned destruction down upon the nightly bathroom mosquito gatherings.
We had some excellent eating experiences in Puebla, and found the food here a lot fresher, more varied and creative than Mexico D.F. Highlights were the burritos and bohemian atmosphere of Restaurante Lola, the authentic but modern take on Pueblan dishes at Maiz Prieto, and the ice creams/palettas at Yelao.
Not yet ready to head back to Mexico City, we looked further afield and decided that the historic city of Cuernavaca was the logical next step. Established approximately 3200 years ago by the Olmec, widely considered to be the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, Cuernavaca is now a popular weekend getaway for Mexico City residents and travellers alike due to it’s warm, stable climate and vegetative delights. We liked the look of it because it had an interesting history, impressive colonial architecture and some interesting up-and-coming festivals.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drive from Puebla to Cuernavaca was an interesting one, largely due to my steadfast determination to get up close and personal with the volcano Popocatepetl. Google Maps had a different idea, and seemed to be overwhelmed by the craziness of Mexican roads to the point where it would take us on some very interesting detours down tiny rural roads where some of the people had probably never seen a couple of silly gringos in their lives. Popocatepetl seemed to be putting a hex on Google Maps, and no matter how hard we tried to drive up to it, Google Maps sent us elsewhere. Eventually, after driving several kilometres down what could only be considered a farm wagon trail through herds of sheep, horses, cattle and goats, we decided enough was enough and gave up on the volcano. We scraped back onto the highway and gunned it for Cuernavaca.
Once in Cuernavaca, we made contact with our Airbnb host, parked up the car, and issued a collective sigh at not needing to drive for a couple of days. We were very excited to have a large supermarket (a rarity in Mexico) right on our doorstep, so we immediately went on a food spending spree, cooked up a storm, and just chilled for the evening. Next day, we mosied on into town and plunged into the various festivals that were creating a hullabaloo in the Zocalo, including a mariachi competition (all bands equipped with hilarious ultra-mariachi attire) and a huge food festival. We worked up an appetite exploring the Palacio de Cortes, then dived into the mayhem of the food festival tents.
Aside from purchasing a tasty bag of plantain chips, the food tents were way too hectic and we soon found ourselves starting to hyperventilate a little. So, we got the heck out of there and enjoyed a relaxed, comparatively quiet meal at a cafe down a sleepy side street.
Next morning, after watching the All Blacks crush the Wallabies (huzzah!) in the Rugby World Cup final, we made the decision to unleash the car once more and drive to the small town of Tepoztlan.
Tepoztlan and the Temple of Tepozteco
Tepoztlan had come highly recommended by our gracious Cuernavaca Airbnb host, based on its generous offerings of meandering cobbled streets, interesting shops and curious churches. None of this interested us overly much, having had our fair share of these things in the other Mexican settlements we’d visited so far, but what DID interest us was the Temple of Tepozteco, which is accessed from the town via a grueling climb up a mountainside.
A small tribute to the Aztec god Tepoztecatl, deity of alcohol and laziness (some would wonder why they would establish a temple for this guy at the TOP of a mountain, rather than at the bottom where it’s easy for a lazy man/god to access), the temple itself isn’t anything too exciting, but the views are fantastic, the climb is an experience in itself (bring lots of water, as in Liivi’s words: “I’ve never sweated this much in my life!”), and there’s these awesome little part-monkey, part-raccoon, part-lemur critters called Coati at the top.
Thoroughly invigorated by the walk, besmirched by the Coati and drained (literally) from excessive sweating, we made it back down in one piece and immediately called in to one of the many stalls at the bottom of the trail for a delicious ice-cold coconut, in which they first chopped a hole for us to drink out of, then when we were done drinking they chopped the entire thing up, removed the flesh, put it in a bag and mixed in chillies, lime and salt – delicious! We then strolled back through town, observing the ridiculous array of bars, restaurants, food stalls, clothing stalls, hat stalls, and general paraphernalia stalls. At one point, we waited very patiently for a lady to bake us some fresh triangular maiz-flour things which smelled AMAZING, and tasted even better. To this day, we don’t know what they were, but the search to find them again continues.
We stayed in an old Airbnb colonial house 10 minutes walk from downtown Cuernavaca and right beside a large supermarket. I know it sounds a little sad, but this was a big plus for us, having eaten only tacos and burritos for the past 5 days. The house was old and voluminous, but we had it all to ourselves, including a large kitchen, multiple dining rooms, a sitting room, a pool, a private ensuite, and a secure place to lock our car. Highly recommended, especially for the price: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/7934453?eluid=0&euid=9e589757-fff1-bcf9-a0ec-7d0ce8f7921d
Eating in Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan
We didn’t eat out too much in Cuernavaca, on account of the aforementioned supermarket spending spree, however we had our fair share of street food in Tepoztlan and it was fresh, cheap, and (most importantly), didn’t make us sick. Keep your eye out for the delicious and mysterious triangular cake things!