Pink Flamingos: Discovering Celestún

There are two things that come to mind when I think of Yucatán now, and they’re both pink: flamingos and salt lakes. They were one of the reasons I chose Yucatán for my last trip. I travelled with a friend and we stayed in Mérida. Incredibly, after almost 24 years of living in México I still, somehow, manage to misjudge distances: when we were at the hostel planning our days out, I realized that while Celestún, the place where you can see pink flamingos, was fairly close to Mérida, but the pink lakes, Las Coloradas, were actually pretty far.

Our transportation options were very limited. A bus would take almost 5 hours, which seemed excessive for a day trip, and renting a car was too expensive for my budget —and it would take three hours. The most reasonable thing would have been to spend a night in Las Coloradas or nearby, but that was again an extra expense. As much as we wanted to see the pink lakes, we decided to set more realistic goals for our days there and leave the pink lakes as an optional adventure for our last day in Yucatán.

Pink flamingos were still on the list though, so the next morning we took a bus to Celestún, a small town in the Yucatán peninsula just one hour and a half away from Mérida. I was also queasy about this trip. Although the flamingos are not the only reason why you’d visit Celestún—they have a natural reserve called Ria Lagartos, habitat to thousands of species—, the flamingos were certainly the most compelling one for us, and we were offseason. The best time to visit Celestún is during March and April when they are mating. In June and July, they’re not that active and handed to spot, but we had to give it a chance.

Celestún

Once in Celestún, a picturesque but definitely not prosper town, we went straight to the beach, where we saw a couple of boats on the shore. Most boat drivers offer a two-hour flamingo-watching ride, the problem is boats can fit up to 8 people and if you’re in a small group you’ll still have to pay full price. A boat ride is expensive, at around $1,600 MXN. Thankfully we met an awesome boat owner who arranged for us to share with two other girls, so we paid only $400 each.

These boat rides are operated by a Mayan cooperative whose members, as I gathered from our driver, are also concerned with conservation. The boats never get too close to the flamingos and the drivers make sure no one disturbs them or tries to feed them. Our driver William explained all of these as we made our way from the beach towards the Ría Lagartos reserve.

It’s a long ride in which all you can see is water, some pelicans and birds, even small alligators. And then, as if out nowhere, flamingos appear. Now, I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by birds before. William stopped the engine when we were some 20 meters away from a group of 20 or so flamingos, and we stayed there, watching. The birds came and went, flew close to our heads, landed in the water, fought each other, played around. At some point, there must have been 50 or 60 birds around us, some of them still young and white. The flamingos, we were told, get their pink colour from the waters where they feed. Unlike most birds, flamingos feed on plankton and have no teeth but some kind of filters in their beaks, like whales.

They are a really weird species, gracious and somehow clumsy at the same time. I felt very humbled to be among them but I couldn’t help but doubt if it was okay to intrude in their habitat, even if we were assured that there was no harm being done. It was, as our guide said, not the right time to go and I wonder if many more people disturb them during the mating season.

On this trip, I learned that tourism is basically the only thing supporting people in small towns like Celestún nowadays. There are so many people that will take you on a boat to watch flamingos even though they’re not prepared or informed, only because there are no other jobs. Once again it’s clear that there is a very strong link between poverty and environmentally harmful practices.

Speaking of environmentally harmful practices, I have to say that I am very saddened about the amount of plastic lying close to the beach and on the roads of Celestún. In just a short walk I picked up a full bag of trash, mostly plastic bottles. This is extremely alarming considering how close the public beach is to the “protected” reserve of Ría Lagartos.

Speaking to our guide William on our way back to the beach he mentioned that flamingos were probably the most famous “attraction” of the area apart from the pink lakes. He mentioned most people travelled to Las Coloradas for that, which wasn’t really necessary since salt lakes could be found in many places in Yucatán. In fact, he knew a pink lake not five minutes away from where we were. After that, we spent five minutes convincing him to take us for a small extra fee ($50 each). He turned to boat around to shore just before where the river comes into the sea, we got off and walked for ten minutes among mosquitos and under a scorching sun and we finally came to it, a pink lake.

The colour pink comes from all the minerals and salts dissolved in the water, and it changes a bit depending on the light. This lake was actually very shallow, perhaps up to my waist in the middle, and the water was very hot and slimy. The sand underneath was also slimy and weirdly sticky. I had not experienced something similar before but I can tell you I didn’t want to go all the way in, not even to see if I would float like in the Dead Sea (which I have heard happens).

The area was completely empty, although you could see salt deposits in the distance and tools like shovels and buckets, there even was a truck parked not very far away. Most pink lakes like these are still worked for salt. That day, however, it was peaceful and eerie-looking.

Chunk of pink salt

After exploring a bit we went back to the boat and straight to the beach. It was a pretty interesting day and we crossed two things off our checklists, which gave us an extra day to stay in Mérida and chill. We had a pretty good lunch that day, too, shrimp and octopus, and hung out at the beach waiting for the last bus to Mérida. It was a pretty good day, “best day here so far”, we thought at the time, but we were quite mistaken.

Also, made a friend at the beach.

Uxmal: Pyramids Minus the Crowds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you visited any pyramids in México?

Walking Mexico City

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

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

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

Brunch at Ojo de Agua, Masaryk

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

Museo Jumex

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

Walk along Polanquito and Lincoln Park

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

Paseo de la Reforma

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

Chapultepec Castle

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

Paseo de la Reforma II

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

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

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

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

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.

Coffee Nooks in Mexico City

After almost five years living here, Mexico City both vexes and fascinates me still. A feeling that undulates between being where things happen and being overwhelmed by its many buildings, streets, cars, planes and general buzz. Somewhere amidst the chaos, however, I have found little havens where to stay sound, let down my guard and write, read or just be. Many of these places happen to coffee shops, who would have thought. These are the coffee shops I’ll miss the most now I’m moving:

giphy

 

Almanegra Café, Roma

If you’re looking for a cup of coffee to come back to life after a night out or, say, an allnighter of thesis writing, this is the place. This coffee shop offers so many brewing methods and everything between a cold brew and a cappuccino. The main appeal of this place is the coffee. It is a great place for a conversation, but not so much for reading— it is not that cozy or comfy.

IMG_8191

Biscottino, Polanco

This is a cosy litte coffee shop in Polanquito, a few steps away from Lincoln park. After a stroll and some bird watching in the area, this is the place to go for a cup. There are many spots for coffee in this area, but Biscottino is by far one of the best for coffee and matcha lattes. It’s usually quiet, so it’s the perfect spot for reading or sketching.

Hermann Thomas, Coyoacán

This is one of the best specialty coffee places in Mexico City. Just like Almanegra, the best thing about it the quality of its coffee, as well as the variety of brewing methods they offer. Hermann Thomas is also one of the pretties coffee shops out there: its comfy couches and privacy make it one of the best places for a date or some alone time.
IMG_5788

Café Negro, Coyoacán

This place is right next to Coyoacán’s main square and it’s usually very busy (weekends are impossible). They offer really good coffee and a large variety of drinks, but it is not an ideal place to go with company, it’s more of a work space with shared large tables and high chairs. It’s the perfect place to get some writing done.
Café Joselo, Polanco

Tierra Garat

This is a chain, but nevertheess one of the best places for hot chocolate lovers. The best thing about Tierra Garat is their spiced coffee. They have three mixes of coffee and chocolate with spices and they’re all amazing. It’s a nice place for a chat but usually not quiet enough for reading or working. There are several locations, my favourites are the ones on Avenida Eugenia, Colonia del Valle, and Jalapa, Colonia Roma. On the downside, they only serve in disposable cups.

Blend Station, Condesa

This place is the perfect combination between a workspace and a specialty coffee shop. The coffee here is next level, but the atmosphere (lofi music, appropiate lightning, large tables) make it the best for writing or working. They also have really good food and amazing lattes.
93717c19-cb2e-4ad4-bdb3-bfc3fd6bbe5d

1cceac15-3f5e-4540-9b1b-8b54ae5a3f49
Pretending to study @ Blend Station

Late-Night Burgers in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is yet another wonderful small city in Guanajuato. Not unlike Guanajuato city, San Miguel is a cultural centre, a place where baroque architecture comes together with the many modern artistic manifestations that take place in the city centre. San Miguel is also a very chic, touristy place — about one fifth of its population is foreign— with a vibrant atmosphere day and night. In terms of gastronomy, nightlife, culture, nature and climate, this is one the best cities to visit in Mexico.

DSC_0714DSC_0348

The streets of San Miguel are not that different from those of any other colonial town in Mexico, and yet the number of art galleries and absence of traffic lights gives them an extra charm. San Miguel combines some of the most characteristic things about Mexico, including the food, the mojigangas (giant dolls), baroque architecture and narrow, crooked alleys— but it is also one of the most cosmopolite, global cities in the country. You can find food from all over the world — I recommend, for example, Mare Nostrum for great pizza—, a nightlife scene that brings together people from all countries and ages, a very varied cultural scene and a paradise for cheese and wine lovers.

The first stop should be the main square. There stands the principal landmark of the town: la Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which is unmissable because it’s some kind of pink neo-gothic, and it is visible from almost everywhere in town. In front of it there’s the Allende garden. Around the area there are many restaurants and cafés, as well as ice cream stands and all kinds of handicrafts. However, most of the really good restaurants are not at the main square, and the best place for handicrafts and souvenirs is the Mercado de Artesanías, just a 10-minute walk north. Right next to it there’s a nice guest house called Casa de los Soles, which is a moderately priced and nice accommodation.

DSC_0698DSC_0379DSC_0285

As with most other places in the world, the best thing is to just get lost and wander around. The streets of San Miguel are just beautiful, with their buganvilia vines, cobbled paths and colorful balconies. Walking south from the main square you’ll find Parque Juárez, a nice park in which to take a stroll, buy souvenirs or snacks and even watch local basketball games.

During the day and specially on weekends, the centre of San Miguel is usually busy. However, it is at night that it really comes alive. Last time I was there, my friends and I really enjoyed our evening at Limerick, an Irish pub. Early in the evening it is a regular pub, but later it becomes a nightclub, and a really fun one. I think what makes San Miguel’s nightlife special is the international, chill vibe it has. Another cool place for dancing is El Grito (both places are near the main square), or Mamma Mia for live music and food. After hours of dancing, you’ll step out into the street, walk towards the Parroquia and see many food stands lined up in the street. One of those offers some of the best (and cheapest) burgers I’ve tried in a while. San Miguel does not sleep during the weekends, so no matter how late you find yourself hungry, out in the cold, windy streets… you’ll find something to eat.

If it is during the morning that you find you’re hungry, I would definitely recommend going to a small place called Bagel Café. They have different kinds of home-baked bagels, good coffee and bacon.

The charms of San Miguel are, however, not just in the city centre. Its geographical location and altitude (1,900 m above sea level) make it a wonderful place for a hike. Just half an hour away from the city you’ll find a protected area called Cañada de la Virgen. There is an archeological site there that is huge and not very well known, but the real thrill about it its the views you can get while hiking or horseback riding there. You can hire a horse or a hiking guide that will take you into the main canyons of the area, there are different eco-tourism companies you can contact directly once in San Miguel. If you’re interested in wine, you can also visit one of the many vineyards around San Miguel. Last september I visited one called Cuna de Tierra, which is beautiful and I totally recommend (they also sell their wine at a small store in the centre of San Miguel, try the nebbiolo), it is only 40 minutes away by car from San Miguel.

 

IMG_3858
These are mojigangas.

IMG_3899
The more you walk, the prettier doorsteps you’ll find.

Basically, what you need for a weekend in San Miguel is a hat, sunscreen, a jacket and an empty stomach.

Peña de Bernal

“What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations.”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I used to laugh when, in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice movie, Mary Bennet says, “What are men compared to rocks and mountains?”. Now I strongly agree with Mary, a very munch underrated character. However, the actual quote from Jane Austen’s novel is spoken by Elizabeth, and its the epigraph of this post. And even if in the first part she’s just obviously throwing shade at Darcy, the second part accurately expresses something I have been thinking about a lot latety: it is really hard to describe nature once you’re away from it, just as it has become harder and harder to orientate ourselves using natural landscapes. Many natural features —mountains primarly— do tend to be “jumbled together” in my imagination when I recall trips or even in my everyday life. Where I’m going with this is, real observation is needed to identify natural landscapes and I’m trying to educate myself on the subject, which is why I’ve decided to take regular expeditions into nature and look closely.

The first one of these trips —of which of course I’ll be writing—was to Peña de Bernal, a monolith in the town of San Sebastián Bernal in Querétaro, just two hours away from Mexico City. This particular monolith had me like, “what, indeed, are men compared to rocks or mountains? Preach, Mary”.

tumblr_nt562wfcPv1u41knvo1_500

A monolith is basically a large piece of rock. Unlike most mountains, monoliths are huge rocks and not a compound of huge rocks. Now, another thing I hadn’t tought much about until I read Bryson’s Walk in the Woods is that mountains have not been there forever. Most mountains have been there for thousands of years, but just because their life span is much larger than ours, it doesn’t mean they don’t come into existence or, eventually, stop existing. In fact all mountains are slowly washing way as I write this. But very, very slowly, just as they came to be millions of years ago. This particupar monolith, the Peña de Bernal, is thought to be around 8 million years old, but sources differ. And it is massive, one of the largest in the world, just like Yosemite’s El Capitan and The Devil’s Tower in the USA.

DSC_0045DSC_1191

To get to San Sebastián Bernal you have first to get to Querétaro, the capital city of the state of the same name, in the centre of Mexico. Querétaro’s weather is very different from what you get in Mexico City: it is semi desertic, which means it’s sunny and hot during the day, and cold as heck during the night. So be prepared. My friend and I agreed to meet at Querétaro’s bus station and once there, we got on a bus going to Tolimán. These buses leave every hour or so and have big, yellow arrow, so they’re hard to miss. They stop a few times before arriving in Bernal, but you can just ask the bus driver.

The ride lasts about 45 minutes and you’ll see the monolith as you get closer. We arrived in the centre of town and had lunch right away. Bernal is famous for its blue corn gorditas, a kind of pan-cooked dough with different fillings. They’re delicious and better than anything you could get in a fancy restaurant (except for wine— there are many vineyards around, so have some wine too). After lunch we got to our accommodation, a small cabin in a place called Villas la Bisnaga. The place is really nice and cozy, and the staff is really friendly. It’s a bit far from the centre but that has its advantages too: you can see the stars, there’s only the sound of the wind and some crickets at night, and you get this view when you go out:

DSC_0031

It was also EMPTY. We were the only one’s there and it was heaven to get there after the hike. Now, hiking to the very top of the Peña is not really possible. You can do a one-hour hike and then, if you like, climb from there. You can rent equipement or bring your own, and specify what you’ll be doing at the registration office when you start. I am not a climber, so my friend and I just did the hike. It was a sunny day and we were sweating 15 minutes in. It is a pretty easy hike for most of the way, so a pair of running shoes or light hiking boots should make it.

My friend and I were there on a Saturday and the place was a bit crowded (specially by school groups). The monolith is basically in the town, and despite being a protected area, there are lots vendors and hubbub where the registration office is. That Saturday was actually very busy, but as you go higher up, you’ll see less and less people. The climate means vegetation is mostly composed of holly oaks, mezquites and other small shrubs, so it’s not a shady walk. As you go up, vegetation becomes scarcer and on the final part of the hike it’s basically gone. Higher still, the surrounding landscape opens up; a couple of small towns next to green crops and, in the distance, to the north, the hills of the Sierra Gorda and El Zamorano.

DSC_1344DSC_1366

The shapes and colours of this landscape were familiar to me in many ways. Blue hills, scattered clouds and rolling plains are features easily found in the centre of Mexico. These areas— Guanajuato, Querétaro and even San Luis Potosí —share the same climate, where the weather changes depending on the altitude, which is to say, changes a lot because the terrain is rugged and irregular. Hills and mountains, moors and valleys. That is why these areas are good for vineyards despite not being the usual grape growing areas: on top of the hills the weather is not that hot and yet it gets a lot of sun. September, for example, is a rainy month in Mexico City, but Querétaro had clear skies and starry nights.

As it usually happens, I was amazed at how the continuous effort of putting one foot after the other can get you to wonderful places. After some minutes of physical effort you stop thinking about the sun hitting the back of your neck or the uncomfortable sensation of sweat beneath your backpack, or even the annoying people who are sitting around, yelling or listening to loud music. You just walk and walk, climb some stones, jump some patches and there are less and less people to be seen around. It doesnt matter if you’re with someone, hiking tends to become a solitary activity, in the best way.

Most walks and hikes are rewarding in themselves—walking is the reward of walking—but going up a hill, a mountain or a monolith has an added charm: the views. Up there, after one hour of moving, my friend and I just found a spot to sit down and look around. And looking at the mountains in the distance and the clouds and the vast extensions of land I realised I didn’t know much about my own country’s landscapes. I didn’t know what the names of these mountains were, or even if I was looking north. I didn’t know the names of the plants I could see, I couldn’t tell how high up we were.

Eveything I could see and feel and smell and hear was already being “jumbled together” in my imagination. Sitting there I thought of how hard it is, at least for me, to retain experiences in detail; most of the time what is left is a flicker, a certain kind of light and the rustling of the wind, some blue mountains in the distance. But later, writing about it, these mountains acquire a definite shape and they become a Sierra, an invisible compass appears over a giant map and tiny labels appear next to extensions of land, rivers and even streets. Is that experience mine then? Certainly not altogether after I’ve looked up the names of what I’ve seen and found out the height (433 meters) of the mountain and the type of rock (porphyrytic)… but perhaps I make them mine and create something else altogether, partially mine and partially artificial, but whole.

I don’t know yet if knowing the names and the rocks or the historical facts about the places I visit, specially natural places, is “better”. I only know once I do some research on something, then I can find similar features at some other location and then this new experience won’t be all “jumbled together” in my mind, I’ll sort of know where I am and what I am seeing and I’ll remember it with more detail. That is enough for now. One book I am reading now on the subject is called The Forgotten Art of Reading Nature Signs by Tristan Gooley and it is simply amazing how every rock and plant and cloud can tell so many things about the place and the weather, the season, the time, its own history. What I like about Gooley’s input is how he stresses that it’s not about naming things, it’s about observing. This was not the first time I hiked, not even my longest hike (or even my first time at Peña de Bernal), but it was a very different experience.

DSC_1329DSC_1360

The way down was a bit more challenging than the way up. This was the part when I was glad I was wearing hiking boots. I was also glad my knees work alright because at some points it was really easier to just jump. All in all, it is a fairly easy, very rewarding hike. Just make sure you do it in the morning and, if you can, not during the weekend. We did not do these two things.

Whether you go hiking or not, the town of San Sebastián Bernal is a nice, still relatively calm small town. Like most Mexican towns, it has a pretty main square and church (Santa Cruz chapel) around which you can take a stroll and have some ice cream or coffee. The town is pretty similar to any old Mexican town (this one was founded in 1647), what is actually striking is the contrast of 17th and 18th century architecture against the huge monolith, which is visible from any part of the town.

As I said before, our accommodation was a bit far from the centre of the town. Basically we just had to walk in a straight line towards the East until we saw the building, but the road was not paved and half of the way was uphill. This lonely road didn’t prove that scary in the morning, but walking it at night was an option we didn’t even consider after our host told us to “just beware the packs of dogs” after we asked if it was safe to walk home. So, after dinner and dessert in town (a piece of traditional bread we didn’t like but which my friend ate whole anyway) we decided to take a “mototaxi”, which is basicaly a motorbike with some sort of two-place bench stuck to it. This is an interesting experience I definitely recommend. We even had a pleasant conversation with our driver, who was a local.

This weekend proved to be a compound of experiences I had become familiar with in other parts of the country, specially my home state: stone paved streets, churches, unregulated alcohol commerce, people hiking in flats and high heels (okay this was the first time I saw the last one), new “traditions” which are not really “mexican” but they kind of are now because they attract tourism (see Día de Muertos after Coco and James Bond, an article I’ll write soon— or see this article on creating traditions for the sake of tourism). But despite the familiarity of these experiences, sights and landscapes, I tried to observe them in a different way. Observing things too much can result in what Schlovsky and the Russian formalists called “defamiliarisation”, and I think that’s a great way to explain what happened to me that weekend. It is something I wish I could do more often: to try to look at things instead of just assuming they’re there. For example, every day on my way to uni I get some cool views of the Popocatepetl volcano, but I rarely appreciate them. I rarely think of all the things that are wrong with Mexico City too (it’s basically unwalkable), but I guess that is self preservation.

The moral of the story, if there is any, is that we should think of Elizabeth Bennet when traveling (specially in our native countries), and try to really see things, breathe deeply and feel and smell  what is around us with intention. The other moral is that there are things we should never underestimate: Mary Bennet’s advice, or the power of nature to alter our perceptions of our daily life. In these crazy times it is necessary to think that even mountains come to pass, and that it is okay to remain silent and realise the place, the physical place, we have in the world: the earth below us, the sky above and the mountains in the distance, as cheesy as it sounds.

Guanajuato

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

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

DSC_0219DSC_0049

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

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

IMG_3737
Streets of Guanajuato.

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

Captura de pantalla 2018-10-14 a la(s) 23.03.51
The estudiantina. Originally formed by students (“estudiantes”).

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

DSC_0636
Teatro Juárez

DSC_0652
Handicrafts Market next to Jardín de la Unión

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

DSC_0681DSC_0176

DSC_0612

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

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

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

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

Cenote Dos Ojos

Apart from its beautiful beaches, pink lakes and mouthwatering food, the Mayan Riviera is also known for its many cenotes. A cenote is basically a hole that exposes an underground body of water. There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the southern peninsula of Mexico, and while the biggest ones are taken care of and charge you for entering, there are many small ones where you can just jump in (at your own risk). Cenotes in both Yucatán and Quitana Roo are part of an underground river that still flows, so the water is crystal clear, cool, and clean.

One of the cenotes we visited is only 20 minutes away from the archeological site of Tulum, in Quintana Roo, and it is called Dos Ojos (“two eyes”), because there are two main bodies of water in the area, connected by tunnels. Altogether, there are five cenotes there and the entrance fee depends on how many you want to visit and wether you want to hire equipment. We hired a somewhat basic tour of the main cenotes and an area called the “bat cave” because, well, it is basically a cave with a lot of bats. So, for 300 mexican pesos we got some snorkeling equipment and diving suits (yes, it was like 35ºC outside but the cenotes were cool and the water was COLD, so get the funny suit). The tour took around 45 and there were only like 8 or 10 people including us. Afterwards we could stay there for as long as we wanted. Best spent money of the trip, let me tell you.

The tour is really okay. It was not, thank God, one of those wannabefunny tours, but an informative account of how cenotes came to be, which animal species live there and other interesting facts. But the real reason the tour is worth it was the bat cave. Without a tour guide there is no access to this area, because it is quite difficult to get there: there are narrow passages, very shallow and very deep areas, and it is in complete darkness (they give you flashlights but still, it’s important to be with someone who knows the way).

The cave is small and its roof is comepletely SWARMED with bats. It is really a surreal experience to hear them chirping and feel them flying around you. Also, the cenotes in Dos Ojos are not really “open”— there’s an opening on the side from where you get it and where the light comes in, but they’re not open from above like other cenotes. This means you can’t really see the sky from the water. Instead, the roof is covered in stalagtites (and stalagmites will most definitely mess up with you) and the light that manages to come in has a blueish colour, which I think is way cooler.

Once the tour is over you can swim around, dive, snorkel or just sit somewhere. There are areas for scuba divers too, but you have to present your certification and bring your equipment. The park itself is really big and so are the main cenotes; however, it was surprisingly not crowded when we were there, which was weird after going to Tulum, which was really full. I understand that the park only allows a certain number of people every day because of safety and ecological reasons.

There was an area with lockers and changing rooms where we left our things (and our cameras). I did manage to take some underwater pictures, but I they all look like these:

 

 

 

Anyway, here’s a video that hopefully conveys the experience. Of all the cool things we got to do in Quintana Roo, this cenote was really one of the best. It is really one of those places that make you realise how strange and beautiful nature can be, and how there can be a balance between tourism and environmental care. So if you’re traveling to the south of Mexico, cenotes are really a must visit. There are many options, the most famous being Ik Kil in Yucatán, or a very similar but smaller option called Yokdzonot. There are also the ones in Xcaret, in Quintana Roo (this park offers some activities in underground rivers and caves), but Dos Ojos was really an amazing experience.

Have you visited any cenoted? Which ones do you love?

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, Mérida, but coming from the west we didn’t pass neither the city nor the famous town of Pisté. 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).

DSC_0124DSC_0150

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.

DSC_0138DSC_0165IMG_3281

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.

DSC_0159

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.

IMG_3277

Have you been to Chichen Itzá or any other pyramids?

Teotihuacán

In Ecatepec, Estado de México, one hour and a half away from the busy Mexico City, are the ruins for the ancient city of Teotihuacán, a political and religious centre for the teotihuacanos. The city is said to have been found abandoned by the aztecs, who claimed it as theirs and probably used it as a political centre too, though much about this ruins remains a mistery.

Last weekend I went to see (and climb) the pyramids for the third time. Despite being rain season, the morning was sunny and warm; if you visit Teotihuacan, I definitely recommend starting early, since there are barely any shadowy spots and the afternoon sun can be intense.

The pyramids are located in Ecatepec, and you can get there easily by bus or car, as there is a road that connects the city with the archeological site. Once there, the best thing is to start at gate 5, right behind the Pyramid of the Sun, and make your way through the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon. You can climb both pyramids, but as the best view is from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I recommend leaving that for the end.

IMG_2915
On our way to the Pyramid of the Moon.

IMG_2922IMG_3123

View from the Pyramid of the Moon.

IMG_3130

We were in Teotihuacan on a Saturday in July, although it might sound like a bad idea to go there on a weekend during the summer holiday, there was not many people around until like 1.00 pm. I have been here on October too and honestly I didn’t notice much difference in the weather.

Overall, Teotihuacan is a must visit if you’re in Mexico City. Walking around and climbing both pyramids won’t take more than 3 hours, counting many picture stops, and visiting the site museum at the end will provide you with more information about the ancient city. There are guides you can hire at the entrance; it might be a bit expensive if you’re not in a big group, but a good idea if you’re interested in prehispanic culture and would like to know more about the pyramids that meet the eye.

For more information you could also check out Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living by Esther Pasztory, which incorporates some of the latest theories on where the teotihuacanos came from and what happened to them, as well as speculations on what their mural paintings and architecture might have mean back then.

Have you been to Teotihuacan? What did you think of it?