Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Copper Canyon railway

As well as the natural wonders, the other reason the Copper Canyon is famous is for the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (CHEPE for short), better known in English as the Copper Canyon railway.

The Sierra Madre Occidental is the huge mountain range that runs down the western side of Mexico, dividing the central plain from the coast. With its jagged mountains and deep canyons, it’s pretty impassable, with only two routes making it all the way across. One is the highway from Durango to Mazatlan, and the other is the CHEPE.

Tarahumara girls waiting for the train in Creel

Tarahumara girls waiting for the train in Creel

Completed in 1961, it starts in Los Mochis, near the Pacific coast and heads inland to El Fuerte, from where it runs alongside a river into canyon country. It follows the river as the canyon walls grow higher and higher, winding its way steadily upwards until it hits the top of the canyon near to Posada Barrancas, eventually making its only stop on the canyon rim itself at Divisadero (where it kindly stops for fifteen minutes, allowing tourists to jump off, grab a taco, buy some artesanias, and then take in the view). From there, it then heads across the plain to Chihuahua, taking nearly fourteen hours to make the full journey.

Elevation map of the CHEPEs route

Elevation map of the CHEPE's route

It really is quite an impressive feat of engineering, especially the section as it heads up the canyon itself from El Fuerte to Posada Barrancas, clinging to the steep sides of the canyon, heading over numerous bridges and through 87 tunnels on its way.

The canyon & railway at Temoris

The canyon & railway at Temoris


Crossing the Temoris railway bridge

Crossing the Temoris railway bridge


One of the 87 tunnels

One of the 87 tunnels

The views throughout are awesome, and I spent most of the eight hours I was on the train leaning out of the window taking it all in. Even though I was looking forward to getting to the coast, by the time I arrived in El Fuerte, it was sad to leave the canyon behind after just five days. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, it really is the most spectacular place I’ve ever seen.

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Why do bad things happen to good countries?


It’s been noticeable while travelling around northern Mexico for the last month that foreign tourism is down. Speaking to many Mexicans, especially those working in the tourist trade, are very saddened and upset that foreign coverage of the drugs war has scared lots of people off visiting the country, even though it’s really a very safe country in most areas, and no tourists have been affected so far.

And now this. The swine flu outbreak is bound to affect tourism even further (I read today that the largest German tour operator has already cancelled all trips to the country). It’s an understandable precaution, but it’s incredibly sad all the same.

Mexico really in the most incredible country I’ve visited. Aside from the beautiful cities, amazing scenery and the best food in the world, the thing that really stands out for me is the people. Wherever I’ve been, everyone has been so friendly, always offering to help out if I look lost, inviting me over for a drink when I’m on my own, giving me advice on places to visit, and gushing about how much they love thir country. I really feel at home here.

So I sincerely hope that this outbreak is short-lived, that life returns to normal and tourism isn’t affected too much. I’d hate to see such an amazing place suffer any more.

(On a side note, in case any of you who know me are worried, everything seems very normal here in Guadalajara. Aside from various sensationalist news stories, life proceeds here largely as normal. I’ve only seen a small handful of people wearing masks here, and there have been no confirmed cases yet here in the state of Jalisco. Let’s just hope it stays that way. Also, my travel plans were due to take me via bus back through Mexico City on our way to the south of the country. It’s possibly being over-cautious, and we’ve now changed our plans to avoid the city, especially as we’ve already spent time there. And lastly, I’m also very pleased to be travelling with a doctor at the moment!)

The road to Batopilas

After the spectacular views from Divisadero, I really didn’t think the canyon get could get any better. I was wrong. The road to Batopilas is even more impressive.

We left at 7.30am on the public bus (in true Mexican fashion, it was blaring frantic Mexican pop music out of all its speakers even at this early hour). The road starts in Creel, at 2,338m above sea level, and drops down nearly 2km to Batopilas in the course of the five hour journey. What this means is a huge variation in climate.

Being so high up, Creel has more alpine vegetation, with most of the surrounding hills being covered in pine trees, and as left there was a frost on the ground. As you descend, and the climate gets warmer and the pines gradually give way to warmer weather plants, such as agave and prickly pear cacti. By the time you get to the bottom, the climate is tropical, with huge, straight-armed seguaro cacti on all the exposed slopes, and concentrations of lush green trees wherever there is water and shade.

Cacti in the Batopilas canyon

Cacti in the Batopilas canyon


Canyon flower

Canyon flower

But anyway, back to the journey. The first section is on a paved road that winds its way along the undulating hills and valleys at the top of the Canyon. That alone was pretty stunning. After two hours, the main road branches off out of the canyon, and the remainder of the journey to Batopilas is on a bumpy, dusty single track dirt road that winds its way down to the canyon floor.

Winding down the canyon walls

Winding down the canyon walls

If Divisadero was breathtaking, then I don’t have adjectives to describe quite how awe-inspiring this road is. After another half hour of winding through the hills, the road rounds a corner and reaches the Mirador de la Bufa, a viewpoint that looks all the way down to the village of La Bufa at the bottom.

View down to La Bufa

View down to La Bufa


At that point the road clings to the cliff-like wall of the canyon and slowly descends via a series of tight hairpins all the way down, each hair-raising turn revealing views across the canyon. At every point, the canyon wall falls away almost vertically from the edge of the narrow road, and there’s only just room for the bus to fit, making it not a journey for the faint-hearted, especially as the driver has to contend with goats and cows wandering onto the road at regular intervals.
Some of the many hairpin bends

Some of the many hairpin bends

Eventually the road reaches the river, and follows it along the canyon to the village of Batopilas. For such a remote place, it’s quite an impressive sight. Formerly a rich silver-mining town, it was rather improbably the second place in Mexico to get mains electricity, and is small but beautiful, its centre packed with pretty colonial buildings, and two charming squares each with a lovely cast-iron bandstand.

Now that the silver is gone, not much happens in town, although the modern world has left one impact: I’ve never seen quite so many brand new American SUVs in one small village before. Rumour has it that these are all stolen from the southern US and driven down here to be used by the local drug cartels that hide out down here, away from the eyes of authority.

I travelled down with a Czech couple and an English girl I’d met in Creel, and the next day we hiked along deeper into the canyon to an abandoned Spanish mission church from the 1600s, in the even smaller village of Setuvo. The mission is in the process of being restored, and the local workmen happily let us climb the rickety ladders all the way onto the roof of the mission, which was quite an experience, and gave yet more great views of the canyon.

Mision de Setuvo

Mision de Setuvo

Sadly we had to leave the next day, after just two nights, as we needed to catch the second class train down to the coast (as the next one wasn’t until three days later). It may have taken quite an effort to get there – ten hours on the bus to Chihuahua, another 5 to Creel, and a further 5 to Batopilas – but boy was it worth it.

(You can see more or my photos of Batopilas here

The Copper Canyon: Breathtaking

With the busy period of Easter safely out of the way, I was looking forward to being more spontaneous during my period in the Copper Canyon. I figured five days would give me enough time to see the canyon, and get to do a fair bit of hiking done. Turns out that was a mistake – a bit more forward planning on this occasion would have been quite handy.

Tarahumara in Creel, in their traditional dress

Tarahumara in Creel, in their traditional dress

The Copper Canyon (or Barrancas del Cobre in Spanish) is a huge system of five interlinked canyons, which at nearly two kilometres from top to bottom is actually deeper than the much more famous Grand Canyon. Before arriving in Mexico, it was the thing I was most looking forward to, so I was surprised when some of the other travellers I’d met further south said it was a bit disappointing (most memorably dismissed by one as ‘just rocks and stuff’). After staying in Creel, I can see why.

Creel is the biggest town in the Canyon area, and has the most hostels and tour companies, so that’s where most people choose to stay. The problem is, Creel is neither inside the canyon, or even on its rim: you have to drive quite a way to get to either. The things to around the town are nice, they’re just not really in the canyon. On my first day there I hired a bike and cycled a 20k circuit around the surrounding area, through the village of San Ignacio (with its Spanish mission) and on to some interesting rock formations nearby, each named by what the rocks supposedly look like.

Mision de San Ignacio

Mision de San Ignacio

First up was the Valley of the Frogs. Didn’t look anything like frogs to me. Next, the Valley of the mushrooms (much more accurate). Last, and most impressive, is Bisabirachi, which in the language of the local Tarahumara Indians means “Valley of the Erect Penises”. The rather more prudish Spanish renamed it Valle de los Monjes, or Valley of the Monks. I think it’s safe to say the Tarahumara have a more accurate view.

Erect penis or Monk?

Erect penis or Monk?

Missions and rock formations are very beautiful, but at the end of the day I was left pretty disappointed: I’d come to see the canyon, and this certainly wasn’t it. Chatting to other people at the hostel that evening revealed more disappointment, as other people had been to the nearby waterfalls, which turned out to be (a) not all that impressive and (b) nearly dry as well.

So the next day I decided that I needed to see the Canyon properly, and jumped on a bus to Divisadero. Divisadero sits right on the Canyon rim, directly opposite the point where the three biggest canyons converge, and therefore has the best views in the region. As soon as I got off the bus, all the previous day’s dissapointment fell away. The view is truly spectacular, words fail me when I try to describe quite how beautiful it is. The canyon rim falls right away beneath you in a sheer cliff, looking right out into the deepest point of the canyon system, and in parts there isn’t even a safety rail to block the views. I stayed for a few hours, looking down at the view from various points on the rim, and it truly is one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen.



(more photos from Creel, Divisadero & the Canyon here)

What I didn’t realise at that point, was that the next day was going to be even better.

(In case anyone reading this is planning a trip to the canyon – if you want views of the Canyon, get the train or bus to either Divisadero or Posada Barrancas, the only two villages that are right on the canyon rim. If you want to see the canyon from the bottom, you can either arrange a hike down from Posada Barrancas, or you can go to either Urique or Batopilas, both of which are accessible by bus from stations on the trainline. Batopilas is accessed from Creel, which in my opinion is about the only reason to stop there)

Baroque fatigue

Thanks to a stupid mistake when reading the bus timetable, I ended up breaking the journey between Guanajuato and Zacatecas with a night in Aguascalientes. I think coming straight after Guanajuato any city would have struggled to compete; Aguascalientes didn’t even come close. Still, it gave me a chance to have a quite evening in reading, which is good to do from time to time.

Aguascalientes: Dont bother

Aguascalientes: Don't bother

The next day I didn’t want to hang around any longer than I had to, so hopped on an early bus to Zacatecas. Since leaving Mexico City, I’d stopped at three of the finest colonial towns in northern Mexico, and all three world heritage sites. Zacatecas was to be the fourth, and after enjoying the other three so much, I was really looking forward to getting there.

Yet when I arrived, I just felt flat. Yet another imposing baroque cathedral? Wow. More gorgeous colonial buildings and pretty squares? Big deal. A cultural festival too? Yawn. Yes, it was time to learn a travel lesson: too much of the same thing, however nice, gets boring pretty quickly. I needed a change of scenery. So I resolved to change my plans: I’d cut some time from my planned stay there, and skip stops in Parral & Durango so as to get away from towns and back to nature as soon as possible, by heading north to the Copper Canyon.

Zacatecas: Yet another cathedral

Zacatecas: Yet another cathedral

Now don’t get me wrong, Zacatecas is lovely, I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it. uckily my hostel was fantastic, with a roof terrace overlooking the cathedral, and I met a lovely crowd of people from France, Ireland & Israel who helped distract me until time to leave. The other highlight was the masks museum, showcasing the rich history of mask-making in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times to the present day.

At least the masks were cool

At least the masks were cool

Getting to the Copper Canyon ASAP necessitated an overnight bus journey to Chihuahua, where I planned to stay the night before heading on down to Creel, my first stop in the canyon. Now overnight buses are never the most appealing prospect, but I figure I’ll be taking a lot over the next year, and I had to start somewhere.

When I bought the ticket, the woman told me it’d arrive at 8am; I figured with the usual Mexican levels of punctuality, it’d be late and arrive at a civilised hour, after which I’d spend a relaxing day in Chihuahua. It was not to be. She was either blatatly lying to me, or the bus driver was a maniac, and instead I found myself being turfed out of the bus (just as I’d drifted into deep sleep, of course) into a chilly and rather empty bus station at 4am. Lovely. Rather disorientated, I headed for a coffee to wake myself up, and soon realised that most of the hostels in Chihuahua wouldn’t be open yet, so I was faced with a long wait. So I decided to cut my losses and jump on the first bus straight to Creel instead, which left at 6.30am.

One way of dealing with being in Chihuahua at 4am

One way of dealing with being in Chihuahua bus station

19 hours after leaving my hostel, I finally arrived at my destination, absolutely shattered, but very, very pleased to be away from the cities, and enjoying the fresh mountain air of Creel.

You can see the full set of pictures from Aguascalientes & Zacatecas by clicking here

Guanajuato

Queretaro was picturesque. San Miguel was even prettier. I was wondering if could get any better. Well, it did: Guanajuato is my favourite place in Mexico so far.

Colourful houses on the side of the ravine in Guanajuato

Colourful houses on the side of the ravine in Guanajuato

It has all the features that made my previous stops so nice, but then packs them all into a steep-sided ravine that means there are stunning views in every direction. The ravine is so steep that there are just three parallel and interlocking main roads at the bottom, with all the major sites squeezed between them. These roads all run from west to east – there’s simply no room for two-lane traffic, so that all runs the other way in a series of tunnels underground. All roads perpendicular to these ones (i.e. up the sides of the ravine in either direction) are basically steep staircases. And every inch of the city is beautiful – in colonial times, Guanajuato was one of the richest cities in the Spanish empire, thanks to the rich silver mines in the surrounding hills.

Basilica & University in Guanajuato

Basilica & University in Guanajuato

On arrival, I was a bit disappointed to find out that my hostel was at the top of one of these narrow callejones, meaning a steep walk back home every day. I shouldn’t have been: the view from the roof terrace was amazing, looking out across the whole valley. It wasn’t just the terrace that was great – the hostel (La Casa de Dante) is easily the nicest I’ve stayed in so far. It’s a family-run hostel, and Dante himself is the eldest son. He was the perfect host, giving us perfect advice on all the best things to do by day, including clueing us up on the Good Friday procession, as well as helping us find all the best bars by night. The attention to detail was amazing – right down to putting flags up over the hostel for every nationality staying – and best of all, his mother, Irene, made the most fantastic breakfasts every morning – huge plates of fruit, amazing freshly squeezed juices, and plates of mexican specialities like chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. They really make you feel part of the family (and I loved the way Irene called me ‘joven’ (boy) – it’s a long time since anyone called me that!).

Apart from the Good Friday procession, the other highlight was the Museo de las Momias (the Museum of Mummies). A while ago, the municipal cemetary was running out of space, so they began to exhume some old graves, and were amazed to find that rather than finding skeletons, the chemicals in the soil had mummified the remains. Rather than cremate the remains like they may have done in many countries, they took a very Mexican approach and stuck them all in a museum. Mexico famously has a very different attitude to death (as shown by the Day of the Dead being their most famous holiday), treating it in a far more positive fashion. This attitude translates into quite an amazing atmosphere at the museum – rather than being a sombre place, everyone was laughing and joking, holding their babies up to the mummified babies and taking photos of them together. Quite an experience.

Museo de las Momias

Museo de las Momias

After six days in Queretaro & San Miguel talking mostly Spanish (which was both mentally exhausting and rather frustrating, as my vocabulary runs to about 200 words), it was nice to be in quite a social hostel where everyone spoke English. The city has great bars, so I spent a very pleasant few days with a mixture of Swiss & American people. Just what I needed after a quiet week (and which also explains why the blogging took a bit of a back seat for a while!)

You can see more of my photos of Guanajuato over at Flickr

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

I knew before I left that Easter is a pretty big deal in Mexico & Central America, with the celebrations in Antigua de Guatemala being the most famous.

Luckily for me, Guanajuato’s celebrations were nearly as spectacular, and much less crowded as they are nowhere near as well-known. All day on Good Friday (Viernes Santo), we saw men wandering around town carrying rolls of (mostly) purple cloth, tied together with thick ropes, and were mystified as to what they were. When we turned up outside the main church at 9pm to watch the procession, scores of these men were heading inside, so we followed them in to find out what the point of them were.

Inside was more packed than any church I’d ever seen, and instead of anormal mass, they were performing a passion play, with a huge cast, which was pretty spectacular. Soon our questions were answered – towards the back of the church was a huge wooden bed, garlanded with flowers and palms, with a statue of the dead Christ lying on top. Supporting the bed were the men we’d seen earlier – and it turned out that the roles of cloth were full-length hessian tunics, which they were wearing along with colourful masks, covering the full face leaving just eyeholes, with the rope wrapped around their foreheads. In the dark of the church, it was quite a scary but impressive sight.

Soon, the play ended and the procession began. At the front was a young child, marching with a picture of Jesus, soon followed by a band of pipers and drummers, playing a solemn march. What really stood out were their costumes: long black robes, with long pointy hats somewhat reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan on tour. Very bizarre.

After they passed, they were followed out of the church by the bed of Jesus – and as they struggled to carry it out of the narrow church door and then turn it to head out onto the streets, you could really see quite how heavy this thing was – and they’d only just began.

Following the large bed, followed smaller ones, with women carrying statues of the Virgin Mary & Mary Magdelene, and then more men carrying St John.

I’ve really never seen anything like it. Back home, Easter is largely marked by the consumption of huge amounts of chocolate, and my memory of Easter mass are pretty tame. It’s amazing the amount of effort they go to – and the procession continues for hours into the night, as they struggle round the narrow hilly streets of town going from church to church, stopping at each to perform prayers, and all done barefoot.

After watching for a while, we headed off for a beer, pleased that we’d made the effort to see something quite so special. Nearly three hours later, the music stopped in the bar, and we stepped outside to see why – and it turned out the procession was still going at 1am, stopping at the church outside. By this time, they looked pretty shattered, and not a little bit fed up of being photographed by countless tourists like me.

The highlight of my trip so far definitely. You can see more of my photos of Semana Santa in Guanajuato here

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende


Queretaro was pretty stunning – full of pink-stoned baroque churches; a centre full of colonila buildings in shades of yellow, orange, red and pink; and graceful tree-lined squares that were full of families strolling and listening to music by night – so I wasn’t sure how San Miguel de Allende, the second of four cities I planned to visit in the colonial northern heartland would measure up.

I needn’t have worried – San Miguel takes everything Queretaro has to offer, and then ups the ante by throwing in cobbled streets, a hillier location (giving beautiful views), one of Mexico’s most thriving arts scenes, and a selection of natural hot springs just outside the city.

The art scene has attracted lots of older, american expats, who I must admit I was a bit less keen on (lots of them seemed to have lived there for years and were still insisting on speaking English to all the locals). But it was easy enough to escape them and soak up the atmosphere wandering around the pretty streets. Most of the city is pretty well-kept, but I was particularly attracted to the ones that were starting to crumble.

Just outside the city is the Santuario de Atotonilco, a historic church that played an important part in the drive for Mexico’s independence – the fighters fought under a banner of the Virgin Mary taken from the church. Being in this part of Mexico I’ve seen a lot of historic churches, particularly baroque ones, and to be honest they all start to blend into one after a while. Not this one though – every surface of the entire interior is painted with various religious motifs, and it’s stunning. Until recently it was in a terrible state, but in recent years they’ve started to restore it. The work isn’t finished yet, but I have to say it’s the most beautiful church interior I’ve ever seen.

The most enjoyale part of my visit was getting to spend time getting to know some Mexicans. Queretaro was beuatiful, but I was the only tourist in my hostel, so I didn’t get to socialise much. In San Miguel, my hostel was full of Mexican tourists visiting for holy week, and a lovely young couple from Toluca, Luis & Diana, took me under their wing and showed me the sights. Diana in particular really helped me with my spanish, always talking slowly and clearly and really encouraging me; over the course of the three days I was there I spoke far more spanish than English, and crucially my confidence improved enormously and now I’m happy to try and talk and not worry too much about mistakes, and I think people seem to appreciate my efforts.

It was while talking to Luis & Diana in the street that I ended up having my strangest experience so far in my travels – mid-sentence I was suddenly interrupted by a woman asking me if I was English (she could tell from my accent). It turned out she was from Yorkshire, and without waiting for a response, insisted on dragging me down the road to see her house.

It was quite an experience. On my way in, I explained I only had twenty minutes as I had to catch the bus on to Guanajuato. In that time, she managed to give me a full tour of the house (including the shrine her boyfriend had built to her on Valentine’s Day), give me her a glass of her homemade Agua de Jamaica (a sort of cold hibiscus-flower tea that is very popular here), tell me her full life story (twice divorced, lived all over the world, various scarcely believable adventures), read me the first chapter of her semi-autobiographical novel (which focused on meeting her Turkish mother-in-law for the first time) – which was interrupted by her rushing out in the street to feed carrots to the passing donkeys – and take my blood pressure. I barely got a word in edgeways (most memorably when she interrupted reading to ask me what type of women I liked. I replied that I preferred men, she laughed, shouted “up the arse!” and then carried on with her reading).

Cynthia is 73 (although she certainly doesn’t look it), and I’ll be amazed if I meet quite such a character for the rest of my trip. Absolutely lovely, and truly barking.

You can see all of my photos of San Miguel de Allende here

Where three streets have one name

I should have started to worry when the taxi driver asked me three times which street my hostel was on. First of all he stopped outside number 109, when I’d quite clearly said (and showed him) that the address was 99.

‘No esta’ I said. ‘si, esta aqui’ he replied.

I then pointed out the hotel we were outside also had the wrong name. He still insisted we were in the right place. At that point, I spotted the name of the street: we were on Calle de 5 Mayo, not Calle de 16 Septiembre. I pointed this out to him and he reluctantly agreed to move on. I showed him the map in my book, even pointing out how to get there, but he clearly didn’t trust the gringo and stopped to ask another driver. Eventually we got their, and much to his delight, the street was closed for roadworks, and so I was forced to get out.

Walking around at midday in mid-30s heat is never my favourite activity; with a big backpack it’s even less so. Anyway, after shlepping down the street to number 99, I was faced with a building with no sign, no door-bell, and blocked out windows. Surely some mistake. Then I noticed the building next door had an address that said ‘101 Oriente’ – i.e. 101 East. Meaning that there was almost certainly another 16th of September Street, this one being Poniente (West). So I trudged all the way back down the street, to find the other street. Except on this one, the numbers only went up to about 50 before reaching a large square. Feeling a bit worried by now, I crossed the square to find yet another 16th of September – this one being the western one (I presume the second was a ‘central one), with the numbers starting from scratch again. And this time, they only went up to 81.

By this time I was getting increasingly sunburnt and not a little sweaty. So I turned round, and walked all the way back up the first street, asking various locals along the way, none of whom had heard of my hostel. Eventually, I found myself accidentally barging into a private house, where luckily the rather understanding owner finally pointed me in the right direction: yes, it was of course the abandoned looking building I’d first stopped at. A few bangs on the door later, and the owner appeared, letting me into what turned out to be a stunning colonialm house with a massive garden, full of beautifully coloured Bougainvillea, not that I was in the mood to appreciate them by this stage.

Massive Bougainvillea in my hostel garden

Massive Bougainvillea in my hostel garden

Finally relieved to be able to ditch my bag, I headed out into town, tired and not particularly able to appreciate my surroundings. Being apparently the only gringo in town, I then found myself being hassled by waiters from every cafe I passed. Eventually I cracked, sat down and ordered a beer, too late to realise my mistake: I was sat in a cafe with a cheesy organist singing away. I was beginning to hate Queretaro.

As I was about half way through my drink, a large party of Mexican tourists turned up, and the matriarch wasted no time in jumping up and insisting the organist accompany her while she sang. And boy did she sing: in equal measures hugely passionate and wildly out of tune, she soon had the whole restaurant mesmerised, and I couldn’t help but love it. I’d reached a turning point.

Out of fashion and out of tune

Out of fashion and out of tune

In a slightly better mood, I returned to the hotel to shower and change, and headed back out for the evening, to find the town transformed: whereas the streets had been empty earlier, by now it was thronged with families, students and couples.

As I wandered round, grabbing tacos from the various stands that had appeared from nowhere, I first of all began to realise how attractive the city is – it’s all beautifully preserved colonial buildings in glowing yellows and reds, and lovely, tree-lined squares – and it soon became apparent that there was something going on almost everywhere. In the first square I came across a band playing, while lots of sprightly older couples jived away in front of an audience of youngsters. At the next square, were a troop of clowns humiliating various visitors (I swiftly moved on before they spotted me). The third square was best of all – it turns out a festival of student dancers was happening, and on a stage in the middle of the square was a group performing some traditional Mexican dances from different regions.

Best of all was the final dance: the men were dressed in tight brown cowboy-style suits and ridiculously over-large, wide-brimmed hats. The ladies were dressed like little Bo Peep, with ribbons in their hair and big flowing lacy dresses. The dance seemed to consist of the men performing a sort of Mexican riverdance, but with lots of foot stomping and more latin passion and a lot of random shouting,, while the women twirled around them. Ever so often they’d pause to tilt their heads to one side (as this was the only way they were able to kiss, thanks to the hats). It all seemed far too energetic for the (still warm) evening, but it was great fun to watch.

On every corner it seemed there was someone singing or dancing or doing some form of comedy routine, while the streets just got busier and busier. It seems I can’t hate this country even when I try.

Hectic final day in Mexico City

One of the first rules of travelling (according to more experienced types) is to never over-plan. You never know when you’ll like somewhere so much you’ll want to extend your stay. And Mexico City definitely fits that description – I wasn’t all that impressed on my first visit in 2007, and now it’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities.

Unfortunately circumstances have meant I have no choice – firstly, the nest 10 days or so are Semana Santa (Holy Week), one of the busiest holidays of the year here, when buses and hostels book up very quickly. Secondly, I have to make it back to Guadalajara by April 24th to meet up with my friends on their return from England, and in the meantime I want to make it all the way up north to the Copper Canyon. So I’ve had to plan the next three weeks carefully, and that means tomorrow is the time to leave.

But I’m not going to let a little thing like a premature departure defeat me – so today I was up at 7am to sightsee my arse off.

First stop: the Zocalo

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The other day I read that one of the coolest experiences in Mexico City is the daily flag-raising ceremony in the Zocalo, the city’s main square. Every day at 8am, a troop of soldiers march out onto the square, including a marching band, and raise the ginormous Mexican flag that stands in the centre of the square. It’s quite an impressively OTT ceremony just to raise a flag, but the soldiers seem to enjoy it and afterwards they all march back to their barracks singing the rather jaunty national anthem. Well worth the early start, but no time to mess around…

Next stop: Teotihuacan

The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

After a quick stop for some breakfast at the bus station, it was time for the hour-long bus ride to Teotihuacan, at the edge of the Valle de Mexico. It’s the site of a pre-Aztec city, and has the third biggest pyramid in the world (the biggest is also in Mexico, at Cholula, but is completely overgrown and has a catholic church sitting on top, so doesn’t even look like a pyramid). On arrival, I made the cardinal traveller sin of comparing to places I’ve already been – and first impressions were that it wasn’t as impressive as the jungle-clad Tikal in Guatemala. How wrong could I be – the main Pyramid, the Pyramid of the sun didn’t look all that from a distance. But up close – jesus it’s huuuuge. Quite how huge I realised when I climbed all 248 steps to the top in searing heat. Great view from the top though. One of the best bits of the experience was that about 90% of the visitors were Mexican school kids, clad in colourfulm tracksuits, running around having fun and trying to engage the foreigners in conversation, with their terrible English being about on par with my terrible Spanish. Still, with the midday sun getting hotter and hotter, and no shade to be had, it was time to move on…

Third stop: the basilica of Guadalupe

The Catholic church certainly used to know a thing or two about PR: struggling to convert the locals back in the early days of colonisation, they managed to rustle up a quick apparition of the Virgin Mary to a startled native. A few miracles later and bob’s yer uncle, the locals are happy to convert. To celebrate this happy occurence, they built a whopping great big basilica to facilitate pilgrimages. I was hoping for an all-out tack-fest like Fatima in Portugal. Instead it was surprisingly classy, and the new basilica (built to replace the old one that is slowly sinking into the soft soil) is actually quite impressive. Religious duties over (hey, even a lapsed catholic can’t resist the odd shrine), it was time to move on.

The Alameda & the Palacio de Bellas Artes

The Torre Lationamericana

The Torre Lationamericana

A quick bus ride took me down to the Alameda, a lovely little park full of the beautiful purple-flowering Jacaranda trees that you see everywhere in the city, where I cooled off for a while. On the edge of the park is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with fantastic deco interiors, and a series of murals by Mexico’s most famous muralists (I think the city’s murals deserve a post of their own at some point), finest of all being one by Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera, showing how much cooler socialism is than capitalism. He had to redo it in Mexico after the original (commissioned by the Rockerfellers in New York) didn’t exactly meet American tastes, funnily enough. Next door to Bellas Artes is the Torre Latinoamericana, which was the tallest in Latin America when first built. It’s not anymore but it’s still my favourite building in the city.

Final stop: time for beer

After cramming about three days of sightseeing in one day, there was of course only one way to end it: with a nice cool Modelo Negra in the shade.

I will be very sad indeed to say goodbye to the city, it’s a fantastic place and not at all like the perception of it being dangerous. I’ll definitely be back.