Travelling Hopefully

29 January

Staying overnight at a hotel near the airport meant a leisurely rise on the morning of my 12.45pm flight. I treated myself to a full English breakfast and caught the bus in good time to Heathrow Terminal 5. The airport was very quiet. Automation has continued to grow. Not only did I finish check in at a computer station, I weighed and tagged my own bag without any human assistance. 

I had failed to obtain an aisle seat during the on-line check in the day before, so I did find a human being to ask whether I could change from my mid-row seat. This proved unachievable, so I resigned myself to being a nuisance to my seat mate when I needed loo breaks.

Boarding went smoothly, and I discovered an advantage to a mid-row seat. There was enough space for both my backpack and my feet to slide under the seat in front of me. I settled in for the eleven hour flight, reading books and eating the two meals offered. Alcoholic drinks were only brought by the once, but the cabin crew did come around regularly with offerings of water and juice. 

We landed on time in Mexico City. I passed through immigration, and I was able to collect my check in bag soon later. Within 45 minutes of arrival I was exiting through customs and looking for my driver. He appeared soon afterwards. An hour later I was at my hotel, and preparing for bed. 

30 January

Just as well I’m a pretty good sleeper. Jet lag meant that I woke several times I the night, and the live music pounding nearby didn’t finish until 4am. Those who don’t sleep as well must have been cursing at the noise.

The group tour wasn’t due to start until 31 January. I had flown out a day early in order to take a balloon ride over the Teotihuacan pyramids, only a few minutes’ walk from my hotel. I rose at 4.45am and, as instructed, I was outside the hotel in the chilly pre-dawn at 6am to be collected for the trip.

A fifteen minute drive brought me to the balloon company’s site. Coffee and fruit were on offer, and I was glad to get a banana and caffeine into my system as I queued to check in. I had to sign a form absolving the company of any responsibility should I be injured or die during the ride. Out of date information on the display screens stated that we would have to wear masks for the trip. Fortunately all mask mandates had been dropped some months before, although I did see a couple of people wearing them.

I headed outside, where balloons were being prepared. We were called by name and sent off with our pilot. The baskets were in four sections, three people placed into each, with the pilot in his own separate section in the middle. My short legs made climbing over the edge of the basket a bit of a challenge, but I managed to get in without falling.

Ours was one of the last balloons to take off. It was rather exciting to be hoisted into the air, the ground slowly falling away. The sun was just rising as we headed towards the pyramids. Being one of the last balloons meant we had good views of those drifting away ahead of us. 

Our pilot pointed out the pyramids and the ‘Avenue of the Dead’ which ran between them. The basket spun slowly around, in effect giving everyone a good opportunity for photos. I particularly liked seeing the shadows of the balloons on the side of the Sun pyramid.

Our pilot took us over and then towards fields. As we lowered, he warned us to hold on and to bend our knees. Landing was inelegant, the basket juddering against the hard ground several times. The landing crew rushed in to help catch us. Once down, the pilot burnt more propane to provide enough lift that, with the assistance of the ground crew, the basket was taken up on to a trailer. 

The hot air was released from the balloon. As the crew deflated the very thin looking material, and began to bag it up, our pilot served us rose sparkling wine. I managed to clamber out of the basket with greater dignity than when I’d entered.

We were returned to the base, where we were served breakfast (eggs, beans, bread, and some sort of tomato dish). Musicians played. I talked to some of my fellow travellers. 

I was taken back to my hotel, where I decided to relax for the day. First I worked on the morning’s photos then did some re-packing. It was warm enough to sit outside and enjoy a beer near the pool in the sunshine. A nice change after the cold and grey English winter. 

My evening meal was at the hotel’s restaurant, where I was the only customer. I had a lovely steak meal along with a glass of Mexican red wine. 

The rest of the group arrived around 9.30am, and I met the person who is my roommate for the rest of the trip. After saying hello, I left her to unpack and went to bed.

31 January

I decided not to join the early morning birding around the hotel grounds, working on my packing instead. So I met the rest of the group at breakfast. Breakfast consisted of fruit followed by a Mexican tortilla and bean mixtures, similar to what had been offered after the balloon flight. 

Our suitcases were taken to the minibus and we drove the short distance to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids. Souvenir sellers were to be found throughout the complex, their wares hanging from displays or spread out on the ground. Obsidian featured, as it’s found quite commonly in the region.

Teotihuacan was an ancient city, established around 100 BCE. It covered eight square miles and had a population of around 125,000. In addition to the pyramids, the city featured multi-floor apartment compounds to house the population. The city was already in ruins when the Aztecs rose to power. 

We climbed up the steep sides of one of the structures. I wondered why I was breathing heavily, only later on remembering that the altitude of Mexico City was around 2300 metres. At the top, we had views of the nearby temple, which had been somewhat reconstructed. Going down the steep steps, which offered no railings, was a bit more daunting. I decided to scot down on my bottom, and I wasn’t the only one

Birding continued throughout the visit. We were pleased to see hummingbirds and Vermilion flycatchers, one male in particular posing quite nicely for us near the entrance. 

We returned to the minibus and headed to another entrance, this one bringing us to the Pyramid of the Sun. An excellent mural of a puma was nearby. It was interesting to be on foot in an area I’d seen from a balloon the day before. We searched unsuccessfully for butterflies in the nearby area before visiting other nearby buildings.

After successfully walking past the row of souvenir stalls, we returned to the minibus and were taken to a restaurant for lunch. Soup starter, fajita main course, followed by a dessert made of stuffed cactus flower. 

We settled into the minibus for a four hour trip. This took us through Mexico City, and our local guide told us some of the history and pointed out various sites. When he wasn’t speaking, the driver played 1960s music, focusing on the Beatles. 

Around two hours later, we stopped at a lake to stretch our legs and look for bird life. I felt sorry for the horses and ponies tied up nearby. Several horses showed repetitive behaviour and teeth marks could be seen on the wooden posts. 

The lake offered various types of ducks, an ibis, and a killdeer. It was good to walk around. There was very little leg room in the minibus, and my knees felt a bit stiff. 

After a comfort beak in a service station, we continued our drive to the mountains. The land changed from dry scrub land to a mixture of agricultural fields and hills covered by fir trees. Around 6pm we arrived at our hotel. The rooms were very large, with seating areas outside and views over the hotel’s gardens. 

Dinner was a buffet, offering salad, soup, and several different main courses. I had a dark beer to wash it down. After dinner, our local guide outlined the plans for tomorrow. Then those who wished could stay behind to mark up a tick list of which creatures had been seen during the day. Not my sort of thing, so I went back to the room to work on photos. 

01 February

My roommate went off at 7am to look for birds, and I stayed in the rather cold room to work on photos. The group came together for breakfast at 8am, enjoying a buffet of fruit, scrambled eggs (with either sausages or mixed vegetables), tortilla chips, and beans. 

We headed off at 9am. An hour’s drive brought us to the Piedra Herrada Monarch butterfly reserve, after a short stop at our lunch destination to put in our order. Most of us had opted to ride horses for the majority of the trail, and we were led to a group of horses and handlers. Although I rode a lot as a teenager, I haven’t been on a horse for decades, nor have I ever mounted one whilst wearing a backpack filled with heavy camera gear. But I managed to get on board the rather small horse. 

We weren’t allowed to manage the horses ourselves. A handler walked beside each horse, leading us up the path. My horse was regularly taken into a trot, and again this was quick an interesting experience whilst wearing a backpack. 

After around thirty minutes we dismounted. I first took off my backpack and gave it to the handler. This made getting down from the horse much easier.

As a sign at the entrance had warned, the last bit of path was at a forty-five degree angle. Rather steep, and dusty, occasionally slippery even with good walking boots. However, there was a stack of branches to serve as walking sticks readily available for use, and I found one suitable for my height. 

We had a local guide, who charged up ahead of us. She soon learnt that we needed to take things more slowly, particularly as the altitude was around 3200 metres. As we climbed upwards, we saw more and more Monarch butterflies, as well as hummingbirds. 

When we reached the butterfly grove, several thousand Monarchs flitted through the sunlight and clung to tree branches. A few flew towards us, but most were some distance away. I aimed my camera at the clusters, also discovering that I had to use a fast shutter speed to freeze any butterflies in flight. 

We headed back down, taking our time on the slippery slope. Although we could have taken the horses for the latter section, we all opted to walk. We had sightings of more butterflies and hummingbirds.  By the time we were back at the entrance, all of our shoes were uniformly brown with dust. 

Back at the entrance, I visited the souvenir stalls and bought few small things for friends and family. We boarded the minibus and headed over to enjoy lunch, sitting outside to take in the views to the nearby hillside of trees. 

Our last stop was at the Bridal Veil Falls, just a short distance from our hotel. A well maintained path led to the upper viewpoint. The trail to the lower viewpoint was a bit more basic, and the steps down had not been designed for people of little height. I had taken my tripod with me, and used this to take photos of the waterfalls before climbing back up.

At the hotel, I undertook my usual ritual of downloading photos, backing them up to external hard drives, before doing some work on them. At 6.30pm, we gathered in a meeting room for an illustrated talk from our Mexican guide. He took us through the life cycle and the migration pattern of the Monarch butterflies. Then on to dinner and back to the room to relax. 

02 February

Around 4.30am I realised that my day was going to begin with a neck and head ache. Not a migraine, at least. I started on a regime of ibuprofen an hour later. 

We had an earlier start, leaving at 8am for the two hour drive to the Mariposa Butterfly Reserve. We had a comfort break partway, during which time I took more ibuprofen. We arrived around 10.30am, and most of us went for the horse option again. These horses were taller, but there was a mounting station to make life easier. This did mean mounting from the right, which I found rather disconcerting.

The ride was much shorter, only around fifteen minutes. No dismounting station, so I handed off my backpack to my horse guide before I ventured off the saddle. 

The walk was much easier than yesterday’s, even though we were again at 3200 metres. The path did have uphill and downhill sections, but overall was flatter. We had a local guide, who found sticks for those of us who used to use one. I actually found myself in the front group, despite headache. 

When we arrived at the grove, the butterflies were very active in the bright sunshine. They settled on flowers near the path, so close that one could have touched them (though of course we didn’t). Butterflies flew past us, veering away at the last minute. Clusters of butterflies could be seen in trees up the slope, but it appears that people are no longer allowed to go close to the clusters so as not to disturb them.

We headed back. I took my time in upward sections, as that made my head hurt again. The day had warmed and I removed my fleece and made sure I drank water. 

Our horses were waiting for us. No mounting block. I tried and failed to mount the first time, as my heavy backpack pulled me down. I managed to explain to my horse guide what the problem was, and when he pushed against the bottom of  my backpack, relieving me of the weight, I was able to mount. At the end of the ride, a member of our group took the backpack from me before I dismounted. 

We had lunch at a restaurant on site. Soup for starter, and again the soft tacos for main course. Beer was on offer, but I stayed on soft drinks. Fresh fruit was our dessert, including very small but sweet bananas.

I browsed the souvenir stalls afterwards, but there was little to tempt me.  Once we’d all boarded the minibus, we drove a short distance to walk down to view axolotl. A number of the salamanders were to be seen, albeit in a pool of muddy water. The poor visibility made photography difficult, but I was pleased just to have seen them.

We returned to the hotel, by which time my headache was nearly gone. I still kept off the alcohol at dinner. Back to our rooms to pack for moving on the next day.

03 February

Alarm went off at 5am. I finished my packing before going off to the reception for coffee. We were offered a breakfast bag, and I ate the banana, the granola bar, and some of the ham sandwich. At 6am we boarded the minibus and set off, shivering in the pre-dawn cold. 

Traffic was kind and we reached the domestic airport just over an hour later. We’d already been checked in by our guide, and had our boarding passes in hand. Baggage drop was self-serve, weighing our own cases and putting on the label. I paid for a coffee at Starbucks before going through security. The airport was cold, and I was glad I still had my jacket. 

The flight itself took about an hour. Our luggage was out and waiting for us before we even made it to baggage claim. We emerged into warm sunshine and boarded two separate minibuses to go to the marina and our hotel.

At the hotel, a very officious man kept introducing himself by name and lording it over us as he took our bags to store until our rooms were ready. ‘My name is Hugo, how many bags, what is your name?’ As he beetled about, regularly trying to scoop up backpacks which we informed him were not go into storage, we were also told to do a pre-check in. At the hotel counter, we signed forms acknowledging all the hotel’s many rules and regulations and handed a card which would allow us to have towels for the pool. The staff also insisted that we had to wear a green plastic wrist band for our entire stay. I did not want to wear one, but there was no alternative if I wanted to access the grounds and have my meals.

We headed off to a nearby fish restaurant for lunch, distracted by iguanas resting near the path and pelicans flying overhead. I had a most wonderful shrimp platter. One set of shrimp in coconut batter, another in regular batter, and the third lot were unbuttered but had been cooked with garlic. I washed it down with a beer and had a cappuccino to finish.

We were given a presentation about Humpback whales, learning about their lives and why they came to the bay in winter. At the hotel, we went through the pain of check in. The steps we had to follow were strictly enforced. Present the pool card given earlier. Be issued a key card for the room. (My roommate and I asked if we could have one key card each, only to be told that this was simply not possible.) Show our luggage ticket to Hugo. Allow him to retrieve luggage from storage and take it with us to our room. All this took some time, particularly as we had to wait for Hugo to return from his last excursion as it appeared only he was allowed to collect luggage.

We had just enough time to remove layers before meeting up to do some birding. As several people had decided to stay behind, we were able to use just one of the small minibuses to drive around the area. We stopped at a golf course and later on near the beach, walking along the latter. Many different types of birds, and a rather splendid orange and black iguana, were spotted. We also saw a rather large crocodile.

The streets were lined with a mixture of new cars and old. In the latter category were original Volkswagen Beetles, most rather battered. Another traveller and I decided to start looking for different colours, and by evening we’d seen matt black and red.

Back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. The buffet was quite good, with three different types of meat (beef, pork, chicken) or prawns on offer, grilled while you waited. The options for vegetarians were a bit more limited, but they contented themselves with salad and vegetables. I had a glass of decent chilled red wine which only cost fifty pesos (around £2.50).

Our British guide explained to me how he has a device which tracks the echolocation sounds made by bats. It sends the information to his iPhone, and from this one can determine which species made the noises. Fascinating.

Up to our hotel room to relax and an early night. 

04 February

The hotel’s Fawlty Towers approach continued at breakfast. Although the sign stated that food was available from 7am, when we went down at 7.30am only fruit, cereal, and bread were ready. There was nothing by the fruit to pick up slices, so we used our hands. The coffee mugs were on the tables, rather than near the coffee jugs, and the staff insisted on bringing the coffee jugs to the table to fill up the mugs there. However, the milk was by the jugs, so this meant a walk back across the restaurant to obtain milk.

A solitary woman was at the grill, making omelettes or cooking eggs to order. She seemed capable of only making one at a time, and rather slowly at that. The other breakfast options began to appear just before 8am, as the queue for omelettes grew. Just when I thought my turn had arrived, the woman in front of me ordered three. 

When I finally had my cooked egg, and returned to my table, the staff had cleared my utensils away. I had to find a new set before finally settling down for some food.

We strolled to the office of the whale tour company and signed a waiver form. A short walk brought us to the small boat, and off we went. We went slowly through the marina, stopping to photograph terns and pelicans. Once on the open water, we picked up speed to join some other boats.

Three humpback whales, presumed to be males, were showing off by splashing pectoral fins. One breached, but I only caught the end of the leap as I’d been looking elsewhere. 

We moved on to search for mothers with their calves. The humpbacks migrate to the area for the winter, mothers raising their young and the males hovering around hoping to mate. We saw one mother and calf being escorted by an attentive male. The whales don’t feed whilst in the area, instead relying on the fat they’d stored up before travelling.

Brown boobies followed us, riding the wind behind the boat and occasionally plunging down into the water to catch fish. Frigate birds and pelicans flew overhead. The day warmed and we shed our light jackets.

The boat had a toilet, but we’d been warned about the cramped conditions inside. The coffee I’d had at breakfast worked its way through, so I asked to use the facilities. A crew member first had to remove various items as the small cubicle was being used for storage. Removing clothing and sitting down was manageable. Getting dressed again, when there wasn’t space to stand up, was more challenging. The person who used the toilet after me emerged with trousers still undone and waited until she was on deck to sort herself out.

Several of the whales emerged close by, backs humping. On the whole, the mothers didn’t dive, as they were staying near their calves. As had been explained to us the day before, each whale has unique markings on their flukes, which we noted from those which did dive.

We were offered snacks, muesli bars and fruit. After a couple of hours, we headed back to the marina. We had time for a comfort break before boarding our minibuses and heading into the nearby mountains. Two more VW Beetle colours were collected, namely shiny black and white. Pigs, chickens, and dogs roamed freely around the houses lining the bumpy road. 

Our lunch was at an adventure resort. We sat overlooking the hillsides and infinity pool. After eating our fajitas, we did some bird spotting around the restaurant before walking up to the nearby suspension bridge. Walking up the other end, in the heat of the day, was a bit grueling. 

More bird spotting on the other side. The track was very dusty, not helped by the ATVs which ride up and down the area. A zip line ran across the valley, and horse riding was also on offer. I had a soft drink at the bar whilst we looked for creatures.

As we returned, we could hear the Military macaws. More and more flew overhead, usually in pairs, calling out to each other. A few more birds were spotted and noted before we clambered into our minibuses and headed back to the hotel.

After an hour’s break, our transport took us to local place for dinner. Western food such as hamburgers and pasta were on offer. One fellow traveller offered to share a bottle of red wine with me. A member of staff came out to explain that the only bottle they had left cost 900 pesos. ‘That’s okay,’ said my fellow traveller. When I did the maths, though, pointing out that this was around £45.00, he changed his mind and had just a single glass and I had a beer.

Back to our nicely air-conditioned room to work on notes and photos and to take note of VW Beetle colours spotted during the day. 

05 February

We packed up before breakfast. I took some photos of the iguanas in the hotel trees and then took my bags down to the minibuses before boarding the boat for a second whale watching trip. Again a bright and warm day greeted us as we headed out into the bay.

This time we spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins, and we followed for little while. We saw solitary humpback whales, and once again listened to one on the hydrophone. Blue footed boobies flew past. A sea snake, its flat ended tail a colourful black and yellow, slithered past on surface of the water.

We returned to the marina and had lunch in the same restaurant as our first day in the town. I ordered the prawn combo again, as did a number of others on my recommendation.

The air conditioning was turned on in the minibuses as we headed off to San Blas. The three hour drive took us through various towns and villages. The locals were in a party mood, as it was a holiday weekend. Monday was to be a day off to celebrate the anniversary of the Mexican constitution. We also had to move our watches forward an hour as we entered a new time zone. A light blue VW Beetle was added to the tally. 

We stopped at a lagoon in the late afternoon. A crowded lookout area allowed views of egrets, spoonbills, and stilts. Many crocodiles were either hauled up on the shore or mostly submerged in the water. The area featured two annoyances, small mosquitoes and repetitive music, the latter like the type used by ice cream vans. We decided that the music was worse than the insects.

The light was fading as we arrived at our hotel. Check in was mercifully brief, our guide simply assigning rooms and a key handed over. Most of us were in the ground floor bungalows, a few in the upper floor rooms.

Dinner offered few choices. I went for salad and mushrooms, eating very little of the latter as I was still full from lunch. Our guide advised us that we were to leave at 5.30am the next day, and I groaned inwardly at such an early start. Early to bed!

06 February

My roommate had to wake me, as I hadn’t heard the alarm. I ate half a breakfast bar and had some dried fruit, longing the entire time for a coffee.

We were slightly delayed heading out, the minibuses taking us away from the hotel at 5.40am. The first part of the journey was on regular roads, and in the pre-dawn darkness only people setting up food outlets were to be seen. After about an hour we headed up into the mountains, our minibuses juddering on cobbled tracks. 

The sun had risen and was coating the trees with orange light as we stopped for some bird watching. The forest track was uneven and I was glad to be wearing boots. We boarded our vehicles, and drove on to lookout point over a local town and out to sea. There tables and chairs were produced, along with breakfast and very welcome flasks of coffee. We ate sliced fruit, sandwiches, and very moist banana cake.

The rest of the morning was spent slowly walking back down the track, spotting birds and butterflies along the way. Small parrots flew past. I was thrilled that they were the same breed as a pet parrot I’d grown up with. In the pet trade, they are called ‘Half-moon conures’, but the bird guides called them ‘orange-fronted parakeets’. After two posed rather nicely on a dead tree, allowing me to photograph them, I became a bit tearful.

Unfortunately, my digestive system decided that today was the time to register a protest about something I’d eaten. I wasn’t in pain, more like waves of discomfort, but being in a forest without facilities wasn’t the greatest of experiences. 

Our lunch was prepared and served by a local family. We ate outside, accompanied by various animals. Cats and dogs, along with a hen and her chicks, wandered around. A pet half-moon conure (‘orange-fronted parakeet’) eyed us from his perch. I winced at the severe clip of his wings, but on the other hand I suppose this meant he could be out of his cage for much of the day. Through our local guide I explained to the bird’s owner that I had a parrot of my own (I showed her a photo on my iPhone) and with hand gestures we both agreed that we loved our parrots. There was coffee for sale from a local co-operative plantation.

The day was quite warm by now, 29 Celsius. We headed back to the hotel, and had some time there before meeting up at 4pm. A short drive brought us to a local ‘fort’ (actually an old customs house). We took in the views, saw turkey vultures, an Inca dove, and some hummingbirds, before walking down the road to visit the ruined church. Mosquitoes were out in droves and enjoying our offerings for their evening meals. 

After some more time back at the hotel to relax, we had dinner. The waves of discomfort were finally receding, but I still ate very little of my main course. Back to the room to work on photos and an early night, lights off at 10pm.

07 February

We left the hotel at 6am, stopping at the lagoon as the sun was rising to take in the bird life without musical accompaniment. A short drive further brought us to a field, where we had breakfast. Afterwards, we undertook a number of short walks in the area, the minibuses transporting us to new areas. The most exciting time was around a stream, which gave us views of terrapins and waterfowl. A later walk, on a dusty path through clouds of midges, was far less entrancing. My digestive system had mostly recovered, but there was an unpleasant visit into the woods which I won’t dwell on.

We drove to the ocean and several people went for a quick swim or paddle in the warm waters. Lunch was baked red snapper, quite delicious, served at the tables which offered views of the sea. Pelicans flew past and grackles eyed our table, waiting for the opportunity to scavenge the leftovers.

A return to the hotel gave us a short break. At 4pm we drove the a few miles to the mangrove swamps. We boarded small motorised boats and headed out to look for bird life. The light faded as we entered the tributaries, and at first I was a bit put out that the gloom was not good for photography. But as we followed the twists and turns, going through tunnels of greenery, I began to enjoy the ride. It reminded me of the Jungle Cruise ride in Disneyland, albeit with kingfishers and the intriguing Boat-billed heron.

Once night had fallen, the boat operators brought out powerful torches. We went  to a dock, where there was the opportunity to visit some loos. One guide lit our way with his head torch, which we borrowed to use the facilities.

As we made our way back, the bright torches lit the mangroves and were also used to pick out potoo. I’ve seen these birds in daytime, when they blend in with trees and remain stock still, eyes closed. It was interesting to see them at night, when they were active, eyes open as they prepared to hunt insects.

Stars and planets emerged in the moonless sky. We returned to our starting point. At 8pm we were back at the hotel and settling down to dinner. Tips were given to the local guides with our thanks.

Back in our room, we packed for the trip home. And compared the number of insect bites on our arms and faces.

08 February

We rose at 6am, finished off our packing, and reported to hotel reception at 7am. Coffee, fruit, and sandwiches were on offer, to which we helped ourselves as our cases were loaded on to the minibuses.

The drive back to Puerta Vallarta was uneventful and even offered sightings of birds and VW Beetles (a gold one was added to the list). As we had some time on our hands, we visited a crocodile site, relieved that the fearsome looking creatures were behind a fence. 

We drove to the local airport and, after a fight with traffic, went inside the terminal to drop off our bags for the domestic flight to Mexico City. At the end of the short flight, we collected our bags and walked quite a distance to the international part of the airport to drop off our bags for the flight to Heathrow. 

Several of us decided to have a meal in the terminal before going to the gate. Our flight was delayed by 90 minutes, so the plane didn’t depart until 10.30pm.

09 February

I did my best to sleep during the flight, which lasted 9 ½ hours and landed around 2.30pm. At Heathrow, we collected our bags and said our goodbyes to each other. I had enough time to have a coffee before catching my coach back to Northampton. My kind neighbour collected me, and once home I started unpacking. February in England felt colder than ever after the warmth of Mexico!

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