Thursday, 24 November 2011

Herbie Goes Bananas

TAXCO SHOULD BE picture-postcard perfect. A small pueblo, famous for its silver and jewellery, it sits on a hillside a few hours out of México DF by road. The silver mining industry is all but dead, and now tourism has taken over. I'd been quite excited about seeing the place, expecting to come away with a nice bespoke item after a relaxing weekend. As the bus rounded the curve and the valley came into view, Taxco shone brilliant white from the hillside it covered. I'd come with an Austrian architect named Karina whom I'd met at the hostel in DF, and she was as taken with the view as I was. We'd booked three nights in a hotel, there being no cheap hostel options in this town. We'd soon find out why.

The bus pulled into the tiny station, and we climbed uphill through the tight, pavement-free cobbled streets and into the centre. The place looked very pretty. As we approached the town plaza, I estimated we'd been passed by at least twenty white VW Beetles with numbered red circles on their doors. The noise of idling engines grew as we reached the square; a band of these taxis, two or three wide, snaked through the wide streets around it; all making for the exit at the far side, it being a one-way system due to the tight streets around town. Myself and Karina looked at each other "What the bloody hell is this?" I asked her. As we picked our way through the cars and asked directions to our hotel, she was voicing my fears "Maybe we should have just booked the one night?" Indeed. Too late now.

We found the entrance to the hotel and mounted the 157 steps to the reception. Karina counted them. These Austrians are almost as precise as the Germans? Our misgivings grew in magnitude as we got higher: dusty, long-unused tables and chairs with cobwebs all over them were randomly placed all over one terrace. Workmen were hammering away from within a tarpaulin-covered doorway next to the reception. I caught Karina's eye, and realised we were both thinking the same thing. The woman on duty showed us three rooms of a similar standard, but with differing shapes and furniture. We took the last one on the upper floor.

The room was grand. Or at least it probably was in the 40s. Indeed, from the state of the hotel in general, you'd have thought that visitors really were here last in 1940: Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe. And they were still cleaning up the mess. The bed looked big and comfortable, until Karina fell through the middle and realised that it was, in fact, two single beds pushed together: great. I took a look at the balcony. The view from the rusty wrought-iron chairs around the wobbly table was nice enough: if you ignored the weeds creeping from the cracks in the bricks and the dead leaves strewn all over the place. Karina emerged from the bathroom as I was re-fixing the guttering which hung down over the double doors from the room. "Look at the state of this" I said. I also pointed out the ancient roof tiles as stained and badly-set as a tramp's teeth. She grinned. "How is the bathroom?" I asked. "OK...but very old...and there doesn't seem to be any hot water." It just got better and better? I went and found the nightwatchman, an amiable old fellow named Carmelito, who informed me that we had to run the water for ten minutes before it got hot. So we were wasting almost a swimming pool of water before we could have a rinse in the shower? Must be some sort of Méxican eco-lodge. "Three days" I muttered. "Do you think they'll let us cancel one or two nights?" Karina asked me. I raised my eyebrows doubtfully. As we were likely the only guests here, I don't think a refund was on the cards. So...what the bloody hell were we going to do for three nights here?

After a first, thankfully very quiet and peaceful night atop the slope, we descended to check out the town. The burble of Beetle engines awaited us like a growling dog. Heading into the square through the mid-morning throng of white cars, we found a decent coffee and sat in the square with it. I spat half of mine out as a woman walked through the paved centre holding a small Polish flag aloft, a line of sandal-wearing, shuffling people twenty-strong behind her. Another group was less than five minutes in following. "Look" I said "a Japanese fellow with only two cameras. Travelling light." Karina laughed and bemoaned "A little bit touristy, isn't it?" How we laughed mirthlessly at our misfortune.

The smiles were well and truly wiped from our faces at lunch, when confronted with menu prices three times those of México DF. This was most definitely not a backpacker destination. Bad enough if the crappy food didn't add injury to the insult. When you're a captive audience people can charge whatever they like for any old rubbish, just like Picadilly in Central London. In fact, those shitty week-old slices of pizza you see under the hot displays in downmarket London takeaways are probably tastier and twice as nutritious as the one we had in Taxco's main plaza. "Oh it's not that bad" Karina scolded me. Compared to what, I thought...McDonald's? Eating wood?

Another day, another (thankfully) great coffee. This time the balcony overlooking the square was free, and we quickly took it. Below our vantage point was the entrance to said square, and we watched the line of traffic crawling through. For such a beautiful little town, it's a crying shame that there is, quite literally, not a moment's silence. We sat for an hour waiting for the traffic noise to die away to nothing, but there was always the growing metallic rattle of another approaching Beetle. "Is this a joke?" Karina asked me. If it was, it was definitely on us. Three days? Even the locals looked at us funny on Day Two...surprised we were still there, no doubt.

Depressingly, all the silver shops stocked the same mediocre shit; hardly the variety of Camden Market. Decent pieces were extremely thin on the ground. It was a little disappointing that there was only one independent workshop we could find. They had some nice stuff: for women. Ah well. More money saved to spend on diving, no? Or booze. At least Karina found something she liked. And I found her bargaining over 50 pesos (£2.50) quite went on for a while before she caved in. I was amused, the shop owner less so. At least in that particular shop the staff weren't constantly on our heels making sure we weren't stealing anything; most followed us or positioned themselves so that they could see our hands at all times. I mean...there may be a slight Liverpool lilt to my Spanish, but I'm hardly going to start nicking everything that isn't nailed down? Feeling like a criminal while shopping isn't a comfortable experience, so we gave up after a while.

We took a walk around the hilly streets. This town's layout is truly crazy, a map wouldn't do you much good. The roads veer off uphill in scattered directions: it's all over the place. It has a certain charm, but the traffic killed it stone dead for us. After breakfast at the bend of a road, just above the square, we sat and watched the intricate mechanical ballet as taxis came from opposite directions and manoeuvered around each other in a dance of three-point-turns, engines revving noisily on the slopes. As the traffic snarled up the passage, I headed uphill and counted the VW Beetles in the jam: 15 of them. But the drivers don't get irate. No-one honks or shakes fists. In NYC or London I reckon someone would be beaten to death with a steering wheel. I took advantage of the fact that drivers were stood around chatting to ask how many taxis there were in Taxco. Over 300, apparently.

Having seen everything of the town in the first hour of the first day, we headed out to the Cascadas de Cacalotenango, less than an hour away by minibus. No drone of Beetles here as we jumped out of the colectivo bus. A short hike uphill in the quiet of the valley below us was pleasant in the midmorning heat. We passed a local with some delightful little cabañas to rent, and wished again that we weren't stuck at Hotel Decrepit. The tranquility here suited us far better. After a short conversation and a look around, we headed to the fall. Quickly changed after a wade across the stream, we were in the freezing cold water for barely a minute each dip. It was so cold that it made the head swim and vision blur. Climbing out across the rocks I looked over at Karina and mentally remarked that a pneumatic, blue-eyed Austrian blonde dripping water, nipples erect in a grey bikini and covered in goosebumps, looked a damn sight sexier than an overweight Englishman with wet shorts clinging to a manhood wisely retreating from the intense cold? Ah well. Can't win them all, old chap.

So we were glad to escape Taxco after the third night. I wouldn't say to avoid the place entirely, as it's pretty enough and certainly worth a visit. But if you're in México DF, get up early and see the place on a day trip. If you do happen to get stuck here overnight, be sure not to stay at Hotel Decrepit. And bring a packed lunch.

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