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Big cities exert a strange fascination and I’m glad to have a chance to get to know Mexico City a bit.

My excuse for an extended stay in the D.F. is provided by David, an old friend from Sydney, who is meeting me here in the metropolis as the starting point for a couple of weeks of Mexican exploration and adventure. We’ve been tossing ideas around in cyberspace for a couple of months now and we want to check out the city and then climb a few volcanoes. David has a special interest in earthquakes and disaster which extends to all geological events, including volcanic activity.

The Mexican flag flying high over the Zocalo in Mexico City.

My sister, refusing to concede defeat and allow me to travel the world poorly dressed, has sent the little black dress that I finally divested myself of in Zacatecas – by including it in a package of Mexican goodies that I sent to her in Sydney – back to me using David, who is also a friend of hers, as a courier. So after David has recovered somewhat from the 30 hour journey from Australia, we make our way to Coyoacan in the south of D.F. on the practically compulsory pilgrimage to Frida Kalho’s house, both nattily dressed in black.

Frida Kahlo is a cultural figure that requires celebration no matter what one thinks of her art work and we spend a happy day in the Blue House discussing life and politics. David is keen to start an un-australian political party and we decide that Central Mexico seems like it might be a perfect place to set up headquarters.

Hanging out at Frida's house: no visit to Mexico City should fail to include a visit to the Blue House. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

Me and Frida. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

David's eccentric footwear makes it a trifle difficult for him to pass unnoticed on the streets of Mexico City.

After a few days in the city, we set off towards Nevado de Toluca, the first of the volcanoes we intend to visit. Since David doesn’t have a bike, we decide to travel by a combination of buses and hitch-hiking, a state of affairs I have very mixed feelings about. However, despite any misgivings I might have, we leave D.F. on a comfortable bus, complete with movie screenings and the possibility of wi-fi. Arriving in Toluca, a couple of hours later, we catch another much more basic bus towards the mountain, which at around 4700 metres looms large in the distance.

I rode past this mountain only a week ago and so I am familiar with the terrain but as the rattletrap old bus heads west and starts to climb  we are deep in discussion and completely miss the point were we should get off the bus to enter the national park. Eventually we realise that we are descending the mountain again and, after hastily leaping from the bus, we have to hitch hike back to the entrance of the national park.

The un-australian hitch hiker. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

It is late afternoon by the time we find ourselves climbing the mountain on foot and we only walk an hour or so before setting up camp in the forest just below the snow line. The mountain is quite high and a night’s rest is probably a good idea in order to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude – especially for David, who was at sea level only a couple of days ago.

Late afternoon sun on Nevado de Toluca.

Sunset on the mountain.

The morning brings bright sunshine and a biting icy wind blowing relentlessly over the snow covered mountain top. We walk along a well made gravel road, passing communication towers and a meteorological station before reaching a mountain hut, where we leave our bags, and make the final ascent of the mountain. By the time we reach the top we both have splitting, attitude induced, headaches and we huddle down behind some sheltering rocks to rest for a while before making the descent.

In the morning we set off up the mountain. Not much real climbing is involved in getting to the top of Nevado de Toluca - there is a well made road and in summer it is possible to drive all the way into the crater. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

Looking down towards Toluca from the mountain top.

The central crater is a stark fantastic landscape.

Eventually we stumble down the mountain again and set up camp in the forest near the entrance to the park and fall asleep without even bothering to eat. In the morning we hitch a life back to Toluca, sharing the back of a pick up truck with an inebriated rural labourer, who sings dubious songs to David and I, in between questioning us thoroughly as to the exact nature of our relationship and swigging away on the unidentified contents of a plastic bottle. I think this man proposed the idea of marriage to me but his lack of teeth and my uncertain grasp of the Spanish language make it hard to be absolutely sure.

Back in Toluca, we board another bus to Morelia, the capital city of the state of Michoacan. I am pleased to the have the opportunity to visit this city, with a pretty well-preserved historical centre, which I missed on my previous travels in Michoacan. We arrive in Morelia mid-afternoon and wander the city for a while trying to find a hotel far enough from the touristy historic centre to be reasonably priced. The tourist information kiosk has no advice to assist with this endeavour but after a few false starts we stumble across the perfect accommodation on a lively square a kilometre or so from the Zocalo.

Window: the hotel in Morelia more than satisfies an exacting aesthetic criteria developed over years of watching road movies.

Courtyard tiles.

Courtyard washing.

Green walls in the entrance hallway.

During my visit to the butterfly sanctuary at El Capulin, I met, by chance, a Mexican cyclist activist and astro-physicist called Andres, who lives in Morelia, and so I contact him and we agree to meet for a drink. Walking through Morelia, we pass a square where an annual church festival is taking place. An elaborate kinetic, pyrotechnic sculpture has been installed in front of the church and we decide to return after dark to watch the display.

Kinetic firework structure.

Home-made pyrotechnics.

Eventually the structure is lit up...

... and wheels...

...and hearts start to spin......

... until, in the grand finale, a giant crown takes off flying high above the church towers.

After the pyrotechnics we return to Andres’ house where we meet Dona Cleta, a giant puppet, who will take part in tomorrow’s Critical Mass ride in Morelia. Unfortunately, I am bikeless for the moment and, as David and I are intending to set off towards Paricutin, our second volcano, in the morning, I regretfully decline to participate myself.

Meet Dona Cleta. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

Keeping the peace in Morelia: in Mexico the police always travel in large numbers and with masked faces.

In order to reach our next destination, Angahuan – a small indigenous settlement close to Paricutin, we decide to try our luck with a more extended hitch hiking adventure. The journey goes in fits and starts – the rides are short, interspersed with long waits by the roadside in the bright sun – and by late afternoon we have made it only to the outskirts of Uruapan, a mere hundred kilometres or so away from Morelia. We give up and jump on a local bus for the final stretch to Angahuan where we are fortunate enough to be given, what turns out to be, an excellent recommendation for accommodation as soon as we get off the bus.

We make our way through the dusty village streets accompanied by a strange relentless soundscape of multiple loudspeakers emitting rising and falling chants in the local indigenous language. We follow the white pick up truck that was pointed out to us by our informant at the bus stop to an unmarked gate where we are soon led by a woman, in the full skirts and lacy petticoats of the local indigenous costume, to a building sitting on the hillside in an expansive garden. We are shown our room which has an open fire place where we cook a much needed hearty dinner of lentil and vegetable soup over a wood fire.

On questioning our hostess about the ubiquitous broadcasting in the village, she informs us that these spoken word works are, disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, merely advertising. The morning brings a renewed aural assault when the noise emitted by the loudspeakers is accompanied by a brass band roaming the streets of Angahuan, pursuing a wedding party in a scene reminiscent of the opening of the movie, Underground.

An excellent place to stay at Angahuan - lovely simple rooms with open fireplaces. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

The roof tops of Angahuan - the village is, sadly, a relentlessly noisy place.

We prepare for our visit Paracutin, a journey that entails a twelve mile round hike from the Angahuan. Paricutin is only a small volcano but it has the distinction of being one of the youngest in the world. The volcano emerged from a local corn field in the 1943 growing to a height of close to 400 metres within a year and spreading ash and lava over an area of 25 square kilometres over the next 9 years of activity. Two local communities, Paricutin and San Juan Panrangaricutiro, were inundated by the eruptions which ceased in 1952.

I spend some time before we set off attending to shoe repairs: my shoes have taken a bit of a beating over the last nine months. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

We leave the village, evading the horse touts, and make our way to the buried village of San Juan. The path is uncertain but the church tower rising out of the lava field provides an unmistakable landmark.

Church towers rising from the lava field offer an unmistakable landmark.


Buried church - it seems that the second tower hadn't been completed at the time of the volcanic eruption.

After wandering for some time around San Juan, we are ready to make our way to volcano itself but finding our way from the ruins to the base of the volcano starts to look a little more challenging than expected. We have also been further discouraged by a story Andres related in which he spent a day searching fruitlessly for the access path to the volcano despite the mountain’s obvious presence on the horizon.

Eventually we strike a compromise with a guide who offers to accompany us to the start of the path crossing the lava field for half the fee of the complete trip. He sets off through the scrubby forest and fields of volcanic ash at a cracking pace with David and I trailing behind. When we reach the edge of the lava field he issues some vague instructions and we are left to our own devices in attempting to cross the 3 or 4 miles to the volcanic cone.

The going is slow over the rough ground and abrasive surfaces and we constantly lose the path struggling over volcanic boulders but gradually we creep closer and closer to the cone.

The volcano peeping over the lava field.

The last section is a desperate scramble up the volcano’s steep ashy sides. Having gained the summit, however, we are very happy to admire the incredible landscape.

Looking back down on the visible remnants of San Juan Parangaricutiro.

The view from the top of the volcano.

The volcano is a monogenetic volcano, which means that it will never erupt again, but, despite its status as extinct, puffs of steam emerge from the ground which is too hot to sit on for any length of time.

Un-australian on the crater. (Photo @dvrodgers)

Puffs of steam emerge from the ground around the crater.

Denizens of the volcano.

Volcanic creature.

The general atmosphere is sultry and humid and slightly inhospitable.

Steaming ground.

We descend the cone and struggle back over the lava field, following in the footsteps of a fellow hiker who is, unaccountably, carrying a mountain bike over the volcanic boulders and return exhausted to the village where we spend another night.

We wake in the morning ready to tackle our next mission which is to hitch hike to the coast of Michoacan, about 250 kilometres to the west, where we intend to spend a few days relaxing on the beach. There are two routes to the coast available to us and we decide to take the slightly more convoluted one. It turns out that this decision means we are on roads that see little traffic and we make very slow progress. After covering about 100 kilometres, as darkness falls, we flag down a bus which takes us to the town of Coalacoman, where we spend the night before continuing in the morning. Again our attempts to hitch hike end in defeat and by mid-afternoon we arrive at Maruata by bus.

Maruata is a Pacific dream – a sleepy fishing village on a wild rocky coast populated with abundant wild life. Pelicans wheel ceaselessly over the waves and plummet headlong into the water in pursuit of fish.

Maruata is a relaxed fishing village on a rugged, beautiful coastline...

... waves crash onto its craggy beaches...

... and pelicans hurl themselves at the water in pursuit of fish...

..., ceaselessly,...

..., without restraint.

We spend the days relaxing under shade structures and wandering along the beaches where whales swim just off-shore, leaping periodically from water.

Shade structures line the beach and for a few pesos it is possible to pitch a tent under them.

The simple construction and biodegradable materials are inspiring.

Life can be a beach.

After dark, giant Pacific Black Turtles make their way up onto the beach and perform their labourious nesting rituals. The females haul themselves across the sand and then start to dig, initially with their front flippers, to clear a large area of loose material and then, painfully slowly, they excavate a smaller deeper cavity with their rear flippers. Once the hole is prepared – and sometimes they dig several before they are completely satisfied with the result – the turtle lays a clutch of up to seventy eggs before burying them and dragging herself, exhausted and sighing, back down to the sea.

Maruata is one of the turtle reserves that line the Michoacan coast. The threatened Giant Pacific Black Turtles nest here. A female is digging a hole to lay her clutch of eggs - a process that takes up to an hour to complete. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

Around 50 to 55 days later, the results of this labour emerge. Tiny babies, absurdly miniature versions of their giant 100 kilo mothers, emerge from the sand and scurry about, in wild disarray, trying to find their way to ocean. The youngsters clearly are a little lost and disorientated and the last baby turtle to emerge from the nest we observe has a deformed back flipper –  as it struggles across the sand falling far behind its brothers and sister the urge to help is incredibly hard to resist.

More midnight activity: baby turtles, emerging from the sand before scuttling down the beach to the water.

It is the week before Easter – semana santa (holy week) – the major annual holiday in Mexico, a period in which almost everybody attempts to be at the beach and preparation for the influx of visitors to Maruata are well underway. People are extending the shade structures of their enramadas and a ramshackle funfair appears in the village square.

Beachside fun fair.

Dodgy mechanics.

Carny life.

I could happily dream my life away at Maruata but after a couple of days we decide to take advantage of a fortuitous lift which will take us all the way back to Mexico City with Armando and Eduardo, a couple of fellow campers. After an epic twelve hour journey, we find ourselves back in the seething metropolis.

Mexico City metro.

Barranca de Muerto - the Canyon of Death - nice name for an underground railway station! The symbol is two vultures in flight.

The return to Mexico City provides us with a variety of peculiar entertainments.

While we are enjoying beer and fish at a cantina, we are approached by a shady character with a strange machine and we submit ourselves to mild electric shocks for a small fee.

The game - a man charges 15 pesos to pass a electric current through his customers. The idea is to see how much voltage you can bear. (Photo: @dvrodgers)

A Sunday afternoon wrestling match proves to be a theatrical pantomime event with an appreciative and very participative audience, consisting of large numbers of children. People – and they are not only children – arrive wearing the masks of their favourite wrestlers and, despite the injunctions to refrain from using obscene words, chant virulent abuse at those they despise. My repertoire of Spanish insults increases considerably during this event.

A number of excursions into the areas east of the Zocalo reveal a range of shops selling cheap versions of absolutely anything at all.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Lee Wizasson | April 1, 2010 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    jeez ya look fit

  2. Sila | April 2, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Mexico looks like fun!

  3. zelda | May 17, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    relieved to hear the little black dress is back. thanks and praise to anna’s sensible sister!

  4. anna | May 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    ha! it didn’t last long… i sent it back with david when he left.

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