Thursday, October 18, 2007

Historic Morelia

Leaving the picturesque, colonial town of Guanajuato, I was off to the similarly picturesque, colonial, yet in a completely different way, town of Morelia. By now, these four hour bus rides are nothing to me, and I have fallen into a rather nice routine of staying about two days in each town, getting an early morning bus, and arriving about noon in my next destination, giving me time to do a good bit of exploring before the sun leaves the sky. In fact, my bus ride was even better this time, as the little lunch pack included a better set of cookies than usual (cinnamon instead of chalky orange) and a ham and cheese sandwich with a jalapeño, a nice little Mexican touch that is actually a wonderful addition to the American standard. In addition, the last hour of the bus ride added some very interesting scenery as we passed over a few long, very straight roads that cut right through the middle of some very large, apparently shallow lakes. Just a bit of raised road was all that could be seen other than flat water on each side, some topped with some lake grasses and a boat or two of the local fisherman. These lakes seemed to go on for miles at a time, backed by the neighboring mountain range that seems to be everywhere you go in Central Mexico. My next stop, Morelia, is actually one of the oldest colonial towns in Mexico, tracing its history back to sometime around the 1540s and sporting perhaps the oldest university in the Americas. I found a great, almost unoccupied hotel just a few blocks from the center of town. It was another tiny room that would do, but the hotel actually looked decent, with an open Spanish two-story courtyard with a set of rooms spread around the center. I quickly took a nice warm shower and then set off to explore the town, heading for the massive cathedral and town square marking the center of the old town...well, actually I guess this is more of a city; it has over 500,000 people, 'including a lively young student population' - thanks Lonely Planet. This town is also a Unesco World Heritage site thanks to its Spanish architecture, stone buildings, intact aqueduct and abundance of plazas. The streets look ancient, with huge stone slabs making up the one and two story buildings that line that avenues leading to the center of town. Local ordinances also prevent obtrusive, obnoxious signs, so it's a bit hard to find anything, but that adds to the appeal of the town. All along the façades of nearly all the buildings facing the central plaza, archways provide a nice aesthetic, and they were apparently all the rage in the time of the Spanish conquisition, judging by the design of this city.

The main central plaza is a typically Mexican one, a square area surrounding a fountain and gazebo, lined with well-kept trees and a bit of grass, filled with benches of people, young romantics not afraid of public displays of affection and parents watching their children run wild. Next to the plaza is a nice pedestrian mall with some vendors, and on the other side of the massive cathedral is another plaza, this one filled with the tents and tables of protesters. Apparently, they are protesting the local governor who seems to have an arrogant, indifferent attitude towards the working class citizens, miners and poor, at least according to the signs, in addition to corruption and the many problems that Latin American politics often entail. A group of somewhere around 50 people congregated in the tents, with tables and a makeshift kitchen, their sign claiming their presence in the area for the past 242 days, though after my two day stay, I can only attest to a tiny fraction of that. During the day filled with clouds and a lovely temperate climate, I walked all around the scenic plazas, said to look much as they did 400 years ago. The never-ending arches of a stone aqueduct parallels one of the main roads (cleverly titled Avenida Acueducto) for about a mile or two. I don't think it is used anymore, but the structure from the 1840s or 50s still looks pretty nice. Later, nearly dying of hunger, I found a nice little local cafe, and I tried one of the specialties of the area - mole. No, not the burrowing animal. It's pronounced Mo-lay. It's a dark brown sauce that is a sort of mix of chocolate and chili, along with a few other things, that is often put on top of chicken. The cheap meal turned out pretty well, though I actually thought the sauce would be a tiny bit better. It was good, just not great. Needing to catch up on a few things, I found a wonderful internet cafe with huge leather chairs, a relaxed atmosphere and nice headphones allowing me to listen to my much missed music, thanks to my defunct iPod. I know it's just another creature comfort, but it was a nice break to sit back and relax for a bit on the computer. It also reiterated the fact that music is so important to me, as this was the first time that I was able to hear any music of my choosing since my iPod decided to take a break. Soon, the night was upon me, and it was time to head back to the hotel.

Following a good night's rest, the next day held much of the same, walking around the historic town, marvelling at the stone buildings and steeples. I once again found my way back to the aqueduct and a roundabout with a nice fountain in the middle, and I also found an extremely tranquil pedestrian street lined with ash trees planted in the early 1800s, providing nice shade for the benches along the way. For a while, I sat in the shade, watching the world and students pass me by. Eventually getting the feeling that I should once again attempt a bit of physical activity, I hopped back up and explored the nearby park/forest, planted as another relaxing spot for the residents many years ago. I passed by the grey buildings holding the oldest schools in the continent, looking into the inviting courtyards, amazed that the place probably looked much like it did for its first students. Young people flowed in and out of the two and three story courtyards, going about their daily business, not overly impressed by the lovely buildings and archways that made up their schools. Following the aqueduct back towards the center of town, I planted myself on a nice bench in front of the central fountain, watching the citizens enjoy this wonderful afternoon. In contrast with many American cities that I've found, the people here are eager to take the time to relax and simply whittle away their time in the main plazas, talking to friends, reading books, passionately embracing, or just hanging out, which was my preferred mode of passing the time. As the late afternoon lingered, a cool breeze started up, pushing around a few of the dead leaves, creating the perfectly crafted fall day. Vendors sold balloons and toys, children chased bubbles all around the plaza, trying to catch up to them before the wind took them away, briefly failing, but then immediately reanimating as they turned to see another set of bubbles coming towards them, thanks to the vendors trying to create interest in their products. Nearby an adorable five or six year old girl and her mother played, running back and forth, playing hide and go seek, chasing the ubiquitous bubbles and eventually lovingly embracing the father who had apparently just finished his day at work. All the while, a loud background voice filled the air, though I couldn't quite tell what it was. Eventually the voice got louder, and I saw a local guy, a little overweight, probably in his late 30s, singing his heart out. He was working for tips, but he was also just enjoying what he was doing. With a booming, decent voice, he spouted out song after song, accompanying himself with some claps, a few clever dance moves, some guitar chords that he also sung and plenty of air guitar during those times. This guy was amazing, capturing everyone's attention as he stopped by each area for a few songs, telling jokes in between as he caught his breath. The melody and guitar mimicking was pretty good, but the dances and imaginary guitar won me over. Of course, I gave him a good tip, as he put a smile on the face of everyone around. All in all, this was a wonderful evening, and it seemed that everyone in town was having as great a day as I was.

Despite the wonderful atmosphere of this friendly, colonial town, I didn't really have time to linger more than a few days, so once again, I made plans to hit the road. I took my time getting up in the morning and having a nice warm shower, as my next stop was unusually close. It would only be an hour bus ride or so (and probably just three or four dollars), and I'd be in Pátzcuaro, a small mountain town that was said to be tranquil and beautiful.

(One of the many old, old buildings from the mid 1500s that still serves its purpose today.)

(The main street next to the majestic cathedral and adjacent town squares.)

(The church steeples at night, lit up in red and green within the bell towers.)

(So many arches...this is part of the aqueduct, running through the middle of one of the main roads.)

(Main square, main've seen it before.)

(Nice trees and landscaping with stone buildings for that antiquated look.)

(Dun dun dun dunnnnn. Here he is - the incredibly amusing street performer rocking out to his own imaginary tunes.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Guanajuato: Almost Amazing

Guanajuato, another well preserved Spanish town in central Mexico, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site for its incredible architecture, underground roads, splendid landscape, lack of traffic signals in the downtown area (where necessary, they have police with loud, annoying whistles) and just for being a great overall city. Only another of my never-ending four or five hour bus rides away from Guadalajara, I was really looking forward to this city. A fairly small town, I was thinking I'd be in for a peaceful, laid-back time in a nice mountain town with cool air and friendly people. My only concern was one or two sentences in my guide book that were sort of listed as an after-thought - a Cervantino (as in Miguel Cervantes) theater festival for most of the month of October. Hoping it wouldn't affect the town too much, I decided to take my chances, though I was a bit scared when I arrived at the bus station. Packed with young twenty-somethings, the place was absolutely buzzing with people. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not what I was hoping for from this town of less than 100,000 people. I quickly found a cheap taxi into town, having to show him on the map of my tiny book the hostel that I was hoping for, since he seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. Heading into town, hippies and non-hippies alike lined the streets, along with tons of stalls of food, t-shirts and jewelry. After asking a few of the local police officers for directions to the hostel, we headed into the first of the underground roads of the town. The road that had been carved out into the hard stone seemed to go on forever, and then I saw something strange, something that you don't usually see in a tunnel. Up ahead was a set of speed bumps and a four way intersection, with another road crossing past us. Beyond that, there were a few more roads that merged in and out, some stairways to the land above, and I even saw a few benches and bus stops in the tunnel. It seemed completely out of place to see such a developed network of roads underground, especially in such a rocky place where every inch of these tunnels would have had to be blasted out by dynamite. Apparently the city suffered from a lack of space and adequate roads early on, as it is crammed onto the hillsides of a narrow valley, so this was their solution, which actually looks quite interesting. Throughout the small streets of the city, there are stairways and road tunnels down to the larger underground roads, much like there would be for a subway system. Eventually, we popped out of the tunnel, made a few quick turns, and we were outside the hostel in this disorienting town. There was not a straight, direct road to be found in town, which is part of what adds to its appeal and personality.

Despite the town being crowded, I was fortunate to find an empty bed in the hostel, so I had a place to stay for the next two nights. Leaving the hostel, I rounded the corner to the main road, not too pleased to find it completely full of revelers. The festival has grown a lot recently, attracting tourists from all over Mexico, though very few gringos, to see the acts of theater and music, along with just partying in the streets. The town seemed almost too small to contain the event, reminding me of the tiny streets of Pamplona being overrun with tourists during the Running of the Bulls. Not to be deterred, I slithered my way through the crowds, taking in the charming city. Theaters, churches, plazas and nicely shaped trees lined the narrow road, along with shops and restaurants catering to every need. This was originally a silver mining town with some very profitable land, so there was more than enough wealth during its early days, and it's apparent that the money flowed freely while this town was growing up. Walking around the town and its winding streets is wonderful, with great views and attractive buildings around every corner. I walked up and down the main street, enticed by the comical t-shirts and lovely smells of food: tacos, sandwiches, churros, potato chips, fresh fruit, and so much more. Within about a ten block radius, there are about six theaters and five to ten other plazas with street performers and musicians, entertaining the crowds all around. I ventured down below the town for a bit, walking through the dark, rocky tunnels, deciding that the exhaust fumes were a little strong to stay down there for a long time. I ventured into the crowded market just long enough to get an early dinner, and then I took my food to the steps to relax a bit. This sandwich was awe-inspiring. A huge Cuban sandwich full of ham, hot dogs, some sort of barbecue, melted cheese, jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, and maybe more on a huge roll. In addition to being amazing, it was only about $3, so that already eased the pain of the abundance of people in what was supposed to be my little gem of a town. As evening was coming, I took the funicular (cable car) up the very steep hill to get an aerial view of the city. Only taking a few minutes, the 42 degree angle of the incline looks much steeper on the precarious cars during the journey up and down. On top of the town stands a monument to La Pilapa, a huge statue of a man that was said to have tied a huge rock to his back and was thus able to fight off the Spanish without being shot...I guess he was fighting backwards, I don't know. There were a few stairs and viewpoints of the city below, and anxious locals gathered around to tell stories of the wars, the silver mines and the mummies to anyone who would listen and possibly pitch in a few pesos. The overhead views of the city are beautiful, seeing the rooftops and chapels below, spreading far in each direction of the tight valley. I stayed for about an hour and a half, gazing at the town below and watching the sky grow dark and the city lights begin to shine. Heading in for the night, I decided not to partake of the partying and insanity that would line the streets.

Unfortunately for me and the rest of the hostel patrons, one of the cars just outside of our window had a very sensitive car alarm, literally being activated every single time a loud car or diesel engine would pass. Also unfortunate, this event seemed to happen much more than expected in a small town. We become accustomed to the dreadful sound of an approaching diesel engine and the ensuing symphony of beeps and buzzes as the alarm went through each of its delightful phases. Waking up in the morning, I felt as though I hadn't slept, but I was thankful to be up and able to walk away from the incessant sound. I once again hit the streets of Guanajuato, happy to see that they had somewhat cleared out, since the weekend was over. There were still some performances during the week, but of course the weekend was much busier. There was still a vibrant feel and people along the streets of this enchanting town, but it was a much more manageable quantity. My main attraction for the day was the Museum of the Mummies, well known throughout Mexico. Due to the ideal combination of warm, dry conditions, many of the bodies originally buried in the town become mummified, and they are now on display in the museum. These bodies were those that were buried in public graves and had not been claimed five years after their burial, at which point they become property of the municipality. Highlighting Mexico's fascination/lack of fear of death (also apparent in their huge festivals and celebrations on the Day of the Dead on November 2), the mummies and relatives that have passed are not viewed as morbid, but as a part of life and not really out of the ordinary. As I passed into the dark hallways of the museum, I wasn't sure what to expect or how I'd feel about the exhibits. The first set of exhibits were simply the remains of human skeletons with the leathery skin still attached and even remnants of eyebrows, pubic hair and even hair on the head of some of the bodies. Many of the bodies were over a hundred years old and had suffered through early vandalism and robberies. Initially, each one had an identification card with information about the body, though only a few of those were remaining. The placards told stories of the peoples' lives, professions and amount of time that they'd been in the museum. Told in first person, the stories had a strange feel, truly personifying the figures all around that I'd hoped to have passed off as just an exhibit.

They also had a few more noteworthy exhibits, including a mummy with a fetus that was removed and is now the world's smallest mummy, only a few inches tall and more than just slightly disturbing. One room of four mummies was a set from about one hundred years ago, and another room showed mummies that died of various causes including stabbing (where you could see the blood stains on the skin), drowning (where you could see that the skin had turned a bit blue) and being buried alive (where you could see scratches on the forehead and the arms in a position as if trying to break out). This was all a bit too realistic, since, well, it IS real. But, as I said, this doesn't seem to bother the Mexicans as much as it would most Americans, so whatever. Also, this museum and 'tradition' has given rise to the people of Guanajuato being nicknamed mummies (momias), a fact related to me by the weird, friendly guy in the San Blas bus station. One little note, though: they don't take kindly to this nickname, so you probably shouldn't say it to their faces. Unless they're already dead...ha.

Anyway, after the museum, I did more walking through the lovely town, the pastel buildings, colorful storefronts, narrow cobblestone streets and pleasant parks. My next touristy stop was the Callejón del Beso (the Alley of the Kiss). Just as above the town, almost any of the locals around were willing to tell the legend of the alley for a suggested donation. Basically, this is the narrowest of the very narrow alley that line the hills of the city. As the story goes, a rich young girl lived in one of the houses and fell in love with a miner (working class man), who was forbidden by the father to see his daughter, due to his social position. Not being deterred that easily, the miner rented a room in the upstairs apartment across the tiny alley from the girl, and the balconies are so close, that it is said that they exchanged kisses from one balcony to the other, which actually is possible in this alley only a few feet wide. Eventually the father found out, didn't say anything to the daughter, and soon the miner met a tragic end. Now, of course, there is legends saying that if you and your lover walk through the alley without kissing, it brings 7 years of bad luck, or, conversely, kissing on the steps of the alley brings 15 years of good luck. The guide also related a series of jokes on all the different types of kisses which was actually pretty funny, though I can't remember/translate them well enough to do them justice. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. If you want to hear them, learn Spanish, catch a flight to Guanajuato and do your best to find this tiny alley. It actually took me about 20 minutes of narrow, steep roads with no signs to find it. Other than that, I mostly just wandered more around the town, taking in the sounds of the comedians and street musicians, in particular, an extremely loud and boisterous cumbia performance from some Venezuelans that had drawn quite a crowd. I also returned to the central market for a return performance of my beloved Cuban sandwich, which was every bit as delicious the second time around.

Eventually, I made it back to my hostel for the night where I met a few interesting people from Australia, Israel, Canada and a Korean exchange student living in Wisconsin. The Canadian was taking it upon himself to truly immerse himself in the true Mexican tequila culture, downing shot after shot along with healthy helpings of lime. We exchanged travel thoughts and itineraries, and a few of them very accurately recited the opinions of their Lonely Planet guidebook, which is exactly why I hate that book, which, much to my dismay/delight, has been very helpful thus far. All in all, Guanajuato is an amazing town in a great natural setting, but this is a whirlwind tour of Mexico (as whirlwind as a month and a half can be), so there's no time to waste. My next stop is Morelia, another colonial, typically Mexican town in the central highlands.

(The town of Guanjuato, from the top of one of the many hills overlooking the city.)

(The narrow crowded streets just a few hours after arriving. Check out the tie dye shirt in the front...groovy, man.)

(A typical street with the well manicured trees, and a Mexican VW bug.)

(Coming out of the underground tunnels, there are also tunnels to the left and right of this picture. The main road is one level above all of this.)

(The confluence of the main road and the main pedestrian street, with some nice greenery. This is also Monday, so you can see the streets are busy but not packed.)

(A tunnel to the netherworld, or maybe just the main road. There are a few of these around town.)

(Callejón del Beso - The Alley of the Kiss. Note how narrow it is. The kiss would have occurred right about where the flowers and the light are.)

(A view of Guanajuato around 8 pm at night, as the city lights started coming on.)

(One of the many plazas...perhaps called Plaza del Fuente. Fuente means fountain.)

(Teatro Juarez, along the main road. I forget what it was, but something about this theater was supposed to make it one of the best in the world, for one reason or another. Maybe the best place to see traditional Guanajuatan theater.)

(Another plaza off the main road - Juarez.)

(Is that Teatro Juarez again, but this time at dusk? Mmhmm.)

Guadalajara, Chivas and Cooler Weather

Guadalajara, said to be one of the most Mexican of all cities and the second largest in size, home of the mariachi, tequila, bullfights and such things, was my next stop, but not before an impressive bus ride from Puerto Vallarta (or Valeta, as it is pronounced by the British). Riding back over the forest covered mountains, I was aboard one of the comfortable, fairly uncrowded Primera Plus buses, which cost a tiny bit more but make up for it in terms of comfort, space and actually showing somewhat decent movies, as opposed to the ones found in rubbish bins across America. This is also important because my precious iPod decided to stop working on me about a week ago, so I've been trying to survive without the thousands of songs that had been accompanying me on the trip. I had paused it at one bus stop, and the fickle, overpriced piece of metal and computer chips has decided that I've had enough, not ever turning on again. I don't think it's a battery issue, since it was still half full when it decided to leave this world, and I can sometimes get it to show the opening screen with the Apple logo, but I can never get past this point. Of course, this was a disappointing turn of events with my less than one year old iPod, but things could be worse. Hopefully I'll be able to fix it when I get home. So, we crossed over a few mountain ranges, and soon hit the central valleys before moving into a very strange landscape of green hills, with the hills being covered in thousands of medium sized boulders. Stacks and stacks of these boulders lined the tops and sides of the hills, perhaps hinting at the volcanic landscape of the area. The hills also soon revealed one of the chief exports of the area - tequila.

Blue agave plants, which look like large spiky aloe plants, grow in long rows of light green/blue bunches. Apparently, the plants grow for about 8 years before they are uprooted, revealing a ball about the size of a beach ball, which is then opened, cooked, drained and fermented, yielding the pungent, detestable liquor known as tequila that is thankfully moderated by the lime that inevitably follows. The story of the discovery of tequila is said to have occurred thousands of years ago with the ancient tribes seeing a lightning bolt strike the agave plant, opening up and cooking the roots and thus creating the liquid treat that they viewed as a gift from the gods. If I were receiving a gift from the gods, I'd probably ask for something a bit more tasty, but I guess they couldn't afford to be choosy. Anyway, the rows of plants along the road form nice symmetrical lines. In fact, we even passed through the town of Tequila just an hour or so outside of Guadalajara. Upon arriving in the massive bus terminal in the city of about 4 million people, I transferred to a smaller bus and ended up getting to my hotel late that afternoon. As usual, the hotel wasn't in the nicest part of town, and it was nothing to marvel over, but it was just a few blocks from the plazas, cathedrals, and main attractions of the city. The twin steepled cathedral is the symbol of the town and similarly named state, so that was my first destination. Along the way, I passed through much of the beautiful Spanish architecture, stone buildings, wide pedestrian plazas and such that were constructed after the Spanish took over the country in the 1500s and 1600s. Now, I'm not condoning the raping and pillaging of ancient cultures, but the colonial cities and structures constructed by the Spanish during those times still remain quite impressive.

Also along the way, I found lines and lines of street vendors, selling similar items as in previous cities, yet I still find myself drawn to these areas. I also looked for a long time for iPod chargers, hoping to fix my defunct buddy, but I was being run around in circles as each vendor recommended a different place to try. After about 30 minutes, I finally did find a charger, hoping that mine had broken and thinking I might be able to come up with some sort of fix. Of course, many attempts and reading any and every piece of advice on (thanks to some great research by Marcelle) left me with nothing but frustration. Giving up for a while, I ventured back out into the plazas, experiencing the pounding drums and sounds of the musical wooden anklets worn by a huge group of 30 or 40 dancers in a large circle that attracted a large crowd to see the traditional dances, or perhaps they were just drawn in by the loin cloths and shirtless men. For my second day in the city, I decided to take a bus tour of the city to learn more about the history and numerous buildings that had impressed me. The double decker bus had headphones, and we meandered around the city, learning the history of their independence, seeing the statues to the valiant soldiers and passing by the world's largest market, a three story sprawling building full of vendors that I somehow managed to avoid. Passing through an Americanized shopping mall during the tour, I noticed an all-too familiar logo on one of the shops - the Apple logo that now occupies the screen of my iPod. The bus tour continued, but I studied the maps and found that I could get off and walk back to that store fairly easily, hoping that they would have some answers for me. I entered the store and tried to explain my problems, realizing that I don't know all of the technological terms for things like iPods in Spanish, but I did alright, and the store clerk said they'd take a look at it. It would be about $60 just to look at it, though they couldn't promise anything. After some debate, I decided to leave it with them, planning to return at 9 the next morning to pick it up, just before leaving town. Right as I was about to leave, the clerk unfortunately notified me that the technician had just left for the day, so he wouldn't have a chance to diagnose my mp3 player. In addition, since the following day was Sunday, they wouldn't actually open until 11 am, which wouldn't work for me. I lamented that I wouldn't have the time to wait for it and mentioned that I had to leave soon, since I'd be going to the soccer match that night, which was only an hour or two away. Then, the store clerk came up with a great idea. He told me that he only lived about 7 blocks from the stadium, so he'd work on it, making sure not to delete the music, and then he could bring it to me after the game. Since I don't have any cell phone, he gave me his home, cell and work number, his name (Jonathan - pronounced Yonathan), and we planned to meet up after the game, hopefully with a working iPod. I felt like I could trust him, so I left the iPod in his hands and made my way back.

Realizing that time was actually catching up to me, I sprinted back to the bus stop, hoping to catch my tourist bus back on its next round, but I missed it by just a minute or two after running about a mile and a half through the streets of town with my backpack. After missing the bus, I knew I had to hurry, so I wiped off the sweat and found a taxi back to my hotel, where I dropped off a few things and then jumped on the next bus to the stadium. I was going to see the soccer match between Chivas and Necaxa, Chivas being one of the most beloved and well-known of all Mexican club teams, so I was really excited to see the game. The passion for the sport here in Latin America is unbelievable, and I was so happy to have the chance to see one of the premier teams playing that night. Arriving on the bus, I stepped out into a see of red and white striped shirts, cheers and smells of fresh food. I couldn't resist one of the taco stands, in which they had a large grill in the center, surrounded by assorted types of meat, each separated by a large sausage. After specifying the type of meat, they scraped some onto the hot part of the grill, threw in a few tortillas and soon there was fresh tacos waiting for you, along with the bowls of salsa, onions, cilantro, guacamole, etc for toppings. The steak tacos were incredible, and I ended up having four of them before heading into the match.

Once in the stadium, I had general admission seats in a great section right at half-field. The problem was that the seats were all blocked with police tape, though that didn't seem to bother most people who simply ripped through the tape, so I did the same. Eventually I was greeted by one of the ushers who told us that despite our tickets, we'd have to be a member of the fan club to sit in this area. However, since I was alone, he found an open seat for me about six rows up from the field, so I was very happy with that. A disgruntled fan nearby decided to loudly complain to anyone willing to listen, refusing to move from his seat after saying that his ticket entitled him to that spot, and the only thing that was going to move him was a policeman. Eventually, after arguing, yelling and a bit of pushing, a policeman did come, and they agreed on a decent spot nearby. The whole time, I listened, though pretended to be the oblivious gringo, hoping that they weren't going to move me again, and the belligerent fan pointed to each one of us, assuring the officers that we all had the exact same tickets. Eventually, the drama was over, and the crowd's chants and drum beats began as the game kicked off. The unusually high scoring match started off quickly with three goals in the first 30 minutes. The game continued with a fast pace, eventually resulting in a red card, more goals, a saved penalty kick and an impressive 5-1 scoreline for the home team. The atmosphere was incredible, with the true supporters standing behind the goal, singing, chanting and dancing non-stop through the entire match. As the game ended, I thought again of my iPod and hoped that I'd be able to reach my new friend, hoping that my trust was well-founded.

I found a nearby payphone and called Jonathan as the fans poured out of the stadium. He was just leaving work and told me that he'd be there in a few minutes, meeting me at the corner of the main road and the South end of the stadium. As I watched more and more people pass by, time passed slowly, and I realized that I probably couldn't even describe the guy that I was looking for. I knew I'd recognize him, but I definitely couldn't have made out a description for someone else. Minutes continued passing, and I wasn't yet worried, but a tiny bit of fear did start to creep into my mind. What if he wasn't going to show up? What would I do then? After about 50 minutes, I called him back, and he apologized and said the buses were running behind, and he said he'd once again be there soon. Now, the problem with this is partly due to Latin American modes of communication. Often, when they say just a second, it can mean much more than that, certainly not being bound by American standards of punctuality. Anyway, I felt like I had a safe spot on the dark corner to wait, as the fans were almost gone, but I was waiting right in front of a police car, watching the vendors take down their stalls and turn out the lights for the night. Unfortunately, my police escort didn't last, and a few shady looking guys came by from time to time, but the time passed without incident. Finally, about an hour after the game had ended, I saw Jonathan and a friend round the corner. He told me about everything he had tried, going through so many different possibilities. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get it working again, but I was so appreciative that he had tried so much to help me. So, despite not working, I had agreed to pay the $60, so I asked him how much I owed, hoping he'd give me a bit of a discount. With a smile, he responded that I didn't owe him anything. The generosity and friendliness of some of the people that I've met has been amazing, going out of their way to talk to me, share stories and help me out has been wonderful. He had tried so much and had even come to meet me on a random street corner, and he wasn't even asking for a dime in return. I thanked him many times, and then we were on our way. I caught the late night bus home, hurried back through the dark, mostly empty streets of the town and thankfully made it back safely to my hotel room about 11 that night.

My quick stay in Guadalajara would be over early the next morning, as I was heading further towards the center of the country to another colonial gem called Guanajuato.

(The main cathedral of Guadalajara in late afternoon)

(The taco stand with the assortment of meats and toppings...mmmmm)

(A view of the match from my seat. The stadium holds about 60,000 though there were probably only about 35,000 at my match.)

(The rowdy fans behind the goal, waving flags and singing songs)

(A night view of one of the museums in the central plaza)

(More plazas and Spanish architecture. This stuff is everywhere.)

(A circular, pillared monument to some of the important people of the area.)

Puerto Vallarta and the Attack of the Gringos

Despite knowing that Puerto Vallarta would most likely be inundated with tourists, the natural setting of the place still sounded appealing, and it was on my way, so I figured a few days in the place couldn't hurt. I took a few buses from Mexcaltitán, and I arrived in late afternoon, a bit thankful that the clouds above helped to moderate the heat and humidity that I'd encountered in every coastal city thus far. Passing through town on the way to my hotel in the Zona Romantica (the Romantic Zone, as opposed to the Hotel/Tourist Zone), I found the city to be fairly nice, despite the obvious gringo influences of the high rise hotels, Burger Kings, Applebees, etc. My small, dark hotel was pretty similar to what I've stayed in throughout this trip, so there were no surprises there, and I was happy to be in the area near the beach, yet away from most of the high rises and timeshare presentations. Of course, there were still locals walking along the beach and adjacent streets, trying to sell colorful hammocks, silver jewelry, bracelets and everything else. The thing that impressed me about the town most was the natural setting, decent beaches backed by large mountains covered in rainforest, also making the bus ride through the green valleys an interesting sight. The countryside actually reminded me of some of some of my long trips through Costa Rica, and I have been surprised to find such lush greenery here in Central and Northern Mexico, as I had the misimpression that those verdant green valleys would only be found further South of here. Also running through the middle of town, down from the mountains, is a decent sized river, separating the Northern section of town from the slightly less developed South section of town in which I stayed. A few roads and bridges traversed the river, even leading to a small island in between which was densely populated with local vendors and a few tourist restaurants.

My first foray outside the hotel was to check out the beaches nearby, since this is, in fact, a beach resort town. As I said, some dark clouds loomed overhead, and being at the end of the rainy season, the ocean water seemed to resemble something more like a murky brown with hints of blue than the ''sparkling blue'' description that the place claimed. Even so, the beaches weren't bad, and I walked along the shore until the last beach gave way to some large rocks and a hidden hotel on top of the hill. Walking back, I was ready to eat, and I wanted to take advantage of the tourist atmosphere and try to find some pasta or something like that. Not quite pasta, I found the best alternative just along the waterfront. An ''Italian'' place that also served sandwiches offered up the best meatball sandwich that I've had in a long, long time, a huge hoagie roll stuffed with meatballs, overflowing with hot, melted cheese and marinara sauce. Given the low tourist season, the place was also offering a free beer with any sandwich, so I went for a Corona and had a brilliant meal all to myself. After dinner, the sky was growing darker, so I headed back for the night, ready to explore more of the town the next day.

The next morning, the heat and temperature had returned, and I began my long walk, which I tend to think is the best way to see and get a true feel for a town. I walked amongst the cobblestone streets and trees of the old town before moving to the more touristy boardwalk and shops of the tourist zone. Surrounded by obnoxious American tourists barking instructions in annoyed English to taxi drivers and tour guides, I couldn't help but get the feeling that not all, but some, Americans do deserve the bad reputation that we have abroad. Even so, I'm not really above that myself, as I contributed by going in and out of the air-conditioned shops, looking at the same cheesy products over and over. However, I did pick up a cheap shirt and new swimsuit, so the day was fruitful for me. Moving up the steep hills and narrow steps of the city streets, I found some nice views of the impressive church and town squares that spread out along the waterfront. Tucked away in an alley up in the hills, I also found what was rated by a few magazines as ''one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the world.'' This veggie buffet was amazing. For about $5, it was all you can eat with all kinds of marinated vegetables, tortillas, taquitos (fried, rolled tacos) filled with potatoes, chiles, and any type of side dish with a Mexican touch. The price also included fresh squeezed pineapple juice. After a few huge plates and some telling stains on my clothes, I waddled out of the restaurant, thankful that it was downhill back to my hotel. Again, the clouds of the afternoon were rolling in, and I was thankful that my long, sweaty walk was nearing an end. Later, I made my way back out to the beach, just in time for another picturesque sunset along the waterfront, listening to the mariachis move from table to table, playing a few songs for each group, hoping for a bit of money in return.

Overall, I wouldn't mind returning to Puerto Vallarta, as it really was a nice place, despite the feeling of sometimes being surrounded by more Americans than Mexicans. But, since there is so, so much left to see in this varied country, I'd be leaving by bus the next morning, heading inland in search of some of the typically colonial towns and a bit cooler climate.

(The main beach on the South side of town, about a ten minute walk from my hotel.)

(The end of the beach, with the clouds coming in and the parasailer floating by)

(One of the symbols of the city - the arch, or arches, or something like that)

(I snuck into a house under construction, passed the lounging workers to get this view of the main church of the city)

(I had a bit of free time and found a few small rocks, so I decided to construct a makeshift replica of the ancient temples...not too bad, eh?)

(Another of the town's churches and plazas)

(The purple and pink sunset, one of the last that I'll see over the ocean for a while.)

Mexcaltitán, the Ancient City of the Aztecs?

Leaving behind the tranquil town of San Blas, I was inspired by a Mexican tourism poster for my next destination: Mexcaltitán. Said to be the original settlement of the Aztec empire, the possibly mythical city occupies the entirety of a small island within a muddy river fairly close to the coast. Despite no archaeological evidence to support the claim, the locals and many Mexicans believe this to be the first home of the Aztecs who have described their original village exactly like this, a small piece of land surrounded by water. Their legends also state that they searched for a sign from the gods for their first place of settlement, being told that they'd see a heron or other type of bird eating a snake, perched upon a tree or cactus. Given the local flora and fauna, it is certainly believable that they could have come across this omen in the location of Mexcaltitán. If this is true, they would have occupied the place around 900 AD, eventually leaving the island behind as they moved inland for a few hundred years, slowly making their way to the site of Teotihuacán, near present day Mexico City. In this place, they also claimed to have seen the bird eating the snake atop a cactus, a symbol that is also currently depicted on Mexico's flag. You know, the one that you always thought looked like Italy but with something accidentally drawn in the you know what that is. Anyway, the city was only supposed to be about an hour from San Blas, but it turned into a bit of an adventure making my way there.

First, I went to the bus stop, hoping to go to Santiago, yet there were no buses to Santiago, and I was told to go on the Villa Hidalgo bus and just tell the driver that I needed to go to Santiago. So, I asked the driver that was just about to leave, but he vehemently denied that his bus would go near Santiago, so I went back to the waiting room. I asked the woman at the ticket booth what to do, and she told me to take the next Villa Hidalgo bus and that the driver with whom I talked was just crazy. So, I waited another hour, met a strange local man who had lived in Seattle for a while and wanted to practice his English, which was just good enough to ask me for some money for food at the end of our conversation, and then I tried the next bus. The driver gave me the same story, looking at me like I was crazy, but luckily one of the passengers told me to get on the bus and when we arrived in Villa Hidalgo, I could take a short ride to Santiago. So, I took the bus, got to the end of the line and asked another driver about Santiago, he said he was going there, so I got a ride all by myself on a huge Greyhound type bus for the 15 minute journey to Santiago. For only a few dollars, this was a luxury taxi ride. Arriving in Santiago just after noon, I asked a few people about my next leg of the journey, and I had apparently missed the cheap bus to the dock for the island by about five minutes, meaning that I'd have to take a taxi. I bargained with one of the drivers who agreed to get me there and claimed that he'd be able to catch the minibus, so that I could take the cheap boat out to the island. As it turned out, he did give me a good deal...only about $6 for the 45 minute drive through the coastal plains to the boarding dock, arriving just as the small boat was just about to push off. I tossed my big backpack in the back and crammed my way onto the tiny boat, filled with about 20 locals sitting on tiny benches and the edges of the boat, covered by a makeshift awning of plastic and sticks. Riding low in the murky water, we curved around islands in the river, passing by shrimp fisherman and more mangroves before spotting the island, about 20 minutes by boat from the main road. I was happy to see land as our boat didn't seem to sturdy, and we were no more than a few inches above the waterline, and I didn't imagine that there were any lifejackets hidden anywhere.

As I got off, I paid my $1 fee for the ride, and I stepped onto the small dock, trying to check out a map to see where I was. I found the location of the one and only hotel and started walking, however I knew this wasn't going to be a long, arduous walk after judging the size of the island. Only about 350 yards long by 400 yards wide, the island is a circle, with a church and plaza in the middle, a circular road that runs near the perimeter, with houses on both sides, and two sets of parallel roads that form a cross over the island. Within a minute or two, I had arrived at the other shore, finding my hotel to be all but empty. I got a room with a balcony overlooking the river for about $15, and I dropped my stuff off to go check out the town. About 2,000 people are said to live on the island, and after pretty much walking every possible section of the place, it appears there are about 3 restaurants (two of which weren't open), 5 or 6 tiny food stores, a museum, a church, and that's about it. The faded pastel colors of the houses were pleasant enough, and the open doors and welcoming smiles assured me that crime was all but unheard of in this place. Children kicked around balls (or anything resembling that), chased each other around the trees of the main plaza and screamed as their parents patiently watched from the nearby benches or chairs. The sidewalks and few streets of the town were also unique because they were all dirt (of course, there are no cars on the island, and I don't even think I saw any bicycles), but the sidewalks and houses are built about three feet above the road below. Apparently during the wet season, the city is known to flood as the river rises, so the residents take it all in stride and simply use small boats and canoes to get around the flooded town, hence the nickname of Mexican Venice.

The town is pretty much completely dependent upon the fishing industry for money and food, mostly from shrimp. Thus, fishermen come in during the morning with their nets full, spreading the pink shrimp along the numerous sidewalks and patios of the town, creating an interesting look and sometimes less than appealing smell. The shrimp are left out to dry for the full day, taking them in after the sun sets. Women and children also line the streets, peeling the shrimp and preparing them to be eaten. Unfortunately for me, this meant that there was little other than shrimp to be found when it came time for dinner. Even so, by the time I was ready to eat, everything was closed for the night, so a nice bag of chips and an excellent chocolate muffin had to suffice. Also, as I watched the sun set over the river, I was greeted by a few of the friendly local fishermen. When I told him that I was from Atlanta, he responded with ''Oh, Chiper Jones, muy malo'' (very bad). I asked him if he thought the legends of the Aztecs was true, and as a proud resident, he of course assured me that it was indeed the birthplace of what was to become one of the largest populations in the world (Mexico City). I had also visited the museum earlier in the day, reading the history and legends of the town, though never finding any concrete proof about the town's alleged beginnings, so I wanted to hear the ideas of the locals. The fisherman also told me that his father was now the oldest living man on the island, nearing 100 years old and had been interviewed by National Geographic a few years ago, relating the stories passed on from generation to generation. He also offered to arrange for me to speak with his father the next day, which would have been wonderful, yet I had to be on my way in the morning, so I unfortunately had to decline his appealing offer.

The next morning, I packed my bags and headed back across the island to the dock, arriving just in time for the 8 am departure of the boat, otherwise I would have had to wait for the next one - leaving at 10:30. Again being the only gringo in sight, I relished the feeling of having seen something so authentic, so untouched, and perhaps even so historically significant. We got back to the shore safely, and I started anew with my series of bus trips, deciding that my next stop would be the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta, about five hours down the Pacific coast, backtracking a little bit in order to connect the bus routes.

(An aerial view of the town...This is actually a picture of one of the posters that drew me to the town.)
(My first view of the town, and the same spot where I turned to watch the sunset)

(A few of the typical houses along the circle road...I call it the Perimeter)

(Shrimp drying along the sidewalk on makeshift patio)

(More shrimp and more lovely smells)

(The sunset on this magical little village, just before meeting the friendly fisherman)

Monday, October 15, 2007

En El Muelle de San Blas

Solaaaaaa, solaaaaaa....

Sorry, the title, On the Wharf of San Blas, and the first line are from this brilliant Mexican rock song by the super-group Maná. If you haven't had the luxury of hearing this song, I highly recommend it, especially from the magical night in Miami back in 1999 when they did the MTV Unplugged recording. Amazing. Anyway, after receiving a few recommendations, along with the reference from this song, I really wanted to visit the tiny fishing town of San Blas, a few hours down Mexico's Pacific coast. Cervando, my friend from the airport in Cabo San Lucas, grew up here, my friend Fabienne's dad told me all about it a few days before I left, and I had heard other good things from fellow travellers. Not being a big name tourist destination, it took a few out of the way buses to get there, so I arrived right at dusk, and the town was ready for me. Walking out of the bus station with my big backpack on my shoulders and my smaller one and much needed water bottle in hand, I heard some traditional Mexican music and some sort of canons firing from just around the corner. Entering the central town square surrounded by two churches, the town greeted me in royal fashion, with vendors, games, dancing, music, fireworks...everything. Despite my arrival to the party, no one really seemed to notice my arrival and continued in their merrymaking. Undaunted, I thanked them for the party and made my way to one of the small hotels in town, turning every few seconds to make sure that those canon firing sounds truly were just some inexpensive fireworks being shot up into the air. I had soon checked into my small, basic hotel room, happy to see that the overhead fan and another one by the bed worked quite well. A few rooms of the hotel surrounded a bit of a broken down courtyard, highlighted by a small cage with a huge, white pelican inside, which they had apparently rescued a few years ago and is the mascot of the hotel. And, they either treat it so well that it doesn't want to leave, or it cannot fly anymore, as the wire cage only extends about three feet into the air. Anxious to get back to my welcoming party, I dropped my bags and walked the two blocks back towards the plaza.

At this point, a large procession was making its way into the larger of the two churches, accompanied by groups of dancers dressed in indigenous costumes, stomping their wooden shoes to the beat of the pounding drums that filled the air of the town. Along with many of the other residents, I watched as the congregation packed into the church, completely filling every open space and even spilling out into the adjacent street. Letting my hunger get the best of me, I wandered around the square, looking for a nice cafe with outdoor seating to continue watching my party. I found a great, somewhat expensive place (which explains why it was deserted) on the other side of the square and had a delicious meal with salad, garlic bread and spaghetti. As much as I truly love Mexican food, even I have moments when I would like a different taste, especially after having variations of beans, rice, tortillas, beef, chicken and salsa for the past few weeks for every meal. As I observed the scene, I was happy to find that some accounts of the sandflies and mosquitoes that I had read weren't really affecting me. I was either fortunate to be there at the right time of year, or they didn't particularly care for my gringo blood, perhaps finding it bland and unimaginative. Soon, after a nice oil stain on my shirt from the salad dressing and a tiny bit of tomato sauce on my shorts, I was back in the plaza, watching the procession leave the church and another folkloric dance. As an old man dressed in a cowboy hat and all white played violin, a group of 12 or 15 children, dressed in native costumes and the same wooden shoes as before, danced around him, performing spins and other moves while maintaining the rhythmic, pulsating beat. I found it a bit ironic that this mix of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism was accepted, but I guess the missionaries would have to take what they could get sometimes. Despite the welcoming, small town feel of the place, I was exhausted, so I headed back down the road to get a bit of rest before hoping to go on a canoe tour the next day.

Being a fishing and surfing town, the few beaches of San Blas aren't really the main attraction. La Tovara, I was told, was the attraction that I couldn't miss. La Tovara is a tiny town up the river from San Blas, reputed to have houses built on stilts above the partially crocodile infested water below, along with a nice natural spring behind a few of the houses that made for a refreshing bath. Walking out to the edge of the steamy town, I found a young kid advertising tours to La Tovara, but the problem was that I was by myself, and hence I didn't have the advantage of bargaining. With a group, it would only cost about $9 to take the tour, but since I was alone, I'd have to pay the entire $30 or 40 myself. I decided to wait it out, hoping some other crazy gringos would somehow appear out of the seafood restaurants nearby. Within about 20 minutes, my wish was granted, with three Mexicans appearing and inquiring about a canoe trip. I asked to join their group, and the four of us, plus our guide boarded the small boat and motored our way out into the muddy water. Beginning in a wide river, we were soon diverted into smaller and smaller tributaries, lined by thick brush and the long, twisted roots of the numerous mangrove trees that covered the river banks as well as provided a canopy above us. At points, we even had to duck the overhanging branches and two very low bridges for local roads at which point we had to duck completely into the boat to pass under without decapitating ourselves. Along the way we saw herons, some other water birds, and turtles, though no visible crocs. Soon, the coastal plains behind the muddy mangrove swamps grew into fields of sugarcane and small forested mountains. The soft white clouds reflected nicely off the placid, dark water, with our boat making the only ripples in the superbly calm area. As we rounded a nondescript corner, the stilt houses sprung from the water, standing tall in a group of three in front of us. As it turns out, these tiny wooden huts, with small decks, supported by four tall pillars about six feet above the water, were not actually houses of the locals. They were used for the filming of the Spanish movie, Cabeza de Vaca, which was a pretty bad movie about the conquistadors first exploring America (I have the movie, so watching it a second time with some knowledge of the scenery hopefully won't be as painful as the first time).

Moving further down the river, we arrived at La Tovara about an hour after we departed, finding it to be a pretty, yet tiny little lagoon with a restaurant and a few houses, and that's pretty much it. Apparently my Mexican tour buddies were in a bit of a hurry, so we decided not to eat there, and we sped away to our next stop through the quiet mangrove streams - the crocodile farm. Here we found another lagoon with a sort of small zoo. Each cage contained a few fairly large crocodiles, along with one pen with about two hundred little baby crocodiles crawling all over each other, not a sight for someone scared of reptiles (no, not me, you...I like reptiles). They also had a few other cages with wild boars, coatis and raccoons who seemed accustomed to people and enjoyed a nice back scratch from one of the visitors. Though some of the crocodiles were around 8 feet long, they didn't compare in size or reputation to the massive ''man-eaters'' of Australia, but I didn't want to offend the primitive reptiles, so I didn't mention it to them. Another hour of cruising the water brought us back to the river dock, and then I decided next to explore the hill overlooking the town.

Originally founded as a military town back around 1770, San Blas has a nice large bluff overlooking the town and adjacent coastline, making it an easily defensible city and stronghold for the Spanish at the time. So, I climbed the steep hill, fighting off the sweat and sunscreen in my eyes (this was an epic 6 minute battle), and I made my way to the lookout point, featuring a large stone fortress with canons and a small church. Also in the fortress was a tiny giftshop and a local man who is apparently known throughout Mexico for his folk songs. He told us a few stories and legends about the town, most of them involving shipwrecks, loves lost to the ocean, etc. In fact, one of the stories about a woman losing her lover and waiting for him on the wharf is the basis for the aforementioned Maná song. Not only are they a great band, but they are spreading social and cultural awareness along the way. Bravo. Though, after the prideful stories about the town, I didn't have the heart to mention that a cheesy rock song was one of the reasons that I was visiting his beloved town. We talked for a long while about my impressions of Mexico and his knowledge of the country, and he even sang a song for us a capella...though he almost forgot the second verse, but he assured us that he'd practice a few times before a true performance, and that it's hard to remember all of the legends. It has already been very interesting speaking to locals about their towns, hearing the history, knowledge and pride that they have for these interesting places.

Next, I went back into town, where, of course, I had to make my way to the muelle de San Blas (the wharf). I walked around a bit, took a few pictures and met another proud local about my age, who was actually fully dressed in military gear, including the omnipresent AK47 machine gun carried by any sort of security guard, policeman or soldier. It's a bit disconcerting the first few times that you see fully armed men walking the streets, standing next to you, accidentally brushing your shoulder with a machine gun, but you have to get used to it, or at least pretend that you don't notice it. I found my eyes drifting a few times during the conversation, being drawn towards his...his gun...pfff. So, Sergio told me all about things to do in town, places to go, people to see, etc. After a few minutes there, I was off again, walking more around the quiet town, not wanting to leave, yet knowing that I need to keep moving to see all that Mexico has to offer. Soon, I'll be off to an ancient town called Mexcaltitán, only a few hours from San Blas.

(The tight squeeze through the roots of the mangroves)

(The restaurant and lagoon of La Tovara - also spelled La Tobara by some...the pronunciation is exactly the same in Spanish)

(Hundreds of baby cute)

(Two of the three houses on stilts, used in the Cabeza de Vaca movie)

(Another view from the boat and the wider part of the river)

(The two churches. The yellow one was the one with the celebration, which turned out to be La Coronacion de Nuestra Senora)

(The fortress atop the rocky bluff overlooking town where I met the folklore singer)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mazatlán - Not Too Bad

Another four or five hour bus ride, accompanied with some bad movies dubbed in Spanish, a few random stops along the way, and I had arrived in the formerly sleepy fishing town of Mazatlan. Once a tiny little place on the coast, it has become a bit of a tourist destination, though it still has a long way to go to become a resort town. I arrived just after dark, telling the taxi driver to take me to one of the cheaper hotels that I had read about in my Lonely Planet guidebook. Side note: I hate the fact that I am one of the many, many travelers using Lonely Planet, as it is too popular and widely used, resulting in the same places being crowded with travelers who read the exact same reviews, yet the maps and hotel information are indispensable, so I guess I can´t complain too much. Nevertheless, my taxi driver seemed to think that he could get me some better deals, first in a bad area of town, then a little closer to where I wanted to be. As it turned out, I went with his third option, a cheap, decent hotel in between the beach and the scenic old town. Finding most places closed for the evening, I wandered the dark streets of my new neighborhood, finally finding a local family with a grill and hotdog stand set up in their driveway, where I had a decent hamburger and fries before heading in for the night.

The next morning, I lathered up with sunscreen, grabbed my small yet heavy, omnipresent backpack with all of my important possessions such as my passport and camera, and I started trekking through the sun-drenched town. Within an hour or two, the sun was bearing down on me, sweat soaking through my shirt, making my way along the waterfront in the high 90 degree heat and humidity. Wanting to see what I could of the town, I walked up and down the main streets, finding the tourist zone, the fishermen, and everything in between. The smell of fish permeated the town, small boats lined the waterfront and restaurants offered every sort of seafood combination imaginable. After hours and hours of walking, I came to the edge of Old Mazatlan, around a rocky outcrop from which cliff divers climb a small platform and jump into the sea below, trying to make a bit of money from passing tourists. As I arrived, the divers were nowhere to be found, so I walked amongst the sculptures and up a strange staircase with no rails, leading to a bench about 50 feet up, overlooking the water and rocks below. While relaxing on the bench, one of the locals calmly walked up the stairs next to me and began shouting something to what I thought was a friend across the street. He then proceeded to walk along the back of the bench, looking over the edge of the rock. As I looked up, I realized that a crowd had gathered, and I was in for a close up view of the dive. Not nearly as impressive as the cliff divers from Acapulco, this guy and his partner that arrived shortly after were still enough to draw a decent sized crowd, as they sprung into the shallow pool among the jagged rocks below. They quickly jumped back out of the water, hoping to collect tips before the group of tourists dispersed. Heading back down the stairs, I got back to the street just as the gathering was breaking up, though the younger of the two cliff divers seemed to want to practice his English with me. So, the diver, in his early 20s, first showed me the scars on his hands from his dangerous occupation and told me all about a few close encounters with the rocks and the shallow ocean floor below. Then, he began to get a bit more into his personal life, telling me how his wife just left him two days earlier. Initially, he claimed that she didn't even say why she was leaving, but he later revealed that they had already discussed the reasons. The first being him flirting with and looking at other women, which he claims is part of his job in order to get better tips. He also mentioned the fact that he didn't really like to work, other than the diving, and the third issue was his drug problem, so I guess her leaving actually wasn't unprovoked, though I still felt sorry for the guy. He told me that he still loved her, and he was going to wait it out, hoping that she'd soon return to the house. Eventually, I had to leave him behind, but I found it interesting to get the real life story behind the tourist attraction of the city.

My next stop was Old Mazatlan, an area of some decent looking pastel colored buildings (thought not as nice as Bermuda's) and hidden plazas covered in trees, lined with benches and intimate cafes. Still fighting the blistering heat, I gave in when I saw an appealing ice cream shop on the corner, and I sat in the pleasant, narrow plaza, watching the people and the birds go by. Eventually, I made it back to my hotel, exhausted from walking about 8 miles in the heat and humidity, all the while carrying my heavy backpack full of 'essentials.' After relaxing and showering, I walked around the picturesque boardwalk that night and couldn't resist the bright pink cotton candy that the vendors kept pushing on me. It wasn't the best or most fresh that I've ever had, but you can't really go wrong with sugar and food coloring. With my cotton candy in hand, I found a quiet spot to sit and watch the sunset over the water and fishing boats that lined the golden beaches of the city. All in all, Mazatlan is a relaxed, pleasant city with decent beaches, though there wasn't much more than a day or two of things for me to do, so I was once again back on the fairly comfortable buses the next morning, heading down to a tiny town called San Blas.

(The malecón (boardwalk) of Mazatlán)

(The hills surrounding Old Mazatlán and the fishermen on the beach.)

(Colorful façades of Old Mazatlán)

(A pleasant plaza and restaurant in the old town)

(The sun setting over the palms and the Pacific)

(If you look really closely, you can see the soccer goal in the front right of the picture...I wanted to play)

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