Valle de Bravo overnighter

Jen went ahead to stay with her family and spend some time with her nephews in Portland, Oregon as I stayed on in el defetuoso (Mexico City – a play on words meaning it doesn’t work well) for another week. I didn’t have much planned apart from seeing people and ridding myself of possessions. Feels really good to go down to just two backpacks full of stuff, one of which is in the UK now; I can literally carry all of my things at once and that is pretty liberating. It was time to take it further though and give away or donate the rest of my stuff. My goal was to only have carry on luggage on my flight outta here.

A highlight of this week was paying a visit to a good friend of mine out of town. Engeli’s a friend and ex-colleague of mine from South Africa originally and has been in Mexico for even longer than I have. She was based in Mexico City for most of that time but relocated to the pueblo magico Valle de Bravo in the mountains a couple of years back and, wow, what a choice.

She has the bottom half of a tradionally Mexican house, tiled and wooded as you’d expect with a large garden and a westward facing balcony running its whole length, overlooking a now greening valley from the seasonal rains on the edge town. The valley is private land but she has access and hikes and bikes to the top of the hill each morning to a majestic view of town and its huge lake. The three times we’ve visited her we’ve really enjoyed this pre-breakfast hike to blow out the cobwebs.

Valle de Bravo

Engeli lives with the regal Chaman the Great Dane, Toffee the smiling, butt-wiggling ex-street dog done good and her now blind cat. It’s always a hive of activity even though life moves slowly in the countryside. The dogs run in and out to bark at other barks while the cat bumps along walls and gets stuck on window ledges, then they scratch at the door once the garden has bored them and Engeli opens the door.

She’s got the cooking skills of your grandmother but with the speed of not your grandmother. In the space of five hours we had eaten three times, including an amazing paneer curry. We caught up on her changing plans and my select tales from Jen’s and my holiday. Later her neighbour and friend popped down and we sipped beer and talked the evening away on the balcony while the earth span backwards from the sun.

The next morning we woke and hiked the usual route with Toffee and three of Eugenia’s dogs running alongside us, scaling inclines at the speed of Andrew Skurka circa 2007. Once we returned to the house, we ate cheesy eggs, packed our packs with gear, food and water (and tetrapack wine, naturally for an overnighter). Engeli has a lot of my gear from my Appalachian Trail thru hike to ensure she converts into a thru hiker one day. Chuckle. I was decidedly lacking gear, most of which was totally inappropriate for a backpacking trip, but what the hell, most of my nice new gear is in the US awaiting my arrival on Samish Island, WA.

On top of Monte Alto

We set out across town to the state park Monte de Alto which has numerous interlocking trails. However, since a huge forest fire last year, there have been new blazes placed generously all over the park forming four main circular routes on each of the hills, most of which boast amazing views. We were really crushing miles and ended up completing a little over 16 of them before setting up camp at the top of one of the hills as the drizzle came over and thunder rumbled in the distance. We pushed it a little too hard that day; I didn’t do enough stretching or have enough breaks. I need to learn from that lesson especially as the diet didn’t exactly work well this year.

As we tended to a very high maintenance campfire, the wood damp from the deluge the day before, we cooked up some ramen and mixed in Engeli’s homemade peanut sauce. The cheap wine went down well after a big day and we slurped up our ramen as we listened to tall pines crashing through the forest on the neighboring hill as lumberjacks felled those too badly burnt to remain.

Wet sticks after a storm

I slept incredibly badly, my old sleeping pad now leaking much faster than before and I ended up on the stony ground several times. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on my new pad and quilt that I’ll be using in the Olympic National Park and on the Pacific Crest Trail for the remainder of this year. Hopefully I selected well.

In the morning, strangely for Mexico it was still raining. Ee packed up our soggy tents and headed our way back to the house, thankful we’d driven to the trailhead as the rank outhouses didn’t look particularly appealing after a night of little sleep.

An hour or two later I said goodbye to Engeli and the animals and boarded a bus bound for el defetuoso, knowing Jen and I will surely meet up with her in the next couple of years for a long hike in British Colombia or Washington some summer week or two.

Morning mist on Monte Alto
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Oaxaca coast

We finished our trip by heading to probably my favourite place in the world – the coast of Oaxaca. We spent a week in Mazunte, Roca Blanca and Puerto Escondido visiting a good friend whose been living there for the past eight years.

This trip was hot and lazy but we managed to get a decent hike in walking from Mermejita beach, over Punta Cometa, along the beaches and over headlands between Mazunte and Zipolite for lunch at the always phenomenal Piedra de Fuego fish palapa. Hiking in 90* at the beach is pretty tough so we had to start early and stop for beer breaks obviously!

Then we headed over to Roca Blanca and stayed at New Ruins, a great little spot of pure relaxation on the beach just around the corner from the main beach. A heavenly place filled with Great Danes, peacocks and turkeys. Everything’s built with adobe and wood and is the perfect place to escape the heat.

Our cabin in New Ruins

Every morning we would be woken by the resident peacock Marco Antonio climbing to the top of our staircase and piercingly call out over the land. It was fun to make a similar sound and listen to the peacocks and turkeys all respond in unison.

Marco Antonio the peacock

After this relaxing week long trip, we were beat and ready for our coming hike! Back to Mexico City for me for a week of relaxing and goodbyes while Jen is off to WA and OR for a week of family time before I fly up to join her to start our hike in the Olympic National Park on June 8th.

Inland Oaxaca /wa-HAH-ka/

We headed from Villahermosa towards Coatzacoalcos, Tabasco. Another veritable crater of a town; it flickered in the light of huge flames sprouting above the refinery towers. I swore it looked like a desert, at least that’s the memory I chose for it. Iraq circa 2005 is what saw followed by concrete bridges.

The pharmacy acquired helping hand kicked in and took us over the clouds to Oaxaca city via every other city on route first. What a beautifully uneventful journey with the promise of a tlayuda at the end. Mexican buses are like Greyhound with a much smaller chance of being murdered on and bigger seats and more respectable stations.

We got into to Oaxaca and headed for coffee in La Brujula Cafe then on to the market for meat and mezcal. We went to the hottest spot for Mezcal in Oaxaca City in the market and talked to the lady about different mezcales, sampling lots and ultimately going for some sweet hand written label madrecuish mezcal for our coming days in the mountains and at the beach. I think that will be one of the things I’ll most miss about Mexico – this stage of the trip to the Oaxacan coast.

We ate meat and made friends at the end of the long meat alley. You choose your meat combo from an array of sellers. They grilled up our chosen meat as we grabbed salsas and tortillas. (God bless the Oaxacan tortila).

When we meet people, we always tell people where we’re from: Jen from Washington, USA (“oh”) and me from England (“ooh”). We were talking the previous day about the Mexico experience being a little easier when you’re from England so I decided to tell these guys “yeah we’re from England” as a little joke for Jen to see the more positive reactions one receives.

Turned out one of them was a journalist,  Jaime López Cosme (in the red shirt next to me) and he wrote a short interest article about us on a local news website Esta Mañana. He took a shot of us but we had also taken some group photos so didn’t think much about it. Now that little half truth about us both being English has created some semi-fake news. sad! Check out our article!

We then headed over to the bus station to grab our backpacks and skipped on down to get a mini bus up into the mountains to the next stage of our adventure, San Jose del Pacifico. It was a long hot ride for about 3 hours which ended in the clouds and checking into our cabin overlooking the long deep valleys of the Sierra Madre.

San Jose del Pacifico is a funny little town that is known as being a kind of rural Amsterdam in the mountains. We figured we would do a decent hike to the next town over but in the end we left a little earlier so we could get to the beach. We took part in a temezcal sweatlodge and watched the last episode of Game of Thrones. Ate some tlayudas.

Tabasco

Villahermosa is weird and hot. It doesn’t sell beer near the town hall because it’s full of alchoholics and that might put off the occasional tourist. Clearly well past its best, it’s like a hot Cuatro Caminos with a sweaty death river reflecting its way across the map on our wrong side of town. There’s a “video bar” under our hotel whatever that is, what it does mean, however, is that clearly the only guests in the place are positioned on the 4th floor instead of the first to avoid the beat. It was also about 110*. I hated the first couple of hours in Villahermosa. Mixed clothing only sauna.

Villahermosa, however also has the best seafood ever, is cool in the morning with pozol de cacao and has a couple of charming alleys with cinco de mayo trees. There’s a deeply buried charm to it that only an eternal semi-optimist would be able to find. I hated it the day we arrived and felt a light guilt the next day. La Cervicheria de Tabasco is supreme. We stumbled in to the air conditioned dining local and were seated and served in seconds. This place is next level and we’ll forget the shit about VIllahermosa and remember this plate of food instead:

the ceviche

Either way, it wasn’t worth staying. But it was worth eating. We wanted to go back the next day, though it turned out we didn’t have the time. We were heading to the Pueblo Magico in Tabasco, Tapijulapa /tap-ee-who-LA-pah/. It was worth it even though it seems the government of Tabasco doesn’t want you to visit it. We managed to spend about four hours there and saw the confluence of two rivers, bathed in its sulfurous waters, hiked in 110* heat,visited a beautiful mansion and didn’t quite have enough time for lunch. We hiked, I felt strong in 100* but there was no pack.

Off we go to Oaxaca, via Cuatzacualcos… lol

Palenque and Bonampak, Chiapas

After our experience switching off from work in San Cristobal, we moved on to a more active section of our trip with promises of jungle hikes to get us a little practice (!) for our coming PCT thru hike. Hiking has taken somewhat of a back seat the past couple of weeks though we can still feel our recent efforts below our vacation butts.

We took off to Palenque the really really long way round but via smooth sailing roads on a comfortable bus for 8 hours through two scruffy cities, Tuxla Gutierrez and Villahermosa to hit the jungle town of Palenque by mid afternoon. There was another couple who also had clearly not researched the length of the journey like us. They turned out to be a newly married couple Becca and Jam from Oz. We ate pizza and drank mezcal with them later and got some ideas for our coming days in Oaxaca.

Our cabin was in the jungle, on the edge of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city Palenque. I stayed here a decade ago and was glad to see very little had changed since then. Still the rustic, sweaty hippie hang out in the trees with 2×1 cocktails all afternoon, pizzas and the smell of the Californian’s smoke next door. It was 101* and everything was dripping in permasweat.

As we settled down for a good sleep the first night, we heard howler monkeys screaming in the canopy. Imagine an dinosaur who’s irritated with a neighbour and you’d have some idea of what they sound like. A pretty haunting sound and a loud one too.

What was once a building on our improvised jungle tour

The first morning we set off walking up the jungle road to a supposed jungle trail we were told didn’t need a guide to show us the way. This turned out to be the case and we dipped off the trail to explore bat filled tunnels in 1000 year old ruined buildings, now taken over by the jungle, the walls crumbled and covered in earth.

Everywhere you look there are mounds of earth and rock where temples and houses once stood. Spiders, iguanas and other lizards scuttled out of the way while we explored.

After this we arrived in the renovated ruins of Palenque. These have been painstakingly excavated and restored in parts. Only 10% of the city has been fully explored and studied. Most of the site looks like the above photo but the restored parts of the city show its glory in the 7th century.

We had the run of the place and walked around exploring and climbing most of the larger pyramids with our Aussie friends Becca and Jam. By the time we had reached the streams we were hot and bothered and ready for the pool and an ice cold beer.

The next day we jumped on board a local bus and headed towards the Guatemalan border to another Mayan site, one that Jen has always wanted to visit called Bonampak. A smaller site that is famous for some murals that are in pristine condition.

After dealing with a painfully long tour to visit the Canyon of Sumidero, we took our own route via public transport to hopefully avoid other tourists and their scheduled though would mean it costing just as much if not more to get there under our own steam. The combi bus flew alongside the jungle on one side, hurtling over speed bumps and through towns and eventually pulled up at the junction to Bonampak.

The site is 14km deep inside the jungle. In order to arrive we had to hire a local in his car for a couple of hours to take us there and wait for us while we explored the ruins. Antonio took us to a surprisingly small site whose almost run down facilities were quite surprising considering the fame the ruins and its murals have.

The souvenir sellers only budged slightly in their hammocks as we walked past, much more used to groups of 15 plus people arriving in mini buses. Staff weren’t at the entrance to the murals and they had to come out especially for us! We were literally the only two visitors in the entire site.

We shared it with a tree full of Oropendola birds. They have my favourite call of all birds, Something that really has to be heard! Their nests are crazy and amazing too. It reminded me of Belize and hearing several of these birds at once is quite the experience.

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Montezuma Oropendola
The call of the Montezuma Oropendola

After marveling at the birds, we checked out the murals and were suitably impressed by their clarity considering they were painted around the 6th century. They show lots of day to day life for Mayan people and also sacrifices.

After some suitable chin touching and pyramid climbing, we stuffed ourselves with La Vache Qui Rit and headed back to Palenque the way we came, only stopping briefly for the Guatemalan men to be pulled off the bus and frisked before our onward journey. We were heading to Tabasco the next day.

Chiapas, Mexico

After quitting our jobs we have a little more than three weeks to say goodbye to Mexico by visiting some of our favourite places as well as some new spots along the way. We flew south from Mexico City to the state of Chiapas.

I came to Chiapas before, just shy of ten years ago by myself at the end of a chilly December. My main memory is getting more rain in that week than I got on the entire Appalachian Trail. So everything was more or less mine alone for the taking as long as I put on my road worker yellow mac and sucked the weather up. I have a hazy memory of fog and slipping n tripping over cobblestones in this town, San Cristobal. While I appreciated the beauty of the place, I didn’t imagine returning especially as Oaxaca sits so much closer to where I lived the last eleven years, Mexico City.

View from our kitchen

Jen had never visited before and so it was the perfect time to come back with fewer worries of time and money, plus the weather is a whole lot nicer in May. We got a little house on the outskirts of San Cristobal, a big town of 200 thousand nestled in the mountains. Two bedrooms, a living room with pallet and crate sofas, tables, chairs and bookshelves, a simple but perfect kitchen and a dark but wonderful shower house painted in Shrewsbury Town blue and amber. All of these are built around a large terrace with one of the best views in town. We overlook a small valley of farmland tended to by locals. Seems they’re farming cabbages from the pickups that skirt past us when we’re walking into town.

the kitchen

We spent most of our time cooking and resting, drinking wine and not doing too much in the way of preparation for the trail – at least me (Jake) anyway, Jen runs a lot. Just a few short hikes and some vague preparation of gear lists and brainstorming of ideas. We used the pressure cooker to rustle up some really delicious healthy meals, picking up all the ingredients at the end of the street, a three corner crossing with a beer store, a grocery corner and a fruit n veg stand. Perfect to pick up our ingredients.

Our patio

We cooked a whole load of beans and lentils and had some meat free days which got me thinking of at least becoming a flexitarian at times. Too many mouths to feed on this planet to be eating other things with mouths. The terrace where we often ate has humming birds buzzing around the herb and flower garden as the neighbours play banda a little too loud.

Just outside the house is a pretty scabby alleyway, inhabited by the occasional Pox addict (a local booze made on the cheap), the alley’s 200ft high all the way up to the church at the top of the hill at the end of Real de Guadalupe Avenue. A good workout for the mountain climbing muscles that will be all important soon.

Real de Guadalupe

The main avenue has plenty of restaurants, wine bars and the like. Once a day we’d pop out and burn away a couple of hours people watching while sipping cheap wine. We were slightly worried that we had set aside too much time to be in San Cristobal: 8 nights in total. This was far from our worries though as we really enjoyed just chilling out and slow eating basically all day.

El Canyon de Sumidero

We took a couple of day trips. One to the local canyon de sumidero on a speed boat, shooting past crocs and spider monkeys followed by cooling pozol de cacao. Another day we went to the spectacular El Chiflon and hiked high into the hills to see a series of several increasingly large and more isolated waterfalls in ever increasing heat as we climbed out of the jungle. A spectacular day. We felt ready to move on to the jungle after that.