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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A Walk in the Woods… of Mexico City?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Hidden Waterfalls in Vallarta

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

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

Hiking Among Volcanoes

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

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

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

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View of the Popocatépetl from Paso de Cortés.

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

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

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

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

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Up to the cascades.

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

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Last stop. The smokes from the Popo behind me.

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

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

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.

Walking El Tayrona

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

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

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

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

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

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Map of the park

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Marta and Taganga

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

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Juice stand in Taganga

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

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

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

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Made it. Sweaty and disgusting, but happy.

Have you visited Tayrona Natural National Park?

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

Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods

“You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules.”

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail was first published in 1997. Two things haven’t changed since then: we love nature and we’re scared out of our wits of it. Bill Bryson has written many books on a series of topics and this was my first time reading him, but definitely not my last. This book is a memoire of his hike along the Appalachian Trail, the oldest hiking trail in America, going from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

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The Appalachian Trail

The premise: two old friends who haven’t seen each other in years decide to hike the Appalachian Trail together. However, this is just the anecdote that allows Bryson to speak on a number of topics related to the wilderness: the pioneers of hiking, global warming, the history of the Appalachian trail, bear attacks and, over all, the relationship between American culture and the wilderness. This is perhaps the topic that I spent the most time thinking about after reading A Walk in the Woods, perhaps because my own culture shares a lot of things with America’s, we have a lot in common when approaching nature.

But first things first. A Walk in the Woods was one of the most interesting books I have read in a while, and definitely the funniest. Bryson’s talent to turn simple and even dramatic situations into hilarious episodes is outstanding. His honesty while reflecting on nature is also admirable. You could think there are two kinds of people, those who can’t even stand a picnic on their perfectly mowed lawn, and those who would sleep under the stars every night if they could.

The truth, however, is that most people undulate in between. While I spend a lot of time planning trips and fantasizing with camping, bonfires at the beach and remote places, I also fantasize a lot of my bed and of a nice rug in front of a chimney in a cabin. The indoors make sense for us. We are not made to remain outdoors forever, perhaps never have. And perhaps that is why the great outdoors are so compelling and have always been for human imagination: we admire and dread the thunder andthe storm, we set out fairytales in the woods because we don’t fully understand them, just as we don’t fully understand wild animals, even when we envy their freedom and strength.

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Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand

In fact, I think Bryson addresses these matters very clearly when talking about a painting by the 19th century American painter Asher Brown Durand, Kindred Spirits, which is an example of the both the awe that nature inspires in us and the romantization is has suffered:

“I can’t tell you how much I would like to step into that view. The scene is so manifestly untamed, so full of an impenetrable beyond, as to present a clearly foolhardy temptation. You would die out there for sure—shredded by a cougar or thudded with a tomahawk or just left to wander to a stumbling, confounded death. You can see that at a glance. But never mind. Already you are studying the foreground for a way down to the stream over the steep rocks and wondering if that notch ahead will get you through to the neighboring valley. Farewell, my friends. Destiny calls. Don’t wait supper.”

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My very damaged copy of A Walk in the Woods

And that is what Bryson understands. He does not romanticise nature, or forces himself to understand its ways, instead he experiences, suffers it and enjoyes it as well as he can. Along the 2,200 (he did not hike it all but he kind of did, too) we get a narrator that is hilarious when describing the nuisances of the trail, and one that is excitingly heartwarming when describing the serenity and thrill of the different landscapes. A narrator, too, who is descriptive to the right extent: 

“And so we walked. We walked up mountains and through high, forgotten hollows, along lonesome ridges with long views of more ridges, over grassy balls and down rocky, twisting, jarring descents, and through mile after endless mile of dark, deep, silent woods, on a wandering trail eighteen inches wide and marked with rectangular white blazes (two indestructible wide, six long) slapped at intervals on the gray-barked trees. Walking is what we did.”

Many things happen during this hike: there are annoying characters that are painfully funny, people getting lost, supposed bear sightings, a lot of bear attacks anticipation, hunger and cold and some hypochondriac talk about everything that could go wrong, but also some real talk about the wonders of hiking and what I think is the reason some of us like it:

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of few hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret […] Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.

You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, ‘far removed from the seats of strife’, as the early explorer and botanist William Bartra  put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.”

And trudge they do, for most of the AT. And whatever Bryson passes, whether it’s a mountain, a town, a refuge, an animal, he investigates about and presents his knowledge to you in a very subtle matter. He rants about the government, hunters, the pioneers. He talks of the beginnings of the earth, the separation of Pangea, the birth of the mountains. He describes the changes in American culture, migration patterns, natural catastrophes. He tells of serial killers, obscure anecdotes of the trail, TV commercials. Something I found particularly interesting was the story of the little Pennsylvania town, Centralia, where an underground fire of the coal mines has been burning for decades. Bill Bryson is number one in the list of the people I would love to have dinner with.

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Centralia

 

And all of this, in some way or other, is part of a more profound reflection on the theme that appears again and again in the whole book: the relationship between civilization and wilderness. When comparing the AT to some other hikes, Bryson writes:

“The footpaths we followed [in Luxembourg] spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny roads and over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets […] It was wonderful, and it was wonderful because the whole charmingly diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.

In America, alas, beauty has become something you derive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.”

Deification or destruction. While planning my weekend hike with a friend, I realized the situation in Mexico is quite the same. Either they blow up a mountain to build very fancy buildings, or you have to drive for about to hours to get there. Either they sell protected natural areas to big hotel chains, or they turn in into a National Park where you can’t really get without a guide. I don’t think there’s an outdoor area in Mexico City that has not been tamed, made into an organized park with concrete paths and artificially blue lakes. Last year when I visited a friend in Austria I was amazed to see her house was very close to a forest, an actual forest where you could get lost, imagine that. If I want to go to a forest here, I’d have to drive, find a parking lot and possibly come into an area with picnic tables and only one species of trees. Is it possible for culture to coexist with the wilderness? I believe it is. I believe we don’t have to understand it to respect it.

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The Helpless Doorknob by Edward Gorey

A Walk in the Woods is not just an account of a hike along the AT. It is a deep reflection on the human treatment of nature and a critique of western culture before the mobile phone, a critique that I believe would be more severe these days.

Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Bill Bryson. This book is a perfect counterpart for Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is abou the Pacific Crest Trail. Already bought Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.

Have you read anything by Bill Bryson?