A Monday Morning in Guanajuato

First of all I have to begin by stating that I love Mondays. I love that they’re a fresh start: a new week begins and I’ll probably be well rested and in an awesome mood because on Sundays I sleep 14 hours. I also get a lot of things done on Mondays, they’re my heavy-duty day. I had been meaning to drive to Guanajuato City to run some uni errands for a while and I finally did it yesterday. It is only a 1-hour drive but the traffic inside the city is terrible, so I just thought I could spend the whole morning there.

I’d love to say that by now I am familiar with the city, but the truth is I always get lost. That is perhaps why I like it so much, its alleys are like Hogwarts’ changing stairs. This time I parked on Paseo de la Presa, a street which circles a both the dam after which it gets its name and a small park. This used to be the posh part of the city in colonial times, so the houses here are very big and old, with flowers hanging from their balconies and crooked, thin trees climbing their walls. It is a part of the city I like very much because it’s away from the general hubbub of the city centre.

This time I was looking for a coffee shop I have heard much about, La Victoriana. By the time I discovered it is closed on Mondays I had already walked a bit too much to give up on coffee, so I just kept walking. And it was good that I did, for not too far from there I saw a small sign of a cat standing on a coffee cup over the letters CAFÉ-TAL. The entrance was enigmatic enough to make me want to go in, only a big staircase could be seen from the outside.

Isn’t it wonderful to find places we like by accident? CAFÉ-TAL immediately became one of my favourite coffee shops ever. Not only because the coffee is ridiculously cheap, but because it is very good. The place is quiet and spacious, there are only a few tables distributed along a huge room which is minimally decorated. I had one of the best soy lattes of my life and honestly I don’t ask for much more to begin my week.

Hidden Corners of Mexico City

About a year ago, when I was still living in Mexico City, a friend and I found ourselves in what seemed to be a small town in the middle of the city. It is not surprising to see this kind of thing here—think, for example, of Coyoacán or Tlalpan, actual towns that were at some point devoured by the metropolis and are now part of it—. What I found surprising was that this place was so close to where I lived, somewhere nearby the Parque Hundido, a very famous park surrounded by tall buildings in the Del Valle neighbourhood. One minute we were walking in the city, and suddenly we found ourselves in a cobblestone street, in a small plaza with a seemingly very old church, a fountain and barely any people.

There was, too, a beautiful, small, quirky bookshop in which we spent almost an hour. Then we left, met some other friends back in the city and I forgot about the church and the bookshop. That is until I wanted to find them again and I couldn’t. I didn’t know the name of the church or the bookshop and didn’t come across them while walking around the park.

Now I no longer live in Mexico City, but I haven’t managed to move all my stuff, so I find myself making monthly trips in which I try to fit as many things as I can in my car. Last month I used one of those trips as an excuse to go on a hike nearby. On my way back, the other hikers dropped me at a gas station in Mixcoac, which meant only a 20 or 30-minute walk home. I guess I was overconfident about knowing my way in the city because at some point I got lost in a series of streets bearing the names of famous painters—Rodin, Millet, Perugino, Carracci—. I knew I was not far because the names were familiar and pride prevented me from using Google maps. And suddenly, just around a very modern, normal-looking corner, there it was: the plaza with the church and the bookshop.

As I saw it, I was walking in the city and then I was not. I was somewhere else altogether. To one side, there was an old church surrounded by palm trees, its roof peeling off, its bells in a bad state, ivy climbing up its walls, squirrels perched on its bell towers. To the other side, across the cobblestone street, there was a small plaza with a fountain, a couple of (old) people sitting in its benches and a few, colonial-looking houses behind (one of those was the bookshop!). This time I made a mental note for I had no time to stay: the street was Rodin, just a few blocks behind the Parque Hundido.

And yesterday I went back, this time knowing where I was going, sure that I could find it. And I did. The church is called Parroquia de San Juan Apóstol y Evangelista (Parrish of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist) and the bookshop is named José María Luis Mora (a 19th-century historian). The plaza is called Gómez Farías after an 18th-century politician. I couldn’t help thinking how cool it is that everything there is named after obscure characters: a historian no one has heard of, one of the only Mexican presidents no one hates because no one remembers him and, let’s put it this way, not one of the most famous apostles.

To get there I just walked past the Parque Hundido—which means “sunken park” because the park is actually in a hole. It’s famous because it’s pretty and because Octavio Paz spent his afternoons there. Or perhaps because Roberto Bolaño said he did in his novel The Savage Detectives. Right behind the park, going East, there’s a strange intersection, and turning left on Rodin street you just have to walk a few yards until you find the plaza. Yesterday there were only three old men scattered on the benches and the church was closed. It is a small miracle to find an empty place in a city like this, so I sat there a while, listening to the birds and wondering how many hidden gems like this are in the city. It was like stepping into a time machine, this place where every building was named after forgotten heroes and thinkers, where everybody around seemed to be old and even the cars parked around were “vintage”. I always find it amusing how little I know of Mexico City.

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Going to Cartagena?

Recently I came across a story I wrote last year about my trip to Colombia. I had not published it before because it’s not really a guide or a recommendation about anything. It is just a story about one day in Playa Blanca. So here it goes.


“No more cars today”, the man at the taxi stand said before leaving. We sat on a wooden bench, soaking wet. It rained hard in Playa Blanca that day, but now the sky was clear and we could hear the waves behind us.
That morning we had arrived from Cartagena after a bumpy taxi ride: we had no service, the road signs were misleading, the military stopped us and searched the car, no one we asked seemed to know where the beach was. All the while I thought of the advice people in Mexico had given me about Colombia: don’t accept help from strangers, don’t use unauthorized transport, let people know where you are. The usual precautions I would follow at home. I was uneasy, but my friends, two Austrians and a Greek, did not seem worried at all.

We sat on a wooden bench, soaking wet. It rained hard in Playa Blanca that day, but now the sky was clear and we could hear the waves behind us.
That morning we had arrived from Cartagena after a bumpy taxi ride: we had no service, the road signs were misleading, the military stopped us and searched the car, no one we asked seemed to know where the beach was. All the while I thought of the advice people in Mexico had given me about Colombia: don’t accept help from strangers, don’t use unauthorized transport, let people know where you are. The usual precautions I would follow at home. I was uneasy, but my friends, two Austrians and a Greek, did not seem worried at all.

And it’s hard to worry in Playa Blanca. The sea is of the clearest blue even when it rains, the palm trees incline over the sea and almost touch the water. We swam and walked and ate fried fish and coconut rice. And we swam again. And now, sitting and shivering in the parking lot, we almost regretted it. Perhaps we knew we’d fight if we talked, so we didn’t. Instead, we approached three backpackers who were still at the beach and asked if they were going to Cartagena. Yes, a friend would pick them up. Could we join them? We wouldn’t fit in the car, but they could send a cab for us once they arrived in the city. We’d be fine.


But the cab never came. It was dark already when we saw a van approaching. The paint was peeling and the windshield broken. It stopped before us and a man got out. “Going to Cartagena?” he asked in English. “Did they send you to pick us up?” one of my friends asked. He looked at each one of us before saying, “Sure”. “We expected a cab.” “This is a cab. I’m Herminio.” He opened the door. We looked at each other. My friends shrugged as if saying it was better than staying there. They climbed up before I could argue, so I got in too, my heart beating fast.

Herminio didn’t talk much and only part of his forehead was visible on the rearview mirror from which hung a rosary made of yellow, blue and red beads. “I don’t think this is the way we came from, we’re going to Cartagena”, I said in Spanish, panicking. “Faster this way”, he said, and then, “Ha! Bogotá? Thought you all were foreign”. “I’m from Mexico”, I said. “Mexico! We’re hermanos, then.” He laughed. Suddenly he pulled over at a gas station and got off, saying nothing.

Should we get off, hitchhike, ask for directions somewhere? We were not yet on the highway and by the time everybody started to get nervous I was already panicking. Before we decided on anything, Herminio came back. He got in, turned back and offered me something wrapped in paper. My heartbeat was a buzz in my ears. And then he said, “pan de coco, traditional”. He was smiling. “And another gift”, he said after getting in the van again. He started playing mariachi music. I could see his smiling eyes in the rearview mirror when he said, “We are so similar, Mexico and Colombia. I know you’re scared. We’re used to being scared here too. But if we don’t trust our hermanos, where’s peace to be found?”.

Only then I realized how tense I was. More than anyone could know except for Herminio, for it was us who had grown up reading stories of violence and learning not to trust strangers. Colombia was indeed similar to Mexico, safety curfews, cities divided into safe and dangerous areas.
Herminio talked long about his town and asked of mine, we laughed at how we pronounced certain words and I forgot to worry. We arrived safe and sound in Cartagena, and wherever we went we found people that, like Herminio, thought that to trust each other is the basic act of resistance; not to deny what was wrong, but to face it. All we found were open doors and kind words in what had been once one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America.

Budget Travelling in Central Mexico

The question I get asked a lot by foreign friends is if I know any cheap ways to travel to the “hottest” spots in Mexico. If I am completely honest, I think there’s no way you won’t end up spending a lot when visiting, say, Cabo, Cancún, Playa del Carmen or even Puerto Vallarta.

While they are wonderful places in which nature and ruins do live up to the hype, the truth is they’re often overcrowded, negected and very expensive to stay in. There are some hacks such as renting houses in the outskirts of these cities, but they might not be the safest alternatives.

This is why I’m putting together a few places in the centre, an area I’m much familiar with, that are much cheaper and that will give you a real taste of my country.

Guanajuato City, Guanajuato

How to even describe Guanajuato? It is one of the oldest Spanish establishments in Mexico because of its silver mines (now silver is gone, but you can still go on an expedition in the mines and even dig up some quartz). “Guanajuato” means something like “place full of frogs”, although I’ve never seen one there. It is one of those cities in which time seems to be forever still; its crooked alleys, old Spanish mansions and ample parks with kiosks and flowers certainly take you back to colonial times.

During the day, the city is alive in its many markets, live music in odd corners, historical tours and museums. Food from the markes is delicious and very cheap, and so are drinks in most bars. During the night you won’t be bored, either, since its nightlife is legendary.

Although it’s a very hot spot for American expats, Guanajuato has remained a simple city. The only time of the year in which it gets many tourists is during the Cervantino festival, in October. The rest of the year it is easy to find old houses converted to hotels and cheap hostels. Food and drinks are also very cheap (some bars sell beer for MXN$20.00, which is like US$1.00), and most museums give you a huge discount if you have a student card. Some places I recommed are Molino del Rey * (especially cheap for large groups!) and La Abadía,* which is a bit more fancy but still very affordable. You can also read more about the city here!

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

San Miguel is probably the most popular city in Guanajuato, which means it’s still not very crowded compared to any beach. While it’s gotten famous for the number of Americans living there, it’s also a big scene for art galleries, wine and gastronomy, and of course, nightlife. However, recently a lot of small eco-hotels and youth hostels have sprung out of nowhere, making it a great time to visit the city.

San Miguel is in many ways similar to Guanajuato: crooked alleys, churches everywhere, baroque mansions. But it is a cooler city in many ways, it is certainly more relaxed and has a boheme vibe about it. The food here is incredible, and although restaurants might not be the cheapest, street food is also awesome and cheap. Last time I went I stayed at Casa de los Soles. You can read more about San Miguel here.

San Luis Potosí, city and state

San Luis Potosí is the perfect weekend getaway. The city itself is full of museums, plazas, gardens, churches and restaurants, and it’s not hard to fing traditional hotels in the city centre. It’s also close to many other beautiful towns, such as Real de Catorce.

However, the real highlight of the state is the town of Xilitla, famous for the surreal gardens designed by Edward James, the many waterfalls and the Leonora Carrington museum. Xilitla is awesome for hiking, too! And there are plenty of wooden cabins where you can rent a room or even a bed, like in a hostel. The places of these are arounf MXN$200 per night. I would recommend renting a car to get around the state and visit as many towns as you can.

Bernal, Querétaro

The small town of Bernal is right at the skirts of one of the biggest monoliths in the world, the Peña de Bernal. The monolith itself is awesome for hiking and climbing, and the town is full of food stands, small restaurants and quirky spots, as well as live music and parties in the weekends.

It’s very cheap to get to Bernal by bus from Mexico City or from Querétaro, and once there you can rent a cabin or a room for affordable prices. Hiking the monolith is also free and, if you have equipement, so it climbing. Food is also very cheap if you avoid the two or three steak houses in town, stick to street food, specially gorditas! You can read more about the town here. Last time I went I stayed in a very comfy and very cheap cabin in a property called Villas la Bisnaga*. At night we could actually see the stars and the only sounds were the coyotes howling.

Xichú, Guanajuato

Xichú is a pretty unknown town in Guanajuato, partly because it’s high on the mountains of the Sierra Gorda. If you do go here, you’ll have to get a room in a guest house there, as they don’t have online booking services. You’ll also have to blend in with the locals, since there are no “attractions”, the town itself is just a plaza and a few ice-cream shops, a church and a small garden. It’s a town lost in town, if you want wifi you’ll have to rent an old PC. But it’s a real taste of Mexico, no doubt one of the last genuine experiences you can have here.

Also, very close to it there’s a set of waterfalls called Ojo de Agua, where you can swim in crystal-clear waters. The journey to Xichú is not easy though, the roads are very crooked, so be safe and drive during the day.

León, Guanajuato

I couldn’t skip my hometown! Although León is one of the biggest cities of the country now, it still feels like a town. There are many luxurious things you can do here, big hotels and golf courses, but there’s also a cheap side to it, if you know where to go. The city centre is the best alternative—I recommend this beautiful hotel* only two blocks from the centre—, since you’ll find cheap accommodation, great street food, cheap restaurants, cool cafés, and many historic landmarks such as the Cathedral, the Expiatorio church, the Arco de la Calzada, the Manuel Doblado Theatre.

If you’re into outdoor activities, León is also great. The Metropolitan Park is huge and offers camping areas, picninc areas, cycling and running tracks, a huge dam where you can fish, etc. And it’s free unless you use the parking lot, which is very, very cheap. You can even go to the Sierra de Lobos and rent a cabin, do horseback riding and other extreme sports. If you visit the state of Guanajuato, it’s cheaper to rent a car and visit all the highlights: León, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, they’re really close from each other. Also, don’t hesistate to ask for any personalised recommendations, I’d love to help!

Have you been to the centre of Mexico? Which places are your favorites?

*Disclaimer: If you book any of the hotels mentioned above via these links, I receive a commission from Booking.com. This does not affect the price whatsoever!

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Throwback: Colombia

One of my favorite trips ever was last Summer, when I traveled with some very special friends to the Colombian Caribbean. The trip was a perfect mix of unexpected beauty, excitement and improvisation. Just recently I went through my videos and pictures from the time and managed to put this little video together, so here it goes!

Spoiler alert, I did not know GoPros need a stabilizing stick.

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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: 26ºC 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.

Least Crowded (and Still Awesome) Beaches in Mexico

It is one of the many ironies of life that we have a harder time looking at what is right before us. If you ask me where the most beautiful beaches of the world are, I won’t hesitate to say Mexico, but I sometimes forget it when I’m here. Planning my Easter holiday, I made a list of affordable and underrated beaches, I present you with the results.


La Paz, Baja California Sur

When people think of Baja Sur, they usually think of Los Cabos. While Los Cabos is beautiful, it is far too produced for me, and far too crowded. La Paz is definitely not as chick, but the vibes there are amazing. You can take long strolls down the port or along the Magdalena Bay, even catch a glimpse of whales. The Malecón is the perfect place to ride a bike, and you can take a bus to Todos Santos, a small, pintoresque town some 40 minutes away.

La Paz is very chill. If you’re into snorkeling and whale-watching you can take a boat to some of the neighboring islands. You can even camp in some of them, like Espíritu Santo. La Paz is one of my favourite cities in Mexico, and the food, specially the lobster, is just amazing.

Sayulita, Nayarit

Not far from busier beaches like Puerto and Nuevo Vallarta, Sayulita is an alternative destination especially popular to surfers. It’s beaches are usually busy but not crowded, and it’s a place in which you can get a quite afternoon and then join a party later.

The streets of the town are very picturesque, with papel picado and street art in every corner. There are many eco-friendly hotels along the beach, as well as local-produce restaurants. Perhaps the coolest part of Sayulita is the conservation projects you can take part in, such as turtle camps where you can help baby turtles into the sea and help the night patrols.

Rincón de Guayabitos, Nayarit

Guayabitos is basically a huge bay. It was a very popular destination some years ago, but now it’s very calm. There are two islands close by in which you can do snorkeling with a certified guide. It is mainly frequented by locals, and there are many small bungalows for rent, as well as eco-friendly hotels. Although the nightilife is good, it is mostly a family spot.

A few notes

  • The Easter Holidays draw thousands of tourist to Mexico’s most popular beaches every year: Acapulco, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos. As a consecuence of irregulated tourism and big touristic complexes, all of these once beautiful places are now polluted, mistreated and even dangerous. The impact of irresponsible tourism has taken its toll on the environment, and it painful to see the beloved beaches of my childhood covered in trash, its locals moving away and selling their land to big companies.
  • That’s why I hesitate to recommend beaches in my country, but after some thought I decided it was best to point out some not-so-popular destinations that are beautiful and, more importantly, have now eco-friendly options of accomodation. These are not destinations to get trashed and party, but to take a (responsible) look at nature and wildlife, explore small towns and go on a hike or two.
  • If you’re interested in doing some snorkeling or hiking in any of these beaches, I recommend you go to a certified guide. Also, many locals will offer you whale or shark swimming/watching experiences in Mexico, but most of them are not qualified to work near wildlife and would end up harming them. Please don’t buy on-the-spot wildlife tours.
  • Taking with you metal straws, reusable water bottles and thermos is essential when traveling, specially so close to the ocean. Every time i go to the beach I’m so sad to see how many cigarette butts are in the beach, if you smoke don’t throw them in the sand, they’re plastic!
  • Be sure to remember the 7 principles of Leave No Trace.

I would love to hear what you think of these places if you travel there!

Aaaand, don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter. Happy traveling!

Wintertime in Quebec City

The first day of 2019 found me taking a 6.00 am train from Montreal to Quebec City. I had not slept much that night, and hence I can’t recall much of the train journey. All I know is I woke up at the Gare du Palais station with a terrible neck pain, just to be received by an enormous amount of snow. From the windows of the train station everything was white, snow piled up on every surface, completely covering bushes, benches, roofs and trees. It was a much needed sight and promising start.

I had been in Quebec before. I had spent a summer climbing —for climbing is, for this city, a more appropriate term than walking— along Saint Roch and Vieux Quebec. That summer was hot and humid, and this time the city couldn’t look more different. My friend and I dragged our luggage through the snow towards our Airbnb to drop it there before exploring the city. First, we made our way to Chateau Frontenac. The Chateau is the most famous landmark of Quebec City. It is not a very old construction and it was never an actual castle, it was always a hotel.

In fact, most of the buildings that are part of the “old” Quebec are really not very old, most have been built or restored in the 1930s, emulating older buildings. This doesn’t mean Quebec is not an old town, it was one of the oldest European establishments in North America, but it still feels a bit like Disneyland. To get acquainted with the city’s history we took a walking tour (one of the best I’ve ever taken) through Airbnb.

The quaintest and prettiest part of Old Quebec has to be Petit Champlain. Again, it is not really old, but it’s a living Christmas card. It is an alley full of shops and restaurants, and during Christmastime there’s trees, lights and decorations everywhere. It’s so pretty it almost makes you forget you’re freezing (Quebec’s weather was around -20ºC the first week of January).

Another street to go to for food and consumerism is, of course, Saint-Jean. This is the busiest street in Old Quebec, with all kinds of stores on it. If you happen to be looking for a book, try Pantoute (I found there Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates, a book I had been looking for ages and which is super creepy). Also on Saint-Jean there’s an Irish pub called, surprisingly, St. Patrick, which offers live music at night.

Coming down from Petit Champlain there is a small park with views to the Saint Lawrence river. In winter it is completely covered in snow, and the river is partially frozen. One of the most memorable moments of my time in Quebec was the view of the Saint Lawrence river at sunset; big pieces of ice were moving with the current while the parts not yet frozen reflected the sky, which went from a deep orange to a lovely pink. There is something about Canadian cities that just coexists so beautifully with nature. Where it’s the sky over them or a river flowing through them, there’s a silent feeling of companionship between them.

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There are, of course, other tourist attractions that abuse the famous Canadian saying, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes”, like the Ice Hotel (Hôtel de Glace). Anyway, I had to see it. It is the only structure made entirely of ice in North America, and it is really pretty (although I would not pay to spend a night there). The Hotel is part of an amusement park called Villages Vacances Valcartier, 30 minutes away from the city centre of Quebec… if you have a car. My friend and I took instead a 1.5 hours bus to Loretteville, and then an Uber (10 minutes) from there.

Once we were there we had to pay almost $30.00 for the ticket. The Hotel is a really pretty structure, there’s the main building and a chapel, a bar and, most importantly, fireplaces for when you no longer feel your hands. Although it is really pretty to look at and a wonderful spot for pictures, it was not very special. However, the worst part of that day was waiting an hour for the bus to go back.

 

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The bus dropped us on Saint-Joseph street, in Saint-Roch, where my favourite coffee shop is, Saint-Henri. A latte there and some maple leaf cookies I bought at the supermarket were a cosy ending to the day.

 

Another beautiful place close to Quebec are the Montmorency Falls. They’re only half an hour away by bus. I had visited the falls in the summer, when I was able to go down their infinite stairs. In Winter however the stairs are closed, so you can only see the falls from above. Nevertheless it is a wonderful sight, since much of them is frozen and the landscape around is all white, with only the tops of the trees adding a little green to the landscape.

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Perhaps it is because I live in a city with a population of almost 9 million people, but the amount of untouched land in Canada, the extensions of land, water and skies that show no trace of people, planes, ships or cars, is marvelous to me. The region of Quebec has some of the most wonderful landscapes I have ever seen, and the way in which Canadians incorporate wilderness into their lives is something that impresses me very much. I am definitely looking forward to going back to Quebec, but only when my iceskating skills improve a bit.

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Last but not least, food in Quebec is insanely good (and unhealthy). Here are some of my favourites.

  • Poutine! This is the traditional dish (basically chips with gravy and some weird cheese, strangely yummy). My favorite is from Chez Ashton or Poutineville. There’s also a pub called Taverne Grande Allee which has a nice, cosy atmosphere and good poutine.
  • Chocolats Favoris. In Summer, ice cream dipped in chocolate, in winter, sweet poutine.
  • Queues de Castor or Beaver Tails, basically fried dough with sweet toppings.
  • Mary’s Popcorn. Try the Quebecois mix, cheese and maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup everything.
  • Donuts from Saint-Henri, a coffee shop on Saint-Joseph street.
  • Cheap and huge breakfast at Sul Posto, a restaurant inside the train station. Huge coffee cups, too.

Montreal, the eclectic city

I spent the last days of 2018 wandering through the streets of one of the biggest cities in Canada. Named after Mont-Royal, the small mountain at the heart of the city, Montreal is now the centre of the francophone Canada, a city that dwells between the French influence of the Conquest and an eclectic, alternative modernity. Montreal has both the charm of a small town and the excitement of a big city, and while Vieux-Montréal has the feeling of a French village, with is cobbled streets and colorful roofs and domes, other areas such as Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Lauren have the vibrant feeling of a metropoly.

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Vieux-Montréal

If your idea of getting acquainted with a city is to take a walking tour there, we think alike. So the first morning in Montreal we signed up for a tour of East Vieux-Montréal or Old Montreal. We went with a company called Guidatour and it might have been the worst guided tour ever. We did walk a lot and saw many historical landmarks, even entered the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal (for ten minutes), but there was no content or explanations. I would recommend taking other tours, but it’s hard to find companies that work during the winter (and I understand why).

The winter is rough in Quebec, and Montreal was no exception. The temperatures were around -10ºC in the last days of December, and so the Christmas lights and bonfires in Place Jacques Cartier we much welcomed. Place Jacques Cartier is sort of the centre of town, its main square, from where nothing historical is too far away. For the holidays, it is covered in lights, with huge bonfires and logs to sit on in every corner, as well as food trucks where you can get hot chocolate or mulled wine (vin chaud), as well as anything with maple syrup on top.

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Not too far from there, to the South, is the Notre-Dame Basilica, a beautiful 19th century church in gothic revival style. I think the most beautiful thing about it is its vaults, painted a deep blue and full of little, golden stars. It is easy to lose track of time inside, there’s just too much too see from the statues to the stained glass windows that show some episodes from Montreal’s history.

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Close to Old Montreal, a 25 minute walk, is the Old Port of Montreal. During the summer, the port is alive with chatter and beergardens, but in the winter it is charming in a different way. There’s an ice rink (Canada must have one for every 100 inhabitants), a chalet to have hot beverages or rent skates, a wheel, Christmas lights and music all around, as well as restaurants. In New Year’s Eve there’s a music festival there and a firework show at midnight.

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Mont-Royal

Mont-Royal is a small mountain in the centre of the Isle of Montreal. You can hike up there or drive (we did the latter this time). On top of it there’s the Chalet du Mont-Royal, a building used for various events and usually open to the public. Now in wintertime the fireplaces are blazing and it’s a nice refuge from the cold. The main thing about Mont-Royal is its views of the city below, but now there’s also a skate rink and some slides there, as well as a place selling mulled wine and hot chocolate.

 

Also up there is the largest church in Canada, the Oratory of Saint-Joseph, a huge though very austere-looking building, with beautiful gardens. Inside there are various chapels, a cafeteria and a balcony that offers a beatiful view of Montreal.

 

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Views from Saint-Joseph Oratory

 

Museums

Montreal is a wonderful city for art lovers. It’s not only the birthplace of Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire and many other great bands, but also one of the largest galleries in the world since many of its walls have been made into murals. You can’t walk two streets without seeing one mural, and its themes are as diverse as they’re eye-catching. It is wonderful to see the contrast between old buildings and modern murals, which give the city a big part of its eclecticism.

We visited two art museums: the Musée d’Art Contemporaine (MAC) and the Museum of Fine Arts. At the MAC we got to see Julian Rosefeldt’s exposition, Manifesto, a series of short films starring Cate Blanchett. On the other hand, the Museum of Fine Arts is very big and has pieces from every art period, as well as an area dedicated to Canadian artists. Both museums are worth every penny and you could spend an afternoon in each.

 

Botanical Gardens

The botanical gardens of the city are one of the best outdoors places to go. However, we were a bit uncertain of how we’d find them in the winter. They’re really not very cheerful, but if you’re into a gloomy, a-bit-sad-yet-majestic kind of beauty, they’re the place to be. Everything is frozen and no flowers are in bloom, very few trees still have some brown leaves on, but the silence and peace there is amazing. The temperature is an issue (we had to take refuge in the Insectarium before continuing), but it is worth it to be cold. We even got to spot a red fox.

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Food

Quebec’s traditional dish is poutine, but I really believe it’s better to try it in Quebec City. As far as food goes, Montreal has everything! Both Saint-Lauren and Sainte-Catherine are filled with international restaurants, so many it’s hard to choose. We had dinner once at a place called Kampai (on Sainte-Catherine) which is really good, but the portions are small and the prices high. The opposite can be said of a place called Warehouse on Saint-Laurent, a pub-like restaurant where every dish is only $5, the food is good here and the asmosphere too.

If you like craft beer, there’s a canadian chain called 3 Brasseurs that makes good beer, although the places themselves are not very special. On Saint-Laurent we found a small Irish pub called McKibbins, it is very cozy and has live music at night. The atmosphere everywhere we went in Montreal was very warm and fun, montrealers have a knack for cosiness. As far as coffee goes, I had not the chance to visit many cafés in Montreal, mainly because of a tight schedule (I had my caffeine fix every morning from a Second Cup on the corner of where we stayed), however we did stumble upon a place called Espace in Vieux-Montreal; we wanted to escape the cold and found some really good coffee there.

 

I think of Montreal as a city of in-betweens. It is not completely francophone or anglophone, it has not the francophone pride you find in Quebec City; it is not a village yet some parts feel like it; it is not a huge city, yet sometimes it feels like it; it is rustic and rebellious, strident and calm. Montreal is a mixture of peoples and influences and languages, and you can see the struggle between them in its streets, in its art and its faces. It is a wonderful city and a lovely place to see during the winter.

 

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Have you been to Montreal? What did I miss there, and how do you liked it?

Coffee Nooks in Mexico City

After almost five years living here, Mexico City both vexes and fascinates me still. A feeling that undulates between being where things happen and being overwhelmed by its many buildings, streets, cars, planes and general buzz. Somewhere amidst the chaos, however, I have found little havens where to stay sound, let down my guard and write, read or just be. Many of these places happen to coffee shops, who would have thought. These are the coffee shops I’ll miss the most now I’m moving:

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Almanegra Café, Roma

If you’re looking for a cup of coffee to come back to life after a night out or, say, an allnighter of thesis writing, this is the place. This coffee shop offers so many brewing methods and everything between a cold brew and a cappuccino. The main appeal of this place is the coffee. It is a great place for a conversation, but not so much for reading— it is not that cozy or comfy.

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Biscottino, Polanco

This is a cosy litte coffee shop in Polanquito, a few steps away from Lincoln park. After a stroll and some bird watching in the area, this is the place to go for a cup. There are many spots for coffee in this area, but Biscottino is by far one of the best for coffee and matcha lattes. It’s usually quiet, so it’s the perfect spot for reading or sketching.

Hermann Thomas, Coyoacán

This is one of the best specialty coffee places in Mexico City. Just like Almanegra, the best thing about it the quality of its coffee, as well as the variety of brewing methods they offer. Hermann Thomas is also one of the pretties coffee shops out there: its comfy couches and privacy make it one of the best places for a date or some alone time.
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Café Negro, Coyoacán

This place is right next to Coyoacán’s main square and it’s usually very busy (weekends are impossible). They offer really good coffee and a large variety of drinks, but it is not an ideal place to go with company, it’s more of a work space with shared large tables and high chairs. It’s the perfect place to get some writing done.
Café Joselo, Polanco

Tierra Garat

This is a chain, but nevertheess one of the best places for hot chocolate lovers. The best thing about Tierra Garat is their spiced coffee. They have three mixes of coffee and chocolate with spices and they’re all amazing. It’s a nice place for a chat but usually not quiet enough for reading or working. There are several locations, my favourites are the ones on Avenida Eugenia, Colonia del Valle, and Jalapa, Colonia Roma. On the downside, they only serve in disposable cups.

Blend Station, Condesa

This place is the perfect combination between a workspace and a specialty coffee shop. The coffee here is next level, but the atmosphere (lofi music, appropiate lightning, large tables) make it the best for writing or working. They also have really good food and amazing lattes.
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Pretending to study @ Blend Station

Late-Night Burgers in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is yet another wonderful small city in Guanajuato. Not unlike Guanajuato city, San Miguel is a cultural centre, a place where baroque architecture comes together with the many modern artistic manifestations that take place in the city centre. San Miguel is also a very chic, touristy place — about one fifth of its population is foreign— with a vibrant atmosphere day and night. In terms of gastronomy, nightlife, culture, nature and climate, this is one the best cities to visit in Mexico.

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The streets of San Miguel are not that different from those of any other colonial town in Mexico, and yet the number of art galleries and absence of traffic lights gives them an extra charm. San Miguel combines some of the most characteristic things about Mexico, including the food, the mojigangas (giant dolls), baroque architecture and narrow, crooked alleys— but it is also one of the most cosmopolite, global cities in the country. You can find food from all over the world — I recommend, for example, Mare Nostrum for great pizza—, a nightlife scene that brings together people from all countries and ages, a very varied cultural scene and a paradise for cheese and wine lovers.

The first stop should be the main square. There stands the principal landmark of the town: la Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which is unmissable because it’s some kind of pink neo-gothic, and it is visible from almost everywhere in town. In front of it there’s the Allende garden. Around the area there are many restaurants and cafés, as well as ice cream stands and all kinds of handicrafts. However, most of the really good restaurants are not at the main square, and the best place for handicrafts and souvenirs is the Mercado de Artesanías, just a 10-minute walk north. Right next to it there’s a nice guest house called Casa de los Soles, which is a moderately priced and nice accommodation.

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As with most other places in the world, the best thing is to just get lost and wander around. The streets of San Miguel are just beautiful, with their buganvilia vines, cobbled paths and colorful balconies. Walking south from the main square you’ll find Parque Juárez, a nice park in which to take a stroll, buy souvenirs or snacks and even watch local basketball games.

During the day and specially on weekends, the centre of San Miguel is usually busy. However, it is at night that it really comes alive. Last time I was there, my friends and I really enjoyed our evening at Limerick, an Irish pub. Early in the evening it is a regular pub, but later it becomes a nightclub, and a really fun one. I think what makes San Miguel’s nightlife special is the international, chill vibe it has. Another cool place for dancing is El Grito (both places are near the main square), or Mamma Mia for live music and food. After hours of dancing, you’ll step out into the street, walk towards the Parroquia and see many food stands lined up in the street. One of those offers some of the best (and cheapest) burgers I’ve tried in a while. San Miguel does not sleep during the weekends, so no matter how late you find yourself hungry, out in the cold, windy streets… you’ll find something to eat.

If it is during the morning that you find you’re hungry, I would definitely recommend going to a small place called Bagel Café. They have different kinds of home-baked bagels, good coffee and bacon.

The charms of San Miguel are, however, not just in the city centre. Its geographical location and altitude (1,900 m above sea level) make it a wonderful place for a hike. Just half an hour away from the city you’ll find a protected area called Cañada de la Virgen. There is an archeological site there that is huge and not very well known, but the real thrill about it its the views you can get while hiking or horseback riding there. You can hire a horse or a hiking guide that will take you into the main canyons of the area, there are different eco-tourism companies you can contact directly once in San Miguel. If you’re interested in wine, you can also visit one of the many vineyards around San Miguel. Last september I visited one called Cuna de Tierra, which is beautiful and I totally recommend (they also sell their wine at a small store in the centre of San Miguel, try the nebbiolo), it is only 40 minutes away by car from San Miguel.

 

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These are mojigangas.

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The more you walk, the prettier doorsteps you’ll find.

Basically, what you need for a weekend in San Miguel is a hat, sunscreen, a jacket and an empty stomach.

Peña de Bernal

“What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations.”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I used to laugh when, in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice movie, Mary Bennet says, “What are men compared to rocks and mountains?”. Now I strongly agree with Mary, a very munch underrated character. However, the actual quote from Jane Austen’s novel is spoken by Elizabeth, and its the epigraph of this post. And even if in the first part she’s just obviously throwing shade at Darcy, the second part accurately expresses something I have been thinking about a lot latety: it is really hard to describe nature once you’re away from it, just as it has become harder and harder to orientate ourselves using natural landscapes. Many natural features —mountains primarly— do tend to be “jumbled together” in my imagination when I recall trips or even in my everyday life. Where I’m going with this is, real observation is needed to identify natural landscapes and I’m trying to educate myself on the subject, which is why I’ve decided to take regular expeditions into nature and look closely.

The first one of these trips —of which of course I’ll be writing—was to Peña de Bernal, a monolith in the town of San Sebastián Bernal in Querétaro, just two hours away from Mexico City. This particular monolith had me like, “what, indeed, are men compared to rocks or mountains? Preach, Mary”.

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A monolith is basically a large piece of rock. Unlike most mountains, monoliths are huge rocks and not a compound of huge rocks. Now, another thing I hadn’t tought much about until I read Bryson’s Walk in the Woods is that mountains have not been there forever. Most mountains have been there for thousands of years, but just because their life span is much larger than ours, it doesn’t mean they don’t come into existence or, eventually, stop existing. In fact all mountains are slowly washing way as I write this. But very, very slowly, just as they came to be millions of years ago. This particupar monolith, the Peña de Bernal, is thought to be around 8 million years old, but sources differ. And it is massive, one of the largest in the world, just like Yosemite’s El Capitan and The Devil’s Tower in the USA.

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To get to San Sebastián Bernal you have first to get to Querétaro, the capital city of the state of the same name, in the centre of Mexico. Querétaro’s weather is very different from what you get in Mexico City: it is semi desertic, which means it’s sunny and hot during the day, and cold as heck during the night. So be prepared. My friend and I agreed to meet at Querétaro’s bus station and once there, we got on a bus going to Tolimán. These buses leave every hour or so and have big, yellow arrow, so they’re hard to miss. They stop a few times before arriving in Bernal, but you can just ask the bus driver.

The ride lasts about 45 minutes and you’ll see the monolith as you get closer. We arrived in the centre of town and had lunch right away. Bernal is famous for its blue corn gorditas, a kind of pan-cooked dough with different fillings. They’re delicious and better than anything you could get in a fancy restaurant (except for wine— there are many vineyards around, so have some wine too). After lunch we got to our accommodation, a small cabin in a place called Villas la Bisnaga. The place is really nice and cozy, and the staff is really friendly. It’s a bit far from the centre but that has its advantages too: you can see the stars, there’s only the sound of the wind and some crickets at night, and you get this view when you go out:

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It was also EMPTY. We were the only one’s there and it was heaven to get there after the hike. Now, hiking to the very top of the Peña is not really possible. You can do a one-hour hike and then, if you like, climb from there. You can rent equipement or bring your own, and specify what you’ll be doing at the registration office when you start. I am not a climber, so my friend and I just did the hike. It was a sunny day and we were sweating 15 minutes in. It is a pretty easy hike for most of the way, so a pair of running shoes or light hiking boots should make it.

My friend and I were there on a Saturday and the place was a bit crowded (specially by school groups). The monolith is basically in the town, and despite being a protected area, there are lots vendors and hubbub where the registration office is. That Saturday was actually very busy, but as you go higher up, you’ll see less and less people. The climate means vegetation is mostly composed of holly oaks, mezquites and other small shrubs, so it’s not a shady walk. As you go up, vegetation becomes scarcer and on the final part of the hike it’s basically gone. Higher still, the surrounding landscape opens up; a couple of small towns next to green crops and, in the distance, to the north, the hills of the Sierra Gorda and El Zamorano.

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The shapes and colours of this landscape were familiar to me in many ways. Blue hills, scattered clouds and rolling plains are features easily found in the centre of Mexico. These areas— Guanajuato, Querétaro and even San Luis Potosí —share the same climate, where the weather changes depending on the altitude, which is to say, changes a lot because the terrain is rugged and irregular. Hills and mountains, moors and valleys. That is why these areas are good for vineyards despite not being the usual grape growing areas: on top of the hills the weather is not that hot and yet it gets a lot of sun. September, for example, is a rainy month in Mexico City, but Querétaro had clear skies and starry nights.

As it usually happens, I was amazed at how the continuous effort of putting one foot after the other can get you to wonderful places. After some minutes of physical effort you stop thinking about the sun hitting the back of your neck or the uncomfortable sensation of sweat beneath your backpack, or even the annoying people who are sitting around, yelling or listening to loud music. You just walk and walk, climb some stones, jump some patches and there are less and less people to be seen around. It doesnt matter if you’re with someone, hiking tends to become a solitary activity, in the best way.

Most walks and hikes are rewarding in themselves—walking is the reward of walking—but going up a hill, a mountain or a monolith has an added charm: the views. Up there, after one hour of moving, my friend and I just found a spot to sit down and look around. And looking at the mountains in the distance and the clouds and the vast extensions of land I realised I didn’t know much about my own country’s landscapes. I didn’t know what the names of these mountains were, or even if I was looking north. I didn’t know the names of the plants I could see, I couldn’t tell how high up we were.

Eveything I could see and feel and smell and hear was already being “jumbled together” in my imagination. Sitting there I thought of how hard it is, at least for me, to retain experiences in detail; most of the time what is left is a flicker, a certain kind of light and the rustling of the wind, some blue mountains in the distance. But later, writing about it, these mountains acquire a definite shape and they become a Sierra, an invisible compass appears over a giant map and tiny labels appear next to extensions of land, rivers and even streets. Is that experience mine then? Certainly not altogether after I’ve looked up the names of what I’ve seen and found out the height (433 meters) of the mountain and the type of rock (porphyrytic)… but perhaps I make them mine and create something else altogether, partially mine and partially artificial, but whole.

I don’t know yet if knowing the names and the rocks or the historical facts about the places I visit, specially natural places, is “better”. I only know once I do some research on something, then I can find similar features at some other location and then this new experience won’t be all “jumbled together” in my mind, I’ll sort of know where I am and what I am seeing and I’ll remember it with more detail. That is enough for now. One book I am reading now on the subject is called The Forgotten Art of Reading Nature Signs by Tristan Gooley and it is simply amazing how every rock and plant and cloud can tell so many things about the place and the weather, the season, the time, its own history. What I like about Gooley’s input is how he stresses that it’s not about naming things, it’s about observing. This was not the first time I hiked, not even my longest hike (or even my first time at Peña de Bernal), but it was a very different experience.

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The way down was a bit more challenging than the way up. This was the part when I was glad I was wearing hiking boots. I was also glad my knees work alright because at some points it was really easier to just jump. All in all, it is a fairly easy, very rewarding hike. Just make sure you do it in the morning and, if you can, not during the weekend. We did not do these two things.

Whether you go hiking or not, the town of San Sebastián Bernal is a nice, still relatively calm small town. Like most Mexican towns, it has a pretty main square and church (Santa Cruz chapel) around which you can take a stroll and have some ice cream or coffee. The town is pretty similar to any old Mexican town (this one was founded in 1647), what is actually striking is the contrast of 17th and 18th century architecture against the huge monolith, which is visible from any part of the town.

As I said before, our accommodation was a bit far from the centre of the town. Basically we just had to walk in a straight line towards the East until we saw the building, but the road was not paved and half of the way was uphill. This lonely road didn’t prove that scary in the morning, but walking it at night was an option we didn’t even consider after our host told us to “just beware the packs of dogs” after we asked if it was safe to walk home. So, after dinner and dessert in town (a piece of traditional bread we didn’t like but which my friend ate whole anyway) we decided to take a “mototaxi”, which is basicaly a motorbike with some sort of two-place bench stuck to it. This is an interesting experience I definitely recommend. We even had a pleasant conversation with our driver, who was a local.

This weekend proved to be a compound of experiences I had become familiar with in other parts of the country, specially my home state: stone paved streets, churches, unregulated alcohol commerce, people hiking in flats and high heels (okay this was the first time I saw the last one), new “traditions” which are not really “mexican” but they kind of are now because they attract tourism (see Día de Muertos after Coco and James Bond, an article I’ll write soon— or see this article on creating traditions for the sake of tourism). But despite the familiarity of these experiences, sights and landscapes, I tried to observe them in a different way. Observing things too much can result in what Schlovsky and the Russian formalists called “defamiliarisation”, and I think that’s a great way to explain what happened to me that weekend. It is something I wish I could do more often: to try to look at things instead of just assuming they’re there. For example, every day on my way to uni I get some cool views of the Popocatepetl volcano, but I rarely appreciate them. I rarely think of all the things that are wrong with Mexico City too (it’s basically unwalkable), but I guess that is self preservation.

The moral of the story, if there is any, is that we should think of Elizabeth Bennet when traveling (specially in our native countries), and try to really see things, breathe deeply and feel and smell  what is around us with intention. The other moral is that there are things we should never underestimate: Mary Bennet’s advice, or the power of nature to alter our perceptions of our daily life. In these crazy times it is necessary to think that even mountains come to pass, and that it is okay to remain silent and realise the place, the physical place, we have in the world: the earth below us, the sky above and the mountains in the distance, as cheesy as it sounds.