DEC 15, 2015 – On my way to Mexico City, I stopped for a night in San Miguel de Allende. This city has a lot more tourists and foreign inhabitants than Zacatecas, for reasons that I don’t quite understand – both seemed equally beautiful to me. A few years ago, San Miguel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has further boosted its popularity. The downtown buildings are mostly a dark yellow, but the colors vary between red, orange, cinnabar, bright to dark yellow, and occasionally blue. I stayed at La Catrina hostel, which was nice and cheap. After a walk through the center and up a hill – which was full of construction sites for fancy-looking mansions – I took a taxi to the botanical garden, which has one of Mexico’s largest collections of cacti. It was a worthwhile attraction that offered giant agaves and Prickly Pear cacti, less common succulents, and nice views of the city. Much like Zacatecas, San Miguel has a useful city bus system that connects the downtown area with the bus terminal and many other places for a mere 5 pesos (0.3 USD) per ride.
DEC 14, 2015 – When I got off the bus in Zacatecas, I realized that I hadn’t seen the real Mexico yet. Cars and buildings looked much older on average than in Monterrey, and prices were lower. I couchsurfed in the nearby town of Guadalupe, which has a convenient bus connection to Zacatecas. The city was most impressive when viewed from La Bufa hill, which is reachable on foot or with a small, Swiss made cable car. Similar to Swiss cities like Lausanne or Zurich, the city is built on hills. The colorful buildings make the view really interesting. In the city center, there are some nice churches and a cathedral, which are generally less impressive inside than outside. I also visited the museo Rafael Coronel, which houses an exceptional collection of masks, used for religious festivities since pre-hispanic times.
DEC 12, 2015 – Greyhound took me from San Antonio to the border city of Laredo, and from there straight to Monterrey, for a total of $13. It turns out even Mexican buses aren’t usually that cheap. The border crossing went without problems, except I received a tourist card that I apparently need to pay for, and can’t figure out how. I ended up spending five nights in Monterrey, four at the Yeccan hostel – which I recommend – and one with a CouchSurfer whom I met in the city. I was lucky enough to see a religious celebration relating around Immaculate Conception, where groups of people in costumes would dance and march into the church, and people lit thousands of candles outside. With Tian from Texas, I went hiking in the Chipinque area and we climbed Copete del Aguila (2200m) – which cost us a lot of money in the end since it required a permit we didn’t have. But the nighttime views of the city were great enough to be worth it. At the CouchSurfing party the last evening, I learned what a piñata is – with your eyes covered, you hit a papier-mâche object, taking turns until it bursts and sweets fall out. Apparently some piñatas depict public figures such as the Mexican president, or Donald Trump, who is very unpopular with Mexicans for obvious reasons.
First impressions of Mexico in general: Cheap and tasty street food, colorful houses, and very friendly and outgoing people. Many things remind me of Bulgaria, e.g. the bus transit system between cities, the abundance of little stores and market stalls, the relative poverty of rural areas, and the low prices for services compared to goods. But a lot is different, too – espresso is much harder to find and more expensive (but usually very good), the quality of new buildings is better, there seems to be much more public investment into roads, buildings and other infrastructure (Bulgaria has almost none if you don’t count EU projects), more traffic, much more police, and higher retirement pensions. So far, I really like the country.
DEC 7, 2015 – From Austin I continued south to San Antonio, where a hostel just recently opened its doors. It is called “Woodward Lumber” and will also be a shop for wooden furniture and gifts. The owner Max was a good host, and after returning my rental car and visiting the city center, I stayed an extra day to plan my Mexico trip. San Antonio itself is surprisingly touristy – it has a crowded riverwalk full of overpriced restaurants, a wax museum, a “Ripley’s Believe it or not” and generally a lot of things that made me feel like there wasn’t really anything to see here. Which is not true – there is the Alamo, where an important battle happened in 1836, and the Spanish Missions, which I didn’t end up visiting. Since I don’t have a lot of photos from here, I’m adding a little retrospective of my US travels – mostly phone pictures that I hadn’t copied yet, plus some from my camera that I forgot to include in earlier posts.
DEC 4, 2015 – Just like Portland, Austin is known as one of the most progressive and open-minded cities in the US. The slogan “Keep Portland weird” applies here as well – I saw several “Keep Austin weird” signs, although I believe the idea came from Portland. Of the day and a half I spent here, at least half a day went into sorting all the photos I took in the National Parks, writing blog posts, and catching up on news. I got a good impression of the city’s nightlife, learning two-step dance at the Broken Spoke the first night, and tasting local beers the second. Drifter Jack’s Hostel was a good home base in the city and made it easy to connect with other travelers. For the famous bat flight under Congress Bridge, I was apparently one day too late. The street art was good, but the Graffiti Park was rather disappointing – it’s worth a visit you’re looking to spray your own graffiti, but it isn’t nice to look at.
DEC 2, 2015 – On the way to Austin, I stopped for lunch in Fredericksburg, which turned out to have a German heritage. The cute town was completely Germany-themed and had several museums to commemorate its history. I also liked the “Choo Choo Trolley patio shoppe”, which sold colorful metal sculptures of many indigenous animals.
DEC 1, 2015 – After visiting Carlsbad Caverns, I drove to the town of Carlsbad for some sightseeing and coffee. In the local art gallery, while looking for postcards of the caves, I found a postcard of The Flume, an aqueduct over Pecos River. The gallery’s owner recommended me to visit it, and I found that its geometry lent itself well to photography. That evening, I started driving towards Austin and arrived in Fort Stockton, only to find that the cheapest available motel would cost me $80 or more. Free campgrounds seemed to be inexistent in the area, so I continued for a few miles on Interstate 10 and exited onto an unpaved road. After almost getting stuck in the mud, I found a good spot to park overnight.
DEC 1, 2015 – When I woke up, a group of cows had assembled around the fireplace where I had made a campfire the night before. I drove to nearby Carlsbad Caverns and stopped for coffee in White’s City, which I quickly regretted because the beverage was almost free of taste. The caverns were comparable to other places I had seen, such as the Magura cave in Bulgaria, the Postojna caves in Slovenia, or the Vallorbe caves in Switzerland. The most notable difference was that the Americans had not failed to equip their caves with flushed toilets, a gift shop, a restaurant, and an elevator. Conveniently the elevator was out of service, so I only had to share the caves with people capable of hiking the 1.2 miles long trail from the Natural Entrance to the big hall, and mastering the “strenuous climb” of 900 feet (240 meters) – with NO restrooms along the way – to get back up. The size of the natural rooms was very impressive, one of them being the largest in the Western hemisphere. The dim lights created a mysterious atmosphere, but made it hard to take good photos. I discovered that HDR creates an interesting if not very natural effect.
NOV 30, 2015 – After lunch in El Paso I drove on to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is at the west tip of Texas and features the state’s highest mountain, Guadalupe Peak (2667m). I didn’t go up there, but instead spent the night at a backcountry campground called Pine Top and then did a long loop hike before descending through Bear Canyon. Along the way were Bush Mountain (2631m) and Hunter Peak (2550m), which had nice views into the flatlands on both sides of the mountain range. For the following night, I drove to a free campground on BLM land that I had found on a website. I had to follow a dirt road that was almost too uneven for my low-clearance car, and when I got to a herd of cows I felt like I had to be in the wrong place, but then there was a sign that left no doubt that I had reached an official campground.
NOV 28, 2015 – From Grand Canyon I drove straight into Tucson, where I visited my friend Alexandra for a few days. I happened to be there for Thanksgiving, so I got to participate in a turkey dinner (which started at 2pm) and to meet locals at a party afterwards. West of the city, there is the Sonoran desert museum, which has typical animals and plants of the area, and one part of Saguaro National Park. On the way out of town, I also visited the east half of the National Park and went for a two-hour run up a mountain there. I then drove to Las Cruces and spent a night on public land outside the city. The next morning, I hiked up a hill with a view on the city before driving on to El Paso and further east.