Stalking Turtles

The greatest appeal of Costa Rica has to be its natural diversity. The number of beautiful places and animals that live in this small country was the main reason I wanted to visit it. And it did not disappoint: monkeys and turtles, active volcanoes, beautiful beaches and national parks everywhere. Nevertheless, my least favourite part was one of its most famous and “protected” areas, the turtle sanctuary and ecological town of Tortuguero.

Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and belongs to the province of Limón. The village is part of Tortuguero National Park and, because it’s on a sandbar, it’s a bit hard to access: you have to get to La Pavona by car or bus and then take a 1-hour boat ride to Tortuguero. The town is really small and its economy depends on tourism: thousands of people come here to see turtles, jaguars and other exotic species. There’s a Sea Turtle Conservancy research station which runs different guided tours and expeditions. These tours are very expensive and the money is supposed to go to conservancy jobs and research.

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Knowing all this, arriving in Tortuguero was a bit of a surprise for me. As soon as we stepped out of the boat, some guys from The Sea Turtle Conservancy approached us to help us find a hostel and sell us any of the various “eco” tours they offered. I thought that bore a considerable resemblance to how things are done in some protected areas in México, such as Yucatán and Quintana Roo, where there are not many regulations as to how many tourists are allowed in a certain area or how close people are supposed to get to wildlife. We thanked these guys, accepted some recommendations and finally settled for a cheap hostel called 7 Backpackers, where we were told there was nothing to do in Tortuguero other than the activities offered by The Sea Turtle Conservancy, nothing we could do on our own at least. That day we visited the beach and went back to the Visitor Centre to plan our next day in Tortuguero.

At the Visitor Centre, we were offered many different activities: night-walks to watch turtles, morning canoeing and kayaking wildlife-watching tours, turtle hatching expeditions, guided hikes in the rainforest, etc. We had to choose only the cheapest activities: a night-walk in search of turtles and a morning canoeing tour. We paid $60.00 US dollars for these activities and I must admit I did not know what I expected. From what we were told at the Centre, these tours were the only ways to spot turtles. When we added Tortuguero to our list, the turtles were the main reason. Three different species of turtles hatch in Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast: green turtles, leatherbacks and Carey turtles—, but something felt weird about paying 30 dollars for a secretive walk in a restricted area of the beach. I guess what I imagined we’d see was baby turtles making their way to the sea.

 

Stalking a Leatherback Turtle

Night came and we met at the Visitor Centre at 9.30 pm. We waited for other four people and made our way to the beach with two guides from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, who explained we might or might not see any turtles at all. If we were lucky, one of the guides said, there would be a female turtle laying eggs at the beach. “Laying eggs?”, I thought, “that sounds kind of private”. As soon as we arrived at the beach, another guide came and told us there was indeed a turtle making its way to the shore. Suddenly we were walking fast, our guide leading the way with a red flashlight, for that kind of light doesn’t bother the turtles, she said. We all were supposed to follow in complete darkness. And there she was, a giant turtle, black and heavy, making its way from the ocean to where the palm trees were. She was walking slowly, apparently not noticing the small crowd around her, and not hearing two loud guides name some facts about her species.

As mesmerising as it can be to see a leatherback turtle, I could not help feeling out of place. Is this eco-tourism? Stalking turtles in the middle of the night? Things just got worse when the turtle started digging a hole to lay her eggs. Another group of tourists had arrived and now we were taking turns to watch the turtle, who at least seemed unaware of the loud, bickering crowd about her, pointing at her private parts with a lantern. By this time my friend and I were a bit confused and fed up, and decided to stay back. There’s something unsettling about a group of tourists stalking a turtle while she performs one of the most beautiful acts in nature. At the time I thought it mightnot be that bad if the $30 we paid for the “tour” were destined to the conservation of the turtles, even if it meant contributing to the idea that the whole world, its wildlife, plants and rocks exist purely for human enjoyment. But the next day in Tortuguero made me realise my naiveté.

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Empty turtle nests

 

Further Fiascos

Confused and with a dark cloud of guilt hovering over our heads, my friend and I returned to the hostel and tried to sleep for the next day’s adventure: the canoeing tour. We got up at around 5.00 am and made our way to the decks, only to be further disappointed. We basically just sat in a canoe for an hour “searching” for wildlife in the rainforest: birds, sloths, crocodiles, of which we only saw a couple of birds and a small crocodile. The worst part was seeing a float of canoes and kayaks everywhere in the river, full of eager eyes searching for the animals that were no doubt hiding in purpose.

Later that afternoon we went on a hike in the Tortuguero National Park, on a trail that runs parallel to the beach and has many exists to it. The further you go on the trail, the more deserted it becomes, and there are plenty of signs warning about rip currents. Nearing the end of the public trail, we decided to walk on the beach to go back. This was the worst idea. On our way back, we saw hundreds of plastic bottles and other plastic items lying on the sand and floating in the sea.

We kept walking on the beach and suddenly saw a guy standing very still some 20 meters away from us. He signalled to us and I approached him. I could see something was wrong as soon as I had a clear look of his face. He looked on the verge of tears and was looking at the floor, so I looked too. Around us lied some fifty dead baby turtles, coal-black, the size of a pinecone. The guy explained to us he’d seen some these turtles alive and had tried to lead them to the ocean, but he was not fast enough and by now they all had died.

On the expedition of the night before they had told us that only about half of the turtles make it to the sea. Some of them get confused because of the lights and go inland, some of them hatch in the day and can’t stand the heat, some of them get eaten by natural predators or are impeded to join the sea by humans. However, the way turtles behave these days is not entirely “natural”, it can’t be because they’re so close to human settlements and research centres.

 

I still wonder today what would be the best thing to do in these cases? Should we blame the Sea Turtle Conservancy for these invasive tours, for not organising beach clean-ups, for not helping these baby turtles make it to the sea? Would helping them be worse, an invasive practice? Should we let nature follow its way even if we think it cruel? Can nature follow its path, undisturbed? Certainly not anymore. I’m only sure part of the blame lies on people who, like me that day, support this kind of tourism. It is, in fact, part of the same problem we see on Instagram every day, we do not care for protected areas anymore, we want to see it all, not only watch the sunsets and walk the trails, but become a witness of every act of nature, even those that are not meant for our eyes, for our lanterns and our chattering.

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Remains of a turtle, probably eaten by a jaguar

I had the feeling of interrupting something sacred that day. As much as I love animals, I have promised myself not to take part in any wildlife-related activities, unless I can be certain of not disturbing anybody. I have thought a lot about our experience with the turtles in Costa Rica—and about other “fashionable” activities such as swimming with dolphins and interacting with elephants—, and every time I come to the conclusion that the blame lies not on any individual or organisation alone, but in the way we as a society see the world that surrounds us. Fortunately, that has already begun to change for the better. I can only hope we can learn to coexist without harming and support wildlife organisations without wanting to involve ourselves in their tasks.

However saddening and insightful this experience was, I must say that is not the way the rest of the trip was. In almost every place in Costa Rica we met wonderful communities that are very well informed and concerned with climate change. It is a wonderful country that, for the most part, respects its wildlife and natural resources in a way I wish mine could. They indeed honour their motto, “pura vida”.

Rock and Sun: The Grand Canyon’s South Rim

I suppose the Grand Canyon is one of those places that haunt your imagination way before you visit them. I had seen it in movies and read about it countless times, I had imagined it while reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and seen it on Instagram time after time: drone pictures, helicopter videos, dangerous-looking selfies. I guess it is one of those places you know before you even see them, that is not rare. But it is also one of those places that still baffle you when you see them. I visited the Grand Canyon last month and can recall very vividly that scene of “rock and sun” before me.

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A family trip to Las Vegas was really the perfect excuse to visit the Grand Canyon, since the state of Arizona, where the Grand Canyon National Park is, neighbours the state of Nevada. It sounded pretty close to me, but it took about 6 hours by bus to get from Las Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had the chance, though, to make some stops along Route 66 and eat some really good American pie. We also made a stop at In n’ Out on the way back, so no complaints about that.

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After 40ºC weather in Nevada, I was glad to find that the weather in Arizona was much milder, at around 30ºC at noon. There were few clouds in the sky and when I finally got off the bus at the National Park all I saw was a scorching red vastness of rock. It was infinite in its size, the kind of grandeur that makes you feel lonely and small but strangely comfortable. Walking along the rim all was vastness: upwards the infinite sky, downwards an ever stretching smoothness of rock, in front of me a dusty path that stretched further and further.

At the moment I recalled many things that Edward Abbey wrote about Monument Valley in Utah:

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear— the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, a thought, an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Indeed rock and sun compose the greatness of this landscape, with the hardness and the assurance of those things that need no nurture, that don’t grow and don’t die, just remain. Rock and sun, dust. There is something reassuring, transcendental and even biblical— dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”— in being surrounded by rocks. 

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Writing about it now, about a month afterwards, I think of a more recent read, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Do you ever read something and think how you’ve wanted to express that but hadn’t found the right words? There is a part where Solnit writes:

“Solitude in the city is about the lack of other people or rather their distance beyond a door or wall, but in remote places it isn’t an absence but the presence of something else, a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or may not turn over.”

—Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Not an absence but the “presence of something else”, the presence of perennial things, beings that transcend time as we perceive it, in watches and calendars, and give us a glimpse of that other time, time as movement and stillness, time as things that remain: rock and sun. Perhaps these things that remain allow us to touch, if only briefly, the things that remain within our contingent existences.

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Where Neon Lights Come to Die

A Vegas holiday has never been on my bucket list. I have always thought it’s not my kind of place and now I know I was right. However, that was the destination of my last family holiday and I admit I was curious about it. Plus, that’s the city of The Killers, I wasn’t about to miss that.

What to say about Las Vegas? Must be more fun if you’re a millionaire. However, it is dazzling with its hotels and its neon lights, a mirage in a desert, a city of blatant hedonism and consumerism. All the time I wandered in casinos and malls I couldn’t help but feel somehow guilty and came back with a stronger will to stop buying clothes and anything I don’t really need. So I guess it was good. Of course, the city has some cool things, like awesome antique shops and bookshops dedicated to rare and first editions… and the Neon Boneyard.

The Neon Boneyard is part of The Neon Museum, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of neon signs in Las Vegas. The Boneyard is basically a ditch full of old neon lights and neon signs, some of them from legendary hotels and casinos, some of them famous because of Hollywood movies.

When I was walking through the place I could not help but think about a book we read at uni, The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym. Perhaps the surge of places like these has to do with our current obsession with everything vintage. People came here to observe the vestiges of a golden era, the rusty remnants of the American dream, and of course because it’s incredibly aesthetic: all these giant signs displaced, covered in dust under the desert sun; there’s something definitely eerie about them, it’s like visiting a ghost town.

In her book, Svetlana Boym says that “contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past as about vanishing the present”. It is indeed comforting to look at these metallic giants and think of a time where the stood tall, illuminating the cities for years and years. They’re real, so much that they have bones and structures, as opposed to our digital culture in which everything comes and goes in a flicker.

I very much enjoyed walking around the Neon Boneyard. To get in you just buy your tickets online and choose a time between 9am and 8pm. I chose 7pm to be there at sunset and see the neon signs in both day and night. It did not disappoint, they’re somehow mesmerizing. Although I think it’s a bit overpriced for the size of the place, the visit was one of the highlights of my visit to Las Vegas.

Have you been to Las Vegas? What did you think of it?

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Five Day-Trips From Mérida

Yucatán is one of the most wonderful states in México. It has everything: beaches, lagoons, lakes, wildlife, hiking trails, museums, pyramids… No wonder it is a very popular destination. However, it is hard to choose where to go once you’re there because it’s huge! This is why I put together a few places that are less than two hours away —by bus or car— from the capital, Mérida, and which I believe will help you get an idea of Yucatán.

Uxmal

There are many archeological sites in Yucatán, most of the wonderful. However, Uxmal is my favourite so far. It is only one hour away from Mérida by bus and, unbelievably, usually not crowded. The biggest pyramid in the complex is The Pyramid of the Magician, which is pretty impressive. There are also many smaller structures in which you can get in or go up.

Celestún

Celestún is small beach town one hour and a half away from Mérida by bus. Apart from enjoying the beach, you can go on a expedition to watch flamingos and other animals that live in the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Lagartos, a protected area. You can also swim in some of the natural pools around town, or enjoy wonderful seafood by the beach.

Progreso Beach

The closest beach to Mérida. Takes thirty minutes by bus to get there, and all you need to bring is some towels. It’s the perfect escapade after sightseeing in Mérida.

Homún

Homún is a small town one hour away from Mérida. To get here you’ll have to drive or take one of the vans that stand outside the bus station. The wonderful thing about Homún is its cenotes. There are around 10 cenotes open to the public and many more that are being worked on or belong to private properties. It’s quite far to walk from one to the other, so I recommend you hire a moto-taxi for the day (the charge $200 for the whole day, up to four people) and see as many as you can. Each cenote charges $30.00 for the entrance. It’s totally worth it and one of the most wonderful things you can do in México.

Cuzamá

Cuzamá is just 10 minutes away from Homún and it’s cool for the same reasons: cenotes. You can spend another day exploring the cenotes here.

More tips for Yucatán

  • Sunscreen is necessary in Yucatán. However, you should make sure you’re wearing eco friendly sunscreen or no sunscreen at all when going in the cenotes. Cenotes are super cool but also very delicate ecosystems for birds, fish and flora.
  • Try Yucatecan food. You’ll see “Mexican” food everywhere, but don’t go for tacos or quesadillas, instead try cochinita pibil, sopa de lima and other dishes that are typical of the region. Yucatán has one of the most unique cuisines of the country, do yourself a favour and try it.
  • Stay at an eco-hostel! Hostels are booming in the area, especially in Mérida. They offer wonderful prices and the chance to meet like-minded people, which can be helpful when organizing a trip. I last stayed at Nomadas and could not recommend it more! It was truly amazing in every way.

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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?

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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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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Hidden Waterfalls in Vallarta

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

To get there we did a 40 minute hike trough streams, rocks and huge tree roots. As we walked through the rainforest we saw different birds, squirrels and an iguana, a common find in the area. It was not a difficult hike, we mostly followed a small stream to the waterfalls, so the main obstacles were rocks and puddles. It is, however, a mountainous area, so the hike was mostly uphill. Now in spring there’s not much water, so the landscape might not be as pretty as during the rainy season, but the weather was lovely: 26ºC and only a few scattered clouds in the sky.

We arrived at our first stop after 40 minutes: a beautiful waterfall surrounded by rocks, flowing into a small pool hidden by trees, an idyllic spot… except for the fact that there were around 10 very loud American ladies already there. Nevertheless, we still got to jump into the water from about 3 meters high, something I hadn’t done before (come to it, I was really scared). Our guide taught us how to jump, where to stand, and signalled the spot we should aim for. It was a thrilling experience, the vertigo and then the shock of cold water made it very exciting. Moreover, we jumped in while the American ladies cheered for us. The water was really deep and clear and cool.

After swimming a bit, we continued up towards another set of waterfalls. This part of the hike had to be done holding on to support cables that were tied to the rocks along the trail, something I hadn’t done before either. It wasn’t very dangerous, only felt so when you looked down to the waterfalls. As it usually is with hiking or climbing, once you find your balance and move intently and slowly, one foot (and hand) at the time, I found a rythm I was at ease with. What I like about hiking, and specially these more technical hikes, is that it requires all your attention, you’re all there, doing it with all your energy, there’s no time to be scared.

To this last spot I arrived alone with our guide, as the rest of our group didn’t feel like going up. It was a breathtakingly beautiful place, a couple of natural pools and a set of waterfalls surrounded by walls and vegetation, with sunlight filtered green by the trees above. From there we coulnd’t see or hear ayone else, just the birds and the flow of the water, the wind rustling through the trees. We swam there too, and the water was even colder, so it was refreshing after the hike. Hiking is never about the destination, but there’s some pride in knowing you got to someplace beatiful using your feet and hands and mind and heart.


Even though I’ve been visiting Puerto Vallarta at least once a year since I was three, I never knew places like this were so close to the crowded beaches and fancy resorts. I had seen the quiet beaches of Nuevo Vallarta and the caribbean-looking corners of Mismaloya, but never such a secluded spot in which a hike felt like a hike and not as some touristy expedition.

Now, I have to be honest and say that the last spot we arrived to was the only one where we did not see plastic bottles or bags. Even though these waterfalls are not very popular —I had never heard of them and don’t even know if they have a name, there are no signs — we constantly found forgotten plastic bottles and beer cans along our hike, specially at the beginning and even close to the first set of waterfalls. I assume most people don’t go all the way up with picnic stuff because it’s tough and you need all your extremities. Fortunately, my friend had a bag with her and she picked up most of what we saw, but I’m ashamed to admit that environmental education is not common in my country.

The basic rule, “leave no trace”, is not known by many people, mostly locals, who visit these places, but I believe that sharing our experiences with nature can help educate more people on this issue. Environmental protection is also the reason I’m not geotagging this location, or sharing the directions in here, but if you’re interested in doing this hike just send me an email and I can contact you with our guide.

This was an epic hike for me, both because the locations were beautiful and because I did some cool stuff I was a bit scared to try (such as diving). I had probably driven close to this place on my way to Mismaloya or Puerto Vallarta many times before, and I never saw it. I am always happy to discover new places in familiar areas and so I will keep sharing with you my new findings in Mexico.

Have you visited Puerto or Nuevo Vallarta? I like it much more than other more popular places, like Acapulco. I’d love to hear of similar hikes or favourite beaches, I’m really considering moving to the coast soon.

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.

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Hiking Among Volcanoes

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

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

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

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View of the Popocatépetl from Paso de Cortés.

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

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

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

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

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Up to the cascades.

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

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Last stop. The smokes from the Popo behind me.

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

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