Monday, November 26, 2012

Photos: Guanajuato and San Miguel

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Ooooooh, Guanajuatoooo!

We are freshly back from Guanajuato, having walked an average of 15,000 steps a day and survived run-ins with "the runs", which of course are a necessary part of the Mexican experience.

What a wonderful little spot! Originally inhabited by the Otomi people in the Mesoamerican period, it became a colonial town in the 1540s after the Spanish discovered silver in the region and began mining and building forts. The city's geography is its most distinguishing characteristic. It sits in a narrow valley, expanding from that bowl up into surrounding hills making many streets wickedly steep and narrow, but also opening up to breathtaking panoramas from higher elevations.

Additionally, there are numerous tunnels running under the city, which were used for water evacuation until they were converted into subterranean streets. Now these imposing, vaulted stone labyrinths carry a large part of the city's traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.

The city has a strange, rustic beauty. It's festively colorful on the whole, but  also a bit ramshackle and rough around the edges when you start observing at street level, like a fading painting. That dichotomy is what gives Guanajuato its distinctively unique flavor. Despite its beauty, it is nevertheless very difficult to photograph. The light in the area is sharp and bright, covering everything in vivid striations of light and shadow so intense, no camera setting can match it. I privately started thinking of the city as a zebra, and resigned to making good use of HD

Guanajuato has been named "patrimonio de la humanidad", or a cultural treasure of humanity. And a treasure it is. It beckons you to explore along its intimate, winding alleys, peek into churches and offbeat museums, and stuff yourself on the cheap with a plethora of regional delicacies. And so we set out so explore this city and its contrasts: light and shadow, valleys and hills, tunnels and funiculars. On our first full day, we began with the Mummy museum. This is kind of a must-see, since it's the most famous museum in Guanajuato (and, at 50 pesos, or 4 dollars - also the most expensive). Now, the story of this museum is really interesting. The mummies were all local residents who died of a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. They were exhumed over the next 100 years when their relatives failed to pay the grave rent.

Yeah. That was pretty much my reaction too. Thousands of graves were disinterred, but about 2% of the bodies came out mummified. There's no official explanation as to why, but let's go with natural causes, such as dry climate. The collection is quite impressive and utterly creepy. The fact that each mummy's information placard is written in first person does nothing to alleviate the creepiness factor. I bet that if the mummies did decide to personally address the gawkers, it wouldn't be with a polite "Hola, me llamo...".

Despite the understandable discomfort of walking through a dark building full of dead people on shelves, it was nevertheless a very informative experience. For one, it was interesting to see the clothes of the time, and what people chose to take with them to the grave. Also, how cause of death affects the body despite mummification. There were mummies of people buried alive, and even a mummy of a fetus whose mother died before childbirth. From a cultural standpoint, it was interesting to consider that in this deeply Catholic culture, where the body is treated reverently and proper burial is very important, a museum like this continues to exist, seemingly at odds with their convictions. Though, to be fair, no more bodies are being exhumed due to payment delinquency.

After the mummy museum we took a 20 minute drive north of Guanajuato to a town of Valenciana, where several former silver mines are open to visitors. Silver was the lifeblood of the region in colonial times, and made the region quite wealthy.

Descending into the Boca Mina, Valenciana
The town is now very small and sleepy, and only its church - The Church that Silver Built - speaks to its former wealth and status. One other remaining attraction in Valenciana is the Purgatory museum, a small, slightly tacky collection of exhibits on torture and other means of instilling the Holy Faith during the Inquisition. Somehow the guides, dressed as Inquisitors, manage to keep the mood light and the crowds laughing, even as they explain how people used to be raked and quartered in the name of Jesus.

"Are you a good Catholic?!"
Our favorite exhibit - the chastity belt. 
After getting back to Guanajuato, we prowled the streets for a few hours, taking in the sights like the beautiful Plaza de la Paz, the whitewashed walls of the University, and the shady oasis of the Jardin de la Union, before taking the funicular to El Pipila, a panoramic point high above the city with the most spectacular view.

Inspired by such awesome vistas, we went searching for Clave Azul, a taverna that our friends insisted we must try for the best food and drink in town. We found it, after a lengthy search, halfway up an invisible alley shooting off a small square. Unfortunately, for reasons we couldn't figure out due to our abominable Spanish, they weren't serving food, but we did stay for some yummy drinks, and enjoyed watching a large family at a table next to us celebrate something with stories and songs as two musicians serenaded them with their guitars. It's clearly a gem of a place.

Digging the vibe at Clave Azul
Day 2, we set out bright and early to conquer yet another mountain, Cierro del Cubilete, to see the Cristo Rey monument, one of the largest statues of Jesus in the world. This 20 meter bronze Jesus supposedly sits in the very geographical center of Mexico, and as such, is an important pilgrimage site for Mexicans, as evidenced by the neverending stream of buses going up and down the mountain like ants on an anthill. We weren't there to pay homage, but we did enjoy the view and got to see some of the odder practices, like people crawling the 50 meter long stone-paved approach to the chapel on their knees. Ouch?

Back in Guanajuato, we visited Alhondiga de Granaditas, a former public granary now serving as a large regional history museum. The building itself is one of the most recognizable in the city, and has served as a granary, a prison, military barracks, performance venue, and warehouse throughout its lifetime. It's a World Heritage building and part of the city's historic center.

Inside, the most striking feature are the monumental murals decorating some of its halls with scenes from Mexico's history painted by José Chávez Morado. They are so huge and breathtaking that it will take a few minutes to wander under them and try to decipher the story as it unfolds - larger than life - over your head.

Perhaps the most infamous part of the building's history is that it was stormed by insurgents during the Mexican War of Independence, and the four leaders of the rebellion were captured and beheaded, their heads hung from the four corners of the building in cages, as a deterrent to other would be rebels. The heads hung around for 10 years, until Mexico won its Independence. The caged severed head is a pretty prominent artistic symbol not only inside the museum walls, but throughout the city.

Guanajuato is stuffed to the brim with little museums that explore the life of a person or a single literary theme, almost like specialized galleries. Some of Guanajuato's lesser known museums we saved for the afternoon. The first is the Iconographic Museum of Don Quixote. This one was one of my favorites. Quixote is obviously a well loved figure in the area, his lanky figure looking out laconically from every souvenir shop. The Iconographic museum is a vast collection of imagery connected with Don Quixote, executed in a variety of media and methods, from traditional sculpture to surrealism to full blown abstract art. Just like the story of Quixote, the museum has that same trippy, surreal quality, but all the works are of really high caliber, and visiting is enjoyable even if you're not a particularly big fan of the book.

My favorite painting from the Don Quixote museum
Another little gem is the Museo Casa de Diego Rivera. Rivera is, of course, one of the most famous - if not THE most famous Mexican artist, husband of Frida Kahlo, a prominent political figure, and an overall fascinating character. His museum is located in the house where he was born, with the first floor preserved as it would have been furnished at the time of his birth. The upper floors house an impressive collection of his early works.

After such jampacked couple of days, we decided to take it easy and drive out to San Miguel de Allende. Although only an hour's drive from Guanajuato, San Miguel is a whole different world. Whereas Guanajuato is energetic, lived-in and diverse in its offerings, San Miguel feels boutique-y. It's stately, orderly, homogenous, freshly painted, and has an aura of money about it. Real estate signs are under the names of Sotheby's and Christies; shopping is plentiful and upscale, and tourists are much more numerous than in Guanajuato. Whereas in the former, we only heard English spoken on the street 2 or 3 times, in San Miguel it was as common as on the streets of Cancun, though, obviously, it was a different crowd.

Street scene, San Miguel de Allende
I found it to be so charming. With all of its buildings painted in the same warm yellows, reds and oranges, and pots bursting with flowers along every roof line and windowsill, this town just pulls you in and invites you to take a breather in one of its quirky bars and restaurants, or have a coffee in a magnificent shaded courtyard.

courtyards like this one can be found everywhere, and usually contain a row of galleries and cafes, although I think this one is residential.

We didn't have any specific plans, and by then we were all museumed out, so we just strolled the streets, perused the local wares and indulged our coffee addiction at the most upscale Starbucks I've ever visited. Every intersection and every facade in this city just beckons to be photographed.

The Main Plaza and park, San Miguel de Allende
On our final full day, we embraced the chance to go on one last adventure, and ventured out to Cañada de la Virgen (Canyon of the Virgin) to take a tour of a pyramid site constructed by the Otomi people. Our guide was professor Albert Coffee with Coyote Canyon Adventures - an expat American archeologist, who is lovingly known among his Trip Advisor fans as "the Real Indiana Jones"

This amazing site has only recently been excavated, and opened to the public about a year and a half ago. It actually sits in the middle of private land owned by a very wealthy old German lady (from the Krupp family), who bought thousands of acres of land and apparently practices Mayan shamanism and feng shui. The Mexican government eventually told her she can't own the pyramids, so now there's carefully monitored access to the site. Because you have to approach the pyramid through her private property, you have to do it by her rules, and she doesn't allow cars. So the shuttle takes visitors to a site about a mile away from the pyramids, and from there - everybody walks!

Glad it's not summer!
The site itself consists of several complexes, all mirroring the surrounding the landscape. The structures were used as observatories and burial grounds for the elite. The complex follows the lunar calendar, and during certain dates, celestial alignments interact with the pyramids with incredible precision.

During the 2 hours we spent on site we got an intensive crash course in Mesoamerican cultures of pre-Columbian times; their rituals, beliefs and practices. It's pretty amazing to think that these structures stood covered in earth and grass until only a few years ago, and local cowboys would ride up these "mounds" to look for stray cattle. It makes you wonder how many mysteries and treasures are still buried throughout Mexico and Central America, hiding just beneath our feet.

In the afternoon, we returned to San Miguel to spend a few more hours wandering its enchanted streets and discovering the little details of its identity.


And then, just like that, it was time to head home.
I'm really glad that we chose to visit this spot on the globe. This is the Mexico that I wanted to see, not the beaches, cabanas, and parties, not Cancun and not Senor Frog's. Though we loved our trip to Cozumel last year, we never once saw a peso during our entire stay, and all our needs were met in English. This time, we found ourselves having to make do with nearly nonexistent Spanish everywhere we went, and we surprised ourselves by how fairly competent we were at communicating with the locals. 

Mexico generally has a pretty bad rap around here, particularly in the border states. The first things that come to mind are illegal immigration, drug war and corrupt government. Sometimes you have to travel to a place to remember that people still happily live there, take day trips, play music in bars, enjoy cigars over mezcal, and kiss on the streets (a lot). And when we stumbled over a whole crowd sitting on the steps of an alley, singing in unison and swaying to the music, I just had to stop and listen for a while, because that kind of collective happiness is rarely found in the US.

Of course, not everything was cotton candy and piñadas. Some things made me angry. The out of control population boom, for example. I have never seen so many kids in one place in my entire life. And, when I walked into any church throughout the trip, I would inevitably see a wall sized placard decrying abortion, contraception, or both. It definitely set me to seething a little bit, especially when I couldn't set foot outside without stepping on a toddler or 5. Refusal to confront family planning by a national authority such as the Catholic church is something I don't expect to see anywhere but the most desperate places, so that obviously irked me in Mexico. But - that is why we travel, after all. To see the good and the bad, and hopefully think more carefully about these issues going forward, hopefully learn something.

Until next time, happy tripping.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Maiden Voyage!

Hooray! My very first post. It's a little strange starting a story from the middle. I've been traveling for so long and have been to so many places that is seems like a random time to begin blogging about it now. I think that's mostly what's kept me from starting a travel blog - I felt like I should have started years ago. I remember I used to keep travel journals in the days before the Internet, remember, for example, writing in a notebook from atop a cliff in a remote part of the Cinque Terre in Italy, back in 1999, and how great it was to open that notebook for years afterwards. For some reason, after the advent of modern technology, I stopped documenting my journeys, other than through photos, and it's always bugged me, because I really want to preserve memories of the places I've visited.

So, I decided - better late than never. Inspired by some great traveling peeps who maintain a robust online presence, I'm going to start this blog now, and keep a record going forward. Heck, I'll even recount some of our past trips.

Happy trails,


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Pura Vida!

Costa Rica - September 2012

September 2012 - Labor Day, to be specific - marked off the 3rd anniversary of married life for the Monsieur and myself. Choosing a holiday weekend for our wedding had not been a coincidence, of course. For the past 3 years we've used the occasion to treat ourselves to an anniversary trip. And no, a tropical paradise is not a theme for these trips by any means (last year we marked off the occasion in Chernobyl, but this year decided on something a little less radioactive). Plus, Flo treated me to an ocean view suite at J.W Marriott Guanacaste, and what girl doesn't like to be spoiled occasionally by 5 star hotels??

Room with a view (AND a welcome gift!)
We stayed in the province of Guanacaste, on the North Pacific coast of the country. We heard that that particular area gets less rain during the rainy season, and sure enough, we generally lucked out with the weather during our stay. Guanacaste is also famous for its surf; the beaches are far from calm, with powerful waves making swimming its own little adventure. Tempestuous waves aside, however, the region has a chill, laid back vibe (not unlike the rest of the country I imagine), full of surf shops, overpriced flip flops and beach bars with plastic tables planted directly into the sand under towering palm trees.

So, armed with a 4-wheel drive SUV, we set out to explore. There's really no other way to drive in Costa Rica. The roads are in such a sorry state that they feature as the butt of even local jokes (ever heard of a Costa Rican massage?) In some cases it's really less like driving, and more like navigating an obstacle course, which can be fun, in a suspension-destroying, goin'-nowhere-fast kind of way.

5 miles an hour, if you're lucky.
Tommy Vee & Mr. V's track "Bang Bang" was a faithful companion to us during Costa Rican drives.

The first day, after spending a few hours getting our bearings and having a languid 2-hour lunch on the beach in the nearby town of Tamarindo, we drove to check out the closest national park, called Diriá. This swath of rain forest was only very recently designated as a national park, and lacked even the most basic infrastructure. After a half hour winding drive which left me with a few more gray hairs than I started with, we arrived at a ranger's cabin on an otherwise deserted clearing, with colossal trees towering all around us, hoots and cries of unseen creatures erupting from the thick canopy. A ranger came out of the cabin and tried to ascertain what we were doing there, but without English the conversation wasn't progressing very well. Using gestures, we asked if we could go on the trails, to which he nodded very hesitantly, glancing in turn up at the rumbling sky, and down at our sneakers, as if they were glass slippers. What we surmised later is that very few people visit Diriá unaccompanied because it's so new and unnavigable. The place is really wild, with steep, rocky trails, and no markings of any kind. So, what we  in our infinite optimistic ignorance thought was going to be a leisurely hike, turned into an endurance climb, which - sweating and gasping - we abandoned halfway.

Halfway up, just before we abandoned the mission to summit the top. In the timeless words of Han Solo: "no reward is worth this".
What it lacks in foot traffic, Diriá more than makes up for with wildlife. It was the only day of our trip that we saw whole families of Howler monkeys, fairly up close. In fact, they seemed to be surprised to see us too.

Diriá wildlife
All in all, I was glad that our trip began on such a wild note, and not a carefully orchestrated, guided experience with hard hats and buckles. There would be plenty of time for that later.

The next day, still sore from our little nature walk, we decided to take an ATV beach tour. I'd only been on an ATV in the snow before, so wearing shorts and doing figure 8's in the sand put one giant smile on my face.

We rode around for about 2 hours passing one beautiful beach after another. It was exhilarating and fun, and a huge tease at the same time, since all I really wanted to do every time we stopped was jump into that clear warm turquoise water.

On the other hand, I got to do this, which was awesome:

After the ATV tour, we went into Tamarindo and rented a couple of bikes. Now that we knew where all the best beaches were, the rest of the afternoon was a done deal!

After a day like that - full of silly fun, scenic bike rides and floating on warm surf - it wasn't hard to see and appreciate what draws people to Costa Rica. The ubiquitous interjection of "Pura Vida!" was starting to seep slowly under our skin. That evening, we surrendered to the rhythm of beach life and spent a lovely night sipping cocktails in colorful Tamarindo beach bars while a spectacular sunset lit up the sky through a curtain of palm fronds.

dinner was fresh grilled lobster served - wait for it - on the beach.
The next day we drove a few hours inland to visit National Park Rincon de la Vieja. This park is the site of an active volcano, as well as numerous hot springs and a very unusual Blue River - with water made vividly blue by a high concentration of sulfur.

Here, finally, was a real rain forest hike, where one breathes air so fresh you'd swear it was Creation Day, and stumbles upon waterfalls and lagoons, air plants and vines, and green, green everywhere, every vivid hue in the spectrum flooding your retinas with a soothing glow.

How cool is that?! We had a guide dog, Echo (spot him in the photo above). He was quite the expert in this area, and made sure we got safely back to base. Though, he made me really nervous and dizzy a few times, because he liked to ride all these roiling waterfalls, jumping out at the last minute just before the water went plunging down.

Echo, defying death.
After the hike, we visited a nearby resort, which had marvelous tropical gardens, geothermal pools, a volcanic mud spa, and a butterfly garden.

In the vast tropical gardens of Blue River Resort
Giant Blue Morpho butterflies in the butterfly garden
Blue morphos feed on rotten fruit, which of course gets them drunk and lethargic (and really emotional).
geothermal hot pools - very hot!
Volcanic mud is supposed to be really good for you. That may be so, but it smells like egg farts.
The next day was our actual wedding anniversary, and we decided to celebrate it by visiting Costa Rica's (indeed, Latin America's) most famous active volcano - Arenal. Volcan Arenal was known to the locals as Mount Arenal until 1968, when it unexpectedly erupted, killing 80 people and leveling 2 nearby towns. Since then, it has been constantly active, sputtering almost incessantly, and apparently the country is bracing for the next big eruption, which will undoubtedly occur some time in the future.

Arenal National Park
The volcano sits next to Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica, which also happens to be artificial. Having so much seismic activity is both a blessing and a curse for the country. A curse for obvious reasons, of course, but a blessing because it provides the country with a steady, unlimited, clean power supply. I was completely floored to learn that Costa Rica obtains 96% of its power from clean, renewable energy sources. NINETY SIX PERCENT, people! The country powers itself almost exclusively through geothermal, wind, and solar, for Chrissakes. This is astounding! Of course, the needs of a small, under-developed country are not the same as those of the global behemoths like the US, China and India, but still - this is something we should be talking about and learning from! Why have I never heard about this?!

You can tell by the picture above that the lake is very low. The guide who accompanied us on this day tour mentioned that he had never seen lake Arenal at this level, because it hadn't been this low since its construction. A shorter rainy season, and a more erratic overall climactic pattern have seriously affected the lake, to the point where power disruptions are imminent and expected. Unlike in the US, however, this is actually recognized as a problem. Apparently, in Costa Rica, there is no discussion about the validity of Climate Change - it is understood and accepted by everyone. People generally seem to be a lot more aware and attuned to the situation than in certain countries that shall remain nameless.

Arenal - beautiful and formidable in full view.
Official  3 year anniversary portrait. 

The weather changes very fast around the peak. Clouds roll in in a matter of minutes. This is why plane and helicopter tours are not offered in the area.
I think we were extremely lucky to see the volcano on a day that was neither clear, nor completely overcast. The shifting clouds playing across that giant conical edifice gave the scene a kind of permutable, fleeting beauty. That made up for the fact that it wasn't erupting while we were there :)

After a tour of Arenal, we took a guided walk through the rain forest of the park, where we learned about the countless species of flora and fauna that call this area home, as well as the conservation efforts that the Costa Rican government has in place to protect these unique and fragile ecosystems.

In the afternoon we were taken to another nearby resort with volcanic hot springs. This resort had 8 tiered pools where the temperature varied from hottest on the top, to coolest on the bottom, though, to be honest, the difference wasn't that noticeable from one to the other, it was %&*$! hot in 1 through 8, if you ask me. The water actually comes out of the earth at close to boiling, and has to be diluted to a safe temperature before flooding these pools. It's still scalding, though! So we did some of our own diluting by enjoying frosty pina coladas poolside.

the tiered pools.
boiled alive!

At the end of the day we had dinner at a typical Costa Rican restaurant right by the side of Arenal. When we arrived, it was completely overcast and foggy, so much so that we couldn't even see the driveway we came up on, let alone the volcano. But, during dinner, as I glanced out the wall-to-wall window, suddenly it was there, perfectly clear, like a perfect triangle drawn in the clouds, a lot closer than I thought. All day it played hide-and-seek with us, this geological monster, but it did grant us a beautiful parting glimpse.

The next day we traveled to Heliconias Lodge - a private development in the rain forest used for education and conservation. We went to spend some time in the cloud forest, and check out some "hanging bridges" that Costa Rica is known for - swaying suspension bridges high in the canopies of the woods.

View from Heliconias lodge. You can kinda see lake Nicaragua on the horizon, the border between Costa Rica and its neighboring Nicaragua
walking in the crown of the forest

Eye level with the canopy - a new perspective on the forest.
The whole thing squeaks and squeals and sways from side to side.
an armored caterpillar. Hard as wood, it curls up into a ball when it feels threatened.
life is everywhere. Here, a bug hiding inside a curled up leaf.
Pithecoctenium Crucigerum, aka - Monkey Comb.
I can't tell you how much I enjoyed these rain forest hikes. I've always loved being "in the woods" in general; deciduous, coniferous, arctic, tropical, you name it. There's a wonderful feeling of being enveloped by nature on all sides, a highly textured, pleasantly claustrophobic feeling, like being cradled in primeval matter. The chorus of greens, so full of life and activity, the intoxicating clean air,  - it all just makes you feel good. I highly recommend a walk in the woods whenever you need a pick-me-up.

In the evening we drove along the coast of Papagayo gulf, with its many beautiful bays and quiet beach towns, and enjoyed yet another gorgeous dusk by the sea.

On our last day, we decided to take it easy and spend the day around the resort. JW Marriott is located in a new development called Hacienda Pinilla, which was still very much in construction at the time of our visit. It is a sprawling property of many, many acres, containing, besides the resort, several upscale residential developments, stables, golf courses, beach clubs, private beaches, and miles of trails. It's actually a small city in itself. We rented a couple of bikes, which is a perfect way to explore the beachfront flatlands of the Hacienda. First, we stumbled upon a gorgeous (and almost completely deserted) beach club. The cocktails looked delicious, and what vacation day can properly begin without at least one alcoholic beverage in the system?!

Hacienda Pinilla beach club: paradise on Earth

The weather was perfect for a swim, and the beach - completely deserted, so some frolicking in the waves was definitely in order. Although... frolicking is probably not the most accurate word here. These are not waves you gently bob upon. The surf is super challenging, so it was more like wrestling than frolicking - a lot of fun, and a great workout! I was glad no one was around, because I lost my top more than once during my swim.

6 foot swells. No joke.
A little farther on, we found a quieter beach. The tide was low, and tide pools were teeming with life. The latent marine biologist in me was enthralled and got burned to a crisp observing hermit crabs move about the flooded crannies.

That is pretty much the extent of our adventures. There were a few other notable moments, such as being caught in a 7.6 magnitude earthquake while en route to an active volcano (this is not as dramatic as it sounds, I'm afraid, the 4 aftershocks I felt in the following days which hit in the middle of the night were a lot more noticeable).

There was also the 5.6 magnitude "aftershock" which hit as we were waiting to board our plane, which diverted our incoming flight to Nicaragua, just in time for a volcano explosion which grounded the plane in Managua. We did, however, get this as a souvenir:

It's not every day.
Overall, I learned a lot on this trip. One important thing that I already mentioned, is the Costa Ricans' unwavering acceptance of the imminence and challenges of climate change, and the great pains they go to to secure their energy responsibly, as well as protect their ecology. Even in the face of an onslaught of tourists they get every year, they maintain their forests and beaches in pristine condition. There is just a ubiquitous, palpable mentality that our world is not just an asset or a resource, that we are stewards of nature, not consumers of it. I found this to be refreshing, and, unfortunately, surprising.

Costa Rica is #1 on the New Economic Foundation's Happy Planet Index, a rating of human well-being which is weighted to give progressively higher scores to nations with lower ecological footprint. (USA is rated 105). A Gallup Poll finds Costa Rica in the top 10 happiest countries in the world (this poll focuses on positive feelings and experiences, which illustrates once again that there is a science to human well-being and happiness, and wealth is not high up on the list of things that contribute)

Costa Rica does not have a military. At all. In fact, it is constitutionally abolished as of 1948. The money previously spent on the military is now diverted to education and culture.

Ask any Costa Rican you meet, and they will all tell you that they love their life just as it is, that they are generally, simply, happy. Would I myself go live there? No, probably not. But - this Pura Vida stuff is definitely something to think about.