This was my first time traveling in … Mexico. The first time to see Mexican cowboys in their white shirts & cowboy hats; school girls in their incongruous but apropos Scottish plaid skirts; the colourful indigenous Indian peoples; the Catholic canoodling in public places.
Sure I’d flown many times to Mazatlan; partied it up in my 4-star Condo, dined in great restaurants filled with Gringos, danced on Joe’s Oyster Bar. That’s not Mexico, of course.
Actually, I never had much interest in backpacking Mexico. What little I knew of Spain & the Spanish speaking world left me “no sympatico”. (I later, after a trip to Madrid, softened this position).
Spanish contributions to world culture? I could name Don Quixote, El Greco, Gypsy Kings, Picasso, Bull Fighting, Tapa bars, Tequila.
But Mexico seemed a land devoured by the cruel & rapacious “conquistadors” & the always ruthless but sometimes noble Catholic Church.
Cortés, young & ambitions, on arrival there, had all his ships but one destroyed. It was conquer or die. There was no retreat.
The Spanish colonial legacy, their “Black Legend”, is not a proud one. Historians are quick to point out that while heretics were being burned in Europe by the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of innocents in Mexico were having their hearts ripped out still beating.
Some of the Mexican tribes were blood-thirsty. I don’t think that mitigates Spanish sadism.
In the end, European disease was the main genocidal killer in Mexico, same as in Canada.
“New Spain” was a rich & fertile land: agriculture, fishing, mining. Gold & silver! I was struck that Mexico is geographically identical to Arizona & Texas, yet the U.S. is the richest country in the world & Mexico still a developing nation? How to explain that?
If California had remained part of Mexico would illegal “Coyotes” be today trying to cross the border into Oregon?
I loved Guadalahara, a terrific & scenic tourist town. But Mexico City was even better. I stayed near the central plaza, the hub of everything.
25 million+, a quarter of the national population. Some say it is a violent and dangerous city. Certainly I’ve never seen so many cops, soldiers, bullet-proof vests, & weapons.
Despite the reputation, Mexico is getting pretty civilized these days. The hard-core backpackers are mostly in central America where the road is wilder & travel currently less expensive.
I did meet one American who was robbed in Mexico. His night bus was stopped, men with machetes & guns boarded, they took everything including his passport.
Last year during a train robbery, a German tourist who resisted was shot dead.
Mexican heroes mount insurrections. That’s part of the problem. I got caught-up in a massive traffic jam / parade. Was the Pope in town? Or that other religious icon, Santa Claus?
No, it was a reenactment of the ride of Pancho Villa who, eulogized as a hero of the Revolution, is even better known as a bandit, murderer, & womanizer.
A bigger concern to me than thievery is that Mexico is loud & polluted. Can you believe that recycling STILL hasn’t come to most of Mexico? The litter is dreadful.
Yet myself & everyone I met really enjoyed Mexico City. No problems. It’s quick & easy to get around on the world’s 3rd largest metro system (after Moscow & Tokyo) to the many well-run tourist attractions; museums, huge murals, Voladores, the Indians who fly suspended from a tall pole, tied-on by ropes.
Just north of the city is “Teotihuacán”, the impressive ancient capital. It was larger than Rome in its imperial heyday”.
The Pyramid of the Sun has the same base as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, but reaches only about 40% as high. Still, it’s the 3rd highest pyramid in the world & a long climb up.
I enjoyed the holiest of Mexican shrines, the Basilica de Guadelupe, abuzz with pilgrims, tourists, & pickpockets.
Mexico’s “most binding symbol” is the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadelupe, a manifestation of Mary who magically appeared to a Mexican Indian in 1531. Her cloaked image is everywhere.
At the marvelous Museum of Anthropology I finally got to see the famous, mysterious giant stone Olmec heads; mysterious because (carved about 1000 B.C.) they have Negroid features, famous because Homer Simpson has one in his basement.
(By the way, “Los Simpsons” is a big hit here.)
San Miguel de Allende
Near everyone loves this charming colonial town. Cobbled streets, public squares, classy restaurants. An arty & crafty treat.
It used to have quite a Bohemian reputation — Neal Cassady, the real-life hero of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” died here.
Later San Miguel attracted artisans from all over the world. The quality of the art is high. If you’re into hoarding useless possessions — I mean, collecting inspiring ethnic art — you should rush down here.
Me? I’ve almost completely given-up on travel trophies. But I did attend the Taiwan Ballet in one of the beautiful historic theatres. Lovely.
Accompanied by Anna & Chris; tall, slim, raven-haired identical twins from Brazil, I went next to Guanajuato. Gorgeous mansions, colourful houses, excellent restaurants — one of Mexico’s most fascinating colonial cities.
Not a single street runs along a straight line; this is a town crammed into a steep ravine. Why the impossible topography? Because one of the richest veins of silver was discovered here in 1558. For 200 years it produced about 35% of the world’s silver.
Most zany of all, the city traffic passes underfoot through a confusing maze of tunnels. That made for a nice pedestrian tourist experience.
The wealthy silver barons built fantastic cathedrals in which they could repent their guilt — in some mines as many as 5 workers / day died of accident or illness.
I was keen to HIKE in Mexico though hiking as a recreational pursuit is astonishingly undeveloped there.
High up on the continental divide is Creel, population 4000. Saturday night. As in any other cowboy town, there’s nothing to do but drive the truck up & down the main street with windows open, Mexican music blaring.
Sunday was “tranquillo”. As I climbed up to welcoming Jesus on the hill, I reflected that I like Creel. It turned-out to be my favourite town in Mexico.
I was befriended (that can’t be the right word) by a Mexican con-man named Rene. Over Huevos Mexicanos he told me a version of his life story. Rene’s a vagabond wandering Mexico without money or possessions, living day-to-day by his wits and charismatic personality. He learned his English working illegally in Brownsville, Texas transferring goods from Mexican to American trucks — $20 / truck. He made it sound easy to cross the border.
Creel is not much more than a little whistle-stop lumberyard & outfitting town. The trains rocked my little Hotel room beside the tracks. But this is the jumping-off-point for the slightly famous Copper Canyon.
The Copper Canyon is deeper in places than the Grand Canyon & covers 6 times more territory as the rivers carve through Mexican highlands to the sea.
From Creel we took a spectacular 7 hour drive down into the bottom of the canyon to the quaint, photogenic village of Batopilas. Here you’ll find more horses on the street than motor vehicles. One hombre rode by reins in one hand, a grande beer in the other.
Down in the canyon, most of the population are indigenous Tarahumara Indians. The girls & women look wonderful in their traditional costume of brightly coloured pleated skirts & accessories. (They adopted this from the fine Spanish ladies they first saw 300 years ago.) Most of the men have assumed the Western uniform of jeans & baseball cap.
Traveling I’m generally not much interested in the native peoples. It’s usually the same sad story we’ve seen in Canada.
But the Tarahumara (the “People who Run Fast”) are fascinating. Traditional hunters, the men run down deer for food — literally run deer ‘til exhausted. The men can’t run faster but they can run much, much longer.
The Tarahumara first appeared at the Mexico City Olympics marathon. Later boostering Americans started bringing them up for ultra-marathons. The big race is in Colorado, the “Leadville 100” miles. In 1993 Tarahumara finished 1st, 2nd, & 5th though they run in home-made sandals.
Next I climbed on to the famous Copper Canyon Train; 655 kms, 39 bridges, 86 tunnels, fantastic scenery. It’s an amazing ride, one of the great railway journeys of the world.
But how will I get home for Millennium Eve? I have no ticket, no plan.