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 José 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 ForestSanta 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 Limón. 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 México, 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 naiveté.

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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”.

Embracing Uncertainty: Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I’m lying on a cushioned sofa inside a wooden cabin in Montezuma, Costa Rica. A storm is raging and heavy drops of water that find their way inside reach my feet. Everything is quite wet: the wooden logs that form a roof let the water in, the cushions I lay on are damp and my hair, I feel, has not been completely dry in days. The book I’m holding with both hands has doubled its size and is now a container of sand and seawater. There is no phone signal or wifi here, there’s no one in sight, just me and my sadly damaged copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I put the book down and look outside. “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, Solnit writes. I look around. Am I lost? I tried, I think, to lose myself on this trip. And I find myself short of money, stuck in some remote beach, reachable only by boat. I am alone, too. But I’m not lost. I have a plane ticket to go back home, I have let my mother and my boyfriend know where I am. Moreover, I am travelling with a friend, although I don’t know where she is at the moment.

“It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”. I don’t feel lost—that is, physically lost, lost somewhere—, but I feel open to being lost. I keep looking around and thinking of those words. Once I felt the need to travel every now and then to lose myself—on mountaintops and remote places, miles away from home—. Then I felt the need to travel to find myself. Now I know those things are the same, and I travel to let both happen to me. I think of something Emerson wrote, “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.” I think of this and I think I understand, at least I begin to fathom, what Solnit says. I’m not lost here, but I’m open to being lost, I’m okay with uncertainty. Not here, but everywhere I go. I read again, “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, and I got a warm feeling inside me. 

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever its underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the furthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

When I came back from my trip to Costa Rica, I was still reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I spent about four weeks reading it, underlining paragraphs, rereading chapters, reading parts of it aloud to myself and to others. The book is not only an impressive piece of writing—part essay and part memoir—, but also a neverending invitation, a Chinese box containing a thousand references to visual arts, literature, music and architecture. The book begins with the physicality of being lost and the origins and meanings of the word, only to expand its meaning: to get lost in the world, to get lost inside oneself, to lose people, to lose things, to get lost from people. Loss, memory, distance, longing and absence are some of the themes of the book.

Solnit argues that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signs the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own […], [while scientists] transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.” And that is exactly what she does; “invitation” is precisely the word I’d use to describe this book: an invitation for the unknown and the uncertain in our every day lives to take place, an invitation to abandonment, to embracing the various mysteries of the world. An invitation, too, to accept and reconsider all those qualities of being lost that we might think are “negative”, such as loss, nostalgia, wilderness, desire and distance. 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was how Solnit approaches and redefines words like longing, distance and desire. These are words that imply absence: we long for something that we don’t have, we measure distance between where we are and where we are not, and we desire things we do not possess. Solnit, on the other hand, gives these words a meaning of their own: “when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” To be rich in loss, rich in absence, in longing and desire: not to be lacking but to be able to experience these emotions as inherent part of being human:

“I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective [desire] could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, nu acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.”

Only if we understand this can we truly begin to embrace abandonment and loss, and experience the joys of all those absences that surround us. In Solnit’s book it is easy to see loss and absence as enriching experiences rather than despairing ones: nature and wilderness, lonely tasks like writing, the risks of falling in love, the implications of ruins in a city, the colour blue in the distance, particles of light that get lost on their way from the sun to us; all of these allow us to lose ourselves, and losing ourselves means nothing more than being present and fully aware, if only temporarily, of our true place in the world. 

These definitions of getting lost are traced back to both Henry David Thoreau —“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”—and Walter Benjamin —“to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery”—. To be lost, then, means really to be found, and it is only through transformative experiences—art, love, loss, grief, travel— that we begin to find our place in the world, and in a mysterious world like ours, that is means to accept that our place in it is uncertain, yes, but never unimportant, everchanging but vital, connected to all. This world is full of mysteries, and to be lost is to accept the mystery, to accept “that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger”, and the only way to do it is by abandonment

“Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, morality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?”

To read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost was indeed a transformative experience; it’s one of the books I have most enjoyed reading lately and perhaps the one I have underlined the most. Solnit knits together anecdotes, pieces of history, art criticism and even fiction in what I believe to be the best non-fiction book I’ve read in my life. This book is a dizzying ride around the word “lost” and its importance, its variations and its necessity in a world where it gets harder and harder to be lost. 

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Cycling Along the Caribbean Coast: Four Beaches in Costa Rica

My first couple of nights in Costa Rica were a total fiasco. My friend and I had been planning this trip since March and, as the date drew closer, we were increasingly excited to arrive in what every site on the internet promised would be heaven on Earth.

We arrived in San José and made our way to Stray Cat Hostel —which was, by the way, pretty and comfy and had the kindest staff—. We stayed there two nights and I think it’s accurate to say we spent most of the time at the hostel since there really isn’t much to see or do in San José and it’s dangerous to wander about after dark. Usually, when a trip starts on the wrong foot it means it can only get better, and this is exactly what happened here.

Puerto Viejo

On our second morning in Costa Rica, we took an early bus from San José to Puerto Viejo, a beach town located in the southeast, close to the border with Panamá, in the province of Talamanca. We booked two beds at Bikini Hostel and decided to stay in Puerto Viejo while exploring this region. Puerto Viejo is a wonderful town, busy and vibrant day and night, perfect for partying and meeting people. Although our hostel was not the cleanest and there was no AC, we met interesting people we later travelled with and got some very useful tips and recommendations from the staff. The town itself honours the “pura vida” motto with its chill/reggae atmosphere.

The easiest way to move around Puerto Viejo is by bike. There are a lot of places that will rent a bicycle for around $5 US a day, and that’s all you need to explore the beaches in Talamanca. Although Puerto Viejo doesn’t have the most beautiful beaches, it is the perfect place to stay at night, for there are plenty of restaurants, bars, handicrafts and an interesting array of internationals. Puerto Viejo became our base for four nights and we had the fortune to meet a wonderful set of people at our hostel with whom we usually dined and shared our adventures.

Manzanillo

Punta Manzanillo is one of the most beautiful places we visited in Costa Rica. It took us one hour and a half to cycle from Puerto Viejo to here, and the ride was so nice! I recommend you go in the morning since the sun can be a bit too strong in the afternoon. Since there’s not a path exclusively reserved for bicycles, you must be careful with the cars, but the road is paved decently and there’s little traffic; you’ll find many other cyclists.

The National Reserve Gandoca-Manzanillo is where you should go. Entrance is free—you’ll be asked to give a voluntary donation— and you can just leave your bike outside. The reserve is not very big but you’ll find good hiking trails and wonderful beach spots. You’ll probably get a glimpse at some monkeys, too; we had the fortune to see some howling monkeys and many different kinds of lizards.

Punta Uva

Punta Uva is closer to Puerto Viejo than Manzanillo, about 45 minutes by bike. Although the beach here is beautiful, too, it’s a bit busier than Manzanillo. There is a river in Punta Uva, too, and you can hire a kayak and go kayaking both in the river and the sea, where you’ll see many cave-like rock formations.

Cocles

Playa Cocles is pretty close to Puerto Viejo, only 20 minutes away by bike, and it’s a wonderful place to chill. Cocles also has a surfer atmosphere about it, there are surfboards everywhere, coconut water stands and many wooden signs with funny inscriptions.

The South Caribbean was one of my favourite regions of Costa Rica and I only wish we had spent more time there —we spent four days out of fifteen there—. Many people told us about seeing sloths in this region, but unfortunately, we didn’t see any. The good vibes and beautiful beach spots made up for that though. Have you been to the Talamanca region in Costa Rica?

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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 40ºC weather in Nevada, I was glad to find that the weather in Arizona was much milder, at around 30ºC 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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Where Neon Lights Come to Die

A Vegas holiday has never been on my bucket list. I have always thought it’s not my kind of place and now I know I was right. However, that was the destination of my last family holiday and I admit I was curious about it. Plus, that’s the city of The Killers, I wasn’t about to miss that.

What to say about Las Vegas? Must be more fun if you’re a millionaire. However, it is dazzling with its hotels and its neon lights, a mirage in a desert, a city of blatant hedonism and consumerism. All the time I wandered in casinos and malls I couldn’t help but feel somehow guilty and came back with a stronger will to stop buying clothes and anything I don’t really need. So I guess it was good. Of course, the city has some cool things, like awesome antique shops and bookshops dedicated to rare and first editions… and the Neon Boneyard.

The Neon Boneyard is part of The Neon Museum, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of neon signs in Las Vegas. The Boneyard is basically a ditch full of old neon lights and neon signs, some of them from legendary hotels and casinos, some of them famous because of Hollywood movies.

When I was walking through the place I could not help but think about a book we read at uni, The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym. Perhaps the surge of places like these has to do with our current obsession with everything vintage. People came here to observe the vestiges of a golden era, the rusty remnants of the American dream, and of course because it’s incredibly aesthetic: all these giant signs displaced, covered in dust under the desert sun; there’s something definitely eerie about them, it’s like visiting a ghost town.

In her book, Svetlana Boym says that “contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past as about vanishing the present”. It is indeed comforting to look at these metallic giants and think of a time where the stood tall, illuminating the cities for years and years. They’re real, so much that they have bones and structures, as opposed to our digital culture in which everything comes and goes in a flicker.

I very much enjoyed walking around the Neon Boneyard. To get in you just buy your tickets online and choose a time between 9am and 8pm. I chose 7pm to be there at sunset and see the neon signs in both day and night. It did not disappoint, they’re somehow mesmerizing. Although I think it’s a bit overpriced for the size of the place, the visit was one of the highlights of my visit to Las Vegas.

Have you been to Las Vegas? What did you think of it?

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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 Mérida, 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 Nómadas), we got to chat a bit with one of the guys at reception. He mentioned that the prior weekend he had been to Homún, 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?

Five Day-Trips From Mérida

Yucatán is one of the most wonderful states in México. It has everything: beaches, lagoons, lakes, wildlife, hiking trails, museums, pyramids… No wonder it is a very popular destination. However, it is hard to choose where to go once you’re there because it’s huge! This is why I put together a few places that are less than two hours away —by bus or car— from the capital, Mérida, and which I believe will help you get an idea of Yucatán.

Uxmal

There are many archeological sites in Yucatán, most of the wonderful. However, Uxmal is my favourite so far. It is only one hour away from Mérida by bus and, unbelievably, usually not crowded. The biggest pyramid in the complex is The Pyramid of the Magician, which is pretty impressive. There are also many smaller structures in which you can get in or go up.

Celestún

Celestún is small beach town one hour and a half away from Mérida by bus. Apart from enjoying the beach, you can go on a expedition to watch flamingos and other animals that live in the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Lagartos, a protected area. You can also swim in some of the natural pools around town, or enjoy wonderful seafood by the beach.

Progreso Beach

The closest beach to Mérida. Takes thirty minutes by bus to get there, and all you need to bring is some towels. It’s the perfect escapade after sightseeing in Mérida.

Homún

Homún is a small town one hour away from Mérida. To get here you’ll have to drive or take one of the vans that stand outside the bus station. The wonderful thing about Homún is its cenotes. There are around 10 cenotes open to the public and many more that are being worked on or belong to private properties. It’s quite far to walk from one to the other, so I recommend you hire a moto-taxi for the day (the charge $200 for the whole day, up to four people) and see as many as you can. Each cenote charges $30.00 for the entrance. It’s totally worth it and one of the most wonderful things you can do in México.

Cuzamá

Cuzamá is just 10 minutes away from Homún and it’s cool for the same reasons: cenotes. You can spend another day exploring the cenotes here.

More tips for Yucatán

  • Sunscreen is necessary in Yucatán. However, you should make sure you’re wearing eco friendly sunscreen or no sunscreen at all when going in the cenotes. Cenotes are super cool but also very delicate ecosystems for birds, fish and flora.
  • Try Yucatecan food. You’ll see “Mexican” food everywhere, but don’t go for tacos or quesadillas, instead try cochinita pibil, sopa de lima and other dishes that are typical of the region. Yucatán has one of the most unique cuisines of the country, do yourself a favour and try it.
  • Stay at an eco-hostel! Hostels are booming in the area, especially in Mérida. They offer wonderful prices and the chance to meet like-minded people, which can be helpful when organizing a trip. I last stayed at Nomadas and could not recommend it more! It was truly amazing in every way.

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Pink Flamingos: Discovering Celestún

There are two things that come to mind when I think of Yucatán now, and they’re both pink: flamingos and salt lakes. They were one of the reasons I chose Yucatán for my last trip. I travelled with a friend and we stayed in Mérida. Incredibly, after almost 24 years of living in México I still, somehow, manage to misjudge distances: when we were at the hostel planning our days out, I realized that while Celestún, the place where you can see pink flamingos, was fairly close to Mérida, but the pink lakes, Las Coloradas, were actually pretty far.

Our transportation options were very limited. A bus would take almost 5 hours, which seemed excessive for a day trip, and renting a car was too expensive for my budget —and it would take three hours. The most reasonable thing would have been to spend a night in Las Coloradas or nearby, but that was again an extra expense. As much as we wanted to see the pink lakes, we decided to set more realistic goals for our days there and leave the pink lakes as an optional adventure for our last day in Yucatán.

Pink flamingos were still on the list though, so the next morning we took a bus to Celestún, a small town in the Yucatán peninsula just one hour and a half away from Mérida. I was also queasy about this trip. Although the flamingos are not the only reason why you’d visit Celestún—they have a natural reserve called Ria Lagartos, habitat to thousands of species—, the flamingos were certainly the most compelling one for us, and we were offseason. The best time to visit Celestún is during March and April when they are mating. In June and July, they’re not that active and handed to spot, but we had to give it a chance.

Celestún

Once in Celestún, a picturesque but definitely not prosper town, we went straight to the beach, where we saw a couple of boats on the shore. Most boat drivers offer a two-hour flamingo-watching ride, the problem is boats can fit up to 8 people and if you’re in a small group you’ll still have to pay full price. A boat ride is expensive, at around $1,600 MXN. Thankfully we met an awesome boat owner who arranged for us to share with two other girls, so we paid only $400 each.

These boat rides are operated by a Mayan cooperative whose members, as I gathered from our driver, are also concerned with conservation. The boats never get too close to the flamingos and the drivers make sure no one disturbs them or tries to feed them. Our driver William explained all of these as we made our way from the beach towards the Ría Lagartos reserve.

It’s a long ride in which all you can see is water, some pelicans and birds, even small alligators. And then, as if out nowhere, flamingos appear. Now, I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by birds before. William stopped the engine when we were some 20 meters away from a group of 20 or so flamingos, and we stayed there, watching. The birds came and went, flew close to our heads, landed in the water, fought each other, played around. At some point, there must have been 50 or 60 birds around us, some of them still young and white. The flamingos, we were told, get their pink colour from the waters where they feed. Unlike most birds, flamingos feed on plankton and have no teeth but some kind of filters in their beaks, like whales.

They are a really weird species, gracious and somehow clumsy at the same time. I felt very humbled to be among them but I couldn’t help but doubt if it was okay to intrude in their habitat, even if we were assured that there was no harm being done. It was, as our guide said, not the right time to go and I wonder if many more people disturb them during the mating season.

On this trip, I learned that tourism is basically the only thing supporting people in small towns like Celestún nowadays. There are so many people that will take you on a boat to watch flamingos even though they’re not prepared or informed, only because there are no other jobs. Once again it’s clear that there is a very strong link between poverty and environmentally harmful practices.

Speaking of environmentally harmful practices, I have to say that I am very saddened about the amount of plastic lying close to the beach and on the roads of Celestún. In just a short walk I picked up a full bag of trash, mostly plastic bottles. This is extremely alarming considering how close the public beach is to the “protected” reserve of Ría Lagartos.

Speaking to our guide William on our way back to the beach he mentioned that flamingos were probably the most famous “attraction” of the area apart from the pink lakes. He mentioned most people travelled to Las Coloradas for that, which wasn’t really necessary since salt lakes could be found in many places in Yucatán. In fact, he knew a pink lake not five minutes away from where we were. After that, we spent five minutes convincing him to take us for a small extra fee ($50 each). He turned to boat around to shore just before where the river comes into the sea, we got off and walked for ten minutes among mosquitos and under a scorching sun and we finally came to it, a pink lake.

The colour pink comes from all the minerals and salts dissolved in the water, and it changes a bit depending on the light. This lake was actually very shallow, perhaps up to my waist in the middle, and the water was very hot and slimy. The sand underneath was also slimy and weirdly sticky. I had not experienced something similar before but I can tell you I didn’t want to go all the way in, not even to see if I would float like in the Dead Sea (which I have heard happens).

The area was completely empty, although you could see salt deposits in the distance and tools like shovels and buckets, there even was a truck parked not very far away. Most pink lakes like these are still worked for salt. That day, however, it was peaceful and eerie-looking.

Chunk of pink salt

After exploring a bit we went back to the boat and straight to the beach. It was a pretty interesting day and we crossed two things off our checklists, which gave us an extra day to stay in Mérida and chill. We had a pretty good lunch that day, too, shrimp and octopus, and hung out at the beach waiting for the last bus to Mérida. It was a pretty good day, “best day here so far”, we thought at the time, but we were quite mistaken.

Also, made a friend at the beach.

Uxmal: Pyramids Minus the Crowds

Yucatán and Quintana Roo are famous for their various mayan ruins, of which the most famous are Chichén Itzá and Tulum. Both of these archeological sites attract an evergrowing —and alarming— number of visitors each year; Chichén Itzá had around 2.6 million visitors in 2017 and Tulum reached its own record last year with more than 300,000 in the summer. These are the reasons why I am always dubious about visiting pyramids, I’m not the kind of person to actually queue in a 40ºC weather for a picture in front of an ancient temple, no matter how cool or old it is.

When I was in Yucatán last week, however, I really wanted to show a foreign friend some Mayan architecture, it was really unthinkable to spend a few days in Mérida and not visit any pyramids. So after some thought we decided to visit Uxmal. We chose it because it was nowhere near as popular as Chichén, but I must say I was prepared to pay an expensive entrance ticket and battle with crowds.

My first pleasant surprise was to learn how easy it is to travel anywhere in Yucatán from Mérida. You basically just walk to any of the two bus stations and they’ll get you on the right bus in no time and for a very reasonable price. This time we paid $120.00 MXN for a round ticket to Uxmal. The bus actually dropped us right outside the entrance and the driver told us to wait for the return bus right there. When we got out of the bus I could not believe my eyes: the place was empty, except for the 15-20 people who got off the same bus as us.

My second pleasant surprise was to learn Sundays are free for Mexicans, a very welcome piece of information since it meant I could now afford dinner. Foreigners do pay for the entrance, but if you have a valid student ID you’ll get a discount. I remember the same disounts apply in both Tulum and Chichén Itzá, but both are more expensive and have enormous queues this time of year. When I went to Tulum last year the queue must have been some 200 meters long, zigzagging around souvenir stands. These same stands could be found everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in Chichén Itzá, making it look more like a market than an archaeological site.

Uxmal was nearly empty. I guess there were other 25 or 30 people in the site with us, and for such a large area it felt like we were alone. The first thing you see when you enter Uxmal is a magnificent pyramid, the Pyramid of the Magician, and it is a sublime sight because it’s only surrounded by other structures, but there are no people around, drones or selfie sticks. Also, there’s not much shadow around, so bring plenty of sunscreen.

Another aspect that sets Uxmal apart from other sites is the fact that you can climb many pyramids and even go inside of many ritual chambers. On our time there we climbed up and down stairs, went through tunnels, entered houses and chased iguanas through narrow corridors. I kinda felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, to be honest.

It took us three hours to go around—including several water breaks and picture posing— and by the end we were exhausted and very happy (in my case, also severely sunburnt). As it happens with many archeological sites, there’s some kind of open air lounge at the entrance where there are restaurants and snack bars, but we decided to have a nice dinner back in Mérida. Next to our bus stop there was a coffee stand though, so that proved a perfect endind to the adventure.

All in all, I think Uxmal provides the same archaeological value as other archaeological sites —perhaps the pyramids don’t face the ocean or are not as big, but they sure are impressive— minus the hassle, the expense and the crowds of more popular places. Uxmal, or Oxmal, means “thrice rebuilt”, and seems to allude to the city’s history and the times it had to be rebuilt over time. It is, alongside Chichén Itzá and Tikal, one of the most important remnants of Mayan culture in the area, so I’m happy its being taken good care of.

Have you visited any pyramids in México?

Falling in Love with Mérida

Mérida, Yucatán is currently the safest city in Mexico, which is in itself a luring aspect for female travellers. It was really one of the reasons why I chose it for my last holiday: I wanted to show a foreign friend around while keeping a very tight budget, which meant public transport, hostels and as little shopping as possible. I was looking for cheap and safe, and Mérida was the right answer.

My friend and I stayed in an eco-hostel called Nómadas, which I can’t recommend enough. It was a small, homey place with a beautiful pool surrounded by tropical plants and hammocks. It was also packed with young travellers, so we felt at ease always, plus the staff was wonderfully kind (everybody in Yucatán was awfully kind, come to that). I have stayed in many hostels over the last few years and I can honestly say this is one of the best. Also, it is very, very cheap.

Immediately after we arrived we wanted to go to the beach, so we dropped our bags and asked for the nearest beach. The only possible downside about Mérida is that it doesn’t have its own beaches. This is not a problem, however, as you can easily drive or take a bus to one of the many beaches nearby. This time we took a half-hour bus ride to Playa Progreso.

Apart from its closeness to beautiful beaches, Mérida is a wonder in itself. Also known as “the white city”, it has a rich history and played an important part in during the Spanish Conquest, when the Yucatán Peninsula was an important spot for trading with Europe. So it’s not strange that it is full of old, baroque buildings that almost seem out of place in a 40ºC weather. Its most remarkable building has to be the cathedral, an austere two-towered structure surrounded by trees. Another great spot for architecture lovers is Paseo de Montejo, where the poshest and nicest houses in town used to be. Now it is full of restaurants and cafés, and it is the perfect spot for a walk. My favourite café was Latte Quatro Sette.

Speaking of restaurants, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed food as much as when I was in Mérida. Whether you go to a food stand in the centre or a fancy restaurant, food is amazing. My favourite spot was a restaurant called Micaela Mar & Leña, close to our hostel. It is one of those places that offer a “food experience” rather than just food. It is also reasonably priced and the service is excellent. Seafood is amazing in Yucatán, but so are the traditional “cochinita pibil” (pork) and “sopa de lima” (soup with sweet lime).

Nightlife in Mérida is also pretty awesome. If you’re into Latin music I definitely recommend going to Mercado 60, where you’ll find live Cuban music (there’s a lot of Cuban influence in Yucatán’s culture due to the closeness between the two countries). There you can even learn to dance and have some cocktails or artisanal beer. The food is also pretty good.

We just stayed five days in the white city, and spent some travelling to some cities nearby, but I just fell in love with the city! Its culture, vibrance and most of all the kindness and good humour of its citizens—not to mention it is a pretty international spot, specially for young backpackers— make it, in my opinion, one of the greatest cities in Mexico. There’s just so many things to see and do! I can’t wait to go back.

Have you visited Mérida?

Walking Mexico City

Let’s say you’re in the city for a day and want to walk as much as possible.

Last Friday I got to show a foreign friend around Mexico City. She arrived on Thursday afternoon and we would leave for the coast on Saturday morning, so we only had a whole day to look around. It is impossible to get to see everything even when you live there, so I just tried to incorporate a bit of everything into the day: museums, food, architecture, nature.

Moreover, all these places would have to be reachable by foot. I obviously had to choose one area of the city, and to be honest it wasn’t that hard: Polanco/Chapultepec, to the north, is where many of my favourite places are and it’s far less crowded than the centre. I have to say that the main reason I wanted to walk was budget (no car, Uber is expensive and traffic is terrible, plus I don’t really feel safe using public transport in Mexico City anymore). In the end we walked about 7 miles and had a great time. This is what we did we went.

Brunch at Ojo de Agua, Masaryk

First things first. We started our day in one of the fanciest areas of the city, but in a place that was both affordable and delicious. Ojo de Agua combines a boho vibe with folkloric elements, and offers a healthy, chic (avocado toast kind of place) menu with a hint of traditional cuisine. It really is Mexican cuisine with a twist. The restaurant is beautiful, decorated like a market, with a comfy, spacious terrace you won’t want to leave.

Museo Jumex

The Jumex Museum is not far from Masaryk and it currently hosts a Marcel Duchamp + Jeff Koons expo that is pretty… photogenic (sorry, I’m not much for contemporary art). The entrance is free for students (and not very expensive if you’re not) and you get to walk along three floors of artworks. The Jumex Museum is famous for its daring expositions and its wonderful museography. If this is too hipster for you, the Museo Rufino Tamayo would be my second option: it’s also beautiful in its architecture and holds some of the most interesting pieces by Mexican artists. It’s also on the way to our next stop.

Walk along Polanquito and Lincoln Park

Polanquito is one of my favourite parts of the city. Its beautiful houses turned into restaurants and cafés, its art galleries, boutique stores. This is the part where you get yourself some coffe. Some personal faves: Joselo and Biscottino. Get it to go and enjoy it while walking through Lincoln Park towards Paseo de la Reforma.

Paseo de la Reforma

Walking along Mexico City’s most famous avenue is always rewarding. Depending on the season you’ll see different beautiful gardens featuring seasonal flowers. This time we walked from the National Auditorium towards Chapultepec Castle, our next stop.

Chapultepec Castle

Must you go here? Yes. To get there you’ll enter Chapultepec Forest, one of the last green lungs of the metropolis. Then you’ll walk up a small hill and come to the castle. It may not be impressive in size, but you’ll find its stairs and balconies pretty amusing. Its gardens are also very pretty and the views of the city are wonderful.

Paseo de la Reforma II

Chapultepec was really the last stop on my list, but I could not let my friend leave the city without a picture in front of the Angel of Independence, the city’s icon. So we left the forest and continued walking along Paseo de la Reforma. We were lucky because there was a flower festival going on, so the whole boulevard was covered in flowers and other plants.

The Angel was our last stop. I have to confess we didn’t walk home from there, we took an Uber. However, if you’re already at the Angel of Independence and you don’t feel like going home yet, you can take another 20 minute walk towards la Roma and end your day at my favourite restaurant in the city, Mog Bistro. From there you’ll find plenty to do since the area comes alive at night.

I am amazed at the many faces of Mexico City; I’m also surprised at how much our means of transport affect the way we perceive a place. I discovered many things in familiar places, I saw curious ensembles of people, squirrels climbing bizarre surfaces.

Have you been to Mexico City? What do you think of it? Also, let me know if you find any of these recommendations useful!