Route to El Chico: hits and misses

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Traveling in a collectivo is unpredictable at times

… like hitting the ‘I am feeling lucky’ button on Google

↑ Empty road which (I assumed) would lead to El Chico village

I love traveling in the lowest class of collective transport – a minivan, collectivo, combi, marshrutka, sherut or whatever they may be called – the vehicles that start only when full and stop wherever people flag them down. These are usually quite systematic, but for a visitor like me, these seem chaotic, crowded and confusing. Add to that one of my favorite thrills of traveling in a foreign country – the language barrier, the resulting combination of these random factors is often unpredictable and curious. On my recent trip to Mexico, I had a number of such incidents and strangely I ended up ‘discovering’ something new each time.

Mineral del Chico

↑ Mineral del Chico signboard – “Small village but great people”

From the city of Pachuca near Mexico city, several combis (mini vans) depart for the village of El Chico, some a 40-45 minutes away. The mini vans are marked ‘Mineral del Chico’ and leave every hour or so. I got in mine and waited for 20 minutes as I was the first one there. After a while the driver decided to leave, and I fell asleep….

Attempt 1: Miss

When I woke up, I was in the middle of mountains, lush and green. The Hidalgo region around Mexico city is quite dry and arid but in the El Chico (एल् चिको) national park, everything changes to green. The abrupt change in scenery caught me by complete surprise. How long was I in the van? I checked my watch – 30 minutes.

I saw a sign that said “El Chico” and asked the driver to let me out. At that point, I did not know that ‘El Chico’ was the generic name of that area and not the name of the village I was looking for. Bummer. I think the driver tried telling me many times that this is not the village of El Chico, but it looked so beautiful outside that I wanted to get off anyway.

↑ A road spiraling up the mountain

The driver was right (duh), I was nowhere close to the village. I started walking along the road that zig zagged its way up to the mountain. The air was crisp and fresh, and being early morning, the birds were quite active too. You have to understand that I came from snowy Toronto to arid Mexico city and this was the first time I was in the middle of a forest. It was minor, but wonderful!

Now, after walking uphill for over an hour, I was sweaty and desparate to get to somewhere despite the pleasant walk. Although this aimless wandering was nice, it was getting kinda “inefficient” and so I decided to find some transportation. I began flagging down vehicles, hoping to hitch a ride. Alas nobody would stop. Finally someone did:

Me: Buenos días señor, ¿Usted va a El Chico (Good morning sir, are you going to El Chico?)
Man: [Puzzled] umm, THIS is el chico. you want the village el chico?
Me: [Confused, but had a lightbulb moment] Si, por favor (Yes, please, the village)
Man: [Long sentence in Spanish]…. (I can drop you off at such and such turnoff)
Me: Okay, thankyou!

↑ Turnoff
The guy dropped me off at this turnoff, the road going left went to the village and he was going right. After waiting for 10 minutes, I saw a collectivo approaching at full speed and I frantically waived at it. This time I was hoping to reach the right place…

Attempt 2: Miss, again

The collectivo passed through a small village. I wasn’t sure if it was Mineral del Chico or not because there were no signs and nobody said anything. So I stayed put. It was a nice village – narrow cobblestone streets, hilly, little houses and everyone-knows-everyone kind. The village passed, and then there were a bunch of houses, nothing looking spectacular. More random houses between vast stretches of hilly road and woods. Finally the van entered the last village and this time the driver turned his engine off.

Me: This is Mineral del Chico?
Driver: [Worried] No! This is Carboneras. Did you want to go to MdC? Because it was the previous one,… “Why didn’t you tell him” (a co-passenger said)… and then there was more talking which I didn’t understand. The driver offered to drive me back for free. Small town people are so nice! But I politely declined and went about checking this new place out… Carbon-something


↑ School ground at Carboneras village, where the road ends. No chance of going any further…

This was a cute little village – at the end of the road apparently. No possibilities of more misses, or so I thought. Only one street, half a dozen stores (one of which was broadcasting music at full volume) and people gawking at me as if it was their first time seeing a foreigner in their village.

I walked up the street… not ‘a’ street, but ‘the’ street. School children were playing football and waived at me, and pointed at the camera. I took their pictures. Where do all these kids come from? I spotted a lone hut with a kitchen and simple setup – two tables, four chairs and bottles of coca cola in the corner. Nobody except a lady who was now starting at me. Taking my chances, I asked her in my eloquent Spanish:

Me: Buenas tardes señora. Quiero comer. ¿Puedo comer aqui (Good afternoon ma’m. I want to eat. Can I eat here?)
Lady: ah, si! ¡si! ¡si! (yes! yes! yes! – Its common to hear many yes’s in a row accompanied by vigorous nodding.)
Me: Thank you.

I was then drawn into an intense and long discussion about every possible thing in the world. She called 2 of her ‘aunty’ friends so they could also see me. I used all the Spanish words I knew and did all the gestures and sounds I could make, and took their pictures as well. She asked me what vegetables I liked, what kind of meat I preferred and cooked right then and there. As a result, I had a very satisfying home-cooked meal. In fact, this was one of my most favorite meals in Mexico.

↑ Comida corrida (set lunch) at Carboneras. The tortillas were soft and fresh, the chicken and vegetables were cooked perfectly and my ‘burp’ was satisfying.

Attempt 3: Hit, finally!

From Carboneras I took ‘the’ collectivo to Mineral del Chico, and this time I had the wisdom to double check with the driver. He said yes and I disembarked from the vessel. My voyage had ended, I had found gold.

↑ Leafy town centre of Mineral de el Chico.

Mineral del Chico is a little village in the mountains and had lots of vivid shades of green and blue that were therapeutic to my eyes. Actually it was the same village I had passed in round 2 before. I spent an hour walking around and another hour sitting in the town center writing my journal.

↑ Getting creative at a distance marker….since I had nothing else to do except wait for a ride…

I wrote about how I started the day assuming I would go from point A to B and return to A, and how boring that sounded now. I wrote about how expectation and reality could differ vastly. I wrote about the songs I sang and the flowers I saw when I was hiking on the road. I wrote about communication barriers, misunderstandings and unexpected outcomes.

So, although nothing went according to the plan, at the end I thought it was a perfect day.

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery