San Luis Potosi and Federal District: Media Luna, Xilitla and Mexico City
Laguna de la Media Luna
I'd read about famed swimming hole Laguna de la Media Luna whilst doing some research the day before we left Real de Catorce. It's working pretty well so far but it's such a luxury just sitting down and asking ourselves 'Where do we feel like going tomorrow?'. It's the joys of having the motorcycles. Freedom to spin pretty much anywhere we please, whenever we want. While the majority of backpackers on the gringo trails are drooling away on the effects of Valium for their long range buses from one country to the next, we're pulling over to admire views and checking out interesting roads. I love that to some extent, comfort is under my control. My height and constant need to fidget would have me squirming in a bus seat so I'm not envious of that aspect of their travel. I can shift in my seat, bolt upright, backwards, forwards to my hearts content without annoying anyone in my proximity. Stop to stretch or grab a cold coke on a hot day? No problem. I am envious of the idle time they are forced to reckon with however. While I love to read, I find, like many, I need to make an effort to pick up a book or, be forced into a reading situation sans internet and distractions. It's a sad reality I'm trying hard to change.
So yeah, Media Luna. So-named because of the crescent shape, the lake is a volcanic crater of sulphurous water which stays a balmy 28C/82F all year. Due to these conditions, two very-well preserved Mammoth remains were discovered and raised from the depths here some time ago. Mad.
So we rock up, hot and sweaty and find out we can camp/hammock it. We're not able to bring the bikes in but we're assured they'd be safe right outside where the Police hang about(they were).We met Angel at the gate, a dude with great English who gave us the lowdown. The place was bustling, it was Easter/Semana Santa and everybody and their dog was out. We located a few well-distanced trees and set up shop. It didn't take long to attract the attention of our neighbors, a really friendly and hospitable family who took us under their wing and fed us for a day or two. They were loving the fact their kids were able to practice their English on us while we were able to pick up some Spanish.
During the first day we spend hours jumping, diving and flipping off the pier. Not expecting to be out for so long, I foolishly hadn't applied on any sunscreen and deservedly transformed into a lobsterman by evening time. Hammock + sunburn was no bueno.
Having got our PADI Open Water Certification two years ago, myself, Pat were keen to get back into it. When we heard they offered relatively cheap diving in Media Luna we were eager to take the plunge and get on it. Our guide showed up 45 minutes late(Mexican time!), sorted our gear and off we went. There's wasn't much of a refresher. 10 minutes later we were diving through an underwater cave. You always hear that most diving deaths occur in caves where sediment is kicked up and they become disoriented etc and can't find their way out. So after cacking myself initially, I soon realized it was fine and was able to enjoy the amazing beauty the place offered. While it didn't offer the most diverse range of marine life(all we spotted was a turtle and some small fish), the petrified underwater forest and bottomless sinkholes made up for it. On the way back our opportunist guide fished coins and trinkets off the lagoon floor.
The time came to leave. As we said our farewell to Angel, our hombre and new Facebook friend generously gave us some cool trinkets including some old Mexican Peso notes, coins and key ring. I hadn't much to offer so let him pick some stickers out of the masses I'd accumulated along the way.
Xilitla and the Surrealist Garden of Edward James
Next up was Xilitla, a town that would probably be unheard of if it wasn't for eccentric millionaire Edward James. Bored by the stiff, bourgeois rationality of his time, he joined the surrealist movement escaping to a world of fantasy and irrationality. He became a major financial supporter of Salvador Dali. Whilst on a trip to the small jungle-consumed Mexican village of Xilitla in the 50's, a vision came to him. It was here he start a project that would span 10 years and $5m. It would eventually become the most significant monument to surrealist art in the world.
The ride to Xilitla saw the landscapes change from mountain desert to lush mountain jungle in almost the blink of an eye. Tracing curved mountain roads whilst trying not to gaze too long at the epic views was difficult. The town itself had a near European feel to it. There was a bustling market and the well manicured town square had clearly seen it's share of international travelers. We opted for a hotel with all the mod cons, our treat for hammocking the last 3/4 nights. Nothing like slumming it to make you appreciate the little luxuries in life!
The following day we set off to find the infamous garden. Having not learnt our lesson already, we haphazardly navigated our way using Google Maps which led us down a road which rapidly turned into a steep drop of steps. Balls...again. It took us about 10 mins to awkwardly manoeuvre the bikes in the tiny space we had to turn around and go back the way we came. Had we been fully loaded with our gear, I doubt we'd have been able to. Phew.
By the time we got there, we were already sweating. I'd forgotten how unforgivingly humid jungle could be. Jeans were a bad idea. The garden itself was unique. It resembled an Escher-like world of geometric shapes, spirals and structures often symmetrical. It was totally out of place and spectacular at the same time. A place that had to be seen to be believed. Some relief from the humidity was found in the form of a refreshing waterfall stream, in my jocks no less. Nothing would get in the way of me and that sweet reprieve.
Like every tourist attraction in Mexico, expat crusties lined some stalls at the exit selling their trinkets. Here they were Argentineans and Frenchies who had been searching for something and seemingly found it in Mexico. I certainly don't think I'd be having any epiphonies in this humidity but hey each to his own! Pat indulged them by purchasing some bits and pieces and we were on our way.
Angel had recommended we check out Sotanos de las Golindrinos/Cave of Swallows which was outside Xilitla. After riding a super steep, mountain road we found it and appeared to be the only people silly enough to come on such a foggy day. Sure enough our views of this huge 300 metre opening in the mountain were limited but we got to see and hear some of the exotic green parrots which inhabited it. For no cost, a guy slung a rope harness around us to allow us to peer over the edge to get a close look. Not dodgy at all. For 3000 pesos(200USD) each he would rappel us all the way to the bottom....no thanks buddy.
We decided we'd try shoot for Mexico City after the Cave of Swallows but the going was very slow. It took us 3 hours to ride 80kms. It was 80kms of super windy mountain roads where we constantly got stuck behind trucks and had to watch ourselves. Many trucks would be in our lane going around hairpin bends. Tired from being on full alert, Jacala was where we called it a night. We weren't stopped for 15minutes when we were approached by an Argentinean lad called Daniel who told us how he'd rode a motorcycle from Mexico to Argentina not once but twice! Once in the 80's and then more recently. He said he took up a Mexican wife and made Mexico his home. He proudly told us of his eco-friendly house he'd built with his own bare hands and of all the fresh vegetables he was growing. An interesting man who had clearly found his happiness. He proceeded to ask us about our routes. I whipped out our road maps and he was more than happy to trace some recommended routes and highlight some spots. Invaluable information for which we thanked him greatly!
Mexico City DF
I wasn't sure what to expect in Mexico's capital city. I was expecting the driving to be chaotic and bad but it was much worse than that. On the outskirts of the city there were no lanes, no lane indicating and just general mad people with terrible road skills. We eventually found our hostel and were able to park the bikes outside which was terribly handy. I was relieved to get off the road.
I'll be honest, I thought Mexico City would be a crowded, dirty hive of activity. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to find it was as cosmopolitan and contemporary as any major city in the US. Yes, it had been fully infiltrated by every US chain store you could think of from Krispee Kreme to Carls JR to Burger King and there were more Starbucks than your typical Manhattan block radius but it was a very pleasant, clean city. It was worlds different to the rural Mexico we had come to know.
We met some absolutely fascinating people in our hostel. Take Olly for example, a nice young Aussie chap who was running 6000km from Mexico City to Panama over the next 6 months. That's 5 marathons a week...incredible stuff. All to raise awareness for Depression in Young People. He even had a little custom-built cart that he'd tow with him while he was running with all his gear! Then there was Paulo, an energetic middle-aged man who left Australia on his ancient, banged up BMW GS 80000km ago! Jokingly calling his trip 'Adventure before Dementia', he had traversed, Australia, NZ, South America, Central America and was heading to Africa after he hit the States. Another remarkable feat and a true dual-sport overlander through and through. There was also an Israeli and Argentinean couple called Tal and Sol who made me promise to find the hostel he ran in Buenos Aires when I made it down.
One of the days we went on a hunt looking for oil and oil filters. Paulo led the way as we ran around the city like headless chickens, ducking and weaving out of traffic, him getting us lost or taking us in the occasional wrong direction. He was a fan of asking for directions over trusting technology but it was far from foolproof! We had wanted to change our oil and oil filters in the garage but couldn't find a shop wasn't asking for a ridiculous sum so we opted to change ourselves outside the hostel. This would be the first bit of maintenance we would perform on the bike and I was oddly excited. Having read and re-read the KLR650 manual on oil changes I had everything ready and it was time to get the hands dirty. I cautiously followed the steps, slow and methodically as possible lest I made a mistake. It was dirty. I got splashes of oil on me and even with the gloves and lengths I'd gone to to try not leak a drop on the ground, there was a sizeable puddle after I'd finished, eternalizing my efforts on this Mexican street. We'd gone for fully synthetic oil which ran better in hotter temperatures so it made sense. It meant however we could not switch to non-synthetic oil easily in future and would have to stick using synthetic. Paulo assured us we'd find it everywhere we went. I hope you're right Paulo!
When I bought the bike, my plan was always to be as hands-on as possible. I wanted to be able to fully self-sufficient as much as I could and was very willing to learn. I am not mechanically experienced and the extent of my DIY is building flatpack IKEA furniture(which I enjoy) :p. While this was very minor maintenance, I was pretty chuffed in my accomplishment. My reward: a cold Indio(Mexican beer).
Mexico City has plenty to offer. While sightseeing wasn't our priority, we got to check out the world-famous Anthropology Museum. It was impressive and massive. We spent a half-day reading on the very rich history and culture of Mexico's tribes and civilisations. Even if museums weren't you're thing, simply walking around the main street to the square 'El Zocalo' showcased the vibrant energy of the city. While I was ambling around randomly, I'd stumbled into El Zocalo at the most opportune time. There was an impressive flag-removal ceremony where 200 armed soldiers marched out of the National Palace, to the beat of the leading army band, proudly marching in perfect step as they lined up and carefully lowered the biggest flag of Mexico I'm sure exists.
Mexico City was significant for me for a lot more personal reasons. It was here I'd finally grown tired of Mexican food, and was jumping at opportunities to surprise my taste buds with anything that wasn't in a taco or a quesadilla. On one such day, I'd even ashamedly succumbed to the rampant might of the golden arches. I wanted a greasy hamburger and it duly provided. Perhaps it was the change in diet or the fact we inevitably had it coming to us, it was in Mexico City that Montezuma sought his revenge on these two gringos. It was a bad bout that bizarrely hit us at the exact same time. I guess we were lucky to have gone 2-3 weeks unpunished in this country so it had caught up to us. A rite of passage we thought.