A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: millerburr

Why we love the road trip...

semi-overcast 15 °C

...because you may not see this at home - a sly swipe on the ubiquitous "Baby on Board" signs?

large_IMG_5366.jpg

And chances are, you won't see two identical white Maseratis, spotted within five minutes of each other, just outside San Francisco. I was too stupefied to get photos of either car, but I did manage to snap these old classics. Don't you think the driver of the Bronco looks like a Lego figure?

large_IMG_5351.jpglarge_IMG_5286.jpg
large_IMG_5496.jpg

You get to ponder different perspectives and political views.

The numbers left out in this sticker? - There are nearly 12,000 gun-related murders a year in the U.S., which since 1990, amounts to almost 300,000 deaths - Americans killing Americans. That does not include gun-related accidental injuries, fatalities and suicides.

large_IMG_5258.jpg

We stopped in Tucson for lunch and walked down a street filled with these lawn signs. We asked someone about them - Rosa is a Mexican woman who was an "undocumented" immigrant (nicer term than "illegal") who after years of living and working in Tucson, was discovered by authorities. She sought asylum in a church, and when the police tried to remove her, the community rallied.
It appears their pressure may have worked.

large_IMG_5259.jpg

It is so much fun to watch the landscape change. A single hour's drive can make the world of difference. Our original plan was to follow the coast road right up from San Diego to Newport, Oregon.

It started off with great drama - sand dunes. Signs on the highway warn about sudden sand storms - something else I would love to see from a safe distance, and not while driving. Our weather was warm and calm and the sand dunes posed perfectly for their photos.

large_IMG_4645.jpg

After we spent five (5) hours inching our way along the historic Pacific Coast Highway through greater Los Angeles, we realized we would need at least two weeks to do that drive properly. Good on us for avoiding the terrifying maw of L.A's freeways, but we soon discovered that finding proximity to the coast on a beautiful Sunday was not an original thought. No matter - first we drove through picture-perfect little towns like Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and Encinitas, and that warmed us up for the crawl through auto body shops, adult entertainment palaces and 2 for 1 pizza joints.
We loved this business plan - Liquor and laundry.

large_IMG_5327.jpg

Just when we thought our drive couldn't get any more picturesque, we arrived at the Los Angeles Port Authority - miles of containers followed by miles of refineries.

large_IMG_5324.jpg

No matter - The famous Venice Beach was just around the corner - home of Muscle Beach, rollerbladers, dog-walkers and Baywatch. They sell those skimpy red one-piece bathing suits made famous by Pamela Anderson - Stephen suggested I buy one.

large_IMG_5333.jpg

We walked along the main drag - past rows of T-shirt shops and hot dog stands.

large_IMG_5335.jpg

Venice was always well-known for its beachfront community of shingled cottages and we wondered if they might have been torn down by now, but no - much of this area is still filled with 3-storey apartment buildings and tiny, colourful homes. This sweet little house is typical (although we're quite sure the rents are no longer a bargain) and just a block from the beach, accessed by this charming flower-filled lane.

IMG_5329.jpg270_IMG_5330.jpg

Muscle Beach - this is where the ex-Governator got his start. His younger, buff self, complete with enhanced body parts,
is immortalized on this wall.

large_IMG_5332.jpg

We had our lunch -lamb gyros - on a bench by this park where fit young people were climbing ropes, doing chin-ups and otherwise staying bikini-ready. We watched this gentleman expertly slamming the punching bag for several minutes, and he then began showing passers-by (mainly young, attractive women) how to box. This being L.A., I figured he was someone with a backstory - moved here from Pittsburgh, landed a few bit parts in movies, but never quite made it. This is the land of broken dreams, after all. There are so many characters, my imagination just whirled into overdrive. This would not be a healthy place for me to live. For all I know, this man lives in Malibu, drives one of the aforementioned Maseratis, and comes down to Venice Beach to work out.

large_IMG_5339.jpg

My imagination went through the roof when we came upon this oddity. I didn't get the front view on film, but in addition to his fetching bathing costume, and fanny pack (!?!), this man had a broad gold medallion around his neck, and inexplicably, two horns on his head. There are undoubtedly fetishes in L.A. we know nothing about, but we were honestly at a loss.

large_IMG_5337.jpg

Moving on up the coast, the scenery moved from this:

large_IMG_5346.jpg

To lush green pastureland, with beautiful random trees:

large_IMG_5370.jpg

To this - higher elevations again, and a more northern look. We left southern California behind.

large_IMG_5378.jpg

We spent a night in Eureka, CA - on the coast, and we were struck by what this city must have looked like at one point, when lumbering and shipping and fishing were at their peak. I love the grandeur of some American small towns, even if they have fallen on hard times. Buildings like these are still intact, and they're beautiful. We had a modern dinner in an historic building - will this be a town that can reinvent itself?

IMG_5419.jpgIMG_5417.jpg

We were soon into farmland, heading into the Salinas valley - overwhelming in scope - impossible to guess, but I would think 10 miles across in the valley - planted rows, greenhouses, orchards - much like Mexico - these are the fields that feed us.

large_5995FE9EB7AC32661726C10EA1CBC57D.jpg

Wine country - no explanation necessary.

large_IMG_4659.jpg

We left California with a bang - driving through Redwood Forest. We stopped at Lady Bird Grove (named after Lady Bird Johnson). There is a bronze plaque given by former President Richard Nixon, in honour of Lady Bird's commitment to nature, and to saving the redwoods from clear-cutting. Not sure if all the credit goes to her, but we are grateful that someone stepped up - these are (almost) as awesome as our old-growth cedars (kidding... our American friends). We wished we had more time to wander - there are dozens of trails and roads and campgrounds in the area - another trip.

large_270_IMG_5441.jpglarge_IMG_5458.jpglarge_IMG_5450.jpg

And then into Oregon, one of our favourite states. Oregon has everything - ocean, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, awesome state parks, sand dunes, Portland, Ashland, Crater Lake, wineries, breweries, a great food culture and no state tax. Plus, it has two dear friends, Piotr and Ela - we met them years ago in Mexico, so stopping by for two nights to visit feels like we've wrapped up our trip in the nicest possible way.

large_IMG_5493.jpg

At the turn of the century Oregon decided that this magnificent shoreline should be available to all, and in 1967, after a few challenges, it was put into legislation - not one inch of this beach is private property. The coast road is pure joy to drive - for great chunks it runs right along the water, unfettered by high-rise developments or gated communities. These were some of our views as we drove north from California.
We were also grateful for the cool, misty weather - preparing us for our return to Gabriola.

large_IMG_5471.jpglarge_IMG_5468.jpglarge_IMG_5467.jpg

We stopped in Lincoln City for outlet shopping - even with our battered dollar, Stephen scored two pairs of Levi jeans for $100 CAN. To celebrate,we went to Mo's for lunch. Mo's is one of those institutions - seating for 100, seafood chowder that is brimming with clams and butter, and a clientele that goes nowhere without a fleet of walkers. It was fun - plus we had a great view from our window.

large_IMG_5489.jpglarge_IMG_5490.jpg

A pretty house in Lincoln City - wisteria and all. This house could be east or west coast, Canada or the U.S. - it just oozes Maritime charm.

large_IMG_5491.jpg

When Captain Cook discovered this area on March 7, 1778, it was the first location named on his voyage to the Pacific Northwest. He named it Cape Foulweather for its tempestuous weather - there are often 100mph winds.
We have visited it a number of times - this was a good day.

large_IMG_5479.jpglarge_IMG_5484.jpg

We spent a day and a half with Piotr and Ela and toured around Portland - in pouring rain for much of it - so we have no photos of the city. It served as a reminder of how much we love this city. In the not-too-distant future we will be spending more time here.

And now...the end is near. And so we face the final curtain. So strange. We're in Port Angeles, WA - far across the water from our hotel room window is Canada. Here's our view:

large_IMG_5504.jpg

It will be good to be home, even better to see many of you again. I'll miss writing this blog, and really miss hearing back from you. With love, thanks and friendship to you all. Until next time.
Stephen and Ginny

Unknown-1.jpeg

Posted by millerburr 20:46 Archived in USA Comments (14)

Confusion in the Copper Canyon

sunny 17 °C

I've read about the Copper Canyon for years - magnificent, wild, massive - it makes the Grand Canyon look like a rock cut (it is four times the size). This is one of Mexico's natural treasures you really have to work to get to - it is that remote. Finding adequate, correct, and current information about train schedules, lodgings, hiking paths, recommended activities, safety, etc. is challenging, but so worth the effort.

large_6C8D5BDF9AE0760A14D5A58AC7C68311.jpg

The Canyon is not close to anything - it is most sensibly accessed from Chihuahua in the northeast or El Fuerte in the southwest - and train is the only option from the south. You can't see the canyon in one day, so you must stay at least one night in the main canyon area and preferably several to do it justice. Think of the canyon as being on two levels. The upper level is where the train runs and where the towns of Creel and Divisadero are located. You'll find forests of pine, fir and oak, and cooler temperatures. The bottom of the canyon is sub-tropical, with palm, fig, papaya, and avocado trees. Somewhere in the canyon you may also find fields of cannabis and opium poppies, as well as some motivated cartel types who have made safety in the area a moving target in recent years. Apparently that has subsided (the danger to tourists, not the growing), as long as you are with a guide.
But to begin at the beginning, to begin our trip, we drove through the most desolate, dusty, one-horse towns in Sinaloa to arrive at El Fuerte - an oasis set on the Rio Fuerte. A colourful, prosperous, photogenic pueblo that is an attraction all on its own - how we wish we had known in advance that El Fuerte was worth an extra day's stay.

large_IMG_5069.jpglarge_IMG_5067.jpg

We passed by a stately main square, with an impressive municipal palace on one side, on past the town's museum, and then up the hill to our riverside hotel, the Rio Vista. This was the view from our balcony.

large_IMG_5066.jpg

The English-speaking owners ( two brothers) could not have been more welcoming. One of the brothers, Philippe, takes guests on river tours - he launches his boat on one end of the river and then floats down slowly to watch a huge variety of birds. Even from our deck we saw swallows, hummingbird, hawks, doves, orioles, red and black birds and birds with orange and black stripes. (I didn't catch the names, but I think one was a flycatcher). Philippe is also a great cook, and for dinner we had local black bass. Breakfast was served on the deck with this morning view:

large_IMG_4480.jpglarge_IMG_4485.jpg

We left bright and early to catch our train to Creel. This famous train, called El Chepe, runs a total of 405 miles from Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast through to Chihuahua. The whole trip takes 15 hours, crosses 38 bridges, goes though 80 tunnels and covers a wide variety of terrain from flat agricultural to rolling hills to lake country to canyon country. Our section of the ride took eight hours.

large_IMG_4611.jpg

This is the main transportation for locals (and as nationals they pay much less.) Tourists have the option of first and second-class cars. First class have fewer passengers, nicer seats, a dining car, and a more genteel experience (for twice the price.) We got a snack bar, worn seats and free entertainment. This gentleman boarded the train at some point and walked the aisles, selling apples, oranges and tamales. Sales must have been slow, as he quickly moved to Plan B. He wrapped a tie around his head, changed his shirt and with the help of very loud hand instruments that sounded like a cross between maracas and an accordion, began dancing madly down the aisle. My husband joined him with his own distinctive dance moves, much to the delight of the Mexicans.

large_IMG_4620.jpg

First class may have missed out on the impromptu talent show, but we both enjoyed the same spectacular views.

large_IMG_5102.jpglarge_IMG_5114.jpglarge_IMG_5147.jpg

We were on the very last car of the train, and had a grand time hanging out with the Mexicans on the outdoor platform. Every once in a while, the conductor would walk through and shoo people back to their seats, but within minutes, the platform between cars would fill up again - the smokers, the photographers and the little kids. It brought back great memories of my childhood train rides to Gaspe - hanging out with your head in the wind like a dog.

large_IMG_5138.jpg

This was also the best vantage point for appreciating the engineering marvel of this train track. Here ...one of many tunnels:

large_90_6CA87573C30B121529AAE96D851E8FD6.jpg

Some of the crew that keep this train on track.

large_IMG_5139.jpg

Riding over one of the many bridges.

large_IMG_5111.jpg

Look carefully at this photo. You can see the train entering into a tunnel on the top left corner. Now look at the curving track below - the train has already maneuvered that track, curved around and come back - an otherwise impossible grade for a train to navigate. We didn't feel a thing.

large_IMG_4629.jpg

This track took 90 years to complete, to connect the remote regions of Chihuahua to the Pacific coast and marketing the view to tourists was a secondary priority. Since its completion in the 60s, tourism has grown and the two main towns, Divisadero and Creel, are where most of the tourists stay. The town of Divisadero was the first main tourist stop, and the train stays there for about 15 minutes - long enough to jump off and take in the first real view of canyon. From this vantage point, you can see the many layers of the canyons and peer far down to the bottom. There are a couple of hotels here, and this is one of the two main towns that offer tours to the bottom levels. This was also our first glimpse of the Tarahumara, the indigenous people who live in this area.

large_IMG_5175.jpg

large_IMG_5182.jpg

Our new friends Bernie and Jody (from Vancouver) snapped this photo of us before we hopped back on the train. As it turned out, we were booked at the same hotel in Creel, so we hung out together for our whole visit. An unexpected bonus of this trip has been the many really wonderful people we've met along the way. Hopefully we will be able to keep in touch with some of them.

large_IMG_4552.jpg

Finally, we arrived in Creel, and were met by a man who explained that the hotel we had originally booked was full, but we would be going to the sister hotel. Needless to say, we were unnerved by this news, especially when we saw the exterior of the new place - razor wire, jutting rebar from the roof.
However, like many Mexican exteriors - the charm lay inside the front door. We walked into an open courtyard - quiet, cool, tranquil. Our room was spacious and spotlessly clean - all Mexican tile and furnishings. Included in our room rate of less than $50 was dinner and breakfast - delicious home cooking.
The town of Creel was a bit scruffy - a few historical buildings surrounded by a rather bleak collection of modest homes and businesses.

Now here's where our "Confusion in the Copper Canyon" comes in. Our research was not promising - websites were outdated, train schedules were conflicting, some sites encouraged advance booking, others promised 4-day hikes for thousands of dollars - we could not seem to wade through this mess to find concrete facts. Our impression was that the train ride was the best way to see the canyon (not true), and that Creel was the town with the most amenities and tour possibilities (true). If we had been able to find information that described the difference between top of canyon and bottom of canyon tours, we would have planned it differently. As it was, we stayed in Creel for two nights, and booked a tour to see the area around Creel - interesting enough, but we left knowing we had missed a lot. If any of you are planning a trip to the Copper Canyon, get in touch and we can point you in the right direction. So...back to our tour. We booked a 5-hour tour through our hotel with our English-speaking guide, Cesar.

large_IMG_5199.jpg

There were six of us in our group - Cesar picked us up in an aging van without seatbelts (entirely common in Mexico - when I asked Cesar about seatbelts, he just laughed). Our first stop was a food truck so Cesar could pick up his breakfast, and then we drove to the gas station to fill up the van. In the spirit of "going with the flow" (and stifling annoyance about his lack of preparedness), we amused ourselves by taking photos.

large_270_IMG_4571.jpg

Our tour was to take us to a number of places around Creel - a church, some rock formations, a lake, a waterfall and a cave where the Tarahumara people live. The Tarahumara, also known as Raramuri (swift runners) are indigenous people who have lived in this area for centuries - there are reportedly between 65,000 - 70,000 Tarahumara living between the upper and lower levels of the canyon, as well as in the towns. They are famous for being long-distance runners, and for being shy and reclusive. I was under the impression that a "sighting" might be as rare as spotting a unicorn. Not so - The Tarahumara are everywhere, and as Cesar told us, our tourist dollars have been a mixed blessing. When I inquired about the appropriateness of us visiting one of their caves, he assured us that they welcomed the chance to make a bit of money from the sale of their baskets (beautifully crafted from pine needles and grasses), and tips for taking their photographs.

large_BB31E1F6EF0C637AF22D23AB07F469C3.jpg

large_BB302F5BAD0E9D847D47A46FB5D651B0.jpg

large_IMG_5196.jpg

This huge cave is typical of the rock formations in the area - and these enormous openings have provided shelter for the Tarahumara for centuries. They also live in little homes like the ones below - in both cases without running water and electricity.

large_IMG_5207.jpg

These little girls were selling their goods, but they did not make eye contact with us. A little boy approached us for money - Cesar had warned us not to give money to the children as it corrupts their way of life, but I fear it may be too late for that.

large_IMG_5203.jpg

We left this area feeling very queasy about the whole experience. These are human beings, and walking through their caves felt very much like visiting a zoo. I'm trying to imagine visitors from another country stopping by and observing us as we mowed our lawns and painted our fences and went about our day. Cesar assured us these people are happy in their lives, and possibly some of them are, but we saw no evidence of that. They are abjectly poor and they know it. We saw a young girl going through the garbage in Creel, drinking out of a plastic bottle she found. We saw dead-eyed young mothers and feral-looking young men. Many of them are married at 13 or 14, as they don't go past elementary school, if they go at all. Many children never go to school and the absence of any literacy really shows in their faces. All of this would be different if there was no exposure to the outside world, but the Tarahumara are no longer a primitive, self-contained community, and it would seem the conflicts between the two worlds are causing them harm.

The area is quite fantastic, with massive rock formations, many of them looking like frogs, mushrooms and even an elephant.

large_IMG_5208.jpg

large_IMG_5219.jpg

The San Ignacio church, one of the few in the area that offers a mixture of Christian/native religion practices.

large_IMG_5220.jpg

From here, we drove to the Cusarare waterfall - a mighty roar in the rainy season, and a trickle this time of year. Still, it gave us a chance to get some exercise - 250 steps down (and back up again). On the path to the waterfall, we walked by a number of Tarahumara selling their wares, including this young group. We were struck by their expressions - maybe it is just shyness and reserve, but even the babies looked glum.

large_IMG_5229.jpg

As we were driving to the waterfall, this young boy ran across the road, climbed up the ladder on the back of the van and drove with us, clinging to the roof rack. Cesar introduced him to us - his name is Alejandro, and he is a deaf-mute. He has a place to sleep at night, but his family has largely abandoned him, so Cesar has taken him under his wing. He doesn't even know how old he is - Cesar thought he might be 13 or 14. Alejandro was given the job of leading us down to the waterfall - we followed his loping stride and every once in a while he would look back to make sure we were still there.

large_IMG_5231.jpg

I pointed to my camera and to him and he agreed to take a photo - it was all Stephen could do not to hug him. When we got back to the van, Cesar had a burrito for him, and we all gave him tips. We drove him back to his home and he watched the van and waved until we were out of sight.

large_IMG_5230.jpg

Our confusion still exists about the Copper Canyon. Is this an area that was better left untouched by tourism? Have our pesos made life better or worse? Apparently, there is controversy among the locals about the effects that tourism has brought to the region - the money is welcome, but the inevitable changes are not. Interestingly, we ended out travels through Mexico pondering that delicate double-edged sword of travel. We have no answers, but we'll leave with this image - taken from one of the stops on the way home.

large_IMG_4614.jpg

We're in Nogales, Arizona - preparing to begin our drive up the coast and back home. Our heads are full - so many emotions and images to sort out. The trip was impossible to put into words (although I tried!), but it was life-changing for us. I'll get one last post out before we get home - it will be so good to see you again soon.

Posted by millerburr 09:32 Archived in USA Comments (7)

Michael Bolton comes to Zacatecas

sunny 20 °C

Yes, we're as surprised as you are. As we drove into Zacatecas, we passed billboards advertising the 30th Annual Cultural Festival, featuring two weeks worth of headliners such as Jose Feliciano, Ana Torroja, and a number of other Hispanic musical talents, including the incredible Mexican/American Lila Downs. For some unfathomable reason, Air Supply and Michael Bolton are included in this line-up. Well - we ended our splendid and all-too-short time in Zacatecas with a Michael Bolton concert tonight (a first for both of us). Actually, we left after four songs. We couldn't get a seat, the sound was terrible - heavy on the bass and drums and quite distorted, and after Bolton droned through a listless rendition of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay we took off.

large_IMG_4471.jpg

We had no idea the Cultural Festival was on - the icing on the very big cake that is Zacatecas. We were here for less than three days - a bit of a disappointment as this city is beautiful, and the Festival has added so much to see and do that we wish we had more time. The Festival brings art, theatre, lectures,movies and music to the city, and incredibly, it is all absolutely free. Activities and events are spread out over the centre, and there is music offered each night on three stages.

Two nights ago (about an hour after we arrived), we watched a multi-media show, with the Lumiere Brothers A Trip to the Moon playing on the screen behind the electronic keyboard player. Beside him, a dancer moved rhythmically and interpretively to the music and the light show.

large_IMG_4866.jpg

Simultaneously, just in front of the stage, a nimble young man juggled machetes while riding a unicycle and balancing a glass ball on his head. The on-stage dancer did a quick costume change and joined him on the ground to thrill the crowd with fire-throwing acrobatics. The music became more intense, and the movie switched over to some dark German post-war production with children wearing wigs.

large_IMG_4887.jpg

Last night, we headed to the main stage to watch Lila Downs. Her name rang a bell, but we had never heard her sing. She is much beloved here - we figured there were about 8,000 - 10,000 people in the audience. Lila is half indigenous Mexican and half American and while she has had success in both counties, she lives in Mexico with her husband, saxophonist Paul Cohen. She devotes a lot of time to furthering the causes of indigenous people and her concerts are always notable for her fabulous native dress and her powerhouse voice. We're brand new fans - check her out on YouTube singing "cu cu rru cu ru paloma" It is a classic Mexican song of heartbreak and love lost - to hear her sing it is to feel wrenching sadness.

large_IMG_4467.jpg

Zacatecas is a UNESCO World Heritage site, designated for its magnificent cathedral, many notable museums and art galleries, lush parks and plazas and streets filled with well-maintained colonial buildings. Zacatecas is the most northern of the silver cities, and carries the same horrid history of indigenous enslavement and death. Today, the only clue to its past is a visit to the Eden mine ( we decided against it), and many stores selling silver jewellery.

We spent the past two days wandering the streets and visiting museums and galleries. We have several images to share, starting with the architecture.

Templo de Santo Domingo -the exterior is plainer but this interior has far more gilt and decoration than the larger Cathedral.

large_IMG_5020.jpg

Right next door, the Museo Pedro Coronel - an ex-convent that houses 20th century artists.

large_270_IMG_5017.jpg

Typical street scene - pink sandstone, portals, balconies, neo-classical design

large_IMG_4408.jpg

Night street - Zacatecas has moody, atmospheric lighting - creating a very inviting mood for evening strolls.

large_90_IMG_4433.jpg

The main cathedral is a pink stone confection of elaborate carvings, angels, figures, curlicues... and the 12 apostles.

large_IMG_4809.jpg

Inside, it is a picture of restraint - quite restful and beautiful.

large_IMG_4441.jpg

We walked out to visit the Museo Fransisco Goitia, set on the sumptuous grounds of the former governor's mansion. Goitia was a prolific painter and sculptor, and this museum shows much of his work, as well as many other Mexican artists. We couldn't take photos, sadly, but Goitia's work is very interesting, and he looks suitably mad.

The Museo, set off by a sculpture, entitled, "Futura"

large_IMG_4942.jpg

The large park right in front of the Museo provides an oasis for Zacatecans. This fountain was set to classical music, and the water jets leaped and jumped accordingly. It was wonderful to sit there and relax for a while.

large_IMG_4937.jpg

View of the aqueduct from the park.

large_IMG_4938.jpg

We headed over to another park, Alameda - this one a long, skinny stretch of green, punctuated by fountains and stone benches.

large_IMG_4971.jpg

We found a couple of funny diversions while walking around the neighbourhood - this sign was a gentle reminder of "La Courtesia." Most encounters with Mexicans follow a predictable pattern - first bid one a good day, then state your business, and always follow with please and thank-you.To greet someone otherwise is considered rude.

large_IMG_4979.jpg

Is this the Mexican version of a gum tree? Plastered with wads of gum - some stretched to create letters, others just stuck on - we wondered why this particular tree, and who started it, etc. etc. Another of Mexico's unanswerable questions.

large_270_IMG_4976.jpg

I couldn't resist this little girl. For some reason, there seems to be a large number of little girls in Zacatecas who are dressed in this old-fashioned way - she was just adorable.

large_IMG_4808.jpg

This not-so-little girl with a less demure dress was the subject of a model shoot. I know this because there were three or four guys with jeans, scuffed boots and big cameras yelling out directions - the international "look" of photographers from Montreal to Madrid.

large_IMG_4814.jpg

I was the subject of a shoot (albeit not fashion) myself. These two men were on the sidewalk, doing "streeters" for the Festival, and I got hauled in for my two cents worth. Foolishly, I was wishing for lipstick, but it won't matter anyway - although I could understand and answer his questions about how I was enjoying the Festival and the city, goodness knows what I actually said to him. I can make myself understood the way a two-year-old can make themselves understood - it does the trick, but it's not good TV.

large_IMG_4905.jpg

One of the things we cannot get over is the fact that art, music and theatre is so accessible in Mexico - usually for very little money; often free. The Ex-Templo de San Agustin went through a few religious incarnations before becoming a government-owned venue where rotating art exhibitions and musical events parade through. This exhibition was very large canvases - most of them about 10' x 15' - and most of them thought-provoking.

large_90_78788722D08221CE5707E23D416A3982.jpg

large_IMG_4448.jpg

large_IMG_4922.jpg

We stumbled upon a huge artwork going on in one of the plazas, as part of the Festival. Ostensibly, parents and children were supposed to be working on pinatas, wooden rush chairs, and papier-mache figures. By the time we got there, the kids had jumped ship and the parents were valiantly finishing off their family projects.

IMG_4926.jpgIMG_4931.jpg

It had to happen. The bandidos came to town this afternoon. Stephen and I were having our gorditas for lunch when the roar of dozens and dozens of motorcycles blew by us. I ran out to the street to see what was happening, and took a few photos.

large_IMG_5049.jpglarge_IMG_5041.jpg

These were not middle-aged men with expensive transport on a road trip - various patches and insignias and head rags and major tattoos were in town to pay their respects to one of their own - a fallen biker named Chino Guzman ( no idea if he was any relation to El Chapo), but his passing did not go unnoticed by this crew. After we finished lunch and walked toward the cathedral, we passed by somber groups of older, well-dressed men in dark suits and dark glasses. I think it's safe to say these were some seriously bad guys. They were not here to terrorize the town, but it was fascinating to have witnessed - like watching sharks from a safe distance.

We're off to Mazatlan tomorrow - just a pit stop to break up a very long drive up to the Copper Canyon. If we arrive in time, we may dip our toes in the Pacific. See you again in a few days after we've had our Copper Canyon adventures.

Posted by millerburr 20:18 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Losing my innocence in Guanajuato

sunny 28 °C

Well, I'm far too old to be making this kind of public confessional, but I have been operating under the misguided impression that Canadians are well-regarded on the world stage. I was shocked to discover this is not the case in Guanajuato and probably not in the rest of Mexico. We came upon this mural yesterday, depicting the rapacious history of the silver and gold barons.
The rough translation of the script is: They came to exploit and loot the gold and silver - first the Spanish, then the Canadians.

large_IMG_4758.jpg

The Canadians? The history of exploitation among the indigenous people is well-known, but this mural brings us up-to-date on Canada's involvement with over 200 mines in Mexico, and their continued ill-treatment of the locals. After NAFTA, Canadian mining companies were able to operate in Mexico with far fewer restrictions and regulations, and it would appear they have most definitely not put the interests and safety of the Mexicans first. From the tiny bit of research I did, Canadian mining companies pay local workers between $150-$200 US a week, while they make profits of hundreds of millions of dollars every month. A local source told us that the pay, the working conditions and the security for locals is appalling, with the cartels moving in for their cut of the "cooperation" money. Violence and threats are common. Our source also hinted at the mining executives' involvement (voluntary or otherwise) with the cartels and government. Mexican history is filled with injustice, hardship, violence, corruption and a fight for survival - it never seems to end.

Mexico's history is also filled with rebellion and revolution. El Pipila, which towers over the city, is a monument to the first victory of the Independence movement in 1810. This monument is a major tourist attraction, reached by a funicular (currently closed), a taxi, bus or by foot. We chose to walk up to get a closer look at some of the city's famous alleyways.

large_90_IMG_4372.jpg

We climbed up through a maze of twisty callejones to reach the top.

large_IMG_4744.jpg

large_IMG_4738.jpg

large_IMG_4763.jpg

The view of the city from this vantage point really shows how piled together the buildings are. See that tiny green triangle? That is the Jardin de Union - the centro's main greenspace and meeting point - it is so much smaller than similar jardins in other colonial cities.

large_IMG_4750.jpg

We chose a different path down and this was where we encountered several walls filled with murals (including the political statement on Canada). We look for these murals in every city we visit - they tell so many stories - past and present.

IMG_4380.jpgIMG_4757.jpg

Another thing we look for are the more sanctioned forms of street art - usually sculptures. Leonora Carrington, a British-born artist and part of the Surrealist movement who lived most of her life in Mexico City, was a prolific producer of sculptures and paintings. There are eight larger-than-life Carrington sculptures on the streets of Guanajuato - most with her distinctive cat-like eyes, and long, bony fingers and toes.

large_IMG_4642.jpglarge_IMG_4603.jpglarge_IMG_4426.jpglarge_IMG_4423.jpg

Since we visited most of the major sites and museums when we were in Guanajuato five years ago, this time we concentrated more on the art galleries, wandering the streets and visiting sites just a bit outside centro. Some samplings:

I really like this art gallery. There is a Leonora Carrington sculpture peeking over the roof, pink sandstone window frames and lintels, and inside, every floor has inlaid mosaic tile "carpets" - about 200 years old. Try and imagine the work involved - this floor was probably 20' x 25'.

IMG_4639.jpgIMG_4633.jpg

There was an exhibition of Colombian artists - this one, called The Other White Elephant is by Felipe Cifuentes. I'm not sure he is even 30 years old yet (I wish I had taken notes), but he is a huge talent who is currently living in Mexico, and his show had about 20 extremely provocative paintings.

large_270_IMG_4656.jpg

This one, by Gustavo Rico Navarro, is an example of his figurative work. This woman is modern, but looks like an 18th-century Madonna. His paintings all have a twist - the older people look as though they may be dead, the children look a little too knowing, sexuality is ambiguous - I would love to learn more about him.

large_270_IMG_4648.jpg

We headed out to La Presa a couple of days ago - the reservoir that provides Guanajuato with its drinking water. The reservoir is equipped with a fleet of small boats to rent, and ringed with souvenir and food kiosks.

large_IMG_4693.jpg

La Presa was once home to the city's wealthiest families - most of those mansions are now government or corporate buildings. This stately building is the Governor's Palace.

large_270_IMG_4699.jpg

The walk back revealed a neighbourhood that has become quite mixed. This modern building and park added a lot to the streetscape.

large_IMG_4705.jpg

This one did not. It has been abandoned - parts of the roof are falling in - sadly, it may be too late to reclaim it.

large_IMG_4704.jpg

No signs on this building - it may be a private home.

large_IMG_4703.jpg

This former mansion has been turned into a restaurant/gallery.

large_IMG_4702.jpg

Today was our last day in Guanajuato, and on the advice of new friends, we took a bus to the outskirts of town to visit the ex-hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera. It was a highlight of our time here.

large_IMG_4803.jpg

Mexico has a number of haciendas that are still in operation, as well as former haciendas that have been turned into luxury hotels. This hacienda was built in the 17th century as one of five - they operated as factory-style working farms. Hacienda San Gabriel was abandoned for 137 years, and re-opened in 1946. But, back to the beginning. We met our very charming and informative guide Carlos at the gate, and he spent over an hour showing us around the hacienda and filling us in on the history.

large_IMG_4783.jpg

The silver and gold-mining hacienda first belonged to a very wealthy family, Captain Gabriel de Barrera, his wife and their two daughters. The property was run by indigenous (almost-slaves), but the household help were black, and had more privilege. As well, the family was assigned a priest and a housekeeper - spies for the church and the Spanish government, respectively. Captain Barrera was required to give 10% of the gold to the church and 20% to Spain. This was the room that belonged to the priest - he was able to eavesdrop on the Captain, who had meetings in the other room.

large_IMG_4771.jpg

After the uprising in 1810, the hacienda was seized and remained empty until 1946, when a wealthy industrialist bought it (he made his money bringing typewriters to Mexico). By 1950, he developed 17 acres of gardens all around the home, turned the house into a private museum and built another home on the property as his family's "weekend home."

large_IMG_4766.jpglarge_IMG_4784.jpg

In 1975 the corrupt governor of the day took a liking to the hacienda and made the industrialist "an offer he couldn't refuse". He took up residence for a few years until In 1979, the government changed hands and returned the favour to the governor. (The governor wisely chose to vacate the premises and is now living out his old age a free man in Queretero.) The hacienda has been a government-owned public institution ever since, with the home and magnificent gardens a living museum from a different era.

large_IMG_4796.jpglarge_IMG_4788.jpglarge_IMG_4785.jpg

One last word from Guanajuato. While we were here, we had the good fortune to meet not one, but two Canadian couples, who have sold their homes, almost all their belongings, and are travelling the world. Their stories are different, but their motivations are the same - there is too much world, and too little time, and they wanted to be unencumbered for as long as they are able, to just pick up and go.

We've decided to join them (not literally, but in spirit). We will return home, see our dear friends, and then put our home on the market. When it sells, we will begin to divest ourselves of our belongings, except for a small storage unit to house our most precious possessions. Everything else we will sell. Our plan is to travel for a month/2 months, then rent a small furnished place in Ontario, BC, Halifax, maybe Portland. Travel again. Sit down again and spend time with family and friends. Repeat until we can't/don't want to do this anymore.

Anyone know someone who wants to buy a pretty Gulf Island home?

We're off to Zacatecas tomorrow for a couple of days - talk again soon.

Posted by millerburr 19:19 Archived in Mexico Comments (11)

Lost and found in Guanajuato

sunny 27 °C

large_IMG_4297.jpg

Guanajuato is built around a tight valley, with the city centre fanning out along the flat bottom of the "bowl" and the rest of the city climbing up the steep sides. Street signs are few and far between. It is easy to get lost and just as easy to get found. If you find yourself feeling a bit bewildered with all streets starting to look alike, simply walk downhill until you reach level ground again.
It's the best kind of "stumble-upon" sightseeing.

large_IMG_4584.jpg

Guanajuato became a hugely wealthy city in the mid-16th century due to its silver and gold deposits. Evidence of that former wealth shows in the stunning neoclassical and baroque buildings that have earned the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

large_IMG_4667.jpg

Interestingly, most of Guanajuato's homes lack any ornamentation at all, except for a full palette of vivid colours.

large_IMG_4290.jpg

This is a "real" city, with residents going about their business. It can feel a bit gritty - so interesting, so historical, but also in need of a paint job in places.

large_IMG_4565.jpg

The area that we are staying in is just out of the centro - a series of apartments that face into one another. We have gotten to know the kids who live in two other apartments a little bit. They play in the courtyard right in front of our stairs - the first day they had their Barbie dolls out and yesterday they had chairs lined up - they were about to deliver a play. It's a pleasure to have a quick chat with them every day - they're so polite and curious. This is the edge of our street - the jacarandas are out in full bloom in the city - gorgeous.

large_IMG_4515.jpg

There are far fewer foreign tourists here than San Miguel, for example, and far less English spoken. Mind you, this week was taken over with tourists, both foreign and national, to celebrate Semana Santa. Today the crowds are just starting to thin out. Here are a few images from the Good Friday processions:

Soldiers waiting for the procession to begin.

large_90_IMG_4263.jpg

I wondered why this soldier had his baby with him. No babysitter? The mother in me
was wanting a hat for her little head, out in the hot sun for over an hour.

large_90_IMG_4268.jpg

Then the procession began - led by the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, each carrying heavy boards on their shoulders and followed by guards flogging them as they walked. It was quite realistic, and even though the "thieves" were not really being whipped, they were carrying a heavy load and walking in hot robes in their bare feet.

large_IMG_4266.jpg

The next group to follow the thieves were the common criminals - all of them is burlap sacks, hoods and thick ropes. They carried the platform with Jesus - on the cobblestones, in their bare feet. I don't know how they stood it - as spectators, we were all so hot. For them, it must have felt like real punishment.

IMG_4412.jpgIMG_4413.jpg

We saw another procession on Good Friday evening, with crowds led by men in conical hoods (with an uncanny resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan), and a procession carrying out the coffin with Jesus. It was quite a spectacle, and unfortunately, all my photos were blurry - my little camera does not do night shots well.

GTO is a university town - around 20,000 students keep the city lively and current. The Universidad de Guanajuato is a sight to behold - it is one of the more stately and dominating buildings in the city, and those many steps are always full of people of all ages.

large_IMG_4593.jpg

One of the most distinctive features of Guanajuato are the network of tunnels that have been developed to manage traffic on roads that would otherwise be impossible to navigate. The Rio Guanajuato used to flow underneath the city, causing massive flooding during the rainy season. In the mid-20th century, the river was re-directed by a dam, and the tunnels were used to move cars and pedestrians underground. The result is splendid for pedestrians - less so for drivers. This is one of the main intersections, with cars coming and going from all directions.

large_IMG_4553.jpg

A single tunnel exit - one of many in the city.

large_IMG_4551.jpg

A rather claustrophobic pedestrian entrance - not to be attempted alone, or at night.

large_IMG_4679.jpg

Entering one of these tunnels for the first time can feel downright Jack-the-Ripper-ish. This tunnel took just five minutes to get through, and I have to say I was very happy to see the "light at the end." They're dimly lit, they drip water, the sidewalks are narrow, (I imagine rats), and cars whip by at unholy speeds, but since the population of GTO moves through them nonchalantly, so shall we.

large_IMG_4607.jpg

Another distinctive feature of Guanajuato are the teeny little alleyways (called callejones) - very steep stone steps or paths that lead uphill (and downhill!) between two buildings - in some cases, barely a body width apart.
One of the most famous is the Callejon del Beso (the Alley of the Kiss).

When couples pass through this alley, in order to thwart the legend of tragic love lost, they must stop on the third step and kiss to ensure their love will last forever. You can imagine my surprise when Stephen agreed to take part in this superstition! When we arrived, there were great crowds of people lining up, so we will return when we have more privacy. This couple kissed for so long the crowd began to cheer.

large_IMG_4554.jpg

This beautiful family didn't kiss, but it is obvious they have nothing to fear from the curse of the legend.

large_IMG_4557.jpg

This is the back entrance of the Callejon del Beso - to give you an idea of how narrow some of the streets can be.

large_IMG_4561.jpg

Back in the centro, I had a "pretend" kiss with one of the street performers, who was busking for the Museum of the Mummies. (That was supposed to be a coffin I was in.)

large_IMG_4589.jpg

On the steps of the Teatro Juarez, we watched a hilarious performance by a clown. Our limited Spanish was not a barrier in this case, as his slapstick humour and broad gestures cut through language. He mercilessly picked on members of the audience (about 200 people sitting on the steps), and then once the crowd was warmed up, he asked for a volunteer to help him with his routine. This little boy very bravely got up, but as soon as he faced the big audience, you could see his expression change and his shyness took over.

large_IMG_4468.jpg

The clown kindly returned him to his family and another volunteer was soon recruited. This funny kid was perfect for the job - he was unfazed by all the teasing and the laughs from the crowd, and he turned into quite the little ham. The clown had him pretending to be a toreador, waving a blanket and dodging the charges. He was a natural.

large_IMG_4490.jpg

At the end, he took his applause like a pro.

large_IMG_4494.jpg

Such is life in Guanajuato - every day is a performance. The mariachi bands are in full swing in the Jardin, at least five or six of them at all times, competing with one another as they serenade outdoor diners, or wander in groups, looking for business. These two were enjoying a beer before heading over to the park to work for the afternoon.

large_IMG_4675.jpg

Food, glorious food! We were a little sad to leave the fantastic food scene of San Miguel, as we did not remember Guanajuato as being very distinctive. We figured we would be in for a series of tourist-oriented, over-priced and underwhelming meals. We haven't been here for five years, and things have changed for the better, to our great relief. Our first night, we had dinner at Escarola, a modern yet rustic restaurant with interesting, healthy choices (I had a Portobello burger with pesto). Best of all was the setting - mainly outdoors, in terraces sloping down the hill and a view of the night city. Our table was so unique, I had to take a photo - big slabs of wood with the centre cut out and lined with concrete, and filled with succulents - beautiful. Oh, and that's not a bad shot of Stephen either - he's definitely got his relaxed holiday face on.

large_IMG_4523.jpg

Posted by millerburr 19:14 Archived in Mexico Comments (4)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 73) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »