The Trail of Silver & Freedom

17 Mar photo(1)

I pride myself on having been able to narrow down my accumulated piles of optional clothing & accessories in time for take-off (with help from my mom, best friend Jen, & boyfriend Dan who watched me try on every possibility, twice). This process includes not simply grand scale elimination, but more importantly, priority. When going from your hometown full of belongings & available anythings to a carry-on sized backpack to be carried through less accommodating developing countries, what are the things that will turn su mochila into your world?

I have been carrying around a New York Times article titled “Mexico’s Freedom Trail” since it was printed in 2010, & I am grateful it was chosen to be tucked into my travel journal & taken along for the ride. In it’s pages the author retraces the history of Mexico’s independence from Spain as he wanders the streets where the story took place on the eve of the bicentennial celebration. My interest in the article initially lay in the idea of safety oases & thriving culture existing in the heart of a country I’d heard such negativity about. The descriptive pages definitely did not remind me of my experiences in shady border towns or my second hand familiarity with spring break destinations. Reading this article first helped me to see the soul of this country that we are now getting to know, & largely encouraged the choice to begin in Mexico against what seemed at home to be all common sense. While we certainly haven’t clung as tightly to the history on our path, this story is very much a part of current culture & this region of Mexico dwells safely in it’s wake.

The Spanish stormed into Mexico & are said to have destroyed the thriving Aztec Empire, introduced a new religion, & nominate the native people as slaves in a matter of two years. The details of the conquest are comical as the Europeans initially questioned whether the Mexican population was actually human (luckily the pope cleared the confusion in 1537) & Emperor Moctezuma considered the possibility of whether Cortez might be the Aztec god-king Quetzalcoatl, choosing to wait out any decision-making until he received some omens. The Spanish leaders were ruthless, the Aztec Empire superstitious, & in the blink of an eye the people were under truly foreign rule. The Spanish exploit the country (creatively renamed “New Spain”), making themselves rich off mining & agriculture, rubbing it in deeper with massive haciendas they built across the country. Ironically it was the criollo population (born of Spanish parents in Mexico) that began to resent the higher-upper class Spanish born colonists, stirring ideas of rebellion. These ideas turned to plotting & by 1810 Mexico’s beloved priest/daredevil Miguel Hidalgo cut the red ribbon of revolution. After eleven years of fighting, & the deaths of nearly all the involved heroes, Mexico freed itself of Spanish rule in 1821. Since, the free nation has struggled endlessly with political instability, corruption, violence, inequality/repression, & more than one generally fruitless social revolution- but it’s preferred to focus on the silver lining.Today the Ruta de la Independencia zig-zags between Dolores Hidalgo & Guanajuato– connecting the trail traveled during the rebellion by troops literally collected along the path.

We arrived first in Guanajuato, Hidalgo’s birthplace & where his head was hung along with three of his fellow leaders in a cage for ten years following his death- apparently serving as inspiration & as a reminder to the martyr’s goal. We start our exploration of Guanajuato climbing. Gorgeous tunnels beneath the city’s narrow cobbled streets (former rivers forced to evolve) handle modern day traffic & protect the city’s street level from congestion. We quickly fell for the colorful antiqued town, making our home in a maze of stairs that led to the most perfect of vistas at Casa Bertha. Guanajuato’s streets were a maze of their own & in our first days we often found ourselves accidentally where we’d started after breaking a sweat trooping up & down steep alley streets. The city was once known for its silver & gold deposits, the business that fund the European ambiance people now buzz about. Guanajuato is an UNESCO World Heritage City, a title & responsibility that typically translates into pretty preservation. The buildings in the center are perfectly kept, gardens full of flowers, & boxed stretches of Indian Laurel Trees appear absolutely lush & content. The University of Guanajuato keeps the population young and the ancient city’s conveniences up to date. We melt time wandering- discovering tranquil plant filled plazas up mysterious stone staircases by day, savoring the yellow lit life around the Jardin de la Union at night. Ice cream stands & baked goods offered cheap curbside snacks alongside eclectic patio dining options- all with the option of private marchiachi performances on demand. The view from above the city- a straight shot up from the valley in a vertical railcar- puts it all into blissful perspective. After nearly a week in Guanajuato, we began aching for the one thing the paradise lacked- water. A sweaty hike led to the city’s dam, a bit empty in the country’s dry season, though the adventure seemed to satisfy our need. Feeling a bit too tempted to plant ourselves in the city’s vibe, we reluctantly said goodbye to the twisted streets, reassuring ourselves that we’d return.

Three days passed by us in San Miguel de Allende, this time the birthplace of Ignacio Allende- another leader in the uprising. In the late 1930’s, the city found its calling with the founding of the Escuela de Bellas Artes in an old monastery- where mural painting classes quickly attracted artists. As is often the trend, this artsy retreat has slowly garnered the attention of arguably less creative ex-pats- those seeking a quirky & inexpensive retirement plan. We arrived in San Miguel in the midst of a Cuban festival, drawing the expats & tourists together nightly in the town’s main Plaza, El Jardin, which lies beneath the jaw dropping pink beauty that is the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. The Mexican locals & wealthy transplants appear to generally operate on opposite planes, but this seems to work for the city. The Mexican culture is alive & well amidst high-end restaurants, accommodations, & galleries. The city itself is so beautiful & full of colonial architecture it was also added to the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site in 2008. The colors on the slanted streets are rich & come alive as the sun sets at the bottom of town reflecting off the churches & flower lined cobbled hills. A hike to the city’s mirador is well worth the incline & it would be a shame to miss the shady paths of Parque Benito Juarez. Positive contributions of the blended population include a truly peaceful largely open air public library & a botanical garden Northeast of town that was exactly the dose of nature I needed in our third week city bound. We also made our way to the ancient sanctuary of Atotonilco & through the tiny towns paths until finding ourselves in natural hot springs which gushed into an incredible tunnel of rooms with brick domed roofs at Escondido Place. The sanctuary was founded as a spiritual retreat & remains an important retreat for pilgrims every year just before Easter. As much as Mexicans revere the history of their freedom here in the heart, they are equally devoted to religion. The churches of San Miguel are gorgeous- intricately decorated with dangling crystal chandeliers & cool retreats from the midday heat. Personally, I believe the town’s ripest spirituality was found amidst the wildflowers & succulents in the gardens of El Charco del Indigenio where nature puts it all in balance.

The city & transportation hub of Queretaro was our next stop. The busier buzz of the wide streets inspired moments of bliss in the fluffy green Alameda Hidalgo & a day escape to Bernal. One of Mexico’s dubbed Pueblas Mágicos, the quiet town boasts the world’s third largest monolith. The geologist in Dan seemed to connect with the power of the rock, positive energy that draws thousands on the upcoming vernal equinox. It was the empty flower lined streets that charmed me into forgiving the heat & exhaustive transportation, a compromise that will come in handy as we head next to Mexico City*

viva mexico

6 Mar photo(6)

Our plan to begin this trip in Mexico was generally received with disapproval & advise to skip over the country completely, related to it’s dirty & dangerous reputation. We brought a healthy amount of suspicion along for our initial immersion into the Mexican culture, carefully choosing the roads we first explored & the time of day we left the safety of our tourist fortress (hostel guadalajara is a safe & convenient place to overcome Latin American doubt). I dove deep into current Mexican news stories, the US bureau of consular affairs travel warnings, drug wars journalism, & my own intuition- trying to wrap my mind around the fear I felt obligated to keep as close as my passport. However, starting with our first stroll down the lively pedestrian strip leading to the Plaza de los Mariachis in peaceful Guadalajara, we felt nothing but at ease. The locals filling the streets were too busy adoring each other, snacking, & playing to pay mind to the Americans freshly planted in their midst. Our smiles were reciprocated as we wandered the golden streets of Guadalajara, taking in our first taste of Mexican culture. It quickly became clear that there is far more to Mexico than the picture being accepted into popular opinion back home. As I feel is often the case with many America´s extremist perception of travel- the focus on the negative has forgotten all of the beauty that exists. I won’t get too tangled in my own stance on the current messy situation, as I anticipate it may evolve as I learn through experience. But it is safe to say that we are happy to accept the challenge of traveling with awareness through our beautiful neighboring country.

Curious? click here.

Guadalajara’s charming streets are cobbled & lined in the happiest of lush green trees bursting with limes & plumerias. Families dominate the population & endlessly fill the four lazy plazas which surround the city’s 400+ year old twin-towered cathedral. These grand spaces, which form the heart of the Centro Histórico, groove day & night. During the day, locals (tapatíos) stroll under the shadow of 16th century buildings, stopping for an old fashioned shoe shine, a little bag of chili powder dipped candies, or to gaze into one of the many gushing fountains. Once the sun has set, the plazas come alive with yellow lighting & children without bedtimes. Giant telescopes offer a glimpse of the heavens while bubbles, flashing toys, & smothered Mexican corn provide ample entertainment on the ground. On Sundays, one of the wide main city streets is blocked off for a good chunk of the day to encourage everyone to grab their bicycle & cruise the stretch, a new tradition being spread across the country. Mexicans know how to stretch their time, & seem to move to a deliberately low key beat.

For excitement, & culture shock, we became intimately acquainted with the Mercado San Juan de Dios, a three tiered marketplace crammed with color & everything from a seriously authentic food court to the most assorted of knicks & knacks. We hopelessly fell in love with street food at first sight – cheap bags of fresh fruit, tortas ahogadas (chili soaked pork sandwiches known to cure-it-all) & iced cold horchata (one of Mexico´s “aguas frescas”- a milky drink made with rice, cinnamon, & vanilla) have become daily cravings which are easily satiated at every turn. With the maps ripped from our travel guide, & an introductory spin atop a double decker tour bus, we memorized Guadalajara’s streets & made our way to her sweet suburbs for the full picture. In laid back Tlaquepaque, we window shopped past trendy boutiques artistically created behind old pastel walls & took in gorgeous churches as they lit up beside the picturesque & bench-lined Jardín Hidalgo. Mexico’s dusty artisan capital, Tonalá, was experienced on a Sunday, the streets bursting with an endless street market that trickled into larger warehouses full of ceramics & inventive furniture at it’s edges. While more refined, Zapopan offered less congested historical sights & clean plazas perfect for un poquito  Spanish practice. As the second largest city in Mexico, Guadalajara´s outskirt otherwise seem to keep with tradition & tend to stretch from the city´s historic well-manicured center full of enormous architecture & sculpture outwards towards progressively bustling, tightly packed, & only lightly developed neighborhoods. Gluttons for wanderlust, we found the roads less traveled to ironically be pretty well trodden.

Tlaquepaque

Tonalá

In our time in Guadalajara we began to settle into a backpacking mentality- slowly relaxing our already ambitious pace (or considering doing so) & honing in on our travel interests & priorities (once our minds began to melt from normal to alive). We{ve considered our next moves with the help & fresh experience of fellow nomads, are actively seeking a comfort level with the language & local bus systems, & have begun to accept how gigantic this country is (not to mention how much space lies ahead of us). Our next stop will be Guanajuato, a former silver & current college town. A well-weathered traveler passed on a magical rumor about the city´s beauty, & our first bus awaits.

gone.

1 Mar image_6

I am a devoted follower of Lonely Planet travel guides, both for their honest advice & fierce belief in sustaining a travel-worthy world. Safe from change, in the near end of their constantly evolving anthologies, thorough perusers will eventually stumble upon a small a box of text labeled “The Lonely Planet Story.” This paragraph recounts the founding couple’s uncommon 1972 honeymoon journey and the diary-like notes which magically became their very first guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap. The version at the end of my Mexico on a Shoestring also shares an early philosophy, first quoted in their original guide-

“All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go!”

*   *   *   

This trip became my current reality in the wake of an absurd accumulation of time, change, & anticipation. I had originally planned to escape into the heart of Buenos Aires back in the winter of 2010. It would have been my fourth annual adventure abroad- an accidental ritual technically started in Europe my senior year of college, although intentionally sought my first winter as a fresh psych grad with hopes of earning some global wisdom. I spent the winter of 2008 blissed-out for four months through Southeast Asia with two of my oldest and most travel ready friends. In Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, & Cambodia I got back in touch with the wanderlust I’d first flirt with in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, & Venice with a fearless & incredibly enthusiastic ex-boyfriend the winter prior. Piece by piece I found in myself a real passion for the world- for authentic experiences and the challenge of doing it all on a shoestring. The next winter, I followed my travel buddies’ footsteps to Central America. After wandering through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama for three months I returned home eager to get my curious self to South America as soon as possible.

As I quietly schemed a solo adventure beginning in Argentina, my temporary position as social worker in a busy nursing and rehab. facility was offered for keeps. The opportunity felt important & here I broke my travel run. During my first year in the real world I had one week of vacation which was spent train hopping North from Big Sur to Seattle. During this ten day quest I found myself in awe of how contagious pure wanderlust can be as I traveled alone & yet always in the best of company. In my second year, with a grand two weeks to wander, I ventured primarily to Austin, Texas to witness my engaged girlfriend’s deep South world & to central Colorado to meet my wonderful boyfriend’s wonderful siblings in the midst of snow capped mountains, natural hot springs, & that laid back crunchy Boulder vibe. My only other moments of freedom, my weekends, were crammed with adventures to nearby Providence, Boston, & New York. I also recall long weekends with my boyfriend’s family in my now-beloved Upstate New York, camping in Massachusetts, a perfect cabin getaway in New Hampshire, a wedding in DC, & a heavenly trip to Chicago spent beyond happily with my very favorite people. With time to reflect, I guess I wasn’t completely grounded- but my god I dread Mondays.

Southeast Asia (Railay Beach, Thailand), Central America (Bocas del Toro, Panama), Amtrak´s West Coast rail, Texas, & Colorado

New York, Boston, Upstate, DC, & Chicago

Despite my postponed escape & geographically tamed roaming during my nearly three years in 9 to 5-part time waitress-normalcy, I have no regret. During this time I was given the chance to become deeply involved in the lives of people finding themselves vulnerable at the end of their own adventures. In my time at Village House I was absolutely humbled and grounded by the realities of life’s impermanence, of illness, of death, & of the utter beauty in resilience. I also was lucky enough to work with people who truly became family as we tirelessly helped our residents & their families to grab hold of a peaceful perspective despite all the heavy complication. I got to work in the same office as my momma, the most altruistic and genuinely dedicated person I’ve ever met. She likes to think we set an example to mother-daughter relationships everywhere by savoring our time in the helping field together.. & I just think she’s amazing. Although constantly overwhelmed & craving time, I was settled into my beautiful seaside town with my lovable friends within arms reach. I made my nest on a quiet street called Golden Hill & fell in love all over again with home. I am wildly grateful for the people and places that have create my memories on the road so far.

home sweet Newport, RI

my Village people

a treehouse on Golden Hill

Just as I began to itch for the challenge of surviving the unfamiliar (instead of the work week), luck struck, & I found a stranger who quickly became my most faithful ally. Dan helped me to again imagine myself as capable of unraveling the comforts of life in an effort to actually prioritize & to fully experience it. He made my life exciting in every moment I could break free from responsibility. At some point in the past year, we started to talk about a trip South of the border, a trip that grew as we talked, & quickly approached once we set a date. A large part of our motivation, which I know I’ll elaborate upon as we move through the 13+ countries ahead of us, stemmed from a mutual frustration with the pace of life & how quickly our time was passing in the lives we were leading. Of course, this pace carried us right through leaving our jobs, closing our homes, storing our cars, saying our bittersweet goodbyes, & packing ourselves into backpacks. On March 1st we carried plants & last minute boxes to my parent’s house en route to Mexico.

clearly destined for Latin America ;)

After all the build-up & quick layover in Texas, Dan & I arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico tonight before dinner. We plan to spend the next 9 months traveling South through Central into South America to fly home from Brazil. I glanced briefly at this course on a wall map in the past week, & I don´t plan to revisit that reality-check for a bit. The streets here are buzzing, cobbled, & lined in lime trees. Tired & slightly dazed, we threw ourselves right into the scene. Drifting down a busy pedestrian strip, we pretty much fought over a bag of fresh chips drenched in hot sauce & several squeezed limes as we took in the scene- the world now at our fingertips. Our backpacks seem a bit too heavy & we certainly didn’t practice enough Spanish, but the weather is warm & the hardest part is over!

 {follow me south}