Trip Recap: Best of, Worst of …

Well, we’ve been back about three weeks now and the Round the World trip is fading into memory … What a fabulous journey. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this trip – it was amazing. Even the (few) parts that weren’t so great were great (if you know what I mean). Time to recap the highlights and lowlights:

Best (non-urban) Beach

Hong Island, Krabi, West Coast of Thailand

Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go. See my original post here.

Best Beach (urban)

This is a toss-up between three very different beaches: Jomtien, Pattaya, Thailand, Cancun, Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jomtien, because the beach is decent, with great restaurants, a lively vibe, great people-watching, and very cheap transportation around the area.

Cancun, because the beach is long and wide, twenty six kilometers of sand. Playa Gaviota Azul, in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, was a favourite spot for us. The large, wide beach was often full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children. Read more here.

Los Muertos beach in Puerto Vallarta, because it’s sandy, has big waves and great beach restaurants, and the weather was amazing. Read more here and here.

Best Accomodation (apartment/condo)

Our fully-equipped, nicely decorated 4th floor apartment 1/2 block off Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, an incredible deal at Easter for $45 a night.

See my post here for more on Puerto Vallarta’s South Side.

Best Accommodation (hotel, B&B, hostel)

This is a tricky one – in the running, are: Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud, Bali; Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali; Sabai Mansion in Ao Nang, Thailand; and Hotelito Swiss Oasis in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Each of these was great in its own way. We loved the pool at the Merthayasa and the price was right at 180,000 IDR ($19) a night.

The Blue Star, right on the beach at Jemeluk Bay, had wonderful staff, great snorkelling and swimming, and a pleasant enough room for 200,000 IDR a night ($21.50 – a special price because we didn’t use the air con).

Sabai Mansion was well-located 500 meters from the beach, with a great pool, a restaurant, and nice staff for 855 bht a night ($27.50).

And we also loved the Hotelito Swiss Oasis, 1/2 block from Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, with a pool and small communal kitchen, for 450 pesos night ($34.50).

The Pool and Palm villa in Siem Reap had the best pool, large, beautiful, and clean, very refreshing in the heat of central Cambodia.

Best Recreational Activity (Land-based)

Bali Eco Cycling, a cycle trip beginning at a volcano, then riding downhill through a coffee plantation, village homes and temples, and rice fields, finishing with a Balinese food feast. Read all about it here.

Runner up: Cycling the North Head, in Manly, Australia: wildlife, artillery, ecological projects, golden chariot, cemeteries. Read more here.

Best Recreational Activity (Water-based)

Our private longtail boat trip to the Hong Islands, Krabi, Thailand, a great day out on the water visiting several different beaches, lagoons, and islands in the Andaman Sea. Read my post here.

Best Temple(s) Ancient

This one is no contest – Angkor Wat/Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime Must See for all you temple and archeological site lovers. Incredibly beautiful architecture and sculpture in a huge and beautiful park setting. See my posts here, here, and here.

Runner up: Uxmal and the Puuc route south of Merida in the Yucatan.

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the Yucatan while in Merida, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. Highly recommended – read more here.

Best Temple (Modern)

Bang Rieng, Krabi, Thailand, a mountain-top temple about an hour and a half’s driving north of Ao Nang along the road to Phuket. It sits atop Khao Lan or One Million Mountain, overlooking the Thaput countryside. The temple and grounds are spectacular, as is the view from the top; green hills and tended fields spread out in a vast panorama below the temple precincts, looking very much like central Italy. Read more here.

Best visual art scene

This category is a tie between Ubud, Bali and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ubud has lots of great contemporary art galleries, as well as a couple of excellent art museums focusing on modern Balinese and Indonesian art. Read more here and here.

Puerto Vallarta also has a great contemporary art scene, with lots of commercial galleries, artists studios and residencies, and two weekly art walks in the old town and centro areas. Read more here and here.

Most Intriguing Cultural Performance

The Balinese Classical Legong and Barong Dance at the Ubud Palace was fascinating and beautiful. See a video of part of the performance here. Read more about Ubud’s cultural scene here.

Best Local Experience

While staying at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali, the owner Iluh, a lovely woman, invited me to join her at a village temple ceremony. She showed me how the offerings are made, gave me her temple clothes to wear, and drove me there and back on her motorcycle – an incredible experience.

Read about it here.

Runner up: Nox’ tours in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji

We did two tours around Levuka with local guide Nox, one exploring all aspects of the town and the other up into the surrounding hills to visit local plantations. Really fascinating! Read more here and here.

Best Food

This category is also no contest – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has an amazing food scene and, remarkably, without even knowing it, we stayed in absolutely the best place for restaurants in KL, Bukit Bintang. Read my post here.

Best Nightlife

While Ty and I are not exactly nightlife junkies (and sometimes I can barely make it to 11 pm), we did enjoy the lively night scene in Ubud, Bali, particularly the great Spanish band at the Smiling Buddha and the jazz at Cafe Luna. Other nightlife options include Balinese dance, the Jazz Cafe, a gazillion great restaurants and bars …

Best transportation experience

The Pattaya/Jomtien baht bus, the song thaew pickups plying the roads in the area. Go anywhere for only 10 baht (30 cents).

And the tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, Cambodia: padded seats, beautiful fabrics, comfortable rides. Go anywhere around the town for $2.

Worst accommodation

None of the places we stayed were really terrible; some were just less good than the rest and a few were too expensive for what they offered. Sometimes the weather affected our view of a place – Fiji in the rain, for example. Janes Fales in Manase, Savaii, Samoa had a wonderful location right on a beautiful sandy beach, but the food was bad and we had a bad experience at their beach bar there that caused us to leave much sooner than we had planned. More info here.

Worst Food

Mostly, the food everywhere was good, if often not spicy enough for our liking. I guess the worst food I had was this terrible lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park – blecchhh. Read more about this day here.

Worst Beach

Surprisingly, particularly since the last time we were there it was lovely, the beach at Playa del Carmen was the worst we saw. Almost everywhere in the world erosion is a problem, as is high water and storm surges, all playing havoc with the beaches. One of the last days we were in Playa, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places.

Worst local experience

Nadi, Fiji. While in Nadi, we walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seemed dreary, desperate, and depressing – we didn’t miss it when we left. Read more here and here.

Worst transportation experience

Wow – this is a tough category. Once again, it’s a tie, between the crazed maniacal minibus driver in Fiji, whose insane driving drove us out onto the road and into a school bus; the tweaking idiot in Bangkok whose meth-fuelled speed racer drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya terrified me; and the overloaded and top heavy ferry boat back from Koh Laan to Pattaya, almost capsizing a couple of times along the way.

Most surprising place

Siem Reap, Cambodia, a lovely city with vibrant nightlife and proximity to the great Angkor temples and Samoa, a beautiful small country.

And Guanajuato, Mexico, a fabulous colourful hill-top town in the central highlands with loads of museums, haciendas, good restaurants, and a vibrant local scene.

For us one of the most surprising things was Semana Santa in Guanajuato – who knew that Easter would be so fabulous there?

Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we liked Bali, especially Amed, East Bali, our choice for retirement living in the sun when we’re old is, at the moment, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Why? Well, let me count the reasons:

1) It has a beautiful beach and a long malecon with sculpture and art.

2) It has a vibrant contemporary art scene, dancing, theatre, community centres with classes in language, art, yoga, tai chi, and the like. Lots of artists around the place.

3) It has great coffee shops and restaurants, especially in the Old Town.

4) Although there are lots of gringos, it’s still a Mexican town, especially a few blocks off the beach.

5) Great day trips to small towns and villages are easy by inexpensive local transport. For an example, see my report on Yelapa here.

6) Inexpensive accommodation can be had a few blocks off the beach

7) Rentals are pet-friendly. We can easily bring Brubin and the cat with us when we visit.

8) Easily and cheaply accessible by direct flight in only a few hours.

9) I speak Spanish, albeit not yet fluently.

Viernes de Dolores

A small performance for Viernes de Dolores, the Friday of Sorrows that begins Semana Santa, inspired by the Guanajuato Virgen de Dolores altars.

See more pics here.


Dia de las Flores: Death and the Devil visit the Colonial House, Guanajuato

For the Dia de las Flores, Ty and I decorated the front archways of our colonial house; using locally-made masks of Death (a tiny tin skull wearing a black sombrero) and the Devil (a papier mache horned demon mask) we recreated the encounter of Death, the Devil, and the Maiden imagined so starkly in images such as those below by Hans Baldung Grien.

Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung, 1510

Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung, 1518

“In this painting a voluptuous young maiden turns to receive the kiss of her lover, only to discover, to her horror, Death. The skeletal figure gently holds her head, a gesture that belies the finality of his impending bite. His patches of wispy hair and rotting skin mock her flowing tresses and supple flesh. The dark setting, unnoticed at first, is a cemetery as she stands on a gravestone, perhaps her own. This Vanitas picture (an image that alludes to the transience of life) typifies Baldung’s predilection for erotically charged twists to more conventional themes, such as the Dance of Death. ” (Web Gallery of Art)

For more information on the Memento Mori, and other installations on this theme that I had done, click here and here.

See all the photos of the Guanajuato piece here.

Altars to the Virgin of Sorrows, Guanajuato

The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin (source: Antonio De Jesús Aguado):

She was unable to find shelter for the birth of her son.
When Mary took the infant Jesus to the temple for circumcision, the prophet Simeon told her, “A sword will go through your heart,” referring to her future suffering for her son.
Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt after King Herod tried to kill Jesus.
Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus in Jerusalem and found him preaching in the temple.
Mary met her son on the way to Calvary.
The crucifixion of Christ.
The burial of Jesus and Mary’s solitude.

One of the most sumptuous and popular celebrations in Mexico is Semana Santa (Holy Week), which begins with the Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows), celebrated the last Friday of Lent. It is dedicated to the seven sorrows that Mary suffered before and after her son’s death.

In Mexico the tradition of putting up the altar of sorrows dates from the 16th century, and it was widespread in Mexican homes in the 18th century. The altar was meant to comfort the Virgin Mary, who eight days later would suffer at her son’s death.

Main elements of the altar for Viernes de Dolores:
The elements included in the altar have changed over the years; in earlier times purple and white fabrics were used, as well as mountains (made of cardboard) representing Calvary. The main images are always the Virgin of Sorrows and Christ. The surrounding elements represent the suffering felt by the Virgin Mary when she finds out that her son has been condemned to death.

The most common elements and their meaning include these:
Altar cloths and white flowers: Mary’s purity
Purple cloak: pain and penitence
Bitter oranges: the Virgin’s sorrow. These oranges are painted gold in order to recall the joy of the resurrection.
Fresh chamomile: its colors represent humility (green) and beauty in body and soul (yellow).
Sprouting wheat: represents Christ as Eucharistic bread
Ice cream, flavored water and pumpkin candies: the Virgin’s sweet tears

On Viernes de Dolores the places which have public altars also distribute flavoured water and ice cream. Above is a lineup for water and ice cream at one of the local fruit and vegetable shops; below is the shop’s altar. Lots of big buses rolled into town and disgorged hundreds of schoolkids to take part in Viernes de Dolores. On this page are just some of the altars set up in public places throughout Guanajuato. Many of them utilised the same picture of the Virgin (the one in the photo below). A few branched out and either made their own images or used portraits that looked more like Orthodox Church representations. Some of the larger, more elaborate altars also included sculptural effigies.

The altar below was erected on the hillside right near our place.

This little guy often greets us as we walk up and down the looooonngg flights of stairs to get to our house.

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.


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.