Uxmal: Pyramids Minus the Crowds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you visited any pyramids in México?

Walking Mexico City

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

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

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

Brunch at Ojo de Agua, Masaryk

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

Museo Jumex

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

Walk along Polanquito and Lincoln Park

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

Paseo de la Reforma

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

Chapultepec Castle

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

Paseo de la Reforma II

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

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

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

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

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.

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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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?

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.

Guanajuato

October is the perfect month to write about one of my favourite cities in Mexico. Only half an hour away from my hometown, Guanajuato is the capital of the state of the same name, right in the centre of the country. It is one of the oldest cities, too; originally it was populated by the chichimecas, and durig the Conquest it was popular among the Spanish because of its gold, silver and quartz crystals mines.

Also, it played an important role during the Mexican Independence War, its famous Alhóndiga (a place where they stored grains and other goods) was taken by the Insurgent army, giving them an important advantage over the Spanish army. Now it is used for concerts. Basically, the place has a lot of history, and it shows in its architecture: the streets and alleys are all crooked and inclined, meant originally for donkeys and carts carrying metals from the mines; the oldest houses are all colonial style, big mansions for the Spanish mine “owners”.

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Nowadays, what is most striking about Guanajuato is how colourful its houses are, the huge statue of this man known as “el Pípila”— a fictional Independence hero—, and its mummies. Apparently, the soil in the area was not only full of precious metals, but of all kinds of minerals and salts, which naturally preserved the bodies buried in it. So yeah, there are plenty of mummies and a very creepy museum where you can see them. When I was a child, this museum was just a hallway with mummies piled on the walls, but now it’s more hygienic (with glass covering the mummies), and perhaps less creepy. I couldn’t say though, since I have no intention of returning there ever again. If you want an idea of what it was like, read Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Next in Line”, included in The October Country.

Actually, if you’re into creepy stuff, Guanajuato might be just the right place for you. Its streets have hundreds of legends about ghosts, star-crossed lovers, devils and crazy priests. You can even go on a legends tour, leaving from the Jardín de la Unión (it’s like the main square) at night during the weekends. For specific times for this and every tour just visit the unmissable information booth at the gardens. The city even has its own Romeo and Juliet, a legend set in a place called Callejón del Beso or Kissing Alley. Here, the balconies of two houses almost touch and, the legend goes, it was the perfect spot for smooching (unless of course, your father was a crazy, rich Spanyard and your boyfriend, whom he hated, was a poor miner—then it might end tragically).

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Streets of Guanajuato.

Apart from its legends, Guanajuato is famous for its estudiantina, a mobile orchestra composed mainly of mandolins and guitars, which you can join while they serenade along the alleys. This is great fun, or at least it almost always is. If you do join one, make sure the group is not too big, or moving in the narrow alleys might be a bad idea. Also, if you don’t speak at least a bit of Spanish you might miss much of the experience. Weekends during the Summer are not good since Jardín de la Unión is crowded. Also, during the Festival Cervantino, which takes place in October each year, things get very very busy.

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The estudiantina. Originally formed by students (“estudiantes”).

The estudiantina leaves from the church of San Diego, in fron of the Jardín de la Unión every night, every hour from nightfall. Next to San Diego is the Juárez Theatre, which was built at the end of the 19th century and was a big cultural centre for the country before the Revolution. The theatre is where many events of the Festival Cervantino take place, so check the timetables and enjoy a play or a concert in the only theatre that still has its original furniture in Mexico. Also, on the little street between the theatre and the church, you’ll find plenty of handicrafts and traditional souvenirs during the day. The whole area around the gardens is pretty active day and night, really. There are some good restaurants there, though a bit overpriced, and mariachis and other musicians playing during the day, as well as good ice cream.

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Teatro Juárez

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Handicrafts Market next to Jardín de la Unión

Another good place to go to for food is Del Truco alley, where there are plenty of restaurants Truco 7 and Casa Ofelia are pretty good and not expensive. Order enchiladas mineras, a regional dish. From here, you can walk to the University of Guanajuato, a very old, beautiful building with lots of steps. You can also start an alley tour from Del Truco alley. Honestly, the best thing you can do is just walk and get lost in the narrow streets, you’ll find they all have weird names —Alley of the Devil, Alley of the Flood, Alley of the [insert some creepy stuff here]—. Once you’re done wandering around, get yourself on the funicular (from the station at alley De la Constancia) to see everything from the top of the hill where El Pípila is. One of the best things of the city is how it looks from up there: all the small, colorful houses, the church towers and the imposing colonial buildings surrounded by mountains come together in an almost overwhelming landscape.

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As I mentioned, this city boomed because of the mines. Some of them you can still visit, but you’ll have to hop on a bus to get there, since they’re far from the centre. Just get on any bus that says La Valenciana and they’ll drop you at the mine of the same name. There you can get a tour of the insides of the mine and a brief explanation of what a cruel business it was, of the suffering it caused, and also some legends about the hundreds of miners who died due to landslides and asphixia. Just some happy thoughts to get your day going. After a visit to the mines you can explore the many shops that sell pieces of quartz, the only thing that is still extracted from the mines, and jewerly made out of it.

Later in the day you’ll discover that, being a city populated by many uni students, Guanajuato has a very active nightlife. The centre is full of bars and nightclubs, so you’ll have plenty of choices. I recommed a bar I went to last time I was there, it’s called Golem bar and it’s really good. If you’re looking for a hotel that has a slight feeling of being haunted stay at Castillo de Santa Cecilia or La Abadía, they’re probably haunted for real, but they have good breakfasts and pools. And don’t be fooled, just because it’s usually sunny and it’s in Mexico, it doesn’t mean the weather remains warm the whole day, nights get really chilly and the winter months too. Also, it rains a lot during the Summer, but mostly at night.

All in all, Guanajuato is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico. It has it all: history, views, good food and nightlife, ghosts. If you have a car with you, you can visit three historic towns in the state: Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende. And there are plenty of vineyards in that region, too.

Have you been to Guanajuato already? What did you think of it?

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!

Cartagena de Indias

I arrived in Cartagena with a small group of friends one afternoon in July. The weather was incredibly hot and incredibly humid. As our uber approached the AirBnB, the first look we had of the city pretty much summarized our later experience: Cartagena is a coloful, lively town filled with music, delicious food and kind people.

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A typical street in Cartagena

The Walled City

The wall that used to enclose the city during the colonial period now surrounds the historic part of the city, the neighbourhood of San Diego. Here are the oldest buildings and most famous landmarks, and the wall itself is a useful thing to be guided by. On our first day we did some walking around the wall and some exploring of the main square. You’ll find that any place you’d like to see in Cartagena can be walked to, which is amazing. At night, the best places to go to in San Diego are around the Clock Tower, an unmissable yellow building in Plaza de la Paz.

 

Still in the old town, to the north, there’s Gabriel García Márquez’s house, which is a museum now, and a bit further is the Plaza de las Bóvedas, where you can find a lot of colombian handicrafts and souvenirs, as well as the famous, colorful coffee carts that go around the city. In San Diego you’ll also see many horse-driven carriages, which I found really heartbreaking. The weather in Cartagena was around 35ºC, and to see these horses take groups of as much as six people along the winding streets, trying to avoid traffic, was just too much. Considering they’re only used by tourists, I think it’s fair to say that it’s visitors responsibility to stop this kind of abuse.

Anyway, the houses in San Diego are something to see, too. They combine some colonial architecture with the bright colours of the Colombian flag. Most balconies are filled with colorful flowers and the paint of most buildings is bright and lively. If you want to listen to some traditional music, you should go to Plaza Bolívar during the weekend, and take a look at a real “chumpeta” band. If you’re into it you could even dance, many people do. As our AirBnB was in San Diego, we pretty much walked anywhere inside the walls and to Getsemaní. No matter the hour, there was always music playing somewhere (mostly reggaetón) and some laughter can be heard in the distance.

 

 

The walled city is also where all the restaurants and shops are. On our last day we had an amazing breakfast at Mila Vargas, which is a bit expensive but delicious (Mila Vargas is, I understand, some sort of Colombian Martha Stewart, so no matter the hour, try the cakes!). Another food place I recommend is called Laguna Azul; it is not fancy at all and it’s not really in San Diego but in La Matuna. However, it has the best seafood I had in Cartagena and they fetch you any beer you want from the store next door. Try ceviche de camarón. If you’re into seafood (which I wasn’t much before going to Cartagena), you can also visit La Mulata, a very centric spot with very good food. Bear in mind though that most things are a bit expensive in the centre, as it is the most touristic area. Another thing everybody told us to do was to watch the sunset from Café del Mar (it’s not café, it’s a bar), which has tables with view to the sea. Unfortunately, July is the rainiest month there and the clouds would barely let us see the sun. It is a nice place though.

 

 

Getsemaní

Although San Diego is the “historic” neighbourhood of Cartagena (see, for example, the castle of San Felipe de Barajas which we never went to, but looks nice), the neighbourhood of Getsemaní was my favourite part of Cartagena.

 

Apparently, Getsemaní used to be one of the most dangerous areas in Cartagena. Now it is denfinitely the most popular one. If you want to take a tour with a local, be at Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad at 4.00 pm. The plaza is in front of a nice 17th century church with a bright yellow facade. Not very far from there, on Calle de San Juan, is Café del Mural, one of my favourite places in the city. If you sit outside you can have a look of the street, which is one of the most beautiful in Getsemaní. The walls are covered in steet art and there’s an art gallery nearby which hangs its paintings outside.

 

In general, Getsemaní is a wonderful place to be. You can just walk down the streets and there’s something to see, from quirky statues to majestic art on the walls, almost everywhere. It is a pretty safe neighbourhood too, and you’ll notice many people just go on about their business leaving their front doors open.

 

Playa Blanca

Although Cartagena is in the Caribbean, I was a bit disappointed to see that its beaches are not very pretty. In fact, not many people go there. The most beauiful beaches are not in the city but down south a bit, in a little peninsula that belongs to the National Park Corales del Rosario. Playa Blanca is there, but getting there was quite stressful. If I had to name the thing that I liked less about Colombia, it would be the peddlers. They’re everywhere and they insist a lot for tourist to buy their handicrafts, boat trips or whateever they’re selling.

If you approach the Muelle de los Pegasos, the port from which most small ships sail, you will be quickly surrounded by five people trying to sell you a boat trip to Islas del Rosario, a tour of the city, a ride to Playa Blanca and pretty much anything. Dealing with these people can be quite hard as they can even fight among themselves for a client. When we were there, out initial plan was to visit Islas del Rosario, but the trips offered seemed so overpriced and the people were so pushy that we called it quits.

So we decided to go to Playa Blanca instead. Taxis wanted to charge us 50 dollars, and an uber was only about 30. So we took an Uber. After all, it was just a one-hour ride. So far so good, we were all happy that our day trip wasn’t ruined. Until our Uber driver got lost. We ended up who knows where and the car could barely make it on the unpaved streets. At one point we had to get off the car for it to get out of a hole in the road. To this day I’m thankful our driver didn’t lose and just left us there.

Captura de pantalla 2018-09-25 a la(s) 14.32.31
Cartagena to Playa Blanca, ideally

After two very stressful hours we finally made it to Playa Blanca. If the peddlers in Cartagena were extra, the ones in Playa Blanca were scary. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car when a group of five or six young men started trying to rent us hammocks, chairs, offering us lunch, drinks. The followed us for about a kilometer along the beach, which is really beautiful but filled with restaurants and a bit crowded. Finally we gave in  and rented some chairs at one of the places they offered us, we left our stuff and swam a bit and everything was okay again.

Being in the ocean was better too because peddlers could not reach you there. As soon as we were sitting, people started coming to offer us massages (which I paid for), coconuts (which I bought) and jewelry (I resisted). Soon, however, it got late and we ordered lunch. This was, no kidding, the best food I had in Colombia (probably one of the best in my life too). We had a huge, fried sierra fish for three of us, as well as patacón (some kind of small cake made out of fried banana) and coconut rice with Águila beer. It was truly amazing. Most places in the coast serve this fish-patacón-rice dish, but this was by far the best. After this we just chilled and later it started raining. We swam in the rain and left Playa Blanca at around six pm, only to find Ubers did not come this far and most people were already gone. Also, we did not have towels. It was a funny day.

 

Playa Blanca is, in short, a great place if you got some willpower against peddlers and if you have some fresh fish for lunch. It was a very exciting day and, even if this was for the wrong reasons some of the time, one of the best of our Colombia trip. The beach there is a typical Caribbean beach: clear blue waters, palm trees and white sand. And in the end we did go to Rosario Islands, just for half a day to a place called Isla del Sol. Apparently most of the islands belong to private owners and you buy some sort of all-inclusive package for a day (transport, food, hotel facilities). I prefered Playa Blanca.

 

Have you been to Cartagena?

Cenote Yokdzonot

When visiting Chichen Itzá, most people usually also visit a nearby cenote called Ik Kil. Undoubtedly it is one of the most beautiful cenotes in Yucatán (there are more than 6,000), and it is one of the busiest too. When talking to friends from Yucatán, they told me that it is indeed an amazing place. However, they admitted too that it is probably not the best idea to go there in mid July.

We were indecisive about visiting Ik Kil, but we were not about visiting Chichen Itzá, so once there, after queuing for like half an hour and seeing that most groups of tourists were on some kind of package tours that would take them to Ik Kil after the pyramids, we decided not to go there. Most of TripAdvisor’s reviews warn about its being crowded anyway, so my friend, after searching for a while, found a thread where people talk about cenotes that are not that crowded. That’s how she heard of Yokdzonot.

You could argue that crowded places are so because they’re also the coolest, but is it really worth it to visit an incredible location if you can’t really experience it because of crowds? It is not only a matter of how much you enjoy toilet queues, unwanted physical contact, iPad pictures and crying toddlers, it is a matter of sustainability too.

Most natural locations are not prepared for large numbers of people at a time and, even if marketing makes them look like the most wonderful sites of its kind, it is likely that there are many more less developed places that are just as beautiful, just not as advertised. Visiting not-very-hyped natural locations responsibly might also help grow the economies of the communities that live there instead of those of big-chain hotels. So why not skip the eternal queues?

This was the speech I gave to myself while driving to the small town of Yokdzonot, in search of the cenote of the same name. The first sign that you’re visiting a great place (or that you’re undoubtedly driving towards your death) is the absence of official road signs to direct you. Instead we got handmade signs at random places and a very big, very old fashioned sign on top of a house: a giant arrow pointing very vaguely at the west or the ground, under huge letters that read CENOTE. And a piece of advice here, don’t trust Google maps.

We made it to the cenote after a bit of blundering. The entrance to the area where the cenote is consisted of a palapa where you could get your tickets, which included a mandatory lifevest, and optionally rent some snorkeling equipment. The fee was only $70 mxn, the cheapest fee we had in the whole holiday. Once inside we saw that there was a restaurant, a resting area with hammocks and chairs and some ziplines. We decided to go to the cenote first though, and descended a series of slippery stairs that led a magnificent view. Everything you imagine a cenote is, Yokdzonot is. It’s like a huge round hole in the ground filled with the bluest water, lianas and thin, tall trees growing from the walls, hundreds of birds chirping and flying in circles near the water, huge stalactites coming down from the roofs of the small caves around the cenote. It really is a mystical experience to look at the way the light falls on the water, filtered by the many roots and leaves.

There must have been some other ten people there with us, half of them children. We did have the place almost to ourselves and the only downside was the mandatory use of lifevest (it is understandable though, the cenote is aproximately 40 meters deep altough they can’t really say). If you’re in Yucatán, I would definitely recommend Yokzonot for a chill day; it is not as exciting as other, bigger cenotes, but it’s definitely a place to admire nature. Also, the place is run by a cooperative of local people, so you’d be definitely helping the local economy.

My pictures of this one were really bad too, so here’s a video instead.

Have you visited any cenotes?