Friday, August 5, 2016

A Mexican Getaway: Part 2

Welcome to part two of my Mexico trip. Part one was the 'water' side of the trip, now comes the 'land' side of the trip. I said it in the past post but I'll say again: I was not sure what to expect from Mexico, but overall I was quite impressed. Mexico City especially exceeded my expectations, and as I work my way inland and south from Mazatlan over the course of this post, I think you will see why. Here goes.

It was late at night, I was on the bus from Mazatlan to Zacatecas, and I made a big mistake: I fell asleep. Now this wouldn't normally be a problem, and I had a ticket that said my destination and an arrival time, but what I didn't know was that this was the arrival time for the end of the line, not my stop. So in the morning I woke up on the bus and found myself about 250km past my stop! Oops… Because of this little mistake, I had to wait in another bus station for a few hours, buy a new ticket and lose essentially an entire day. Oh well….

My arrival to Zacatecas was not until the late evening, but I got a taxi, headed into the center of the old town and found myself a place to stay, a cheap bunk in a dorm. There were a few other travelers there from Europe and we chatted for a few minutes, then I headed out into the town to explore. The old town is very much a piece of the old Spanish colonial days, and the area was founded and built around the silver mine that operated for hundreds of years and provided a great deal of wealth for the empire. There were tourists all about, but almost all were domestic, I saw very few Americans/Europeans, which was fine by me. The area had a European feel however, because of the Spanish history, and a lot of beautiful buildings.

A small intersection in the old town. After finding some street food for a late dinner I wandered around until fairly late, just taking in the atmosphere.

The dorm I stayed in. I think it was around $10 a night.

The skies were clear and blue, the temperature was just about perfect. Zacatecas has little public squares all over the place, and it all feels clean and friendly.

What really attracted me to the city was El Eden, the silver mine, so that afternoon I went to take a tour. After buying the ticket and taking the little tram into the hillside, my guide, a young student who was very friendly, lead me around the caverns. Although the tour was shorter than I expected, it was well done and certainly a worthwhile experience.

Looking out over the city from a hillside at the top of the mine.

The rest of my day was spent looking at a map of the local sights and wandering around. After about 5 different churches I was kind of bored of them, but the Museo Rafael Coronel looked great and I headed in that direction. The outside was a cool mix of overgrown and falling apart building and restored sections, it kind of reminded me of how they have some of the temples at Angkor Wat. The museum looked great, but I arrived too late and it was closed. Darn.

Not how I'd pictured Mexico looking…At night, I went in search of an authentic Mexican place for dinner but my search went about as well as the museum: everything was closed! I wound up eating a 'Mexican style” cheeseburger, just me and the old lady who cooked it, in her little restaurant. When that wasn't enough food, I ordered a second one.

It was time to head onward, now to Uruapan, and I boarded another bus for the fairly long journey ahead. As I watched the world go by out the window, something I enjoy quite a bit, we passed by a huge Nissan car factory.

Nice scenery further down the road.

By the time I arrived in Uruapan it was about midnight and it was clear I hadn't arrived in the 'nicest' part of town, but I didn't really care. I found a cheap room opposite the bus station that offered a private bathroom, cable tv, and wifi for about $12 a night and was happy.

The main attraction in/around Uruapan was the Parícutin volcano, which is accessible via a day trip on horseback, but as I woke up and saw the pouring rain decided that could wait. And it rained hard, a sort of tropical downpour type of rain that sent people running and filled the streets with foot-deep streams. So I got breakfast and went back to my room to watch TV and surf the internet.

A little later in the day when the rain had died down but not actually stopped, I headed out on another of my walks. I had a vague understanding of the cities layout and walked for many kilometers through various neighborhoods towards the center. Most of what I saw wasn't especially interesting, just small shops and people milling about, but eventually I found my way to Parque Nacional Barranca del Cupatitzio, a national park built in 1938 that is basically a lush ravine inside a neighborhood.

The entire place was an amazing collection of natural waterfalls, man-made water features, bridges and walk ways snaking along a beautiful river in the middle, all surrounded by a lush green jungle-like foliage. Because of the light rain I had the place pretty much to myself and it was stunning.

Ok, just one more picture…

Once I'd walked through the entire park and was a bit wet, I headed back towards my hotel. I walked slowly because I wasn't sure what to do next so I was killing time, and to be honest I was a bit lonely. While the trip itself had been great so far, I really hadn't really talked to and gotten to know anyone. This has always been one of my favorite parts of travel and I felt like I was missing out. Deciding to sit down and have an afternoon beer, I wandered into Clandestina Caguamería, a funky looking cafe and sat down. That was when I met Moma, the owner of the place. We began to chat about the usual things, but before long got into art, music, politics, social issues and the current state of the country. Plus some tasty food and excellent local beers! I think I ended up hanging out, just the two of us, for over two hours before I decided I should get moving again because darkness was coming. It wasn't anything tremendously profound, but finding a friendly face and very interesting person to talk to in that moment really made my day, and gave me a fun moment to look back on even months later. Thanks Moma!

The forecast was for good weather, so it was time for me to head to the town of Angahuan, find a horse and ride to Parícutin volcano which began erupting in 1943. I took a local bus for a small fee and quickly found myself to be the only foreigner in a small rural town. Angahuan had a distinctly different feel from the other places I'd been, much more “indigenous” if I can say that without sounding offensive… but it was very cool and unique compared to my previous stops. It was clear enough that this was a popular tourist activity, and I did find it in the Lonely Planet, but it was still clearly targeted at Mexican tourists because I didn't find a single person in town who spoke English, and there was VERY little infrastructure to support tourism.

I managed to explain what I wanted, and after eating breakfast and getting a few things from a grocery store, got connected with a teenager who spoke zero English and climbed on a horse for the first time in probably 17 years.

As soon as we were beyond the town and the handful of “resorts” that looked like they were mostly out of business, my guide let go of the rope and I was riding on my own. The horse seemed very well trained, and within minutes I was comfortable riding it. We trotted down a dirt road between trees for a few km, then as the weather began to clear up I found myself riding through beautiful groves of avocado trees. Truly stunning.

The ride was enjoyable, and as the last of the low clouds cleared the volcano finally came into view.

We rode the final stretch to the bottom and as I climbed off the horse my guide motioned for me to start hiking up the steep loose rock of the volcano. Again I was alone but that made it especially nice in my opinion. On the short hike to the top I got distracted numerous times by geothermal vents that poured hot steam into the air, interesting plants and cool stone formations, but once I reached the rim at the top and looked out and was even more amazed at the place I found myself. Huge swaths of land that I'm sure used to be green and full of life were covered in black volcanic rock, even larger steam vents let out small puffs of steam and smoke and the crater itself still smoldered as well.

Next on the schedule was a visit to San Juan Parangaricutiro Church, which was partly buried by the lava flow. By this time I was very confident on my horse and rode well ahead of my guide, at times breaking into a full gallop as I headed through the avocado trees once again, with a huge smile on my face.

Pretty cool looking eh?

After returning to Uruapan I went out for another walk until dinner time. Then my mission became the search for the most delicious Mexican food I could find. After quite a while I found myself near to the bus station and my hotel where my walk began, and noticed a large group of people around a particular taco stand on the side of the road. Naturally it was busy for a reason, because what I ate was hands down the most amazing food of the entire trip! Everything was so fresh and the seasoning was simply amazing. But I wasn't done eating, and decided to try yet another place for 'second dinner.' This lead me to a bland looking place where I had the first and only burrito of my trip. It wasn't anything special, but then the lady making the tortillas waved me over. As I watched, she showed me her process for making fresh tortillas, then gave me one hot off the grill. Oh. My. God. That plain tortilla was so delicious it was like a gourmet meal on it's own, and unless I return to Mexico again and find a similarly skilled woman, no other tortilla will ever compare…

Late that same evening I was catching an overnight bus to Mexico City, and was really not sure what to expect. I'd heard so many negative things about the city I wondered if I was making a mistake even going there, especially since I'm not really into cities anyways, but I was curious and it was where my flight home in a few days went from, so into the night I rode and south into the big city.

It was 4am when I arrived in Mexico City and everything was dark and quiet as the bus headed towards the station. As always, I had no plan but figured I'd grab a taxi into the city center and find a hostel.

Daylight was just breaking when I was dropped off in the center of the city outside a hotel, but it was full when I inquired about a room. Because it was still so early I just sat down in the lobby and killed time until the day began, and eventually started walking down the same street when I came across Hostel Amigo, just a few doors down. They had cheap enough dorm rooms and more importantly had space, so I decided to just make life easy and stay there for the rest of my time in the city. The place had a mix of Mexican and European travelers and seemed like a pretty good place. The only bizarre part was that there was a bar and big stereo and all the kind of things you expect at a backpackers place, but they didn't sell beer. Now I know backpacking isn't just about getting drunk with other white people in interesting locations, but it sure does make it easier to meet people…

One of the things I was interested in seeing while in Mexico was the pre-Columbian culture and architecture. Because I'd started the trip with the idea I'd be in Baja the whole time, in general I was too far north to see much of the sites, but the biggest one, Teotihuacan, happens to be located just 30 miles north of Mexico City. I was exhausted from the overnight bus trip and early arrival in the city, but in order to see the pyramid and a few other sites easily, I signed up for one of the only guided bus tours I've ever taken. Our first stop took us to some foundations that I honestly forget the name of (oops) but it was interesting that the Spanish tore down those buildings and used the stone to build their churches you see on the right side of the photo. A very literal example of imperialism.

Next we went to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a large public square with a few different churches of different vintages. To be totally honest, I was bored of Catholic churches by this point but I was quite impressed by the views of snow capped mountains in the distance, which was not what I'd expected to see.

The tour of course took us inside of the churches, and the 'Old Basilica' had the classic look of all the beautiful churches of that era, the 1700s, while the 'Modern Basilica' looked every bit it's era, the 1970s, and I don't mean that in a good way…. Maybe in 300 years it will be considered beautiful…

Of course what I was really interested in seeing on this day was the pyramids of Teotihuacan and in the heat of the day our bus arrived. Being a bus tour, they annoyingly started the visit by trying to sell us crap at the tourist junk shop and then hustled us into a not-very-cheap buffet lunch, but I guess that's the price you pay. Anyways, the place was impressive, with dozens of stone pyramids you are able to walk up, including the pyramids of the Sun and Moon, which are some of the largest pyramids in the world.

An overview of the site without me in the way! This is standing on the Pyramid of the Moon looking towards the larger Pyramid of the Sun, 216 feet tall and the third largest pyramid on earth (after two in Egypt).

On the tour I met Duncan from Hong Kong. He was on the very beginnings of a 6 month trip through central and south America, and we would spend the next few days hanging out together. After spending most of my time in Mexico just hanging out solo, it was fun to be making a new friend.

A better view of the Pyramid of the Sun.

The tour was a full day, it was getting dark and traffic was heavy when we returned to the center of Mexico City.

Once off the bus Duncan and I decided to wander the streets in search of dinner, and came across some pretty serious sandwiches for about two dollars. And on the subject of wandering the streets of Mexico City at night, I felt totally comfortable. The night life was vibrant, the streets were full of people and the mood seemed good each time I ventured out.

Now it wasn't too long ago that I met Marijke and took her to meet my family over Christmas, but from there I headed straight to Mexico while she headed back to the island. But today was her birthday and even though I was in another country, I wanted to do something special. I happened to read in the guide book there there was one square where mariachi bands hung out and for a small price they would sing you a song, so Duncan and I wandered through the streets until we found it. For less than the price of two beers, and I was amazed they hung out there all night working for so cheap, I had them dedicate a song to Marijke and it a lot of fun.

Duncan and I met up again the next morning in the Zócalo, the cities massive public square and joined a free walking tour. The tour was excellent, with a knowledgeable guide taking us through many of the key sites and stories of the city center and I'd highly recommend it. The above photo is actually of the ornate central post office!

On the tour, Duncan and I met a third traveler and we all decided to take the metro to the National Museum of Anthropology. I think the metro cost less than 50 cents and was crowded (as expected) but overall excellent.

Where we got out of the subway station had a very different feel from the small bit of the city I'd seen thus far, there were trees, wide roads and modern condo and office towers.

The museum itself made an impression before even entering. The huge statues out front and the massive roof in the courtyard with a waterfall, all supported by a single central pillar, was just a taste of what was inside.

And once inside the museum was one of the more impressive ones I've seen, huge in size and scope, with both indoor and outdoor exhibits, it got you up close with some pretty amazing items from the areas history and did an excellent job of displaying everything. If anything, it was a little overwhelming, and I certainly didn’t have time or energy to take it all in.

The famous Aztec Sunstone is probably the most well known item in the extensive collection.

Evening light on the National Palace as I returned to the Zocalo that evening.

Living on an island of around 200 people maybe I'm just not used to what cities are like anymore, and granted Mexico City is one of the worlds largest, but it was amazing how many people were out every night from the end of the work day until late in the night. Around the city center there were a number of 'walking avenues' that were constantly packed. In the distance is the Latin-American Tower, one of the most prominent skyscrapers in the city.

Still hanging out with Duncan that day, we decided to head to the bar in one of the top floors to have a beer and get a view over the huge and sprawling city. Naturally it was challenging to find a seat looking out the windows, but once we did it was well worth the trip to look out at the city lit up and extending in every direction.

Eating a delicious late night dinner.

I still had a little while to spend in the city so with no plans I simply headed out walking for a few hours. Once I'd gotten well beyond the city center I thought maybe then I'd come across all these terrible things I'd heard about the city but it simply never happened, everything felt safe, clean enough and almost as organized as any other city I'd spent time in. Hell, there were even bike lanes on the roads better than many I see in Seattle! Eventually I made my way back to the city center and headed to the exceptionally beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).

Inside they were doing a large exhibit on Russian avant garde art from the 1930s I think it was. I'll be honest, I'm not the most cultured guy around but I do appreciate art and enjoy museums; and maybe I was just in a bad mood or something, but it didn't interest me at all.

The murals upstairs on the other hand, some by Diego Rivera (the only muralist I know, again, being honest here), were fabulous and well worth the visit. And of course the building itself was a stunning piece of art in it's own right.

With a little bit of 'high culture' in my system (or not?) I decided it was time for a little 'low culture' and bought tickets to see the Lucha libre, aka: Mexican Wrestling. It took place at the Arena México, which in start contrast to the Palace of Fine Arts was a run-down looking building with lots of wrestling masks for sale and trash on the ground. I paid for my ticket by passing money into a dark hole, unable to see the person inside and unable to understand what they were saying. They took my money, refused to give me change and with that I was on my way! (first and only time being ripped off in all of Mexico).

The inside looked like pretty much any arena, and it was not very full. Most of the people close to the ring were tourists like myself. The annoying thing was they wouldn't let me take my little point-and-shoot camera in, so obviously this is not my photo. And then the whole show people were happily snapping photos on their camera phones… huh. But the show itself was great fun and every bit as absurd as I'd hoped it would be. It even had a midget in a gorilla suit wrestling!

As I walked back to the city center after the show, I stopped for tacos at two or three places and they were all delicious.

I only had one day left in Mexico before my flight home and decided to spend it walking again. This is the zoclao again, looking towards the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Pre-columbian ruins lay next to the cathedral. I was hoping to go in, but it was closed for the day.

My walk led me to the modern business district where I killed some time at a Strabucks. Something I noticed in Mexico as a whole was that I think in my entire trip there were only one or two instances of people asking me for money, and I didn't see poor people on the streets. They must be somewhere, but I certainly didn't see it. It's not that I really expected to see a lot of poverty, but the absence of it almost completely did stand out and again, I see more of that where I grew up in Seattle.

Back towards the city center and looking at the Latin-American Tower from a nearby park. By this point the trip was pretty much over, so I headed to the hostel early, got my things ready for the flight the next morning and went to sleep.

My return to the US was uneventful. A taxi to the airport, a slightly delayed flight, some pretty nice views out the window and a rainy evening arrival in Seattle.

My customary trip to Dicks Drive-In after a trip.

Overall the trip was excellent and Mexico impressed me a great deal. I had no idea what was going to happen or what I was going to do, the 'plan' if you can call if that changed drastically early on and it wasn't the kind of travel I've done in years, but in the end I returned home wanting to see more of the wonderful country that obviously has so much diversity to experience and appreciate and I'd call that a real success. But I was also ready to return to the island and to Marijke.