A feature in Roamer Magazine

Hello everybody!

I just wanted to share with you this new project, a magazine for backpackers with an eco-conscious mindset. An article I wrote about the town of Tortuguero in Costa Rica is featured in their first issue and I couldn’t be happier. Thank you to everybody at Roamer for making this happen 🙂

Staying at home is a great opportunity to plan new adventures and reflect on our ecological impact on the planet, so give it a read if you have a chance! Here it is:

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.

Going to Cartagena?

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

An Inbred Wanderlust: Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

I can’t remember when was the last time I “ran out” of reading material.  I have always had a pile of books I haven’t read somewhere at hand, it just gives me peace to know there’s something to look forward to. I usually have at least three books I really want to read, and there’s a lot of research, conversations, Goodreads browsing and recommendations that influence my tbr pile, so when I buy a book it’s usually a title I’ve had in mind for a while. But a few times a year I’ll go crazy and buy a few titles I have never heard about, I just let them find me. This was the case of George Michelsen Foy’s Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human. 

I saw this book at Chapters, Ottawa and I just had to buy it. Partly because lately I am obsessesed with travel writing, and partly because the cover is so beautiful. So I bought it with no other reference, and for four months it just accumulated dust on my nightstand. But now I finally got to reading it, and it was a pleasant surprise.

The book is part memoir, part a rollicking reflection on the very intimate link between navigation and humanity. The book begins thus: “‘Where’ is the primal question, rather than ‘when’, ‘how’, or ‘who’ because for any animal, figuring out where to move in defense or attack relative to the forces around has always been the first step to survival. From the start, staying alive has depended on navigation, the art of figurin g out our position and in what direction to travel”. And Michelsen goes beyond that affirmation, he even visits a neuroscientist that explains to him the fragile yet indispensable links between memory and the ability of locating oneself in a certain space, and how that happens in the human brain.

The book is not, however, just a collection of fun facts about navigation, there’s a story guiding the plot. Michelsen teaches creative writing at NYU, and the hero’s journey is easily discernible along the book. His concern with navigation goes beyond simple curiosity, he’s obessesed with maritime navigation and sailing because his Nordic ancestors were in the trade before emigrating to America. One of his ancestors was the captain of a vessel called the Stavanger Paquet, which sank in a journey from Stavanger, Norway, to Hamburg, Germany. After the incident, every other member of the Michelsen family who ventured into the sea met a similar fate, so the family abandoned their trade.

And it’s this family curse, a legend that has passed from generation to generation of Michelsens, that obsesses our hero. Michelsen feels particularly attracted to navigation and ships since he was a boy growing up in Cape Code. What dazzles him is that “navigation of the kind my ancestor practised was not just a skill but the roughest of magics: a spell cast in the face of mystery and fear against the near certainty of loss”. In explaining his obsession, Michelsen strikes a feeling every traveller has felt before, the need to go places, an innate wanderlust that prevents people from staying where they are in search for who knows what: even if the seas are believed to be plagued by krakens and monsters, they have to sail. This innate wanderlust, a nomadic instinct is what Steinbeck called “the urge to be someplace else“, a charming urge which has motivated thousands of pages in literature.

Sadly, part of the charm and danger of traveling, of navigating, has been lost recently because of technology. We know now that Google Maps actually makes us worst at navigating, and Michelsen not only criticises and explains this, but takes direct action against it. That’s where things get interesting, for we would not have a hero without a task.

The plot of the book is basically Michelsen trying to recreate the trip which took his ancestor’s life, that is, in as much as possible the same conditions: a similar ship, no modern technology, in a trip from Cape Cod to Maine. In preparing for the trip and actually setting out to it, Michelsen reflects on various topics related to navigation: the biology behind it, old methods of celestial navigation, history and family history. He’s constantly trying to understand what lies behind the human need for travelling and how it may have transformed now that we are so dependable on GPS technology.

Finding North is a curious book. It is uneven, gripping at times, exasperating and even boring at times. Michelsen introduces himself as a very likeable character—that is perhaps what I found annoying in the book— and tries to use a personal plot—his quest to recreate his ancestor’s trip— to unite a series of topics and interviews that seem not to be related. While everything is about navigation, there are parts that work more like independent essays but are forced into the general plot, so that might prove anticlimactic at times.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed the book. When I bought it I thought I could learn some things about navigation, and I was not disappointed, there are plenty of facts and interesting data in the book, along with a Selected Bibliography at the end. It is obviously a very well-researched book, one that raises important questions about our current relationship with technology, and that moreover seeks to answer from personal experience the old question of why we travel. If you’re into travel writing, I’m sure Finding North will prove a delightful experience. You can get it from Amazon here*.

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“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”

John Steinbeck did not only write some of the most acclaimed pieces of American fiction. He also possessed the rare talent of making any account of events compelling, a knack for turning even the slightest observation into a riveting reflection of something vaster and much more complex.

In 1962, Steinbeck published his travel memoir, Travels with Charley in Search of America, an account of a road trip he took alongside his blue poodle, Charley, across several states of the US, from Maine to Texas, in search of “americanness”, were such thing to exist.

Steinbeck left Sag Harbor, New York, on an all-equipped truck called Rocinante, with Charley as his only company, on a project that would last three months. He was to go out, talk to as many people as he could, see as much as he could, and come back to write about what he had learned of his country.

However, the real inspiration for it was the itch to get going, to leave, the need to travel and move and see other places, a feeling Steinbeck is familiar with: “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”

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Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, 1935

As it often happens when one gets in a car with a full tank and nothing else but the urge to being someplace else, an adventure began. Rocinante took our protagonists on a quest that would prove both impossible and revealing, a journey through the forests of Maine, the redwoods in Oregon, the trailer parks in North Dakota, bear encounters in Yosemite and unlikely friendships in the Mojave Desert.

This is a wonderful book, a memoir, yes, but also an exercise in writing as a means of discovering something else, something more, in what has been seen, felt, done, traveled. For many writers, the act of writing is an aftermath of experience, a way of understanding experience. And it is so for Steinbeck, who does not try to recreate the experience of his journey, but rather describes everything around it, hinting too at the impossibility of describing the “americanness” he set out to find.

The simple writing of the book was for me a reminder that a story is by no means an experience, but a way to approach experience. That is perhaps why we travel, because during the trip itself, nothing is a story and everything is an experience. Afterwards, we cannot access that experience —”I can’t even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them”, writes Steinbeck—but we can narrate it and give it new tints and colors of understanding and comprehension. perhaps only then we can realize its importance.

This book is one of the best non-fictions I have ever read, and I thought I would just point out some topics I loved.

On the nature of traveling

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

The book begins with Steinbeck’s urge to move, to be somewhere else, to travel. As the plot advances, Steinbeck points out that he found the same need in people he met along the road, people who looked with a bit of jealousy his truck and the freedom that represented being “on the move”. Why do we travel? Could it be there’s a biological need, a nomadic gene buried deep in us still? We move for various reasons, but the kind of traveling this book is about is not the one motivated by “sensible” reasons —a job,  better opportunities, an annual holiday—, but the one that is unexplainable, an urge for adventure that begins not with a destination in mind but with a desire to move. The way Steinbeck poses the questions that come with traveling reveal many aspects about our culture that are directly related to this quest for adventure.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

On disposable culture

One of the things that I found specially interesting was the mentions of consumerism and the overuse of plastic. The book was published in 1962 and Steinbeck had already detected the first consequences of the packaging culture, the first outlets of one of the most pressing problems we are facing today, fifty years later: “Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”

It is not only the dumpsters but the rapid growth of cities that Steinbeck marvels at, small towns turned into great urban areas, factories replacing suburbs. The cultural causes and implications of our environmental problems are sometimes overlooked; the links between “the American dream”, fast-food chains, fast fashion and cultural homogenization and our environmental challenges are something worth examining not only to understand but to better demand and think of solutions that, to be effective, have to involve a bigger change and even a complete rethinking of our economic systems. On this note, Steinbeck writes, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction”.

On writing about places

“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”

This is a quote I’ll have in mind every time I write about a place. Have you ever taken a trip with someone just to come back with completely different experiences and opinions about it? Or have you perhaps revisited a place to find it a disappointment from what you remembered, or surprisingly better than you remembered it? Perhaps the most interesting part of traveling is that you take you wherever you go, your eyes and your ears, your feet to tread the earth, your own mouth to taste the food.

A written account of a place can just account for a place in a certain time, under certain conditions, and that’s why both traveling and writing are endless expeditions. One can never know a place completely, much less write about it completely, and that’s the thrill of it: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

On the experience of nature

“Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?”

These questions were motivated by the redwoods in Oregon. It is easy to be fond of nature when it is already tamed by culture—a garden, a park—, but there’s an element of uneasiness in being out in the wilderness. We have come to think of nature as a “pretty thing” to be taken care of, but isn’t nature a dangerous thing? We have our cities and our homes against it and we still fear it, but so many of us are still drawn to it, much in the way the early romantics were, not to groomed trees and rose gardens, but to cliffs and rivers, to thunder and lightning, dark forests, to things that live and behave in a way that is for us both strange and familiar, that frightens us but of which we can still sense a part in ourselves.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

 

On the impossibility of really knowing the place we come from

The purpose of Steinbeck’s trip was to find what his homeland was, who his people were. When introducing myself to people from different parts of the world, there’s always talk of “traditional” Mexican things—the food, the dress, somehow people expect you to drink tequila and know how to dance—. At such times I feel like I’ve perhaps failed as a Mexican, for I cannot see what these things have to do with me. The things that connect me to my homeland are much simpler and much more complicated, and have nothing to do with flags or national anthems. They’re more about the mountains and the climate, a passionate defensiveness, an easy laughter.

Whenever I go too far north or too far south I find that the people there are very different from me, but on a closer look, I see they also share things with me, small things like gestures, stubbornness, a playful dispositions. There must be something, something about the land and its history, something I will never be able to rightfully put down because it’s too close to me. Reading Travels with Charley I felt like I was not alone in this defeat: “From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But they are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

I found in this book hundreds of things to think about and such a pleasure to read. It is a genuinely fine piece of writing, an essay much in the Montaigne style, mixing personal anecdotes with other reflections, everything connected together by a story, a story about two friends on a road trip. Honestly, stories don’t get much better than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Book Haul

New year, new reads. 2018 was for me a very interesting year reading wise, in which I discovered many new authors and in which I read a lot of nonfiction, something new for me. This year, however, I intend to make that a tradition. December is usually the month in which I go like, treat yo’self, and buy myself lots of books, despite having a literal pile of things I haven’t read yet. Do you even find there are books you just can’t get around to read, no matter for how long they sit on your nightstand? I have plenty of those and I intend to give them a chance this year. The actual TBR pile is pictured here:

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However, I do not have the self-control not to buy new books that caught my fancy, and  so I ended up with this gorgeous pile of books that I really can’t wait to read:

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What surprised me about these books once I piled them up was that there’s just one work of fiction, most of these books are history books or essays. I’m very much into essays right now. You can also notice many of these are about outdoors and travelling, that has been a major subject for me in the last few months.

This being my very first book haul ever, I think I’ll just proceed to talk about each of these books.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

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“Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.”

A couple of years ago I read Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face and I must say I had never found any history book as compelling and haunting. Alexievich’s writings dwells somewhere between history and literature, and does so with utmost honesty. On the book I read she mentions how she prefers to think of what she does as a “history of the heart”, bringing up those voices that History has long ignored—women, children— and discussing the seemingly unimportant details that are in the very core of “big” historic episodes, like wars. European history and the Soviet Union are themes that interest me and I expect I’ll have a lot of feelings about this book, which is written in the same interviews/monologue style.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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“Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.”

More about Russia. This was a birthday gift from a friend who knows me really well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. This book is a part of a historical trilogy which includes The Last Days of the Romanovs and The Race to Save the Romanovs. As any Downton Abbey fan, I admit I have a soft spot for royal families and agonizing empires in changing times. I really can’t wait to read this.

 

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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“Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.”

I saw this book on my Goodreads suggestions some weeks ago and I was absolutely thrilled when I found it ON SALE in a bookshop in Ottawa (ten dollars!). I really love Mary Shelley and I am excited to read more about her life, and honestly what best than some good old 19th century feminism.

 

Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

“In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.”

Honestly I bought this book because it was $4* and the cover was pretty, but I am genuinely looking forward to reading it now! It’s about a guy who tries to find his way in the sea using only old navigation instruments, so yes, I’m on board. And it has pretty awesome old maps inside, what’s not to like?

*I found it in Chapters, Ottawa, just like Romantic Outlaws. This shop has the best deals ever, no kidding.

Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

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Finally some fiction. Last year I read another of Joyce Carol Oates’ gothic novels, The Accursed, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was creepy and engaging and satirical in the best way. I had been trying to find the rest of her gothic novels but somehow they don’t have them anywhere in Mexico. So I ran into this one in Quebec City and of course bought it. I am a big fan of gothic literature, and this gothic revival of which Oates’ is capable of is just impressive, it has what I like best about gothic novels—style and themes— and the very necessary critiques of current events. I’m both excited and a bit scared to read this one.

 

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a book I have read before, haphazardly and in different moments of my life, but I never had an actual copy of it, mainly because every time I see it in a bookshop, it’s an ugly edition. So I finally bought one that is not too shabby and not very expensive, and I can’t wait to give it my whole, undivided attention. Both Thoreau and Emerson have shaped my life in very important ways— they’re the kind of authors I go to when at a crossroads or undecisive, so I just know it will be a rewarding read.

 

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

 

Muir is an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time now. I have come across fragments of his essays now and then and he reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson in his approach to nature and wilderness. The outdoors is a subject that interests me greatly and I love to hear different perspectives about it, about experiencing nature, about civilisation and about traveling. This comes at the right time, I think, as I have been paving the path reading other books on similar subjects by Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson and Edward Abbey. Human interaction with the untamed is a topic I’m ready to explore deeply in 2019, both in my reading and my life. Also, just look at this gorgeous edition.

In fact, I started the year reading a book along those lines. I am now reading and very much enjoying John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. I haven’t yet read any of Steinbeck’s famous novels, but WOW. This book is just amazing. I can’t help but think of Holden Caulfield saying how he wishes he could just call an author and talk to him, that’s exactly how I feel. And to be honest I really have a crush on Steinbeck. This book is a memoir as well as an in-depht analysis of the American way of life, of the American wilderness, of the search for meaning and the need of moving, of loneliness and companionship. It is a wonderful book of which I’ll be writing about soon.

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Have you read any of these?

I’d love to hear about your TBR for 2019!

 

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 AlhĂłndiga (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 PĂ­pila”— 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 JardĂ­n de la UniĂłn (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 CallejĂłn 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 JardĂ­n de la UniĂłn 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 JardĂ­n de la UniĂłn 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 JardĂ­n de la UniĂłn

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 PĂ­pila 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 AbadĂ­a, 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?

Chichen Itzá

The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itzá (which means something like well of the water wizards) is located in the state of Yucatán, around 3 hours away from the Mayan Riviera (Quintana Roo). Getting there from Playa del Carmen by car is pretty easy, although the tolls are quite expensive. Yucatán’s roads are in much better conditions than Quintana Roo’s (Yucatán is also one of the safest and pretties states in Mexico, to be honest) and there was no traffic, only rainforest to both sides and signs warning of monkeys and other animals crossing (we didn’t see anything though, just green everywhere, so much I actually wondered if we were going in the right direction a couple of times).

The most famous Mayan ruins are close to the capital of Yucatán, MĂ©rida, but coming from the west we didn’t pass neither the city nor the famous town of PistĂ©. Getting closer to the archeological site, we still found desert roads and we, for some glorious minutes, thought the place wouldn’t be very crowded. Wrong. When we arrived they made us turn back to an alternative parking lot because the one in the site was full. So we parked like 2 kilometers away from the site (it was almost full too and we knew we’d be coming back to a hell hot car because there was no shadowy spots) and started walking towards the pyramids, a bit discouraged but still hopeful.

We got there at around 12pm, having failed again at getting up early. The day was hot and there were barely any clouds in the sky when we took our place on the longest queu ever, so long that it went around the ticket booths and went zigzagging around some souvenir stalls. We should have learned right there that Chichen Itzá (at least in July) was mainly about those two things: crowds and vendors. And so we queued for like 15 minutes, sweating as if we were doing vikram yoga, when I decided to take a look at how long the queue was. I discovered that, being a Mexican student, I didn’t have to pay and I didn’t even have to queue, which was awesome. So I got my ticket and rejoined my friends, non Mexican and so unfortunate students, and we queued for another half hour, which was not awesome. I believe this was the day I got the killer tan that still hasn’t faded.

Once inside we confirmed our suspicions: there was a hell of a lot of people, a hell of a lot of vendors selling a hell of a lot of Mayan and non-Mayan stuff, and a hell of a lot of ruins. The first thing you come across as you enter, is the huge pyramid known as “El Castillo” or the castle, a huge temple dedicated to Kukulkan, the Mayan god of the wind. The explanade around the pyramid is so huge that it didn’t even look crowded. This was the first moment of the day that I was glad for the clear sky: the view of El Castillo against a blue sky is really breathtaking. This pyramid is really really huge and much more beautiful than other Mayan constructions, even the ones in Tulum. It is also surrounded by tropical vegetation, which sets it apart from other big archeological zones in Mexico like, say, Teotihuacan (I like Teotihuacan but it’s a freaking desert).

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Apart from Kukulcan’s temple, there are many other important ruins in Chichen. There’s the colonnade, the ball game court, more temples and houses, most of which are surprisingly not crowded. If you take your time wandering around you’ll eventually find spots that are almost deserted, the site is so big that even huge amounts of people can disperse and, anyway, most people just go there to take pics in front of The Castle “for the gram” (of course I did too). What really is amazing, in a sad way, is the amount of vendors and stalls. They’re everywhere and it gets annoying after a while.

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In Chichen Itzá there is also an open cenote, which actually explains the weird meaning of the name. Cenotes are very common in Yucatán and Quintana Roo, they’re not just underground pools, they’re parts of an underground river that goes on for like 500 kilometers. Because they’re open parts of this river, the water is sweet and clear. However, the one in Chichen is no longer connected to any underground current of water and is now just a greenish round pool known for its last ritual use. It is very deep and believed to have been use for sacrificial purposes, which may have caused its foul smell.

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All in all, you could spend between 2 and 5 hours walking around, or just as long as you can handle the heat. I remember that day I drank like 5 liters of water and had 3 coconut ice pops. I still sweated like I was in a sauna. Worth the visit? Definitely. Despite the crowds and the merciless sun, Chichen Itzá is one the biggest, most important archeological sites in the world, named one of the seven wonders of the world too, and one of the few places where you can buy made-in-China miniatures of the Mayan pyramids.

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Have you been to Chichen Itzá or any other pyramids?

Tulum

During our road trip along Quintana Roo and Yucatán, one of the first stops was Tulum. The archeological site of Tulum, which means “enclosure” or “wall”, was a very important city for the ancient Mayans, functioning too as an observatory. Now, the ruins of Tulum are inside a natural reserve, not far from the modern town of Tulum and the hotel zone— the whole area goes by the same name.

The ruins

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Our first stop in Tulum, after a one-hour drive from Playa del Carmen was, of course, the ruins. The entrance to the ruins. We parked in the archeological site for $100 mxn, then we walked through some kind of shopping/food court area, and finally made it to the entrance. You can either queue to buy the tickets from a booth or buy them from a ticket machine, which is faster. We were there on a Thursday in July, and even when there were many people, it was nowhere near as crowded as some other places in the Mayan Riviera. The tickets cost $70 mxn per person.

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Once there, it took about three hours to walk around the ruins. The day was sunny and very hot, and there are not many shadowy spots, so water and appropiate clothes for walking are a must. Although they are not the most impressive Mayan ruins, they are the only ones that overlook the sea. The sights of The Castle, the most famous building in the archeological zone, facing the sea, are unbeatable. The variety of the vegetation is also a distinctive trait of Tulum, because the ruins are surrounded by grass, palm trees and other tropical plants. Also, iguanas abound in the area and they’re not afraid to go near people.

For those interested in history and prehispanic culture, a guided tour might be the best option, although for me it was enough to read some information about the uses of each structure from the signs on the grass.

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Another iguana

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Touristic area

About 15 minutes away by car from the archeological zone, there is Tulum’s most famous area, the hotel zone along coastal highway 15. This is really just a narrow street along which there are shops, restaurants, cafĂ©s and hotels on both sides. Most of the restaurants sell organic food and many of the hotels are small, eco-friendly huts. Finding a good place to have lunch or dinner is just difficult because there are too many options. However, when it comes to dessert, I believe you should go to Matcha Mama, a nice hawaiian-like hut that has one of the best matcha ice-creams I’ve had. They also have matcha tea in different presentations, as well as other dishes and juices.

The hotel zone in Tulum was one of my favourite places in Quintana Roo. Not because of the shops or restaurants, but because of the vibes. Everybody, locals and tourists alike, seemed chill and friendly. Highway 15, surrounded by palm trees and surfboards is a small hippie paradise, specially tranquil during sunset. However, it is one of the most expensive areas in the state, so be prepared for overpriced meals. Also, as much of the Riviera Maya this time of the year, Tulum’s beaches are being badly affected by sargasso, a recent problem in the Caribbean, caused by climate change.

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Tulum sign right outside the archeological site.

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Turquoise sea, sargasso.

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Chill vibes at sunset

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.

Loch Ness

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.