Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Uno Lodge

Our departure from the train at San Rafael was a process of rapid getting off, passing luggage down, and looking for our local travel agent representative. After we found him and loaded our luggage into his van, off we went. Two women travel companions also got off the train and joined us.

I find it difficult to really adequately describe the road we took but went up and down one mountain side and up another on terrain that might be described as dangerous enough to demand the utmost attention and care. Indeed, is many places brake failure would have meant death. We found out later that the van has new tires every 3 months, and new shocks and brakes every month as preventive maintenance. Being in the rainy season, every rain made deeper ruts which added to the excitement.
After 1 ½ hours we arrive just as it started to rain at the Uno Lodge. It sits on the rim of a large promontory and offers breathtaking ever changing vistas. The visible rock is limestone whose erosion by the river has made deep canyons. The first photo below came from the Internet.

Our room is in back of the tree on the right, giving us views from 3 sides.
The lodge is owned by the Tatahumara Indians. The Tarahumara or Raramuri, as they call themselves, inhabit the Copper Canyon. The Spanish originally encountered the Tarahumara throughout Chihuahua upon arrival in the 1500's, but as the Spanish encroached on their civilization the shy and private Tarahumara retreated for the nearly inaccessible canyons of the Sierra Tarahumara. Only the Jesuit missionaries followed at first and with only scattered success.

After mineral wealth was discovered in the mountains, many areas where Tarahumara Indians lived became desirable lands to the miners & mining companies forcing the Tarahumara once again to head farther into the remote canyons. Today, the Tarahumara are Mexico's second largest native Indian group with between 50,000 & 70,000 people.

Today the Tarahumara live in caves, under cliffs and in small wood and stone cabins in remote areas. They live a simple life undisturbed by modern technologies.

They are known as a quiet and considerate people who are expert farmers and runners.

Once we arrive we receive a few rules. Solar energy provides electricity and we are allotted 4 hours per day, which we really didn’t need as there were no outlets only two florescent lights. No paper in the flush toilets but 24 hour hot water if needed,

We have a very good dinner that night, with one of the workers providing some entertainment with his guitar and song. One of the persons at dinner was a young man working for saveourplanet.org essentially doing Peace Corps type work with the Tarahumara. We ask a lot of questions and gain a better understanding of the way of life for the Tarahumara. We have become adjusted to eat late, as the Mexicans do, so after dinner there is little to do except read until sleep time.

When I rise in the morning, it’s a perfect time to take some photos while above the clouds.
Later that day, we take a hike near the top of a waterfall which is in the center of the photo below.
This is a look at the terrain and flora found in the hiking trails. I am not much of a hiker and I spent a lot of time just looking at the rain clouds come and go.
After two nights, we left the next morning early and were slightly more relaxed on the way back. After we got back to San Rafael we were driven on to Divisadero, another mountain village where the Tarahumara Indians have a market along the train station.
Here is another great vista here. We bought a few pieces of jewelry for gifts.

We were driven back to San Rafael and we ate our box lunch as we waited for the train. The train was over an hour late. It was Sunday, as many Mexicans were on the train with children who made a lot of noise and ran up and down the aisle. Most were headed to Chihuahua like us.
This was not a pleasant part of the journey, especially after they closed the diner and the bar.
We got in very late and no one was there to meet us. We were able to contact the people responsible to meet us and they came ASAP. They had not been advised we were coming. So it seems obvious the coppercanyon.com is having trouble taking care of details since their key agent quit. Any Spanish speakers want a job?

Our original itinerary included a visit to the Pancho Villa’s museum and a city tour of Chihuahua, but we had an early flight and missed really seeing some interesting things, except as our driver pointed out on the way to the airport. We drove past a new baseball stadium and our driver said baseball is the most popular sport in Chihuahua is baseball. And it was Monday and all museums are closed on Monday.

As a result of this trip I have grown a great respect for the country and its people. It is a big country with a big variety of climates and people. It’s nearby and no time zone problems to deal with. It is not just a place to visit during the winter.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

El Ferrocarril al Chihuahua

(All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them)

My expectation was that the train trip to and through the Copper Canyon would be one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico and I was not disappointed, The rails took 90 years to complete. The idea if a railroad from Chihuahua was conceived in 1872 to promote trade from Asia and South America to the interior of Mexico and from there, to the interior of the United States. A lot of things delayed construction, including the Mexican revolution, but in 1961 construction was finally completed across the Sierra.

There are 37 principal bridges and 87 tunnels needed to travel the 406 miles between Chihuahua and Los Mochis. From sea level to a height of 8000 feet, the train snakes its way up and down steep grades. As there is not much to see from Los Mochis to El Fuerte, the travel company starts our train boarding at El Fuerte. This is not a small locomotive or on narrow gauge tracks. The train has a diner car, a bar car, and a car set aside for federal type lawmen with Uzis, who get off at each stop looking for anything suspicious. Chihuahua drug lords continue to fight for turf and keep making statements of their power, chiefly by trying to kill each other. These types of armed personnel are also visible outside banks so the Mexican bandidos apparently have not faded into history just yet.

As I have mentioned before, it is the rainy season. Therefore, the mountains are green and numerous waterfalls can be seen along the way. Our destination, is San Rafael, a small village stop where we will spend two nights high up in the mountains.

I took many good photos and the challenge of this post is to select the best.

A waterfall bridge over the tracks.
I took these photos while standing between the cars and hanging out the open areas.

As great as this scenery was, the next post will show some really great vistas.

Friday, August 22, 2008

El Fuerte (The Fort)

(All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them)

We booked our adventure through Copper Canyon through Canyontravel.com. There were a few hiccups along the way. According to scuttlebutt, the owner of Canyontravel apparently is in need of a new travel agent to handle the details, as the former agent is no longer with the company.

When we got on our AeroMexico plane, the pilots could not start the engines and we were transferred to another plane which caused a delay of one hour. Our flight from Mexico City was a little over 2 hours traveling northwest to the coast. The Los Mochis airport is very near the Gulf of California and is very visible on the approach to landing. At sea level, it is hot and humid. We get our luggage and put on our Canyontravel luggage tags on so we can be identified. But there was no one there to meet us. Another travel agent noticed us standing in the middle of the small airport with our luggage tags and made a phone call and 20 minutes later a driver showed up.
After 2½ hours, the 90 miles distance between Los Mochis and El Fuerte was covered and we arrived at our very rustic Rio Vista Hotel, hot and hungry from lack of breakfast. After quickly putting our luggage in our room, we were served lunch and the El Fuerte representative and owner of the hotel met with us.

We requested to be moved to a better hotel and he immediately moved our luggage and carried it down the hill to put us up at the Pasada del Hidelgo. Interesting, another couple came later in the day and requested to be moved from the Pasada del Hidelgo to the Rio Vista. But they were bird watchers from Oklahoma City. The Rio Vista provides a room balcony overlooking the El Fuerte River where all kinds of different birds can be seen. So we were all happy with our lodging.

August is not tourist season in Mexico. It rains almost every day, usually in the late afternoon or evening. The hotel has an open court and I took this photo during a 45 minute hard rain storm. The hotel had few clients so the kitchen was closed. We walked a short distance to a good Mexican restaurant for all our meals.
The hotel lounge area is filled with interesting art objects and antiques.
Upon closer look at the stove, I saw this
For those in the know, Marion Indiana has had an everlasting effect on me and my children. There are many good memories for sure, but I am sure we all are happy to be living elsewhere now.

El Fuerte is a sleepy town of about 45,000 people, lots of chickens and a few burros. The people are friendly and you can shop without being harassed. The town was founded in 1564 by Conquistador don Francisco de Ibarra and was eventually named after the fort built by the Spaniards to protect against attacks by the local Indians. A replica of the fort was built and houses the Museo de El Fuerte. The fort’s ramparts overlook the river and the valley. The town was an outpost on the Camino Real from which the Spanish explored the area now part of California, New Mexico, and Arizona. For centuries it was a major trading post for gold and silver miners. Colonial mansions and cobblestone streets can be seen around the center of town.
Outside the fort, the catholic church is visible which stands opposite the Zocalo and the main city government building.
This is the courtyard and fountain inside the exterior of the city building. We were informed that there are 365 doorways in the complex, one for each day of the year.
We take a river cruise in a big row boat with the bird watchers and they get really excited to see the variety of birds. The guide stops the boat on the river bank and we walk about ¼ mile to see the Cerro de la Mascara, an archaeological site where rock paintings and petroglyphs are visible. I have decided that photos of petroglyphs are not very interesting after seeing a few, so I won’t show them.

After second night, we are taken about 3 miles outside of town early in the morning to the railroad station to get on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico. The train from Los Mochis is late by an hour but we get on with our luggage and start off towards the Sierra Madre Mountains and Copper Canyon.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mexico City 2008

(All photos can be expanded by clicking on them)

During my ride to our hotel, I witnessed a big parade traveling in the opposite direction, down the Paseo de la Reforma. It was brought about by the AIDS conference, but had gay rights people, sex worker rights people, and AIDS awareness people. BTW, you haven’t seen a gay rights parade until you see Chicago’s, although I assume that probably San Francisco’s is probably more flaming. Imeldo tells me that there is a parade every day. I didn’t find this to be true although the next day there was a bike event in support of something.

Due to the change in scheduling the only place we could get a room for Sunday night was at the Marquis Reforma but we moved the next day across the Paseo de la Reforma to the Four Seasons Hotel. And due to the conference rate, it was cheaper and a cut above the Marquis with breakfast included.

This is looking down from our room to the courtyard where the bar and restaurants are also located. It was raining when I took this. This was a great place to stay.Sunday is not the best time to visit Chapultepec Park, but we had no options due to Judith’s schedule at the AIDS conference. As always on Sunday the park is crowded but on the positive side, it is more interesting.
The main attraction to the Chapultepec Castle which is now the Museum of National History and on Sunday, it’s free. We walked up the steep hill along with hundreds of others and crowded out way around the exhibits having a slight advantage of height over the rest of the people. Lots of families can be seen.From the top of the castle looking down the Paseo de la Reforma.
And you can’t have a Museum of National History without some murals by Diego Rivera showing the struggle of the revolution.
We do visit the Zocalo which has the Cathedral, the National Palace, Aztec dancers and crafts, and the huge square and national flag. On the Zocalo is also the Majestic Hotel, build in 1937. At the top of the hotel is an open air restaurant overlooking the Zocalo. After entering the lobby, you take the operator operated elevator to the 7th floor, and then make you way along a hall filled with the history of the hotel and some of its famous guests to reach the restaurant. We eat there twice. Once at lunch and once in the evening with Judith’s students and colleague

This photo looks at the huge National Flag and the National Palace, the seat of government taken from the Majestic Hotel.
Standing just outside the Majestic hotel, the Cathedral is on the left.
Inside the Cathedral there this is the main pulpit.
Gold leaf is everywhere. This might be beautiful except I can’t help thinking that the Jesus of the bible would be appalled.

Here are the Aztecs doing their dance along side a Picasso.
In the evening we took refuge inside the Majestic’s restaurant due to a concert taking place in the Zocalo. Judith’s colleague and husband are at the end and her students from Indonesia (2), Chile, and China are around the table. I think you can identify their countries by their appearance. Missing is Made from Bali whom I have written about before. He was detained by US immigration in Los Angeles, causing him to miss his flight to Mexico City with the next available flight 2 days later.
Everyone here stays on at the conference, but the next morning, Judith and I take a very early flight to the western coastal city of Los Mochis to start another adventure.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cuernavaca, the city of Eternal Spring

(All photos can be expanded by clicking on them)

The International AIDS conference is held in Mexico City this year. Every two years, this conference is held in a different city. Judith, my wife, always attends as do her students from Chile, Indonesia, China, and Malawi. The first one I attended with Judith was in 2002 in Durban, South Africa, then Bangkok, Thailand in 2004. I did not attend the one in Toronto, Canada in 2006. Unless we get a Democratic president, and even then its not a surety, there will be no AIDS conference held in the USA, thanks to Jesse Helms, who rode the rail of homophobia, and was key in preventing any AIDS infected people from entering the county. I say it’s not a surety because it will take a long time to undue laws passed out of fear and contrary to the American spirit. But I digress.

As always, any free trip for Judith to a foreign country presents an opportunity to venture out to surrounding destinations. And the first destination after we land at Mexico City is Cuernavaca.

Cuernavaca is 40 miles south of Mexico City at an altitude of 5000 feet, lower than Mexico City at 7300 feet, making it a little warmer. But to get there, the road first goes up, and then descends. We hired a driver named Imeldo who skillfully negotiated the Mexico City traffic out of the airport taking us to our hotel, the Hacienda de Cortes.

This property, also called Vista Hermosa, was once a sugar plantation and mill and home of Hernan Cortes and construction started in 1529, falling out of the Cortez family ownership in 1621. After a series of owners, Emiliano Zapata evicted the current owner in 1910 leaving it in ruins. Restoration was started in 1944 and it became a hotel in 1981.

Vista Hermosa has served as the backdrop for many films, including the dramatic final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman "died" in a bloody battle with the Bolivian army. Film star, Anthony Quinn, here for another film, wrote in the guest book: "Whoever has dreams that aren't fulfilled here ought to leave dreaming alone."

Indeed, I found the hotel to exude charm and romanticism. The original walls and columns still remain in many places. August in Mexico is not the tourist season and we found ourselves having the place almost to ourselves. We were told that Acapulco is the preferred destination for vacationing Mexican people in August. It rains almost every day but usually in the evening.

Inside looking towards the street.
Just outside the restaurant in the evening.
We taxi (cheap) to center of town and visit the Palace of Cortes or Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum. The Palace dates back from the colonial era, built in 1533 over an Aztec Temple. It served as the summer residence of the conqueror Hernan Cortes and actually houses one of Mexico's finest museums. Among others, you can admire one of the most famous murals of Diego Rivera painted in 1929.

Opposite the mural of Emiliano Zapata holding a sward, is one of the artist Rivera.
Looking up the street from the second floor of the museum.
The statue is of Morelos and up the street is the Guadalupe Church (1784) and at the very end of the street is the Borda Gardens built around the same time.

The Borda Gardens was built by the Don Jose Borda and has been the home of many rich families including the summer residence of two emperors.
During our walk around town, I purchased some Retin A which I have used for some years to rejuvenate my skin. I have found that it causes those little skin flaps that grow to disappear. And I purchased some Pravastatin at less than US prices with no prescription necessary. I checked out a couple of other medications that I take but found my US prices (with insurance) were slightly more. And I replenished by supply of Lomotil.

We treated ourselves to probably the best restaurant in Cuernavaca, Los Mananitas. We found the place filled with many ex-pats and many Mexican children running around the grounds (Los Mananitas is also a hotel) making gracious dining not too gracious. During the rest of the trip we found numerous incidents of Mexican children running amok without parental concern. I am assuming, sometimes a precarious position, that Mexicans think children are just being children as they shouldn’t be expected to control themselves so they won’t disturb others. We sat under an umbrella finishing our starter, when it started to rain, requiring us to move to a couch inside because the umbrella was not sufficient. Sometime during this process, the up till then outstanding service and attention, fell apart, but with some direction on our part, we finished our dinner. The food was excellent. All in all, we enjoyed the evening and we arrived back at out hotel just as the rain stopped.

We had intended to stay longer in Cuernavaca, but after our plans had been made, the AIDS conference changed schedules so we had to leave on Saturday for Mexico City. Imeldo picked us up and drove us straight to the Zocalo, the heart of the city, where Judith had a meeting just two blocks away. I checked into Marquis Reforma Hotel near Chapultepec Park.