A feature in Roamer Magazine

Hello everybody!

I just wanted to share with you this new project, a magazine for backpackers with an eco-conscious mindset. An article I wrote about the town of Tortuguero in Costa Rica is featured in their first issue and I couldn’t be happier. Thank you to everybody at Roamer for making this happen 🙂

Staying at home is a great opportunity to plan new adventures and reflect on our ecological impact on the planet, so give it a read if you have a chance! Here it is:

Among Clouds: Monteverde, Costa Rica

Monteverde was the fourth stop in our Costa Rican adventure. It was quite the odyssey to get there from Tortuguero: we took the boat to La Pacvona, from where we took a “colectivo” to Cariari, a bus to San JosĂ© and finally another bus to Monteverde. It was all worth it though, Monteverde is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited. Because of the altitude, you get the feeling of being among clouds, breathing the purest air. Everything there is green and the ground is covered in moss. Every tree, both in the village and in the parks, is crawling with animals and plants.

The town of Monteverde is picturesque to an extreme. Most buildings resemble chalets or cabins, and the streets are super inclined, which makes it hard to walk. There’s always fog and the weather is cold for Costa Rica. In Monteverde alone, we saw more wildlife than in any other location: howling monkeys, capuchin monkeys, agoutis, lizards, frogs and many different kinds of birds. It was one of the highlights of the trip, not to mention here we found the cheapest hostel of the trip, Sleepers, which was like $7 the night.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest

Clouds are one of the main appeals of Monteverde. A cloud forest is a rare ecosystem, they only exist in places where tropical weather, the mountainous topography and the atmospheric conditions conspire to allow a constant cover of clouds. The result is not only beautiful to behold but it allows thousands of different species of animals and plants to thrive in this humid and not too cold conditions. To visit the Cloud Forest Reserve of Monteverde you have three different options: Monteverde Cloud Forest, Santa Elena Cloud Forest, and Bosque Eterno de los Niños. We visited Santa Elena, which is not that expensive and offers a nice view of the Arenal Volcano.

Being September, we prepared ourselves for rain and left early to start hiking at 10am. In Santa Elena we were surprised by a clear and sunny day. Santa Elena Cloud Forest is a magical place. It offers four well-kept hiking trails and a close encounter with nature. We spent the whole day there and barely saw any more people. We did see, however, all kinds of vegetation, cascades, giant birds, monkeys and the most spectacular ficus trees. It was an adventure and not even the rain that came later in the afternoon could ruin (and boy, did it rain).

Ficus trees

Another thing you can do in Monteverde is climbing a ficus tree. When we were in Puerto Viejo, a friend told us about a huge ficus tree we could climb. He explained where it was and showed us on the map, so we thought it would be easy to find it. We spent about an hour walking there from the village and, once we got there, saw a forest full of ficus trees. They all looked climbable, but none resembled the picture we’d seen. We gave up the search when it started to get dark, and on the way back we saw at least ten capuchin monkeys dancing and playing in the trees. We also heard a very loud howling monkey and saw a lovely agouti, so I would not call it an unfruitful adventure.

Monteverde is, to put it plainly, a wonderful place. It is one of my favourite places in Costa Rica and one I wish we had spent more time in.

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Stalking Turtles

The greatest appeal of Costa Rica has to be its natural diversity. The number of beautiful places and animals that live in this small country was the main reason I wanted to visit it. And it did not disappoint: monkeys and turtles, active volcanoes, beautiful beaches and national parks everywhere. Nevertheless, my least favourite part was one of its most famous and “protected” areas, the turtle sanctuary and ecological town of Tortuguero.

Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and belongs to the province of LimĂłn. The village is part of Tortuguero National Park and, because it’s on a sandbar, it’s a bit hard to access: you have to get to La Pavona by car or bus and then take a 1-hour boat ride to Tortuguero. The town is really small and its economy depends on tourism: thousands of people come here to see turtles, jaguars and other exotic species. There’s a Sea Turtle Conservancy research station which runs different guided tours and expeditions. These tours are very expensive and the money is supposed to go to conservancy jobs and research.

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Knowing all this, arriving in Tortuguero was a bit of a surprise for me. As soon as we stepped out of the boat, some guys from The Sea Turtle Conservancy approached us to help us find a hostel and sell us any of the various “eco” tours they offered. I thought that bore a considerable resemblance to how things are done in some protected areas in MĂ©xico, such as Yucatán and Quintana Roo, where there are not many regulations as to how many tourists are allowed in a certain area or how close people are supposed to get to wildlife. We thanked these guys, accepted some recommendations and finally settled for a cheap hostel called 7 Backpackers, where we were told there was nothing to do in Tortuguero other than the activities offered by The Sea Turtle Conservancy, nothing we could do on our own at least. That day we visited the beach and went back to the Visitor Centre to plan our next day in Tortuguero.

At the Visitor Centre, we were offered many different activities: night-walks to watch turtles, morning canoeing and kayaking wildlife-watching tours, turtle hatching expeditions, guided hikes in the rainforest, etc. We had to choose only the cheapest activities: a night-walk in search of turtles and a morning canoeing tour. We paid $60.00 US dollars for these activities and I must admit I did not know what I expected. From what we were told at the Centre, these tours were the only ways to spot turtles. When we added Tortuguero to our list, the turtles were the main reason. Three different species of turtles hatch in Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast: green turtles, leatherbacks and Carey turtles—, but something felt weird about paying 30 dollars for a secretive walk in a restricted area of the beach. I guess what I imagined we’d see was baby turtles making their way to the sea.

 

Stalking a Leatherback Turtle

Night came and we met at the Visitor Centre at 9.30 pm. We waited for other four people and made our way to the beach with two guides from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, who explained we might or might not see any turtles at all. If we were lucky, one of the guides said, there would be a female turtle laying eggs at the beach. “Laying eggs?”, I thought, “that sounds kind of private”. As soon as we arrived at the beach, another guide came and told us there was indeed a turtle making its way to the shore. Suddenly we were walking fast, our guide leading the way with a red flashlight, for that kind of light doesn’t bother the turtles, she said. We all were supposed to follow in complete darkness. And there she was, a giant turtle, black and heavy, making its way from the ocean to where the palm trees were. She was walking slowly, apparently not noticing the small crowd around her, and not hearing two loud guides name some facts about her species.

As mesmerising as it can be to see a leatherback turtle, I could not help feeling out of place. Is this eco-tourism? Stalking turtles in the middle of the night? Things just got worse when the turtle started digging a hole to lay her eggs. Another group of tourists had arrived and now we were taking turns to watch the turtle, who at least seemed unaware of the loud, bickering crowd about her, pointing at her private parts with a lantern. By this time my friend and I were a bit confused and fed up, and decided to stay back. There’s something unsettling about a group of tourists stalking a turtle while she performs one of the most beautiful acts in nature. At the time I thought it mightnot be that bad if the $30 we paid for the “tour” were destined to the conservation of the turtles, even if it meant contributing to the idea that the whole world, its wildlife, plants and rocks exist purely for human enjoyment. But the next day in Tortuguero made me realise my naivetĂ©.

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Empty turtle nests

 

Further Fiascos

Confused and with a dark cloud of guilt hovering over our heads, my friend and I returned to the hostel and tried to sleep for the next day’s adventure: the canoeing tour. We got up at around 5.00 am and made our way to the decks, only to be further disappointed. We basically just sat in a canoe for an hour “searching” for wildlife in the rainforest: birds, sloths, crocodiles, of which we only saw a couple of birds and a small crocodile. The worst part was seeing a float of canoes and kayaks everywhere in the river, full of eager eyes searching for the animals that were no doubt hiding in purpose.

Later that afternoon we went on a hike in the Tortuguero National Park, on a trail that runs parallel to the beach and has many exists to it. The further you go on the trail, the more deserted it becomes, and there are plenty of signs warning about rip currents. Nearing the end of the public trail, we decided to walk on the beach to go back. This was the worst idea. On our way back, we saw hundreds of plastic bottles and other plastic items lying on the sand and floating in the sea.

We kept walking on the beach and suddenly saw a guy standing very still some 20 meters away from us. He signalled to us and I approached him. I could see something was wrong as soon as I had a clear look of his face. He looked on the verge of tears and was looking at the floor, so I looked too. Around us lied some fifty dead baby turtles, coal-black, the size of a pinecone. The guy explained to us he’d seen some these turtles alive and had tried to lead them to the ocean, but he was not fast enough and by now they all had died.

On the expedition of the night before they had told us that only about half of the turtles make it to the sea. Some of them get confused because of the lights and go inland, some of them hatch in the day and can’t stand the heat, some of them get eaten by natural predators or are impeded to join the sea by humans. However, the way turtles behave these days is not entirely “natural”, it can’t be because they’re so close to human settlements and research centres.

 

I still wonder today what would be the best thing to do in these cases? Should we blame the Sea Turtle Conservancy for these invasive tours, for not organising beach clean-ups, for not helping these baby turtles make it to the sea? Would helping them be worse, an invasive practice? Should we let nature follow its way even if we think it cruel? Can nature follow its path, undisturbed? Certainly not anymore. I’m only sure part of the blame lies on people who, like me that day, support this kind of tourism. It is, in fact, part of the same problem we see on Instagram every day, we do not care for protected areas anymore, we want to see it all, not only watch the sunsets and walk the trails, but become a witness of every act of nature, even those that are not meant for our eyes, for our lanterns and our chattering.

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Remains of a turtle, probably eaten by a jaguar

I had the feeling of interrupting something sacred that day. As much as I love animals, I have promised myself not to take part in any wildlife-related activities, unless I can be certain of not disturbing anybody. I have thought a lot about our experience with the turtles in Costa Rica—and about other “fashionable” activities such as swimming with dolphins and interacting with elephants—, and every time I come to the conclusion that the blame lies not on any individual or organisation alone, but in the way we as a society see the world that surrounds us. Fortunately, that has already begun to change for the better. I can only hope we can learn to coexist without harming and support wildlife organisations without wanting to involve ourselves in their tasks.

However saddening and insightful this experience was, I must say that is not the way the rest of the trip was. In almost every place in Costa Rica we met wonderful communities that are very well informed and concerned with climate change. It is a wonderful country that, for the most part, respects its wildlife and natural resources in a way I wish mine could. They indeed honour their motto, “pura vida”.

Rock and Sun: The Grand Canyon’s South Rim

I suppose the Grand Canyon is one of those places that haunt your imagination way before you visit them. I had seen it in movies and read about it countless times, I had imagined it while reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and seen it on Instagram time after time: drone pictures, helicopter videos, dangerous-looking selfies. I guess it is one of those places you know before you even see them, that is not rare. But it is also one of those places that still baffle you when you see them. I visited the Grand Canyon last month and can recall very vividly that scene of “rock and sun” before me.

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A family trip to Las Vegas was really the perfect excuse to visit the Grand Canyon, since the state of Arizona, where the Grand Canyon National Park is, neighbours the state of Nevada. It sounded pretty close to me, but it took about 6 hours by bus to get from Las Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had the chance, though, to make some stops along Route 66 and eat some really good American pie. We also made a stop at In n’ Out on the way back, so no complaints about that.

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After 40ÂşC weather in Nevada, I was glad to find that the weather in Arizona was much milder, at around 30ÂşC at noon. There were few clouds in the sky and when I finally got off the bus at the National Park all I saw was a scorching red vastness of rock. It was infinite in its size, the kind of grandeur that makes you feel lonely and small but strangely comfortable. Walking along the rim all was vastness: upwards the infinite sky, downwards an ever stretching smoothness of rock, in front of me a dusty path that stretched further and further.

At the moment I recalled many things that Edward Abbey wrote about Monument Valley in Utah:

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear— the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, a thought, an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Indeed rock and sun compose the greatness of this landscape, with the hardness and the assurance of those things that need no nurture, that don’t grow and don’t die, just remain. Rock and sun, dust. There is something reassuring, transcendental and even biblical— dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”— in being surrounded by rocks. 

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Writing about it now, about a month afterwards, I think of a more recent read, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Do you ever read something and think how you’ve wanted to express that but hadn’t found the right words? There is a part where Solnit writes:

“Solitude in the city is about the lack of other people or rather their distance beyond a door or wall, but in remote places it isn’t an absence but the presence of something else, a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or may not turn over.”

—Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Not an absence but the “presence of something else”, the presence of perennial things, beings that transcend time as we perceive it, in watches and calendars, and give us a glimpse of that other time, time as movement and stillness, time as things that remain: rock and sun. Perhaps these things that remain allow us to touch, if only briefly, the things that remain within our contingent existences.

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Seven Cenotes in Yucatán

Last month I travelled to Yucatán with a friend. It’s hard to pick highlights when a trip is as cool as this one was, but I won’t even hesitate to say the cenotes were the definite highlight. Actually, I think it’s safe to say that they were one of the most memorable adventures of my life.

My friend and I stayed in MĂ©rida, the capital of Yucatán, and had previously looked for cool spots not too far away. On our arrival to the hostel (a place I can’t recommend enough called NĂłmadas), we got to chat a bit with one of the guys at reception. He mentioned that the prior weekend he had been to HomĂşn, a small town not too far from the city, not a particularly charming place, but surrounded by at least 10 beautiful cenotes. We asked him for directions and he kindly explained to us how to get there.

I had been to several cenotes in Yucatán, but nothing prepared me for what we’d see in Homún. To start, Homún is a very small and unremarkable town. Its main economical activity used to be the production of organic fibers used for hats. Sadly, most hats today are made out of plastic, which means most people in Homún are unemployed today and turning to tourism for profit. When we arrived to the main square we were met by dozens of moto-taxis (basically motorcycles which have a bench attached to their front) operated by locals. We were offered a whole day of driving around the cenotes for $200 MXN, which is less than $10 US. We were two but you can fit four people for the same price.

Our driver’s name was Roberto and he was very kind and knowledgeable. He told us a bit of the history of Homún and how cenotes have turned into a new currency, something I find quite alarming and sad. Whoever finds a cenote in their property can choose to make it into a public attraction if the environmental authorities approve. Although the cenotes we visited were owned by native Mayan people who understand and respect the delicate environments they are and their interconnection with underground currents, I’m afraid they might be overcrowded soon.

We visited seven cenotes that day. Every time time I got a first glance at a cenote I though that one must be the coolest, and every time I was wrong. They were all wonderful and different. Among the ones we visited were Canun Chen, Baal Mil, Hool Kosom, Cheel Paa and Tres Oches. These cenotes and two others form a natural ring around the town, so it’s quite easy to find your way around once you spot one. We basically had them to ourselves and it was a magical experience. If you arrive before 11.00 am they’ll probably be empty.

Some cenotes, like Canun Chen, have ropes tied to the roof so you can go all Tarzan when jumping in the water; others, like Tres Oches, are basically holes in the ground surrounded by the greenest vegetation; others are way darker, like Hool Kosom—which means swallow’s cave— are darker and offer you amazing sights of wildlife like bats and swallows. They’re all wonderful in their own way. Also, swimming in a cenote is a unique experience: the water is always cool and clear, fish swim around you and there is something definitely magical—spiritual, eerie— about the quiet around you. This was a day I will never forget and I can’t wait to travel to Yucatán again soon.

Hool Kosom

Have you ever swum in a cenote?

A Walk in the Woods… of Mexico City?

Last Sunday I woke up at 6:00 am to pack a small backpack and make some pb&j sandwiches. I dressed quickly and walked some 20 minutes to where I was supposed to meet with other hikers, a lonesome gas station near Coyoacán in Mexico City. For the first time in a long time, I was early. We left the spot before 8:00 am and headed south.

“This place is, no kidding, just thirty minutes away from the city”, our guide was saying. If you’ve ever been in Mexico City, you probably know that there is no such thing as undisturbed nature close to it, so I was skeptical about the hike. We passed huge malls, taco stands, gyms, dirty roads and trafficked avenues heading towards San JerĂłnimo, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. At some point the fancy houses gave way to smaller, older buildings, small churches and cobblestoned alleyways that make you feel like you’re not in Mexico City anymore.

And eventually it all ends. What follows, if you keep going south, is neither a road nor a highway, but some sort of rural path wide enough for two cars, with food stands all along the way. All I could think was,”where the hell are we?”. In front of there was a forest. Thousands and thousands of trees seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I lived in the city for almost five years and I had no idea that this existed, a green lung still providing oxygen for the monster city. This was not, however, anything like Chapultepec, the most famous forest/park in the city, made tame with paved paths and trash cans. This one was just a forest, a real one.

The van made its way into it and I was relieved to see there were rangers blocking the way under a green sign that read “Parque Nacional Los DĂ­namos“. They asked us if knew where to go and how to behave. “It’s a protected area, one of the last clean rivers of the area is here”, they explained, “be careful and don’t get lost”. We drove further up to a place called La Bodega, where there were a few parking spots, a small restaurant and toilets. We parked and got out of the van.

Many of my visits to natural areas in Mexico have been marked by the fact that there is trash everywhere. It is so in many beaches, mountains and parks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this place was clean once you made it past the entry sign. The restaurant didn’t offer disposable packaging and people living in the area—for there were some houses at the very beginning of the forest—seemed to take care not to let any trash reach the river. The only other place I remember to have been so clean was the IztaccĂ­huatl

We refilled our water bottles, adjusted our shoes and backpacks, gor out our trekking poles and started upwards, for there is nowhere to go but up. There were three peaks we wanted to reach, each one higher than the other. We started fairly high already, some 10,500 feet above sea level, and finished at around 11,500. 

The first part of the hike, about one hour long, was the hardest, for the rise of the terrain was steep and there were logs blocking the way, as well as loose stones that seemed fairly steady at a first glance. The higher we went, the livelier the sounds of the forest became: chirping birds, bubbling brooks, creaking trees, croaking frogs and an ocassional unidentifiable sound. The forest comprehends 429 hectares, so I can only guess that many animals live there, although I just saw birds. Right when the terrain gets more even you get the first views of the forest, an expase of nothing but trees and rocks rising towards the sky, undisturbed. I am still baffled at how a forest like this can exists so close to Mexico City.

After the first peak we walked for another 30 minutes or so, this time on easier terrain, towards the second one. The most difficult thing here is the loose ground, which makes it kind of slippery. The temperature here starts descending and the fog rising—speaking of which, can anyone recommend good hiking boots for both warm and cool weather?—. The vegetation also changes, now there are mostly pines whereas at the start there are many ferns and brackens too. The second peak offered a view that I can only describe as beathtaking.

To get to our last peak we just had to walk half an hour more. The terrain became steep and more slippery now, but it was easier than the first bit. The fog came and went, and the air felt cold and fresh. At the beginning I was wearing a polar jacket, but that proved too hot once I started walking, so I took it off. Now, almost at the top, I was cold again, so I took a very thin cotton sweatshirt from my backpack, it was enough. In the last peak we met another group of hikers and a dog, so we talked and had lunch together there for a while before making our way down. The views from the last peak are like nothing I had seen before: trees and trees, each one a different shade of blueish green, and behind them only mountains and rocks.


Not many things can compare to a walk in the woods. This forest is like an oasis in the middle of a concrete desert, and I could not be happier to know I’m so close to it.

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Hidden Waterfalls in Vallarta

This week I had the chance to escape to the beach for a few days. I went to Puerto Vallarta, a place I have visited often since I was a little girl. So this time I wanted to do something different and hopefully discover new places. Fortunately we were able to find someone to guide us to a beautiful set of waterfalls in the middle of the rainforest, near Mismaloya beach.

To get there we did a 40 minute hike trough streams, rocks and huge tree roots. As we walked through the rainforest we saw different birds, squirrels and an iguana, a common find in the area. It was not a difficult hike, we mostly followed a small stream to the waterfalls, so the main obstacles were rocks and puddles. It is, however, a mountainous area, so the hike was mostly uphill. Now in spring there’s not much water, so the landscape might not be as pretty as during the rainy season, but the weather was lovely: 26ÂşC and only a few scattered clouds in the sky.

We arrived at our first stop after 40 minutes: a beautiful waterfall surrounded by rocks, flowing into a small pool hidden by trees, an idyllic spot… except for the fact that there were around 10 very loud American ladies already there. Nevertheless, we still got to jump into the water from about 3 meters high, something I hadn’t done before (come to it, I was really scared). Our guide taught us how to jump, where to stand, and signalled the spot we should aim for. It was a thrilling experience, the vertigo and then the shock of cold water made it very exciting. Moreover, we jumped in while the American ladies cheered for us. The water was really deep and clear and cool.

After swimming a bit, we continued up towards another set of waterfalls. This part of the hike had to be done holding on to support cables that were tied to the rocks along the trail, something I hadn’t done before either. It wasn’t very dangerous, only felt so when you looked down to the waterfalls. As it usually is with hiking or climbing, once you find your balance and move intently and slowly, one foot (and hand) at the time, I found a rythm I was at ease with. What I like about hiking, and specially these more technical hikes, is that it requires all your attention, you’re all there, doing it with all your energy, there’s no time to be scared.

To this last spot I arrived alone with our guide, as the rest of our group didn’t feel like going up. It was a breathtakingly beautiful place, a couple of natural pools and a set of waterfalls surrounded by walls and vegetation, with sunlight filtered green by the trees above. From there we coulnd’t see or hear ayone else, just the birds and the flow of the water, the wind rustling through the trees. We swam there too, and the water was even colder, so it was refreshing after the hike. Hiking is never about the destination, but there’s some pride in knowing you got to someplace beatiful using your feet and hands and mind and heart.


Even though I’ve been visiting Puerto Vallarta at least once a year since I was three, I never knew places like this were so close to the crowded beaches and fancy resorts. I had seen the quiet beaches of Nuevo Vallarta and the caribbean-looking corners of Mismaloya, but never such a secluded spot in which a hike felt like a hike and not as some touristy expedition.

Now, I have to be honest and say that the last spot we arrived to was the only one where we did not see plastic bottles or bags. Even though these waterfalls are not very popular —I had never heard of them and don’t even know if they have a name, there are no signs — we constantly found forgotten plastic bottles and beer cans along our hike, specially at the beginning and even close to the first set of waterfalls. I assume most people don’t go all the way up with picnic stuff because it’s tough and you need all your extremities. Fortunately, my friend had a bag with her and she picked up most of what we saw, but I’m ashamed to admit that environmental education is not common in my country.

The basic rule, “leave no trace”, is not known by many people, mostly locals, who visit these places, but I believe that sharing our experiences with nature can help educate more people on this issue. Environmental protection is also the reason I’m not geotagging this location, or sharing the directions in here, but if you’re interested in doing this hike just send me an email and I can contact you with our guide.

This was an epic hike for me, both because the locations were beautiful and because I did some cool stuff I was a bit scared to try (such as diving). I had probably driven close to this place on my way to Mismaloya or Puerto Vallarta many times before, and I never saw it. I am always happy to discover new places in familiar areas and so I will keep sharing with you my new findings in Mexico.

Have you visited Puerto or Nuevo Vallarta? I like it much more than other more popular places, like Acapulco. I’d love to hear of similar hikes or favourite beaches, I’m really considering moving to the coast soon.

Hiking Among Volcanoes

The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt is a mountain goes through the centre-south of Mexico, from the Gulf to the Pacific. Here it is known as the Sierra Nevada, and it comprises all of the most famous volcanoes—Iztaccíhuatl, Popocatépetl, Paricutín, Nevado de Toluca—, as well as the third highest point in North America, the Pico de Orizaba. Most of these peaks have snow all year round. All of them are open to climbers and hikers as well, except for the Popocatépetl, also known as Don Goyo, due to its constant activity.

Last Sunday I woke up at 5.30, ready get on a van to Amecameca and then to the National Park Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl, eastwards from Mexico City. I had packed the day before: gloves, a hat, protein bars, water, a compass and signal mirror, a raincoat, extra socks, sunglasses and sunscreen. At 6.30 I was at the arranged location where a group of hikers was to pick me up. They were a bit early and we were soon on our way to the Iztaccíhuatl, one of the most famous volcanoes in the volcanic belt that crosses Mexico from east to west.

It took around 1 hour and a half to arrive at our first stop, the small town of Amecameca. Amecameca looks just like any other town, except for the two giant volcanoes that loom in the background. No matter where you go in the town, you can just lift your head a bit and see the PopocatĂ©petl’s white top and an occasional smoke. You can also see the many signs informing of the evacuation routes in case of a volcanic explosion. The Izta, or Ixta, also looms in the background, a more tranquil and less imposing shape that is actually formed by seven small volcanoes. 

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View of the Popocatépetl from Paso de Cortés.

After breakfasting in Amecameca we got on the van again and used the next hour or so to put on our hiking boots and jackets. We were going to start hiking on an altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level up to as far up as we could make it. Both the Izta and Popo are in the National Park and, in between of them, there’s an unmissable pit stop called Paso de Cortés. If the weather is nice and the visibility good, as it usually is in December, you can see the five most famous mountaintops of the country (which happen to be volcanoes) from here: to the North, the Iztaccíhuatl; to the south, the Popocatépetl; to the east, la Malinche, and a bit further behind in the same direction, the Pico the Orizaba (the highest point in Mexico); and to the west, the Nevado de Toluca. Paso de Cortés also offers one of the best views of the Popocatépetl, but alas, no toilets.

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A first glance at the IztaccĂ­huatl, also known as “the sleeping lady”.

From Paso de CortĂ©s to the place where we parked and started the hike, La Joya, the views are also exceptional. The region’s vegetation is mainly composed by pines, oyamels, oaks and alders. Higher up, the vegetation is the same as the one you find on mountaintops in northern regions of the globe, low grassland known as alpine meadows, very uncommon in Mexico. Among the animals that live there in the mountains there are white deer, foxes, rabbits, coyotes and the very famous teporingos, an endangered species of rabbit with rounded ears. All the way up to La Joya is just tall trees towering up to where the eye can reach, and a green light inundates the highway. It was a hell of a bumpy ride.

La Joya is your typical National Park parking area. Backpacks piled next to cars, hikers putting on their jackets and tying their boot laces. That’s where we begun. We had with us a mountain guide. It is very easy to get lost because the grassland covers the paths almost completely. There are six different hiking routes, we went from La Joya to our first stop, Boca de TiburĂłn or Shark’s Mount (a triangular cave that gives the impression of being a shark half out of the ocean). That took around two hours. Being early December and a perfectly clear day, three layers of clothes were okay, I did not need the jacket until the way down. The path was frozen in some parts and muddy where the snow had already melted, so hiking sticks are very handy. Overall we found perhaps ten other people, it is a fairly tranquil place.

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Up to the cascades.

The last stop in our itinerary was 4,800 meters above sea level. We stopped next to the cascades, a parallel spot to the one called Ojo de Buey, but lower. At this point, the huge clouds of smoke that the Popocatépetl expelled gave the frozen grass and ocasional ice stalactites hanging from the rocks a surreal air. It was too cold to believe that we were walking right next to a smoking volcano, and yet we were. The winds rose at 3.00 pm, when we started going down. Looking down all we could see was grassland and, beyond, only the clouds.

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Last stop. The smokes from the Popo behind me.

Walking at this altitude can be a bit tough, I don’t think I’d ever done it before. Our mountain guide told us at the beginning that the trick not to run out of breath was to take small steps and never big leaps: to walk slowly, one foot barely in front of the other with no rush, but never stopping. The beauty I find in hiking comes from the same principle: you’re not running a race, you’re just walking. Setting one foot after the other repeatedly becomes hypnotic, it is a retreat into an internal world that is somehow intimately connected to the outside world. Your footsteps blend in with your surroundings, your breath acquires the same nature of the sounds you hear around you, the rustling of leaves or the chirping of birds. It is a paradoxical activity, for even when you’re with someone else, you’re really alone in the world, and also alone with the world. And wherever you’re going, when you get there your only reward is to look back in exhaustion. There’re few better rewards in life. On this hike I remember thinking, “I am as tall as the clouds”. It is a great feeling.

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Hiking the Izta is a part of a list of hikes in Mexico I intend to do before fall 2019. Next on the list are: La Malinche, Nevado de Toluca, Desierto de los Leones and Pico de Orizaba. I’ll keep you all posted.

Walking El Tayrona

Last July, during our trip to Colombia, three friends and I left the touristy streets of Cartagena in the early hours of the morning, in search of a different side of the Colombian Caribbean. So far we had seen pretty, colourful streets and tasted delicious food, but everything we had read about Tayrona seemed to set it apart as an idyllic, away-from-civilisation part of the country. Pictures of Tayrona generally depict its empty beaches and wide extensions of sand, rocks and palm trees. Something like this:

And a big part of Tayrona is actually like this, but the natural park is really much more interesting. Tayrona National Natural Park is 34 kilometres away from the city of Santa Marta; it is around 150 square kilometres big, plus some 30 square kilometres of maritime area. So, it is quite big.

To get there, we booked places in a van from a company called Juan Ballena. This was supposed to be both faster and more comfortable than a bus, but it was neither. Although they picked us up at 7.00 am as agreed, we had to wait at some parking lot for other people, then they made us change to another van, and then we drove straight to Tayrona at 8.00 or 8.30. I don’t think it would have made any difference to take a normal bus, and it would have been cheaper.

Anyway, we were all carrying a backpack with our things for the night and a bathing suit and other stuff for the hike, as we’d be arriving directly there and going to Santa Marta in the afternoon. Once in the park, we did not queue for very long to get the tickets. Entrance is a bit more expensive for non-Colombians (around 40,000 COP or 14 dollars), but it is definitely worth it, specially if you think of the huge amount of land they have to take care of. Tayrona is home to 300 species of birds and around 100 species of mammals, among which there are monkeys and deer. Its marine fauna is also very rich.

We entered at El ZaĂ­no, the main but not the only entrance, where the bus dropped us, and then took another bus to Naranjos, where the ticket booths and information centre are. You can walk there too, but it takes around an hour. Once we had our tickets we started the hike towards the beach (at noon or so, which is quite late to start).

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Map of the park

There are different trails and starting points in the park. The one we took was supposed to take 2 hours from Naranjos to Cabo San Juan de GuĂ­a, but we could not finish it because of the time. If you’re not staying in the ecohabs or camping areas inside the park, you should be back by 6.00 pm because that’s when the last buses to Santa Marta leave. So we ended our hike at La Piscina, not before enjoying a delicious lunch somewhere near Arrecifes. I was expecting the same kind of food we had had so far in Cartagena and the islands, but it was a bit different here. We had some chicken rice or shrimp rice with patacones, which also tasted different here. One thing I did enjoy in Tayrona and the Santa Marta area was the variety of fruits. There’s all kinds of fruits and many juice places everywhere. If you can, try maracuyá everything.

The coast belonging to Tayrona goes from BahĂ­a de Taganga (which, alas, we also visited) to RĂ­o Piedras. Although the sea is a bit too rough for swimming, the views are incredible. The sea has a beautiful turquoise colour only matched by some beaches in the Mexican Mayan Riviera, the sand is so white and there are not only palm trees but all kinds of tropical vegetation bringing colour to these vast extensions of beach. Huge boulders appear every now and then along the shore too, giving Tayrona a unique aesthetic.

Being July, the weather was just too hot and humid. I don’t believe I have sweated more in my life. We were all drenched in sweat just a few minutes into the hike. Water is perhaps one of the most important things to carry with you, because at the few spots where it is available, you’ll have to buy it in plastic bottles. Also, there are no places to refill your bottles, and most things you can buy inside the park come in plastic packaging. Really, Tayrona is not that remote. You’re never too far away from businesses or some kind of habitable area. Despite this, when you get to the beaches you really feel like you’re in some corner of the world; there’s nothing but sea and the rocks it crashes against in the distance. Nothing but more beach to the sides.

The trail to San Juan goes through all possible landscapes: wooden stairs, jungly corridors, extensions of sand and rock, paths through low bushes. You’ll be exposed to the sounds of many kinds of birds, and later you might even see monkeys jumping from one palm tree to another. I remember almost every other hiker we met along the way greeted us with “hola” or “buenas tardes”. Tayrona is also cool because most people there seemed to be interested in nature, it was an international crowd of hikers and explorers. It truly has a good vibe around it.

Now, I would definitely say Tayrona was my favourite part of Colombia. Once we stopped hiking and were all sweaty and tired, we got to swim a bit in the ocean, and the water was considerably colder than the water in places like Cartagena and Playa Blanca. It was just perfect. The hike back was a bit more difficult, or perhaps we were just tired. All in all, we walked around 3 hours.

Santa Marta and Taganga

Catching a bus from Tayrona to Santa Marta is pretty easy and cheap. You just have to stand in front of the entrance and wait for it. There’s no stop sign but it is righ in front of the El ZaĂ­no entrance; there will probably be a group of people gathered there or you can ask at the restaurants. The bus was crowded and we had to stand most of the way, but there were nice views of the sunset from the windows. The bus ride also gives you an idea of how big the park is.

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Juice stand in Taganga

We booked four beds at a hostel called Fatima and it was a lovely place. The staff were really friendly, it was clean in hostel standards, there was a rooftop bar and some jacuzzis there too. And it was incredibly cheap. Unfortunately, the hostel was the best part of Santa Marta. Despite the recommendations I had been given to visit this city, I did not enjoy my stay there. We mostly walked around it at night, but there was none of the welcoming charm we had seen in Cartagena. Although there was plenty of music and people, the atmosphere was a bit hostile. The saddest part was the state in which the beach was. There was litter everywhere. I’m sure there are many charming things about Santa Marta, but we didn’t have the chance or the time to see them.

Next day we took a bus to what some websites called “the backpackers paradise” in Colombia, the small town of Taganga. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the trip, because it was definitely not a place I would ever describe as a paradise, and there were not many backpackers. There were barely any people there, really, and not many places to eat, sit or have coffee, which is always sad being in Colombia.

The way back to Cartagena did not go smoothly either. This time we just went to the bus station and got in the first bus that was leaving. The bus was okay, but one hour before arriving in Cartagena, the traffic stopped for like two hours. No one could explain anything and the driver just said “they had closed the road”. He was not very talkative so I did not ask again. It took us six hours to get to the Airbnb. But everything was worth it because of Tayrona. It truly is a special place. The next step for me is to visit more national parks, this time in North America.

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Made it. Sweaty and disgusting, but happy.

Have you visited Tayrona Natural National Park?

Do you have any favourite national parks? I’d love some recommendations!