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.

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.

My Scottish Road Trip

Last year, after a brief time in Ireland, some friends and I took a plane to Glasgow to start a ten-day trip that would forever transform everything I thought I knew about traveling. Although I had loved Ireland, a couple of bad experiences had dimmed my excitement for the Scottish adventure— what if the mountains were not as impressing as I imagined them? Anyhow we made our way north, leaving behind rows of green hills and castles, to come across… more green hills and castles. In Ireland I had noticed some thorny shrubs with small, bright yellow flowers that grew everywhere (they’re called gorse). They were heavily abundant in Scotland too. I had expected similarities between the Irish, English and Scottish landscapes, but nothing I had seen before prepared me for the northern parts of Scotland.

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Photo: Julia Karmel. Arms open to adventure.

I had being in Edinburgh before, but Glasgow was new to me (everything I knew of the city came from ABBA’s Super Trouper). Our plan was to get a car there and start driving north, through Oban, Kyle, Skye, Inverness, Cairngorms, Perth and, finally, Edinburgh. We had listed some places we wanted to visit, mostly mountains, lakes and castles, and we had made an itinerary of the Youth Hostels we’d spend a night or two in, but the road and how that would turn out remained a mystery. In the first place, none of us was used to driving on the left side of the road; in the second place, none of us had much money to spend; and to top it up, we had known each other for just some months (I had never even met one of the guys before), so how we’d get along remained a mystery too.

After doing some exploring in Glasgow, we finally hit the road. That first day was mainly a familiarization with the road, buying supplies and leaving the car every time a landscape seemed interesting. Once we made it to Cairngorms National Park, the stops became constant, we explored the areas around the lake, walked without a fixed direction, talked and ate under the trees, took pictures. The park is beautiful, cool but sheltered from April rain.

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After that we kept going north. We had planned to spend a few hours in Inverness and take a look at Loch Ness. The little Airbnb we got at Inverness smelled like curry and we didn’t spend much time in it, except for sleeping and preparing food. The weather here was a bit cruel, winds blowing strongly and freezing nights, although Inverness Castle and the cathedral, lighted up with yellow lamps, gave the city certain charm. Our nights there were calm, there were many pubs and restaurants, but they closed early and those we managed to find open were almost empty. I believe the most exciting night was when we had the terrible idea of buying Chinese takeaway and eating it on the banks of the River Ness. Fifteen minutes after we had sat on some monuments we couldn’t feel our hands, so we decided to go home. The food was no good either.

The same river, though, guided us next morning all the way to Loch Ness. That day was clear and the wind blew playfully, strongly when we arrived tho those silvery black waters. A lake that seemed to extend towards the horizon, indefinitely, and could have been mistaken for the sea. On the opposite bank, visible from where all the visitor points and shops are, stands a small castle, or I should say what remains of a castle, Urquhart, some ruins from the 13th century. To get there we got on a boat called The Nessie Hunter, whose owner told us a great deal about both the Loch Ness Monster and the history of the castle. Once we were on the boat the wind became colder and stronger, the water looked pitch black, reflecting the sun’s light with little, cold white circles that fluttered with the waves, almost hypnotically. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look for Nessie in every and each one of those ripples of water, that strangely dark water, impossibly cold.

Eilean Donan Castle

When we left Inverness we made our way to Kyle, driving along the shores of Loch Carron and Loch Alsh, and found another fortress dated back to the 13th century, at the shores of Loch Duich: Eilean Donan. As it often happens with many castles in Scotland and Ireland, Eilean Donan has been restored and it is now a museum with tea rooms and restaurants, you can even hire the place for a wedding. We obviously were satisfied with just sitting next to Loch Duich and eat the sandwiches we had brought with us, looking towards the castle.

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The days in the road were long and both tiredness and the lack of alone time made us want to spend some time in silence, wearing headphones in the car or, in my case, find some time to read. The only book I kept from my trip to Ireland was Joyce’s Dubliners, and I read a story every once in a while. I was not upset I barely had time to read though. The long drives with no phone signal, the harsh democracy when choosing what we’d play in the car and the short nights in hostels made me aware of many different kinds of company, besides of that of books, to which I was accustomed to. We listened to each others stories about our countries or our plans for the future, about places we had been to, bands we had seen live, stupid things we had done. We listened, too, to the stories of anybody who wanted to tell us theirs; the boat owner from Loch Ness, the hostel workers, the barmans from those little local pubs specialized in whiskey. We talked much and listened even more, during brief stops on the road, on some broken boat at the shores of some lake, covered in scarves and sweaters, our pockets full of Cadbury chocolate.

Isle of Skye

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Photo: Julia Karmel. Neist Point, Isle of Skye.

After Kyle we crossed the Sound of Sleat channel to get to the Isle of Skye. The fascination that Scottish landscapes had awaken in me was exacerbated there. Wide extensions of land, all the shades of green and a new one for use, a lighter green than that of the main island, gigantic stones of an almost black grey, washed white at parts from the roaring sea. One day we made our way to Portree to spend a couple of nights there. Portree is the largest town in the island and it wasn’t hard to find a hostel near the bay. The hostel was the perfect location between Neist Point Lighthouse and The Storr, the two things we most wanted to see in Skye.

The Storr is a mountain located in the north of the island, in an area known as Trotternish, some twenty minutes by car from Portree. The name of the most famous pinnacle of the mountain is “The Old Man of Storr”, because its gaunt, tall structure resembles an elderly can with a cane. The walk to the top takes around an hour and it becomes more and more challenging as one ascends. We were there in the last days of April and we didn’t find more than five people there. I had a brutal cold then, but the view from the top pinnacles was something I will never forget. Land, water and clouds spread before me, mixing, melting, the deepest green, indigo and grey. I thought then I must have been at the very top of the world.

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The crew at The Storr.

Skye exemplifies the intimidating majesty of nature, a grandness that inspires both admiration and fear. After  days among mountains and lakes, I could not but realise that we often misunderstand nature— we read the the creases of the land, the waves of the water and murmurs of the wind through the trees and bend them to our docility fantasies. Here though, I had before me a hostile land, a dangerous land, with its own will and a stout refusal to be tamed or even understood. And it was much more beautiful than the best tended garden.

After Skye we got back in the car, this time west bound, hoping to find something like The Storr there. Neist Point is in Durnish and the walk towards the lighthouse begins near Glendale. The first part of the way is a path surrounded by ligh green hills and from there we had our first view of the lighthouse: a simple white structure on top of which rests a small column, all on top of a cliff against which the waves crashed violently. The closer one gets to the lighthouse, the more dangerous it is to approach the sea, the path disappears and gives way to a series of rocks of different sizes, some half submerged, from which we hopped to see a bit of the lower part of the cliff. The lighthouse itself is around a hundred years old, filled now with old furniture. From the top of the cliff the islands that are between Skye and the Atlantic are invisible, so it looks as if an infinite extension of sea divided Neist Point from America. On the way back we stopped over the giant rocks to rest, taking advantage of the little sun we had that day, lulled by the sound of the sea and the occasional squawks of the seagulls.

Glenfinnan Viaduct and the end

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Photo: Julia Karmel

Then we made or way back to the Main Land, where our first stop was Glenfinnan, specifically the viaduct, close to Loch Shiel. We stopped there because that’s where the Hogwarts Express goes through in the Harry Potter films. There is actually a train passing in mid May, sadly we were too early to see it. After Glenfinnan we drove along the banks of Loch Eli all the way to Fort William, were we rested before making our way to Oban, where we would sleep.

Oban is a little town close to the Islandof Kerrera. It was our penultimate stop of the trip, afterwards we’d make our way to Edinburgh, from where each of us would continue our separate ways. In Oban we walked around the town and learned to drink Scotch in a small distillery where dozens of Scots had gathered to watch a soccer match. What I remember the most about the town is the bay, a half-moon on whose shores were piled up boats in all conditions, of all sizes and colours. Even when Edinburgh was the last stop, Oban was the end of a way of traveling, with no big cities to go to for comfort, a way of traveling in which a lake or a mountain was never too far off and in which we could look at the stars every night.