Marc and I both agree that travel, and all of the experiences that stem from it, have pushed us further out of our comfort zone than just about any other experience in our lives (with the exception, perhaps, of Grade 1). When we’re at home and in our routines, it’s easy to get in a rut and stick to the things that are comfortable. Same job, same friends, same hobbies and activities, same food and restaurants, etc. I think it’s human nature to seek out comfort and routine. But we find that when we travel, we are forced out of that comfort zone, like it or not, which gives us the opportunity to learn new things. And the further we go off the beaten track, the more we’re challenged, the more we learn and the more valuable the experience. Slow Sally the Roadtrek plays a huge role in this as she can bring us just about anywhere we want to go – not just the popular tourist stops – and wherever we park, she provides us with a little home away from home.
Although we’ve travelled through Mexico and Guatemala for 4 years in a row, we purposely change our route each year so that we can visit new places, meet new people and try new things. After a little brainstorming, we’ve come up with 6 ways we believe that travel can be not just an adventure, but also an education and a learning experience. That’s a lot to get through in one blog so we’ve split the list into two parts. Part 1 includes the 3 points that relate to our most recent experience travelling in Northern and Central Mexico.
Travel can …
1. make you realize that the world is not as scary as you’re led to believe;
2. provide opportunities and a stage to try new things and acquire new skills; and
3. be a great way to meeting new (often like-minded) people and to share knowledge and experiences with them.
/// NORTHERN & CENTRAL MEXCIO ///
Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon
Our first stop in Mexico was the little town of Hidalgo, just north of the City of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon. If you were following our blog last year – you might remember this place – we visit it every year and it’s one of our favourites. In 2016, during our first roadtrip to Mexico, we were convinced for the entire 3-hour trip from the Mexican border to the town of Hidlago, that banditos or members of the cartel were going to jump out of the bushes on the side of the highway at any moment to gun us down with a machine gun. We knew better of course, but this is what we were being told for the entire journey through the US and by the time we got to Mexico, we half believed it.
As we are still alive today and writing this blog, you can guess that no one has yet gunned us down. Every year we get more comfortable roadtripping through Mexico and Guatemala – in large part because we have become more familiar with the language, culture, rules of the road, etc. Though to be sure, we are always cautious and careful. Unfortunately, I think that the media plays a big role in stoking fear of the unknown. You never hear about the millions of tourists that have a great vacation in Mexico and meet many friendly locals. Instead you hear about the few foreigners who were, unfortunately, robbed or killed. It paints a false picture.
El Potrero Chico, the canyon in Hidalgo, is internationally famous for its’ excellent sport climbing. Every year, Marc and I have admired the climbers on the canyon walls as we walk, hike and jog along the canyon floor. This year, I decided that if we’re going to keep visiting Hidalgo, I absolutely must give sport climbing a try! It almost seemed crazy not to. It would be like going to Whistler or Jay Peak and cross-country skiing – sacrilege! Attempting to rock climb was no doubt pushing myself out of my comfort zone because not only was I new to the sport, I’m a little afraid of heights.
As if this climbing experience was meant to be, staff at our favourite El Buho café told me that they organize a women’s climbing event every Friday evening for all levels of climbers and invited me along. Perfect! The #potrerachicas leant me some equipment and belayed the rope for me as I climbed 2 beginner pitches. I loved the experience and have officially been bitten by the climbing bug. No small coincidence that a new gym in our village back home is opening a climbing wall… I think it’s mean to be! The #potrerachicas were awesome so not only did I get to try a new sport, I also met some great new chicas – Americans & Mexicans – to hang out with while I was in Hidalgo!
Santiago de Queretaro, Queretaro
Our next stop was Santiago de Queretaro, one of many colonial cities located in central Mexico. We’ve visited (and love) many of the colonial cities in this area and we decided it was time to explore a new one. Attempting to find a cheap but secure place to camp downtown, we wound our way through the city’s narrow, cobblestone streets. iOverlander had indicated that it was possible to camp in one of the downtown secure parking lots. Unfortunately, it seems that permission to do this depends on the attendant that day and this attendant was not going to permit it. We drove around in circles a couple more times, asking (in somewhat broken Spanish) at other paid parking lots if we could camp. Although the narrow streets are good driving practice (seriously, we’re getting pretty good at squeezing Sally through tight spaces), we decided it wasn’t going to work out and opted to park in the lot at the beautiful Flamingo Inn for what we consider a ridiculously high price of 650p ($34.00 USD) – a little crazy considering we were sleeping in our van. BUT, it was a beautiful, secure spot with hot showers, a gym, a park and a pool. We decided to splurge.
Queretaro was a beautiful city and we spent two full days exploring it. We found a French bakery with delicious coffees and croissants, some beautiful pedestrian streets and squares and LOTS of good people watching. But our favourite part of our time in Queretaro was visiting Walter’s Instagram friend Tashi and his humans. Hilarious – I know!
Walter and Tashi have been following each other for some time. It turns out that Tashi’s humans had just moved to Queretaro from the US. When we discovered that Walter and Tashi would be in the same city, Tashi (ok, it was actually Tashi’s humans- Tere & Javier) invited us over to their beautiful home for a visit. Even though they were literally in the middle of a move (the moving truck was leaving as we pulled in), Tere and Javier welcomed us in for snacks, drinks and play time with the dogs. We all had a wonderful time. The humans exchanged travel stories and information about Mexico while the dogs played. Of course – we had to do a Tashi/Walter Instagram photo shoot. We all had so much fun together that we’re already planning a get-together when we pass through on the way home. This experience was of course thanks to Instagram, but also thanks to travelling and getting out there – something we don’t tend to do as much when we’re back home.
Bernal, Queretaro & Parque Nacional El Chico, Hidalgo
En route to our next destination, Parque Nacional El Chico, we stopped at la Pena de Bernal. Our new friend Tere confirmed it was worth a visit and she was right. Monolith is such a boring word for this beautiful rock. We only spent one day in this cute town – it’s pretty small – but managed to explore the historic centre and climb the steep trail up the Pena. For the first time in Mexico, we spent one night camped in Sally right on a little side street. iOverlander confirmed it was a pretty safe spot and we needed to save some money after splurging at the Flamingo Inn. Once again, no one gunned us down. For our second night there, we were allowed to camp right at the base of La Pena for only 35p (~ $1.80 USD).
Parque Nacional El Chico is located in the state of Hidalgo, almost 3,000 m (~10,000 ft) above sea level. The high elevation makes for much cooler temperatures, which is perfect for Walter – a very furry Nordic mutt. We figured it would be a good place to do some hiking. The 3 kilometre drive from the Visitor’s Centre to the campground took about 25 minutes… Sally was not built for that kind of rugged terrain. We crawled along the bumpy dirt road and just when we thought we might never arrive, we found the little campground. National Park roads in Mexico are NOT like the ones we’re used to in Canada and the US. We had the campground to ourselves the first night and the chilly temps were perfect for sleeping. We woke up to frost on the ground – not something Canadians and Americans typically imagine when they think of Mexico. Although we now know that Mexico has some very chilly areas at high elevation, this was something we learned through experience. During our first trip to Mexico, we were camping in a tent and completely unprepared for the almost freezing nights at high elevation… like I said… drive, learn, repeat!
Not long after setting out on our hike in the park, we got very lost and ended up on an unofficial trail. Don’t get me started on trail signage in Mexico – argh! We somehow stumbled upon a beautiful mirador, approximately 90 degrees west of where we expected to end up. Oops. While we were admiring the mirador, we got chatting with Leti, Stephanie and their dog Pimienta, who live in the nearby city of Pachuca. They had lived in the US for several years so their English was excellent. Leti and Stephanie were so interesting and as we got telling them about our trip, they were super keen to learn more about Sally the van. We invited them back to ‘our place’ for a visit and they got us back to our campground – via road instead of trail – in about 30 min (it had taken us about 2 hours of hiking to get to the mirador!)
We gave Leti and Stephanie the official Sally tour, served them some hot tea and talked about travel and lifestyle in the US and Mexico. As they’ve lived in both countries, they had a really interesting perspective. Our hike was a fail but meeting these two made for such a fun and interesting day – more of a highlight than any hike could have been.
Stay tuned for Part 2 – more about our experience learning, travelling and getting out of our comfort zone in Southern Mexico and Guatemala.