A Vintage Roadtrip: Butterflies, Blues and VW Buses
Story by Lydia Carey, photos by author and Jorge Reich

A driver relives his happiest childhood memories, a passenger gets to experience the family road trip she never had.

Vintage Roadtripping in Mexico
©Jorge Reich

Before the money problems, before the divorce, before his dad moved to Colima and sold the last VW bus, Jorge remembers their infamous road trips. He and his sisters were kids when his dad bought a 1974 VW hightop, orange and white, and named it Matilda. They traveled as a family every spring break to go camping and one year took a marathon road trip to Canada and back to see his aunt.

"Those years were definitely the best of my childhood, we just enjoyed the road and everything was so simple," says Jorge, "As we went my dad would talk to me about how to pass, how to break with the motor, all the tricks to driving a VW bus."

I can imagine the two of them in the front seat of a bus much like the one we are in now, tiny Jorge bobbing his head to his father's instructions. We are headed to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in the Estado de Mexico, the state that hugs Mexico City to the north and east and west like an odd-shaped hat.

In the last five years Jorge has rediscovered his love of VWs and purchased a few to take his own kids camping. He's decided to start offering roadtrip services to tourists and I am to be his test run. When he first pitched me the idea I wasn't sure of the major selling points but after only a few hours in the VW bus, called a combi in Mexico, I'm sold.

All you have to do as the passenger is ride. Jorge takes care of all the details, maintains the vehicle, figures out directions. I can be drunk, asleep or totally distracted and we won't crash or get. That's what I always like about traveling by bus. But better than a bus, on this trip I drew up the itinerary, Jorge lets me stop at every ridiculous overlook I want to take pictures, and we have a great soundtrack.

See Ya Later City

Matilda 70 MexicoYou've heard about slow food? Well Jorge warns me that this is slow travel, the combi doesn't get much faster than about 65 miles an hour. I have to honestly say I don't notice, it feels like we are plugging along at quite a clip as we pass the campgrounds and outdoor restaurants of La Marquesa, a national park that runs along the Mexico-Toluca highway leading out of Mexico City.

This is where Mexico City families come on the weekends to get their fresh air, trail ride, and eat roasted rabbit, the specialty of the area. I can't quite imagine it. When I was young we were a close family but we did not do picnics and road trips. The number one reason being that my father hates driving but doesn't trust anyone else at the wheel, so we rarely went on trip that was more than a few hours away.

The ones I remember—a long-haul to Florida one year, a couple trips to a cabin up north—are so distant in my memory that the time we actually spent on the road has been wiped clean. For me, this trip with Jorge is like the Scooby-do, Woodstock, cross-country marathon that I dreamt about at 16...except in Mexico, with a practical stranger, and with beer at the end of the day.

Vintage Roadtripping in Mexico

As we barrel south on Highway 5, "Reflections Of My Life" by The Marmalade comes on and I watch the sheep meander the hillside unaware they are suddenly the backdrop to my 70s roadtrip movie.

Waterfalls Above and Below

Every good roadtrip includes getting lost. These days that's harder and harder to accomplish with pinpoint GPS, but Mexico still has these remote places that don't follow the GPS rules. It takes us 6 or 7 turnarounds and several stops for directions to get to our first stop, the Obraje waterfalls, the bus is surprisingly maneuverable on narrow paths and tight turnarounds. We make it to the waterfalls as the afternoon begins to slip away from us and hike down to see their majestic 80-foot drops.

"Totally worth it," Says Jorge about the detour and the extra time, "this is what road trips are all about."

Mexico waterfallWe make it that night to Malinalco, a tiny town growing in popularity as a weekend retreat for folks from the capital. On a Wednesday the place is mostly dead, but we find a little bar to have a drink and bowl of pasta. Back at our hotel that night Jorge waxes poetic about his combis and we listen to "Space Oddity" by Bowie from a tinny speaker he has brought along.

On the road again the next morning we are taking a wild, looping route in order to check out the underground caves of Cacahuamilpa and hopefully find some mezcal. A developing "mezcal route" is supposedly taking hold in this area (so much so, a local tells me later that they are cutting down local forest to plant maguey cactus). Blindly unaware of ecological consequences, we drive through tiny towns and meet more than one twelve- or thirteen-year-old herding sheep.

"No one makes mezcal around here," they tell us—bet if we could find someone a little bit older they might have a fix on some.

The drive takes us through fields of corn, sunflowers and tall grass. Everything in this valley, despite the fact that it's the middle of winter and therefore the dry season, is green and abundant. Frank Sinatra's "All my Tomorrows Belong to you" is playing when a herd of cows crosses our path on the road. They are accompanied by their cowboy, sitting high up a horse, hat pulled so far down his eyes are invisible. The world's greatest crooner seems somewhat out of place in this bucolic country scene, and yet, at the same time, completely right.

"This is my happy place," Jorge tells me at one point as we wind around snaking backroads. "Nothing is better than being on the road in the combi."

Disappointment over the missing mezcal is somewhat soothed by the Cacahuamilpa caves. While we learn almost nothing from our guide whose job it seems is to point out funny structures ("To your left you'll see the face of Pope John Paul"), we are completely transported into an underground world of jeweled mountains. Stalagmites and stalactites, creating from millions of years of dripping water tower over us. The guide tells us that the river, now 90 meters below the caves, was sucked out in a rush during one of the area's many earthquakes - it gives us both a little shiver to think about being down there during an earthquake.

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