Five Days of Adventure in Chiapas

Rio Santo Domingo

Lots of people, Mexicans and people back home, ask me how I like Mexico. My answer is that Mexico is an amazing and beautiful country, but the biggest transition for me, and something I still struggle with, is living in a big city. I grew up in a tiny town and my house was literally in the middle of the woods. Even when I’ve lived in cities, they’ve always been smaller ones that have easy access to trails and outdoor areas. Mexico City is definitely not a small city and it’s harder to get to some of the natural areas nearby, especially without a car. So, when Germán was assigned his vacation week in the summer, I began planning a trip that would involve lots of natural bodies of water, camping and adventure. I was between Baja California and Chiapas but it seemed like Baja would be better for the winter/spring so Chiapas won. Within Mexico, Chiapas is known for the high levels of biodiversity and natural wonders and among revolutionaries worldwide, for its strong indigenous population that started the Zapatista movement in the ‘90s. It’s similar I’d say it’s similar to its neighbor Oaxaca but has a grittier, wilder feel. I looked up waterfalls, rivers and lakes in my Lonely Planet guide and found a bunch of places that I was interested in clustered to the southeast of San Cristóbal so we booked our flight and a rental car and headed out for a five-day road trip.

Day #1

We flew into Tuxtla early Saturday morning and waited in line for awhile to pick up our rental car. It turns out that everyone had picked the cheapest option when renting their car and there was only one person working the desk so we were forced to start adapting to the slower times in “provincia” as they say in Mexico City (meaning pretty much everywhere outside of Mexico City). But we finally got our car and left the airport.

We were eager to get out and start exploring in the mountains so we only stopped in San Cristóbal for some breakfast and kept pressing on. We stopped by a grocery store in Comitán to pick up some snacks (I always like to be prepared, especially when venturing into rural areas of Mexico) then continued south. Once you turn off the Carretera Internacional onto 307 service starts to get spotty and houses and buildings start thinning out to make way for fields of milpa and cattle grazing. At this point we were ready to do some exploring and stretch our legs after being in the car for a few hours so it was a perfect time to stop by the Chinkultic ruins.

rural Chiapas

Chiapas mountains

Chinkultic

Chinkultic ball court

Right before the entrance to the Lagunas de Montebello National Park is a turn off to the archeological site Chinkultic. The mayan ruins are free to visit, though you can hire one of the guides who sometimes hang out at the entrance to show you around for a voluntary fee (though I’m sure they would be extremely upset if you didn’t pay them, it just means you decide what to give them). You pass through a sunken plaza first then make your way past some partially excavated ruins on the way up to the step pyramid. On they way up you’ll pass an overlook for a cenote (well/pond) down below that the Maya used to toss valuable objects into for good luck (young girls were also tossed in too according to our guide).

The view from the top is pretty amazing and the pyramid is quite well preserved. Back down below, there’s a ball court and a handful of stone carved slabs depicting important figures. You can walk all around in about an hour as the site isn’t very large but since it’s not nearly as popular as places like Palenque you don’t have to deal with hordes of other tourists getting in your photos.

Mayan ruins

Lagunas de Montebello

Chiapas lake

After leaving Chinkultic it’s only a short ride to the entrance of Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello. At this point though, you should start practicing your best uninterested/cold as steel/resting bitch face because before you even enter the park, there will be unofficial guides flagging you down at speed bumps to offer their services. Initially, it seems as if these people have something very important to tell you and we fell victim to one of their agitated waving and were trapped into listening to his schpeal for about 20 minutes and then even when we said that we didn’t want a guide that day (it was getting late and we wanted to get to where we would camp) he insisted on a tip for the information. We learned later that these guides are unofficial because they don’t live in the ejidos, villages, that run the park and thus do not have official credentials and can’t take you to the places that require them. There are signs that warn you about these guides for your safety but from what we saw it seemed more like a political arrangement rather than a safety issue (though obviously you always need to be careful when allowing strangers into your car).

Once you pass the ticket booth (entrance fee is 34 pesos), the guides are official but equally as aggressive. You’ll be getting really good at your resting bitch face by this point so that you can get on to your home for the evening. We stayed in Tziscao, one of the ejidos within the park at Villas Tziscao (make sure you take the right immediately after the ticket booth if you’re headed here). It’s a lovely place right on the shore of Lake Tziscao that has a hotel, cabins and camping spots right along the lake complete with your own palapa. We were excited to camp so paid the fee (which includes access to the bathroom with showers) and set up for the night.

Laago Tziscao

camping Chiapas

Villas Tziscao also has a restaurant which is the latest one open in the village and subsequently where we ended up eating. The food in Chiapas is nothing to write home about compared to the rest of Mexico but there’s always your Mexican classics like carne asada and quesadillas and they are very proud of their traditional dish, queso fundido. In the rest of Mexico queso fundido is normally an appetizer but here they serve it with chorizo, beans and mushrooms (with tortillas of course) and turn it into a main dish. We were quite sleepy from our day of early travel so tucked in early but if you want to have a fire without having to make it yourself there are enterprising young boys who will come around offering to make you one. If you forgot to get snacks there are also young women walking around selling food and beverages. Maybe because it’s the poorest state in Mexico or maybe the take no b.s. Zapatista revolutionary spirit but the people in Chiapas are born hustlers.

Day #2

tent lake view

We woke up on Sunday to the weird squawking of local birds but the amazing view outside of the tent overlooking a teal-blue lake made up for the noisy birds. It had rained quite a bit the night before (the rainy season is from August to December approximately and it had just started raining for the first time in months the week before we went down) so we waited a bit for the tent and some of our things to dry before packing up.

We headed out and stopped along the side of the road to get some breakfast quesadillas and a local concoction with an indigenous name I can’t remember that is basically like a bean and cheese gordita (a fat tortilla stuffed with beans and cheese). We continued on into the park and tracked down a guide we had met the day before as we were asking for directions. We liked his more laid-back style so once we found him he jumped in the backseat and we started off our exploration with the Lagos de Colores, lakes of colors. Chiapas colorful lake(Aside: his name is Alex Hernández if you go and want to use a guide, I’d recommend him although he doesn’t currently speak English – he is learning though as the park is trying to attract more international tourists). These are a handful of lakes all very close to each other that vary in colors from almost lime green to turquoise to sapphire blue. All the lakes within the park are volcanic lakes and are very very deep. Our guide let us know that some are dangerous to swim in because of some crazy currents they have going on below the surface and some are prohibited to swim in because they are reservoirs for local ejidos.

Lagunas de Colores view

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Lagunas de colores view

After the colored lakes we went over to the namesake lake, el Lago de Montebello. This is the lake that everyone recommends swimming in although Alex let us know that the beachfront you walk along is super muddy so it’s better to get a boat to get to another shoreline. (I can attest to the quicksand nature of the mud in the park, in one of the colorful lakes I wanted to just put my foot in to see the temperature but I stepped down and my leg got sucked in up to mid calf and my sandal got left behind when I got my foot out. I had to dig around in there for a bit to release my sandal and the straps are still slightly more teal than the blue of the other foot due to the orange mud). So we decided to pay for the boat ride out to an island where it was supposedly nicer to swim and there was also a natural orchid garden. You pay per boat, not per person, so Germán and I spent 500 pesos since it was sprinkling and overcast and not too many other people were lined up for a boat ride. The boats are rowboats as they are trying to limit pollution in their pristine lake so our rower worked hard to take us out to the island. We only saw about two orchids and although it was definitely not hot out I took a dip because I’m the type of person that has to swim in every new body of water I encounter.

boating on Laguna de Montebello

Overall the boat ride was nice but unless you’ve got a big group to break up the price or are an orchid fanatic I don’t think it’s worth it, you could probably get just as nice of an experience by walking along the shoreline.

Set back from the shore is a line of comedores (food stands) and we were hungry for lunch at this point so Alex took us to his aunt’s comedor. The speacialty item was once again queso fundido but we opted for carne asada and quesadillas (it was a good thing I brought my trail mix and we had stopped for fruit and granola bars or I think my diet would have been 100% quesadillas on this trip). After lunch we went to Cinco Lagos and Alex showed us a super secret overlook that had amaaazing views.

IMG_7254A side note here about getting a guide: it’s really not necessary at all but it’s nice for a couple reasons 1) we did actually get lost the first time we entered (no service for Google Maps), hence the asking for directions 2) you will stop being bothered as much by the other guides on the road if you have one with you 3) they can give you some more info about the area and the lakes and know about super secret viewpoints and finally 4) it’s a good way to directly support the local economy in an area where tourism is important and most people live below the poverty (and extreme poverty) line.

Cinco Lagos was probably my favorite of the lakes we saw, there are steep cliffs going down to the shore though apparently there are ways to get down there because we saw a boat floating around. If I had come here before Montebello I definitely would have sprung for the boat ride here instead. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I felt like I just wanted to build a little cabin on the overlook and live here forever.

Cinco Lagos view

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Cinco Lagos, Chiapas

After stopping by another lookout on Cinco Lagos we decided to skip the international lake (you can walk across the shore to Guatemala even if you don’t have your passport) to get started to Las Nubes. We had to head back to the entrance to drop off Alex and then leave the park to fill up on gas since there are no gas stations beyond the park for a long time (they sell gas in plastic containers on the side of the road in the villages if you’re in a pinch but it’s obviously more expensive). Another word of warning is that according to Google the driving time from Lagunas de Montebello to Las Nubes is 1 1/2 hours but it was actually more like 2 1/2. The roads are quite twisty turny as you drop a lot in elevation after the park and every time you pass through a village there are topes, speed bumps, which are just looking to take a chunk out of your car’s underbody or send you flying into the air if you don’t slow down to an almost stop.

Las Nubes

Rio Santo Domingo

You have to turn off the highway at the turnoff for Jerusalén to get to Las Nubes and then take a couple other turns after that but there are signs marking the way for you (just know that they sometimes refer to the ecotourism project as Causas Verdes Las Nubes, Las Nubes is the name of the town that it’s located in). Once you get to the home stretch you’ll get to a road that is half paved and half dirt but not in the way that you’d think with the beginning half paved maybe and the second half not. Oh no, on this road it alternates back and forth between paved sections and dirt sections, we were quite perplexed on why and how this happened, wouldn’t it be easier to just keep continuing the pavement instead of breaking it up??

Chiapas mountain scene

Road paving techniques aside, Las Nubes is a lovely spot along the roaring Rio Santo Domingo. The climate is a lot more tropical compared to Lagunas de Montebello and the rain here is serious. The night before my tent had leaked on us (I love it but it’s quite old and has been through a lot when it was my home for a few summers when I was an Adventure Guide and a Trail Crew Leader) and we had driven through a crazy rainstorm on the way with more rain on the horizon so we decided to spring for a cabin. I really mean spring because this cabin was actually more expensive than the hotels we stayed at in Comitán and San Cristóbal at $1,000 pesos/night ($50 USD). However, they are very nice, each one has a bathroom attached and a fan which is nice with the humidity and your own private porch. Plus, the whole area is very nicely cared for. We enjoyed the hot shower and felt especially good with our decision that night as we heard the rain pouring down outside.

Las Nubes resort

Day #3

Las Nubes cabin

It was a good thing that we had prepared for this trip and stocked up on snacks as the on-site restaurant wasn’t really open while we were there (it was a Tuesday and the high season was pretty much to an end). So we ate some granola out of a box and looked out to the river. After our improvised breakfast we set on on some of the hiking trails that they manage. Super close by is a suspension bridge over the river which was absolutely raging due to the heavy rains that had just started. I tend to get a little freaked out on suspension bridges and having a super intense river churning down below me didn’t help much.

raging river

 

Then we decided to go back to a trailhead we had passed on the way to the bridge to check out the mirador, or overlook, because who doesn’t like a mirador? The hike up was pretty short but the tropical climate left me sweating profusely by the time we made it up. But every drop of sweat was completely worth it – the view is to die for!

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mountain river view

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Outside of the rainy season the river is normally a bright turquoise but I felt like I was equally as impressed with the river’s power as its beauty so I didn’t mind that it was a turbid brown. At this point our check-out time was looming over us so we hustled down and put our stuff in the car. I of course had to take a dip in the one shallow part of the river and we hung out a little more on the river’s edge before heading to our next destination.

river in rainy season

Lago Miramar

To be clear up front, I am not recommending going to Lago Miramar as part of this five day trip, but include this as a word of warning for anyone who sees the description in Lonely Planet and thinks that it would be a lovely place to go. Reading the section after the fact, it does say that it’s accessible by air or boat but I understood it to be accessible by land outside of the rainy season. We made it as far as the tiny village of Lomo Bonito where we discovered that you still needed to drive a bit farther to get to the boat launch, then travel in a boat for about 4 hours before starting a few hour hike (the hike was the part I was prepared for). We decided to forego that trip as we would have probably barely made it back for our flight and we still wanted to check out more places near Comitán and San Cristóbal. However, I wasn’t really upset that we had driven a few hours in vain as we got to admire more landscapes and meet more people deep within Zapatista and Maya land.

Zapatista territory

An interesting experience we had as a result was being stopped in the middle of the highway by a group of about 40 indigenous men all carrying machetes and demanding 100 pesos for highway maintenance (in a friendly way to be fair). This happens pretty frequently in Chiapas once you get more into rural areas but I’ve heard that it’s not normally that expensive. I think being a foreigner and a light-skinned Mexican duo meant we got the güero tax in this situation. Anyway, apparently as long as you just give them what they’re asking they won’t stir up any more trouble though it is a bit intimidating to be surrounded by a large group of armed men speaking in a language you can’t understand. I don’t think I mentioned before that many people in rural Chiapas don’t speak Spanish as their first language, rather their local indigenous language, so don’t be surprised if you hear an accent when they speak Spanish or if they don’t even speak Spanish at all.

Comitán

After our failed Lago Miramar attempt we decided to head back to Comitán for the evening. We had to turn around along the same road we came out on instead of the lovely loop I had originally planned (I don’t love going out and back on the same trail or road but in this case it was hours and hours shorter) but I still got to see some views in a different way.

Chiapas mountain view

If you went straight back to Comitan after Las Nubes then you would arrive with some daylight for exploring but we got there pretty late so we just ate dinner and watched some Orange is the New Black in the hotel – there’s something about chilling in a hotel that just feels so luxurious to me, plus you need to relax a teensy bit on vacation, right?

Day #4

breakfast in Comitán

We woke up and got some typical Chiapaneco breakfasts at Doña Chole then explored Comitán. The center has a charming square and the streets surrounding it are nice but as you get farther away from the center I found that it starts losing it charm.

Outside of the center square, there were a few cute spots we discovered. For souvenirs and Chiapas artesanía, el Centro Cultural y Artesanal El Turulete is a lovely area with many shops circling the center courtyard. If you’re interested in trying out or bringing home some of the coffee Chiapas is known for, Comitlan Tostadores de Café is your best bet here. The owner is a passionate coffee toaster, barista and aficionado and can make you feel like a complete novice but you’ll also learn a lot if you speak Spanish and ask him about any of the varieties or brewing methods. He only has a handful of types at a time and tries to have representation from other areas of Mexico, not just Chiapas, but whichever you prefer he can grind up to the size you need for your preferred brewing method to take to go. And of course while you’re deciding you can enjoy a coffee there, just don’t even think of ordering a mocha chip frappe, he is a purist who believes that putting sugar in your coffee is sacrilege. He made us a deliciously refreshing cafe “on the rocks” which was an espresso with mineral water and ice.

In my opinion of San Cristóbal and Comitán, San Cristobal has a lot more to see/do than Comitán so I would recommend starting out around mid-day to be able to enjoy the rest of the places on your itinerary and spend more time in San Cristóbal.

El Chiflón

El Chiflon waterfall

To the southwest of Comitán is the impressive set of waterfalls known as El Chiflón. There are two entrances which lead to two separately-run sets of trails, camping spots and cookout areas. From Comitán we took the second entrance just because we missed the first but I was happy with our choice once we got up to the last waterfall. The side run by Paraisos Indígenas (where we went) doesn’t get you as close to the falls but was much better for views of the complete waterfall.

The hike up to the waterfalls is not at all a backcountry experience, there are even cafés along the trail where you can buy drinks, beer or light snacks. However, this means the trail is very nicely maintained and if you want to celebrate vacation by drinking a beer then you can. From the very beginning the beautiful turquoise waters are amazing to admire but as you get farther up and start to see some of the smaller waterfalls and crystal clear pools it gets really magical.

El Chiflon waterfall

 

The final waterfall, el Velo de Novia is maybe the most impressive waterfall I’ve seen. It’s enormously tall and powerful, even outside of the rainy season. And while the Rio Santo Domingo in Las Nubes had already changed from turquoise to brown due to rains, the pools along El Chiflón were still bright and clear. The contrast of the turquoise blue with the sand-colored rock along the river was an amazing combination that I’ll never forget.

view of velo de novia falls

On the way back down we stopped at one of the pools farther up that I had scoped out on the way up for swimming. For my New England cold sensors the water temperature was lovely and refreshing but for Germán it was too chilly for swimming. I splashed around in the clear water until we were kicked out by staff as the park was closing. Overall it was probably my favorite experience on this trip.

Something to keep in mind though is that we were there later in the day during the week but it seems like the type of place that could fill up significantly on the weekend so you may need to switch around some things if this day falls on a weekend for you.

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas street

We arrived in San Cristobal and got a room at the Parador Margarita Hotel, a lovely but not too expensive place in an old stone building close to the center. I would definitely recommend it if you go, it even has parking down the street if you rent a car. It was already later so we went straight to dinner, a Peruvian restaurant called Peruano that Germán’s dad recommended in the center. I really like Peruvian food and have had some good stuff in Peru but their pisco sours and ceviche lived up to my standards (though Germán tried one of their flavored pisco sours that I wouldn’t recommend). The little plaza it’s located in (San Augustiín) is also super adorable, and full of international options if you’re not feeling like more queso fundido 😉

We walked around afterward and were surprised that late on a Tuesday evening a lot of the downtown streets were still hopping with people selling artesanía and tourists strolling around or getting drinks at one of the many bars whose tables spill out into the streets. When we had passed through before to get breakfast our first day I had gotten a much more mellow/traditional vibe but this evening I saw that you could also have a pretty lively time if you felt so inclined.

Day #5

Chiapas hotel garden

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set out to explore the city. In contrast to Comitán the charm here spreads out even into the outskirts of the city and the center is filled with pedestrian streets, cafés, shops and quaint restaurants and a definitively international hippy vibe. The coffee expert in Comitán had recommended some places in San Cristobal so we went to check out Cafeólogo, a chic modern café that also rents out rooms in the back. The owner had first opened Carajillo, a café/restaurant also in San Cristobal but noticed that the high quality coffee they were serving was in demand so he opened up Cafeólogo to really showcase Mexican coffee along with high-quality toasting and brewing. Again, not the place to come for a unicorn frappe but if you really enjoy coffee or are trying to appreciate it more (like me) then this place is for you.

San Cristobal has two plazas right in the center and a little to the north is the Templo Santo Domingo de Guzman. Only part of the church and ex-convent was open when we went as the rest was closed for restoration but there is also a market surrounding the church that sells artesanía for a lot cheaper than the hip stores you’ll be drawn into.

In addition to coffee, Chiapas is known for its chocolate so we stocked up on some chocolate here too. We didn’t have a lot of time to fully explore the city since we had arrived late the night before and we left wanting more. You could easily spend a couple of days just in San Cristobal but we thought it would be easier to come back to the city for a weekend sometime so we dedicated more time to the natural areas.

Cañón del Sumidero

Sumidero canyon

Speaking of natural areas, our last stop on the trip was to the Cañón del Sumidero which is very close to Tuxtla, where the airport is located. The canyon became what it is now when they completed a massive hydroelectric dam on the Río Grijalva which filled up the canyon leading up to the dam. I don’t really love hydroelectric dams in general but in this case it did create a protected natural reserve. To see the canyon you can drive to lookout points on the roads above or to really experience it you can take a motorboat from one of the embarcaderos which will take you on a two hour tour along the length of the national park. The canyon’s steep vertical walls make for a super impressive view and you can see lots of different birds, spider monkeys and crocodiles along the way.

bird in canon del sumidero

The sad thing about touring Sumidero, especially in the rainy season, is the amount of trash and pollution that runs into the river. You can tell by looking at the water that this is not a place you would want to go swimming and there are literally piles of floating trash and branches from upstream informal dumps and logging operations. It definitely shows you up close and personal how trash and contaminants are washed out from where they were originally dumped and also how far Mexico has to go in its awareness and attitude towards trash, management of wastewater and use of plastic, agricultural chemicals and all the other things that end up in the river. Since the vast majority of tourists here are Mexicans I hope that seeing the effects in the river could help inspire some change, although I think that the guides should take advantage of the situation to bring awareness to the problem, not brush it off as just some plastic bottles that wash down in the rainy season as our guide said.

crocodile in sumidero canyon

That being said, the landscape is amazingly impressive, you can’t help but be in awe by the enormous cliff walls. And, since #thisisMexico, there are even people on a boat by the dam that drive up to the tour boats to sell beer, sliced up jicama and a variety of other snacks. They did make sure to also include a bag for everyone to put their trash in when they were done so maybe there’s some awareness building happening, maybe? Overall, the canyon is a bit of a tourist trap but the natural beauty really makes up for being squished in a boat with sweaty people in ill-fitting lifejackets.

From el Cañón del Sumidero it’s a quick trip to the airport in Tuxtla where you can board your flight to your next destination or back home.

Overall, Chiapas did not disappoint on natural beauty, I was in awe much of the time we were driving of the amazing landscapes and the places we went to were crazy beautiful. I would definitely recommend going outside of the rainy season because although the rainy season was just starting, the chilly rains did dampen my jumping-into-every-lake-or-river spirit a tiny bit. The people in Chiapas are definitely more used to national tourism so if you don’t speak Spanish it might be a bit of a struggle (and could potentially result in some unpleasant situations if you’re stopped at a roadblock like we were but don’t understand what they’re asking for). Although you could do this same trip using public transportation, it would be a lot more time-consuming and just generally trickier, especially exploring the Lagunas de Montebello National Park as you need to drive to get from lake to lake in many cases. So if you’re a Spanish conversationalist who loves road trips, beautiful scenery and natural bodies of water, this trip is right up your alley – get going and let me know what you thought afterwards 😉

Isla del Sol: Where the Sun was Born

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about la Isla del Sol as it seems that many friends are planning trips to Peru and Machu Picchu and I’ve been telling them something I’ll tell you now: I liked Isla del Sol better than Machu Picchu. Nothing against Machu Picchu, it was amazing and beautiful and I loved it, but the energy and experience of Isla del Sol topped it in my book. Isla del Sol is an island on Lake Titicaca, an enormously large and profoundly deep lake on the border of Peru and Bolivia. The two popular islands are la Isla de la Luna and la Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side where the Incan god of the sun was born. One of the reasons I love Isla del Sol so much is because of this feeling of spiritual energy I had when I was there, the ruins are not as impressive as other sites (like Machu Picchu) but I felt something really profound when I was there and left feeling cleansed in a way. Another reason I loved this place so much is that there is a fraction of the amount of tourists as other Inca ruins (like Machu Picchu) and the people that live on the island still make their living from farming or herding cattle. I don’t love feeling like a tourist when I travel so I loved coming to a place where you share the road with donkeys and sheep.

My Isla del Sol experience started in Copacabana, a larger town on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I stayed the night there because I had arrived around mid-day and thought it’d be better to wait till morning to head out to give me a chance to see the town. Looking back, I think I maybe would have enjoyed more going straight to Isla del Sol because Copacabana doesn’t have too much to do as a solo traveler although I was able to climb up to a good viewpoint of the lake where lots of Bolivians were making offerings to Pachamama, mother earth, and see the sunset.

So first thing in the morning I got a boat to Yumani, on the southern side of Isla del Sol. Once you arrive you are greeted with a long and steep climb up some rocky stairs and winding paths before you reach the top. Along the way and at the top are small hostels where you can get a room for the night. I made a reservation at one that was almost to the top and ditched the things I wouldn’t need for the day since I planned to walk all around the island. There are paths that lead from Yumani to Ch’allapampa on the northern side and pass by the majority of the ruins on the way. You have to pay for an entrance ticket which gives you access to the route and goes to the indigenous community there who maintains the area. I took the upper trail on the map below in the morning and saw most of the ruins along the way.

isla-de-sol-map-with-sites

I had met up with some fellow female solo travelers on the trail so we walked along checking out the sites and taking pictures. I hadn’t done prior research on the meaning of the sites so I was left to mostly guess what they were supposed to be though my guide book did give short descriptions – there’s one stone reminiscent of Chronicles of Narnia supposedly used for human sacrifice. There are small booths along the way run by the community where they sell snacks and water but I didn’t eat too much along the way until I got to Ch’allapampa. You hike down to get into the community which is right on the open beach with little hostels and restaurants all around. The boat from Copacabana also stops by Ch’allapampa and many people make the trek one way along the island and stay in the north for the night to get the boat back in the morning. I had decided to make the full loop however so when I finished lunch I left my companions for the day behind and started walking at a quicker pace to make it back to Yumani before nightfall. There are not really any ruins on this other trail but the landscape is beautiful, occasionally dipping into wooded areas before coming out to open expanses where you can look out over the lake the the mountains beyond. I really loved walking along this section by myself and it’s where I really felt something powerful. I made it back to Yumani just in time to watch the sunset as I ate dinner outside.

My hostel was very basic and the night was quite chilly but I woke up in the morning to the sight of the sun rising over the mountains beyond Lake Titicaca. That view and that moment really encapsulated my experience at Isla del Sol: clean crisp air, incredibly blue water and sky and a feeling of being born again with the sun.

A Weekend in Tequisquiapan

Around 3 hours away from Mexico City in the state of Querétaro, Tequisquiapan is a great spot to get away for the weekend. It’s a cute town with a beautiful central plaza for strolling or shopping and dining at the shops and restaurants lining the plaza. One of the main focal points in the plaza is the salmon-colored church which is pretty on the outside though not as impressive on the inside. There are smaller streets radiating out from the central plaza filled with more restaurants and stands with ice cream or souvenirs.

Tequisquiapan is known for its cheese and wine and there’s a wine and cheese festival that lasts for almost a month in May and June. You have to buy a ticket to get in and try all the different wines and cheeses on display but even if you come at another time of year, there are plenty of wine and cheese shops all around that will let you sample their wares to pick out what you want to buy.

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If you get bored of drinking wine and eating cheese (which is pretty hard to do in my opinion), Tequis is close to the popular tourist attraction of Peña de Bernal. The jagged rocky peak is right within the town of Bernal which is also a great place for strolling and eating. You can even hike up the Peña, though I cannot personally speak to how technical the climb is. Bernal can get really crowded during weekends or holidays so going there for the day and then returning to the more peaceful Tequisquiapan is a good plan.

We made the trip to Tequis this weekend for Germán’s uncle’s 80th birthday party. His aunt also has a house there so the entire extended family crashed between the two houses and we celebrated all weekend long. Mexican families love to celebrate and this time family members even came from different countries for the party. We came home with two personalized bottles of mezcal as party favors and feeling great (though tired) from spending time with family. What did you do this weekend?

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Going “home” to El Chico

Going to the woods is going home…

-John Muir

While the rest of this quote talks about how harsh it is sometimes to be in the woods with the thorny branches that seem to be fighting against your entrance, going to Parque Nacional El Chico really embodied for me the comfort and easiness that going into the woods can inspire in your mind and soul. Besides, the smell of pine and the rugged rocky peaks jutting up from the forest brought my spirit back to where I grew up in New England.

We decided to go to El Chico for Semana Santa because it’s been a place that I’ve always been interested in and it seemed like maybe it wouldn’t get the same crowds for vacation as say the Sierra Gorda. Uncharacteristically, I only researched a small amount, maybe I was already channeling the spirit of John Muir who said that “people ought to saunter in the mountains.” Either way, we did plan enough to borrow Germán’s dad’s car and get everything ready on Wednesday night so that we could get out early on Thursday and hopefully beat the traffic. Luckily we only hit a bit of traffic and made it to El Chico (in the state of Hidalgo to the north of Mexico City) in about three hours. Before entering the park we passed through a small town where we stocked up on firewood, beer, snacks, fresh tortillas and homemade salsa. We were promised that from there to Dos Aguas, the campground we were planning on checking out first, there were no more stores. After our supply stop we entered the park through Presa el Cedral (a damed up lake), which seemed like a lovely spot to camp among the trees next to the water but it looked like it was already quite full and as the first campsite that most people get to, likely to fill up even more. So we kept going along the road which went climbing up with every twist and turn (and was surprisingly, actually as isolated as promised with not a chela for sale in sight). Because we had followed the road for Dos Aguas Campground, we didn’t pass another campsite along the way so when we arrived and saw the campsites nestled in private woodsy corners and listened to the camp manager warning of the possibility of it filling up if we left to check out another place we paid the $121 pesos for the campsite and set up camp.

Dos Aguas has about 5 cabins with space for four people each and probably 10 campsites, each offering a fair level of privacy from other campers. The bathrooms are very rustic pit latrines and the lack of lighting meant I had to hope no one came by while I was in the bathroom since I left the door open in order to not fall in. Supposedly there are showers but we only saw one water spout which was used to wash dishes and hands. Each cabin has a dedicated grill in addition to a firepit inside the cabin but the campsites just have firepits (we ended up buying a comal, a metal grill/pan for 20 pesos to cook on). Overall, I found it a very pleasant place to camp and despite the camp manager’s warnings, it never filled up. Because of Germán’s insistence on leaving early due to traffic I was a little sleepy by the time we set up the tent so I took advantage of our shady shelter to take a nice nap. I always relish camping trips that are more relaxing in nature as a lot of the camping I’ve done in my life has been during long-distance hiking trips or while working on trail crew. So we lazily enjoyed the rest of the day, heading into Mineral del Chico, a small old mining town right outside the park to eat lunch and get the rest of the food we would grill that night.

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Although the park seemed fairly calm for the vacation season, the town was quite crowded, with all the food stands that are normally in the mercado set up in the center of the main street. Even with the crowds, Mineral del Chico is an adorable town, with cute houses scattered up and down the steep hills and cobblestone streets leading you from place to place. The center has a pretty church with a fountain right in front and apparently the clock in the church was made at the same factory as Big Ben’s clock. Such a tiny town was able to afford such a fancy clock thanks to the (now defunct) lucrative mining business. As we walked around we noticed the quantity of hotels and cabins available in town, it didn’t seem like there’s any shortage of options on where to stay whether in town or in the park. On our way out Germán decided to stop at a carnicería (meat shop) to get some bistek (which means steak but is definitely not what we would think of as steak, its actually really thin slices of beef) to grill that night. I declined eating the meat after I saw the whole animal laying out behind the butcher and how he was touching the meat and the money with his same bare hands (apparently it was delicious though).

After we had our fill of town we head out and I thought it would be great to drive around the park and see the other areas that we hadn’t seen on the way in. So we took a different road into the park and followed what started out as a nicely paved road through the park. After a turn though, the road immediately changed to a dirt path with large rocks scattered around. I was a little disappointed that Google Maps showed the same thickness for both the nicely paved road and the steep almost unnavigable path  (normally the thickness tells you a little bit about the quality of the road) but it was indeed a lower-quality road and with the sun starting to set and a thick fog setting in we decided to abort our driving loop mission and return to camp. After a nice dinner of quesadillas (with bistek for Germán) we hung out around the campfire and tucked in early, probably getting around 12 hours of sleep that night.

We had a busier day planned for Friday so decided to get a big breakfast in town and then skip lunch to leave time for hiking and river/mine exploring. We had breakfast on a patio overlooking the main street which offered a breakfast paquete (which literally means package but it means that your breakfast comes with bread, fruit or juice or coffee) which I always love since I feel a little healthier having fruit even if I order chilaquiles.

DSC03379Despite our best intentions for getting an early start to our hike we made it to the trailhead, which is inside Dos Aguas, at around 1:00pm. Our plan was to hike up to a mirador (viewpoint), which was supposed to be very close. At the first intersection in the trail, I opened up a picture I had taken of the trail map at the base to see which way we should go.After many such turns, we were passing through beautiful forests full of flowers hanging off of trees but had hiked longer than we should have without reaching the mirador. We contemplated turning towards where we thought the mirador was but instead kept following the map and eventually ended up on a dirt road similar to the one we had driven on the night before.

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where we came out to the dirt road

We saw by the signs that we were near the Los Conejos campground and at a place called Cruz de los Negros but that did not appear in our basic map. After chatting with a few other hikers passing by we learned that the most visited viewpoint, Peña del Cuervo was back down the road in the direction we had came from but that there was a better and higher viewpoint on the trail that went to Los Conejos if you kept to the left at a fork. I’m always interested in off the beaten path places and after having hiked for hours with no view yet I wanted to try the better one. So we set off down the trail and after I started getting suspicious that this supposed left fork didn’t exist and we had resigned ourselves to just checking out the campsite, the fork in the trail appeared. Very soon after the fork the trail opened up and changed to a scramble over rock formations. After a bit of climbing we reached the peak, called Peña La Cercada (which seems to be labeled as Peña Cruz del Negro en Google Maps), where we found an old tower and supply shed and no other people, our “sauntering” had paid off! Sure enough, we could see Peña del Cuervo far below us and the town of Mineral del Chico a little beyond that. We seemed to be at the same level as Las Monjas (The Nuns), a distinctive rock formation that according to local legend were nuns that were changed into rocks due to bad behavior. El Chico is known for being a rock climber’s paradise and seeing all the rocks faces poking through the trees really made me see all the opportunities there are for climbing there.

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After hanging out for a bit at our superior viewpoint we turned back around and took a chance on another trail that seemed to lead more directly to the road that would take us down to the other viewpoint and then back to camp. Luckily, it did indeed lead down to the road though it seemed like it was definitely a social trail, not a formal one. When we got to Peña del Cuervo we chatted with the man checking entrance tickets ($36 to get into the entire park) who told us that to get back down to Dos Aguas we should follow the trail that starts at the sign with a cat (they have signs every so often describing the local wildlife). After checking out the view at this lower viewpoint (still nice but quite crowded) we turned back towards camp. We realized on the way down that our mistake climbing up was taking a trail that had a sign for Cruz de los Negros instead of an unmarked trail.

Back in camp, we quickly got changed in the hopes of being able to stop by Río de los Milagros before dinner. The river is a little beyond town but there are signs pointing the way. We parked near a sign for the river but to get to the waterfall we had to walk down the steep road for about 10 minutes which would normally be fine but my knee was starting to bother me after so much downhill hiking and I was wishing we had driven down the road which, though steep, was paved. The river was pretty but I felt it didn’t quite live up to its name, the River of Miracles, I was imagining a wilder and wider body of water though apparently the name comes from the fact that it flows year-round, even through the dry season.

After passing by the waterfall we saw signs for the mines which Germán had wanted to check out so we kept going down until we got to an area with food stands and music and painted signs over entrances into the mountains. It was around 7pm but there were still tours available for any groups that arrived so we joined up with a family of 6 to see the Mina de San Antonio. We were given hard hats and flashlights at the entrance and taken through various tunnels which were originally built by the Spanish but later expanded by the English who settled in the area due to the mining potential. I probably wouldn’t have done the mine tour if not for Germán but the guide was nice and told us about the history and at one point had us walk with our flashlights off to experience total darkness. I was impressed mostly by the slippery wooden ladders that they had us climb up and down to get to the different levels of the mine – this tour is definitely not for the mobility-challenged. We emerged from the mine into more darkness as the sun had set at this point and we luckily got a ride up the road from our guide’s boss. We tried to find a trout restaurant since Germán wanted to take advantage of being next to fresh water (I would have eaten enchiladas or something as I am not a fan of fish) but we didn’t see the restaurant open on the dark road leading farther away from town. So we turned back and since I was quickly slipping into a hangry mood, we entered the first restaurant that caught our attention.

Right next to the church to looker’s right, the restaurant was a super hipster bar with a mountain feel that served some basic food and it turned out that it was literally opening day. We got some craft beer from Cervecería Hacienda and ordered our food. Of course since I was the hungry one Germán got his first and he actually finished most of his food before my pasta came out. They still have to iron out some kinks but it seems like this place has good potential and the owner is a young, super-friendly guy who was very apologetic about my tardy meal. Since we were very hungry and our meals weren’t very big we went after dinner to get some pastes, the typical food of the area that’s like an empanada filled with potatoes or meat or beans. They say it was brought over by the English and was a preferred food of the miners because they would hold onto the curled crust with their dirty hands and then just toss that part after they had eaten the filled center. At this point our hands were also quite dirty but we ate our whole pastes and returned to camp to enjoy another bonfire and a peaceful night under the stars.

Our plan for Saturday was to break camp then drive over to Mineral del Monte (also known as Real del Monte), a bigger old mining town, then beyond to Los Prismas Balsáticos, a super unique volcanic formation and then over to an old hacienda nearby. So we bid farewell to our campsite and drove out through a part of the park we had yet to go through. We passed by Las Ventanas which is the most popular spot for rock climbing and although we didn’t go in because they wanted to charge us per person and per vehicle it seemed like there were some pretty easy routes to try there. We passed a few more campgrounds spread out over grassy fields which would have been nice if they hadn’t been lacking in shade and full of families blasting music from their parked cars. Finally, we passed by a visitor’s center which had a nice bathroom and a detailed and seemingly accurate map (though not available in print). The landscape changed in this short distance to more arid surroundings though the pine forests continued even beyond the park.

We finally hit the dreaded Semana Santa traffic in a big way as we were passing through Mineral del Monte and then on the road to the prismas. When we finally got there, we discovered that the almost untouched geological formation that Germán remembered going to 20 years ago had changed into a tourist mecca, complete with a pool and horse rides around the giant parking lot surrounded by food and artesanía stands. It was also quite costly for Mexican standards at $100 per person. But after driving all this way we paid to enter and walked down to the edge of the cliff which the river had cut out, showing the basalt prisms on either side. It would have been very nice to walk along if it hadn’t been full of families drinking micheladas and people ziplining across the gorge. After being in such a chill place for the last few days it was exactly the opposite vibe that I was looking for so we didn’t even get all the way down before turning around and heading out. We thought the hacienda turned hotel Santa María Regla, which is where they filmed Zorro, would be equally as crowded so we called it a day and set our GPS to Mexico City. On the way back we stocked up on pastes to eat that week as they are such a tasty portable snack. We made great time on the way back and returned home grateful for our flushing toilet and shower.

Parque Nacional El Chico has been one of my favorite trips in México so far. There are many places in México where I wouldn’t go hiking without someone who knew the way but in El Chico, despite getting a little lost, the trails are quite clear and if you had an accurate map they would be easy to follow. Basically the outdoor tourism infrastructure is a little more built up here than in other areas so that it feels friendly and approachable while the landscape is still dramatic enough to impress. It’s the perfect place to go to reset your circadian clock and slow down your fast-paced mindset, even if you decide to go hike and explore in addition to relaxing at camp. I hope I get back soon!