Guanajuato: El Dia de las Flores and the Virgen de los Dolores

Pre-Easter festivities in Guanajuato!

Wow, who knew that this town would be so fabulous at Easter? Well, maybe I should have known, but I didn’t even realise that we’d be here around Semana Santa time. Holy Week is a really big holiday here in central Mexico and the festivities begin the week before Easter, with El Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) and the Viernes de la Virgen de los Dolores (Friday of the Virgin of Sorrows).

The Dia de las Flores (Thursday of the week before Palm Sunday) involves seemingly the entire city; a vast number of flower stands (fresh, paper, and fabric), as well as stands selling toys, Easter eggs, small animals, stuffed creatures and live ones (tiny turtles and hermit crabs), devil and demon masks, cow and steer carrying cases, and the like, are set up everywhere downtown.

The whole city comes out to see and be seen and to purchase flowers and other accoutrements for their own Virgen de los Dolores altars. Using these supplies, altars to the Virgin (who is also the patron of miners) are set up in public places (hotels, restaurants, churches, stores) and in private homes beginning on the Thursday;

on the Friday, these altars are judged by a panel of dignitaries who walk around the city, beginning at daybreak on Friday, and hand out pretty substantial cash prizes for the best.

While the favoured colours seem to be white (for purity) and purple (for sorrows), these altars, and the city itself, are a riot of colours and patterns. Walking around during the day and at night resulted in my becoming almost overwhelmed with the sheer blaze of colour and sensory stimulation – incredible!

Music! The scent of roses! The crush of the crowd!

We stopped to watch some of the more elaborate altars being put together; the most spectacular one we saw was in front of the Teatro Juarez, an incredible neo-classical building downtown.

On the steps was an enormous painting of the virgin, surrounded by arches of fresh white and purple flowers. The crush of the crowd in El Centro, particularly around the Basilica and El Jardin de la Union, was enormous – I swear that everyone in the city was there. My eyeballs were popping non-stop.

Aside from that, we’ve been treated to a major culture hit here, particularly after the poverty of St Lucia. In this small city, there are at least twenty museums, and we’ve been to almost all of them. In the last couple of days, we’ve visited the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum, a small jewel located in a converted colonial house near the Church of San Francisco,

dedicated to all things Quixote (paintings, graphics, and sculpture), the Ex-Convento of San Diego,

and the Museum-House of Diego Rivera, one of Guanajuato’s most famous sons. The most interesting room in the Quixote Museum is the Capilla Cervantes; it contains a bronze scupture of the novelist between a vast fresco-like, two-part painting illustrating episodes from Don Quixote. Guanajuato is the centre of Cervantes study in the Americas and the image of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza can be found many places in the city.

Unlike most of the museums we’ve been in here, the Diego Rivera Museum was quite packed, mostly with tour groups.

As well as early works by Rivera, this museum also has rooms dedicated to temporary exhibits of contemporary art. We saw some fabulous bronze figurative sculpture by Javier Marin, one of Mexico’s finest contemporary artists, and realist paintings by Yoel Diaz Galvez.

The building itself is fabulous, many levels and narrow staircases, some leading out to terraces which have a great view out over the city.

This place would make an incredible studio! We also had the pleasure of a concert at the Teatro Cervantes by a guitar duo, Mexicanta, who were really excellent. (ps. I purchased some flowers …)

See more pics here.

 

Colonial Day Trip: Dolores Hidalgo, Atotonilco and San Miguel de Allende

On the patio of our colonial house, we have a tree; as a result of Guanajuato’s water shortage, in which we only have water 4 days out of 7, this poor tree isn’t really getting enough water to do more than barely survive. Since we’ve been here, I’ve been giving it the gray water from washing dishes and this treatment has enabled it to generate more leaves and a few tiny buds. Perhaps it will flower before we leave. I decided to decorate it with ribbons and colourful paper cut-outs as a substitute for the flowers that it lacks.

In addition to ex-haciendas converted in museums, Guanajuato also has ex-convents; the one pictured below is the Ex-Convento de la Societad de la Compania de Jesus (the Jesuits), and is now part of the University of Guanajuato.

Inside the Jesuit Church (next door to the University), we encounter another of the tortured Jesus effigies (these all look as if they’re crafted from the same model).

See more pics around Guanajuato here.

Although we’d decided to stay in Guanajuato during our time in the mountains of Mexico, we also wanted to investigate some of the other colonial cities in the neighbourhood. While walking around downtown, we came upon a sign advertising day tours and decided to get on the microbus visit to Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende.

Our departure was scheduled for 10:30 am but, naturally, after waiting for several people to arrive, 12 of us rolled out of town about half an hour late on the green magic bus. On our way out of town we passed the Valenciana mine and temple (built between 1765 and 1786), the mine once upon a time the most productive silver mine in the world and the temple erected for the workers’ spiritual edification.

Our first stop was the small colonial city of Dolores Hidalgo, made famous in the War for Mexican Independence:

“On the night of September 15, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo, the 57-year-old parish priest of Dolores, and Ignacio Allende learned that their plans for insurrection against Spain had been discovered. They decided to act immediately and soon after dawn the next morning, September 16, Padre Hidalgo delivered his now famous Grito (Cry for Freedom) from the Parroquia of Dolores. This was the beginning of Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spanish rule which was to drag on until 1824 and take some 600,000 lives.

Dolores of that time was a poor, largely Indian village, but the ragged army of Hidalgo and Allende marched from here to San Miguel, then to Celaya and Salamanca until finally, having grown to a force of some 20,000 men, they had their first real confrontation with royalist troops in Guanajuato.

Hidalgo was captured after a final defeat in Guadalajara, then executed and beheaded on July 30, 1811. His head, along with those of Allende, Aldama and Jimenez, hung from one of the corners of the building in Guanajuato where that first battle had taken place”.  (http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/2800-dolores-hidalgo-a-beautiful-mexican-colonial-city)

All the others on our bus were Spanish speakers (from other parts of Mexico, as well as Spain and Colombia) and the tour was conducted entirely in Spanish. I’m sorry to say that my Spanish was not up to the details of the fight for Mexican Independence and Mexican history so, after trying mightily to follow the guide’s talk for a while, I just let the words wash over me and enjoyed the visual experience. We visited the museum-house of Dolores Hidalgo’s second most famous son, the 50s musician Alfredo Jiminez, a guy I’d never heard of before,

the parochial church of Our Lady of Dolores Hidalgo, another museum (which Ty and I didn’t enter) and wandered around the main square trying to find a café.

Strangely, unlike Guanajuato and Merida (another colonial city we’ve visted), this city has no cafes or outdoor restaurants around its main square, only ice cream vendors on every corner vying to sell us the most outrageous flavours of helado:

“Aside from the usual and more mundane flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and pecan, how about something a bit less common, like avocado ice cream? No? Then try some corn ice cream. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, how does fried pork skin ice cream strike you? Still no? Oh, maybe you’re in the mood to imbibe at the same time as you eat your ice cream, then perhaps some tequila ice cream or, another popular fermented drink, pulque appeals to you. But the final word in unusual flavors, it would seem, must be shrimp ice cream. That’s right, shrimp ice cream”.

We did find a restaurant nearby, the El Delfin, to tomar un café, but, when we asked for café con leche, were brought warm water, a jar of Nescafe, and a giant container of Coffee-Mate …

On our way out of town, after what seemed to me like too much time in DH, we stopped briefly at a ceramics warehouse to view the talavera products for which this area is known, and then rolled along to the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, just outside San Miguel de Allende. Although I wasn’t familiar with it, apparently this complex is known as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico:

“The Sanctuary of Atotonilco (Santuario de Atotonilco) is a church complex and a World Heritage Site, designated along with nearby San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. The complex was built in the 18th century by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro who, according to tradition, was called upon by a vision of Jesus with a crown of thorns on his head and carrying a cross. The main feature of the complex is the rich Mexican Baroque mural work that adorns the main nave and chapels. This was chiefly the work of Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre over a period of thirty years. The mural work has led the complex to be dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” The complex remains a place of worship and penance to this day, attracting as many as 5,000 visitors every week”. (Wikipedia)

While we were there, we were the only visitors. The frescos are beautiful and the atmosphere of the interior called for quiet contemplation.

Outside the main door were several beggars, mostly old people but also a woman with her son; other than these folks, the place was bereft of people. On the white-washed exterior of the church, burnt siena coloured sinopia under-drawings of saints and Christ can be seen emerging from the paint.

We arrived in mid-afternoon at San Miguel de Allende, stopped first for something to eat, and then wandered around the historical centre for a couple of hours before rolling back again. Ty and I had been interested in seeing how San Miguel compared with Guanajuato, since originally we were going to make it our base. After exploring the city this day, both of us agreed that we preferred Guanajuato. San Miguel, while lovely, has a much more wealthy-North-American vibe and is about three times as expensive as Guanajuato and not nearly as beautiful (IMHO).

See more pics here.

Guanajuato III: Ex-Hacienda San Gabriel de Barreras and the Museo de las Momias

Since we’d explored the back streets north of the main drag of Benito Juarez, after coffee on the Plazuela de San Fernando, we decided to wander the calles on the south side of the road next.

Making our way through the very narrow Calle de los Besos (Street of the Kisses), so called because two facing balconies are so close together one can reach out and kiss one’s neighbour,

we hiked up through winding paths to the Pipila Monument, dedicated to a local hero of the fight for Mexican Independence.

Up there, we found a small bar with a fantastic view out over the city in which we whiled away a bit of time watching the clouds float by.

Later that night we had dinner at the Trattoria Italian restaurant upstairs at the Jardin de la Union and watched the action in the streets from our second floor blacony.

See more pics here.

Below is another example of the rather frenzied iconography in the churches here; in this example Jesus looks a bit like one of the undead in a vampire movie.

Today, Sunday, we decided to visit the Ex-Hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera in the Guanajuato suburb of Marfil.

This hacienda, now a museum, was built at the end of the 17th century; originally, it was the grand home of Captain Gabriel de Barrera, whose family was descended from the first Conde de Rul of the famous La Valenciana mine in Guanajuato.

Opened as a museum in 1979, the hacienda, with its opulent period European furnishings, provides an insight into the lives of the wealthy of the time. Because the massive stone walls keep the heat at bay, the interior rooms are cool and dim on a hot day, the sunlight filtered through heavy ornate curtains.

The large, shady grounds, originally devoted to processing ore from La Valenciana, were converted in 1945 to 17 acres of beautiful terraced gardens based on international designs, with pavilions, pools, fountains, great stone and ceramic urns, enormous stone walls, and footpaths.

Unfortunately, at the moment Guanajuato has water problems and the fountains are not running – too bad because they would be beautiful. As well as dry fountains, the gardens have several pools, one of which, a tiled swimming pool, is very deep; none of these has water, either.

The grounds outside the wall are very brown and dry, giving a glimpe of what these gardens would look like if they had to turn off all the water. Nothing would survive very long, methinks, except possibly the cacti.

After a few hours wandering through the hacienda, we managed to flag down a passing taxi which took us back up to the Museo de las Momias, very near our place. Since we were there anyway, we decided to take in the famous mummy exhibit (not for the faint of heart or those bothered by images of the dead).

Some of the bodies that have become the mummies of Guanajuato were buried in 1833 as a result of a cholera epidemic. Many of these bodies were buried immediately to control the spread of the disease; in some cases, the dying were buried alive by accident. As a result, some of the mummies have horrific expressions attesting to their death in the tombs.

One of the mummies who is thought to have been buried alive was Ignacia Aguilar (above left). She suffered from a strange sickness that made her heart appear to stop for one day on several occasions. During one of these incidents, her heart appeared to stop for more than the usual time. Thinking she had died, her relatives decided to bury her. When her body was disinterred, it was noticed that she was facing down, biting her arm, and that there was a lot of blood in her mouth (source: Wikipedia).

Mexican law required families either to pay for or rent burial space in the cemetery; if these rents went unpaid for three years, the bodies were disinterred to make room for more recent dead. Of the many bodies disinterred, only two percent were mummified; no one knows why, but one possibility is the dry climate combined with the chemicals in the soil. In 1865 the first mummified body in the Cemetery of Santa Paula Pantheon was exhumed, that of Doctor Remigio Leroy. He was gradually joined by around 118 others who now reside in the Museo de las Momias, one of Guanajuato’s primary tourist attractions. This museum also has the smallest mummy in the world, a six month old fetus from a pregnant woman who fell victim to cholera.

Some of the mummies can be seen still wearing parts of their clothing; it’s very strange to see a mummy wearing only socks and/or shoes. Mummies of varying ages are here, from infants to the elderly. A special display contains the bodies of the very young dressed as “angelitos”, tiny angels.

Apparently, according to the Museum’s Director, “in rural Mexico, now as in the past, infant Catholic girls who die are often dressed as little angels or “angelitas,” in lacy dresses and sometimes with angel wings, to represent their young souls’ freedom from sin and their presence with God.

Boys are dressed as little saints or “santitos,” the color of their clothing corresponding to the saint representing the month in which the boy died.  The dressed infants are displayed for a brief time and photographed alone or with their families as if they are still alive”.

Although this small museum can often be packed with tourists, on this day we had the place almost to ourselves, since most people were at Pope Benedict’s address in Cubilete – bonus! We also checked out the small additional display of “torture implements”; however, this was like a very poor carnival haunted house and not worth the extra pesos.

For more information about the mummies, click here.

See more pics here.

Guanajuato Walkabout

Guanajuato is sprucing itself up for the visit of El Papa, Pope Benedict, this weekend. The city has probably never looked this good or been this busy (not that you could tell from some of these photos taken early in the morning …). This area of multi-coloured houses is right near our place.

Everywhere trees are being trimmed, plants are being planted and/or pruned, fountains are being turned on, streets are being swept and flags and banners are being hung.

Some of the church effigies of Jesus are really quite arresting and bizarre. Benedict’s image is everywhere, as are signs advertising balcony viewing space for rent; if the expected 700,000 people do actually descend on this small city, there will be no room to move and every seat, balcony, window, and park bench will be occupied. Down by the Jardin de la Union one can choose to have one’s photo taken with a cutout of either Benedict or John Paul – guess who’s most popular …

This is one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever seen; the colours, decorations, architecture, foliage, and vegetation are stunning, especially against the backdrop of the most incredible cloudless blue sky.  Guanajuato reminds me of cities in Italy, like Florence, with its narrow cobblestone streets lined with old buildings, and Rome, with its beautiful piazzas and café culture; it also reminds me of places in Turkey, like Cappadoccia and Gumusluk, because of its location in a valley ringed with scrub brushed hills.

The temperature is like that of Ibrahimpasa, the small village in Cappadoccia where I stayed in 2009; it is cool at night and in the morning and warm to hot midday, with a dry atmosphere. Mariachi bands and individual musicians are out in force here, especially around the central Jardin de la Union, the main plaza, where they lounge under the trees waiting for the right time to strike up the band.

The city has many lovely small plazas, lined with restaurants and bars, and shaded by huge trees. So far, my favourite is the Plaza de San Fernando, where we had lunch today, serenaded by a lone guitarist.

Ty and I wandered through the narrow, steep back streets,

seeing some interesting street art, investigating the Museum of the XIX Century and the Museum of the City of Guanajuato,

the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato,

as well as a couple of other multi-coloured churches. We strolled through the Jardin de la Reforma, past the University,

and the Jardin de la Union,

watching the preparations for Benedict’s arrival, including the setting up of grandstands and large video screens.

Guanajuato is a town made wealthy from silver; it has many elaborately decorated multi-coloured Spanish baroque churches, haciendas, and hotels. Unlike everywhere else we’ve been this trip, here we have been approached very little by people wanting to sell us things. This city does its own thing and the people seem not to depend much on tourism. I am really enjoying savouring this city.

See more pics here.

From Soufriere to Guanajuato, Central Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico! After two weeks in Soufriere, St Lucia, we were ready to move on. Our room at the Downtown Hotel was great, but we’d seen all there was to see in the area and we were excited about the new possibilities Mexico offered. Marcus picked us up at 10 am Monday morning for our trip down island to Hewanorra airport, and after a two hour wait, we were aboard our American Airlines plane to Miami, a four and a half hour flight. Unfortunately, we had a 12 hour layover in Miami and so decided to get a room at the Days Inn nearby. Once off the plane, we joined the massive horde of weary travelers stuck in the interminable lineups at Miami Immigration and, of course, I chose absolutely the wrong line – the longest, slowest … you get the picture. This painful process took almost two hours while every passenger was fingerprinted and photographed by a coterie of miserable immigration officers, who looked at us as if we were surely criminals trying to hide something.

The Days Inn was entirely unprepossessing, and forgot about our requested 4 am wake-up call (luckily, we’d set the room alarm and it worked). Back at the airport, we got aboard the 7 am flight to Mexico City; I was worried the entire time that we’d not left enough connection time and that we’d miss our place to Guanajuato. Luckily, ours was the only flight in when we landed and the immigration area was quiet; we were through immigration, baggage pickup and recheck, and customs within 40 minutes and had lots of time to spare. The flight to Guanajuato, a colonial silver city north of Mexico City founded in the 16th century by Spaniards, was a quick breeze and the scenery out the window was very interesting, vast expanses of shades of brown, mountains and hills, and small patches of green with snake-like rivers running through them. After the 55 minute flight and a half hour taxi ride, we were in Guanajuato at the Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum) parking lot, where we met Leonor and Hugo, who escorted us and our bags to the colonial house we’ve rented for the next two weeks.

Strangely, and luckily for us, just after we left the Mexico City airport, a 7.8 earthquake hit the area and the airport was closed while they inspected for any damage. We had no idea until after we’d landed in Guanajuato that this had happened – wow! Weird! Thankfully, there seems to have been no terrible damage nor any deaths reported.

The hillside house is very cute, with three small bedrooms, a beautiful balcony the length of the house, a sunny patio off the dining room downstairs and a great view out over the city. But this place is certainly not for the mobility impaired.

Everywhere there are steep hills and stone steps to navigate on foot. Few of the roads can accommodate cars; most traffic travels around and through the city in underground tunnels. I accompanied Leonor down into the city to find the supermarket, the Hidalgo Mercato, and the bank, about a half hour walk from our place.

We wound our way through the narrow busy streets full of pedestrians and of colour and joyful sound. The buildings are great, multi-coloured, some elaborately decorated in the Spanish baroque style, and the quality of the light and the clear, blue sky are fabulous. Huge bougainvillea trees in an incredible shade of red and giant purple lilac trees are abundant here.

Later, Ty and I ventured out again for supper, stopping at a local Comida Casera (which I think means home cooking) spot close to the downtown area, to consume inexpensive and tasty cesadillas and tortas con frijoles. While waiting for Ty to purchase some supplies, I chatted with Carl, a senior pun-loving expat from the States who runs a B&B down here. He invited us to join him for a drink on his terrace while we’re in town, an invitation which we’ll definitely take him up on.

We had no idea when we booked this place that the Pope was coming for the weekend. Benedict has chosen Guanajuato/Leon for his first visit to Mexico and will be here for 4 days. The faithful are flooding here from all parts of Mexico and abroad and they expect 800,000 people for his Sunday mass at Cubilete – yikes! Ty and I are going out today to buy food because when that horde descends I’ve sure the local cupboards will soon be bare and there won’t be a seat to be found in any restaurant or loncheria. In honour of El Papa, the town has spruced the place up a bit, by fixing the road he’ll be travelling on and freshly painting the many colourful buildings lining the hills. Benedict’s smiling face is everywhere, on placards, signs, buildings, and, of course, churches, of which there are quite a few here.

Mexico is the world’s second most populous Catholic nation and, in addition to El Papa’s visage, images of the Virgin of Guadaloupe and Jesus are prominent almost everywhere.

Guanajuato does get a share of tourists here but nothing like its smaller neighbour to the north San Miguel de Allende, which is apparantly pretty much an American city now, with its attendant high prices. As a result, although likely a few people here do speak English, none that we’ve encountered yet, other than Carl of course, have been able to speak it. My Spanish is ok, not by any means fluent, but I can speak enough to get by and make myself understood. Hopefully, after giving it a workout for the next three months in Mexico, my Spanish will be greatly improved.

See more pics here.

Soufriere by Boat: Malgretoute, Jalousie, Anse Chastanet

We’ve been on Bushman’s radar since we got to St Lucia; he wanted Ty and I to take his water taxi, or buy some fish, or purchase the best Bob Marley (code for weed, which neither of us took him up on), or …

But we hadn’t connected with him until today, when, as we were walking to the local beach with our snorkelling gear in tow, he appeared in front of us.

Since he gave us a good price for the trip, we decided to take his water taxi tour of the bay, cruising past Malgretoute, Jalousie, Anse Chastanet, and the bat cave near Soufriere Harbour.

After untying the boat with a little help from his friends, Bushman and we hopped abroad and headed south.

Our first stop was to pull up alongside a gigantic private yacht, the Starfire, for Bushman to see if he could sell some fish or other merchandise to the sailors aboard.

No takers for the goodies but they did contract him to come back later to take ashore their garbage. This huge yacht had another smaller motor vessel attached for use as a launch, as well as a couple of diving submersibles … mucho dinero!

From there, we motored along the cliff face at the bottom of Petit Piton over to Jalousie Plantation resort, a complex which occupies the beach between the two Pitons. South of Jalousie sits the villa of pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, just above the middle of the beach.

After checking with several motor and sailing yachts to see if Bushman could unload any merchandise (no takers this day), we zoomed back along the Marine Reserve area and across the bay to Anse Chastanet.

We arranged for BM to pick us up later and jumped out onto the hot sand, setting up our stuff under a couple of palm trees. Unlike the previous time we’d been here, there were few daytrippers – I don’t think the cruise ships come in to St Lucia on the weekend – and the beach was quite quiet.

We snorkelled along the cliffs between Anse Chastanet and Soufriere, seeing quite a few gorgeous dark purple fish, as well as a small swarm of torpedo fish. Although there’s very little live coral here, it’s nice to see that fan coral and brain coral are making a bit of a comeback. As I was swimming along, I was stung by an unseen jellyfish … bastard!

On the way back to Soufriere, we stopped at the Bat Cave, a long gash in the cliff near the harbour in which thousands of bats make their home; we could hear them all tweeting from the water. Before heading back to the ranch, we visited our favourite coffee shop, Christine’s place above the Image Tree, for a coffee and a piece of freshly home-baked chocolate cake.

Christine has just opened her place; it’s kitty-corner to the Downtown Hotel and right next to the church and main square – a perfect location – and we are delighted. Sitting on her second floor veranda sipping a coffee, chatting, and watching the action is one of Soufriere’s gentle pleasures.

See more pics here.

Walkin’, Walkin’, Walkin’ III: Hummingbird, Malgretoute, and Anse Mamin

A couple of days ago, we walked over to the end of the bay at Soufriere and checked out the Hummingbird Resort. It sits right at the water’s edge on a not very nice beach with exceptionally clear water. Local guys hang around here and dive off cliffs for money.

Dressed in red shorts so they can be seen from the boats which arrive, two people dive, while several others swim out to the boats for tips.

Meanwhile, back at Malgretoute, our favourite local beach, many sailboats and catamarans were moored and fishermen waited for a bite.

I tried to feed my favourite little beast a piece of apple; he sniffed it but was too shy to take a piece.

We’d been planning to head up to the next bay north around the corner from Anse Chastanet for a while, and today, being a beautiful breezy sunny day, was the day.

Packing up the bags, we headed out and up the steep road early in the morning, trying to avoid the midday heat.

This time the walk seemed less onerous than the first time and before we knew it, we were heading down the hill to Anse Chastanet, along the beach and onto the road leading along the water and below the cliffs towards Anse Mamin.

Anse Mamin is a small black sand bay which is also a part of the Anse Chastanet resort.

When we arrived, there were only a couple of others there; the beach started to fill up around noon, just as the grill was getting going – this place is famous for its great grilled food at lunch.

The water was clear and fresh, the sun was hot, and we enjoyed a lazy St Lucian day. After a beer at the Anse Chastanet bar on the way back, we inquired about a water taxi, only to be told by the bartender, who’d phoned someone, that it would cost $150 US, an outrageous ripoff. I suppose that the boatman thought we were staying at the resort and reasoned that, if we could afford $500 – $1,000 a night, we could afford his ridiculous price … not. We snorted and walked back instead.

The view out over the bay to the Petit and Gros Pitons is gorgeous from this road; down below we could see a convoy of French catamarans making a stately progress through the water along the cliff face.

The view from our balcony at sunset is gorgeous; we love to drag out the chairs and sit watching the action in the streets below and the clouds blow across the blue sky towards the west.

Soufriere has its share of lost souls, some of whom can be seen sitting on the sidewalks below us every day.

See more pics here.

 

Soufriere Day Tour: Drive-in Volcano, Piton Waterfall and Diamond Botanical Garden

[Warning: This is a bit of a Grumpy Old Lady post] We wouldn’t want to leave Soufriere without seeing everything there is to see in this part of the world. So yesterday we decided to spring for a taxi ride around the area, visiting the drive-in volcano, the Piton Waterfall, and the Diamond Botanical Garden and Waterfall. Charles picked us up at 11 and off we zoomed to the first stop, the volcano.

Billed as the world’s only drive-in volcano, this place looks more like a small strip mine, a white and orange bald patch on a hill in which small pools of grayish-black water bubble and steam. It’s the only venting area in what is a gigantic caldera encompassing the town of Soufriere and the surrounding area.

Coming off the main highway, the stench of rotten eggs filled the air as we approached. At the entrance were several guys selling rasta paraphernalia and gigantic conch shells; before we even get got to the gate, they were on us to buy something. Rolling down the road a few hundred meters we stopped at another shopping area and were immediately greeted by a guide who will “show us around and give us information about the area”.

In this country every site, whether rain forest, garden, or waterfall, has an entrance fee and it is almost impossible to go anywhere without a guide; one cannot hike in the forests or on the hills without a local person guiding. We can’t enter into a garden or, indeed, go almost anywhere without someone there to guide us, even when it is not at all necessary or wanted. And, of course, it’s made clear by large signs that each of these guides expects a tip (and not a small tip, either, something substantial). [Even downtown, people approach us in the street, ask where we’re going, say they will take us there, even when we can see the place 20 feet down the road, and then expect a tip - we are walking wallets and almost every interaction is about money]. In the various sites I have no objection to someone guiding me, if there’s a reason for it (like telling me something about the place that I don’t know or can’t figure out for myself). But, at the volcano, there’s no reason to have a guide because the area is completely self-explanatory and the path to the edge of the sulphur ponds is only a hundred meters or so. Anyway, to me the volcano seemed much ado about nothing …

Back in the car, we cruised past Malgretoute Beach and turned off on the way to Jalousie to the Piton Warm-Hot Waterfall, where, this time guideless, we walked a few hundred meters into the rainforest and down a set of steep stairs to a concrete viewing platform with two smallish mineral water pools from where we could see the waterfall and, behind, out across the water to Anse Chastanet.

It was very pleasant to sit here in this green and shady space and watch the water spill down the hill into the pools below.

On the way to our final stop, we paused at the top of the hill to look out over the town, purchase some more souvenirs, and drove through Soufriere to the Diamond Garden.

Here, once again, a guide scooped us up as soon as we emerged from the car and led us, way more quickly than I’d like, on a whirl wind tour through part of the garden, then waited somewhat impatiently for a tip, before hustling back to the entrance to pick up more tourists – we were not very happy.

Anyway, while inside the garden we saw some interesting plants, especially a gorgeous Red Torch Ginger, and the usual tropical flowers, birds of paradise, crab claws in different colours, and tropical plants such as Bromeliads. The garden is also a bird sanctuary and Ty was lucky enough to see a parrot.

By the time the tour was finished two and a half hours later, we felt as if we’d been metaphorically hoisted by our ankles and shaken to extract every last coin from our pockets; we’d spent 400EC$ (about $160), way too much for the “Soufriere Experience”, in my opinion. [While the Tet Paul tour was worth the money spent, (and we wanted to support this excellent project), I can’t really say the same about this day’s visits]. The thing about this town is that everyone wants a piece of us; of course, it’s been the same everywhere, but the people are particularly persistent about it here. They will not let us be; every day the same people want us to pay them for something, whether necklaces, weed, home brew, boat trips, taxis, or walks down the road. The relentlessness of it gets tiresome. I understand and agree that the local people should benefit from the tourists who come here and, unfortunately, most of the visitors who arrive on boats are loaded onto minibuses and driven around without being given time to walk around the town and spread the wealth. This, I think, is really the shits; however, that said, the constant hassle is also off-putting. But we still like the place.

See more pics here.

Walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ II: Tet Paul Nature Trail, Soufriere, St Lucia

St Lucia is a “soft adventure” travel paradise, which means that there are hiking, walking, and biking opportunities galore here. We decided to check out the newish two year old Tet Paul Nature Trail, located in the farming community of Chateau Belair, since visitors had described it as having the most amazing views of the two pitons (peaks).

Most people take a tour bus to get to this place but, since we’re on a shoe string here, we decided to take local minibus transport; after all, a fleet of them are parked right outside our hotel every single day. After a filling cooked breakfast at the new coffee shop kitty corner to the hotel, we hopped on the old red van headed down to Vieux Forte in the south; after it filled up with 15 people, all crammed into a claustrophobia-inducing tight space, we were off down the incredibly winding main highway.

After a ride of about 15 minutes, we were deposited at the entrance to Fond Doux Holiday Plantation, and followed the signs all the way up a long, winding road to the top on which we found the Tet Paul entrance hut. Along the way we passed a couple of munching cows who lowed at us plaintively. Before entering into the site, we had a cup of coffee to cool down from the 2 mile trudge up the road.

Our guide Pascal, a young local guy, took us through the six acre site, pointing out all the local vegetation and explaining how they work the plantation. An “antique house” – small wooden two room hut – and a cassava flour-making area also give an idea of local life back in the day.

From the trail are some of the most spectacular views of the South of the island, the Jalousie Bay, Petit Piton and Gros Piton, as well as Martinique and St. Vincent on clear days.

The gentle ascent features a variety of exotic fruit trees, (e.g. guava, soursop, avocado, pineapple, okra) as well as medicinal plants and trees. Work on the plantation is done by local rastas, one of whom was lounging in the shade as we passed by.

Two viewpoints in particular give fabulous views, one out over Gros Piton and the panorama of green to the Maria Islands offshore from Vieux forte and the other over the Jalousie Plantation and Petit Piton.

From the top of the “Stairway to Heaven” we could see the great Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy’s villa right below us, its huge blue pool glinting in the sun like a jewel.

The local community, with the help of landowners in the area and the Soufriere Foundation, worked for six years to get the funding for this nature walk and it provides employment for local youth who are trained in hospitality and tourism and given the necessary background to be able to conduct tours of the area.

After a tour of about an hour or so, we headed back down the hill to the main highway, intending to wait for a returning minibus. While there, I chatted to a guy also waiting; when a friend in a pickup truck stopped to pick him up, we also were offered a ride. Sitting in the back of the speeding pickup truck as it careened around the sharp switch backs almost did me in but we reached the turnoff to Jalousie Beach without incident. Just as we were clambering out of the back, another van rolled up whose occupants were kind enough to offer us a ride part-way down to the beach – huzzah! We didn’t make it to Jalousie, though, but back to Malgretoute and into the refreshing pounding surf. On our way back, we saw not just the usual mom and baby goat, but also another mom and two tinier babies, born not very long ago. The two very little ones, hearing us coming, tried to hide in a crack in the rock cliff but as we approached closer, were frightened into running back to mom.

A huge five masted sailing ship, dwarfing all the other anchored sailboats and catamarans, cruised into the harbour and anchored for the afternoon, which meant that the town was much busier than usual with both locals and tourists milling around the downtown area.

See more pictures here.

 

Walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ … in Soufriere, Saint Lucia, West Indies

We love it here! The day comes early in Soufriere: about 3 am, we hear the dogs start to bark; next, at 5, come the roosters with their strangled cries; then, about 5:30, the men yelling at one another across the plaza beneath our windows. By 5:30 all the fruit and vegetable vendors have their wares laid out on the sidewalks.

Needless to say, we are up at 6. Every day the weather has been the same, dark clouds atop the hills behind the town and a brisk wind blowing them seaward, where, just as they float above our hotel, they break up into tiny whisps and disappear over a cloudless ocean. Occasional rain bursts of a few minutes at a time freshen the air – wonderful! The temperature ranges from about 20 in the morning to 25 or so midday.

Soufriere is a poor town; quite a few folks hang out on the streets trying to sell transport or trips to various places. But these are very expensive. We’d heard that the water taxis stop right near the hotel and were imagining taking them daily to various places … Well, the reality is that we can’t afford them. A trip to one of the two most famous beach areas near here is EC$150. return for two people (that’s about $60). Paying $60 a day for water taxis is just not in the cards for us. So … walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ …

The second day here we saddled up the backpacks and headed off north in the direction of Anse Chastanet, one of the two good beach and resort areas around here. Along the way, we passed the town cemetery, in which a gravedigger was whistling while he worked, surrounded by holes in the ground and mounds of dirt.

Just past the cemetery, the road becomes a semi-paved, pitted, rutted one lane track that heads precipitously up into the hills that surround the town. It is steep!

As we walked uphill, a few cars and vans passed us, loaded down with tourists headed for the resort, the undercarriages of the vehicles just barely clearing the rough ground. Along the top of the ridge, several expensive villas sit, some with their grand walls, vases, and flowers reminding us very much of Fiesole, Italy. We could see Malgretoute Beach at the foot of the Petit Piton from the road. After about an hour, we arrived at Anse Chastanet resort, a four-star property on the small bay.

This place is extremely expensive; one night here will run you from $600 to $1,000 a night. And within this resort is another called Jade Mountain, a concrete bunker on the side of the hill that looms over the bungalows below.

We had a beer at the beachside bar and then rented a couple of loungers beneath a palapa on the public side of the beach (the larger beach area north of the restaurant is reserved for house guests of the resort).

Apparently there is pretty good snorkelling and diving here and all day long boats of various sizes came and went, depositing people from visiting cruise ships on the beach.

On this trip, we have seen hardly any Americans anywhere; now we know where they all are, on cruise ships in the Caribbean. It was actually strange to hear so many American accents in one place.

After several hours of fun in the sun, we packed up our gear and headed back up the road from which we’d come. Luckily, after walking not too far, a van stopped and offered us a ride back to town – huzzah!

Yesterday, our destination was once again Malgretoute beach, just south of town along what used to be a road and is now pretty much a goat track (literally!). We think that perhaps the road was destroyed in the last hurricane that ripped through here in October 2010. We enjoyed a quiet day of beach combing and snorkelling – lots of sea urchins here – a great lunch of creole chicken at the restaurant, and a chat with a visiting French couple.

Walking back, we purchased a small carved calabash pot from a local rastaman.

Goats, cows, pigs, and chickens roam freely here, running in between the playing kids and working adults.

Back at the Downtown ranch, we pulled our chairs onto our balcony and enjoyed a drink while listening to the sounds of the town below us and gazing out over the Petit Piton and the sea.

In the downtown area, there are three or four restaurants and a couple of bars. Mostly, tourists do not stay in Soufriere itself; they come on cruise ships to Saint Lucia for the day or they stay in expensive resorts out of town. Other than us, there may be 4 or 5 others staying here.

See more pics here.