One of Mexico’s best kept travel secrets for people driving their own vehicle is the multitude of road signs all beginning with the word “microondas” (literally “microwaves”). Even visitors with good Spanish and a bilingual dictionary in their glove compartment may puzzle over the meaning of this frequently occurring sign, which invariably seems to lead onto a cobblestone track going, so far as one can tell, absolutely nowhere! There is no distant church tower, no sign of habitation, just a radio mast on the distant skyline. And that (rather than microwave ovens) is precisely what the sign refers to: a short-wave communications post!
One of the numerous benefits for the geographer is that virtually any microondas station offers a short, usually interesting side-trip, ideal for a brief respite from the demands of high speed highway driving. The well maintained, cobblestone tracks that provide access to the communications towers serve not only engineers, but also enterprising tourists. The access roads may follow devious routes but they eventually reach the gates of a fenced enclosure, invariably situated on the highest point for several miles in any direction. While there is no guarantee of an uninterrupted view, most microondas stations afford tremendous vistas over the surrounding countryside.
Very few vehicles use these excellent side roads, so they are usually safe and convenient places to stop, take a rest, stretch your legs and enjoy a picnic. As the tracks wind upwards, they often traverse successive vegetation zones, going from oak woodland up into pine forest if the mountain is high enough, for instance. This provides botanists and birders a range of habitats and transition zones worth exploring. Of course, some microondas sit on top of small mounds surrounded by a seemingly limitless flat and monotonous plain, home only to an infinite number of cacti. But others, the jewels of their kind, are in the midst of tropical rainforest looking out over canyons where spider monkeys can be seen leaping from branch to branch.
In the volcanic central areas of Mexico, microondas stations are commonly perched on crater rims, making many volcanoes fall in the “drive-in” category, including the Volcán Nevado de Toluca (Xinantécatl). Full descriptions of the scenic wonders to be encountered on drives up, for example, Ceboruco volcano or Tequila volcano (the former in Nayarit state, the latter in Jalisco) merit a book unto themselves. To anyone who has never seen the legacies of past vulcanicity at close quarters, what more awesome and eye-opening introduction could there possibly be?
Needless to say, though you’re never far from the highway, you mustn’t expect to find any tourist amenities at microondas, not even “microwaved” fast-food. But don’t let that put you off visiting Mexican-style microwaves.
So, next time you spy “microondas” on a road sign (or, if you’re reading this in the depths of northern winter, the next time you press a button on your microwave!), remember – a short detour along one of Mexico’s best-kept travel secrets might well lead you to discover your own favorite stopping place. Someday, somewhere, someone should produce a comprehensive guide to the microondas of Mexico…
Mexico’s volcanic landscapes are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy a copy as a seasonal gift today!