Roadblocks and Thunderstorms: Michoacan Is Worth It

October 21, 2016: Iʻm sitting in the van soaking wet as a thunderstorm rages around us. We are in southern Michoacan and this is the first real storm weʻve dealt with. Itʻs the kind of storm that has me questioning why I ever left the warm, dry confines of my home in Hawaii for this crazed adventure. Then I remember the wave we saw here yesterday as we first pulled up. Itʻs the kind of wave that has me questioning if I will ever want to return to the bustling, overcrowded lineups of my home. Maybe living there was crazed. Perhaps I could stay here forever. Besides, a thunderstorm is really just a free shower with its own loud music and mood lighting.

We left our muddy river mouth, the tamale lady, and crazy coconut man on October 20 in search of a famed cobblestone left a couple hours south. The road was narrow, winding, and beautiful. Green jungle grew over the road in places making green shady tunnels. Only a few small towns and tiendas occasionally broke up the overwhelming green. Our speedometer rarely broke 35 mph.

We had been told Michoacan is one of the most dangerous places to travel in Mexcio. We had been advised to avoid it but we also knew there were some great waves to be found and that people tend to exaggerate the dangers. After all, we had already travelled through many places we had been warmed were ʻextremely unsafeʻ for tourists. These kinds of things stop worrying you so much after a month on the road.

So about two thirds of our drive down, when we saw a group of maybe forty armed men blocking the road, I could hear the voices of every neurotic worrywart telling me “I told you so!”

Each man was armed with what looked like an automatic rifle. They had coned off both lanes of the road and stopped us as we pulled up. This was no routine military checkpoint: no one was in uniform.

A man came up to Paulʻs window and asked where we were going. Paul told him and the man shook his head as if to say, “No.” He then said in Spanish, “Itʻs no good, thereʻs a party,” and promptly stuck his gun through the window and gave Paul a poke in the ribs.

It was then we were relieved to discover the manʻs gun was wooden. Everybody’s was. But they still werenʻt letting us pass. A lot of times itʻs best just to play dumb tourist and pretend you donʻt understand anything the guy is saying. Oftentimes they just get frustrated and let you go, hoping for an easier target later. Itʻs also pretty easy to play dumb tourist when your Spanish consists two monthʻs worth of Rosetta Stone and a month on the road in Mexico. You might say Iʻm a natural.

The man continued to plod on in Spanish and we continued to shrug and say, “No entiendo,” I donʻt understand and, “No hablo Espanol,” I donʻt speak Spanish. At this point close to ten men were crowding around our van and sticking their heads through the windows. Finally the man just says in plain English, “Do you have money?” I feel like the answer to that question is always no which was our response. He then said “For a party, Halloween, we need money.”

Paul: “No, no money.”

“Just 20 pesos, 10 pesos, 5 pesos.” He seemed to haggle with himself. If youʻre a little rusty on your conversions, 5 pesos is about 25 cents US. Once we realized he was asking for 5 pesos and not our entire life’ssavings, things went more smoothly. We quickly handed him over 5 pesos, they all moved aside, and we were on our way.

As we drove off, Paul and I broke out in this uncontrollable almost hysterical laughter. What had initially seemed like a terrifying sketchy situation was actually just a bunch of drunk guys trying to scare up some beer money. It is quite an effective fundraising method.

We made it to the fabled left hand point break without further incident, pulling up as the sun was setting. The waves that greeted us were unreal. Well overhead sets reeled off a riverine cobblestone point in a perfect line that ran for hundreds of yards. The wind was light offshore and the setting sun made the spray turn golden. Wave after wave marched in with unnerving regularity. It was like a machine.  

Thanks to our roadblock we were too late to get a surf in. We pitched a tent under a palapa for 50 pesos each and quickly passed out, eager for the morning. We woke at about 4 am to a thunderstorm threatening to tear down our tent. The wind blew the tent nearly sideways and rain poured in; our rain guard seemed more like a sieve. Worried the tent might break, we tore it down and made a break for the van, leading us back to the start of this writing, huddled together in the shelter of the van contemplating the choices that led to our cold, wet reality.

When the rain eventually subsided, we went on a hunt for more watertight accommodation. We asked around for a bit and found a beachfront house for 100 pesos per night ($5 US), the same we had been paying to camp. This just goes to show it pays to ask around. Oftentimes on this trip we roll into a place late and completely exhausted and just pick the first place we see. That is almost always a mistake and we pay for it, just not usually so dramatically as a thunderstorm flooding our tent.

I donʻt want to bore you with the details of daily life here mostly because we stayed for three weeks and the details blur together. Instead Iʻll give you some broad strokes. In the three weeks we stayed, the waves were good every day except one. We met a really rad couple, Nolan and Kirsty, who had been backpacking up from Costa Rica and were planning on spending a month here. We watched the Cubs win the World Series in a local bar, drinking beer, margaritas, and shots of mescal as we tried to decipher what the Spanish-speaking commentators were saying. We found a dog, named him Molé, and heʻs been with us ever since. We intended to go after two days and stayed for nearly a month. We didn’t want to leave.