A gas leak, tassels on the windshield and passenger-window curtains are not typical of a Mexico City taxi.
But the description fits the one some friends and I had to take during a late-night ride back to the city after hiking a volcano trail.
I left my sunny South County beaches last month for a one-week vacation in Mexico City to visit a friend. It was a fun time that left me with a greater appreciation for the amoeba-free food, drinkable tap water and abundance of toilet paper we have here in the States.
Three days after my arrival, my friend Crissy and I decided to accompany her three friends on a day trip to a volcano called Popocatepetl (“Popo” for short), one of two volcanoes near Mexico City.
Our journey involved the metro, a 1½-hour bus trip to a village, and lunch before a 45-minute taxi ride in a VW bus through green, tree-lined scenery to the trail.
I was skeptical about how this would all turn out. We hired a taxi for the ride up, but how would we return? The only things around were a bare-bones lodge (more like a hostel), a couple of hungry, stray dogs and a few park visitors.
No one else seemed concerned about this little detail.
We took a quick snapshot, a victory pose before we even set off on the steep hike. About an hour and a half later, after frequent cookie and water breaks, I decided I’d had enough physical exertion for the day. “Guys, I’m heading back.”
Two hours went by while I waited for them at the hostel. Chatting with two travelers from Norway and Germany helped pass the time.
Just as it started growing dark and rainy, the expedition team returned. They tried to reach snowline, but realized is was too far, and settled for building a snowman in the first patch of snow they saw. “We brought this back for you,” Jim said, handing me a makeshift foil cup full of snow.
I was touched.
Now the problem was returning to the village before catching the last bus to Mexico City. The man at the lodge counter gave us a phone number for a taxi. But the public phone wasn’t working. So after mild panic, Crissy and her German friend Jochen got a ride into town with two park visitors. They would find a taxi and come back for us – we hoped.
Hours went by. It was cold in the lounge area where John, Jim and I sat on couches near a dark fire pit. A dinner of camomile tea and granola bars wasn’t fulfilling. The lodge had no food service. Joking about the situation was a small comfort.
“They’re probably feasting on a big dinner in a hotel restaurant while we slowly starve,” we grumbled to each other.
Finally, we gave in and decided to check into the dorm-like lodge for the night before it closed. Only 10 pesos per person, about $3.50. After seeing the bare mattresses and trying to convince the counter man to give us blankets, our saviors showed up.
We shuffled in a tight group into complete darkness, the stairs lit only by a dim keychain flashlight.
The taxi was a 1972 Chevy Malibu. All I saw were tassels when I sat down, but that didn’t matter. This was our ticket back to the village. We waited expectantly, in silence, as the driver turned the ignition.
He tried turning the key again.
The three free-spirits in the back seat burst into laughter, with Jim hooting and laughing so hard he snorted. But John and I remained silent, tense and worried the driver would get mad and refuse to take us. He seemed proud of his car, judging by the elaborate decorations.
The engine finally kicked in. After a bumpy ride down the road, which was full of crater-sized potholes, we negotiated with the driver to take us all the way back to Mexico City. Crissy fell asleep, and woke up shortly before we arrived. “The gas fumes knocked me unconscious,” she said.
We reached a remote metro station, paid the driver, and rushed inside, only to discover we’d missed the last train. The system shut down at midnight.
A snack of peanuts from a street vendor revitalized our brains, and we decided to stand in line for another taxi. Five people squished into a VW bug. Jim and John had to walk another 45 minutes to reach home.
The moral of the story? Pack more than jam, bread and cookies when you go hiking in a foreign country.
And beware of taxis with tassels.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, June 2, 1994.