I write this from the chemical-choked courtyard of the local hostel here in Morelia, but my mind and heart are still 100 km west of here, where I got the chance to explore the mountains and pine forests of the Western Central Highlands for the past few days. Unfortunately, polluted cities are necessary on the road south, it seems.
It began about five days ago, when I left Guadalajara for the crisp air of the lakeside towns of Lake Chapala. The lake itself wasn't all that spectacular, given the haze of the day and the bleak gray color of the water. I did enjoy a lovely glass of lemonade in the town of Ajijic, though. So I continued upward, ever upward, to the picturesque little mountain town of Mazamitla.
The streets are all cobbled, the men wear cowboy hats and Levi's, and the women dress in the colorful traditional skirts of the local Indians. I settled into the cute Posada Alpina and reveled in the sight of my first cumulus clouds since I left New Mexico! It was wonderful to see them again, to anticipate the rain and thunder they would bring. It was like seeing an old friend.
I explored the town on foot for quite awhile, hiking up stone roads and down the next street. Everyone was quite friendly and smiley. That night I ate the best carne adobada tacos I'd yet had, and finished up the evening sipping te de manzanilla on the balcony overlooking the plaza, where young buys played soccer and young girls tittered into their hands as they walked past.
The next morning I took a lovely hike through the surrounding countryside, enjoying the fresh, crisp smell of the verdant pines.
When I left town, tired yet exhilierated, I was keen for more mountain adventures. Fortunately I was heading towards Uruapan, a city perfectly located for such things.
The city itself is a bit of a craphole. It's true. It's dirty and noisy and crowded and there's absolutely nothing scenic about it. I bartered for a cheap room at one of the only hotels with secure parking, ending up in a tiny, dirty room on the roof, but for a reasonable price. Sadly, the hotel's neighbors owned a pack of small, ceaselessly yipping dogs who kept it up all night, every night, for three nights. The barking was so constant and so loud, it was almost comical...almost. Mostly I longed for a gun.
But the days were lovely, and not only because I was away from the mutts. Uruapan, ugly town as it is, has sequestered all its beauty in the Parque Nacional Barranca de Cupatitzo, a legitimate National Park located just 1km from the main plaza, and abutted by one of the town's main drags. Doesn't sound great, but it is. The park tracks the Rio Cupatitzo as it hurtles along through a narrow rock gorge overhung with dense vegetation. The natural cataracts are quite beautiful, plunging with white foam over dark rock into iridescent blue pools.
But what makes the park so entrancing, is how the designers diverted the water in small, tasteful increments into miniature aqueducts, each one supplying a work of water-art: small cascades lining every staircase; fountains gushing forth out of rocks; waterfalls plummeting into rock pools, then reemerging as a delicate arched waterfall like a bride's veil.
All of this water, rushing, trickling, gurgling and chuckling around every corner. And it's all flowing within a dense jungle of vegetation: towering banana trees, sprawling ferns, delicate magenta flowers, and ancient evergreens. I spent over four hours exploring the various pathways, discovering something new along each one, and I still don't think I saw everything the park has to offer.
While there I made two older gentleman friends. One was the director of the park, and as we walked together he showed me all his favorite places in the park, and told me the history of ecology and conservation in the state of Michoacan, where he was the driving force. It was really quite an interesting story. And the other man was a professional singer of ballads and mariachi. He was quite taken with me. How do I know this? Well, the love ballad about my awe-inspiring beauty, sung in the middle of the park as he held my hand was one clue!
The next day, after another restless night's sleep, I awoke early and drove the bike 35 km to the town of Angahuan, the base for exploring the mighty Volcan Paricutin. This volcano, amazingly, didn't exist 68 years ago! It cropped up practically overnight in a farmer's innocuous field, as he and his family were tilling the soil. In just a week it was over five stories high, and in under two years it had grown to a height of 424 m (1,391 ft) above the surrounding fields. Due to the lava flows and pyroclastic explosions, the nearby town of the same name was buried. Since it had such an exciting history, I naturally wanted to climb it and get to know it. (By the way, the eruption photos on wikipedia are quite cool: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Par%C3%ADcutin
I hit the trail at 9:20 am, with a guide who agreed to negotiate the pine forest and its innumerable trails with me and then leave me, all for half the price of a full summit. We wended our way ever upward through the trees, along roads and horse trails and side trails and no trails, until we popped out at the edge of the lava field, and I was on my own. The lava field stretched endlessly into the distance, where the classic cinder cone of the volcano stood sentinel. There was no one around, just a light breeze and distant birdsong. In short, I was in heaven.
After two and half hours of grueling clambering over rough, unweathered, knife-edged volcanic rock, I scrambled the last steep bit to the summit and peered into the crater. At this point in my travels, I've climbed numerous volcanoes, and each one has its own level of suspense as I reached the edge of the crater. You never know exactly what to expect until it's all there, spread out before you. Each and every one has been different, but all have been awe-inspiring. This one was no different.
The hike back down was decidedly quicker, but equally beautiful, entertaining and peaceful. Just as I reached the site of the church ruins, all that remain of the town of Paricutin, it began to rain lightly and thunder loudly. At that point I was in the pine forest, having an excellent conversation with a family from Zarmora (they were amazed at what I was doing, and kept saying, "que barbaro!" about my trip! I don't know what that means here, but in regular Spanish it translates as "barbaric". Charming).
After a scoop of ice cream and a can of peach juice in Uruapan, I hit the mattress and somehow managed to sleep through the barking next door. The drive today to Morelia was uneventful and quick, except for the part where an ambulance, of all things, tried to run me over (I clearly didn't interpret their left signal light correctly, as they continued forward in a straight line through the intersection). Tomorrow I head southeast, with the ultimate goal of reaching Oaxaca in two or three days time. I'll miss those piny mountains, but I know that more tropical and hilly landscapes await me to the south!
Until next time,
PS. I finally saw a reckless Mexican driver get his comeuppance, and I have to share! He was driving a little sedan, and passing people left and right at really dangerous places, like blind corners and hills, like most Mexicans. He finally passed me, accelerated ahead about two-hundred feet, and promptly rear-ended a delivery truck creeping over a speed bump! No one was injured, but his car was crumpled, and he had this look on his face like, "Well...crap." I had to laugh.