USA: Basking in the breathtaking beauty of the “Range of Light”; Trekking the John Muir Trail (Sept 16 to Oct 7, 2017)

A short 3 weeks after returning from our amazing road trip through Mexico and the western US (see previous posts), I rejoined Mathieu in Cassis, France, a lovely small city on the Mediterranean coast where he’d started a new job. I spent a wonderful summer with him and his family then flew back to the US for a 3-month visit to spend time with my family and friends, and to hike the John Muir Trail.

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 210-mi (338-km) trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains (“Range of Light”) that passes through the backcountry and wilderness areas of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. Most of the trail lies above 8,000 ft (2400 m), with about a third of it lying above 10,000 ft (3000 m). Awesome! The majority of the JMT overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that extends from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. I’d hiked various sections of the JMT during previous backpacking trips throughout the Sierra with my brother, Jabal, and now wanted to take it on it one shot.       

In late April 2017, I messaged my friend Carrie, telling her I planned to hike the JMT that September and inviting her to join me. We met in 2015 in Ushuaia, Argentina, and had trekked together several times (see previous posts) so I knew she was an experienced trekker and would be a great trail partner. Exactly 51 minutes later, she responded “yes!” I almost fell off my chair! I knew she’d be willing but the chances she’d be able (due to work/life commitments) seemed slim. She’d just completed trekking the majority of the 2,200-mi (3500-km) Appalachian Trail in the eastern US and was in the process of moving from Washington State to Minnesota but apparently the timing was perfect. So, not only was she willing but she was able. And, it turned out that the JMT was on her bucket list. Perfect!

We planned our trek while I was on my road trip and she was in the midst of moving across the US. Then on September 13, I picked her up from the San Francisco airport. After spending 3 days at my parents’ house sorting and double checking our gear, it was time to hit the trail. With Carrie and I in Genevieve (my 4Runner) and Jabal in his car, we drove from San Francisco to Silver Lake (about 15 minutes south of Mono Lake, California). We’d been unable to get a permit to start the trek in Yosemite National Park, the northern terminus of the JMT, but were easily able to get a permit to join the JMT about 40 trail-miles south of Yosemite via the Rush Creek trailhead.  

After a fun but chilly night of camping at Silver Lake, Carrie and I said farewell to Jabal, who drove back to SF. He had planned to join us for the first 9 days of the trek but had to cancel due to work. However, since the logistics of our food resupply during the trek and transport after the trek had been elaborately planned based on him joining us, he generously offered to shuttle us from where we parked my truck at our second resupply stop to the starting trailhead. He would then meet us again in 9 days to bring us our first resupply of food. He’s an awesome brother!  

After a picture at the trailhead, Carrie and I started the trek. On Day 1, we hiked almost 10 mi (16 km) up the eastern side of the Sierra to join the JMT at 1,000 Island Lake. I was pleasantly surprised at how strong I felt hiking up the steep trail with my fully loaded pack. In addition to the usual backpacking gear (i. e., tent, sleeping bag, stove, warm clothes, rain gear, etc…), we were each also loaded with 9 days of food stuffed (mostly) into a bear canister, a 3.3-lbs thick plastic container required to be carried for food storage along this and most other trails in the Sierra. It was a bummer to carry the additional weight but along with keeping bears uninterested in human food (and toothpaste), and therefore out of trouble, it also saved our food from scavenging rodents and served as a camp chair. Bonus.  

Over the next 23 days, we trekked through the stunning alpine landscapes of the Sierra:  glacial-cut valleys, fast-flowing creeks and rivers, thick forest, lush meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and giant, jagged, snow-covered mountains. Each day, we got up around 7am, trekked from about 8am to 5pm, stopping every few hours to eat and/or to bask in the scenery, then found a campsite, cooked dinner, and crawled into our tents around 7:30pm or whenever it became too dark and/or cold to do anything else. Despite every day on the trail being similar, every day was truly wonderful. Really. Even on nights when I didn’t sleep well (due to the cold), I woke up every morning happy to be in the mountains. And while I want to keep this post short (finally!) and let the pictures do the talking, a few of the days were different from the others:

On the morning of Day 6, I woke up to what I thought was the sound of rain and with the roof of my tent almost touching my face. I opened the rain fly and discovered it was snowing! We went to sleep under a clear, star-filled sky and woke up in a beautiful winter wonderland partially buried under 6-8 in (15-20 cm) of snow. Wow! We waiting for the snow to stop then packed up and trekked on. Tricked by a warming period of blue sky and sun as we hiked, we decided to camp that night just below Selden Pass. Being at about 10,000 ft, we knew it would be cold but for some reason we hadn’t thought about the snowy weather returning. By 4:30pm, the clouds had swallowed the sun and there was a brutally cold wind coming off the mountains. We shared Carrie’s tent that night, hoping our combined body heat would keep us warmer. We climbed in the tent around 5:30pm and stayed there. We cooked dinner under the tent’s vestibule then laid in our sleeping bags making jokes about what they’d say when they found our frozen bodies. Ha! While we were well prepared for the cold, on this night, and a few others, even sleeping in my thermals, down jacket, rain pants, rain jacket, gloves, and beanie and swaddled tightly in my zero-degree down sleeping bag, I still had shivered. And despite being wrapped in a plastic bag under the foot of my sleeping bag all night, my hiking shoes were still frozen solid the next morning. I had to thaw them in the sun for a few hours before I could even untie the laces. Brrr!!

On Day 9 we met Jabal at the North Lake Campground to resupply our food. Our resupply required us to leave the JMT and hike 17 mi (27 km) over Piute Pass (11,423 ft; 3482 m) then down the eastern side of the Sierra to the campground, then back up the next day. We could have opted to resupply on the JMT by mailing the food to one of the few outposts along the trail for pickup or paying a service to deliver the food to us via mule but we decided to go with the much-cheaper DIY (do-it-yourself) approach. What’s a few more miles. Ha! And we got to hang out with Jabal for a few hours, chatting about our trek and eating the delicious snacks he’d brought us (chips and salsa!). After he left to drive back to SF, we spent the afternoon basking in the sun, preparing our newly-arrived food for the next 8-day section of the trek, and relaxing.

On Day 13 we enjoyed our first rest day. After all the miles we’d done to this point, my back and legs were finally sore. And after having hiked over the splendid Muir Pass (11,955 ft; 3656 m), my favorite of the 10 passes we hiked over during the trek, the day before, it felt great to lay around our creekside campsite, nap like lizards on a boulder in the sun, read, journal, clean and repair ourselves and our gear and to… NOT strap our packs on.

On Day 17 it was again time to leave the JMT to resuppy. This time we only had to hike 6 mi (10 km) over Kearsarge Pass (11,709 ft; 3569 m) then down the eastern side of the Sierra to the Onion Valley Campground where we’d parked my truck and stashed our resupply food in the bear lockers at the campground 18 days prior. That night, we drove down the mountain to Independence for a good meal, something we’d been fantasizing about. Unfortunately, the two restaurants in the tiny town were closed so we ended up eating bowls of chili and drinking beer at the gas station/casino at the edge of town. It was not exactly what we’d been dreaming about but the beer was good, the wifi was strong, and we were warm while we ate and drank. The next morning, after a leisurely morning in the sun preparing our newly-acquired food for the final 6-day section, we started the trek back up to the JMT.    

On Day 20 we enjoyed our second and final rest day. This time tho, instead of relaxing at camp all day, we did a nice 7-mi day hike. Hiking with just a bottle of water and snacks, I felt like I was hiking in zero gravity and almost floating along the trail. It was a fun day of effortless exploring.    

On Day 22 we summited Mount Whitney, the southern terminus of the JMT. And at 14,505 ft (4421 m), the highest peak in the lower 48 US states. Thankfully the smoke from a distant wildfire that had filled the valley the day before had dissipated overnight and we summited the peak under a clear sunny sky. This was my third time on Mt Whitney but was equally rewarding. We enjoyed the magnificent views along with our fellow trekkers then started the long, steep descent to Whitney Portal Campground and the end of our trek.

On the way down, we talked a lot about what we’d eat when we got to town later that day. The topic of food had become increasingly dominant in our conversations over the past two weeks. At times, it took all of my self control not to devour my next day’s ration. Despite our dreams of real food, we were both a bit sad at the thought of the trek being over so decided to camp one more night on the trail. We wanted one more night to breath in the fresh air and contemplate our journey.   

On Day 23 we hiked the last 4 mi (6 km) of the trek. We enjoyed a delicious celebratory beer from the small campground store then hitched a ride down the hill to Lone Pine. To our delight, we arrived just before the start of an annual parade celebrating the town’s fame as a movie location for old Westerns. We had a beer at Jake’s Saloon and watched the small-town parade. It was great.  

About an hour later, our friend Candice and her mom, Linda, arrived. Candice had offered to drive about 4-hours from the Los Angeles area to shuttle us back to my truck and to camp with us for the night. Long-time friends Carrie and Candice had been traveling together (along with their friend Don) when I met the trio in Argentina. I hadn’t seen her since our two-day adventure hitchhiking from Bariloche to Buenos Aires (Argentina) so it was great to see her again! And it was wonderful to meet her super cute, energetic mom. They brought us delicious food and snacks including beautiful fresh fruit and veggies that tasted amazing after 23 days of eating dried foods. We sat around the fire at the Onion Valley Campground, eating well, sipping the bottle of sake they’d also brought, and sharing stories. It was a wonderful end to our JMT adventure.

The next day, we returned to my parents house where they fed us tons of delicious food (all plant-based). We (or maybe just me) ate heartily. After all, we had to regain some of the weight  lost on the trail. Ha! Carrie left several days later and I spent the next few days laying in my warm bed watching movies and sifting through the hundreds of pictures I’d taken, savoring the many memories.

In total, Carrie and I trekked about 250 mi (402 km), hiked over ten mountain passes above 10,000 ft (3048 m), going over two of them twice, and summited Mount Whitney. We didn’t see any bears but we did see fresh bear poop! We also heard coyotes and saw bald eagles, deer, trout in the many lakes, lots of lizards, lots of fuzzy little critters, including marmots, chipmunks, and squirrels (a few of whom chewed through my snack food bag and chewed the straps of my trekking poles), and one very photogenic pika.

Along with critters, we also shared the trail with other hikers. But, while the few sections of the trail close to facilities were a bit crowded, on most days we crossed only a few hikers, mostly other JMTers and a few PCTers. All of the PCTers we met had been forced to skip this high Sierra section of the trail that June due to very high snow levels and had returned to complete the 2,659-mi (4279 km) PCT. It was cool hearing about their adventures during their 5 to 6-month epic trek.

We also had pretty good weather most of the trek. While it was damn cold, with daytime highs in the 50s-60s and nighttime lows at or near freezing, and we were snowed on twice, it didn’t rain. And when the sun was shining, it felt glorious, and provided just enough warmth for a very quick bath in an icy lake (which only happened three times during the entire trek. Ha!)  

For me, trekking the JMT was an opportunity to be fully immersed in my favorite type of landscape everyday for 23 days. It was a magical experience. As John Muir, the environmentalist after which the trail is named, said “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” So true John, so true. And sharing this experience with my wonderful friend Carrie made it even more memorable. I look forward to our next hiking adventure together. Maybe the PCT? Hmmm……

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album of pictures and videos:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/1PRvN7r9COZS9i6W2 

Enjoy!                  

[Next post:  Motorcycling around the French island of Corsica. Stay tuned.]

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Day 1, let’s do this!

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Snow day!

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One of many stunning glacial-cut valleys we trekked through.

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Evolution Valley, one of my favorite areas. Amazing!

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Carrie pumping water on the way to Piute Pass. What an amazing water stop!

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Lunch on the trail.

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One of our many beautiful campsites along the trail.

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Being devoured by the “man-eating rock” in LeConte Canyon.

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Happy to be at Muir Pass, one of my favorite passes. Stunning!

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The photogenic pika.

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Enjoying the view from Mt Whitney (14,505 ft), the highest mountain in the lower 48 states and the official southern terminus of the JMT.

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USA Road Trip: Great Friends and Amazing Landscapes in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California (May 15 to June 19, 2017)

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After nearly 5½ months and roughly 11,000 mi (17,700 km) of road tripping through Mexico, including a 3-week side trip to Cuba, Mathieu and I crossed the border back into the US and explored Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. How did we spend roughly 7 weeks in the wild wild west? Visiting friends and exploring amazingly beautiful landscapes, of course!

Arizona

After crossing from Nogales, Mexico into Arizona, we drove to Tucson to visit my good friends Erin and Sanjay and their kids Ishani and Aarav. It’d been over 3 years since I’d seen them so seeing their smiling faces was especially wonderful. We had a great time catching up, laughing and playing with the kids, eating delicious homemade Indian food, and relaxing. After a few days of being couch potatoes in their comfortable home, enjoying the AC and the wifi, we explored the area a bit and did a nice day hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains (Coronado National Forest), a beautiful area of jagged, rocky cliffs and flowering desert plants. How wonderful to live just a short drive from such a beautiful place.         

From Tucson, we drove to Scottsdale to visit my good friends Dave and Nicole and their kids Gianna and Dominic. I’d visited them fairly recently but was super happy to see their smiling faces again. We spent several days with them catching up, laughing and playing with the kids, enjoying the pool, eating more delicious food, including Dave’s carne asada tacos, and being couch potatoes in their comfortable home. While in town, we visited The Penske Race Car Museum, bringing Dominic with us. After checking out the kick-ass classic race cars, we strolled through the showrooms of the adjacent luxury car dealerships for Maserati, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Bentley and more. While Dominic didn’t (at that time) have the vocabulary to say “whoa, these cars are frickin awesome!” Mathieu expressed the sentiment for him over and over again as we gawked at one beautiful, shiny, very luxurious, very expensive car after another. They were impressive for sure!  

After a week of hanging out with our peeps and enjoying their hospitality, and their comfortable, air conditioned homes, we got back on the road (and back into the tent). From Scottsdale, we drove north a few hours and wild camped in the Coconino National Forest, just south of Sedona (thanks iOverlander). While looking for a campsite, we lucked out and saw a huge rattlesnake slowly crossing the dirt road in front of us. It was Mathieu’s first time to see one so we watched him for a while (from the safety of the truck), finally letting him be after he started rattling loudly at us. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with my friends, I’d already started missing being immersed in nature.     

The next day, we continued north toward Grand Canyon National Park. Along the way, we briefly visited Sedona then stopped at the Bell Rock Pathway (still in the Coconino National Forest), unable to resist exploring the huge red-colored rock formations calling to us as we drove past. It’d be the first of many impromptu stops on our US road trip. Given the plethora of beautiful protected natural areas along our route, we couldn’t possibly visit them all and found ourselves saying “next time” a lot.

We arrived to Grand Canyon National Park in the late afternoon and joined the hundreds of other visitors along the south rim to view the impressive canyon and the surrounding canyonlands which extended as far as the eye could see. I’d visited the Park several times but it was equally impressive each time, although watching Mathieu’s response to seeing the famous canyon for the first time made this visit especially fun. With our beers cleverly hidden in our travel mugs (gifts from Dave and Nicole), we sat on the rim and watched the green-, purple-, red-, yellow-hued layers of the canyonlands change color in the fading light of the setting sun. It was wonderful. After our rim-side picnic, we wild camped in the Kaibab National Forest, just outside the south entrance to the Park (thanks iOverlander).

We spent four days exploring the southern part of the Park, during which we visited numerous overlooks along the rim trail, admiring the majestic canyon and the surrounding canyonlands from various vantage points. We also did an overnight backpack trip to the bottom of the canyon. We’d totally lucked out and got a last-minute backcountry permit to camp two nights at the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon. Apparently the threat of high temperatures at the bottom scared a lot of people into canceling their reservations. Wimps. With our backpacks minimally loaded, we hiked down the 7-mi (11-km) South Kaibab Trail at sunrise. It was lovely to watch the sunlight spread across the canyon walls as we hiked deeper. After about 4.5 hours of very steep downhill hiking, we arrived to the bottom of one of the worlds deepest gorges. To celebrate, we dropped our packs at the campground then jumped, fully clothed, into the Colorado River. Despite it being ~115F (46C) in the sun [and ~98F (37C) in the shade], it was impossible to stay in the river for more than a few moments; the water was freezing! After a few hours laying in the shade of the trees in the campground, counting the minutes until the blistering sun went behind the high canyon walls, we day-hiked up the North Kaibab Trail to Ribbon Falls. The trail took us through the narrow canyon carved by the Kaibab River and to a small waterfall cascading down onto a huge rock formation. The fall was not spectacularly tall or voluminous, but it was a beautiful area and we had it all to ourselves.   

The next morning, just before sunrise, we started the 10-mi (15.9-km) hike back up the canyon to return to the south rim. Our permit was for two nights but given the extreme daytime heat, we wimped out and decided one night was enough. The 4.5-hour hike back up the canyon was strenuous and hot but the beautiful views along the way were worth the effort. On our way out of the Park’s east entrance, we stopped at various overlooks to get last looks of the amazing landscape.  

From Grand Canyon National Park, we continued north, hoping to find a cheap hotel in Page where we could blast the AC and take cold showers. However, a room at the typically-cheap Motel 6 was $199. WTF?! Oh right, it was a holiday weekend (Memorial Day). So, we had to forgo “luxury” and instead we camped on the shores of Lake Powell in the southern part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area. The campground was crowded with hundreds of massive RVs but the nighttime temperature near the lake was lovely.

After a quick swim in the chilly lake the next morning, we backtracked a bit (via Highways 98 163) to drive through Monument Valley. Along the way, we stopped at Horseshoe Bend, a deeply-cut, horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River. While the canyon rim overlooking the impressive bend was crowded with hundreds of people, it was a worthwhile stop. We also stopped at Antelope Canyon hoping to visit the narrow slot canyons renowned for their beautiful colors. Unfortunately, the hundreds of other people around us had reservations for a tour of this popular site; we did not. Next time. As we continued north through Monument Valley and into Utah, the views became more beautiful. We drove past tall, reddish brown mesas, towers and mushroom-shaped rocks jetting out of the flat desert landscape. At the town of Mexican Hat, we turned off the highway to visit Mexican Hat, a rock formation in the shape of…a Mexican Hat. It wasn’t very remarkable but it was a fun side stop.    

Utah

After Mexican Hat, we took Highway 261 to get to Valley of the Gods, a protected area with more amazing reddish brown rock formations and mesas. We followed the 17-mi (27-km) self-guided driving tour through the area, winding through the massive rock formations with names like Rooster Butte, Setting Hen Butte, and Balanced Rock/Lady in a Tub. During our tour, we found a wild camping spot and watched as the sun set behind the giant mastiffs rising steeply from the desert floor, sharing the view with the few other campers scattered throughout the large area. The landscape was dramatic and beautiful, and peaceful.

After enjoying breakfast with an amazing view, we returned to Highway 261 and drove to Natural Bridges National Monument where we did a 10-mi (16-km) loop hike through a lovely shaded canyon to view the impressive natural bridges (aka arches). It was a very pretty area and since it’s a bit off the beaten path, there were only a few other visitors. After the hike, we drove through the town of Monticello where we turned onto State Road 211 and into the Indian Creek Recreation Area. The drive through the wide valley lined with impressive sandstone cliffs on either side was stunning, especially as the sun set. We camped at the Super Bowl Campground, which we had all to ourselves, and enjoyed another night gazing at the stars while bats flew overhead.

From there, we drove the short distance to Canyonlands National Park (Needles District). We hiked the Elephant Hill Trail, a 11-mi (18-km) out-and-back that took us through a narrow canyon to Druid Arch, a large arch named for its resemblance to the large rocks of Stonehenge. It was a great day of hiking among huge needle- and mushroom-shaped formations then scrambling up the canyon wall to view the massive Druid Arch. The arch was cool to see but the surrounding “forest” of formations was even more impressive.

After the hike, we continued to Moab, a city surrounded by some of the “most stunning red rock landscapes on Earth.” During a previous visit to the area, I’d camped at one of the dozen or so riverside campgrounds in the Colorado River Recreation Area. This time, however, all the campgrounds were full. Apparently we were not the only people who wanted to see “the most stunning red rock landscapes on Earth.” Thankfully just before giving up, we found a spot in an overflow camping area. There were no trees or picnic tables but we were just across the road from the Colorado River and the surrounding area was beautiful. Also, we were within 20 minutes of Moab and Arches National Park. After a bath in the icy river, we drove back to Moab to do laundry and resupply. However on the way, the needle on Genevieve’s (my 4Runner) temperature gauge suddenly shot into the red and the engine shut off. Crap. The truck was overheated but oddly there was no steam coming from the radiator. We sat roadside for about an hour to let the engine cool then drove back to camp. Since it was now evening, we joined our fellow campmates to cook dinner in the dirt parking lot and enjoy the sound of the river.

The next morning, we put some water in the empty radiator and slowly drove to Moab. We stopped at the first auto shop we saw and luckily they could take a look at the truck that morning. After a fairly quick inspection, they diagnosed the problem. The seal on the radiator cap was broken so the radiator fluid had leaked out in a slow, steady stream of unnoticeable steam. Along with checking the hoses for leaks, the primary fix was to replace the radiator cap. Of course we were relieved that we wouldn’t have to replace a cracked radiator or do other major repairs but….you may recall that while in Nogales, Mexico, the mechanic who flushed the radiator for us told us the seal was broken and that we needed to immediately replace it. Obviously, we’d forgotten his message so now what should have been a $10 repair was a $150 repair. Crap. It was also not lost on us that we could have burned out the engine anytime during the roughly 700 mi (1,126 km) we’d driven since leaving Nogales. So, despite our foolish mistake, we were feeling pretty lucky.

With the radiator now refilled with fluid and topped with a shiny new (very expensive) radiator cap, we explored Moab’s charming downtown area, visiting some of the many small shops filled with tourist souvenirs, local art, and expert photographs of the area’s stunningly beautiful landscapes. While strolling, we saw a flyer announcing a rodeo coming to town in two days. Per the flyer, the rodeo would feature the typical rodeo events and, there’d be kettle corn. Yes!!! We decided to stay another night to enjoy the festivities.  

The next day, we visited Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky District) and hiked the 8.3-mi (13-km) Syncline Loop Trail. We hiked on the outer side of a huge crater for a few miles, then crossed over the rim and scrambled down a boulder field into the crater where we walked among huge boulders and domes of uplifted sediment. The area was truly a picture of upheaval. It was a great hike and we had the trail to ourselves. After the hike, we drove to the Green River Overlook where we had a beer while staring out over the vast expanse of dense canyonlands dramatically cut by the mighty Green River. The view was as amazing as it’d been during my previous visit and is still one of my all-time favorite views.  

Back in Moab, we stopped at an RV park for a shower. We paid the owner, an ornery old lady who zipped around in golf cart, $2.75 each for a 5-minute hot shower. It was heaven. Now clean and smelling good, we got dressed up for a night out at the rodeo. We parked alongside the other dusty trucks and went into the small arena to join the crowd (mostly locals) on the bench seats to cheer on the barrel racers, cow ropers, and bull riders, and to laugh at the hilarious rodeo clowns who were crowd favorites for sure. While watching the cowboys get tossed around like ragdolls as they tried to stay on the backs of huge, pissed-off bulls, we sipped Moab brewery beer and ate nachos and sloppy joes, both smothered in bright-yellow “cheese.” This was Mathieu’s first rodeo, and his first sloppy joe, so it was an especially fun evening (as was hearing him say “sloppy joe” with his strong French accent).

The next morning, we got up super early and drove into Arches National Park. We drank our coffee while watching the light of the rising sun spread across the huge rock formations. We then joined the hundreds of other visitors to see the arches, including of course Delicate Arch, the Park’s most famous formation. Despite the number of people, the atmosphere at Delicate Arch was tranquil. It seemed we were all in awe of the impressive landscape, including the views of the distant snow-capped La Sal Mountains visible through the lovely arch. From the Park, we drove a scenic route through the beautiful canyonlands of Capitol Reef National Park to the town of Escalante. After refueling and resupplying, we then entered Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and found a wild camping spot (thanks iOverlander) where we enjoyed a peaceful night under the stars.   

In the morning, we drove down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a 56-mi (90-km) dirt road that ended at Lake Powell at the spot called Hole-in-the-Rock. Along the way, we stopped at the Dry Fork Trailhead to hike through some slot canyons. Exploring Spooky Slot Canyon, Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon, and Dry Fork Narrows Canyon required us to scramble up, climb down, crawl, squeeze, and suck in our guts to pass through some very narrow sections of carved sandstone. It was awesome! We then continued to Hole-in-the-Rock to jump into Lake Powell. As floated in the refreshing waters of the lake looking back up at the trail we’d come down, it was hard to imagine how early settlers in the late 1880s managed to lowered their wagons, horses, and gear through this narrow, steep crevice in the 1200-ft (400-m) high cliffs of Glen Canyon. Per Wikipedia, the Mormon settlers worked for months widening the upper section of the crevice using blasting powder, and used hand chisels to carve anchor points into the sandstone so that the expedition of 250 people, 83 full-sized wagons, and over 1000 head of livestock descend down the cliff to cross the river (now Lake Powell). They used heavy ropes and teams of men and oxen to lower the wagons through the upper crevice, which has slopes approaching 45°. Wow. After hauling ourselves back up the steep trail, we found a nice spot on the cliff where we drank cold beer and watched the sunset.

The next morning, after watching the sunrise over Lake Powell, we returned the way we’d come, stopping at the Egypt Trailhead to hike through the desert, abloom with flowers, and through more beautiful canyons and formations. Much to our delight, the trail criss-crossed a wide, shallow river in which we submerged ourselves in multiple times. It was heaven and made the heat of the day tolerable. After the hike, we continued to the highway. It was heaven to be back on smooth pavement. The entire 112-mi (180-km) round trip drive on Hole-in-the-Rock Road had been on washboard. Along with rattling our brains, the constant vibration caused the screw holding the bike rack to the truck to vibrate loose. Thankfully we figured this out early, so avoided disaster, but since we couldn’t figure out how to prevent it, we had to stop every 20 minutes to re-tighten the screw. Given the multitude of truck and bike rack calamites we’d experienced on our road trip through Mexico and the US (thankfully minor), maybe I should write a post called “The adventures of Genevieve and her trusty sidekick, Billy Bike Rack” Ha!   

From Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, we continued to Bryce Canyon National Park. Since we arrived near dark, we found a wild camping spot in the Dixie National Forest just outside the Park entrance (thanks iOverlander) and enjoyed a refreshing evening under the pine trees. The next day, we joined hundreds of other tourists visiting the Park. Perched on the rim, we looked down into the massive, wide canyon filled with extraordinary needle formations. The size and shape of the formations were amazing, as were their orangish yellow colors. We did a nice hike down into the canyon to walk through the stunning formations. After, we drove the scenic road along the rim, stopping at the various overlooks to view the expansive canyon from different angles. It’s a truly extraordinary place.

We then continued to Zion National Park. After a stop at the visitor center for hiking recommendations, we drove out of the Park to wild camp off Kolob Terrace Road, just outside the park entrance. The camping area was along a creek and was shaded by trees (thanks iOverlander). As soon as we found a spot, I immediately laid down in the small creek. There was barely enough water to cover my body but it helped me cool down. It was 4pm and at least 100F (38C). Yikes. We sat in the shade and spent the afternoon relaxing.  

The next morning, we drove back into the Park to catch the shuttle. To reduce traffic and pollution, the shuttle was the only way to access the various trailheads throughout Zion Canyon in the summer. We’d read that prior to the shuttle, the road and parking lots would be congested with ~5,000 cars/day. Whoa. To avoid the masses, we took the 6am shuttle. [People in line for the later shuttles waited 45 to 60 minutes!] We hiked up to Observation Point, a view point on the canyon rim overlooking the North Fork of the Virgin River. On our way up the steep, switchback trail, we were fortunate to see a family of bighorn sheep. The views of the river at the bottom of the deep canyon where stunning and it was early enough that we shared the spot with only a few others. We also hiked up to Angel’s Landing, a trail known for its super narrow sections along the cliff edge where you have to hold on to permanently-anchored chains to prevent falling hundreds of feet to your death. A sign along the way reminded us of the dangers of the trail, informing us that 6 people had died since 2004 due to falling off this trail. It was a good reminder to hold on tight while enjoying the stunning views all around.

Along with visiting the main part of the Park, we also spent two days visiting the Kolob Canyon section of the Park (northwest of the main part of the Park). We hiked the Taylor Creek trail which took us through juniper/pine forest along Taylor Creek to the Double Arch Alcove. We passed a few other people but mostly had the trail to ourselves. It was a lovely hike and mostly in the shade, and the colors and patterns at the double arch alcove were beautiful. At the end of the scenic drive to Kolob Canyon Overlook, we looked out at the expansive chain of mountains while enjoying cold beers. It was an impressive sight and uncrowded.

After a night of wild camping in the Dixie National Forest outside the Kolob Canyon entrance (thanks Park ranger), we returned to this less-visited part of Zion and hiked the La Verkin Creek Trail. We again walked through juniper/pine forest, crisscrossing numerous small creeks. The view of the rocky, red-colored mountains was beautiful. We rounded the mountains then hiked along La Verkin Creek to Kolob Arch. It’s apparently the world’s largest free standing arch but given its position on the side of the cliff, it was difficult to see, let alone appreciate its size. After soaking in the clear, cold creek, we returned to the truck and drove to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, crossing into Nevada, where we wild camped for the night.

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After a scenic drive along Lake Mead, we arrived to Hoover Dam. It was Mathieu’s first visit and he was impressed. We joined the crowds to peer over the edge of the 726 ft (221 m) tall dam. After walking the length the dam and marveling at this feat of engineering, we continued west. Next stop:  Vegas baby.

Our room at The Linq (on the Strip) was very chic with a king sized bed, a giant flat screen TV, excellent AC, and a nice shower with big, fluffy towels. It was heaven. After showering and relaxing on the huge bed with the AC cranked up, we made some to-go cocktails and headed out. We could see from the large window in our room that the party was at the pool. We sipped our drinks while floating in the pool and jamming out to the DJ. Later that night, to-go cups still in hand, we walked The Strip, walking through the giant casinos, watching light shows produced by the mega hotels, and taking in the sights and sounds of Vegas. It was Mathieu’s first time there so he was excited to finally see the spectacle. And his beginners luck was with him at the roulette table. While he didn’t strike it rich, he won back what he bet plus some extra, and had a great time doing it. We’d planned to go dancing that night at Drai’s but ended up walking around so long (and having a few too many cocktails) that we were exhausted by midnight. Next time.  

California

After a fun night in Vegas, we got back on the road, crossing into California and continuing to Death Valley National Park. Our first stop was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 ft (855 m) below sea level. It was 101F (38C) outside so it was a quick stop to take a “we were here” picture. As we continued the scenic drive through the Park, we stopped periodically to join the masses to enjoy the stunning views of the expansive desert and its many multi-colored layers of rock and sand. Given the extreme heat, we decided to camp at Mahogany Flat campground, a primitive campground located in the Panamint Mountains (still part of the Park). Our campsite in the trees overlooked the beautiful desert but since we were at an elevation of 8,133 ft (2,479 m), the temperature was significantly cooler.

After a good night of sleep under the stars, we hiked from the campground to Telescope Peak, the highest peak in Park at 11,043 ft (3,366 m). The views during the 14-mi (22-km) round trip hike were amazing as were the expansive views from the peak. We could see for miles in every direction and looked over Death Valley on one side and Panamint Valley and distant snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the other side. The area is also home to ancient bristlecone pines. The oldest tree of this species was found in the nearby White Mountains and determined to be 5,067 years old. Wow.

After the fabulous hike, we drove south on Highway 395 through the Owens Valley. I’ve driven this highway numerous times but I never get tired of the varied desert terrain and the views of the mountains, especially of the majestic Sierra Nevadas. We cut through the lower Sierras via Highway 178 and camped for the night at the Walker Pass Campground, a campground also used by hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT (a 2,659-mi (4,279-km) hiking trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border).

The next morning, after drinking coffee and watching (me with a tinge of envy) as the PCT hikers loaded up their packs, we drove north to Sequoia National Park. The views along the curvy road into the Park were beautiful and the temperature decreased slightly as we continued into the mountains. After a stop at the visitor center and pictures in front of “The Sentinel”, a very tall but apparently average sized sequoia tree, we took the Park shuttle to visit the Park’s famous sequoia, the General Sherman Tree. With a height of 275 ft (83.8 m), a diameter of 25 ft (7.7 m), an estimated volume of 52,513 cu ft (1,487 m3), and an estimated age of 2,300–2,700 years, it is among the tallest, widest, and longest-lived of all trees on the planet. Cool! We then continued north on Generals Highway and wild camped in the National Forest between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (thanks iOverlander). We found an awesome spot with views of the snow-covered mountains in the distance, and we had the area to ourselves.

The next day, we did a nice 9-mi (14-km) hike to visit the Redwood Grove, known for having the highest number of large sequoias in the Park. The trail wound through the forest along one side of a deep valley and up the other side. After being in desert landscape for the past few weeks, it was great to hike in the forest among such majestic trees. After the hike, we drove Highway 180 and entered Kings Canyon National Park. There are only a few campgrounds in the Park, so we were luck to get the last campsite in the Convict Flat Campground. To escape the heat at our unshaded campsite, we drove down the mountain to the Kings River. The views of the steep canyon walls cut by the large river were breathtaking, and the river was raging with snow melt. Since we couldn’t safely get into the water, we sat on the river bank and dumped buckets of icy cold water over ourselves. It was a super cold bath but much needed.     

The next day, we continued to Roads End (the end of Highway 180). As we prepared our packs for a day hike, we noticed people gathering around two Park rangers. They were guarding a cage holding a large black bear. Apparently mama bear had been hanging around the area and had been trapped so the Park biologists could tag and release her in a more remote area. Her was nearby, crying out for her. We watched as he quickly and easily climbed up a very tall tree and out on one its limbs. The rangers moved the crowd further away as to not scare the cub into falling and thankfully, the little guy climbed back down. It was cool to see the bears but, for their sakes, I hoped they’d stay away from people after being relocated.

After watching the cub for a while, we hiked the Mist Falls Trail, a popular trail that crossed several creeks, all of which were raging, then climbed through Paradise Valley. Once we were out of the forest, we could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the U-shaped glacial cut valley we’d hiked out of. The view was awesome and I was very happy to introduce Mathieu to my absolute favorite type of landscape. He was in awe too. We had lunch above Mist Falls. The water fell with such force that the spray from the falling water was higher than the falls themselves! And the noise was deafening. After the hike, we returned on Highway 180, stopping along the way to enjoy more of the magnificent view, then drove (via Highway 41) to Yosemite National Park. We found a wild camping area just south of the Park’s south entrance (thanks iOverlander). There were many other campers (tents and campervans) in the forested area when we arrived at nearly 10pm but there was plenty of space for us all.

The next morning, we got up early and drove into the Park, stopping first at the Tunnel View overlook. The view looking down into Yosemite Valley was stunning. We could see Yosemite Falls and El Capitan on one side and Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls on the other. It was cool to see the famous icons of this world-renowned Park. I’d driven Highway 120 (Tioga Pass) through the northern part of the Park multiple times and visited Tuolumne Meadows, another of the Park’s iconic areas, but had never visited Yosemite Valley. We were both in awe and absolutely blown away by the beauty and majesty of the landscape. By 8:30am, there were already tons of people in the Park so we were lucky to get a parking spot near the visitor center. We loaded our daypacks and hiked the Yosemite Falls Trail. The super steep trail took us up along the lower and upper sections of the large, raging waterfall. At the top, we continued to Yosemite Point [elevation 6,936 ft (2,114 m)] which overlooked North Dome, Half Dome and glacial-cut valleys beyond. While we ate lunch, we watched dark storm clouds gather and start to move overhead. We got rained on a bit as we sat on the cliff edge but continued to marvel at the stunning view in front of us. On the way out of the Park, we stopped again at Tunnel View. This time, the sun was behind us and the combination of dark clouds and sunlight created an amazing light on the valley. It was nearly 8:30pm when we returned to our tent. We’d spent the entire day in the Park and had only visited Yosemite Falls. Ha!

We entered the Park early the next morning, determined to explore as much as possible on our last day there. We first visited Mirror Lake, enjoying the reflection of the trees and cliffs on the glass-smooth lake. We then joined a few hundred other people to hike to Vernal Fall. The hike followed the raging river, steadily going up to the falls. About a mile below the falls, we started to see people putting on rain gear. My first thought was “lame, what’s a little spray.” But as we climbed higher, I started to see people returning from the fall totally drenched. Hmm…I guess those lame people had the right idea. We got totally soaked by the icy spray but thankfully the sun was out to warm us up. It was crazy how many people were on the trail but it didn’t diminish the splendor of the fall. From there, we continued up to Nevada Fall, another beautiful waterfall. From there, Mathieu turned back (due to an injured knee) and I continued another 10 mi (16 km) to Glacier Point, a vista overlooking the valley and the expanse of snow-covered mountains beyond, then back down into the valley on Four Mile Trail. The views from the trail were stunning and there’d been significantly fewer people. It was awesome. On the way out of the Park, we stopped again at Tunnel View for one last look over the magnificent valley. Yosemite National Park is a truly special place.  

We then drove the four hours to my parent’s house in Pacifica (just south of San Francisco). It was the official end point of our road trip. We’d driven 3,695 mi (5,946 km) through the western US. During this 35-day section of the road trip, we camped 26 nights (17 nights wild camping and 9 nights in paid campgrounds), stayed with friends for 7 nights, and stay one night in a hotel (Vegas baby). And during this time, we visited some amazingly beautiful natural areas and,  realized that there are so many more to visit in the future.

It was strange to imagine that after roughly 6½ months, our road trip was over. In total, we’d driven 14,445 mi (23,247 km) through Baja, mainland Mexico and the western US. During the trip, we had a few minor issues with Genevieve (i.e., flat tires, worn out brake pads, broken radiator cap), destroyed one of the two bicycles we brought, damaged the bike rack (likely beyond repair), and lost some of our gear and had to replace one of Genevieve’s side windows due to a smash-and-grab vehicle theft. But, we had an amazing experience, met wonderful and interesting people and visited some extraordinary places, many of which were off-the-beaten path. And best of all, I shared this epic journey with my wonderful road trip partner/boyfriend, Mathieu. This road trip has ended but we will hit the road again…when and where is TBD…  

Next post:  Trekking the John Muir Trail! Stay tuned.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/xA5TWF3mCKDjajyK8 

Enjoy!

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With our fabulous friends in Tucson, Arizona.

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With our fabulous friends in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Happy hour at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

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At Droid Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

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At the rodeo in Moab, Utah.

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Overlooking the Green River, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah.

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Squeezing through a slot canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

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Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

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On the way to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.

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At the lowest point in the US in Death Valley National Park, California.

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On top of Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park, California.

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Vegas baby!

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Dwarfed by a giant at Sequoia National Park, California.

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Overlooking Kings Canyon in Kings Canyon National Park, California.

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Overlooking Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, California.

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And the road trip ends at my parent’s house in Pacifica, California.

 

 

The Republic of Cuba: Colorful, Musical, Friendly, Interesting, Frustrating Cuba (Feb 13 to Mar 20, 2017)

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During our 5+-month road trip in Mexico (see previous posts), we decided to take a side trip to Cuba. After a fews hours of internet research, we booked two cheap flights, found secure parking for Genevieve (my 4Runner), and off we went. So how did we spend 21 days in Cuba? Exploring the country, meeting new people, marveling at the plethora of gorgeous classic cars and enjoying great music, of course!

The Republic of Cuba is a communist country based on the “one state – one party” principle. Much of the production is owned and run by the government and most of the labor force is employed by the state. Cuba’s major exports are sugar, nickel, tobacco, fish, medical products, citrus fruits, and coffee and its imports include food, fuel, clothing, and machinery. The average monthly wage in 2016 was 740 Cuban pesos (~$28 USD). However, there is virtually no homelessness and 85% of Cubans own their homes and pay no property taxes. Education in Cuba is free through the university level, contributing to the country’s 99.8 percent literacy rate. In 2015, Cuba became the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a milestone hailed by the World Health Organization as “one of the greatest public health achievements possible.”

After the ~1-hour flight from Cancun, we landed in Havana (La Habana in Spanish). After passing quickly through customs/immigration, we jumped in a taxi for a 25-minute ride to our pre-booked “casa particular” in the city center. Casas particulares, or casas, are private homes registered as businesses allowing Cuban families to rent rooms to foreigners to earn income. Prior to the establishment of casas in 1997, the only accommodations available to foreigners were state-run hotels. We arrived to Casa Marcia, a very nice 3-bedroom home in the historic city center owned by Marcia, who welcomed us with a huge smile. Our room, like most we stayed in throughout Cuba, had a large bed, a bathroom with towels and toiletries (and a comical shower curtain), a mini fridge, a fan and air-conditioning.

We settled into our room then went in search of money. I’d tried to get money from the ATM at the airport but without success. We tried half a dozen ATMs but my card was rejected at them all. We went to a hotel to use the wifi so I could call my bank and find out what the heck was going on. Wifi throughout Cuba is expensive (via a pre-paid wifi card from the state-run telecommunications provider), very slow, and is only available at large hotels and state-established wifi hotspots typically located in plazas. Despite it being a large, fancy hotel, the wifi was poor. It was about this time that I recalled a fellow tourist at the airport saying that American ATM and credit cards didn’t work in Cuba. I’d dismissed her comment because my ATM card had worked in every other country I’d visited. After over an hour trying to get through to my bank, I gave up and decided to exchange the small amount of Mexican pesos on hand to tie me over for the day.

The lines at the first few banks we stopped at were very long, with people, mostly locals, waiting for over 2 hours. Crap. We eventually found a bank a bit further outside the city center with no wait. During the money exchange, the banker confirmed that ATM and credit cards from American banks did not work in Cuba, at all, anywhere in the country. Crap. My research on Americans traveling in Cuba had been so last-minute that it never crossed my mind to ensure I’d  have access to my money. Thankfully, Mathieu’s ATM card (from his French bank) worked so we had money for the trip. Despite this, I panicked a little and also exchanged the $100 USD I always carry for emergencies.

Now with money in our pockets, we explored La Habana, the capital city, major port, leading commercial center, and largest city of Cuba (population ~ 2.1 million). La Habana generally consists of three districts:  Old Havana (the traditional centre of commerce, industry, and entertainment, and older residential areas), Vedado (the uptown area for shopping and nightlife), and the surrounding newer suburban districts (the more affluent residential and industrial areas). We primarily visited Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its narrow streets, overhanging balconies, and diverse architectural styles. The district was an interesting mix of old and new. Many of the old buildings were dilapidated and while it appeared they may come crashing down at any moment, they were inhabited. Many of the new or newly restored buildings housed hotels, nice restaurants, and shops catering to the masses of multinational tourists. We enjoyed walking the streets with no particular destination, passing the massive colonial-style Capitol building, strolling through small residential streets, and visiting some of the numerous plazas where you could buy books about the Cuban revolution and its heros (i.e., Fidel Castro and Che Guevara), have your tarot cards read, or join the locals to socialize and use the wifi.

While exploring La Habana, we stopped at the grocery store, then another, then another, then another. We’d hoped to buy fruit, vegetables, and other snacks to fuel our explorations. However, as we’d find throughout Cuba, the selection on the shelves was sparse and largely the same, generally consisting of a few varieties of dry cereal, cookies, candies, potato chips and other fried snacks, dried pasta, rice, beans, canned goods, and coffee. The shelves contained condensed and powdered milk but no fresh milk, and the refrigerators or freezers often contained only yogurt, large blocks of cheap, processed cheese and meat (i.e., baloney), and ice cream. While the food shelves were often sparse, the beverage aisles were always well stocked with bottled water, soda, juice, beer, and, of course, Cuban rum. Locally-grown fruits and vegetables could be bought from tiny neighborhood food shops or from street carts but the quantity and selection of these fresh foods was often limited. Oddly, it was sometimes difficult to buy bananas even when the town was surrounded by banana farms. Locals bought staples (i.e., flour, sugar, rice, dried beans, potatoes, eggs, etc…) using food vouchers at low-cost, state-run stores. The availability of products in Cuba is of course impacted by US-imposed economic sanctions in place since 1958, but is also a result of the country’s communist ideals. It was unfortunate to see how little choice people had but I got the impression that the variety of available products had been slowly improving.

When we were hungry for more than fruit or cookies, we typically ate simple egg or ham and cheese sandwiches or burgers bought at tiny street-side counters or simple cafeterias. Since the cost of meals at most tourist restaurants was similar to US tourist prices, this was our prefered way to eat throughout Cuba. We paid for our sandwiches, about $0.50 each, in CUC (Convertible pesos) but since we were eating where the locals ate, we typically received our change in CUP (Cuban pesos). Cuba has a dual currency system:  CUC for tourists and CUP for the locals. Most wages, goods and services intended for Cubans are set in CUP. Every Cuban household has a ration book entitling it to a monthly supply of low cost food and other staples paid for in CUP. However, “luxury” goods and services, including most imported goods and anything intended for tourists, are generally paid for in CUC. Since the exchange rate for the CUC, is set at par with the US dollar, it was way cheaper to eat where the locals ate, and while the food wasn’t great, it was a more interesting experience as well.  

While searching for a cafeteria one day, a guy on the street led us up the stairs of one of the dilapidated-looking buildings to a family’s small apartment where a woman offered us lunch of fried pork, rice and beans, and salad. We were joined at the kitchen table by Juan and Elena, a local couple who were meeting there for their lunch break from work. As the four of us chatted and ate, the woman who served our meal continued her daily chores around the house and the kids continued watching cartoons on TV. Ha! In the end, we paid the tourist price of 5 CUC ($5) each for the simple meal but it was well worth it to share a home-cooked meal and stories with our tablemates, and to support our enterprising chef.  

On the busy malecon (waterfront), we visited the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a fortress constructed in the 1700s to guard the entrance to La Habana bay. During our walks, we enjoyed the constant sound of live music streaming out of the restaurants and watched as groups of street performers played rhythmic West African/Spanish-inspired Cuban salsa and jazz. In the evenings, we joined the tourists and locals on the seawall to watch the sunset while sipping Cuban rum. It was wonderful.

While walking around the city, we constantly marveled at the number of classic American cars on the streets, many of which were immaculately-restored convertibles with distinctive tail fins.  The luxury sedans (i.e., Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths), most of which now served as taxis to shuttle tourists around, were constant flashes of bright colors criss-crossing the busy streets. With Miami just 90 miles away, Cuba had been a popular holiday destination for Americans in the 1950s. However, after Castro’s takeover in 1959, the 125,000 Detroit-made cars that had been imported to Cuba by wealthy Americans had been abandoned. Parts for these old cars are difficult to get in Cuba and difficult to import, so most entered the country in the luggage of visitors. The fact that there are so many restored classic cars is a testament to Cubans’ resourcefulness.

After three days in La Habana, we took a collectivo (shared taxi) to Viñales, on the western end of Cuba. We’d planned to go by tourist bus (cheaper) but after a 2-hour wait at the bus station the day before (there is no online reservation system), we found out that all the buses were full for several days. After picking up the other passengers from around town, the old, smog-billowing green Ford Bel Air wagon was packed with the driver, eight tourists, and a mound of luggage on the roof. We shared stories with our fellow passengers as we left the city and drove along the curvy road through the hills and past small, brightly colored houses surrounded by farmland. After ~2 hours of being crammed in the car with only hot, fume-laden air blowing in from the open windows, we finally arrived.

Viñales is a small town (population ~27,000) located in the Viñales Valley, surrounded by mountains and dotted with massive limestone hills. We were dropped off at a Casa owned by the driver’s friend. The owner was very nice, the room was comfortable, and there was a rooftop terrace overlooking the baseball stadium. And lucky for us, there was a game in progress. It was very cool to sit on the terrace and watch our first Cuban baseball game. In case you don’t already know, baseball is a huge national pastime in Cuba. After being introduced in the 1860s by Cuban students returning from colleges in the US and by American sailors who ported in the country, the sport spread quickly across the nation. The first baseball team was established in 1868. The Cuba National Baseball Team has been described as a baseball powerhouse and currently ranks 5th in the International Baseball Federation world rankings. It has medalled in all five Olympics in which baseball was played.

After the game, we walked the few blocks to the central plaza and explored the town. We visited the small cathedral and strolled through a small street market were vendors sold handmade souvenirs (i.e., jewelry, cigar boxes, license plates, carved wood items, etc…). The town was filled with tourists but still charming. I loved that along with the classic cars, much of the street traffic consisted of horse-drawn carts. After watching the sunset from our terrace, we went to a restaurant for a drink and more live music. Unfortunately, we arrived just in time for the band’s last song; fortunately their last song lasted 20 minutes. Ha! It felt great to enjoy the warm evening while sipping a drink and listening to lively, infectious salsa music.

The next day, we walked down the road from our Casa to Parque Nacional Viñales. The entire Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated for its outstanding karst landscape and cultural significance as an agricultural area where fruit, vegetables, coffee and especially tobacco are grown by traditional methods. We hiked up to the Cueva de la Vaca, a “cave” that went all the way through the small mountain, then hiked down the other side and walked along the large fields of young tobacco plants. I’m not a fan of tobacco products but it was interesting to watch the farmers cultivate the rust-colored soil with wooden plows pulled by giant ox, harvest the mature tobacco leaves by hand then lay the leaves on wooden racks to dry in the sun. Some of these leaves would eventually be rolled to make Cuba’s famous cigars.  

From Viñales, we took a tourist bus southeast, passing through farmlands, forests, and small towns during the 7-hour ride to the coastal city of Cienfuegos (population ~150,000). After getting settled in our Casa, we went to the large central plaza and walked past the colonial-style buildings and visited several gallery/workshops featuring amazing drawings, paintings and sculptures by local artists. While exploring, we stopped to watch a ball game and met Raul. His team, El Veteranos Uno, were playing against La Refineria; both teams were part of an over 45 Cuban softball league. It was great to talk to him and some of his teammates about life in Cuba, and about baseball of course. We continued our walk to the malecon, passing a yacht club,  some very fancy hotels, and a small waterfront park where families were picnicking, listening to music, and swimming in the warm, clear ocean. At sunset, we joined others (tourists and locals) to watch the sun slowly drop into the Caribbean while sipping cold beer and listening to the rhythmic sounds of a salsa band playing nearby. While the city is a popular tourist destination, it had a very relaxed vibe.

After two days in Cienfuegos, we took the tourist bus southeast to the coastal city of Trinidad (population ~73,500). As we got off the bus, we were immediately attacked by the small army of Casa owners. Zenia won us over with her sweet smile and promise of a lovely Casa with an ocean view. We chatted with her as we walked the cobblestone streets through the central plaza and up the hill. As we got further from the center, the condition of the street deteriorated as did the condition of the houses. Hmmm… However, as promised, Zenia lead us to a charming, bright yellow house, the only Casa on the street. It was a one-bedroom house with a nicely furnished living room and kitchen, and a small terrace with a view of the valley below and the ocean in the distance. Best of all, we had the small house to ourselves.

During the day, we joined the masses to visit the immaculately-manicured central plaza and the large cathedral, and walk through the small side streets away from the center. We always enjoyed getting out of the tourist area and exploring the areas where the residents lived and shopped. At night, we walked along the city streets enjoying the music streaming out of nearly every restaurant then returned home to cook dinner and enjoy the sunset from our little terrace while sipping rum. It was lovely.  

While there, we also walked to La Boca, a fishing village about ~ 3 mi (~5 km) from the city. After the 10 minutes it took the explore the tiny, quiet village, we took a very crowded tourist bus about 20 minutes south to Akcon, a well-known tourist beach. Ah, that’s where all the people were. Akcon is a long, narrow  white-sand beach lined with resorts, cabanas, and tons of sunbathers. We substituted our underwear for bathing suits and used our shirts as towels and spent the day playing in the clear, warm water of the Caribbean and chilling in the shade of a large tree. It was a fun, relaxing beach day.

From Trinidad, we took a 5-hour tourist bus south to the inland city of Camagüey. While waiting for the bus, we chatted with a photographer for Vice Magazine who was there taking portraits of Cubans in their workplaces. From his many conversations, he’d surmised that most people wanted more opportunity to prosper, especially those who were entrepreneurs, and more product choices. He confirmed that all Cubans have access to free, high-quality education and healthcare but said the earning structure was upside down since doctors earned the least and people employed in the tourism industry earned the most. Those who earned CUC did the best and the only way to earn CUC was in the tourism industry. It was interesting to hear his second-hand prospective, and it confirmed the guarded statements of the few Cubans who had opened up to us.

Camagüey, the third largest city in Cuba (population ~321,000), is known for its labrinth streets and blind alleys. The city was purposely designed this way to make it easier to defend from raiders. Since there is only one exit from the city, it would be possible for local inhabitants to entrap and kill any raiders that were able to penetrate the maze. However, locals dispute this explanation and say that the city was developed without planning and that the winding streets resulted from everyone wanting to stay close to their local church (the city has 15 of them). It is the only city in Cuba constructed this way.

After settling into our Casa, we explored the city, strolling through the maze of narrow streets, peeking through people’s open front doors, smelling the aromas of frying food and hearing the sounds of familiar TV shows. We walked past large cathedrals and through small plazas where locals were hanging out and playing chess. We also stopped for awhile to watch kids and teenagers practice salsa at a local dance school. I was so jealous!

For dinner, we went to Cafeteria Las Cubanitas, a restaurant highlighted in our guidebook as having cheap but tasty local food. We both ordered a local favorite, ropa vieja, spicy shredded beef in tomato sauce served with white rice and fried plantains. It was delicious. As we were digesting, Roger and his brother, Simon, came over to our table asking to see my tattoos. Roger had recently gotten his first tattoo so was happy to show it off. We ended up chatting with the brothers, locals from Camagüey, for a few hours, getting recommendations on places in Cuba to visit, sharing our travel stories, and just laughing and getting to know each other. It turned out Simon was a salsa teacher. As soon as Mathieu heard this, he asked Simon to give me a short lesson. So, there on the patio of the restaurant, Simon taught me the basics. It was awesome to salsa on the warm night with a Cuban with an infectious smile. We finally said farewell to our new friends and slowly walked home through the narrow streets. It had been an especially memorable night thanks to Roger and Simon.  

The next morning, we took a tourist bus 6-hours south to the coastal city of Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba (population ~431,300). The city is widely accepted as the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution where a small group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953. The date of the attack, July 26, was adopted by Castro as the name for his revolutionary movement (Movimiento 26 Julio) which eventually toppled Batista’s dictatorship on January 12, 1959. The city is also the birthplace of some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, including several members of the Buena Vista Social Club.  

We spent the next day and a half exploring the city, walking along the malecon and visiting the cathedral, Santa Basilica Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral Santiago de Cuba, which took up one side of the large central plaza. As we explored, we were surprised to see many more retail shops, including a Rebook shop, and found that the small grocery stores had a bit more variety. Unlike other cities, there were more motorcycles and newer cars on the streets (and fewer restored classic cars). It also seemed people were more fashionable and hip. So it was the perfect place for Mathieu to finally get a trim. As we walked past Barberia El Figaro, one of the barbers commented on Mathieu’s unkempt appearance and pulled him into his chair. After 30 minutes of being clipped, razored, and shaved, Mathieu no longer looked like a Castro-wannabe (or a shipwrecked sailor). Ha!

While there, we also visited the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina, housed in a beautiful bright-yellow, colonial-style building across the street from where Fidel Castro lived while a student in Santiago. It was interesting to see news articles, letters, photos, uniforms, weapons, etc… used by the revolutionaries (i.e., Fidel and Raul Castro and Che) during the Movimiento 26 Julio. We then walked out of the city center to the Moncada Barracks. Similar to all the other cities we’d visited, many buildings were adorned with huge pictures of Castro and Che with slogans reaffirming the need for Cubans to work together for the common good. At the barracks,now a school and small museum, we were stunned into momentary silence upon seeing the numerous bullet holes still decorating the front of the building; it was a chilling reminder that this was the actual site where the Movimiento 26 Julio began.

From Santiago, we took a collectivo around the southern end of Cuba to the town of Baracoa. Similar to our last collectivo, we were packed with other tourists into a beat-up classic car, this one a Chevy with an airplane hood ornament. Along the way, we stopped at Mirador del Gobernador, a vista overlooking Guantánamo Bay and the infamous American military base/prison. The base was very far away so only a speck on the horizon but it was interesting to see it given its checkered past. We continued along the coast then turned inland, driving north on a narrow, curvy road through the mountains. The vegetation changed dramatically during the drive, changing from agave/palm tree desert to tropical forest of pine, cacao (used to make cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate), and banana. Locals along the side of the road sold chocolate bars wrapped in tin foil, wood pots of cocoa butter, and bananas. Since the region is particularly known for its cacao, we had to try a cucurucho, a mix of shredded coconut, cacao, honey, and mixed fruits wrapped in banana leaf. It was a delicious treat!  

After a hot, smelly 6-hour ride, we arrived to the coastal city of Baracoa (population ~81,800), the site where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba on 27th November 1492. We stayed in a lovely little apartment with a view of Bahia de Miel (Honey Bay) on the second floor of a Casa owned by Dora and Juan. Once settled into our new home, we went out to explore. As we zig zagged through the small streets and along the malecon, we could see the damage left by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Some homes and buildings, especially along the malecon, were still piles of rubble.

The city center had been restored and was charming with its small central plaza, small church, and small, brightly-colored restaurants and shops. While strolling through the city center, we visited an art gallery featuring a mix of paintings and sculptures by local artists. Many of the sculptures were carved from a hardwood known in Cuba as “uvilla” (Coccoloba diversifolia), a tree that grows on the coasts and in the mountains of Cuba and other Caribbean islands. One of the sculptors showed us a raw block of uvilla and explained the carving process, all done by hand. The wood was absolutely beautiful, light colored on the outside and almost black on the inside, and deceptively heavy for its size. Seeing the works created by local artists was a great way to get a feel for the area.

For dinner, we went to La Terraza-Casa Nilson, a restaurant Mathieu read about in the guidebook. Besides cacao and chocolate, Baracoa is known for its unique cuisine featuring dishes with coconut, banana, chocolate, and different spices that only grow in the region due to its rainy microclimate and geographic isolation. After the mostly mundane food we’d been eating, we were ready to treat ourselves to a nice meal, especially in Cuba’s “food capital.” We were joined for dinner by Anna and Thomas, a German couple we’d met in the collectivo to Baracoa. For nearly two hours, we shared stories and ate. It was sensory overload as the steaming plates of food arrived:  fish, octopus, and shrimp in a sauce of coconut milk or tomato with garlic and various spices, and sides of vegetable soup, salad, rice, and fried banana. And for dessert, sweet shredded coconut topped with dark chocolate. It was heaven.

The next morning, our Casa hostess Dora made us chorote, hot chocolate made with cocoa, banana powder, sugar, and powdered milk. It was rich and super tasty, the perfect way to start the stormy day. Despite the threat of rain, we rented mountain bikes and rode about 6 mi (10 km) to Monumento Nacional Yunque de Baracoa, home to “El Yunque”, a 1,886-ft (575-m) table mountain visible from town. The reserve is also home to a rich flora and fauna, including a palm tree only found on El Yunque, and a “painted snail” found in subtropical coastal forests of Cuba. Along with Misha (USA) and a father and son duo (Czech Republic), we followed our guide, Fernando, across the shallow Duaba River, through the thick subtropical forest, and up the muddy trail to the top of El Yunque. The sky was filled with dark gray clouds by now but the view from the top of the mountain overlooking the reserve and the bay in the distance was stunning.

After the hike, we rode back to Baracoa and stood on the malecon in the dramatic stormy weather until dark, watching the waves crash over the sea wall. It was nearly 7pm when we returned home and time for dinner. We’d arranged for Dora to cook dinner for us. She beamed with pride as she served vegetable soup followed by a thick fish stew with a coconut-milk sauce and spices, and sides of salad, rice, and fried plantains. For dessert, she’d made chocolate pudding topped with shredded coconut. It was hearty and delicious, and the perfect ending to a day of biking, hiking, and storm watching.  

The next day was gray and stormy again. Perfect for another outdoor adventure! We walked along the malecon, again marveling as the waves crashed over the sea wall and flooded the street. We then walked on Playa de Miel, a black-sand beach dotted with palm trees and a dilapidated baseball stadium. After a while, we intersected with the mouth of the Rio Miel (Honey River) where we paid an old man with a huge smile to ferry us across the wide river in his rowboat. There was a fleet of small wood boats lining the “dock” likely used to take tourists on river tours, but there were no other tourists that day. On the other side, we stopped briefly in the tiny village of Boca de Miel to buy handmade souvenirs and chocolate, then walked along a dirt road leading back to Baracoa, passing farm fields and small, brightly-colored houses with tons of flowering plants in the yards. In the small town of Cabacu, we took a side road hoping to return to Baracoa via a circuitous route through the mountains. Thankfully, we were stopped by a local, likely wondering what the heck two tourists were doing on that steep, muddy road. He informed us the road was impassable due the damage from last year’s hurricane. After chatting with him for a while, we continued up the hill to a viewpoint where we sipped the beers we’d been carrying all day and enjoyed the view of the coast before starting the long walk home along the main road. It was a fun all-day walkabout.

The next morning, we returned to Camagüey. The first part of the journey was via collectivo to the city of Holguin. This time, we and five other tourists were crammed into an old Jeep, apparently necessary to safely transport us on the dirt road out of Baracoa. Once we were back on pavement, we were supposed to be transferred to a taxi but were instead crammed into another old Jeep. Then about an hour later, we were, for unexplained reasons, transferred to yet another old Jeep. It was a long, uncomfortable 6-hour journey but we were in good company and saw some nice scenery along the way. In Holguin, instead of taking the tourist bus, we negotiated a private taxi to take us the last 3 hours to Camagüey. It was heaven to ride in a modern 4-door car with air conditioning and no other passengers.      

In Camagüey, we rented a room at Casa Mirador, a spacious four-bedroom apartment with a large patio overlooking the city center. The owners, Fidel and his wife, lived there with their two young sons. We climbed up the six flights of stairs to the apartment (the elevator was out of order), cranked the air conditioner in our room and collapsed on the bed.

Later as I was showering, Mathieu called out, “Tannika, we have a trouble.” He couldn’t find his ATM card, our only source of cash. Crap. I stayed in the shower a little longer, not ready to deal with this. We looked through all of our things without success. We asked Fidel to call Dora in Baracoa to see if it had been left in our room. Not there. Between us, we had 41 CUC ($41), not even enough for two bus tickets back to La Habana. After much deep breathing and pondering, we went to a nearby hotel to see if they could help. Surely we were not the first tourists to lose an ATM card. The concierge directed us to a Western Union a few blocks away. The clerk there told us we’d have no problem having money sent from a French bank, and that as soon as the money was deposited in a Western Union in France, it would be instantly available for pickup at any Western Union in Cuba. Easy! To celebrate, we bought two beers, ate pizza for dinner, then went home and collapsed in bed. It had been long and somewhat stressful day.

The next morning, we waited in line for over an hour to buy a wifi card so Mathieu could call his mom, Marie, in Paris and ask her to send us money. Fortunately there’s a Western Union only a few blocks away from her apartment and she was able to go immediately. She got there 10 minutes before closing time and was able to complete the transaction. While we waited for the money to fly through cyberspace and arrive in Cuba, we sat in the plaza people-watching and trying to relax.

At 2 pm, Mathieu went to Western Union. At 2:15 pm, he returned with no money. It turned out Cuba required money from outside the country be transferred to a Cuban and that the person sending and the person receiving the money had to be related. WTF!?! Why didn’t they tell us that yesterday!?! We returned to our Casa, explained the situation to Fidel and asked him if he would help us. No problem. However, since it was after 7pm in Paris and Western Union was now closed, we’d have to wait until morning. By now, we had 21 CUC ($21) between us and we needed 20 CUC to pay for the Casa for that night. It felt shitty to have so little money and to be entirely reliant on a money transfer between France and Cuba. At that moment, I realized I’d made a huge mistake exchanging my emergency $100 USD when we arrived in La Habana. It hadn’t been absolutely necessary at that time but would have absolutely helped us now. Crap. Since there was nothing else we could do, we walked through the city for a few hours. Our last visit to the city had been short (one night) so it was nice to have more time to explore. That night, we ate more cheap pizza but did not buy beers.

The next morning, we waited with bated breath as Marie returned to Western Union, canceled the first transaction and started a new one. At 9 am local time, Mathieu and Fidel went to Western Union. I sat in the living room of the Casa trying to relax. When they returned at 9:35 am, Mathieu was smiling. Success!! Now with CUC in our pockets once again, we went to a cafe for breakfast where we laughed and chattered like little kids, recounting our harrowing tale and listing all of the possible outcomes we’d avoided. I hope to never relive the experience of being broke in a foreign country but it made for a good story (and a good learning experience).

After buying a thank you gift for Fidel and his family, we walked to the bus station and bought bus tickets to our final three destinations. Whatever else happened, we would at least be able to get back to La Habana for our flight back to Mexico. We then took a 2-hour tourist bus to Playa Santa Lucia, a small town known for its 13-mi (21-km) strip of white sandy beaches. It’s a resort town but we were the only tourists on the bus. Once settled at our Casa, we walked the short distance to the sea. The beach was indeed beautiful, and it was deserted. We saw no one else as we walked along looking for shells and interesting things in the beach wrack while the sun went down.

The next day, we walked on the beach to a cluster of somewhat outdated, all-inclusive resorts where we rented bikes and spent the day riding on the small road circling Laguna El Real, a huge shallow, mangrove-lined lagoon. Along the way, we saw bright-pink roseate flamingos foraging in the murky waters. It’s always cool to see flamingos! We stopped at the quiet village of La Boca at the tip of the peninsula then had lunch at a beach-side restaurant on Playa Los Cocos and joined a few dozen other tourists swimming in the warm Caribbean Ocean and relaxing in  the shade of a palm tree. It was a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the beach.    

From Playa Santa Lucia, we took a 6-hour tourist bus to Santa Clara (population ~242,400). We’d read in the guidebook that Santa Clara was a city of “new trends and insatiable creativity, where an edgy youth culture has been testing the boundaries of Cuba’s censorship police for years. Unique Santa Clara offerings included Cuba’s only official drag show, a graphic artists’ collective, and the best rock festival in the country: Ciudad Metal.” While there, we visited the Che Guevara mausoleum, a huge plaza with statues and stone engravings commemorating his final battle in Santa Clara during the Cuban revolution. We then walked to the central plaza. The plaza and surrounding streets were bustling with activity:  families stolled together, kids played, and people (old and young) danced and enjoyed the music of street musicians playing salsa, and one band playing covers of American blues and rock. It was a festive Saturday night.

The next morning we took a 5-hour tourist bus back to La Habana. We’d fly back to Cancun the next day so we spent our last day walking through parts of the city we’d missed the first time. It was nice to visit the less touristy parts of La Habana. We ended our walkabout at the malecon where we enjoyed our last sunset in Cuba while sipping rum and watching the never-ending parade of beautiful classic cars cruise the strip.  

After 3 weeks exploring the country, I would describe Cuba as:  colorful, musical, friendly, interesting, and sometimes frustrating. Our visit was a great introduction to the country’s landscapes, culture, and people. If I return, I will rent a car (reserving it months in advance) and get off the tourist track to explore the less popular towns and natural areas of the island. I have the feeling that, like in any country, the real gems of the place are hidden in the off-the-beaten-path areas.   

Next post:  Back in the USA! After driving through Mexico, Mathieu and I crossed the border back into the US and continued our road trip through Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. Stay tuned!

Here are a few pictures from Cuba.

Click the link to see the full album: https://photos.app.goo.gl/SeGQlqA8ZUy4l5Bv1

Enjoy!

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With Mathieu on the malecon (waterfront) in La Habana.

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La Habana.

 

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Watching a baseball game from the rooftop terrace of our Casa in Viñales.

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Traffic in Viñales.

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Tobacco harvest in Viñales Valley.

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Old Ford in Cienfuegos.

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“Our duty: to produce for the town!” One of many communist slogans throughout Cuba.

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Fantastic music on the streets of Trinidad.

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With our new friends Roger and Simon (who gave me a salsa lesson) in Camagüey.

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Overlooking Santiago.

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Bullet holes in the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, a chilling reminder that this site, now a school and museum, was where the Movimiento 26 Julio (Cuban revolution) began.

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Overlooking Baracoa, the site where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba on the 27th November 1492.

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At the top of El Yunque mountain in Monumento Nacional Yunque de Baracoa.

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Being rowed across the Rio Miel in Baracoa.

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Crammed in another collectivo for the long journey back to Camagüey.

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Enjoying the beautiful beaches of Playa Santa Lucia.

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Roseate flamingos and black neck stilts near Playa Santa Lucia.

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Street art in Santa Clara.

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Portable street art in La Habana. Love the classics!

 

Mexico – Part 9 of 9: Mountains, Copper Canyons, and Cowboys (Zacatecas to Nogales; May 1-16, 2017)

After 14 days exploring beautiful mountains and cities big and small in the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas with Mathieu’s mom, Marie (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip north through the interior of Mexico. We spent the next 16 days exploring the states of Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua, and Sonora.  

After taking Marie to the bus station in Zacatecas for her return trip to Mexico City (and to Paris a few days later), we decided to have Genevieve’s brake pads replaced; they’d started making the tell-tell grinding noise. We stopped at AutoZone (found throughout Mexico) and asked about a local mechanic. Within 15 minutes, a 16-year old kid arrived, jumped in the truck with us and guided us to his uncle’s shop located in the nearby neighborhood. We described to Ernesto, the uncle/shop owner, what we wanted done and within 15 minutes, the 16-year old had Genevieve jacked up on the narrow street and the mechanic began changing the pads. The old pads were worn to almost nothing; I’d definitely gotten my money’s worth! He also cleaned the rear brakes, checked the engine, and added fluids as needed. He worked on the truck for about 2 hours and our bill, including parts and labor, was 700 pesos or ~$36. Wow. They were also very nice and didn’t seem to mind us chatting with them and looking over their shoulders as they worked. With the brake job done, we drove north on Ruta 45 for about an hour to the city of Fresnillo where we found a cheap hotel for the night.

The next morning, we continued north a few hours to Parque Nacional Sierra de Órganos. The scenery on that stretch of road was flat and mostly scrub so not very interesting. Thankfully as we approached the Park, we could see the towering rock formations of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, which per Wikipedia, are reminiscent of organ pipe cactuses or the pipes of the musical instrument, from which the park takes its name. The area was beautiful. After setting up our tent in the small campground, I relaxed in the shade of the trees and Mathieu went for a bike ride to explore. Even from our camp site, the view of the tall rock pillars around us was awesome, especially in the setting sun. That night, we met a group of 4-5 college students camping in the vicinity but otherwise enjoyed the starry night all to ourselves.

We woke up the next morning to watch the sun’s light spread across the mountains. It was lovely. We hiked the well-marked trails through the formations, going through desert scrub then up through pine/oak forest, marveling at the scenery around us, and at the fact that we had the park to ourselves. It was a really remarkable place and the views from the tops of the mountains were stunning. After the hike, we drove north on a secondary road then on Ruta 40, crossing into the state of Durango. After about 3 hours driving through more flat scrublands, we arrived to a picnic area along the Rio Nazas (Nazas River) that we’d read about on iOverlander. There was a fair amount of trash around but the view of the steep, rugged mountain raising up from the other side of the rive was beautiful. After picking up trash, we took a swim, washed some clothes, and enjoyed a cold beer at our riverside camp. After the sun set, the family that had been swimming and picnicking nearby left and we enjoyed another starry night to ourselves.

From there, we continued north on Ruta 49, stopping in a small town along the way for lunch. After eating some delicious tacos and buying some groceries, we got back into the truck to continue. As I backed up, Mathieu suddenly yelled “stop!” He could see in his side mirror that I was backing into a metal pole. Oops. Then as I slowly moved forward, we both heard a strange noise and got out to investigate. Somehow when I backed up into the low, 3-ft high metal pole, the pole had caught the wheel of my bike. So, as I pulled forward, my bike was stretched between the pole and the truck, not only stretching the tire, but also bending the bike’s frame beyond repair. Crap. The incident had also bent the very sturdy metal pole. Oops. To make matters worse, a group of 5 or 6 local guys who’d been talking on the opposite corner watched the whole thing and were laughing. Argh. We tried to straighten the metal pole with no success, then, not knowing what else to do, we resecured my mangled bike on the bike rack and got back on the road. Both bikes had been through hell on this road trip:  the tires had been punctured a few times by massive cactus spines, they’d been drug behind the truck when Mathieu forgot to reattach the bike rack, and they’d been rattled and covered in dirt over the thousands of rough miles we’d driven. The bikes had survived the previous incidents but it was clear that after this latest incident, my bike was finished. Too bad I hadn’t ridden it more.

We shook it off and continued north to the Reserva de la Biósfera de Mapimí. The site is also referred to as a “Zona del Silencio” (Zone of Silence) which per the internet has a reputation as an area in which various as yet unexplained natural events occur, such as the loss of radio waves, an increased solar radiation that is 35% greater than in other parts of the planet, the strange coloration and structure of many plants, the existence of turtles with strange shells and the frequent fall of meteorites. Needless to say, the Reserve, along with its beautiful desert landscape, sounded like a very interesting place to visit. However, after a 30-minute drive on a small dirt road, we arrived to the visitor center but it was closed. After looking around some, we found the gate that lead into the Reserve but it was locked. It appeared to be a place that required reservations to visit. Oh well, next time. So, we returned to the main road and continued north on Ruta 49 then west of Ruta 45, crossing into the state of Chihuahua. After the city of Hidalgo del Parral, we drove west on a secondary road. Most of the drive that day had been through uninteresting landscapes so we were happy when the terrain began to change and we could see mountains again in the distance. We stopped for the night at a cheap hotel in the small town of San Pablo Balleza. We definitely needed a proper shower and a cold beer after this somewhat stressful and unsuccessful day.  

After a leisurely morning, we continued west on a secondary road to the small town of Yoquivo where we turned off onto a small dirt road and into the mountains. It was great to be on another off-the-beaten-path road. We steadily climbed up the mountain, marveling at the landscape around us. We found a small spot on the side of the road to camp, arriving just in time to watch the sun set over the stunning canyons below. We were now overlooking the southwestern end of Parque Nacional Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon National Park).

Per Wikipedia, Barrancas del Cobre is a group of canyons consisting of six distinct canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental, each formed by a different river which merge and eventually empty into the Gulf of California. The walls of the canyons are a copper/green color, which is where the name originates. The canyons are home to the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri), Native Americans who originally inhabited much of the state of Chihuahua but who retreated to the high sierras and canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental (i.e., Copper Canyon) when Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century. They typically inhabit areas that are too remote for city people, way off-the-beaten-path, to remain isolated and independent, so as to avoid losing their culture. They are known or their long-distance running ability, often traveling great vertical distances by running nonstop for hours.

I’d known about Copper Canyon for some years from various sources but I’d first read about the Tarahumara in Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, in which he describes his time with these renowned long-distance runners and argues in favor of barefoot running. So I was very excited to finally have the chance to visit these canyons and meet its interesting inhabitants.

We woke up at our roadside camp site to watch the sunlight spread across the canyons and the distance mountains. It was a wonderful way to start the day. After breakfast we continued west, passing only cows on the narrow dirt road to the small town of Batopilas (population ~1,200), a Pueblo Magico located along the Batopilas River. We explored the quaint town for a bit and visited the small museum where a very chatty ancient man held me captive as he explained the town’s long history as a silver mining town. After the history lesson, we drove the narrow, dirt road out of the valley and up the other side. Just before sunset, we found another small spot off the road to camp and enjoyed another amazing sunset overlooking the stunning landscape spanning many miles in front of us.

After enjoying another beautiful sunrise, we continued driving down the mountain to the small town of Urique (population ~1,100). We strolled along the main street, only a few blocks long, then had a delicious lunch. The town was very quiet with only a few locals around. We then drove up and down a few more mountains, through a few more valleys and small towns (i.e., Bahuichivo and San Rafael), marveling at the amazing views all along the way. As we enjoyed the drive, we tried not be stressed at the fact that none of the small towns we encountered so far had gas stations. The gas gauge was nearing “E” and by this time, we’d already added the spare fuel from the 2-gallon tank we carried. Thankfully, just before sunset, we arrived to the tiny settlement of Areponápuchi, consisting of a few dozen houses, a church, a few hotels, and a grocery store. We were told there was a gas station but couldn’t find it. After asking yet another person, we finally saw the small, crudely-painted sign on the side of the street reading “gasolina.” We drove into what appeared to be someone’s backyard. There were a dozen or so people hanging out, listening to music, and drinking beer. We thought we were in the wrong place but quickly spotted the large drums of gas. It was fun to be in the middle of such a festive atmosphere while the gas was being funneled into the tank. Now fueled up, we used Maps.me to follow a small unnamed dirt road along the lip of the canyon in hopes of finding a place to camp. As was becoming our custom, we found another great camp site just off the road. But this one was extra special because, after only a short walk, we could peer into Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), the deepest of the six canyons in the Park with a depth of 5,906 ft (1,800 m).

The next morning, as we prepared to hike into the canyon, we were visited by three Tarahumara children on their way to school. They likely lived in the small house down the canyon we’d seen the night before. They stood within about 20 feet (6 m) and just watched us. After some time trying to make conversation (we hoped the Tarahumara language was similar to Spanish), they finally started to answer some of our simple questions. What’s your name? How old are you? Is that your brother? After a bit, they even agreed to take pictures with me. The boys wore modern clothing but the little girl wore a more traditional Tarahumara outfit with a colorful headscarf and colorful skirt. All three children wore the traditional huarache sandals.

After they left for school, we followed a nearby trail along the side of the canyon that took us to a cluster of small Tarahumara houses built into the side of the cliff. The brick houses were small and simple but the view from the front doors was amazing. After hiking further, we came to a trail sign that lead us to Parque de Aventura Barrancas del Cobre, an adventure park with a teleférico (gondola) into the canyon and offering activities such as ziplining, a ropes course, and an adventure course that includes crossing several suspension bridges hanging over the deep canyons. We walked along the rim trail overlooking the canyons then visited the glass-walled visitor center/restaurant at the edge of the cliff. We watched as the teleférico descended into the canyon below. It was a pity that this development had been constructed on the canyon rim but it looked like a nice ride. Thankfully, besides the adventure park and its large hotel, there appeared to be little other large-scale development in this area of the park.

After investigating the adventure park, we hiked on the Ruta El Canon down the steep, rocky trail to a small cluster of Tarahumara houses. We didn’t see any people but it was interesting to see their homes. We then ascended up a steep trail to the teleférico station where we encountered a sign that informed us, in Spanish and English, that “the canyon system is four times in extent (60,000 sq km) and nearly twice as deep in depth as the Grand Canyon of Colorado.” Wow, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon of…..Colorado? We assumed they were referring to the Grand Canyon in Arizona that had been cut by the Colorado River. Also, the comparison of depth of the Grand Canyon with the depth of the Copper Canyon system seemed a bit like comparing apples and oranges but whatever, the canyons in front of us were deep, expansive, and amazing. We continued our hike to Nido de Aguila (Eagle’s Nest), a massive rock formation towering above the canyon. The wind on the canyon-side of the formation was extraordinarily strong, almost pushing us backwards! While I think the Grand Canyon is much deeper, the Copper Canyon system appears to be more expansive and is equally spectacular.

To return to camp, we followed Ruta Panoramica which, per its name, offered expansive views over the canyons. Throughout the day, the only other people we passed on the trails were a handful of Tarahumara. It was fascinating to envision living in these deep, rocky canyons only accessible by pack animal or by foot. And every Tarahumara person we passed wore the traditional huarache sandals which consisted of a thin sole (of leather or automobile tire tread) attached to the foot with a thin strap (of leather or synthetic material). Wow. After the hike, we drove back into Areponápuchi for a well-deserved dinner at one of the few restaurants then spent the evening at our campsite watching the full moon illuminate the canyons below. It’d been a great day exploring the canyons and getting a glimpse into the life of its local residents.   

We woke up early again to watch the sun as it started to rise from behind the distant mountains. With the layers of clouds overhead, it was an especially dramatic scene. As we packed, our new friends visited us again on their way to school. This day they were more shy and watched us from behind a small tree. Mathieu gave them chocolate granola bars through the branches and they left for school while munching away. We then drove back to the adventure park. After hiking down into the canyons the day before, we’d decided we had to explore them from above.  

The zipline adventure consisted of a series of seven tirolesas (ziplines) that would take us from a height of 7,874 ft (2400 m) to over halfway to the canyon floor. I guess it was low season because the adventure park was empty and we had two guides to ourselves for our zipline adventure. For nearly 2.5 hours, we rode the seven ziplines, speeding over several deep canyons. Even the shortest zipline, #2 at 462 ft (141 m) long was fun but of course the longest zipline, #5 at 3,651 ft (1113 m) long was the fastest and most exhilarating. I’d ziplined only once before, taking a very short ride over a pool of water in a pitch-black cave in New Zealand. That was fun but this was awesome! At the end, we took the teleférico back up the canyon, enjoying our last views of the Park’s deepest canyon then drove north to Agua Thermales de Rekowata, privately-owned hot springs located at the bottom of a deep, narrow canyon. Since it was after 5pm and the hot springs were closed, we camped at Mirador Rekowata, a viewpoint overlooking the canyons. It was a beautiful spot to enjoy more amazing views over the deep canyons below.      

The next morning, we drove the short distance to Agua Thermales, parked, then walked down the extremely steep, roughly cobbled road that switch-backed down the canyon to the pools. Other than the caretaker, we were the only people there. The site consisted of man-made pools into which hot spring water was piped. None of the pools were quite hot enough but they were still very enjoyable. As we soaked, Enrique arrived. He was a Mexican on a 3-month adventure backpacking through Mexico. It was fun to chat with him and swap stories about travels in his country. After a long soak, the three of us walked back up the steep road then drove north to Creel. From there, Enrique took a bus back south to Parque de Aventura Barrancas del Cobre where he would work for a few weeks as a zipline guide (what a coincidence!). While the small town of Creel (population ~5,000) is Copper Canyon’s main tourism center, we stayed only long enough to buy some groceries and get gas before driving south to Cascada de Cusarare, at the northeastern side of the Park.  

Cascada de Cusarare is a 98-ft (30-m) tall waterfall, and according to our guidebook, is considered one of the most beautiful in Mexico. Walking past the long row of permanent tables on the way to the fall, it was apparent that the site is a tourist attraction, likely drawing hundreds of visitors. However, during our visit, there were only a few tables filled with handicrafts being sold by local Tarahumara women. As we approached the fall, it made sense that we were the only tourists there. It was the dry season and the fall consisted of a trickle of water. We’d seen pictures of the fall so knew its glory when gushing with water. Oh well, the view of the pool below the fall and of the canyon beyond was very nice. As we took pictures and lamented about not seeing the fall at its full potential, we were joined by two Tarahumara kids. Like the kids we’d met before, they stood close and stared at us. We asked them some questions but only got “si” (yes) in response every time. As we crossed the tiny river to view the fall from the other side, we motioned for them to come with us. They seemed happy to be invited. After a bit, I started playing a game with them criss-crossing the river by jumping from stone to stone. They picked up on the game instantly and we laughed as we took turns racing across the river while trying to keep our feet dry. After playing with the kids and enjoying the scenery for a bit, we drove north, leaving Parque Nacional Barranca del Cobre, and arriving to Lago Arareko. We’d read on iOverlander that along with a campground, the lake was apparently surrounded by interesting rock formations. We set up camp next to the lake and relaxed for the evening with no one else camping nearby.  

After breakfast the next morning, we went for a hike to investigate the rock formations. We passed a few small houses and grazing cows and goats as we followed a well-worn path over the hill and down into the next valley. After a short distance, we came to the small community of San Ignacio de Arareko where we visited the Misión San Ignacio, a small, simple Jesuit mission built in 18th century. After the church, we visited the rock formations in El Valle de los Hongos, de las Ranas y de los Monjes (the valley of the mushrooms, the frogs, and the monks). While seeing these clusters of very large boulders situated in an otherwise flat, featureless landscape was interesting, they were not as extraordinary as described in our guidebook. The “mushroom” formations were easy to visualize but if there hadn’t been signs onsite with pictures of the “frog” and the “monk”, we would not have seen the resemblance. Regardless, it was fun to check out the huge rocks and try to imagine them as different objects. We also spent some time browsing the handicrafts laid out on several long, unmanned tables nearby. The colorful baskets, dolls, pottery, trinkets, etc… were handmade by local Tarahumara girls and women and offered a bit more insight into their culture.   

After browsing and playing with an adorable puppy who’d joined us at the handicrafts tables, we continued walking to la Cueva San Sebastian. Per the internet , the cave has been inhabited for 300 years and is named for Don Sebastian, the last patriarch living there who died at the age of 105. The cave is currently inhabited by eight direct descendents of Don Sebastian and is one of the only caves in the area allowing tourists to enter. With approval from an ancient woman living nearby, we entered the cave for a glimpse of Tarahumara life. The cave, which was more of a deep cavity than a cave, had a short rock fence and a wooden gate by which to enter. There was a simple kitchen area with a fire pit, a few wood cabinets for housewares, and several flat areas where sleeping mattresses were laid. The ceiling was black from the decades of fires to cook and provide warmth. The ancient woman who allowed us into the cave answered our questions as we explored the “house” but was otherwise uninterested in talking to us. She had an amazing face and we wished we could hear her stories. After buying some hand-made souvenirs and stealthily taking pictures of her, we continued our hike, following the locals trail over a steep, rocky hill, then passing a cemetery with colorful, plastic flowers and streamers, to get to Creel. After a short look around the town, we walked back to camp and enjoyed the sunset over the lake.

From the lake, we drove north on Ruta 23 to Parque Nacional Cascada de Basaseachi. The road was paved and in good condition for the almost 3-hour drive. We turned off the main road to go to a mirador where we overlooked a wide, steep-sided canyon and the Cascada de Basaseachi, the second highest waterfall in Mexico at 807 ft (246 m). Similar to the last fall we’d visited, there wasn’t much water, and given the height of the fall, the water became mist before reaching the bottom. Nevertheless, the view was awesome! Mathieu and I enjoyed the sunset from the mirador, sharing it only with one other couple. With the sun gone, it got cold so we set up camp. We’d gotten the OK from the park guard to camp in the parking lot for the night. He assured us we’d be safe since he locked the gate each night and reopened it each morning. The parking area had flush toilets, benches, a covered cabana, and a few picnic sites with tables and BBQs. It was a great place to camp, and we had it all to ourselves.

We both woke up very early the next day to see the sunrise over the deep canyon. It was cold but worth it. After breakfast, we went for a hike down to the base of the waterfall. The trail, paved at first, went straight down with only a few switchbacks. We went through pine/oak forest on the way down to the large and deep pool below the fall. With the pool in the shade it was way too cold to swim so we hiked a short distance along the river then climbed back up the steep trail to enjoy the view from the mirador again.

From the waterfall, we drove Ruta 16, going first through pine-forested mountains for some miles then through rolling hills covered with oak savannah. The land was very dry but still very pretty, given the reddish leaves of the dry trees and the yellow of the dry grass. We also passed huge rock formations and steep cliffs. At the small town of San Rosa, now in the state of Sonora, we turned north onto Ruta 117 and continued to the smaller town of Arivechi, the first town we came to with a hotel. The room was dumpy and way overpriced, but we were hot and tired, having driven for 5 hours, and it had air conditioning. We took a short walk through the tiny ranching town then returned to the hotel where we joined two other guests to drink our cold beers on the porch. It’d been a long, hot day so the cold beers tasted especially delicious.  

The next day, we continued north on Ruta 117, known as la Ruta de la Sierra. The views of the dry mountains, river valleys, rocky canyons, and rock formations were stunning. In unison, we’d both say “wow” every few miles on the curvy road. At the town of Moctezuma, we stopped for delicious tacos then continued west on Ruta 14 then north on Ruta 89, now on the Ruta Rio Sonora. The road went through a huge valley along the Sonora River. Throughout the day we passed only ranchos, tiny settlements, and small towns and a few dozen vehicles, mostly pickup trucks. It was a wonderful drive. We stopped in the town of Baviacora to see, per our guidebook, Sonora’s most beautiful church. It was a concrete church with river rock decorating some of the walls. It was pretty but somewhat not the most beautiful we’d seen.  

As we left town, we passed a long line of pickup trucks driving slowly in the opposite direction followed by a few dozen cowboys, and a few cowgirls, on horseback. We asked a cowboy what was happening. Despite not understanding his explanation, we asked if we could watch, and he told us where to go. We parked, grabbed a beer from our cooler (since the cowboys had been riding with beers in hand) and walked to the unknown event. We both hoped it was a rodeo and Mathieu was giddy in anticipation since it would be his first.   

After a few blocks, we came to the gathering. The cowboys, still on horseback, were gathered behind a basketball court on which rows of people were seated in folding chairs, everyone facing two men standing behind a long table with speakers on either side. Although farfetched, I still hoped it was the opening ceremony for a rodeo that would take place nearby. We stood to the side with the few men holding beer cans and waited. It turned out to be Sunday church service. No wonder the men were trying to be discreet with their beers. Oh well, at least Mathieu got to see a bunch of real cowboys.   

Back on the road, we continued to the small town of Arizpe. We’d read on iOverlander about a public picnic/camping area on a small river. It turned out to be very crowded with locals drinking beer and listening to music next to their giant pickups. It was obvious that everyone knew each other and that families and friends gathered there regularly. The vibe was friendly and festive but we decided to find a quieter place to camp. Following a nearby dirt road, we found a lovely, quiet camp spot along the small river. After driving ~186 mi (300 km) that day, it was the perfect place to relax and enjoy the warm evening. With cold beers in hand, we toasted our home for the night and enjoyed our last night of camping in Mexico.

The next morning, we packed up slowly. We were in no hurry to leave this lovely little spot, especially since from there, we would drive to the Mexico/US border. This would be our last full day in Mexico. We walked along the river and through the narrow canyon nearby. It was a nice area and so peaceful. Finally at about noon, when there was no more shade, we got back on the road. We continued north on Ruta 118, then west of Ruta 2, then north on Ruta 196, purposely taking small roads as we drove to the border. We continued to have nice views for most of the drive, going through the large river valley then winding through the mountains. However, as we approached the border, the landscape became scarred with large mines (likely copper) so was not so nice. After driving ~ 124 mi (200 km) that day, we arrived to the large border city of Nogales (population ~212,500).  

While in Nogales, we decided to have some vehicle maintenance done. After asking around, we were directed to “Multiservicios El Giro” owned and operated by Manuel, a mechanic who’d lived in the US for 15 years before returning to Mexico. He changed Genny’s oil, replaced the fried battery cables (see previous post) and flushed the radiator. He told us that the seal on the radiator cap had disintegrated and that the cap needed to be replaced. We made plans to buy a new radiator cap (a $10 part) that afternoon, then promptly forgot. We spent a few hours at the shop, talking to him as he worked on the truck and watching cartoons with his young son in the office. When finally finished, our bill was 700 pesos ($36) for parts and labor. Wow.

From there, we went to a nearby hotel. It was a dump but it was cheap and convenient. After relaxing for a bit, we walked around the area for about an hour, passing stores, businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, etc…some local but many chain stores. We were on the outskirts of the city and it was not a pretty walk but at least we got a little exercise. Back at the hotel, we watched a movie in bed, both falling asleep fairly early. It was not an exciting last night in Mexico, but we were tired and it was nice to just relax.  

The next morning, we made breakfast in our room then slowly packed up, finally leaving at noon. We then drove to the border. Upon leaving Mexico, we needed to return our vehicle permit. We’d gotten the permit in La Paz (Baja) and had paid a deposit of $200 which would be refunded when we exited Mexico. I’d read several blogs describing the permit return process so felt well prepared. However, as we approached the border, I never saw any signs that would lead us to the Mexican immigration office. Instead we ended up in the line to cross back into the US. Crap. After a 15-minute wait, the US border agent took our passports. Before we could even ask him about the permit return, he informed us that Mathieu, being a French citizen, had to get a new visa in order to re-enter the US. He showed us where to park and walked us to the office. Thankfully it was a painless process. With his new 90-day US visa in hand, we made a U-turn to re-enter Mexico to search for the Mexican immigration office. It turned out the office was at a location referred to as “KM 21”, literally 21 km (13 mi) south of Nogales. Thankfully the process to return the vehicle permit and get the refund was fast and painless. We then drove the 21 km back to the border. This time, instead of a 15 minute wait, we waited 45 minutes to cross the border. Crap. By now, we were a bit frustrated and tired but we spent the time in the long line of  slow-moving vehicles listing all of the extraordinary places we’d visited and the amazing experiences we’d had in Mexico. We’d listed only a fraction by the time it was our turn to cross the border back into the US.

 During our nearly 5-month road trip through Baja and mainland Mexico, we drove roughly 11,000 mi (17,700 km). We camped 93 nights (71 nights wild camping (aka free) and 22 nights in paid campgrounds), stayed with friends for 12 nights, and stayed in hotels 35 nights (the most expensive being 500 pesos, ~$26). We were constantly stunned by the variety of amazing landscapes throughout the country:  deserts, beaches, huge mountain ranges, massive glacier-topped volcanoes, turquoise-colored waterfalls and rivers, and deep canyons, and by the beautiful wildlife inhabiting these areas. We also enjoyed the various cultures, artwork, music, and, of course, the food! The people we met throughout our trip, locals, other travelers, and old friends, made the trip exceptional. And, we felt safe the entire time. I hope to return to Mexico again in the future; there’s so much more of this wonderful country to explore! Adios Mexico, hasta pronto.     

Next post:  Cuba! While in Mexico, Mathieu and I flew from Cancun to Havana to explore Cuba for 21 days. Stay tuned!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/vdBNZXKDhQ18nQEF3         

Enjoy!

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Mathieu overlooking Parque Nacional Sierra de Órganos.

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Our first view of Parque Nacional Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon National Park).

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Another amazing camp site in Copper Canyon National Park. 

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The Tarahumara kids who visited our camp site.

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Overlooking Copper Canyon, the deepest of the six canyons in the Copper Canyon National Park.

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Overlooking Copper Canyon.

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Sunrise from our camp site overlooking Copper Canyon.

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Ready for adventure in the Copper Canyon adventure park.

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Ready to zip over the canyons on the longest of the seven ziplines in the Copper Canyon adventure park.

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The view of Copper Canyon National Park from our camp site at Mirador Rekowata.

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Soaking in the hot springs at Agua Thermales.

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Mathieu and a couple Tarahumara kids enjoying the view at Cascada de Cusarare.

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The morning view from our camp site at Lago Arareko.

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Among the formations in the Valle de los Hongos. 

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Handmade Tarahumara dolls for sell near the Valle de los Hongos.

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An attempt to stealthily take a picture of the Tarahumara woman we met in San Sebastian Cave. 

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The amazing face of the Tarahumara woman in San Sebastian Cave.

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Overlooking Parque Nacional Cascada de Basaseachi at sunset.

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Cascada de Basaseachi (Basaseachi Waterfall) in the dry season. 

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The morning view from our tent of the peaceful, secluded camp site near Arizpe

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Sunday church service in Baviacora.

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Excited to wake up here on our last morning camping in Mexico.

 

Mexico – Part 8 of 9: Mountains, Missions, and Cities Big & Small (Mexico City to Zacatecas; Apr 18 to May 1, 2017)

After 9 days exploring beautiful mountains and checking out amazing folk art in the state of Oaxaca and climbing Mexico’s highest volcano in the state of Puebla (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip north through Mexico. We spent the next 14 days exploring the interior states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas. And, for this segment, we were joined by a very special guest, Mathieu’s mom, Marie.  

We got to Mexico City a day before Marie was due to arrive from Paris, France, and spent the day relaxing in our comfortable hotel room using the strong wifi to catch up with friends and family. While I lounged in the room, journaling and watching movies, Mathieu took Genevieve (my 4Runner) to have the side window replaced. The space had been covered by duct tape since being smashed during a late-night break-in about one month prior. He also took advantage of the pouring rain to wash the layers of road dirt off the truck. Good man! Now clean on the outside, we cleaned the interior and rearranged our gear to make space for our new road trip partner.

Marie arrived the next afternoon. I’d hung out with her in Paris last summer and it was wonderful to see her again. And, she’d brought us some wonderful gifts from France, of which the perfume and variety of delicious cheeses were especially appreciated. We spent the rainy evening catching up over a beer and some food at a small, “vintage” diner across the street from the hotel.  

The next day, we toured around CDMX (Ciudad Mexico’s nickname), taking Marie to the zocalo (central plaza), the Metropolitan Cathedral, and to a few of the small street markets Mathieu and I had found during our visit in January (see previous post). We also visited the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) to see the large murals painted by Mexico’s world-renowned Diego Rivera. It was interesting to see his depiction of Mexico’s restless history. Marie had visited Mexico City many years prior but was pleased to visit the lovely city again, and to do so with us.

After two nights in CDMX, we hit the road. With the addition of Marie’s small amount of luggage, we couldn’t see out of the back of the truck but the seat belts were accessible and we were all comfortable, even me sitting on pillows and camping mattresses in the back seat (We’d removed the bottom part of the back seats for the road trip.) Our first stop was the ruins of Teotihuacán, less than an hour northeast of CDMX. Per Wikipedia, this archaeological site, thought to have been established around 100 BC, was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with an estimated population of 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its period. We walked around for ~3 hours, enjoying the historic site and the views of the surrounding area from the tops of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. In addition to the many tourists there (mostly domestic), the site was peppered with vendors selling masks, silver jewelry, trinkets, swords, bows and arrows, etc. While the constant bombarding by the vendors made it difficult for me to get a sense of the site’s history, it was an interesting place to visit.

From there, we drove north on Ruta 85 to the city of Pachuca de Soto, crossing into the state of Hidalgo. Pachuca (population ~268,000) is located in a small valley surrounded by tall hills. While the central plaza was nice, the city overall was not so charming. We explored for a bit then found an auto hotel on the outskirts of town. After spending several hours walking around the ruins in the hot sun, it felt great to relax in our aircooled room. With Mathieu and I laid out on one bed and Marie laid out on the other bed, we chatted and laughed like kids at a slumber party.

The next morning, we visited the city’s brightly-colored Las Palmitas neighborhood. We’d glimpsed a flash of the brightly-colored buildings from the highway the day before. From that distance, there appeared to a giant rainbow spreading across the hillside. Per The Guardian, a group of muralists, working with the residents, painted over 200 homes in bright lavender, lime green, and incandescent orange in an effort to bring the working-class “barrio” together and change its gritty image. The government-sponsored project, called “Pachuca Se Pinta” (Pachuca Paints Itself) was so successful, there are plans to paint another nearby low-income neighborhood in the future. Driving through the narrow streets, we could see that every part of every house had been meticulously painted in fantastic colors. The walls of some of the corner houses were also covered with huge, beautiful murals. The artwork was really stunning! [Click here to check out Ella Eyre’s music video filmed in Las Palmitas. Great song!]  

After, we drove north to Mineral del Chico, a small town (population ~8,000) recently designated as a Pueblo Magico. The town is located in a deep valley surrounded by high mountains, a large portion of which are within the Parque Nacional El Chico. The drive through the thick forest and down into the valley was really lovely. We explored the small shops along the main street then, while Marie continued to explore the charming town, Mathieu and I took a hike through the forest to a mirador overlooking the picturesque valley and the surrounding mountains. Back in town, we joined Marie for a cold beer at a street-side cafe then got back on the road.

From Mineral del Chico, we took Ruta 105 then secondary roads as we continued north. As we drove the curvy, mountain roads, the scenery changed from mixed forest to shrubs and cactus then changed again as we drove into a large valley with a lovely wide river. The entire floodplain was farmed and therefore appeared very lush. Along with corn and other veggies, it appeared they were growing almonds as well. We passed only one hotel and a few small stores and restaurants. This was obviously not a tourist route. It was super cool to again be off-the-beaten-path.

After driving through the valley, we drove over another high mountain (at 6,200 ft; 1900 m) and down into the next valley. The road was steep, very narrow, and without a guardrail, making for an especially exhilarating downhill ride. And, the views of the deep canyon we drove along and of the river valley below were awesome. At the bottom, we pulled off the road and found a great place to wild camp. With cold beers in hand, we enjoyed a very international happy hour (aka aperitif) of tortilla chips, spicy salsa, and delicious French cheese. Ha! As we relaxed, we watched swallows and bats fly overhead and marveled at the view of the steep cliffs in front of us. After eating dinner under the stars, Marie climbed into the tent and Mathieu and I climbed into our sleeping bags and fell asleep underneath the stars. It was a lovely night and we had it all to ourselves.

The birds were already singing around us when we woke up the next morning. After breakfast, we continued on the narrow, curvy road for about 2 hours to Grutas de Tolantongo. Per Wikipedia, the site is most famous for its volcanically-heated river flowing out of two large caves and into various small pools located in a deep, narrow box canyon below. Along with the heated river and natural pools, the site contains a dozen or so man-made pools built into the hillside and three large hotel complexes containing swimming pools, restaurants, and souvenir shops. We’d read that it was a very popular tourist attraction but holy crap! The number of people there (all domestic) was staggering. Before arriving, we’d planned to camp there but the “camping areas” looked more like tent cities with tents set up in any available space. Despite the crowds, we enjoyed the day soaking in the warm water while overlooking the beautiful box canyon below. Once sufficiently pruned, we continued on another curvy “off-the-beaten-path” secondary road over several more mountains and through more valleys, driving through the small towns of Nicolas Flores and Truncas to Ruta 85. The drive was lovely but long and we were happy to finally get to the small town of Jacala, where, thankfully, one of the two hotels in town was open.

The next morning, we continued north to Ruta 120 and entered the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda in the state of Queretaro. Per Wikipedia, the reserve, also a World Heritage Site, is the only one in Mexico to be declared due to grassroots efforts. The reserve consists of rugged mountains, canyons, lush valley and “sótanos” or pit caves carved out from the limestone of the Huasteca Karst, and is also home to several 17th century Franciscan missions. Of the five missions in the Reserve, we visited three:  Misión Landa de Matamoros, Misión Jalpan, and Misión Concá. All were small, simple but elegant structures of stucco and stone with elaborately detailed facades.

After a night in a hotel in the charming small town of Jalpan, we drove to the northern part of the Reserve to visit the Sótano de Barro, apparently one of the deepest pit caves in the world at 1,345 ft (410 m) deep. While Marie relaxed at the trailhead, Mathieu and I climbed the steep path up the mountain. At the top, we peered over the edge of the cliff and into a deep hole. The sides were green with different types of plants and we thought we could see tree tops rising from the pit’s bottom. This deep hole is habitat for the guacamaya verde, the green macaw parrot. We could hear them squawking then finally saw several pairs flying below us. It was an awesome pit cave and we had the place to ourselves. That night, we wild camped under bright red flame trees along a wide, shallow river. It was another night under a lovely starry night.

The next day, we visited the Cascada Chuveje. After a short hike through the forest along a gorgeous creek, we reached the small falls where the three of us immediately disrobed and waded into the inviting pool underneath. From there, we continued east on another steep, curvy secondary road exiting the Reserve. Suddenly, as we were coming down the hill, the truck turned off. There was no engine and no electricity; everything just completely shut off! Thankfully,  Mathieu was already driving slow and it happened just as we were coming to a small side road where we could pull off (a bit of an anomaly). At the moment the engine shut off, Mathieu had seen a small puff of smoke from under the hood and noticed the temperature gauge shot into the red zone. Oh crap. Oddly, when we opened the hood, we saw nothing unusual. We’d assumed the engine had overheated but there was no steam gushing from the radiator and the belts appeared normal. Hmmm…After more probing, Mathieu figured it out. The 6-inch screw holding the truck’s battery in place had fallen out (likely due to all the hours of driving on rough roads) causing the battery to shift which caused the cable grounding the battery to the truck to snap. As a result, the cables connecting to the positive and negative terminals had sparked, hence the smoke, and the engine shut off. So it was a battery problem and not a problem with the radiator or the engine. Whew! Mathieu taped-up the fried battery cables, reattached the ground cable, and we were on the road again. We found a hotel in the small town of Bernal and toasted a cold beer to yet another adventure-filled day.     

The next morning, we explored the town. Besides being a Pueblo Magico for its colonial architecture, Bernal (population ~2,900), is home to the Peña de Bernal, a 1,421-ft (433-m) tall monolith, one of the tallest in the world. After breakfast, Mathieu and I climbed the short, steep trail to the top of the massive rock where we joined about 75 high school students. The view over the town was nice but was a bit difficult to enjoy it with all the energetic, super chatty, selfie-stick wielding teens darting around. But I was happy to see them outside enjoying nature (even if only to post selfies on Facebook from the peak. Ha!). After the hike, we rejoined Marie and walked around the charming city center, visiting the plaza, the small brightly-colored Templo San Sebastián, and the small shops, all within view of the Peña. We were joined by our high school friends from the peak and the peaceful plaza quickly erupted with the sounds of laughter and screaming as they ran around spraying each other with canned suds. Their fun antics added to the charm of the plaza on that lovely, sunny day.          

From Bernal we drove east to visit two more Pueblos Magicos. In Cadereyta de Montes (population ~51,800), we visited the lovely, palm tree-dotted plaza and its three small, brightly-colored churches:  Templo de la Santa Escala, Templo de la Santa Soledad, and the Templo de San Pedro y San Pablo. While we strolled through the last temple, we were treated to a concert. The sounds from the large pipe organ reverberating through the old church were amazing. Next we drove south to Tequisquiapan (population ~55,000). While Mathieu took a siesta in the truck, Marie and I strolled through the city center, visiting the plaza and the Templo de Santa María. While its neoclassical architecture was similar to other churches we’d seen, this small church was constructed using pink sandstone from the region. It would be the first of many pink churches still to come. We also visited some of the shops lining the plaza, admiring the expensive housewares, jewelry, and pottery as well as the local handicrafts. We had a great time chatting and window shopping.  

From there, we drove west to Querétaro to visit our friends, Jakob and Connie, and their fun, feisty dog, Filu. We’d meet the three of them in January at the monarch butterfly reserve (see previous post). We had a wonderful evening with them, enjoying good food, wine and conversation. We were a very international group made up of an Austrian, a German, two French and an American. It was great to hear the various accents as we chatted, mostly in English but in Spanish as well. We ended the evening with a tasting of a few liquors Jakob had collected from various parts of Mexico. It was a perfect end to a fun evening.    

The next day, Jakob and Filu took us on a tour of Querétaro (population ~805,000), a Pueblo Magico. Per Wikipedia, the city has repeatedly been recognized as having a superior quality of life and was listed by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 15 historic destinations of the world. We started in the historic center, visiting the Plaza de Independencia and the Plaza de Armas, then strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets to a hill overlooking the city and the remaining parts of the enormous, ancient aqueduct that previously supplied the city with water. It was an impressive structure. We also visited a few of the city’s ornate churches and stopped to check out handicrafts at some of the many small shops. Our furry guide, Filu, ensured that we also stopped to enjoy a few of the city’s many fountains to cool off. That night, back at Jakob and Connie’s house, Mathieu cooked dinner for us all, making delicious burgers. We had another night of good food and drink, and great conversation.    

The next morning, we said farewell to our wonderful friends and drove north to San Miguel de Allende, a Pueblo Magico in the state of Guanajuato. The city (population ~72,000) is known for its historic center with cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. It is also known as a haven for artists and expats. We had fun walking through the narrow streets lined with dark red, orange, and yellow buildings, contemplating artwork, and window shopping in the numerous quaint shops. We also visited the Jardin Principal, a beautiful plaza with sculpted trees, well-trimmed bushes, fountains, an abundance of flowers, and fountains. While there, we relaxed on one of the many benches and enjoyed the sounds of a mariachi band serenading a couple at a street-side cafe. The plaza was also bustling with vendors selling balloons, ice cream, and churros to the throngs of tourists (domestic and foreign). We then crossed the street to visit the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a large, ornate church constructed of pink sandstone which per Wikipedia, is one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. We had a fun day exploring the colorful, festive city.

From San Miguel, we drove west to Guanajuato. We’d read on iOverlander about a place to camp with nice views overlooking the city. After navigating through the narrow, hilly streets, we arrived to the “campground.” Hmmm…it was a dirt parking lot overlooking a hillside neighborhood. It appeared that people parked there for the day to visit the city. The bathrooms were nice and the showers had hot water but we’d have to sleep between the parked cars. Since it was already late afternoon and we were tired, we had a beer and decided to make the best of the situation. Thankfully, the owner agreed to let us sleep on the terrace of their house that overlooked the parking lot. So, we set up the tent for Marie and laid out our sleeping bags. It was weird to camp on someone’s terrace but it worked out OK.  

After a wakeup call by the owner’s cute dog, we had coffee and breakfast at our terrace camping spot then drove to the Templo San Cayetano. The large, hillside church, constructed of pink volcanic rock, was beautiful and had a lovely view of the city below. Next, we drove to the historic city center. Per Wikipedia, Guanajuato (population 171,709) is in a narrow valley, resulting in many narrow and winding streets impassible by cars, and many alleys with long sets of stairs up the mountainsides. We joined the masses of tourists (domestic and foreign), walking through the city exploring the colonial mansions, plazas, and shops. We also visited a few of the 23 churches in the city, including the Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, located on the main plaza, Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace). The large, bright-yellow church seemed to glow in the sunlight.

The city was festive, vibrant, and alive with music. In the Plaza de la Paz, we were treated to a Beatles cover band belting out well-known hits. Then, in front of the Juarez Theater, considered one of the most beautiful theaters in the country, we were treated to a long parade of musicians dressed as 16th-century trou­badours, playing mandolins, guitars, drums, accordions, etc… Throughout the day, the streets were infiltrated by hundreds of “troubadours.” It was wonderful. From the historic center, Marie took the funicular (tram) and Mathieu and I walked through the narrow alleys and up a million stairs to visit the Monumento al Pípila, a hilltop statue commemorating the city’s war hero. The panoramic view of the city was worth the effort to get there. On the way down, we took a different route, enjoying some fantastic street art on the way.

After a fun day in Guanajuato, we drove northwest on Ruta 45. Before nightfall, we found a place to camp. Per iOverlander, we could wild camp in a small reserve a few miles off the main highway. After going through the small town of Mesa del Pinos, we drove some miles on a dirt road and found a flat area to camp. We had to move some cow patties (cow poop) but the spot was otherwise ok. It’s possible that instead of being in a reserve, we were on someone’s private land where they grazed their cows. Oh well, there was no one around and from our hilltop spot, we could see the lights of the small towns below and enjoy the lovely starry night above.

The next morning, we drove to Zacatecas (population ~138,000) in the state of Zacatecas. We went to the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and strolled through the streets lined with colonial buildings constructed of pink sandstone. We also visited the beautiful Catedral de Zacatecas, also of pink sandstone. Per Wikipedia, the cathedral is known as one of the most outstanding examples of Baroque art in Mexico. After visiting the church, we watched for a bit as some local kids did amazing tricks on two large bike ramps in the Plaza de Armas, adjacent to the church. It was a fun mix of old and new.

We continued walking around, window shopping in the small shops along the main streets then went to the Gonzalez Ortega Market, a historic market that has since been modernized into a mall with stores selling silver, leather, Zacatecas wine, antiques, and local handicrafts. One of the shops showcased beautiful, hand-painted calacas (skeletal dia de los muertos figurines). I pondered buying one of the large, intricately painted (and expensive) female figurines but in the end left the shop with only pictures of my favorites. At another shop, Marie and Mathieu bought some beautiful, brightly-colored beaded figurines, necklaces, and bracelets. It was great to talk to the shop owner/artist and her husband who explained how the pieces were made. That evening, we relaxed on the rooftop terrace of our hostel and enjoyed the view as the historic center, especially the nearby cathedral, lit up for the night. It was our last night with Marie, so we toasted glasses of red wine and recounted the wonderful adventures the three of us shared during our two weeks together.  

The next day, we went to the bus station and said farewell to Marie. She would spend a few more days enjoying Mexico City before returning to Paris. As for Mathieu and I, we were on the road again, continuing northbound.       

We had a great time exploring the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Queretaro, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas, visiting archeological ruins, historic towns, Franciscan missions, beautiful natural areas, and meeting new people. This section of the road trip was especially wonderful since we got to share the adventure with Mathieu’s mom, Marie, a longtime explorer always open to new adventures (including camping in dirt parking lots!). I look forward to more fun adventures with her in the future.

During this 14-day section of the road trip, we drove roughly 850 mi (1,368 km). We camped 4 nights (3 nights wild-camping and 1 night in a paid campground), stayed in hotels 7 nights (the most expensive being 500 pesos, ~$26), and stayed with friends 2 nights. And, we felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip through Mexico with my wonderful trip partner, Mathieu, continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/8SCWHYQH7yvfS2p98       

Enjoy!

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With Mathieu and Marie in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City.

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At the Teotihuacán ruins. 

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The brightly-colored Las Palmitas neighborhood in Pachuca de Soto.

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Mural in the Las Palmitas neighborhood in Pachuca de Soto.

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One of many narrow, curvy roads through the mountains. No guardrails!

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Marie and Mathieu at our awesome campsite under the cliffs.

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Marie and Mathieu soaking in one of the many warm pools at Grutas de Tolantongo.

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With Mathieu above Sótano de Barro, apparently one of the deepest pit caves in the world (1,345 ft; 410 m deep). Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda.

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Mathieu and Marie cooling off at Cascada Chuveje in the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda.

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Marie admiring the Templo de San Pedro y San Pablo in Cadereyta de Montes.

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Dinner with our friends Jakob and Connie in Querétaro.

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Filu patiently waiting as Mathieu and Jakob discuss chocolate-covered churros in Querétaro.

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In San Miguel de Allende at the Jardin Principle and the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, one of the most photographed churches in Mexico.

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With Mathieu and Marie enjoying a beer as we ponder our “camp site” on the outskirts of Guanajuato.

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The brightly-colored Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. 

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A parade of “troubadours” in front of Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato. 

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The three amigos at Monumento al Pípila, overlooking the lovely city of Guanajuato. 

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The lovely nighttime view of the cathedral from the rooftop terrace of our hostel in Zacatecas.

Mexico – Part 7 of 9: Mountains, Mole, Folk Art, and a Volano (Puerto Escondido to Pico Orizaba; Apr 8 to 16, 2017)

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After 18 days exploring the beautiful waterfalls, mountains, and beaches in the states of Campeche, Chiapas, and Oaxaca (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip through Mexico, spending the next 9 days exploring the interior of the state of Oaxaca and returning to the state of Puebla.

After a wonderful night camping on a secluded beach near Puerto Escondido, we said farewell to the Pacific Ocean and drove north on Ruta 131 through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. The scenery through the forested mountains was beautiful. As we continued further north, we noticed that the number of cars going south increased and that most of them had flower wreaths and/or a picture of the Virgin Mary on the front grill. It was the day before Semana Santa (aka Holy Week or Easter Week), one of Mexico’s most important and widely celebrated holiday seasons. The small altars were intended to ensure the travelers arrived to their designations safely. We hoped the protective blessings extended to us and Genevieve (my 4Runner) as we continued on the curvy, 2-lane mountain road. After a long 163-mi (263-km) drive, we arrived safely to the city of Oaxaca (population ~4 million). Once in our hostel, we relaxed on the rooftop terrace, ate dinner, and watched a lightning storm in the distance. For dinner, we had tlayudas (a large thin, toasted tortilla covered with a spread of beans, meat, Oaxaca cheese, and salsa) made by two sisters at a tiny restaurant nearby. It was a delicious introduction to Oaxaca, a city known for its distinctive traditional cuisine.

The next day, we explored the city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic buildings and monuments. We visited the central plaza, enjoying the flowers and fountains, and strolled along the shop- and restaurant-lined streets surrounding the plaza. It was Palm Sunday, the first day of Semana Santa, so the streets were packed with people (mostly domestic), many carrying crosses and bouquets made of palm leaves to celebrate the special day. Next we visited several of the large, ornate churches in town, including the beautiful Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (1733); all of them were packed with people. We also visited two art museums housing contemporary and traditional, local artwork. Per Wikipedia, Oaxaca is one of the few Mexican states characterized by the continuance of its ancestral crafts. This includes the barro negro (“black mud”) pottery and hand-carved wooden alebrije sculptures produced locally. I enjoyed all of the artwork, but I was especially captivated by the intricate designs of the traditional pieces.

In the afternoon, we joined the crowd in the plaza to enjoy a large orchestra playing beautiful classical music. I loved watching the orchestra’s conductor who never stopped smiling as he enthusiastically waved his arms in the air, leading his musicians in song. After the wonderful music, we went to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a huge market filled with food stalls, selling fresh bread, beautiful produce, dried fruits and spices, meats and cheese, cooked food, and more. We picked one of the dozens of small restaurants and tried some of Oaxaca’s famous mole, of which there are six different types. I ordered the mole negro (black) and Mathieu ordered the mole rojo (red) both of which were served over chicken and rice, with tortillas on the side. Both were rich and absolutely delicious. Mole is one of my favorite Mexican dishes and I was in heaven! Thank goodness they gave us tortillas to wipe the remaining mole off the plate or I would have embarrassed Mathieu when I licked my plate clean. We spent the rest of the day walking through the small streets of the city and window shopping in the small markets. That evening, we returned to the central plaza. This time, there was a live band playing upbeat dance music. I always love a band with an accordion! People were dancing, kids were running around and playing with glow-in-the-dark toys, and everyone was enjoying the night. It was so cool to be part of the festive vibe.

The next day, we drove south on Ruta 175 to the small town of San Bartolo Coyotepec (population ~8,000), the birthplace of barro negro pottery made from the black clay found in the area. Per Wikipedia, the black pottery, known for its color, sheen, and unique designs, continues to be handmade by 600 families in San Bartolo Coyotepec and the surrounding area. We first visited the workshop of Doña Rosa, the local potter who in the 1950s developed the technique to give the fired black clay a metallic sheen. She continued to make pottery until she died in 1980 at the age of 80. Her workshop, now run by her family, is well known for its high quality pieces and is heavily visited.

From there, we visited some of the smaller workshops along the same street. After examining the pottery in three or four shops, we began to see the differences in quality. While many of the vases, candle holders, small pots, figurines, etc. were of a similar general shape and design, the quality and precision of the fine lines and cuts in the pottery varied greatly. After walking through a few more workshops, we started to return to Doña Rosa’s shop which we decided had the superior pottery. On our walk back, we stopped in one last shop we’d missed previously. The workshop of Doña Mariana was, like the others, small with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with black pottery. However, we could see immediately that the design quality was excellent (in our now-expert opinions). As we examined the pottery, we chatted with Doña Mariana and her husband, also a potter. We held up pieces and they explained how they were made. Their work was beautiful. In total, we bought eight pieces, paying 750 pesos, about $42. After a quick online search later, we found similar pieces selling for $50 each. Wow! Of course, the best part of our shopping experience was talking to the potters and buying the pottery directly from them at their workshop located in the birthplace of the craft.

From San Bartolo Coyotepec, we drove the short distance to San Martin Tilcajete, a small town (population ~1,800) known for its alebrijes, handcarved, handpainted wooden folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. Per Wikipedia, the first alebrijes were made by Pedro Linares in the 1930s who, while very ill and unconscious in bed, dreamt of a strange forest with trees, rocks, and clouds that suddenly transformed into strange, unknown animals such as a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, and all of them shouting “alebrijes.” When he recovered, he began recreating the creatures from his dream in cardboard and papier-mache and called them Alebrijes. In the 1980s, after gaining much popularity, Linares demonstrated his papier-mache designs to local artisans in the Oaxaca valley area, one of whom adapted the designs to the wood-carved animals traditionally made in the valley.

Similar to the barro negro pottery, I’d always wanted to buy one or two of these fantastical creatures and was excited at the prospect of buying them in the area where they were made. When we arrived to San Martin Tilcajete, there was an alebrije-specific market set up in the small town’s central plaza. We walked from stall to stall slowly examining the pieces and talking to some of the artists. Similar to the pottery, after a few stalls, we could really see the difference in the quality of the pieces. Of course, the pieces painted with more fine lines and details were the most expensive. Some of the large, elaborately-painted pieces took the artist over 6 months to complete. One such large piece, a colorful, intricate iguana, cost 40,000 pesos, about $2,265. Even some of the small, finely-painted pieces cost 4,000 pesos, about $225. I quickly realized that I would NOT be buying an alebrije that day. I’d always wanted a large, detailed piece so would have to wait until it was in my budget. Oh well, it was a great experience meeting the artists and learning more about the creation of these whimsical creatures. And now I had another reason to return to Oaxaca in the future.

After our shopping spree, we left the Oaxaca area and drove Ruta 190 east to Hierve el Agua, natural formations of petrified calcium carbonate that resemble cascades of water falling up to 295 ft (90 m) to the valley below. We camped in a large dirt parking lot with an amazing view of the “falls” and the valley below that we shared with only a handful of neighbors. We had a lovely night overlooking the valley as it was illuminated by the light of the rising full moon.

The next morning, we woke up as the sun rose over the valley and distant mountains. It was spectacular. We walked down the hill to the natural pools feeding the falls. The reflections of the morning sky on the crystal-clear water was amazing. We then took a short hike into the valley and under the petrified waterfalls. On our way back to the campsite, we walked past the people in the campervan that had been parked near us the night before. It was Jacob and Connie and their dog, Filu! They were an Austrian/German couple we’d taken a tour with at the monarch butterfly reserve (see previous post) in January. We exchanged stories about what we’d seen and done since meeting then made plans to visit them in Queretaro, the city north of Mexico City where they lived. It was so cool to see people we knew! And, we’d see them again soon.

After Hierve el Agua, we continued north on another curvy mountain road to the tiny town of Latuvi (population ~290) located along the Ruta Sierra Juarez, an ecotourism route known for its natural beauty and recreational opportunities. After a stop at the tourism office to get camping and trail information, we drove down a small, curvy road, passing a few houses and farm fields, to the grassy camping area next to a small tree-lined creek. The area was beautiful and peaceful, and it was near the start of the Camino Real trail, the trek we planned to do the next day. As we were relaxing and enjoying the cool temperature [~68F (20C) at 6,560 ft (2000 m)], Samuel Contreras, a local farmer stopped by on his walk home from work. He was carrying a large piece of wood, apparently part of the manual till pulled by ox to rotate his fields, He was very happy to chat with us, telling us about his farm and what we could expect to see on your upcoming hike. It’s always a treat when we get to met our neighbors.

The next day, we hiked the Camino Real trail to the tiny town of Lachatao. We followed the creek most of the way then climbed out of the large valley, passing through mixed forest, pine forest, and rocky outcrops. In a few areas, the Spanish moss covering the trees looked like witch’s hair flowing in the breeze. It was enchanting. Other than a British couple we passed, we had the trail to ourselves. Even in Lachatao, we saw only a few local people around town. We walked around the few streets of the tiny town, had lunch in the shade of a large tree in front of the church, then returned to the truck, jumping into the creek to cool off along the way. It’d been a beautiful 16-mi (26-km) hike.

After the hike we continued north on the Ruta Sierra Juarez and and back to the main road (Ruta 175). After a cold night of camping just off the road, we decided to cross the mountains directly west to get to Ruta 135 on the other side. At the turnoff to the small road to cross the mountains, we came to a gate with a guard. We told him where we wanted to go and he told us we should return to Oaxaca to reach Ruta 135 since it would be much faster. After explaining that we wanted to drive through the mountains and explore the small towns along the way, and that we understood it would be a much longer drive, he recorded our names and license plate number in his log book and opened the gate for us. We never discovered why the road was gated or why the guard recorded our information but we suspected it could be to minimize illegal timber harvest and\or drug trafficking in the remote area.

The dirt road was very curvy and steep but generally in good shape. And the views around us were spectacular. For the first hour, we passed through dry scrub dotted with cactus. As we dropped down into the first valley, we crossed a wide, shallow river. We parked and jumped into the cool water. The only creature around was a cow who watched us soak. Ha! After a few more hours of driving, we came to the small town of Abejones (population ~1,100). People were busy preparing for Semana Santa festivities, putting purple and white prayer flags and garlands with large white flowers made of palm leaves around the central plaza and across the narrow roads through town. We parked to visit the church, saying hello to the group of men standing outside staring at us. They likely didn’t get many foreigners there, or at least many driving into town on their own (and not part of a tour). As we continued through town, we came upon a group of people in the street who were hanging a large garland across the road. It took them some time to figure out how to move the garland out of the street without disrupting it. We thanked them warmly as we passed, hoping our smiles would make up for disrupting their work. After driving a few more blocks, we came to another group of people hanging another garland. After a shorter wait this time, they moved the garland out of the street so we could pass. After all that, I took a wrong turn, looped through the town again, and ending up back on the same street where the same people were hanging the garlands. As they moved the garlands, again, two men came over to ask where we were trying to go, likely to help us find our way but perhaps to also ensure we didn’t bother them a third time. We told them our route and apologized for bothering them again. They pointed us in the right direction and wished us safe travels. Hopefully they had a good laugh at the silly tourists.

As we continued through the mountains and into pine forest, we passed the largest century plant I’d ever seen. I had to take a picture! As I got out of the truck, I immediately heard a loud hissing sound. Crap. We had a hole in the tire. Since the tire changing tools are stored under the back seats, we had to remove almost everything from the back of the truck to get to them. On the plus side, I found my missing sunglasses! Tools in hand, Mathieu started to loosen the lug nuts. Two of the nuts didn’t budge, even under his full body weight. Changing a tire is not hard or stressful. But when you can’t get the tire off and you’re ~20 mi (33 km) from any town and you hadn’t seen another car all day, it becomes stressful. We took some deep breaths, ate lunch, then returned to the task. Thankfully after many more tries, the lug nuts loosened, we changed the tire, repacked the truck, I took a picture of the century plant, and got going again. We continued the drive through the beautiful mountains and valleys, going through the small town of San Miguel Aloapam (population ~2,600), then on to Altayuca, the bigger town in the area.

In Altayuca, we stopped at a small store for a snack. As I pulled away from the curb, I realized I had no brakes. I had to stand on the brake pedal with all my weight and crank the hand brake as high as it would go in order to stop. I came within an inch of bumping into the truck parked in front of us. The owner of the truck I almost bumped into told us it was common for people’s brakes to be hot and nonfunctional after driving down the road we’d been on. Hmm…that was comforting. After a nerve-racking, super slow drive through town, the brakes cooled and were again functional, and we could breath again.

We continued north on the highway (Ruta 135), stopping to have the flat tire repaired, then took a secondary road east to Santiago Apoala, a tiny town (population ~800) along the Ruta Mixteca, another ecotourism route known for its natural beauty and recreational opportunities. The hills were smaller and covered with small trees and shrubs. The soil in some areas was a beautiful dark red. It was cool to be in a landscape so different then where we’d spent most of the day. We found a wild camping spot just off the road above Santiago Apoala and with cold beers in hand, we enjoyed the sunset and thanked our lucky stars that, despite our tire and brake troubles, we’d made it there.

In the morning, we woke to see the fog slowly pouring over the sheer, rocky cliffs on the opposite side of the valley. It was lovely. At the tourist office in the small town, we hired a guide, Rosa, a 15-year old who’d been working as a guide for 1.5 years. She lead us to a nearby cave used in prehistoric times for prayer and human sacrifice, then up a deep canyon to see pictographs representing the moon, the sun, and a millipede. After, we hiked down a steep trail to a small waterfall and swam in the refreshingly cold pool below the fall. It was not really necessary to have a guide given that all three attractions were close to the town center and one could easily follow the trail of tourists (domestic) to get there. However, Rosa was super sweet and it was great to spend a few hours with her and learn more about the community and the area.

After a lunch of more delicious mole, we continued north on small secondary roads to loop back to Ruta 135. During the 2-hour drive, we crossed several beautiful valleys, passed only one tiny village surrounded by rocky farmland, and saw no other vehicles. Coming out of the mountains and now on the main road, we followed a wide river where people were escaping the heat and swimming in the cool water. With the lush vegetation along the river, it was like a long, snaking oasis in the otherwise dry, brown landscape.

As we continued north, crossing into the state of Puebla, we passed a sign for the Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán. The reserve was not mentioned in our guidebook or on iOverlander but per the pictures on the sign, it looked beautiful and it was home to the world’s largest population of the military macaw, a large green parrot inhabiting the deep canyon within the reserve. The gate across the entry road was closed but not locked and since there was no sign indicating that entry was prohibited, we opened the gate and let ourselves in. We parked next to a handful of other cars then walked to the top of the steep stairs where we found a camping area with a few rustic cabins, picnic tables, and bathrooms. We said hello to the handful of people camping there, read about the hiking trails on the information kiosk, and went for a hike.

As we hiked up the steep path, we went through a forest of huge columnar cactus and other desert-adapted trees and shrubs. Per Wikipedia, the Reserve has one of the highest concentrations of columnar cacti in the world, which, along with its multitude of endemic and rare flora and fauna, is the reason it’s an IUCN-designated world biodiversity hotspot. There were only a few places along the hike where we could glimpse the deep canyon we were hiking along. Finally, at the end of the trail, we stood on the rocky cliff edge and got to see the 800-ft (240-m) deep Sabino Canyon and the landscape beyond. It was spectacular. We joined a handful of other hikers (domestic) and waited for the nightly return of the military macaws to their cliffside nests and roosting sites. Suddenly the quiet canyon was filled with the squawks of several pairs of parrots flying below us. They were flashes of bright green against the backdrop of the dark canyon. We watched them as they perched on small trees and ledges along the canyon walls; they never stopped squawking. After sunset, we hiked back to the truck. Back at the camping area, we were greeted by a park guard who informed us that access to the Reserve was by reservation only through the park office in the nearby town, and that a guide was required to hike and camp there. Oops. Thankfully, Mathieu is a gifted negotiator and despite the campground being full, the guard allowed us to camp for the night next to a small creek near the parking lot.

The next morning, we packed then hiked back through the cactus forest to the top of the canyon where we watched several pairs of the beautiful parrots as they left to forage for the day. The view of the canyon and surrounding area in the morning light was just as beautiful as it had been the evening before and this time, we had the viewing area to ourselves. While the guard hadn’t specifically said we could not hike in the Reserve (since we didn’t have a reservation or a guide), it seemed very likely that he’d be angry seeing us on the trail again. So after enjoying the view and the parrots, we quickly hiked back to the truck and got on the road again. Visiting the Reserve had been a very lucky, unplanned stop.

From the Reserve, we continued north on Rutas 135 and 144 to the city of Ciudad Serdan then northeast on secondary roads to Parque Nacional Pico de Orizaba (in the state of Puebla) where we would hike up our last volcano in Mexico. Per Wikipedia, the Pico de Orizaba volcano is the highest mountain in Mexico at 18,491 ft (5636 m) and the third highest mountain in North America (after Denali in the US and Mount Logan in Canada). The volcano is dormant but not extinct and is home to the highest glacier, Gran Glacier Norte, of the three volcanoes in Mexico that continue to support glaciers. Needless to say, I could hardly contain myself as we drove closer to the massive, snow-covered volcano. We’d saved the best for last.

After a cold night wild camping on the side of the dirt road leading up the volcano, we drove to the road’s end at Refugio Piedra Grande, a basic shelter at 14,022 ft (4274 m) where mountain climbers and hikers could sleep before and/or after their summit hike. After a quick hello to the handful of hikers staying at the refugio, we put on our daypacks and started up the trail. We could immediately feel the effects of being at high altitude. We continued slowly up the trail, stopping as needed to fill our lungs with more air. Apparently, the early explorers of this peak were not fans of zig-zagging because the trail literally went straight up from the refugio to the peak. Sheesh. The temperature was cool but it was a sunny, cloudless day and the the views of the snow-covered peak in front of us and of the valleys around us were spectacular. About halfway up, we crossed a group of hikers on their way down. They’d left the refugio at 2am to summit. They’d had a great hike, saying that while there was not a lot of snow, the trail to the peak was very steep and slippery, making crampons necessary. Of the group of five, only one person summited, the others being too exhausted to continue. “La proxima vez” (next time), they said. As we continued up, the number and size of the patches of snow and ice increased. At just over 16,000 ft (4900 m) Mathieu decided he’d gone far enough. Me though, I had to at least get to the edge of the glacier which was about 500 ft (150 m) further up the steep trail. After another 30 minutes, I was finally at the glacier’s edge. I sat on a rock and marveled at the scenery around me and at the peak still above me. I was very happy to be there but it was a little frustrating to be so close to the peak and unable to reach it. I considered trying to summit but knew it’d be unwise since I wasn’t prepared (e.g., no crampons and insufficient water and food) and Mathieu would have to wait some hours for me. “La proxima vez”, I told myself. After enjoying the view from 16,598 ft (5059 m), I returned to Mathieu and we climbed down the steep trail, arriving to the truck at 4:30pm. Our short 3.3-mi ( 5.3-km) trek had taken us 5 hours! But we’d gained and loss 2,694 ft (821 m) of elevation in that short distance and climbed to a height of over 16,000 ft. Wow. It’d been a breathtaking day, literally and figuratively.

After the hike, we drove back down the volcano and west on Ruta 150. After a few hours, we neared the large city of Puebla. By now it had started to rain hard and we were stuck in post-Semana Santa holiday, Sunday night traffic. After some searching, we found an auto hotel for the night. We showered, cooked dinner in the room on our camp stove, and toasted our exhilarating day with some red wine. Later, we collapsed in bed to watch TV. This time there were three TV channels. In addition to the porn channel found in the other cheap, roadside auto hotels we’d stayed in, we also had a local news channel and a movie channel. Perfect! That night’s movie was El Pecado de Adan y Eva (The Sin of Adam and Eve), which per Wikipedia, is a Mexican biblical epic film from 1969. What better way to end an amazing day on Mexico’s highest peak than by eating a delicious burger, drinking delicious wine, and watching a deliciously cheesy “biblical epic” in a cheap roadside auto hotel. Ha!

We had a great time continuing our travels through the interior of the state of Oaxaca and revisiting new areas in the state of Puebla, exploring mountains and interesting towns, viewing beautiful wildlife, and meeting new people. During this 9-day section of the road trip, we drove roughly 620 mi (1,000 km). We camped 6 nights (3 nights wild-camping and 3 nights in paid campgrounds, the most expensive being 120 pesos, ~$7) and stayed in hotels 3 nights (the most expensive being 340 pesos, ~$19). We felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip through Mexico with my wonderful trip partner, Mathieu, continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/nMH3P2SfPp4NXCPt2

Enjoy!

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Beautiful music in Oaxaca.

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Traditional barro negro pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec.

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Traditional alebrijes in San Martin Tilcajete.

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Morning light on the natural pool at Hierve el Agua.

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Overlooking the petrified falls at Hierve el Agua.

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Amazing mountain views on the small, curvy roads to Latuvi.

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Our young guide, Rosa, who toured us around Santiago Apoala.

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Hiking in the columnar catcus forest at Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán.

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Overlooking 800-ft (240-m) deep Sabino Canyon at Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán.

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Military macaws at Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán.

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Approaching Mexico’s highest peak, 18,491-ft (5636-m) Pico Orizaba.

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On our way up Pico Orizaba.

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At the foot of the Gran Glacier Norte on Pico Orizaba.

Mexico – Part 6 of 9: Waterfalls, Jungles, Mountains, and Beaches (Bacalar to Puerto Escondido; Mar 21 to Apr 7, 2017)

Mexico Part 6 map

After 15 days traveling through the Yucatan Peninsula (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip through Mexico, spending the next 18 days in the states of Campeche, Chiapas, and Oaxaca.  

From Bacalar, we drove west on Ruta 186 through the state of Campeche. While looking at iOverlander for places to camp for the night, we read a description of a “bat show” that occured nightly at Volcan de los Murciélagos (volcano of the bats). It was almost sunset and the cave was on our way. Perfect! The bat cave, located in the Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul, was accessible via a short, paved path. We joined a dozen other tourists (locals and foreigners) waiting for the show to begin. At about 7pm, the bats started to emerge from the cave entrance and fly up the steep-sided pit and into the night to forage. The show started with a few dozen bats then swelled to thousands. We could feel the wind they created as they spiraled up. We stayed until almost dark, continuing to watch as the last bats trickled out. After the show, we found a spot along an access road a few miles down the highway to wild camp for the night. We read later on Zocalo.com.mx that the cave is home to an estimated 2.3 million bats consisting of eight different species, and that it is very rare that so many species live together. We were so lucky to have seen such an awesome display.   

The next day, we continued driving west then south on Rutas 203 and Ruta 307, crossing into the state of Chiapas. Once on Ruta 307, we paralleled the Guatemala border. We’d read about beautiful rivers and waterfalls in the nature reserves along this road. The first waterfall we visited was Cascada Las Golondrinas, a set of three waterfalls owned and maintained by the local community. While not very high, the clear, turquoise-blue water surrounded by thick lush green vegetation was beautiful. We arrived just in time to watch the golondrinas (swallows) begin the nightly return to their nests which hung on the rock wall behind the waterfall. As they flew by, they seemed to disappear into the falling water. Other than a group of people picnicking nearby, we had the waterfalls to ourselves. After swimming and waterplay, the very nice caretaker allowed us to set up our tent in the parking lot. While chatting with him, he pointed out an animal moving very slowly high in the trees above us. It was a perezoso, a tree sloth. So cool.

The next morning, we walked up the paved path to visit the falls again, spending the day swimming, journaling, and enjoying the beauty and solitude (we had the place entirely to ourselves). From there, we continued south on Ruta 307, paralleling the Reserva de la Biosfera Montes Azules and Monumento Natural Bonampak. At this point, we were about 1 mi (2 km) from the Guatemala border so could see the thick jungle and high mountains on the other side. It was amazing. While driving on the secondary road through the Reserva de la Biosfera Lacantun, we saw a pair of red macaw parrots fly overhead followed by a pair of small green parrots. In hopes of seeing more parrots, we wild camped that night on the banks of the Rio Lacantun, near the small town of Reforma Agraria. Along with seeing a few more pairs of parrots fly overhead, we were serenaded that night and the next morning by howler monkeys, various birds and insects, and toads in the thick forests around us.   

After a quick wash for Genevieve (my 4Runner) and ourselves in the river, we continued on the secondary road to rejoin Ruta 307, passing through thick forest, large cattle ranches, and several very small towns, and crossing beautiful blue rivers a few times along the way. Our destination that day was Las Nubes, a centro ecoturistico we’d read about on iOverlander. It was a resort known for its beautiful waterfalls along the Rio Santo Domingo. We set up camp in a grassy field at the resort then went hiking. The trail took us first to “The Tunnel” where the river thundered through a large hole in the rock. We then hiked the steep path to the mirador (overlook). The view was stunning. At this point, the wide, crystal-clear turquoise-colored river branched, becoming large ribbons of blue streaming over the landscape. Wow. It was wonderful to be in such a beautiful place, especially since we had it almost to ourselves.

After deciding to stay another night, we spent the next day relaxing by the river, reading, journaling, napping, and swimming. Later, we hiked back to The Tunnel so Mathieu could fly the drone along the river and video the water crashing through the hole. However, shortly after take off, the drone lost connection with the remote control, likely due to the strong water spray, and crashed. Crap. Fortunately we were able to retrieve it. Unfortunately, it crashed into the water and was completely submerged. Mathieu took it apart and put it in the bag of rice to let it dry alongside the now non-functioning GoPro. (This trip had been rough on the electronic toys). Our fingers were crossed that both would recover.     

From there, we continued on Ruta 307 to Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello where we hiked around a huge, stunningly blue lake surrounded by small, steep mountains thick with lush vegetation. The various flowers along the way were gorgeous and included a few varieties of brightly colored orchids. After the lake, we explored the Grutas San Rafael El Arco, a group of medium-sized, shallow caves with huge formations. Per the flowers, candles, and some beer cans left in the largest caves, they appeared to be used by locals as places for prayer and party. After visiting the national park, we continued west on Ruta 307 then on Ruta 226, a secondary road, to Cascadas El Chiflón, a centro ecoturístico, containing five high waterfalls. The entry to the site was closed when we arrived after 6pm so we set up camp at a nearby picnic area to wait until the morning.

After a dip in the small river next to our camp, we drove back to the falls. This centro ecoturístico was very developed with a hotel, food stands, restaurants, souvenir shops, riverside picnic areas, and several ziplines for a bird’s eye view of the river and falls. However, since it was a weekday, it wasn’t crowded. We walked up the steep, paved trail taking us to each of the five waterfalls:  Cascadas El Suspiro (82 ft; 5m), Ala de Ángel (98 ft; 30 m), Velo de Novia (394 ft; 120 m), Arcoiris (174 ft; 53 m), and Quinceanera (197 ft; 60 m). All of the falls were awesome but of course the tallest waterfall, the 394-foot Velo de Novia, was really awesome. Similar to the other falls we’d visited, the water was crystal-clear and turquoise blue, and the cream-colored clay bottom accentuated the beautiful water color even more. After our hike, we found a nice picnic site along the river and spent the day swimming, journaling, and relaxing.

At closing time, we were ushered out and continued north on Ruta 226 toward San Cristóbal de las Casas. After a few hours, we came to a halt behind a long line of stopped cars. After asking around, we found out there was a protest. Apparently, the protesters would periodically let about 50 cars through then block the road again. The other drivers appeared to be used to it, all pulling up to the line and immediately cutting their engines. We weren’t sure how long we’d have to wait but the only other option was to return the way we came and go the very long way around. We decided to wait. While waiting, Mathieu read outloud about the politics and socioeconomics in the state of Chiapas, translating for me from his Mexico guidebook written in French. Per the guidebook, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico but the richest in terms of natural resources, and is home to the Zapatistas, made up of mostly rural indigenous people. Named after revolutionary Mexican leader Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatista ideology blends Mayan tradition with socialism, anarchism, and Marxism. The group primarily seeks indigenous control over their local resources, especially land. Based on the protest, it appeared that the indigenous population still does not enjoy equal rights and the struggle continues. After almost 1.5 hours, the long line of vehicles started moving. As we proceeded through the tiny town, we passed many people standing along the road but it was difficult to discern who the protesters were. We finally arrived to San Cristóbal around 9pm and went directly to our hostel.

Per Wikipedi, San Cristóbal de las Casas, a Pueblo Mágico known for its colonial architecture, is considered the cultural capital of the state. Much of this culture is associated with the city’s large indigenous population, mostly made up of Tzotzils and Tzeltals most widely known for making textiles. We could see immediately that it was a charming city, with a laid back, artsy vibe. Despite its charm, we spent the entire next day in our comfortable room journaling, reading, and watching videos with the strong wifi. After many days of camping, it felt great to just chill indoors. Plus it turned into a rainy day, adding credence to our decision. Mathieu also spent time trying to fix his waterlogged drone. Using parts from his other drone (crashed in Anza Borrego State Park in California), he got the drone flying again but the camera still didn’t work. A local shop tried but was unable to fix it so he’d have to get a new camera when back in France. At least now the drone would fly again in the future.      

After our day of sloth, we spent the next day exploring the area via bicycle. Our bikes were pretty beaten up after so many miles on the back of the truck but despite the rusty chain, mine still worked, only skipping occasionally. We rode our bikes through the streets of San Cristóbal, then on a dirt path through the forest and through a few small villages and to the small neighboring town of San Juan Chamula which, per Wikipedia, is almost entirely inhabited by Tzotzil people. It was great to see the interesting traditional clothes worn by the indigenous people of the area. The women wore black sheepskin skirts held around their waists by cotton belts, colorful blouses, shawls, and often wore colorful headscarves. The little girls were especially adorable in their colorful outfits. Some of the men wool ponchos over white shirts, and black pants with colorful cotton belts. It seemed too warm outside to be wearing such heavy clothing but obviously they were used to it. We called out hello as we passed and were offered shy smiles and hellos in return.

Once in Chamula, we went to the town’s central plaza. As usual, there was a beautiful church serving as the focal point of the plaza. Unlike others we’d seen so far, the church of San Juan was painted bright white with blue trim and beautiful, colorful designs around the doorway and on the front. While in the plaza, I was persuaded (easily) by a tiny, ancient-looking local woman to buy some of her handmade goods:  two small, brightly-colored purses and a pair of small dolls made of local sheep’s wool. The colors were so vibrant and would be wonderful reminders of this area of Chiapas (and of the tiny woman who made them). From the plaza, we walked slowly along the side streets, lined with shops and stands all selling local, handmade goods (i.e., purses, animal figurines, dolls, clothes, tapestries, etc…) then had lunch at the market:  chicken mole with fresh tortillas. I always loved eating at the markets. Besides the usually delicious, cheap food, it was a great place to get a glimpse of the locals’ daily lives.

The next morning, we prepared to explore San Cristóbal more. However, when I went to the truck, I noticed something was amiss. The side window was busted; we’d been robbed. The thieves took the cooler, a large plastic bin containing the camp stove, cooking stuff (i.e., pot, pan, plates, bowls, cups, utensils, etc…), and two bags of food, mostly canned and dried foods. More importantly, they took the bag containing the remote control, batteries, and charger for the drone which, along with the expense of these items, was particularly frustrating after the time Mathieu had spent two days before to get it flying again. Crap.

It was a bummer way to start the day but while frustrating, they could have taken many more items left in the truck. The police arrived within an hour and we described to them, all four of them, what was stolen. Then two motorcycle police escorted us to the station where we made an official report. We didn’t expect to get our things back but thought it could be helpful to report the theft anyway. The officers were all very friendly during the 2+ hours we were at the station. When we returned to the hostel, the owner, who’d helped us throughout the day, let us park Genevieve in the gated yard of his house nearby. After relaxing for a bit, we decided to make the best of the remainder of the day, so explored the city. And thank goodness we did because there was a fiesta going on downtown. There were dozens of people in the plaza gathered around a large orchestra lead by a very animated conductor. They sounded great. The trees in the plaza were decorated with streamers, fresh flowers and wreaths, and lights, as were the buildings and the church surrounding the plaza. It was wonderfully festive. Later, Mathieu took me to dinner at a quaint cafe where we sat on a small balcony sipping wine and eating delicious food while watching the people and various street performers below. It was a wonderful way to erase the frustrations of the day.   

The next morning, we returned to the town center where the fiesta was ongoing. We enjoyed the music of a live band and the festive vibe of the plaza for awhile then went to an artisanal market to explore the large labyrinth of stalls of local merchants selling their handmade goods. It was fun to check out all the colorful clothing, tapestries, dolls, purses, jewelry, pottery, etc… After buying some beautiful tapestries and pottery, we left San Cristóbal, driving west on Ruta 190 to Chiapa de Corzo. As we drove down the curvy road and into the valley, the temperature increased exponentially. It was shocking how much warmer it was. We’d planned to camp that night but it was too hot to sleep in a tent. After some searching in Chiapa de Corzo, we finally found a reasonably priced hotel with secure parking (now a requirement) but our room did not have AC. While the two fans helped some, they mostly just moved the hot air around. We spent the evening lying in front of the fans, continuously misting ourselves with a spray bottle, neither of us wanting to admit we should have sprung for the more expensive room with AC.

Despite a restless night of sleep, we were excited the next morning to visit Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero where we would take a boat tour through the steep-walled canyon cut by the Rio Grijalva. We waited for about an hour for the small tour boat (one of dozens) to fill up with tourists then finally started the drive upriver and into the deep canyon. We spent nearly 2.5 hours touring through the awesome canyon during which we saw monkeys in the trees, black vultures sunning on the shore, and a huge crocodile along the river bank. Immediately after getting off the boat, we drove to the top of the canyon, stopping at each of the six miradors overlooking the deep canyon at various points. Per our guidebook, this was the 2nd most popular attraction in Chiapas after the Mayan ruins of Palenque and now we knew why.

After a night of wild camping a few hours south of the canon, we continued along Ruta 28, a secondary road, to the Reserva de la Biosfera Triunfo located in the Sierra Madre mountains in the southern part of the state. We’d read in our guidebook and had been told by the guys at a local PEMEX gas station that we needed permission prior to entering the Reserve. So, we spent several frustrating hours being redirected to different addresses of “the office” until finally being told by a police officer that we didn’t need permission. While we weren’t 100% certain he was correct, we went with it. We liked his answer best, and after all he was a person of authority.

As we continued south to the Reserve, the mountains became higher and the valleys deeper. It was beautiful. We passed through only a few very small towns. Without a doubt, we were the only tourists in the area. We had to use our two mapping apps (Maps.me and Google maps), our paper road maps, and directions from locals in order to figure out where we were and how to get to where we wanted to go. After several more hours of driving on small roads, we entered the Reserve. There was no sign marking the boundary; we only knew based on Google maps (Maps.me didn’t show the Reserve at all).

We followed the road south into the Reserve, going up and down the small mountains and through the forest. At the end, we drove through the ejido (village) of Tulcan then up a hill, ending at a small plaza where there was a basketball game in progress. The players parted to let us pass through then resumed as soon as we parked. The few people, mostly older men, on the sidelines chatting and watching the game, stared at us with curiosity but responded kindly when we said hello. We walked up the only street leading from the plaza not knowing where we were going. After passing a few houses, we asked a woman about the hiking trails in the area. She explained that there were many, most of which were used by locals to travel to neighboring villages. We then asked if there was someone who could take us hiking, a guide. This was not a touristy place and this didn’t seem like a typical request. As we chatted, an ancient-looking woman joined our group. After explaining to her that we wanted to hire a guide, she lead us back to the plaza, where the basketball players were now resting. She told the group of our request. There were many laughs. No one wanted to climb the mountain, even if paid. Finally after a few phone calls, Nicanor Robaro Soliz arrived, saying he would take us hiking. He was very friendly, as was everyone, and also got permission for us to camp on his neighbor’s property along the river.

Once our tent was set up, we enjoyed the scenery around us. Our campsite was visible to a few of the houses on the opposite hill and to those on the slope above us. We were the excitement for the evening and caught people standing in their yards watching us. As we relaxed at our campsite that evening, we were visited by a few curious locals. Upon hearing we’d be hiking the next day, they told us more about the area and the animals we might see (i.e., jaguar and tapir). It was fun to chat with them.

The next morning, Nicanor arrived at 6am. Sometime during the night, I’d been hit with what felt like mild food or water poisoning but I was determined to hike. We hiked up a well-worn path along the river with our machete-wielding guide enjoying the sounds of various birds and insects calling out in the forest. Nicanor was a wealth of information about the area and life in the community, and thankfully didn’t mind us peppering him with questions. During the hike, we passed a few other locals herding cows along the river and passed by some small coffee farms. After about 3 hours of hiking along the narrow path through the thick forest, we reached the turnaround point but Mathieu and I, despite me feeling a bit weak, wanted to hike further up the mountain. So we said farewell to Nicanor and continued. As he left, he reassured us that while the narcos (drug traffickers) transported cocaine across these mountains, they used trails much further away so we’d be safe to hike alone. Hmmmm…We hiked another 1.5 hours then reached a saddle where we could see a town on the other side and possible glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. I tried to enjoy the view and forget how bad I was feeling, now hot with mild fever and nauseous. The return hike seemed to me to last an eternity, especially since the sun was high by now and it was hot outside. Back at camp, I soaked in the cool river and once I felt a bit better, we packed up, and left, me deciding I needed a hotel with AC for the night.  

After a few hours on the bumpy, curvy road from which we’d come, Mathieu noticed that the bikes were moving more than usual on the rack. He got out to check and called out, “we have trouble.” The pin holding the bike rack upright had bent and no longer went all the way through. If we kept driving with it in this condition we risked the pin coming out and the rack crashing to the ground and dragging the bikes. Crap. All I wanted was to get to a hotel! Fortunately we were near a small town and were directed to a nearby mechanic. And thankfully, Mathieu knew the words in Spanish to get the rack fixed which required enlarging the pin hole to insert a new screw that the mechanic found laying around the garage, and welding the rack’s seams.

With the bike rack fixed, we continued the drive, searching for a hotel with AC. The first hotel we encountered was a dump with non-functioning AC units. So we drove on. The second one was slightly less of a dump but while the AC units technically worked, they emitted only a wisp of cool air. After testing the AC units in three different rooms, the manager assured us that the room would be cool after the unit ran for about an hour. I was so frustrated by now that I could have screamed and cried (or visa versa). It was 8pm, still hot, and I still didn’t feel well. We went to the town center to find some food while the room cooled. When we returned, the room was only slightly cooler but a cold shower helped me to cool off (literally and figuratively). I was glad to have hiked with Nicanor in the beautiful mountains of the Reserve but now I just wanted to sleep and for the day to be over.

I felt much better the next morning. Refreshed and re-energized, we drove south. Thinking it would be more scenic (and shorter) to drive through the Sierra Madre mountains and along the Reserva de la Biosfera La Sepultura, we took a secondary road instead of the highway to get to the Pacific coast. The dirt road was fine overall but pitted in many places so the scenic drive was slow. After about 25 mi (40 km), we came to the tiny ejido of Sierra Morena where we were stopped by a chain strung across the road. WTF? Why was there a chain across the public road? Asking a woman nearby, we were told we had to find the person with the key who lived across from the clinic. After some searching, we found the super friendly guardian of the key. The woman explained that the area was an ecotourism site and told us that for a small fee, we could use the hiking trails and visit the mirador. We explained that we only wanted to get to Tonala, the coastal town on the other side of the mountains. She happily gave us the key, we unlocked the chain, relocked it behind us, returned the key to her and were on our way. We continued wondering how they could close a public road. Then after about 20 minutes we came to the mirador, and the end of the road. The road just ended at a cliff! The view of the valley below and the ocean in the distance was lovely but now we’d have to return the way we came. Crap. Now we understood why the road had been closed.  

As we drove back to the chain gate, we wondered why the woman hadn’t told us that the road did NOT go to Tonala. The key guardian seemed surprised that we were back so soon. After we made the obvious statement that the road ended and did NOT continue to Tonala, she told us it had been destroyed in the 1998 hurricane and never repaired. We told her that our paper map was incorrect since it showed the road still going thru. She’d apparently thought we’d wanted to walk or mountain bike to Tonala. Ha! Once she understood that we’d wanted to drive there, we all laughed. She happily gave us the key, we unlocked the chain, relocked it behind us, returned the key to her then drove the 25 miles back to our starting point at Villa Flores. We laughed it off; it was all part of the adventure.

We continued our drive to the coast by going west on Ruta 190, a secondary road, then going south on Ruta 200, crossing into the state of Oaxaca. We’d decided to stop for the night in Tehuantepec. However, about 6 mi (10 km) from the city, we came to a halt behind a long line of stopped cars. It was another protest. Crap. From the gaps in the line of cars in front of us, it appeared that it’d been going on long enough for many people to have turned around. We waited for about 15 minutes then decided to try to wild camp nearby. We’d already been driving for 9 hours that day and were tired. We found a place to camp next to a farm field. We were out of sight of the road and the nearby ranch houses and had a beautiful view of the sun setting behind the mountains. While watching the changing colors of the sunset, we toasted another adventurous day.

The next morning we got back on Ruta 200 to Tehuantepec. We’d only driven a few miles when we again came to a halt behind a long line of stopped cars. The protest was ongoing. Crap. We immediately turned around and while on the side of the road consulting our various maps for an alternative route, a local in a pickup truck stopped to ask where we were going. We told him and he waved for us to follow him. He lead us north then west on an unmarked dirt road passing many ranches and small clusters of houses. At an intersection, he pointed us toward the main road. These roads were not on any of our maps (paper or electronic) so we were extremely grateful for his help.

After a few hours of winding through the mountains, the Pacific Ocean finally came into view. It looked so blue against the brown vegetation of the dry mountains. We drove to Bahia Bamba, a beautiful long, curved beach with white sand and mountainous sand dunes. Per our guidebook, it was a popular surf spot. Besides us, there were a handful of surfers in the water and a handful of local fisherman casting nets into the surf. It was so nice to be back at the ocean. And we saw whales! After a few hours of walking on the beach, swimming, and playing in the massive dunes, we continued west to the small town of San Agustin where we found a rustic campground on the beach. We spent the rest of the day swimming, chatting with our neighbors, and relaxing.

While enjoying the sunrise the next morning, we decided to stay there another night and spent the day swimming and  journaling, reading, and napping under the palapa. Later we walked along the town’s only road. Given the many small restaurants, hotels, and shops, it was clear that this was a popular destination, likely bustling on the weekends but fortunately for us, very quiet during the week. We enjoyed some delicious quesadillas at the only restaurant open at 8pm on a Thursday night then walked back to camp under the light of the nearly full moon. It’d been a wonderful day relaxing in paradise.

We started the next morning snorkeling for about an hour at a small reef at the end of the beach then continued west on Ruta 200 to Puerto Angel, a Pueblo Mágico. We didn’t feel the magic in this touristy, somewhat rundown beach town so we continued along the coast to Puerto Escondido, a large city filled with big hotels, restaurants, etc…and an airport. It was a destination city where tourists came to enjoy its long, curved white-sand beach and surfable waves. While very touristy, it maintained some character. We took a walk on Playa Zicatela, a surf beach famous for its long pipeline waves. We then went to the south end of the beach and watched dozens of terns and pelicans circling and diving between the dozens of surfers catching waves near the rocky point. We’d hoped to camp on the beach but the only option was to stay at one of the tiny, crowded “campgrounds” which were nothing more than the sandy parking lots of the associated hotel or restaurant. Instead we drove further north and with the help of our map apps found a small road that ended at the ocean. We found a great spot to set up camp on the long, totally secluded beach and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset. It was a wonderful way to spend our last night at the Pacific Ocean.  

We had a great time traveling through the states of Campeche, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, visiting beautiful waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and beaches, exploring mountains, forests, jungles,and interesting towns, viewing amazing wildlife, and meeting new people. During this 18-day section of the road trip, we drove ~1,320 mi (2124 km), traveling mostly on the free roads (longer but cheaper and often more interesting). We camped 12 nights (6 nights wild-camping and 6 nights in paid campgrounds, the most expensive being 100 pesos, ~$5) and stayed in hotels 6 nights (the most expensive being 300 pesos, ~$17). We felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip through Mexico with my wonderful trip partner, Mathieu, continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/dJbXfzAVtYk51EU9A  

Enjoy!

 

Bat flight at Volcan de los Murciélagos.

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Waterplay at Cascada Las Golondrinas.

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Our campsite on Rio Lacantun.

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View of Rio Santo Domingo from the Mirador at Las Nubes.

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Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello

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394-foot Cascada Velo de Novia at El Chiflón.

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Church in San Juan Chamula.

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Tzotzil women in San Juan Chamula.

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Fiesta in the plaza in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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Shopping at the artisanal market in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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On a boat tour in Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero.

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Hiking with our guide, Nicanor, in Reserva de la Biosfera Triunfo.

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On the trail in the Reserva de la Biosfera Triunfo.

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Sunset at our roadside camp near Tehuantepec.

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Playing in the dunes at Bahia Bamba.

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More playing in the dunes at Bahia Bamba.

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Relaxing on the beach in San Agustin.

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Sunset on a secluded beach west of Puerto Escondido. Farewell Pacific Ocean!

Mexico – Part 5 of 9: Ruins, Cenotes, and Beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula (Campeche to Bacalar; Feb 13-20 & Mar 13-21, 2017)

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After 14 days traveling inland to Campeche (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip through Mexico, spending 15 days on the Yucatan Peninsula in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo.

From the coastal city of Campeche, we drove Ruta 180 crossing from the state of Campeche into the state of Yucatan to visit the ruins of Uxmal. Per Wikipedia, the ancient Maya city of Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Palenque, Chichén Itzá, and Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol and Xunantunich in Belize, and Tikal in Guatemala. Its buildings are typical of the Puuc style, with smooth low walls that open on ornate sculpted figurines. We spent about 3 hours slowly touring the site, especially enjoying the largest of the structures, the Pyramid of the Magician with its unique rounded corners. We were among many other tourists (mostly foreign) but there was plenty of space for everyone to feel the history of the place.

After visiting the ruins, we drove secondary roads through a bunch of very small towns (Santa Elena, Ticul, Chapab, Mama, Tekit, San Isidro Ochil, Cuzama and Homun). Many of the homes in these towns were very simple, often having palm frond roofs, and appearing to lack running water. However, most had beautiful green gardens filled with wild tropical flowers. There were almost no cars, and people got around on foot, bicycle, or small motorcycles. Based on the curious stares we got from every person we passed, it appeared that tourists didn’t frequent this route, making it even more interesting. We took this route to get to Cenote Oxola. The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its plethora of cenotes (natural sinkholes resulting from the collapse of the limestone ceiling exposing the groundwater underneath) and this would be our first of the trip. As described on iOverlander, the cenote was abandoned. It appeared that someone tried to make it a tourist attraction, building a stone wall around the sinkhole and building stairs to access the pool below, but perhaps it was too far off the beaten path to be successful. We arrived at night so had to wait until the morning to see the cenote. It was a wonderfully, secluded campsite with nothing around for at least several miles. After a night of stargazing, we woke up and climbed down the steep steps into the sinkhole to finally see the natural pool. Wow, it was amazing! We swam in the crystal clear waters and marveled at the formations both above and below the water. What an awesome place, and we had it entirely to ourselves!

After a morning of playing in the secluded cenote, we drove back to Ruta 180 and continued for ~1.5 hours to another cenote. The Yokdzonot Cenote is an ecotourist site run by a cooperative of Mayans from the village of Yokdzonot. It’s a 72-ft (22-m) deep sinkhole with a gorgeous blue pool that is so deep, over 115 ft (35 m) deep, that you can’t see the bottom. It’s a well known cenote but we shared the pool with only a dozen other tourists. We had a great time swimming along the formations at the pool’s edge and through the long tree roots extending down the sides of the sinkhole. And the cool freshwater felt wonderful. After the water play, we drove Ruta 180 to the small town of Piste and wild camped in an abandoned parking lot we’d read about on iOverlander (actually nicer than it sounds).

The next day, Mathieu rode his bike the short distance to Chichén Itzá, another of the important archaeological sites of Maya culture. I opted to relax at our campsite and catch up on my journal. After he returned from visiting the ruins, we drove Ruta 295 to Rio Lagartos, a small fishing town (population ~3,500) on the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico. We walked around the very quiet town for about an hour, enjoying the views of the small fishing boats and the mangrove-lined lagoon. After, we drove east on the long peninsula between the Gulf and the estuary, entering the Ría Lagartos Reserve Natural Park in hopes of seeing Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber). Per Wikipedia, the population in the Reserve is estimated from 4500 individuals in January to 26,000 in June. The light of the setting sun was gorgeous on the water, and illuminated the beautiful bright pink flamingos feeding in the giant lagoon. They were somewhat far from us but thanks to Mathieu’s drone, we got some great close-up video of them (perhaps a bit too close; oops). We watched the elegant creatures until almost dark then found a great camping spot on one of the man-made levees in the shallow lagoon. (Part of the lagoon is used for salt production.)

After a wonderful night wild camping under the stars, we woke to a lovely sunrise and more flamingos. We spent most of the day relaxing at our lagoon-side campsite reading and journaling (and drying out the truck after our 5-gallon water container emptied in the back). From there, we continued driving along the peninsula to the small fishing town of Cuyo then drove secondary roads back to Ruta 180, crossing into the state of Quintana Roo, and arriving to Cancun that evening. Neither of us were very excited to visit the super touristy city (population ~628,000) or its beaches but we were looking forward to visiting some of the surrounding areas. We stopped in town for some tacos then continued through the busy city directly to Punta Sam where we’d take the ferry the next day to visit Isla Mujeres. After getting info on ferry times, we found an abandoned parking lot nearby to wild camp. Again, it turned out to be nicer than it sounds, especially in the light of the nearly full moon.

The next morning, we took the short ferry ride to Isla Mujeres. This was our first stop at, and Mathieu’s first time seeing, the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. It was beautiful. Once on Isla Mujeres (population ~12,500), we spent the day riding our bikes around the 4.3-mi (7 km) long island. Per Wikipedia, the island was sacred to the Maya goddess of childbirth and medicine, Ixchel and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they named it “Isla Mujeres” because of the many images of goddesses. Since we arrived at about 9am, the hotel-, bar-, restaurant-lined streets of the Playa Norte area were mostly quiet. We immediately parked our bikes, ran across the white sand beach and jumped into the turquoise-colored ocean. It was lovely. After, we rode along the east side of the island, stopping along the way to enjoy the view of the ocean in this mostly structure-free area. We stopped to join the hordes of tourists, most of whom arrived via zippy rented golf carts, to admire the view from Punta Sur, at the southern tip of the island. From there, we rode along the west side of the island back to north beach, now bustling with activity. We enjoyed a delicious grilled fish lunch and cold beers at a beachfront restaurant then took the ferry back to the mainland. The island was very touristy but had a lazy, beach-town atmosphere and we had a great day bike riding along the beautiful coast. Back on the mainland, we drove to the Rio Nizuc Picnic Area. While not intended for overnight camping, we’d read on iOverlander that fellow travelers had overnighted there so thought we’d give it a try. It was a Friday night and there were several groups of locals hanging out at the small picnic area but we found a nice spot along the beautiful lagoon. It was funny to be camping, for free, in our 3-person tent within several miles of Cancun’s very fancy, multi-story beachfront hotels and resorts in the Zona Hotelera Ha!

From our waterfront “resort”, we drove to Isla Blanca, a long, narrow peninsula (not an island) with white sandy beaches between the Chacmuchuc Lagoon and the Caribbean only about 25 minutes north of Cancun. With its super shallow lagoon (no more than calf deep) and constant breeze, the area is popular among kitesurfers. Besides a few small kite surfing schools and a dozen private homes, the area is as yet undeveloped (but at least one huge hotel is on its way on the southern end). Mathieu hadn’t ridden his kite board since having a lesson in Los Barriles in Baja Sur so was happy to spend the day practicing. While he surfed, I spent the day journaling, reading, and watching the dozens of kites surfers zip across the lagoon. The site of all the colorful kites in the sky was cool to see. Since it’d been awhile since he set up his kite, Mathieu got help from our neighbors, Vanessa and Emiliano, experienced kiters on vacation from Argentina. We ended up spending the day with them, all of us hanging out when they weren’t on the water. At the end of the day, we said farewell to our new friends, watched the sun set over the lagoon then drove to a small spot we’d found where we could wild camp hidden in the dunes between two houses. It was an excellent way to spend our last day in Mexico before taking a 3-week trip to Cuba (stayed tuned for the upcoming post).

After returning from Cuba and running some errands in Cancun (including buying spicy peanuts, totopos, and other treats not available in Cuba), we returned to our secret beach spot on Isla Blanca where Mathieu kite surfed and I journaled and relaxed. It felt like a much-needed vacation after the whirlwind of traveling around Cuba. After three days at there, we spent a few nights at our resort spot at the Rio Nizuc Picnic Area, having a wifi day to reconnect with our peeps and the outside world, then continued south to explore more of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Leaving the Cancun area, we drove Ruta 307 to El Gran Cenote near the coastal city of Tulum. After several days camping on the beach and swimming in the saltwater lagoon, it felt amazing to swim in the crystal-clear, cool, freshwater cenote (and it was awesome to finally wash my hair in the showers there). The cenote is very popular for snorkeling and scuba diving and was crowded but once we moved to the edges of the pool, away from the safety rope down the middle, there were fewer people. The underwater formations were awesome! I could only imagine what it would be like to scuba dive into the depths of the cave. We had a great time snorkeling and trying to swim underneath and through the large formations.

From the cenote, we continued south along Ruta 307 to Punta Allen, driving through the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka`an. Per Wikipedia, part of the 2,039-sq mi (5,280-sq km) reserve is on land and part is in the Caribbean Sea, including a section of coral reef. The reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also includes 23 known archaeological sites of the Maya civilization. I’d spent two weeks in the Reserve in 1996 as part of my Coral Reef Ecology class while in graduate school (the world’s most amazing class trip). The road from Tulum to the entry to the Reserve was still a narrow, dirt road but it was now lined with boutique resorts, yoga retreats, restaurants, juice bars, veggie and raw food cafes, etc…While very touristy, it seemed like a nice place to hang out, having more of a hippy vibe then Cancun. There were a few small resorts along the dirt road in the Reserve but after several miles, they became sparse. As we continued further, the dirt road became more tunnel-like, lined on both sides by thick jungle. Beach access was limited either by the thick vegetation or by fences surrounding occasional lots of private property. During the occasional glimpses of the coast, we could see the white sand beach and the wind-chopped waves. Along the way, we passed signs warning of animal crossing:  jaguar, white-nosed coati (a raccoon-like animal with a very long tail), iguanas, snakes, etc… We drove slowly, constantly on the lookout for some of the many birds and animals protected in the Reserve. Punta Allen, at the tip of the long peninsula, is a very small, quiet village, appearing to cater mostly to fisherman. We walked around a bit then returned north along the narrow, dirt road to a wild camping spot we’d read about on iOverlander. The spot was near some abandoned buildings with a fair amount of trash around but it was protected from the strong wind and had lovely palm trees and a nice view of the ocean. Since we were a good distance from Tulum or any other development, the stars were amazing. While we did’t see any jaguars, coti or snakes, we did share the moonless night with a large hermit crab who cruised through our campsite.

The next day, we returned to Tulum where Mathieu visited the famous coastal Mayan ruins of Tulum. I’d visited the ruins during my previous trip so journaled while he explored. From there, we continued south on Ruta 307 for about 4 hours to the small town of Mahahual (population ~950). We setup our tent at a campground on the beach then walked along the malecon. The town was touristy with lots of restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops along the malecon but it had a nice vibe and was mostly filled with domestic tourists. We were there primarily to visit Banco Chinchorro, a reef atoll 22 mi (35 km) offshore. Per Wikipedia, the atoll is ~25 mi (40.2 km) long and ~10 mi (16 km) wide at its widest point and covers an area of 310 sq mi (800 sq km). The atoll has three islands:  Cayo Norte, Cayo Centro, and Cayo Lobos, and nine shipwrecks.

The next morning, we woke up early for our dive/snorkeling trip to the atoll. Besides Mathieu and I, there were eleven other passengers (from Spain, Italy, Austria, and Mexico), the dive shop owner/dive master (Arturo), the snorkeling guide (Carlos), and the boat captain. While the wind was not as strong as it had been the day before, the ocean was choppy, and as our large panga cut through the chop, the wind threw the spray directly on Mathieu and I. Our clothes were soaked within the first 30 minutes of the 1.5-hour boat ride. Thankfully just as my hands were turning white with cold, we arrived to the dive site, and I was able to warm up in the sun while I readied my gear. Mathieu and the other snorkelers followed Carlos into the water and us scuba divers followed Arturo. The water was warm and crystal clear. You could see the reef and the patches of white sand below. I hadn’t dove in over 5 years and before then, I’d been diving in the cold waters off the San Diego coast. I’d forgotten how much I loved being under the water and feeling like I was part of the underwater world. We cruised along slowly, following Arturo along the reefs. I was in heaven gliding through the warm water, exploring the nooks and crannies of the reef. The diversity of corals and fish was amazing. I recognized many of the brightly-colored tropical fish that I’d studied so many years ago in grad school. During the two dives (max depth of 65 ft), we also saw several large nurse sharks, some small rays, barracuda, and a small sea turtle. While snorkeling, Mathieu also saw nurse sharks and a sea turtle and really enjoyed all the beautiful corals and fish. Between dives, we went to Cayo Centro for lunch, passing a few stilt houses constructed by local fisherman just far enough offshore of the islands to circumvent local regulations. While on the island we got to see some giant iguanas and a small American crocodile, a protected species in the Reserve. Besides the long, cold, wet boat ride to get there and back, the trip to Banco Chinchorro was really amazing.

From Mahahual we said farewell to the Caribbean and drove southwest on Ruta 307 to the town of Bacalar (population ~11,000), a Pueblo Magico, located on Lago Bacalar. Per Wikipedia, Bacalar is called the lake of seven colors because of the white sandy bottom that gives the effect of having many shades of blue. It is a freshwater lake feed by underground cenotes, but it looks like the ocean. As described, the water color was stunning and it looked like that of the Caribbean. After a quick visit to the plaza, we found an access point to the lake and jumped in. The water was refreshingly cool, especially given the heat of the day, and being in the stunningly blue freshwater and feeling the silky mud underfoot was marvelous. It was a wonderful last day in the Yucatan.

We had a great time traveling through the Yucatan Peninsula, exploring ancient Mayan ruins, beautiful cenotes and beaches, and interesting towns, viewing amazing wildlife, and meeting new people. During this 15-day section of the road trip, we drove ~1,350 mi (~2173 km), traveling mostly on the free roads (longer but cheaper and often more interesting). We camped all 15 nights (13 nights wild-camping and 2 nights in paid campgrounds, the most expensive being 100 pesos, ~$5). We felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip with my wonderful trip partner, Mathieu, continues next through the state of Chiapas…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/zNZsL7h7TS2Xztji7

Click this link to see Mathieu’s drone video of the pink flamingos at Rio Lagartos:  https://youtu.be/WYI3pOMe1ao

And click this link to see his drone video from Isla Blanca:  https://youtu.be/69fWPWOhivo

Enjoy!

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Uxmal ruins.

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At the abandoned Cenote Oxola.

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Cenote Yokdzonot.

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Caribbean flamingos at Reserva Ria Lagartos.

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Wild camp spot in Reserva Ria Lagartos.

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At Isla Mujeres.

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View from our “resort” camping spot at Rio Nizuc Picnic Area, Cancun.

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Mathieu kite surfing on Isla Blanca.

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Reserva Biosfera Sian Ka’an.

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Wild camping in the Reserva Biosfera Sian Ka`an,

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Getting ready to snorkel at
Banco Chinchorro.

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Me at Banco Chinchorro.

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Lago Bacalar. Wow.

Mexico – Part 4 of 9: More Volcanoes, Ruins, and Cities Big & Small (Mexico City to Campeche; Jan 30 to Feb 13, 2017)

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After 17 days traveling inland from the Pacific coast (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip through Mexico, spending the next 14 days inland in the states of Mexico, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and Campeche.

From México City, we drove Rutas 150 and 115 to Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl Popocatépetl, a national park straddling the states of México, Puebla, and Morelos. It encompasses Mexico’s second and third-highest peaks, the Popocatépetl (17,802 ft; 5426 m) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,160 ft; 5230 m) volcanoes. Per Wikipedia, the name “Popocatépetl” is Nahuatl for “el cerro que humea” (the hill that smokes). The name “Iztaccíhuatl” is Nahuatl for “mujer blanca” (white woman), reflecting the four individual snow-capped peaks which depict the head, chest, knees and feet of a sleeping female when seen from east or west. We arrived to the park in the late afternoon and drove up the long, bumpy road to set up camp at the trailhead to the peak of the inactive Iztaccíhuatl. The peak of Popocatépetl, an active volcano, was shrouded in clouds but still very impressive and the views of the surrounding valleys were beautiful in the light of the setting sun. Being at 13,040 ft (~4000 m), it was damn cold. Unfortunately, the giant log we hauled to our campsite was damp so Mathieu’s attempt to build a fire was unsuccessful. So after a quick dinner, we climbed into the back of the 4Runner, bundled up in our sleeping bags, and watched a movie until falling asleep.

We woke up to a dusting of ice covering the ground, and while neither of us had slept well due to the high altitude, we felt good. We could see the sunlight on the nearby hills but since we were still in the shadows, we could only imagine its warmth. After breakfast, we loaded up our backpacks with snacks and water then started up the trail. We warmed up quickly as we climbed the steep trail and entered the sun’s path. At the first saddle, we could finally see Popocatépetl or “Popo” for short. True to its name, it was smoking. After a few more hours of hiking up the steep path, Mathieu returned to the truck and I continued solo. We shared the trail with a dozen other hikers but after reaching the small hut at 15,470 ft (4715 m), I had the trail to myself. By now, a thick fog had moved in, periodically covering and uncovering the trail. During the moments that it lifted, the views of the rocky landscape in front of me and of the surrounding valleys were awesome. After almost 2 hours of scrambling up a very steep trail of loose rock, I reached the ridgeline. As I took a moment to rest, the thick fog parted and I could see a large crater below. Since I only had a very general trail map of the area, I didn’t even know there was a crater. Super cool! I continued up along the ridgeline above the crater in hopes of getting to the peak. By 4pm, I hadn’t reached the peak and, per my crappy map, I had no idea how much further it might be so I turned around and started the trek back. I was still enveloped in a thick fog, making it difficult at times to find the trail. Thankfully, the fog parted a few times so I could reassure myself that I was going the right way. Back near the hut, while stopped to double check my route, a fellow hiker came out of the hut and pointed me in the right direction. While I’m sure she was trying to help, I misunderstood her gesturing and went the wrong way. After sliding halfway down the steep, loose rock, I knew I was off the trail. Crap. I went to the right then to the left to see if I could take a shortcut to get back on the trail (and avoid climbing back up the steep “path”). Nope. The other  “paths” I investigated ended in steep dropoffs that were likely waterfalls during spring snow melt. Crap. I ate the last of my cookies and powered back up the scree. The side trip had cost me at least 45 minutes and a lot of energy. I shook off the frustration and continued down the correct trail, walking as fast as I could since it was already late. As I went over the final saddle, the sun was setting, casting a lovely light on the surrounding landscape and illuminating Popo. At the trailhead, I was super happy to see Mathieu in the truck waiting for me. It was 7pm by the time I reached him and I was exhausted. It wasn’t a long hike (likely only ~6 mi round trip, but I’d hiked for almost 9 hours, reaching a high point of 16,500 ft (~5000 m). Despite the frustrating trail mishaps (which of course I could have avoided with a proper trail map), it had been a really great day of hiking on another awesome volcano. After the hike, we drove down the mountain and found a hotel with a hot shower and a comfortable bed. I was so tired I fell asleep without eating dinner.

The next day, we drove a secondary road around the volcanos to Cholula (population 120,000; Puebla), visiting the Santuario de la Virgen de los Remedios, a church built by the Spanish atop the ancient Aztec pyramid, Tlachihualtepetl, one of the tallest pyramids of the ancient world at 177 ft (54 m). We walked around this designated Pueblo Magico for almost two hours, and while it was a nice city and the views from the church were nice, neither of us felt the magic.

From there, we continued to the city of Puebla (population 1.4 million), also in the state of Puebla. After the sun set, we rode our bicycles to the city center, getting a taste of the city by night. The next morning, we woke up early, jumping on our bikes to explore this Pueblo Mágico during the day. It was a nice city, with a lovely central plaza lined with restaurants, hotels, small shops, and the beautiful Catedral de Puebla (1649). The cathedral’s two bell towers are just under 300 ft (70 m), the tallest in Mexico. While we were exploring the beautifully ornate church, the organist began playing one of the two massive pipe organs so we were treated to a concert. The sound resonating throughout the church was really beautiful. We also visited the Templo de Santo Domingo and La capilla de la Virgen del Rosario. The Santo Domingo church was nice, as they usually are, but upon taking a left turn to visit the Capilla Rosario, a small adjoining room of the main church…wow! The entire room was painted gold and so ornate that it was difficult for the eye to find a focal point. Per Wikipedia, la capilla, described as “The House of Gold”, constitutes one of the most outstanding examples of Baroque Novohispano architecture and one of the greatest artistic-religious achievements of Mexico. We took pictures and just sat absorbing the scene for at least 30 minutes. From there, we continued our bicycle tour, visiting the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, a private collection donated to the public in 1646, making it the first public library in Latin America. The library has more than 41,000 books and manuscripts, ranging from the 15th to the 20th century, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After, we biked through a few small parks then to El Parin, a street market lined with stalls selling various souvenirs and handicrafts. It was a nice tour through a lovely city.

From Puebla, we drove north on secondary roads to Parque Nacional La Malinche straddling the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala. The national park encompassing the inactive La Malinche volcano, the sixth highest peak in Mexico at 14,567 ft (4440 m). Per Wikipedia, the volcano was named in honor of Malinche, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast who helped the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, as an interpreter during the conquest of the Aztec Empire and later became his mistress. She has been historically portrayed both as a traitor and as the mother of new race. We set up camp in the forest near the trailhead. It was cold but bearable since we were at 10,170 ft (3100 m), not as high up as the last volcano, and there was plenty of dry wood for Mathieu to build a raging fire. While cooking dinner, we were joined by a friendly yellow dog. We gave her some food and in return, she guarded the area around us all night, chasing off any dangerous animals (aka man-eating squirrels) that tried to get close to us.

The next morning, the three of us (me, Mathieu, and our new dog friend) started up the trail to the summit. The trail was steep, going straight up through the forest to the base of the volcano, only then did it zig zag a bit. Trekking through the pine forest was lovely but the views of the surrounding area as we climbed up the side of the volcano were stunning. We stopped for a snack then, while Mathieu and our dog friend enjoyed the view, I continued up the last section. Thankfully, the path was well-worn, not requiring a map. After walking up the ridgeline for about 30 minutes, I reached the summit and was rewarded with a view of the eroded crater below and of the surrounding hills and valleys. And I had the summit to myself. Back at the truck, we gave our dog friend more food then said farewell. She’d been a great trekking partner on the 6-hour, ~8-mi (~13-km) hike to 14,567 ft (4440 m). From there, we drove for about an hour then stopped for the night at a roadside auto motel in the tiny town of Cuapiaxtla (in the state of Tlaxcala). The room was very cheap but clean and had a hot shower and a comfortable bed. And, while the TV only had one channel, it was a porn channel, an amenity the manager made sure to tell us when we checked in. Too bad I fell asleep immediately after my hot shower. Ha!

The next day, we continued on Ruta 129 and secondary roads to Cantona (Puebla). Per Wikipedia, Cantona is the largest pre-Hispanic city yet discovered in Mesoamerica, occupying an area of 4.6 sq mi (12 sq km). The site, occupied from ~900 BC to 1050 AD, comprises a road network with over 500 cobblestone causeways, more than 3,000 individual patios, residences, 24 ball courts and an elaborate acropolis with multiple ceremonial buildings and temples. The buildings were constructed with carved stones (one atop the other) without any stucco or cement mortar. At its peak, the population is estimated at about 80,000 inhabitants. We spent a few hours walking around the huge site, strolling along the ancient cobblestone streets and climbing the steep steps of the few accessible temples trying to imagine what life there had been like. Luckily, we shared the impressive site with only a handful of other tourists (all domestic), allowing us the solitude to feel the history of the place.

From the ruins, we drove northeast on Ruta 140 to the Gulf of Mexico, After a rainy, foggy 3-hour drive through the mountains, we got to the city of Cardel where we then drove Ruta 180 north to Punta Mancha. We drove around for about an hour trying to find access to a beach to camp on (per iOverlander). Thankfully a nice policeman who’d stopped us while we were driving illegally through government property gave us directions to another public beach to the north where we could camp. After a 30 minute drive, we found Playa Villa Rica and set up camp. It was late (~9:30pm) so the beach was quiet but given the number of palapas and pongas (small boats) on the beach, it was clear this was a popular beach. There were a few people gathered around distant bonfires up and down the beach, but we were otherwise alone. This was our first stop and Mathieu’s first time at the Gulf of Mexico. We sat on the beach and celebrated with a bottle of red wine.

The next day, we enjoyed the serenity of the early morning, watching the sun rise and the  shorebirds fish. Then at about 10am, the masses started to arrive. It was Sunday funday and large groups of families and friends congregated around the palapas up and down the beach. Since we’d strategically set up camp away from the palapas, our little patch of beach remained relatively tranquil. Despite the crowds, the beach was nice and the weather was mild, so we decided to spend another night at that spot. We had a leisurely day reading, journaling, swimming, and people watching. It felt good to have a chill day on the beach.

From Playa Villa Rica, we drove Ruta 180 south along the coast to Veracruz (population ~428,300; Veracruz). While the state capital was a nice city, we’d seen enough after two hours so continued south on Ruta 180. The coastal drive was lovely, passing areas of grassy coastal dunes and crossing large lagoons. After the turnoff to Ruta 175, we crossed the wide Rio Papaloapan then paralleled it as we continued to the small town of Tlacotalpan (population 8,853; Veracruz). The drive along the river was especially pretty, reminding me of the lush green gulf coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Tlacotalpan is a designated Pueblo Magico and, per Wikipedia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for for its Spanish/Caribbean architecture and colonial-era layout. With its brightly-colored colonial-style buildings and lovely central plaza, it was a very charming town. We enjoyed walking along the riverfront and through the small, quiet residential streets and the street market where vendors sold souvenirs, handmade jewelry and embroidered clothes. The town was very tranquil with only a few dozen tourists (almost entirely domestic) eating at the riverfront restaurants, shopping at the market, or enjoying the plaza. The small town, especially given its location on the beautiful river, was a truly magical city.

From Tlacotalpan, we returned to Ruta 180 and drove further south to Balneario Cinco Chorros (Veracruz), a riverside campground we’d read about on iOverlander. We arrived after dark and set up camp under the large trees. We fell asleep to the sound of the nearby river. The next morning we got to see the beautiful river and the five small waterfalls we’d read about. We had the entire place to ourselves and spent several hours playing in the river and jumping from the waterfalls. It was a great way to start the day.

After playing in the river, we continued on Ruta 180 to Catemaco (population 27,615; Veracruz), a Pueblo Magico located on Lago Catemaco, a large lake surrounded by small mountains. Per Wikipedia, Catemaco is a tourist destination which besides the lake and remnants of the region’s rainforest, is known for its tradition of sorcery/witchcraft that has its roots in the preHispanic period and is mostly practiced by men. This tradition is well known in Mexico and attracts clients from various walks of life, including businessmen and national level politicians. Catemaco holds an annual event in March dedicated to sorcery which can draw up to 5,000 visitors. Interesting. Unfortunately during our short stop we didn’t witness anyone practicing sorcery or witchcraft (as least to our knowledge) and, while it had a relaxed vibe, we found the town less than magical. The river, however, was beautiful so we decided to drive around it to Poza Reina, a deep pool in the river we’d read about in our guidebook. As we continued along the lake road, we passed through thick tropical forest and lush pasture dotted with munching cows. After a few miles, the road deteriorated and became potholed and slow going. We passed a handful of other vehicles during our drive but we were definitely the only tourists. After a bit, we turned away from the lake and up the hilly road toward the pool. Poza Reina was on private property that was part of a reserve. Once parked, we were greeted by a friendly woman, the landowner, and her three kids. After paying a small fee to enter, we parked in front of the family’s house, then followed the dirt trail through the thick forest to a large deep natural pool below a small waterfall. Wow! And….we had it all to ourselves. We jumped in and played, swimming around and jumping off the rocks for over two hours. We would have stayed longer but it was already 5pm and the pool was now shaded, making it harder to warm up after swimming in the cool water.

Our entry fee also included a guided tour to another waterfall, Cola de Caballo. The woman’s young son, Salvador (~8 years old), served as our guide. We re-arranged the stuff in the 4Runner to make a seat for him and off we went. The three of us ate chocolate cookies during the short drive and we peppered Salvador with questions about school and what he liked to do for fun. Once at the trailhead, our young guide lead us down the hill and along the river to the waterfall. It was impressive, being  ~100 ft (~30 m) high. After admiring the falls for a bit, we sensed that Salvador would rather be playing then hanging with us so we followed him back to the truck and returned him home. Once back, Mathieu showed the mom and her kids the drone videos he’d taken at the pool and the waterfall. They loved the videos. Finding out they didn’t know what a drone was, Mathieu gave them a demonstration. The family’s wide eyes and laughter were priceless. They loved it and we all laughed as their two dogs, one a puppy, ran from it barking. At the end of the demonstration, Mathieu showed them the video of them and their house which they really loved. Since it was already early evening and we were in a wonderful place, we ended up camping (with the family’s consent) near the trail to the waterfall. We couldn’t see the pool from our campsite but we could hear the thundering water. Given the sound of the water and the light of the nearly full moon, it was a lovely night.

After an early morning swim in the refreshing pool, we continued around the lake, driving through the tiny lakeside village of La Margarita before going up and over the hills and driving  through several more tiny villages before rejoining Ruta 180. We drove southeast about 7 hours on Rutas 180, 186, and 199 to a campground near the famous archeological site of Palanche (in the state of Chiapas). Long day! After setting up camp, we enjoyed the music being played by the group next to us. There was a drummer, a guitar player, a trumpet player, and a singer. They sounded pretty good. It was nice to have live music while relaxing under the stars.

The next morning, we got up early to visit the ruins. Per Wikipedia, Palenque is the site of a Mayan city that flourished in the 7th century and contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas produced. The most famous ruler of Palenque was K’inich Janaab Pakal, or Pacal the Great whose tomb was found in the Temple of Inscriptions. By 2005, the discovered area covered up to 2.5 km² (1 sq mi), but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle. It was amazing to see these large enduring structures built around 600 BC and found after centuries of being hidden in the jungle. We spent almost 4 hours walking around the site, going up any structures we were allowed to climb. While there were many other tourists, the site was not at all crowded, giving everyone plenty of space to ponder what life had been like there. We especially enjoyed seeing the Temple of the Inscriptions where Pacal the Great had been buried. We’d been introduced to Pacal when we visited an exhibit dedicated to him that included his jade death mask and a replica of the sarcophagal lid from his tomb at a museum in Mexico City. It was great to now visit the city he was famous for ruling. After our tour of the ruins, we stopped at the nearby Cascada Misol-Ha, a 115-ft (35-m) high waterfall to cool off then rejoined Ruta 180, driving along the Gulf of Mexico to Campeche. In route to Ruta 180, we passed through monkey habitat. There were signs along the highway cautioning drivers about the presence of the monkeys and there were monkey crossing bridges, small bridges suspended over the highway. It was great to see the conservation efforts.

The coastal city of Campeche (population ~900,000) is the capital of the state of Campeche. Per wikipedia, the walled city is UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the least known and unrated colonial cities in Mexico, mostly bypassed by those visiting more famous destinations in the Yucatan peninsula. Campeche was one of the most important ports in New Spain. It suffered more than twenty one major pirate attacks in the colonial era. After 1685, the city’s main fortifications were begun taking 24 years to complete. They succeeded in stopping major pirate attacks, with only one, Barbillas, finding a way to enter the city in 1708.

We both found the city’s narrow streets and brightly-colored buildings charming. And who doesn’t love a city with fortresses and real pirate stories. More than twenty one major pirate attacks! We enjoyed walking along the lovely malecon, walking on top of the fortress walls, reading real accounts of some of the many pirate attacks on the city at the local museum, and chilling in the central plaza (directly across from our hotel). We ended up staying in Campeche for 5 nights.

While we really liked the charming, relaxed city, part of the reason for our extended stay was medical. By the time we got there, Mathieu’s tooth had become increasingly painful. Since Campeche was a large city, it seemed like a good place to find a dentist. His dental treatment was successful but only after three visits to two different dentists. The first dentist filled a small cavity that Mathieu didn’t know he had but didn’t treat the tooth causing the pain. When he returned to this dentist, he filled another small cavity Mathieu was unaware of but still didn’t treat the painful tooth. Unfortunately the dentist’s reasons for avoiding the problem tooth were lost in the language difference. After getting a glowing recommendation from our waitress during dinner, Mathieu visited a second dentist. Again he returned untreated but this time he understood the reason. He had an infection under a crown. He’d have to take antibiotics to decrease the swelling before the dentist could proceed. After a 24-hour period of taking antibiotics, he returned to his new dentist. She tried in vain to get the crown off but was unsuccessful. For some reason, I have an image of her with her feet pushing against Mathieu’s chair for extra torque as she yanks furiously to get the crown off. Ha! She prescribed him anti-inflammatories and painkillers to go with the antibiotics and recommended he see another dentist when he completed the 30-day regimen of antibiotics. Thankfully, the medicines worked instantly to decrease the pain and the need, so far, to visit another dentist while traveling.

Between dental appointments and trips to the pharmacy, we continued to explore the city and also used the time to relax, read, and journal in our comfortable, air conditioned room. On the Saturday night, we heard loud music outside the hotel. Looking out, we saw that a movie was being projected onto the block-long, beautiful Palacial Municiple that fronted one whole side of the plaza. It was an animated movie portraying the history of Campeche. It was super colorful and had a great soundtrack that blared from high-quality speakers. It was really fun to sit among the crowd gathered in the plaza and enjoy the show. Bravo!

The following night, there was another event. We’d been visiting the local mercado but upon returning to the hotel, saw the end of what appeared to be a beauty pageant. We could see a dozen young ladies, all beautiful in their sequined gowns and tiaras, being photographed off the small stage. The mood was very festive. The crowd was a mix of locals and foreigners. While we saw many foreign tourists while there, our numbers were relatively few. As we returned to our hotel, they replayed the animated movie from the previous night. We went to the roof of our hotel with a small glass of tequila each to watch. It was just as enjoyable the second time.

We had a great time traveling through more of inland Mexico, hiking more volcanoes, exploring more charming, interesting cities and towns, and meeting new people. During this 14-day section of the road trip, we drove ~1,100 mi (~1680 km), traveling mostly on the free roads (longer but cheaper and often more interesting). We stayed in hotels for 7 nights (the most expensive being 400 pesos, ~$21) and camped 7 nights (5 nights wild-camping in our tent or the back of the 4Runner and 2 nights in paid campgrounds, the most expensive being 100 pesos, ~$5). We felt safe the entire time.

And the road trip with my wonderful road trip partner, Mathieu, continues next through the Yucatan Peninsula…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures.

Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/UBSRS9FduvFGgXSTA

And click this link to see Mathieu’s drone video of the colorful town of Tlacotalpan: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eHAxgwI

Enjoy!

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Good morning Volcan Iztaccihuatl.

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Warming up before hiking Iztaccíhuatl.

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La capilla de la Virgen del Rosario, “the House of Gold”, Puebla.

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Through the forest on volcan La Malinche with our hiking partner.

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Volcan La Malinche – almost there.

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At th summit of volcan La Malinche.

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Cantona ruins.

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Chill day at Playa Villa Rica, Gulf of Mexico.

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The colorful Tlacotalpan.

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Water play at Balneario Cinco Chorros.

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Drone demo with Salvador and his family. Priceless.

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At Poza Reina.

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Temple of Inscriptions, burial site of Pacal the Great in Palenque.

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Hello Campeche!

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A modern-day pirate. Argh…

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An animated movie shown on the Palacial Municiple. Awesome!

 

Mexico – Part 3 of 9: Volcanoes, Butterflies, and Cites Big & Small (Manzanillo to Mexico City; Jan 14 to 30, 2017)

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After 15 days traveling down the Pacific Coast (see previous post), Mathieu and I continued our road trip through Mexico, spending the next 17 days inland in the states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Mexico.

From Manzanillo, on the Pacific coast, we took Rutas 200 and Ruta 54 and a long, bumpy secondary road to Parque Nacional Volcán Nevado de Colima, a national park straddling the Colima–Jalisco border that includes two volcanoes: the still-active Volcán de Fuego and the inactive Volcán Nevado de Colima. It was a Saturday and the campgrounds were crowded with other campers (all domestic). After driving further up the mountain road, we found a spot close to the trailhead. It was a picnic site with a covered table, a fire pit, and a great view of the inactive Volcán Nevado de Colima. We couldn’t see Volcán de Fuego but we could see its plume of smoke. Being at nearly 12,000 ft (3650 m) it was cold but the fire Mathieu built and some tequila helped warm us up. We both had a sleepless night (a side effect of the altitude) but luckily neither of us had headaches after going from sea level to such a high altitude in one day. The hike to the summit of Volcán Nevado de Colima wasn’t particularly long but parts were very steep and at that altitude, it felt difficult. We shared the trail with many other hikers, all of us excited to see the huge plume of smoke coming from the 12,533-ft (3820-m) Volcán de Fuego. This was our first hike up a volcano and the view from the summit, the 7th highest in Mexico at 14,015 ft (4271 m), was gorgeous. After the hike, we returned to our campsite to find Genevieve (my 4Runner) covered in ash. After another sleepless night on the volcano, we left the park, giving the park guard a papaya on the way out (now just one left). (See previous post for the papaya story). I didn’t realize how steep the hill to the park was until on the way down, Mathieu calmly said “we have no brakes.” What?! We used the emergency brake to come to a slow stop then let the brakes cool for a bit. The fluid level was OK and there was no burning smell. Hmmm….After making it safely down the hill, we stopped at a PEMEX where the gas station attendant told us that it was common for the brakes to go out on the way downhill from the park. I’ve driven Genevieve down many steep hills, many steeper than that one, and that was a first (and the last time so far). NOTE:  Volcán de Fuego erupted “violently” four days after our hike and has since erupted multiple times. Thankfully, no one has been hurt and no property has been damaged. It would have been a bit scary to be there when it erupted but super cool too!! (Click HERE to see a video of the eruption.)

From the national park, we drove Ruta 54 to Guadalajara (population ~1.5 million; Jalisco) where we stayed at a hotel, our first hotel since entering Mexico on December 5th. We had secure parking, wifi, a hot shower, a TV (that we didn’t use), and a small but comfortable bed. After eating a papaya (our last!), we explored the lively, colorful city center, first visiting the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas, formerly the site of an orphanage/hospital that functioned from 1791 to 1980. Per Wikipedia, the site houses the oldest and largest hospital complex in the Americas and as such is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is also famed for its series of 57 frescoes (murals) by Mexican painter, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), including one of his most famed creations, the allegory of The Man of Fire. Orozco specialized in political murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance together with murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others. After appreciating the amazing frescoes, we visited the Palacio Nacional and Palacio de Gobierno, renowned for their colonial architecture and for more politically-charged Orozco frescoes.

In Guadalajara, we also visited a few of the large mercados, including Mercado Libertad. Also known as Mercado San Juan de Dios, it is, per Wikipedia, the largest indoor market in Latin America with an area of 430,556 sq ft (40,000 sq m). The U-shaped, 3-story building was crammed with stall after stall after stall (apparently ~2,980 stalls in total) of merchants selling everything. We started on the 3rd floor which consisted mostly of shoes and clothes, then went to the 2nd floor which consisted mostly of thousands of copied DVD movies, electronics, more shoes and clothes, and some food stalls, then went to the 1st floor which was filled with stalls selling cooked foods, fruits and vegetables, meats, sweets, and painted masks, trinkets, and housewares. Oh yeah, and there were stalls selling leather saddles, bridles and cowboy boots, jewelry, parakeets and other birds, and tonics and potions for various uses, including a cream with marijuana for joint pain. I love these markets! After sharing a dish of pork mole (Mathieu’s first time trying the rich, delicious mole sauce), we continued walking the streets, stopping at some of the many churches and exploring many of the small, quiet side streets. On one such street, we found a local barber shop, Peluqueria Hernandez, providing uninterrupted service for the last 40 years. It was the perfect place for Mathieu to get a much needed haircut and to have his bushy beard trimmed (he hadn’t shaved since we entered Mexico). The barber, whose hair and beard were immaculate, spent almost an hour clipping, buzzing, and razoring, and Mathieu emerged a new man. Qué guapo! That night, we enjoyed a nice dinner at La Chata, a popular restaurant in the city center. We savored the nice meal and tasty red wine then slowly walked the quiet streets of the city back home.

The next day, we drove to Tlaquepaque, a popular suburb of Guadalajara known for its colonial architecture, bright colors, and local handicrafts. It was also the first place where we saw the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). Per Wikipedia, the dance is an ancient Mesoamerican ritual still performed today in isolated pockets in Mexico. The ritual consists of dance and the climbing of a 30-meter pole from which four of the five participants then launch themselves tied with ropes to descend to the ground. The fifth remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum. The ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. The ceremony was named an Intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in order to help the ritual survive and thrive in the modern world. The area was touristy (domestic and foreign) but charming. It was a nice way to end our three day stay in Guadalajara.

From there, we drove Ruta 54 to Parque Nacional Lago de Camecuaro (Michoacán). This tiny  park (~20 ac, ~8 ha) surrounding a small lake had been recommended to us by friends and people on iOverlander, a very useful road trip app we’d been using throughout Mexico to find out-of-the-way places to camp. After chatting with the friendly guard at the entry gate (too bad I was out of papayas), we entered the park. This was a national park? Past the gate, the street was lined with rows of food stands (closed at the time). And the lake with a surface area of ~ 4 ac (~1.6 ha), was more like a large pond and was surrounded by mowed grassy areas with picnic tables and a playground. Oh and you could rent paddle boats to cruise around. It was a nice recreation area and the spring-fed “lake” was crystal clear but it was not what I expected of a national park. However, we realized the beauty of the small park the next morning as the sun shone through the fog rising from the water and on the tall, beautiful cypress trees lining the shore.

After the strange little park, we continued on Rutas 16 and 37 and a secondary road to Pátzcuaro, also in the state of Michoacán. The city (population ~80,000) is one of 111 “Pueblos Magicos” in Mexico. Per Wikipedia, a Pueblo Magico is a designation by federal and state agencies given to towns that offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance. Pátzcuaro is located in the hills near Lago Pátzcuaro and is known for its colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and artisanal handicrafts. We wondered around the touristy (mostly domestic) but charming city for a few hours visiting churches and plazas including the Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga, “the most beautiful plaza in Mexico” (according to our tourist map), and small shops selling artisanal crafts. We especially enjoyed the Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra, a former convent converted into a library that housed an impressive mural depicting the history of the area. Later, we drove to Cerro Estribo, a mirador overlooking the city and the lake. The view was nice and since it was already nearly 5pm, we decided to camp there for the night. First though, we returned to town and had some food and drinks at a bar with live music. It was a great way to pass the time before climbing into our tent in the dirt parking lot of the mirador. Similar to the last mirador we camped at, we were greeted by early morning runners, walkers, and bikers as we ate breakfast the next morning. Ha! We were above 7,000 ft (2100 m) so it was a chilly morning. After chatting with one nice woman for a bit, she offered me some of her hot tea to help warm me up. It was a nice way to start the day.

From Pátzcuaro, we continued east on Ruta 15 to see the monarch butterflies in the Reserva Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Michoacán). The drive there was lovely, winding through the mountains overlooking deep valleys and more high mountains in the distance. The Reserva Biosfera contains four or five butterfly sanctuaries; we chose to go to Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca Chincua. We arrived to the entry gate at about 4pm where Nico, a local who would be our guide the next day, directed us to the adjacent grassy field to wild camp for the night. The gate was the entry to the sanctuary but it also served as a permanent post for the federales. As we were setting up camp, three federales came over to write down our names and license plate number. There were very friendly (as usual) and gave us the OK to camp there. After throwing frisbee for a while, Mathieu started a fire. The federales returned to tell us fires were prohibited due to our location in the sanctuary but then told us we could sit in their cafeteria to stay warm and even cook our dinner in the kitchen there. Wow, so nice! We were above 9,800 ft (3000 m) so it was very cold. One of the officers, whose name I wished I asked, walked us to the cafeteria to make sure the kitchen staff knew we’d been invited to sit inside and use the kitchen. In the process of letting the staff know, he asked if there was enough food for us to have dinner. The boss said yes and we had a warm meal consisting of a large piece of pork topped with verde sauce, quesadillas, hot corn tortillas, and pan dulce for desert. Wow, so, so nice! They also served us individual boxes of breakfast cereal and milk which seemed a strange addition to the dinner menu. We found out later that they serve the cereal and milk to help offset the spicy heat of the verde sauce (wimps). We ate our delicious hot meal surrounded by groups of federales eating and chatting with each other. None sat with us at our table but all said “hola” and “buen provecho” as they passed us. After dinner, we stayed in the cafeteria until it closed at 8:30pm then climbed into our bed in the back of the 4Runner and watched a movie on the laptop. The next morning everything was covered with a layer of ice. As we were making hot coffee and trying to warm up, our federale friend came over to say good morning and invite us to have breakfast in the cafeteria. Seriously?! So we enjoyed another nice meal (scrambled eggs with green beans, quesadillas, cereal, sweet bread, and coffee) surrounded by the friendly federales. Wow, so, so, so nice! (I wonder if this type of experience is possible in the U.S? Hmmm…..)

After breakfast, Nico returned and we joined Connie and Jacob (Austria), who arrived to the “campsite” in their camper van sometime during the night. They’d shipped their camper van from Austria and were teaching at an Austrian school in Querétaro (~3 hours north of the sanctuary) for the next few years. They spent their weekends exploring various parts of Mexico. The four of us followed Nico into the sanctuary stopping at a few miradors along the way to enjoy the stunning views of the valleys below, and stopping to read the excellent kiosks offering information about the butterflies, their life cycle, and conservation efforts. After a short hike, we arrived to where the butterflies were congregated. There were thousands of monarchs. In the shaded areas, they hung from the fir tree branches like heavy clusters of grapes. And in the sunny areas, the magical creatures were alive with activity, fluttering through the sun’s rays. It was a truly amazing sight. Per the park kiosks, the Purépecha, the indigenous people of the area, considered the monarch to be the soul of the dead and interpreted its arrival as the announcement of the visit of their dead loved ones, with their arrival coinciding with the 1st and 2nd days of November (aka Dia de los Muertos). We, along with many other spectators (mostly domestic), watched the monarchs for over an hour. After flying ~2,800 mi (~4500 km) from southern Canada/northern U.S., the monarchs arrive here in the central mountains of Mexico to overwinter. The hardiness of such delicate creatures always amazes me.

After communing with the monarchs, we drove south on Ruta 15 to Valle de Bravo (population ~62,000; Mexico), a lakeside city known as the paragliding capitol of Mexico. While we didn’t paraglide, we enjoyed watching the many sailboats, motorboats, and jet skis cruise around the lovely lake. We found a lakeside campground (per iOverlander). It was crowded with large RVs and motorboats used by locals for their weekend getaways from the nearby big cities of Toluca and Mexico City. We were the only tent campers and were directed by Augustine, our campground host (who we nicknamed Ray due to the cool sunglasses he wore at all times), to set up our tent between a trampoline loaded with 5-6 jumping, laughing kids and a giant RV that was currently unoccupied. As we set up our tent, our neighbors in another large RV nearby decided to serenade the campground. Not everyone with a microphone is a singer. Oh well, at least the trampoline quieted down when the kids were called away for dinner and the view of the lake was nice. Despite a bad night of being serenaded by our neighbor off and on until about 5am, we stayed there another night. Since it was a Sunday, we rationalized that it’d be a quiet night after our neighbors returned home after the weekend. And we were right; we enjoyed a nice day relaxing in the shade of the nearby unoccupied RV, playing in the good wifi at the office, and chatting with Ray. The next day, we explored the city, a lovely Pueblo Magico, visiting the church and the main plaza, the lakefront maleson, and the Velo de Cascada, a large waterfall located in a lush forested city park. Based on the large and expensive lakefront houses and the expensive shops in the city center, it was clear that Valle de Bravo was a resort town for wealthy Mexicans. And given its location on the lake surrounded by pine forest, it looked like a nice place to spend time.

From Valle de Bravo, we drove east to Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca (Mexico), a park established to protect the Nevado de Toluca volcano, the 4th highest peak in the country at 15,387 ft (4690 m). The volcano has been long extinct and has a large crater with two shallow lakes, Laguna del Sol y Laguna de La Luna. After a night in the back of the Runner, we joined the local hikers on the steep trail up the volcano. It was a mostly clear, sunny day but given the altitude and the breeze, it was cold. We hiked for a few hours up one side of the crater then down to the lakes. Then I hiked up the opposite side of the crater to the peak. It was amazing to have the trail and the peak to myself. As I started back down, I noticed what appeared to be a trail directly from the peak to the lake. Great, a short cut. It only took me a few minutes to realize that while it was a short cut, it was definitely not a trail. By the time I figured this out, I’d slid too far down the scree to backtrack. So, I slid down the volcano crouched on one foot and with the other foot extended in front of me to slow my descent. Thank goodness I had gloves on because I also had to dig my fingers into the scree to slow down. It wasn’t a death defying descent but, at times, it felt like I was racing down. Since I didn’t hurt myself, it was actually fun. By the time I rejoined Mathieu at the truck I was exhausted. I’d only hiked a total of ~5.5 mi (~8.63 km) that entire day, but it took me ~7 hours and I/we had spent the entire day above 14,000 ft (4267 m). It was a great day!

From the volcano, we drove east to Mexico City, the largest city in Mexico (population ~9 million) with the most populous metropolitan area (~20 million) in the Western hemisphere. With these stats, I didn’t expect to like it much. I assumed it’d be an asphalt jungle with too much traffic, too many people, bad air quality, and very little charm. I was right about the traffic and about there being lots of people, but I was very wrong about the charm (and the air quality was OK when we were there). We left Genevieve parked at the hotel and explored the city primarily via our bicycles. Many of the city’s main streets into and around the historic center and around Chapultepec, a large forested city park, have bicycle lanes. Yeah! We also used the extensive, and very cheap, metro system to get around. During our six days there, we explored the history of Mexico by visiting a few museums, including the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (natural history museum) and the Museo de Artes Populares, and visiting historic buildings where we marveled at the works of a few of the city’s famous artists including Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and Orozco (whose work we were introduced to in Guadalajara). It was especially interesting to visit Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s childhood home and later her home/studio with her husband, Diego Rivera, and the Museo Mural Diego Rivera which contains one of Rivera’s most famous murals, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central) with its elegantly-dressed female calavera (a representation of death). To see more amazing artwork, we visited the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which per Wikipedia, is the largest university in Latin America and a UNESCO World Heritage site that was designed by some of Mexico’s best-known architects of the 20th century and contains murals painted by some of the most recognized artists in Mexican history, such as Rivera and Siqueiros. We found six of the ten or so giant murals. We also visited the zocalo (main plaza) which encompasses the Plaza de la Constitución, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielos (Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven), the largest cathedral in the Americas (built 1573 to 1813), and the Palacio Nacional. Besides admiring the architecture of the historic buildings and the centuries-old ornate cathedral, it was cool to stand in the plaza where the Dia de los Muertos scenes from the 2015 James Bond movie, Spectre, were filmed. Ha! We also had a lot of fun just riding our bicycles down the side streets, finding interesting street art, small plazas, local bars, and busy street markets with delicious food.

One day while bicycling down Reforma, a main street through the city center, we came upon a protest. The mass of people extended for at least a mile down the street. It appeared to be an organized event, with the police having closed the street to traffic. While many of the police were in riot gear, the vibe of the protest was peaceful. People were demonstrating against the President’s decision to denationalize the country’s oil company, PEMEX, and open the oil market to foreign companies. Since January 1, 2017, when the new regulation went into effect, the price of gas and oil-dependent products had increased substantially. We’d heard and read about many protests occurring all over Mexico and definitely noticed the roughly 20% increase in gasoline prices since January 1st, but this was the first protest we’d seen. It’s always inspiring to see people take action against that which grieves them.

A big reason for going to Mexico City was to visit Mathieu’s friend, Gustavo, a Mexico City native who Mathieu met in France. The two hadn’t seen each other in several years, so it was a good reunion. One night, we joined Gustavo, his girlfriend, Renata, and Gustavo’s son Emilio for a night of Mexican wrestling. Yes, Luche Libre. Per Wikipedia, the history of Mexican wrestling dates back to 1863, during the French Intervention in Mexico, Enrique Ugartechea, the first Mexican wrestler, developed and invented the Mexican lucha libre from the Greco-Roman wrestling. Then, in 1942, lucha libre would be forever changed when a silver-masked wrestler, known simply as El Santo (The Saint), first stepped into the ring. He made his debut in Mexico City by winning an 8-man battle royal. The public became enamored by the mystique and secrecy of Santo’s personality, and he quickly became the most popular luchador in Mexico. His wrestling career spanned nearly five decades, during which he became a folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man through his appearances in comic books and movies, while the sport received an unparalleled degree of mainstream attention. The arena wasn’t full but the noise of the crowd cheering for their favorite wrestlers and booing their opponents was deafening. It was funny to watch the fans, particularly the ladies of all ages, scream at the giant wrestlers. We all got into the action, shouting and cheering. And the costumes were……amazing. I love a man in gold glittery spandex! Of the six matches, each with three rounds, there was one match featuring female luchadores. Wow, you wouldn’t want to mess with these badass chics! It was especially fun to watch 7-year old Emilio, in his blue and gold luchador mask, get so excited while watching the matches. Our visit to the metropolis of Mexico City was a good blend of history, politics, art, and fun with friends.

We had a great time traveling through inland Mexico, hiking volcanoes, marveling at beautiful monarch butterflies, exploring charming, interesting cities and towns, meeting new people, and visiting friends. During this 17-day section of the road trip, we drove ~800 miles (~1275 kilometers), traveling mostly on the free roads (longer but cheaper and often more interesting). We stayed in hotels for 8 nights (the most expensive being 240 pesos, ~$12) and camped 8 nights (5 nights wild-camping in our tent or the back of the 4Runner and 3 nights in paid campgrounds, the most expensive being 150 pesos, ~$7). We felt safe the entire time. And the road trip with my wonderful road trip partner, Mathieu, continues…stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Here are a few pictures.

Click the link to see the full album:  https://goo.gl/photos/bNBSdsRJQhUrkys87

And click these links to see Mathieu’s drone videos of us in Parque Nacional Nevado de Tolucahttps://youtu.be/nGMQgkZpesM and in Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima:  https://youtu.be/G4MOzCK4YBQ

Enjoy!

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In Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima with the active Volcan de Fuego behind us.

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Fun in Guadalajara.

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Danza de Voladores in Tlaquepaque.

tmp_28154-dsc047671377252886Patzcuaro at the Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga, “the most beautiful plaza in Mexico.”

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Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca Chincua.

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Camping in Valle de Bravo.

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A short cut from the peak back down. Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca.

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Diego Rivera’s “Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central”
 in Mexico City.

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Mural at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

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Delicious street food in Mexico City.

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Fun night of Luche Libre with Renata, Gustavo, and Emilio. Mexico City.