Friday 26 April 2019

Mexico City & Surrounds. March 2019.

Mexico City:  one crazy dangerous destination right?  Nah.

Try fun, very loud, pulsating and as for the chow- extremely tasty.

Map sourced from Google Maps.

I travelled around the Mexico City local region in March 2019 with my girlfriend Ree.  
We speak around 4 words of Spanish between us.
We utilised public transport and Uber share rides and walked as often as possible. 
I ate many delicious tacos and drunk copious quantities of good, cheap beer.

At the time I travelled the region 1 Australian dollar (AUD) was around 14 Mexican pesos (MXN) or 1 United States Dollar (USD) to 19 MXN.

Our cruisey sightseeing journey took us on a triangular circuit starting in Mexico City to the pyramids of Teotihuacan then onto Puebla and Cholula and back to Mexico City.

Map sourced from Google Maps.

I dropped into Mexico city via Honolulu and Houston after 10 hours in the air and quickly cleared customs before jumping in a pre paid cab.

Fill out the form the flight attendants give you on the plane and hang onto the bottom bit that is handed back to you by the customs officer- you'll need it on the way out of the country and there is a bit of a fine and finger wagging if you can't produce it pronto.

There are loads of booths selling pre paid taxi vouchers to any destination after clearing customs and collection of baggage.  Cash is king here.  The cost was 220 pesos- around $16 AUD- for a 'saydan' (sedan).

I stayed a couple of nights at the budget and centrally located One Ciudad de Mexico Alameda in the historic district.
Cost was around $90 AUD per night including a good buffet breakfast.

Right slap bang in the action and crazy noisy during the wee hours- try a super loud mariachi band rarking up at 1am right under your street facing window with 20 million partying punters and the authentic Mexico experience is a reality.

Regardless of whether you wish to sleep... 😉

Ree had already rolled into Mexico a week earlier while I was plodding around the hills of Oahu and had sussed out the sights, what was where and how things worked.

We decided to play lazy travelers and joined an Intrepid 'Hidden Mexico City' tour.  Around $65 AUD, 6 hours long.

I don't ever usually pay someone to show me stuff I can see perfectly well myself but in this instance I am mighty happy I did.  We actually had a blast and I got much insight into the cultural history and workings of one of the planet's largest metropolis.

6 of us dorky tourists were under the charge of Julio, a really cool guy in a red Intrepid t-shirt who lead us all over the historic centre and treated us to a diverse variety of architecture, freaky eateries, and local markets.
All the greatest hits. Great lunch at a taqueria too.

The day finished up with a chill time at a gallery dedicated exclusively to one mural by Frida Kahlo's husband Diego Rivera; 'Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central'.   30 MXN ($2.25 AUD) included in the tour for us.  Diego Rivera Museum.

Recommended and remembered.

Time to get out of town and go for a wander- next stop was the nearby temple pyramids of Teotihuacan, around an hour away and 50km from Mexico City.

These heavily touristed stone monuments are easily reached via the Aerobuses del Norte bus terminal.
You can take the metro train there but I just ordered an Uber on my phone for a few dollars, got there quickly and purchased tickets at a booth near gate 8 that said 'Pyramides'.

One way per adult was 52 pesos ($4 AUD) and buses leave every 20 minutes or so.

We dropped in on a Sunday which is always super busy apparently as locals take advantage of free entry for Mexican citizens.  There are loads of passable cafes near the various entry gates and opportunities to get out of the baking sun.

The pyramids are fantastic.  As stunning as anything I have had the fortune to visit in Africa or Asia.  Various gates facilitate entry on a ring road around the site.  We jumped off the bus at Puerta 2 (Gate 2).

Entry is 70 pesos ($5 AUD) and the 2000 year old complex takes a while to meander through and explore.  We ducked in to sneak a peek and brave the crowds then checked into a nearby family run guesthouse.
Posada Jatziri. 535 pesos ($40 AUD) got a tidy, clean room with a view of the pyramids.

Dinner was taken in a touristy but unique 'cave restaurant' called 'The Grotto' during a heavy rainstorm.
Pricey and heaving with people but great food and cold drinks. Lagruta.

Next morning we watched hot air balloons drifting over the Teotihuacan area from the room and
re entered the temple complex bang on opening time at 9am.

There were plenty of tour groups and other independent travellers scooting in too but it was relativity simple to find some solitude up on top of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, the highest and second highest monuments respectively.

Next stop was Puebla.  

We jumped in a taxi to the San Martin de las Pyramids bus terminal which is just outside the main tourist area and caught a bus from there directly to Puebla instead of returning to Mexico City.  
Can't remember how much we paid but it wasn't more than 130 pesos each and took around 2 hours.
Most travellers return to Mexico City so we were the only non Mexicans on the coach.

After a scenic ride to an ADO bus terminal I called an Uber and checked into the swanky Hotel 5 de Mayo.   1970 pesos ($145 AUD) for 2 nights including breakfast.

Puebla is a fun, youthful city with some great eating options and historic sights.  We found our way via a confusing local bus system to nearby Cholula (I have no accurate recollection of how I found the correct bus and managed to get there 😏 but it's totally doable).

Cholula is a tourist city dominated by the massive Great Pyramid of Cholula, widely regarded as the largest pyramid in the world.

While most of the monument is buried in soil and plant life, excavations of ancient stoneworks dating back 1700 years can be easily sighted whilst rambling along the network of paths and tunnels in the site.
The summit view taken beside the bright yellow 'Church of Our Lady of Remedies' which is plonked on top is dominated by the smoking, surly bulk of the active volcano Popocatepetl.  Super cool.

For some reason the adjacent museum had free entry the day I was in town so I nosed around. Although the majority of the interactive exhibits were in Spanish it was well worth while ducking out of the heat for an hour and getting the jist of the place.

Food was a little pricey understandably but still very good and bars and eateries were literally everywhere.

This bit is to help Vegetarians travelling to Mexico.

Ree is vegetarian (I'm definitely not but I choose ethically raised protein where possible and skimp on the processed shit when not thru-hiking) and Mexico is a nation of hard core meat eaters and most meals are centred around a form of dead animal.
Sometimes 2.

Although not difficult to locate vegetarian friendly food providers in Mexico City and the surrounding region it takes a bit of planning and Google and review sites are your mates here.

*Vegetarian cafes recommended by Ree in Mexico City: 

Vegamo  Cosy and friendly little spot North East of Zocalo near where we stayed.

ForeverVegano  The Cauliflower tacos were swiftly destroyed.  Fun waiting staff and there is a good beer & wine selection too. Located in the funky Roma district.

*Vegetarian cafes recommended by Ree in Puebla:

La Zanahoria  Although nothing fancy the buffet is extensive and cheap.  Non touristy and local punters.

Tonico 12.  Great little find down the end of the strip alongside the tourist train station in Cholula.  Fantastic coffee and fun vege food.

Ree recommends learning the phrase "I'm a vegetarian" in Spanish- "Soy Vegetariana" (or "Soy Vegetariano" if your a dude) and a list of things you want in your tacos or meal such as refried beans, cheese, and cactus.

She had a basic list of words and phrases written down too.

Be assertive and specific in your request for meat free food and remember the red salty crust on the lemon slices served with tacos are made from worms.

Supermarkets are abundant, priced cheaply and full of fruit, nuts and veges.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

The Ouachita Trail, Arkansas, USA. (Part 2).

The total distance of the trail is 223 miles/ 359 kilometres.

  • The Western terminus of the Ouachita Trail (wa-she-ta) is situated at Talimena State Park in Oklahoma, the Eastern Terminus is Pinnacle Mountain Visitor Centre, Arkansas.

  • Last March I hiked 109 miles/ 175 kilometres West to East from Talimena to Suck Mountain Shelter.

  • This year I took on the Eastern half of the trail to finish up what was left over from last years journey- this time going the other way; East to West from Pinnacle Mountain Visitor Centre to Suck Mountain Shelter.
  • I took 6 days; Friday 15 March to Wednesday 20 March 2019.

114 miles/ 183 kilometres total.

(And while I'm nerding out about mileage: + 8 miles back to Story Creek shelter + 5 miles back to Highway 27 + 3 miles walking the wrong way North on Highway 27 to Story what a dickhead + 3 miles walking back South on Highway 27 to where I started walking the wrong way feeling hot & sweaty and slightly pissed off + 5 miles walking the correct way- South, to Story and the Bluebell Cafe and the land of burgers and flush toilets and all that crap I dream about when out on the trail.

Overview map sourced from United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service website.

Ouachita Trail map sourced from The Oklahoman 'newsok' website.

Safari Track Rating: Moderate- the first 30 miles/ 50 kilometres were flat and moist, my shoes were soaked for 2 days.  Although heavy rains had smacked Arkansas recently I was told the trail along Arkansas Water land is often boggy and involves crossing many creeks and streams.  

After the Highway 9 I was back in the Ouachita Forest which means lovely graded path, excellent signage and frequent blue blazes and some stupendous views.  I found the Eastern portion of the trail easier to negotiate and less strenuous than the chunk I had done previously in the West. 

I used Tim Ernst's 'Ouachita Trail Guide' 2012 and free maps found here via the US Forest Service.

Back in Arkansas!
I promised myself I would return to finish this trail.  So in early March 2019, after a couple of weeks  playing in the jungle clad hills of Oahu and enjoying some sunny days chasing my girlfriend up giant pyramids in Mexico, I found myself in a vehicle piloted by super careful Uber-driver Ariel.
We were heading 17 miles outside the friendly city of Little Rock, to Pinnacle Mountain Visitors Centre.

Ouachita Trail part 2 was on!

I lucked out big time with the weather on this hike.  Sunny skies, mild temperatures and barely a breath of wind over most of the 6 days.

Last year I walked the Western half of the Ouachita Trail in April and after yanking ticks off myself daily decided to push the start date for this year's hike back a month to March and embrace slightly cooler weather.  That I received and less ticks and chiggers as a result.

However some crazy rainstorms preceded my Arkansas arrival and I was continually wading creeks and rivers.  Nothing scary, just sodden shoes for the first 30 miles.

The first 30 miles of the OT pokes it's way along private land owned mainly by Arkansas Water and logging companies and camping is not allowed anywhere on this stretch except for a small plot owned by the Penney family who graciously allow hikers to chuck up a tent.

So for obvious reasons of etiquette and legality I shall say I camped at this location and it was a long night as I didn't get started until around 3pm from Pinnacle Visitors Centre.

After dark on day 2 I crossed Highway 9 and the open character and dampness of the land sidling Lake Maumelle quickly changed to hard packed trail meandering around ridgelines and skirting saddles.  I was back in the Ouachita Forest proper and I could camp anywhere I chose so I did.

Next morning I awoke to the smell of woodsmoke and tramped the mile and half up to Nancy Mountain Shelter to make breakfast.

Being a Sunday I fully expected to meet people- weekend hikers, at the shelter.
Breakfast conversation with Tom from Pennsylvania and 3 sleepy Eagle Scouts under his charge revolved around what I was going to encounter over the next week and how loud coyotes howl at each other during the night.  (Freakishly loud by the way)

Cool guys and I really feel a bit of hope and optimism for our society when I see young people getting out there and embracing the outdoors instead of being soft and poopy pants and mindlessly glued to their phones.

Oh yeah and the woodsmoke I could smell was from their campfire the night before.

One of the highlights of this years hike on the OT was the side spur track up West Pinnacle Bluff in the Flatside Wilderness.

I was told many times I 'absolutely have to do it' by the multitude of weekend walkers I met beforehand... so instead of ignoring them I did.

And yes if the skies are as blue and serene as it was for me you may get to gaze out at a beautiful piece of North America and go all tingly and dreamy.
Arkansas is a gem of a state and I only hope it stays rural and underpopulated and chock full of lovely forest and fresh clean lakes.

Another highlight of the trail this year was the season and state of the forest canopy; it was Spring time and leaf off.

Which meant the red and white oaks and hickory trees were mostly bare and pulled in the views from the ridgelines.  The pines at higher elevations emitted a pungent scent and it was just very pleasant wandering all round.

My second to last night involved my favourite campsite.  I threw the tent up on a flat spot by Iron Forks Creek.

What a place!  Crashing water, densely wooded hills and a convenient concrete causeway across the creek.  I cooked my dinner on the walkway as the sun dipped low and the full moon rose and I nervously peeked over my shoulder for visiting bears.
If there is a typical bear habitat on the Ouachita Trail then Iron Forks Creek crossing is it.

Instead a fat resident beaver was my impromptu dinner company.  He/ she swum around a few times, checked me out, sniffed the air and pushed on upstream.

Light rain drizzled down as I trudged up and down various small hills and rises to the focal point of my hike; Suck Mountain Shelter, where I finished up last April.  It was surreal being back less than a year later and I read my journal entry from that time with amusement.  Not many folks had signed in since then.
Even though I felt the Ouachita Trail was quite a lot busier this year than last, I have to admit it is still far from crowded.

Job done.  Hike completed!  I had linked my footsteps together from 2 section hikes over the space of a year and experienced a crazy amount of travel getting there and back to Australia and there again.

Now to find my way to Hot Springs...

That evening I camped out near Story Creek Shelter which is 8 miles back down the trail where I had come from.

An all female party of 5- Grandmother, 2 daughters and 2 kidlets were having a blast around the campfire.  They were super friendly and great conversation but I'm fortunate I declined their offer of sharing the shelter- the snoring I over heard as I slipped out before dawn the next morning was deafening!

I was a bit of a dork when finally getting off the trail.  
I neglected to check my map when I hit Highway 27 and see which direction the town of Story was located.
And mobile reception (cell service) was non existent.

After walking North for 3 miles I was wondering why no signs were alerting the (hopefully) nearby presence of Story.  Instead I walked through a locality called Aly.  I managed to get a slight signal and booted up Google maps... and yes the blue dot indicated I was heading the wrong direction.  North instead of South.

3 miles back to where the OT crosses the highway and 5 more miles onward from there road bashing to Story. 
Bloody hell!

Main point of this recollection is: if you get spat off the trail onto Highway 27, head South whether attempting to hitch or walk to Story.  Saves a bit of senseless road walking and faffing about.
Now you know.  And so do I....

Anyway, I rolled into the Bluebell Cafe and yakked away for a few hours with another hiker, David from Oklahoma, who I had met briefly a few days before at Blue Mountain Shelter.  We both smashed food and drink down our necks and relished the civilised surrounds of the Bluebell.

This was David's first extended hike and he was calling it good after 114 miles as well.  

It was fantastic to meet someone close to my age who had thrown themselves into this amazing world and was hooked and really digging it.  Nice one mate!

Travel log:

*15 March- 15 miles/ 24 km           Campsite on Penney family land

*16 March- 17 miles/ 27 km           Campsite by mile 191 sign

*17 March- 14 miles/ 22.5 km         Campsite by Crystal Spong River

*18 March- 26 miles/ 42 km            Campsite by Big Bear Shelter

*19 March- 22 miles/ 35 km            Campsite by Iron Forks Creek

*20 March- 20 miles/ 32 km            Campsite by Story Creek Shelter
                                                    (Story Creek Shelter was an extra 8 mile backtrack)

Total:  114 miles/ 183 km.

Lori from the Bluebell hooked me up with a local good ol' boy to shuttle me the 50 miles into Hot Springs airport where I picked up a rental car. 

The next evening I met up with Wendy & Mitch and their daughter Kassie and puppy Pepper at their beautiful country house for a home cooked meal and lots of trash talking into the night.
Gracious hosts as always and catching up was a perfect and fitting end to my Arkansas adventure.

Southern Airways Express - flys Hot Springs to Dallas.