Friday, 25 June 2010

Campeche - a day doin it the American way!


Just as Urvi had chosen Real De Catorce as a ‘must visit’ place, I somehow decided that Campeche was a place that had to be on our southern mexico route. Campeche, according to the guide book is a super picturesque town, which is just like being in a postcard. Well, I can tell you that this was not our impression or opinion.

The streets of Campeche are famous for being super narrow and cobbled and lined with colourful houses that create a patchwork of pastel shades - you get the picture right! Ok, as we pitched up to the hostel the grayness and rain clouds started rolling over. I can tell you this for nothing, Campeche is a fair weather town. The moment the clouds rolled over all the colour and vibrancy of the streets disappeared. Being a coastal town we thought we would take a walk on the sea front, maybe that would cheer us up, well no, the sea wall walk of Campeche is about as exciting as walking along a 1960s high street - full of grayness bland buildings and shops full of nothing!

Aghhh! The depression was really setting in, the weather was closing in and the hunger was building. I can tell you this is a bad combo for Urvi and I!! We went looking for our favourite pick me up - Tacos.... Not only could we not find Tacos anywhere in the vicinity but we couldn't find a half decent eatery of any sort! This was now a desperately depressing situation! So much so that we ended up eating in... Wait for it... Burger King!!!!!! Oh man!! After weeks of glorious mexican fare we had to lower ourselves to Fries and Chilly Cheese things in the most typical American Eatery you can think of. Surely nothing could get worse...

Urvi was still wanting to sty out and explore the town but by now I had given up on the place. However we still persisted and roamed a bit further. To cut a long story shorter, we ended up spending the afternoon in an Office Depot and worse still a Wallmart!! I mean I thought we were in Mexico not middle America... While in the mecca of low prices and quality goods (Wallmart, for all non US residents) we heard a few very long claps of thunder, the grayness had turned to a full on tropical storm, and one that would stay with us for a few days!

Now what to do, we waited for a short let up on the rain and ran to the next stage of our US practice day - the local multiplex cinema. Oh my Goodness, what have we done, totally frustrated we bought tickets for the only show that was in English and settled down to watch the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street. This movie was bad, real bad, however it was only made worse by the fact that I had left my normal glasses in the room (as I had stupidly thought that it would be bright all day) and therefore had to watch the whole movie in my sunglasses, and then walk home in the night, in my sunglasses.

Trust me this was a really dark end to the darkest of days in Mexico.

Takeaway message, if you are gonna visit Campeche, check the weather reports...

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Riding like Cowboys in the ghost town of Real De Catorce


Every so often Urvi pulls a real gem out of the bag when it comes to places to visit. Real De Catorce has definitely been one of these. Located about 5 hours north of Mexico City the town gained fame a few hundred years ago for silver mining and became rich through this industry. Then as suddenly as the town grew, it shrunk to nothing, everyone left and a ghost town remained. In modern days there has been a revival and the town, now driven by tourism is kind of flourishing again.

The route to the town was a hard one, with 3 buses and a number of cities to be passed, the final hour or so was on what is renowned as being the worlds longest cobble road! After an hour bumping our way along I am willing to believe this! The final leg of the journey was through a 2 km long tunnel, for the town is cut off from the rest of the world by a large group of hills.

Emerging into the late evening light we felt as if we had travelled back in time. There was definitely an eery feel to the place but something that was somewhat cosy also!!

Through the tunnel the temperature had suddenly seemed to drop too! It was positively cool... We found our guesthouse, and for the first time in a while made sure there were blankets and not a fan!

Urvi had planned this whole section out really well. We were to stay here 2 nights, and in so doing, we could enjoy the night skies, the sunny days and beat all the day trippers that might make the trip. It was a Thursday, and as we stepped out in the evening to look for something to eat, we were greeted by nothing but total silence. Everything seemed to be closed! Was this Ecuador again, there nothing seemed to be open for very long, but in Mexico this was a new experience for us. In any case we found something good to eat and shared a great chat with the cafe owner, he advised us to watch out for the weekend as things would hot up then...

The next day was one of the best in Mexico. We hired horses and took a wonderful half day horse trek into the Sierra Madre mountains. The horses were wonderful and really healthy, and our guide was really good as well, although I worried about him as he perched on the back of a tiny donkey and trundled along behind us! We trekked for a good few hours, to the top of a famous hill lookout and prayer spot. There we just looked out on the flat lands that seemingly stretched on forever the road that we had bumped our way along the day before seemed to be the longest in the world of any type let alone cobbled!!! The scene was majestic and being on a horse to experience just seemed perfect. Again Urvi seemed to get the most energetic and pushy horse of the group (goes with her character maybe!!!), and she was always leading the pack, her horse would not let anyone go ahead of him, which made for some fun when he wanted to stop!!

The ride was one of the best things we have done in Mexico it gave us such a different view on the scenes and was so much more fun than walking the route!

On our return to the town, we said goodbye to our new friends and chilled out for sometime. Slightly apprehensive about being the only ones looking for dinner again we went for a tramp around the town, and were surprised to see the place buzzing! Kids were whizzing around on bikes and the restaurants were abuzz with townsfolk and others, we found a dream place that believe it or no had the BEST pasta and a wood burning fire. I think this was Urvis dream combination for that evening. We sunk into the cosy chairs, played cards between courses and totally pigged out on awesome goats cheese salads and Pasta. It was sublime!

I am sure our dinner in Real was not totally authentic! But it was totally symbolic of the feeling we had about the town. Real was a cosy, comforting town, where you wanted to just relax and take in the views all around you. It encouraged you to do little, think alot and eat even more! This was just the combo Urvi wanted and just the potion I needed!!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Copper canyon...!!!


When travelling through Mexico it soon became clear that in the 5 weeks we had we would have to ration our time and focus on a few areas. This has been a regular theme of the trip thus far. To be honest 18 months is no way near enough to visit, understand and experience even a few of the countries we have visited. People can rightly criticize the pace at which we have undertaken this trip, but broadly it has worked for us, so no matter!

Anyway back to Mexico. Pretty much as soon as we landed in Mexico City we knew that we would love this place and that we would want to visit again. So when planning the broader route the big debate for us was whether to head out to the Sea of Cortez, and Baja California or head inland and travel the Copper Canyon Railroad. The Sea of Cortez is the stretch of water that lays between the Mexican mainland and the long strip of land called Baja California. These waters are some of the richest in wildlife and great for diving. The Copper Canyon or in Spanish Cobre de Barranco is noted to be one of the worlds deepest and longest canyons. It is 1200m deep in places and incredibly interesting geologically. The highlight of the canyon is the railway that tip toes right on the edge and takes you on a 12 hour (straight through) roller coaster ride from Los Mochis on the western end to Chihuahua on the eastern side.

We opted to do the Copper Canyon. This was due to cost and the fact that we had been to Galapagos weeks before. Of course the Sea of Cortez will no doubt be on our list for the next trip here!

The plan for the Copper Canyon was to start our journey to El Feurte, a small town right on the western edge of the railway and split the route up with stops at Uriche and Creel. More about these towns later.

The train trundles its way over many bridges and through endless tunnels, and winds around impossible corners. The ‘second class’ train that runs ever other day was perfect for us, it was totally comfortable and full of locals. We also met some other travellers enroute, so had good company.

El Fuerte it self was another gorgeous oasis town, small in size but grand in stature. The day we arrived the temperature must have been up near 40c so we spent most of the afternoon indoors until the sun dipped away, and the scorching heat died down. The centre of town was then filled with families milling around and chomping their way through tacos and other treats. We joined them in the plaza and spent a lovely few hours in the cool sunset light. It was really idilic.

The first leg of the actual train journey started early the next day, and took us to the station stop for Uriche. This leg was interesting but nothing that would blow your mind. After having travelled on quite a few amazing trains on the trip our expectations are usually set quite high now! The highlight of the day was arriving in Uriche. The station we got off at was Bauochivio, it wasn’t really a station, rather a junction in the tracks where the train stopped for a couple of minutes. From there we waited and waited for the bus that would take us down to Uriche. The ‘bus’ was one of the famous styled US school buses, and yes it was yellow in colour!! After a bone shattering 30 minutes, where it seemed that pretty much all the dust that was meant to be on the road made it into the bus we stopped again, at a village I couldn’t even tell you the name of. For some reason we were told to get off and get on another bus that was plonked in the road. At least an hour went by before the driver decided to get moving (I guess they take working breaks very seriously here!).

At this point the reason for the change to the smaller bus became evident. The ‘road’ down into the canyon and to Uriche was one of the most challenging you could imagine, 200m drops without any sense of safety rail and with dust everywhere! I am pretty chilled when it comes to these things but I can tell you the only thing distracting me from the drop were the unspeakable views down into the canyon. The vistas were totally magical. The late afternoon sun carved long shadows and rays through the rocks and the golden hues were varied in shade and intensity.

The views carried us right down to the bed of the canyon and hot and steamy Uriche. The villages in the heart of the canyon are also at the heart of the Marijuana trade in Mexico and the farmers don't really like travelers snooping around. However the villagers are also really helpful in telling you where is good to go and where is not so great! We did some day trekking and also watched a bit of the world cup, generally taking in the atmosphere of this small village like town.

A couple of our friends (that we made on the train) had met a few of the locals who agreed to drive up in their jeep back to the station to get our train, this ended up being the four of us jumping in the back of a pickup and holding on for dear life as the car sped up the canyon road! As we climbed the temperature dropped significantly and the scenes filled with conifer trees, just like a Scandinavian forest! It was crazy how things change when you ascend a kilometer!

The second leg of the train journey was super spectacular and took us another 5 hours to Creel. The tracks wind even harder, so much so that there is actually a point where it turns 360 degrees in a loop! We gazed through the trees peeking at the canyon and on the other side the forests gave way to barren desert type terrain, it was really amazing to see the variety. One of the stations on the route is super famous and everyone gets out here for a quick mad dash between 2 big attractions. The first is that this station is right on the edge of the canyon, so you can run over and check out the drop right from the platform. Even better than that is the 2nd attraction which is the taco stall, that serves up the best tacos on the line! They are divine and the timing of the stop is perfect at 1300!!

Creel was the end of the train line for us. We got down at this tourist centre, and to be honest apart from a short tour of the scenic valleys, there was not much to get excited about. We took the bus straight to the violent fortress of Chihuahua (jst kidding!) to take the bus back south to Zacatacas.

The Copper Canyon railroad is a memorable trip that really set off our trip to Mexico. Despite being so tremendously beautiful and comfortable the railroad didn’t seem to be on many peoples routes. This was good for us. Having the whole canyon seemingly to ourselves was a special experience. It is really true to say that this mammoth feat of geology really does ROCK!!!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Mexico's Wonderful Oasis Towns

Mexico is a very interesting country, at first glance everything seems to be tacos and sombreros, but very quickly you soon start to see the many layers that lay under the surface.

The first thing that struck me was the depth of history that Mexico possesses. For example there were large population civilisations existing about 3000 years ago, in the form of the Olmecs. This history of advanced civilisations continues through many centuries until the present day and the Mexico we see now. One of the highlights of the northern section of the trip for us were the Spanish colonial towns, that not surprisingly came up through the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico!

To us these towns, such as Guanajuato and El Fuerte, were like gushing oases in the centre of vast scrubland and desert. Urvi would often comment how we would drive through vast expanses where there was nothing but fields and then boom, we would hit upon a city with bright and gleaming buildings. It was really an amazing experience.

The Spanish ruled over much of South and Central America just as the British did across Asia and Africa. However there is an interesting contrast in the styles of ruling. The Spanish settled and integrated in their new lands whereas the British ruled from afar, from the garrisons and from England. This contrast is clear and seen in the populations and language and culture of the Americas. Most of the countries speak Spanish, and the populations are significantly of Spanish origin or at least mixed. This is not the case in India for example!

So back to the oasis towns of the North. These towns all have such well kept and beautiful Spanish colonial hearts that they just ooze style and panache, they totally meet the postcard expectations and have colour running through every street. The sun seems to always shine here and the people are like actors on the biggest of film sets. They just seem to glow and sparkle just as your mind would see it. The streets are often cobbled or paved, and people go about their business just as they have always done.

We spent quite a few days in these towns and although it could be said that they were a little same same - churches, picturesque plazas, food markets, white washed and colourful buildings - we definitely could not get enough. The colonial towns of central and northern Mexico are certainly full of character and charm and totally one one of the highlights for us of this wonderful country.

Podcasts Saved My Sanity!

What is he talking about I hear you say! This is either because you don't know what a podcast is or because you are thinking how can they be the saviour of anything!!

OK, to help the first group out, podcasts are a bit like audio magazines. People publish a podcast on a regular basis, on just about any topic you can imagine. More than that, large news and media groups churn out huge numbers of podcasts so that you can download and listen to programmes when you want to. This makes podcasts super useful for people who commute or travel alot, just like us.

So how did they save my sanity? Well, I guess this is putting a bit strongly but they did make all the bus journeys I did across the whole length of South America a much more manageable experience. Looking out of the window on the world flying by, is a really great experience, you think and then go blank and then think some more, but at some point things started to get a bit toxic, my mind would be very jumbled and confused and you don't know which thought goes where. This is where distraction comes in. Picking up the iPod and putting on some news, or a comedy show or some documentary gave me the perfect distractions and enabled me to really just relax.

Podcasts were really a saviour. I could download them when I had a chance and as I had my favourites already set up it was a breeze. The list of podcasts probably would not suit most people as it was a mix of UK, US and Indian news (mainly BBC radio 4 news podcasts), some sports podcasts and some Jazz music. I then added a few of my favourite comedy shows from Radio 4 and a good helping of Apple Computer gabs. These were really good at helping me sleep too!! The final podcast I have is super interesting and I suggest everyone download it, especially if you have school age kids, its the BBC radio 4, A history of the World in 100 objects podcast. The basic concept is that the director of the British Museum - probably the foremost collection of world antiquities in the world (!) - chose 100 objects with which to narrate the history of the world. It is really very interesting and as each section is only 15 minutes its a great intro to world history. I helped me put a lot of the things we saw in South East Asia and South America into context.

So heres a great example of how technology can be useful and how it can help the travelling experience. I think that an iPod should be on every travelers list and they should grab podcasts as they travel round, they are so specific to each person that you are sure to find something that will save YOUR sanity!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

If Mexico were a Cinema...

Sometimes when I am writing the blog I run out of funny or mind bending things to write (some would probably say that I have never written anything funny or mind bending!) and then I go out searching for inspiration. Well mexico is certainly full of this!

I try and describe things in different ways. So during one of our many ‘plaza, chilling, watching the world go by’ sessions I came across the thought of what if Mexico were a movie theatre, what would it be like...? I reckon it would be one of those super cool movie halls of the 1950s, the sort that you would find in many towns across the land.

The kind of movie theatre Mexico represents would have to have the funky couples chairs where you can sit with your date and share sweeties together, cos everyone loves to ‘be close’ here. You see couple literally embraced in the metro as if they were, well glued together, I think they even walked off on to the platform in the same position! They love to be emotional and show their love, people are always kisses and canoodling in the plazas and parks, and it is super normal. Old people don't tut in distain when they see a young couple or newly weds, they just think of how it was for them! People have a lovely air of relaxed expressiveness and for that the theatre would need the couple chairs - in the back row of course!

My Mexican cinema would of course have plenty of nachos to go round and loads of popcorn. Both dishes are made from corn and corn is something very dear to the hearts of Mexicans. So these are obvious additions. The only difference is that the nachos and the popcorn would have copious amount so of chili sauce all over them, yup the popcorn too!

The movie playing would have to be a really funny one and full of dialogues and punch lines. These guys LOVE to talk. I thought that India was a talkative country, not compared to Mexico. EVERYONE is chatting gossiping and catching up here. People seem to be ‘doing coffee’ all the time and when friends or relatives meet they just spend time talking and joking. It is nice to sit quietly in a coffee shop or outside in a restaurant for a few minutes and just look around. There are definitely none of the sullen faces we sometimes seem in the West, people eating alone or worse still eating together in silence, kids don't come to the table with the notable white iPod headphones hardwired into their ears. People share stories, jokes and nachos all at once. It rocks.

And of course the movie would be full of colour and music. The same as any typical town in Mexico. The colour oozes around all the walls and the beats ring from the door ways

So as you can see if mexico were a cinema it would be a fun fun place to be. But you don't have to hope that cinemas were like this, just come to Mexico the country and experience it all right now!!

Mexico!! Its like we have a whole country to ourselves...

Mexico is definitely not virgin territory for travelers, and places like Cancun have more foreigners than Mexicans tramping the beaches, but travelling through the northern parts of Mexico we have felt more alone and apart from backpackers than anywhere else. Sure this is probably a function of having been in South America for 5 months, where the gringo trail is so well worn that you have to really climb high to get out of it. I felt more of a traveller in south America, but the experience seems to be much better value here in Mexico. So far traveling has been about meeting people and sharing experiences, for me Mexico is simply about the experience. I am in a phase right now where I don't want to meet new people and go through the process of introductions and sharing stories. Right now it is about the place and me, the country and my reactions to it. Mexico is totally achieving this. There is no real reasoning for this sudden change in tone and the need to be alone, I thin that during any long periods of time people go through phases traveling is no different. There are days when all Urvi wants to do is curl up and read a book, we did this in Ushuaia before taking the Antarctica expedition. There are days when all I want to do is watch Man Utd thrash some poor team in the league. So days come and days go but you cant keep up a pace this frantic all the time. Mexico was therefore clearly a god send!

So just why is Mexico so traveller free? I guess there are a few factors to this. In the main the truth is that it is not so free of travelers, it's more that there is not one straight route and trail that you end up taking. We are doing two 'loops' north and then south of Mexico City, and most people travel through the south only, the second reason for the real sparsity of travelers is likely to be the worries of the violence throughout the country. Of course this is not at all a problem but especially for backpackers from the US people have been scared off and the numbers are definitely down. The other reasons include some worries around the continuation of swine flu, and maybe as a function of the summer hot season - its too hot for most.

All in all Mexico felt notably quieter of travelers than anywhere else we have been so far. For me this was super cool as I felt we had the country to ourselves and I definitely had the space to free my mind, stretch my feet and fill my stomache!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Mexico City Hostel, an oasis of calm in the centre of a thriving city.

Normally our process for selecting a hostel is based on Urvi choosing the cheapest highest rated hostel on the hostelworld web site, and this ordinarily works well. However never has the choice of hostel made such a difference to our experience of a city than in Mexico City. The hostel here has been a total gem and I would say totally changed and enhanced our stay in this city.

Hostal Cuija Coyoacan was located in a cool leafy upper middle class suburb that welcomed us back home each evening. There was a lovely central plaza area that would come alive in the evening, we would head down there every day and have dinner in the park areas. It made me feel just like a local! The hostel itself was a large modernist house of the 1950s or so. It was pretty modern and angular and kind of reminded me of a Frank Lloyd Wright establishment, but as with actual houses from this designer the house was pretty warm and welcoming. There was an awesome dining room and relaxed living area and all of this really made it feel like being at home.

The highlight of the hostel were the staff, or I should say the one staff member who was there! She would do pretty much everything and was so efficient and helpful that we just were put at ease at all times. The breakfast was made by her and it was bliss getting up to a cooked breakfast with no faffing around thinking what to cook and where to eat.

All in all much of the warmth we felt to Mexico City was due to the hostel we stayed at. And nowhere else have we been so glad to have such a nice place as here.

Mexico City - What A Place And What A City!!

I'm not sure what most people think when they think of Mexico but my thoughts were of the food and cowboys and hot dusty climates with hotter and dustier buses. Mexico city was to me something of a polluted and dangerous wasteland with not much going for it. Oh how wrong could I have been!

We have been in Mexico City for 5 days and I think we could stay here for 5 weeks without being fed up or bored! Mexico City is a Latin version of Bangkok - it is an overload on your senses and a total pleasure to spend time in. Before I run away with the complements I should say that there is no doubt a difference between visiting and living, and everyone who has lived here does talk about how difficult a place it is without being really rich, however I can only talk about the place in terms of visiting, and in this context it rocks!!

There are a few things that struck us straight off, firstly just how friendly and helpful the people are. Right from the airport, to the subway through to the guys on the street, people were kind and thoughtful. The beauty of the city was marked also, with large wide avenues and green lush parks surrounding multiple plazas, it was lovely. The city is full full full of nice architecture and grand buildings, so much so that just like buenos aires you feel like you are in a tropical london.

The culture and music oozes around Mexico city and you really get a sense that people love to be with each other. I am sure that a lot of the western TV and gaming culture is also taking hold, but it was noticeable that in the cool of the evening. The locals loved to be out, milling around, eating snacks and most of all talking talking talking. People seemed to be so relaxed and really confident.

Mexico city is a large place with over 15 million people living and surviving within the city limits, and sure much of the population struggles and survives rather than thrives, but even in these areas people enjoy the life they lead and this, as ever, is a message we should take back to our own lives. But on the face of it the city rocks and we fell in love with it.

Ps the buses are not dusty at all either, and second only to Argentina!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Never Judge A Country By A Foriegn Office Report

So far on the trip we have never worried about the safety of any of the places with have been. When we were in Tibet it was no bother and neither was Thailand and Bangkok with all its interesting civil unrest. So when we planned to go Mexico neither Urvi or I thought twice about the safety angle.

If the US state department were to be believed Mexico is actually more dangerous than travelling to Afghanistan or Iraq!! Mexico is now 2nd on their ‘dodgy’ list. Ok of course this must be taken with  pinch of salt and a bit of common sense. But in this is a lesson that I think we should learn which is danger and safety are important concepts to think about but, I dont want us to turn too cautious.

State departments all around the world must protect citizens, but citizens must be sensible too. Our trip to Mexico will largely concentrate on the central and southern, well trodden paths that take you to some of the heavy hitting tourist towns of Zacatecas, Guadalajara, Oaxaca and Palenque for example. The only slightly dodgy areas we will hit is the northern copper canyon route that ends in Chihuahua. I know what you are thinking - how can a town with such a name be dangerous in any way! But the deal with Mexico is that there is a major drugs war going on and Chihuahua is in the middle of it. More broadly the copper canyon is in the centre of Mexico's drug growing region and its not that you are in danger here but more that the local 'farmers' don't want you sniffing around in the village during the harvesting time.

So sure things are happening in Mexico but as someone told me, there are more deaths in south washington dc as there are in the northern mexico towns. How true that is i don't know but the message is the same... Everything is dangerous and everywhere you have to be careful. Its just a question of proportionality and balance how much risk you want to take with how much freedom you want to feel. Travelling is surely about testing ourselves and pushing the limits...

I would not want to miss Mexico for anything!!!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Yes its been a really long time...

I just wanted to apologise for the long gap between posts on the blog. My normal process is to compose a few posts for the blog offline and then upload. However unfortunately the windows based netbook that we have been travelling with just gave up in the heat of Mexico city and has totally died on me! I can't do anything with it and as a consequence my blogging has been severely Impeeded. I hope that the purchase of a much more reliable Mac will get us motoring with the blog again... but in the meantime I have had to blog on my trusty iPod touch. This is fine but the 3 inch screen is not hugely conducive to writing large paragraphs.

An arguement to get a new ipad for sure!!

in any case these technical issues mean that i will be updating the blog in stages from our base in Mission Control in Boston, with Bhaiya. this is going to take me some time i am sure so bear with us!! Pics will also be coming very soon.

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