Tag Archives: volcano

How to get up Volcanoes the easy way

Always fancied seeing a volcano up close but don’t fancy the sound of a strenuous two-day hike? Or scared of risking injury by having to slide back down on a plank of wood? Well don’t worry – Nicaragua have a volcano to suit every taste…

Volcan Masaya

Hiking in tropical temperatures with a huge backpack to see an active crater isn’t for everyone – so handily enough the Nicaraguans have built a road that goes all the way up to the crater of Volcan Masaya, with a car park right on the rim. Never mind the fact that the last eruption destroyed a few cars and injured one person, the chances of it happening while you’re there are probably pretty small. The active crater is nearly as impressive as the one at Telica (although admittedly not half as satisfying knowing you’ve sort of cheated)…although there was no lava on show while we were there.

Volcan Masaya Crater Nicaragua

Not guaranteed to be the safest place in the world to park your car


Masaya does have one relatively rare feature that can be explored – lava tubes. These are “natural conduits through which lava used to travel beneath the surface of a lava flow, expelled by a volcano during an eruption. When the lava flow ceased, the rock cooled and left a long, cave-like channel.” What this means in practice is a very long, narrow cave. Adrian & I got wander down with a guide (and torches, obviously) for several hundred metres, disturbing big groups of bats along the way. When we turned all the lights out, it was completely pitch black – with no light at all your eyes don’t adjust, with just the eery sounds of bats to deal with. Spooky.
Inside a lava tube at Volcan Masaya Nicaragua

Deep inside the lava tube


On the way back down we stopped off in the colonial town of Masaya, famous for having the best markets in the country. I have to say the main tourist market was rather disappointing, despite being in a beautiful old building – it’s very much run for tourists, and feels very sanitised compared to other Latin American markets I’ve been to. Much better was the chaotic and huge new market – which sells a similar range of goods (as well as pretty much everything else, including kitchen sinks no doubt) but is busier with locals and far more atmospheric. It’s a shame we didn’t get to spend more time in the city itself (our guide was in a rush to get back – if you go on a tour from Granada it’s worth insisting on spending a bit of time exploring the city, as it looked rather charming in a slightly run-down sort of way).

Volcan Mombacho

Scared of the dark? Worried about the risk of an eruption? Then perhaps Mombacho might be up your street. The volcano dominates the horizon of nearby Granada, and like Masaya there’s no need to hike – instead, from the entrance to the park, a great big trucks drives you up the very steep slopes to the top, from where you can go on a nice, gentle walk around the extinct crater. Being extinct, it’s a very different proposition to the other three we’d visited, as the whole volcano is very lushly forested, with a wide variety of beautiful orchids growing amongst the trees. Allegedly monkeys hang out there too – but unfortunately we didn’t get to see one (much to the disappointment of Adrian who hadn’t seen one in the wild before). You also get great views over the city, and across Lake Nicaragua (one of the largest in the world).

Ziplining on Volcan Mombacho

Upside down zip-lining - only mildly terrifying


The real highlight of Mombacho though is on the way back down – where we had the chance to have a go at the “canopy tour”, which is a posh way of saying a series of ziplines flying through the trees way above the ground. Over the course of 16 lines I think we must have managed pretty much every way of travelling – forward, backawards, upside down, flying superman-style amongst others – and it was absolutely fantastic.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Fancy a swim in a volcanic crater?


If even any kind of walking (or ziplining for that matter) sound a bit too much like hard work, then the Nicaraguans have one more volcano up their sleeve with would perfect for even the most lazy. Another short drive from Granada is the seven kilometre wide Laguna de Apoyo, which is a crystal clear lake in the massive crater off another extinct volcano. We were lucky enough to be staying in the lovely Hostal Oasis in Granada on the day their sister hostel by the lagoon, Paradiso, opened – and they provide a handy shuttle service to take you there. The Paradiso has a few rooms, a little restaurant, and best of all a lovely black-sand beach. We had a wonderfully relaxing day there, chilling out on loungers by the water’s edge, swimming in the lovely warm water, and even exerting ourselves a little with a gentle paddle out into the crater on the free kayaks they provide. It was the perfect way to end a fantastic two weeks in Nicaragua.
Kayaking on Laguna de Apoyo

A much more relaxing way to enjoy a volcano than hiking


You can see all of my photos of Masaya & Apoyo here

Advertisements

My kingdom for a donkey

After the last couple of years I figured I was pretty fit for hiking. I’d prepared for my round the world trip with various hikes in the UK’s national parks, culminating in a nice 26 mile day-hike through the Yorkshire Dales. Then climbed to over 3,000 metres for the first time on Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala. In Colombia, Volcan Nevado del Ruiz saw me hiking in the snow to 5,125 metres. And in Peru I’d spent nine days at over 4,000 metres on the arduous (but absolutely breathtaking) Huayhuash circuit. After all that experience, a mere 1,061 metre volcano in Nicaragua had to be a mere trifle.

Volcan Telica

Volcan Telica


Oh how wrong I was. My first miscalculation was the temperature. Even in the tropics, once you’re up at 4,000 metres, it tends to be nice and cool. At this low altitude in Nicaragua, it soon became clear that heat was going to be a major factor. Even as we wandered through the shade of the forest in the approach to Volcan Telica I found myself pouring with sweat. This was at about nine in the morning and I was already gulping through water in an attempt to keep myself hydrated. I knew the discomfort would just get worse. And it did: for I soon realised my second mistake. I’d been so overconfident of my hiking ability I hadn’t even thought to bring appropriate clothes, other than hiking boots, and was thus hiking in heavy, baggy cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt. Both were pretty soon soaked through, heavier, and becoming more uncomfortable by the minute.
Trekking to Volcan Telica

Adrian on the gentle, forested lower slopes. By this time I was already soaked.


I should have known from the start that this trek would be a little harder than any I’d done previously, for one major reason. Aside from the tropical temperatures, humidity, and poor clothing, there was one major difference: I was carrying a 19 kilo pack. All of my hiking in the UK and Guatemala had been day hikes from a base in a campsite, hostel, or nearby village. In Peru & Colombia I had done numerous multi-day hikes, but with one major difference – on those, I had porters or donkeys to carry all the heavy stuff. I’d marvelled at the time at the strength of both when doing those hikes, but now I was experiencing it for myself I painfully became aware of what I’d let myself in for. Because I wasn’t just carrying a change of clothes, but seven and a half litres of water, and a significant proportion of our food. I think Adrian may have had it even worse as he was carrying our tent (although I think the weight was roughly even as I had the food).
Volcan San Cristobal

View of the neighbouring Volcan San Cristobal


The forest shade soon petered out and soon we were out in direct sunlight, approaching the hottest time of day, just as we hit the steeper slopes. Our pace dropped slower and slower…although at least our regular stops gave us time to appreciate the stunning views across to the neighbouring, and even higher, Volcan San Cristobal, constantly smoking away in the distance.
Volcan Telica

A very relieved looking Adrian: no more climbing to be done.


The climb was soon to get tougher still though. Just before we reached the crater, we had to stop to collect wood for our campfire, meaning that we soon gained a further few kilos, just as we reached the toughest section yet. For the final ascent was up the side of an extinct crater which was far steeper, and on far more uneven, rocky ground. By this time the sun was directly overhead and every step was tricky. I stumbled a few times, and had to stop far more, and it probably took us a good hour just to ascend the final 100 metres or so. But boy was it worth it – because as we reached the crest of the slope, looking down to our campsite in the extinct crater, we knew we could drop our bags and make the easy climb a dozen or so metres up a gentler slope to our real goal: the massive active crater right next door.
Volcan Telica

The ginormous crater


Before this I’d climbed several volcanoes in Guatemala, Colombia and Indonesia, but none of them had a crater anything like this. A huge, circular crater opened up beneath us, with vertical cliffs running down a good sixty or more metres below us to the bottom. Everywhere vents opened up, belching out huge clouds of stinking smoke. Apparently we were extremely lucky to arrive on a quiet day – normally it seems there is so much smoke you can barely see inside. When we arrived, the smoke was much thinner meaning we could see right to the bottom, all the way down to the glowing lava pool below. It was truly magnificent, and it made any difficulty on the way up pale into insignificance.

Over the last few years I’ve fallen increasingly in love with the beauty of mountains. But of late I think I may be becoming even more obsessed with volcanoes. The fact that I understand the science behind them does nothing to prevent the impression that the earth beneath you is alive – and the fact that these beasts that dominate the landscape, made of solid rock, actually grow out of the ground, churning out steam and molten rock, is enough to make the mind truly boggle. It’s a beautiful, slightly scary, but ultimately breathtaking experience.

We set up camp nearby, and after a fantastic dinner cooked by our guides from the incredible Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-led organisation that organises volcano and canyon treks, and which gives 100% of profits to help street children in nearby Leon (I really can’t praise them highly enough – enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides, great food, free equipment hire, a wide range of great hikes available, and all for a very good cause too), we hiked back up to the active crater in the dark in an attempt to see the lava glowing at night, although as it turned out, it was a bit too smokey to see.

Volcan Momotombo

Volcan Momotombo just before sunrise


Volcan Telica at sunrise

The active crater glows red just after sunrise...one of my favourite photos from Nicaragua


The next day was just as good. After rising early to see a beautiful sun rise over the Cerro Negro, El Hoyo & Momotombo volcanoes in the distance, we had breakfast while watching the sun light up the steaming active crater into a beautiful shade of deep red. The descent was by a completely different route, taking us down through completely different scenery from the way up, with the narrow path winding down via the lushly forrested southwestern slope. The guides really came into their own here – the vegetation was so dense in places we could barely see the path – but at least it was much easier going down hill, in the shade, and much lighter with food eaten, water drunk, and wood burnt. The descent itself was spectacular, with regular views of brightly coloured birds and flowers common all the way down.
Volcan Telica

Spot the path


In retrospect I mainly found it tough though poor preparation, it’s actually not all that difficult, and the length, altitude, and steepness aren’t really too bad for anyone fit – and it was such an incredible hike, one of the best I’ve done I wouldn’t want to put anyone off what was a stunning experience and the highlight of my fortnight in Nicaragua. Having said that, I was also on holiday to relax, so there was only one place to go for our next stop – the beach.

You can see all of my photos of my hike up Volcan Telica here

How to get down a volcano the easy way

Before my round the world trip, there was only two things I knew about Nicaragua: that it grew coffee, and was famous for the long conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras. After spending three months in Central America in 2009, I discovered it was famous amongst backpackers for quite a different reason: it was the home of volcano boarding.

Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first erupted out of the countryside in 1850 – and since then it has erupted a further 23 times, covering nearby Leon in ash in 1995 and most recently erupting in 1999, and in the process growing to a height of 728 metres. Its name means ‘black mountain’ – and it’s a pretty perfect description: it’s so young that no plant life has had a chance to get a foothold, meaning it’s a great big black mound rising starkly up out of the surrounding lush green fields. It’s this black rock that is the key to its new incarnation as the local must-do for travellers: down one side in particular, the volcanic rock is broken up into very small particles – not as smooth as sand, more like a very loose shale. A few years ago an enterprising hostel owner realised that this surface would be perfect for hurtling down on a plank of wood. Five years on, and every day sees a steady stream of tourists clambering up its flanks in search of the ultimate local adrenaline rush.

Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro

Early one morning we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain, very glad to be there that early as already the temperature was starting to rise, and set off on the pretty easy (and rather quick) ascent, with the only difficulty being carting the boards with us – these were big thick planks, not modern lightweight boards. Pretty soon we reached the top and were able to admire the rather incredible views all around – over to the Pacific ocean in front, away to the jungled interior of the country behind us, and across the long chain of volcanoes that runs parallel to the coast, from Consiguina near the El Salvadorian border in one direction, right down to Momotombo on the shores of Lake Managua in the other.

Cerro Negro crater

Standing on the edge of the active crater


The other spectacular view was far closer to hand – and that was down into the crater, from which sulphurous steam billowed out, occasionally clearing to reveal multi-coloured rocks in shades of black, red, yellow and white. Despite the knowledge that the volcano has quite a good early warning system (and we’d brought our own handy emergency escape vehicles with us) it’s still a rather unnerving feeling stood atop the crater of something that could go off at any time. It’s the kind of thing that could make you rather terrified if you thought about it too much (especially with the knowledge that the last properly active volcano I’d climbed, Volcan Pacaya had erupted almost exactly a year later, killing one person.).
Jumping over the volcanoes

Obligatory jumping shot. Volcan Telica, our next climb, can be seen just between my knees


So rather than hang around for too long (although with just enough time to take the obligatory jumping photo), we headed over to the top of the long, even western slope and prepared to board. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous, and for good reason – the night before, in Leon, we’d seen a few people with rather impressive scabs running up their arms and on foreheads, as well as the odd bandaged leg. The reality, alas, was somewhat different: we’d chosen to go with a company that provided us with slightly rubbish boards. I sat on my board as instructed, gripped tightly onto the cord, lifted my feet off the ground and prepared to hurtle down at a dangerous speed. Instead, I only gained momentum slowly and soon found myself falling off, for as soon as I reached even a moderate speed the board veered off to one side. I gradually got the hang of maintaining balance using one foot, but this also served to add enough drag that it was impossible to reach the dangerous speeds I’d hoped for. Even as the final section steepened, I was still only able to get a mild adrenaline rush rather than the full-on fear-of-death hurtle that I was expecting. I figured that maybe I was just being a bit lame, but as the group headed down one by one, we all had a pretty similar experience.
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

This expression is mostly relief at not having broken anything


To be honest it was a massive letdown compared to the high speeds and huge adrenaline rush I’d had on the massive sand dunes of Huacachina in Peru last year. But the disappointment soon subsided as I realised I’d had quite a lucky escape – as much as the adrenaline appealed, I can do without the risk of broken limbs and giant scabs thank you very much – but I still wish I’d chosen a company with better boards. If you want to give it a go, I would recommend using the marvellous Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run organisation that runs volcano and canyon hikes throughout northern Nicaragua, all of whose profits go to a charity that helps local street kids (and not only do you get to know your money is going to good causes, you also get two goes at the boarding, unlike the one attempt we were allowed; plus going with them also gives you a discount off any hike you subsequently do with them – and I can confirm after trekking up another nearby volcano with them, they are the perfect people to go hiking with). Just be warned that if you do give it a go, those boards can go up to 82kph, and the rocks are larger and nastier at the end of the steep bit at the bottom, and thus certain to give you a rather bumpy landing if you come off…a rather extreme example of which can be seen at the end of this world speed-record breaking downhill cycle that also took place on Cerro Negro:

Ouch. Still, that’s one of the joys of travelling in countries like Nicaragua. You can be pretty sure that even if there were active volcanoes in England, you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them, let alone be able to peer in to the active crater and then risk death by sliding down afterwards.

You can see all of my photos of Cerro Negro here.

Next stop – a two day hike up an even bigger active volcano.

Snow in July

Altitude sickness is a serious matter. In mild cases it can lead to headaches, dizziness and vomiting. In more serious ones it can lead to death. The good news is that it’s easy to avoid by ascending slowly once above 2,500m in altitude…

…and not by going straight from less than 2,500m up to 4,800m in a couple of hours by bus before hiking straight up to 5,200m. Which is what you do if you take the day trip to Volcan Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia’s second highest mountain. I’d already met several travellers who’d done the trip, and who’d reported numerous cases of people vomiting immediately on leaving the bus.

Nevado del Ruiz on a clear day (unlike the day I went, sadly)

Nevado del Ruiz on a clear day (unlike the day I went, sadly) - photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chilangoco/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

So why was I mad enough to give it a go? Well, I’ve never been above 3,800m before (I’d come close in Guatemala and earlier in Colombia), so was curious to know who susceptible I’d be – as it varies significantly from person to person, based more on genetics than on fitness – especially as once I get to Peru I plan to do significant amounts of high altitude trekking, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out if I’d need to change my plans to allow for longer acclimitisation on arrival.

The journey getting there was pretty beautiful, as the road wound up the mountain from Manizales, giving spectacular views across the lush valleys of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. We soon reached higher altitudes, where the Paramo (a zone of vegetation only found in the tropical Andes between 3,800m and the treeline) begins, which was full of weird-looking stumpy cacti (unfortunately the bus was moving to quickly to get a good pic of this).

Once we crossed the treeline, at about 4,500m, the landscape changed to a bleak, grey area that looked much more like the moon than anywhere else I’ve seen on earth. Unlike the neat, conical volcanoes I’d seen in Guatemala, Nevado del Ruiz is huge, with numerous extinct craters, sheer cliffs and old lava flows interspersed with huge sand dunes formed from eroded rock.

Sand dunes on Nevado del Ruiz

Sand dunes on Nevado del Ruiz

We left the bus at 4,800m and I could feel the affects of the height instantly – even walking around on the flat left me slightly short of breath, and you could taste the thinness of the air. Next step was the relatively brief ascent to 5,200m, just below the crater. It’s only a 400m climb (and 1km in distance on the ground), but every step was knackering. It took us about 40 minutes of slow trudging to get up to the snowline, which was quite a novelty – getting to experience snow in the northern hemisphere, just a few degrees north of the equator.

Bleak conditions (and a rather battered flag) on the way to the top

Bleak conditions (and a rather battered flag) on the way to the top

Unfortunately it was a little bit of an antic-climax – the thick cloud meant there was to be no spectacular view of the area, the snow wasn’t really of the right consistency for a decent snhowball flight, and anyway, it was bloody freezing (the wind didn’t help) at that height, so after a relatively brief stop, we soon hiked down again to try and warm up. Luckily the tour included an afternoon stop at some natural hot springs further down the valley, which felt absolute bliss after being chilled to the bone earlier on.

I blame the cheesy pose on altitude-related light-headedness

I blame the cheesy pose on altitude-related light-headedness

Overall it was a fun day out, but by no means the most exciting day hike I’ve ever done. I’m not stupid enough to think this means when I get to Peru I can throw myself straight into that sort of height again (there’s a big difference between a one hour hike and trying to do it at that altitude for up to eight hours), but at least I know I’m not too badly susceptible, hopefully meaning a few days acclimitisation in Huaraz should be sufficient before I tackle the 10 dayHuayhuash Circuit, which is the single thing I’ve been looking forward to most of my entire trip. Bring it on!

You can see the full set of my photos from Los Nevados here.

Getting close to the lava

If there was an active volcano in the UK, you wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of it, let alone be able to climb it.

Lava flow on Volcan Pacaya

Lava flow on Volcan Pacaya

So when I found out that Antigua had one on its doorstep, that you could not only climb but also get really close to the lava, I didn’t have to think twice. I wasn’t going to let anything put me off, even the fact that so far I’d met two people who’d climbed it, and both had manage to injure themselves – both by slipping on the loose rock and cutting their legs on the very jagged rocks, one of whom so badly that he needed stitches. I’m very glad I met them though, as they both advised me not to ignore the little kids who hang around at the bottom waiting to meet climbers so they can hire them sticks for a very reasonable price, which are very handy for providing an extra means of support.

I’m becoming increasingly accustomed to early starts (I think I’ve been up at 6am or earlier more times the last few months than I have done in years), so it was no surprise that we had to be picked up at 6am, to make it up the mountain before the rains came, and after a couple of hours’ driving we found ourselves at the foot of the trail.

After the extreme exertion of climbing Volcan Santa Maria in Xela, I was hoping for an easier ride this time round, and I was not disappointed. The trail wasn’t too steep at all compared to my previous experience, and it took far less time, as the volcano itself is much smaller (being relatively young). We were lucky enough to be in quite a small group, and all of relatively similar fitness, so we made it up through the treelined lower slopes of the volcano pretty quickly and soon emerged at the dried lava fields that surround the active vent.

That’s where the tricky bit begins – the dried-out lava is extremely sharp, and very very uneven. Much of it is in the form of loose rocks, meaning your footing is likely to give way at any moment, and I could quite see how my friends had managed to injure themselves. So we very carefully made our way across the path towards the vent, being very glad of the sticks we’ds hired at the bottom (especially when we saw a German woman fall, cutting her leg so badly she couldn’t walk any more and had to wait for a horse to make its way up the mountain to carry her back down. Others had less trouble, most notably being the local dog that appeared to live on the mountain (and whose fur had taken on a really golden-orange colour, presumably from all the sulphur in the air).

Volcanic dog

Volcanic dog

The lava runs in various pipes close to the surface, and has several vents, so having a guide to make sure you don’t end up walking in the wrong place was crucial – as it is, in several places you could feel the heat on the rocks as you leant on them, knowing fresh lava was running just beneath. Finally we made it to the main lava flow – and it certainly wasn’t a disappointment. Watching red hot molten lave running down the hillside just a couple of feet away from me was truly one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever felt. It was also one of the hottes, unsurprisingly enough. We were lucky enough most of the time to have the wind behind us; on a couple of occasions it turned to blow towards us and it was like standing in a furnace.

The lava vents

The lava vents

The final ascent (which took a bit of queueing) took us up to see the vents themselves – right next to each other, two openings in the ground where the lava pour out of the ground. The lava is so hot that there were people toasting marshmallows over it – and it took just a couple of seconds for them to blacken, and that’s with the stick a few feet away.

Toasting marshmallows

Toasting marshmallows

Experiences like these are really one of the reason I love travelling – I could never do anything like that back home, and it’s given me a memory I’ll never forget. You can see all of my photos of Volcan Pacaya and the beautiful colonial city of Antigua here.

Earthquake! Volcano!

I got my first reminder that I was staying in hotspot of geological activity when my whole classroom began to shake in a little tremor one afternoon. It was just a small one, but getting to feel my first earthquake was a pretty cool experience. There’s been a couple of others since I’ve been here (and that’s in just two weeks), but I slept through both of those (one time when I’ve been a bit annoyed I’m such a heavy sleeper).

Volcan Santa Maria

Volcan Santa Maria

Getting to feel the earth move was a lucky experience, and one that made me all the keener to see the source of all the action – the local volcanoes. Not far from the city sits the dormant volcano of Santa Maria, which last erupted at the start of the last century, covering the city in mounds of volcanic ash, and which sits at 3,772 metres, towering over the city. There appears to be little chance of it erupting again, as a new vent has opened up just the south, forming the newer Volcano of Santiaguito, which is in a state of near constant eruption, regularly belching out big clouds of smoke.

So one Saturday I found myself getting up at the ungodly hour of 5am to hike up to the top. I’ve done a fair bit of hiking in the past, but going up a volcano was quite a different challenge – it’s not technically difficult, but it’s shape means it’s one long, even, steep climb all the way from bottom to top, with the added effect of the high altitude making it all the tougher – in fact I’d say it was the toughest hike I’ve ever done in times of energy (but all good practice for the hiking I’ll be doing to 5,000 metres and above in Peru & Bolivia this summer).

Our guide looks down from the top of the Volcano

Our guide looks down from the top of the Volcano

We hired a guide, but it turned out we could have probably not bothered – as two dogs from the village at the bottom were waiting for us on arrival, who then spent the morning showing us the way, always running just ahead of us (with the occasional rabbit-hunting trip to the side), all the way to the top. The early start is basically so that you can get to the top and back down again before the inevitable rainy-season clouds gather in early afternoon, and it was certainly a good decision. After all that hiking through the trees on the way up, it was spectacular to finally emerge above the treeline just short of the summit, and despite the fact that Santiaguito was covered by clouds, the views from the top were breathtaking. As if to make up for the fact I couldn’t see it, Santiaguito also kindly obliged by staging a little mini eruption for me just as I made it to the top, sending a column of brown smoke soaring above the clouds.

Santiaguito erupting

Santiaguito erupting

Standing at the top looking down on the city and valleys and clouds far below was truly incredible and made every step of the slow climb up worth it.

At the summit - 3,772m

At the summit - 3,772m

After a long, slow (it’s tough going down such steep slopes when they are steep, muddy, wet and slippery) descent I arrive back in Xela with pretty sore feet, but it’s made me pretty determined to complete the volcano experience by tackling the very active Volcan Pacaya near Antigua, where you can walk right up to fresh lava flows.

View of the cloud-filled valley on the way back down

View of the cloud-filled valley on the way back down

You can see all of my photos of the Volcano at

My travels get a dose of swine flu

The first I heard of it was on the BBC news website on the saturday I arrived in Guadalajara. By saturday night, it was still something for people in far-off Mexico City to worry about. It wasn´t until sunday that it began to become clear that everyone was taking it very seriously indeed.

On the saturday, hardly anyone was wearing a mask, and the streets were still full of people, including numerous girls dolled up to the nines celebrating their quinceañera (the coming of age ceremony all Mexican girls have when they turn 15).

Quinceanera in Guadalajara

Quinceanera in Guadalajara

By sunday afternoon, I’d say around 50% of people were (no idea where they were getting them – we couldn’t find one for love nor money), and the drastic restrictions came into effect – all bars and nightclubs closed. All museums and art galleries closed. Football games played behind closed doors. All sites managed by INAH (the national archaeological society), including all the major pre-hispanic ruins were closed too. So began a very quiet couple of weeks, as options for things to do were so limited.

Masks on the streets of Guadalajara

Masks on the streets of Guadalajara

Luckily I’d met up with my two friends from England who live in Guadalajara the day it all started, so at least I had company, and we resolved to have a good time anyway by finding outdoor things to do that weren’t closed. So we managed to find a balneario (outdoor pool & spa) fed by hot springs on the shores of Lake Chapala, just outside Guadalajara, where I had my first experience of a head to toe mud bath, which was a very peculiar feeling, but at least despite my scepticism about all the alleged health claims, it finally cleared up the dry skin I’d had since an allergic reaction to Mexican soap in Mexico City (being allergic to cheap Mexican soap was rather unfortunate on my part, considering WHO advice for avoiding swine flu included washing your hands several times a day with soap and water. I chose to ignore that one).

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Mud, mud, glorious mud

One plus side of the swine flu panic was that the few things that were open were empty anyway, as all the tourists had been scared away and the Mexicans were largely staying at home. So when we visited Guachimontones, site of some of the world’s only circular pyramids, we had the site entirely to ourselves, which was both beautiful, and quite a relief as I’d be lying if I said the swine-flu paranoia hadn’t effected us – every time someone sneezed on a bus, we’d be imagining the worst.

The circular pyramids of Guachimontones

The circular pyramids of Guachimontones

After five days in Guadalajara, and no end to the crisis in sight, we decided the change our travel plans: originally we’d planned to head overland via Morelia, Cuernavaca, Mexico City and then on to Puebla. However at the time, we thought the safets option would be to skip Mexico City, which meant flying direct to Puebla, which added a fair bit to my budget, but we figured it was worth it for the peace of mind.

The flight itself was beautiful, as central Mexico was bathed in a sheet of thin cloud, leaving just the volcanoes poking their cones up into the air. Just before landing in Puebla, we circled round two of the most famous, the extinct Istaccihuatl and its neighbour, smoking Popcatepetl.

Popo peeking above the clouds

Popo peeking above the clouds

Puebla itself was more of the same though – masks everywhere, everything shut (although that didn’t stop the trade unions marching on May Day, many of them carrying banners denouncing swine flu as a government plot to keep the workers down – if nothing else, the Mexicans love a good conspiracy theory, especially one involving politicians). So almost as soon as we’d arrived, we hopped on a collectivo to nearby Cholula, home to the biggest pyramid ever built. Not that you’d know it – it was already overgrown and abandoned even before the Spanish conquest, and as soon as they arrived they decided to plonk a church on the top. It’s not all that exciting a sight (although on a clear day, it can look spectacular with Popocatepetl looming away above it in the distance), but at least now I can say I’ve seen the 1st, 3rd and 4th biggest pyramids in the world now (the 3rd & 4th are in Teotihuacan). Now I just need to visit Egypt to see the second.

The great pyarmid of Cholula. Cunningly disguised as a hillock.

The great pyarmid of Cholula. Cunningly disguised as a hillock.

With little else to detain us, we moved on the next day, hoping that the swine flu panic would have subsided by the time we got there.
You can see more of my photos of Guadalajara & Guachimontones, Puebla & Cholula and the effects of swine flu over at my Flickr page.