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Travels in Mexico, 2019: Part 1

It’s a tough time for everyone, especially for those involved in the travel industry. And not only those working in it, but anyone with plans to travel or even a desire to travel.

I don’t need to remind you why. We’re constantly reminded why, in different ways for everyone.

Me—with some extra time on my hands, brought on by a two-week quarantine, I’ve finished some old stories about Mexico. But it would seem strange to post them now. How could I do that, but not mention the state of the world today?

Besides, I don’t really have anything to contribute about the state of the world today. Sure, I have my own story, and the time will come for me to share that. But for now, I want to look back on some of the great trips I enjoyed in Mexico in 2019.

And not only Mexico. My wife and I traveled to Cuba last summer, an amazing and eye-opening adventure. Also we took two short trips to the U.S., one to San Francisco and the other to Michigan. One of these days I’ll get around to writing about those, or at least post some photos.

We’ll get through this, and we’ll travel again. There are countless fascinating destinations in Mexico, not to mention the world. Even in my ninth year living in Mexico, 2019, I found new and wonderful places to explore, some of them only an hour or two from my house.

These were some of my favorites:

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Zihuatanejo Bay

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Humpback whale in front of Morros de Potosi, near Zihuatanejo

Zihuatanejo is a beach town on the Pacific Coast, between Acapulco to the southeast and Puerto Vallarta farther northwest. It’s a good alternative to those two more famous beach destinations: cheaper, less developed, and undeniably beautiful, with several beaches and good snorkeling and fishing all along a secluded bay.

I went to scuba dive, among other places at one of the best dive sites in the Mexican Pacific: Los Morros de Potosi, a series of white guano-covered islands surrounded by underwater wildlife. As you can see in the photo above, we saw a humpback whale on our way to go diving.

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The end of the underground portion of the Chonta River, near Grutas de Cacahuamilpa National Park

Grutas de Cacahuamilpa

Grutas de Cacahuamilpa

A few hours south of Mexico City is a national park I’ve passed on many bicycle rides over the winding highways between Toluca (where I lived) and Taxco to the south: Grutas de Cacahuamilpa.

Before I visited the actual cave, in 2018 I hiked and swam down an underground river that exits the mountain nearby. This was an incredible experience of something like eight hours, spent inside a long twisting cave that was mostly the size of a highway tunnel, but with a freezing cold river at the bottom instead of asphalt.

I assumed the Cacahuamilpa Cave would be similar, but when I finally visited in 2019, I was blown away by its size. Chambers that could fit skyscrapers were connected by smaller passages, making for a several hour walk from the entrance and back.

Look closely at the second photo above, and you can see the lit footpath far below the roof of the cave.

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Popocatépetl erupting

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Popocatépetl covered in snow

Iztaccíhuatl Volcano

Two volcanos tower over Mexico City: Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, often shortened to Izta and Popo. Popo (in the photos above) is active and off-limits, while Izta is dormant, and a long, high-altitude, yet non-technical hike leads to the peak.

My wife and I went hiking in Itza-Popo National Park twice in 2019. The first time we hiked the saddle between the two mountains. I wrote about it here.

A few months later we went straight to Izta and hiked high to its rocky crown.  Although we didn’t make it to the highest peak, the Chest, we made it to the high alpine area, summiting the First Knee (5,034 meters, 16,515 feet).

Iztaccíhuatl means “white woman,” and its peaks are named after parts of her body. The photo below shows Itza from the trailhead. The First Knee is a tiny bump slightly to the right of the highest point you can see in the picture:

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Iztaccíhuatl, the third highest mountain/volcano in Mexico

Well, that’s it for now. Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment if you want tips about visiting these places, or if you’ve visited already. You can fly or take a bus to Zihuatanejo, but you’ll need a car for Cacahuamilpa or Itza-Popo National Park.

Soon I’ll add a second part about more destinations in Mexico, such as other hiking spots and some places in the Mayan Riviera. Also, check out two I already wrote, about a butterfly sanctuary and a bike ride to Valle de Bravo.

Stay safe out there!

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Michoacan, Mexico

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Michoacan, Mexico

Day of the Dead in Photos, 2017

It’s the middle of the first week of November, which means that the Day of the Dead has come and gone. The holiday is one of the most interesting and colorful in Mexico, taking place in big processions on the street, in people’s homes, and in cemeteries across the country. Please read a more detailed description here.

Not having too much time to write, I uploaded a bunch of photos to this blog’s Facebook page. Please click here to take a look.

Or, look to the right to find the little Facebook box. Besides the photos for Day of the Dead, I have other collections from my travels in Mexico. Click “like,” and when I post links to articles about Mexico or more photos, they will appear in your feed.

And while you’re looking to the right of this page, check out the blog stats. As I write this, I’m a couple thousand short of one million hits. One million hits! I remember when I passed ten thousand a few years ago, and how I couldn’t believe it was that many.

So, thank you very much for visiting my blog. I’ll be writing longer articles soon, but for now please enjoy a few of my photos from the Day of the Dead:

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Some News for the New Year in Mexico

Taking out the garbage this morning—January 2, 2017—was a clear reminder that it’s the first Monday of the new year in Mexico. The party’s over; my neighbors and I slowly dragged our plastic garbage cans to the idling garbage truck, which overflowed with crumpled wrapping paper, broken piñatas, fireworks shells, pizza boxes, and bags of empty liquor and champagne bottles. Now they’re all gone, taken away like so many hopes, dreams, mistakes and memories.

Yes, 2017 is finally here, and life goes on. As always here in Mexico, it’s a life full of surprises and interesting news stories. I thought I’d share three with you.

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Gasolinazo

The big news for the start of the new year is the country-wide rise in gasoline prices. No one with Mexican friends on Facebook could miss the calls to protest, even revolution. The increase went into effect today, so not all the results and reactions have yet come to light, but here’s what we know.

The oil industry was nationalized in Mexico back in 1938. So there’s only one company that extracts oil, Pemex, and only one type of gas station in the country, also called Pemex.

A major issue for the past few years has been the proposal to privatize Pemex, which would bring modernization to the inefficient government monopoly and allow competing companies into the country. This privatization issue, like all privatization issues, is quite complex and ideological, so rather than go into its pros and cons I’ll summarize the government’s latest move: a hike in gasoline prices.

As of today, the price of gasoline will go up between 20 and 24 percent across Mexico. The prices won’t be uniform nationwide, but different in different states. And more increases are planned for the coming months.

For example, the prices in parts of Mexico City are now 16.33 pesos for regular gas (called Magna) and 18.2 for premium. In U.S. dollars, this would be 79 cents a liter (or about $3 USD a gallon) for regular, and 88 cents a liter (or about $3.33 USD a gallon) for premium.

Besides the added expense for commuters and all the people who drive for a living, these prices are especially frustrating to Mexicans because Mexico is an oil producing country, in which gas prices are usually low, often ridiculously low.

But another major reason for these high prices compared to U.S. prices is the fact that the peso has lost a lot of value against the U.S. dollar in the past two years. When I moved here in 2010, it was about 12 pesos to one U.S. dollar, and that price held steady until May of 2013 when it gradually began to change. Then in 2014 it started a rapid loss of value, finally breaking the 20 peso mark in the middle of 2016, and shooting up even higher the day after Trump was elected. Today it’s at 20.60 pesos for one U.S. dollar, which means big consequences for Mexico, much more than on gas prices. (Of course, this is great for U.S. tourists traveling here—instant discounts on everything.)

But back to today’s gas hike. In response, starting yesterday and continuing today, people all over the country have been blocking highways and gas stations (even threatening to set them on fire) to protest this. There is a large march going on in Mexico City (among other places), and the highways between major cities Querétaro and Mexico City, Toluca and Mexico City, and more have been blocked since yesterday or this morning. There will certainly be more actions like these, hopefully with minimal violence.

The entire issue has been called Gasolinazo, which translates to “big gasoline”—obviously in reference to the increase. We’ll see how this story develops and if it will be covered on international news outlets. There have been reports on Facebook and Twitter of gas stations set on fire, but as of now not on any major news sources.

Fireworks Market Explosion

Here’s a story that did make international news: On December 20, a fireworks market exploded in Tultepec, in the State of Mexico north of Mexico City. Watch the incredible video here.

Current reports state that 36 people have died and at least 86 were injured. It’s not known how it started, but probably either someone testing out some fireworks or walking around with a cigarette.

Besides the tragic deaths and injuries, the other incredible part of this story is that the market had already blown up in 2005 and 2006. Unspecified safety measures were put in place since then, but not enough to prevent this tragedy.

Loud fireworks are popular in Mexico for holidays, especially religious holidays like the birthdays of saints. Every town or big-city neighborhood has a patron saint, and on that saint’s birthday people set off fireworks on the street or from the local church, starting early in the morning and sometimes lasting all day and night. An interesting contrast: In the U.S. in Canada it’s usually the drunks setting off fireworks, but in Mexico it’s the devout (or of course the drunk and devout).

As for holidays, yes there are fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but more often it’s the locals  launching them, rather than an organized city-wide display. But, in general, people are much more enthusiastic for fireworks on religious holidays, such as the beloved Virgin de Guadalupe’s birthday on December 12.

Anyway, the parties are fun, but please remind me to never visit a fireworks market in Mexico.

Rubi’s Fifteenth Birthday

And finally, in lighter but still-bizarre news, Rubi finally had her big fifteenth birthday party on December 27. Let me explain.

In Mexico (and many other countries), a girl’s 15th birthday is occasion for a humongous party. She gets dressed up and dances the night away with all her friends and relatives.

(Contrary to popular belief, the girl is the Quinciañera, not the party, which is simply called a quince años.)

Well, when the father of Rubi Ibarra, an otherwise normal girl from the state of San Luis Potosi, announced on YouTube that “everyone was invited” to the party, 1.3 million people accepted the invitation, for sure making it a little more humungous than he’d planned.

It was a big story and the source of a lot of jokes, with speculation about which celebrities would show up and how the father would pay for it all. In sum, it was the definition of something accidentally and unexpectedly going viral.

She finally had her party, and you can see some photos here. Millions didn’t attend, but thousands did, and despite one unfortunate death during a horse race, it seems like it was a hell of a good time.

Thanks for reading, and a prospero año y felicidad to all.

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