Human Interest Photojournalism: Machu Picchu (Of Course)

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My girlfriend, co-conspirator, and fellow photographer, Venezia Castro.

Venezia and I are amateur photographers in the worst way. We’re just serious enough to have professional cameras instead of relying on our phones, but not serious enough to actually know anything about them. I have no clue what shutter speed is and I only own one lens. The same goes for editing. Through trial and error, I’ve figured out to drag a tone curve around until a photo looks pretty, but don’t ask me what the hell a tone curve is.

What we lack in know-how, we make up for in enthusiasm. We take our cameras everywhere and photograph everything. Many times, the best and most creative shots are photos of things you’d never think to photograph: a water bottle in a gutter, a mannequin in a window, a crack in the wall of a building. Sometimes when we’re taking these sorts of photos, we get suddenly self-conscious. We can see beauty on the other side of the lens, but to passersby, we must look like idiots taking photographs of nothing. In these moments, a repeat a dumb in-joke to make us feel better: “It’s a human interest story”.

What’s a human interest story? I’m sure there’s a real definition out there somewhere, but the way I’ve always seen it used it pretty much seems to mean “We recognize this story doesn’t matter and won’t affect your life in any way but we thought you might enjoy it”.

Every Wednesday, I’ll present you with my own visual brand of human interest story. Rather than writing on a topic and adding photos for spice, the photos are the main course here and will dictate what each post is about. If I happen to photograph something important and topical, maybe my post will be important and topical too. For the most part, though, expect human interest at its finest: insignificant in the long run, but probably worth a few minutes of your time.

The Mysteries of Machu Picchu

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Taking the train to Aguascalientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, felt like entering another world.

This week is, of course, about Machu Picchu. I’ve been using photos from my trip in my last few posts anyway wherever I can fit them in, so I might as well get it out of my system now.

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We came upon a ruin cloaked in mist.
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When the fog began to lift, we caught our first glimpse of the day’s ultimate goal: Huayna Picchu.

We entered the park at six in the morning and discovered a city cloaked in fog. It was mystical, mysterious, and humbling. When the sun began to burn the mist from the ruins, we were treated to something absolutely awe-inspiring.

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The surrounding mountain range alone was worth the price of admission.
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If you squint at the lower left corner, you can see the train we came in on.
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Standing in the midst of history.

Machu Picchu isn’t as big as you’d think, yet I feel I could spend months exploring it. Every crumbling building has its own story, and we only learned a fraction of the history and symbolism etched in stone all around us. I could also spend months hanging out with the llamas.

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The weather changed on a dime every forty minutes. Photo: Venezia Castro.
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A city of scientists, craftsmen, priests, and royalty. Photo: Venezia Castro.
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We made a few friends along the way.
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Its fleece was white as snow. Photo: Venezia Castro.

Conquering Huayna Picchu

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Huayna Picchu awaits.

After four hours in the city, we set out to scale Huayna Picchu, the towering peak seen in all the most iconic shots of the park. The hike was two hours each way, most of it up and down steep and narrow stairs. I was glad I’d lived in Mexico City for a year before this hike and had gotten used to high altitudes; the air, while intoxicatingly fresh, was thin as ice. Luckily, the breathtaking views around every corner kept our minds off the trek.

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Nice place for a summer house.
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We met a few of these guys in addition to the llamas.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as peaceful as I did at the peak of Huayna Picchu. I would make that trek a thousand more times just to recapture that feeling.

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Connecting with my chi. Photo: Venezia Castro.
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The view from the top of the world.

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Even the sun looks better from the top of Huayna Picchu. Photo: Venezia Castro.

Up the Mountain

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As we started up Machu Picchu Mountain, we finally found that iconic vantage point.

Nobody alive knows the name of the crumbling Inka capital. Machu Picchu is actually the name of the mountain that towers over the city, a looming monstrosity that feels like a place where gods would live.

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It isn’t often you can genuinely call something “looming”.
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Is it any wonder we didn’t reach the top?

We only had two mornings in the park total, and didn’t wind up conquering Machu Picchu mountain. We weren’t too disappointed, as we’d already gotten the best views of the city. If I do go back, though, I’d love to give that mountain another shot.

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Untouched jungle cloaks the side of the mountain.
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We reached a respectable altitude.

If you’re still looking for a resolution for 2018,visiting Machu Picchu this year might be the best thing you could do.

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Another perspective on that iconic shot. Photo: Venezia Castro.

Real Talk 25 December 2017: Adventures in South America

A quiet Christmas in Taxco was just the thing after a whirlwind trip across South America.

Feliz Navidad! Today is Christmas, but we probably won’t talk about it much. Christmas comes every year, so my trip to Machu Picchu last week takes precedence.

Dedicating myself to updating this blog with a different column every single day of the week might seem like a tall order. Luckily I thought ahead and scheduled one or two days to totally slack off. Specifically, every Monday is reserved for “Real Talk”, a stream of consciousness journal where I will talk about what went on in the past week of my life, what’s coming up in the near future, and whatever else happens to be on my mind. Given that I’m a successful 22-year-old author living in Mexico City, these posts may contain something of interest for aspiring creators and explorers. Its just as likely they won’t. Reader discretion is advised.

Machu Picchu: Life-Changing or Nah?

My girlfriend bowing before the gods of the Inkas…or just being scared of falling.

There’s an old joke that when Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average net worth of each person in that bar rises to about a billion dollars. We’ll come back to that.

On the 15th of December, my girlfriend, Venezia, and I left Mexico City. We landed in Bogota, Colombia, a few hours later. The next day we flew to Cusco and took a train to Aguascalientes, the touristy base town for the ancient site. December 17th was our first day visiting Machu Picchu, and we spent that afternoon ascending Huayna Picchu. The following morning we returned to climb Machu Picchu mountain, which offers the most iconic vantage point of the world wonder. Then we hopped back on the train and spent the night in Cusco, then flew back to Bogota and spent the night again. At last, on the 20th, we returned to Mexico City and were once again happily eating tacos al pastor.

Going into this adventure, I kept coming across the idea that seeing Machu Picchu is supposed to be life-changing. Was it? Yes and no. It was breathtaking, it gave me a greater perspective on the world and my place on it, and made me briefly consider living as a hermit on some isolated mountaintop surrounded by llamas. Of course, when I returned to Mexico City, nothing about my normal life had changed. Or had it?

I’ve come to believe the healthiest way to look at happiness is as a sine wave. If you try to stay at the peak all the time, you’ll be miserable. I won’t get into it, but there’s a whole biolgoical principle known as hedonic adaptation which makes it literally impossible to be at your happiest all the time. The goal, I think, should be to get the peaks as high as you can without letting the valleys get to low.

A sine wave might sound like a loose model for your mood, but I’ve tracked my mood across days before and it’s actually eerie how predictable my mood is. I consciously put my joy or frustration down to situational factors, but looking back I can see I almost always wake up feeling down and go to bed optimistic on the second day of my cycle.

That’s under normal circumstances. Add the data point of hiking Huayna Picchu to the graph of my mood, and the peak of my happiness on December 17 stands out like, well, the peak of Huayna Picchu. This is where Bill Gates comes in. Thanks to that peak, my average happiness on each day of the past few weeks is way up. Sounds good so far. But just like the patrons of the bar don’t actually get richer when Bill Gates walks in, the rest of my days aren’t actually better because of that one day (it has been an amazing month actually, but let’s put that aside). The result is that if I had what would have been a normally happy day for me, I will actually feel that my happiness is below average because the numbers have been skewed.

The most depressed I’ve ever felt in my life was when I take an amazing trip or vacation and then returned to the daily grind. There were a lot of things wrong with my life at the time, but the infrequent peaks only made the rest harder to bear. What I experienced was probably a natural reaction, but it wasn’t a productive reaction.

Luckily I learned from my experiences. Going into this latest trip, I repeated to myself that nothing would have changed when I got back. There would be no spiritual awakening. What there would be is a reference point. And at the end of my trip, I calmly accepted that the near future would be dull in comparison to my vacation, but there would be a light in the dimness. My adventures in South America made me happy, and I can work toward having more of that type of experience in the future. I can’t be ecstatic all the time, but I can find the beacon in the darkness and keep walking toward it.

The Best Year of My Life

2017 has been extraordinary since January. Machu Picchu is just the cherry.

I love New Year’s but rarely celebrate it, at least not the same as most people. This post is already longer than expected so I’ll have to come back to this next week, but I have a few words in anticipation of 2018.

You’re probably “over” New Year’s. It’s cool to be over New Year’s right now, and it’s been a lifetime since I’ve had a serious conversation with someone about their resolutions. The response is always, “I never actually do my resolutions.” The response “Not with that attitude you don’t” is unbearably cliche, but in this instance it is also unbearably accurate. My personal belief is that people are afraid of setting a goal and failing, so it’s easier to take the cynical way out.

Anyway, I love New Year’s due to the fact that, without exception and without hyperbole, every single year of my life has been the single greatest year of my life so far. The past few years especially, I’ve constantly seen people claiming “2013/2015/2017 is the worst year in history” and I am sympathetic to anyone who has had that experience, but it just is not true for me.

That’s the attitude I take as I write my resolutions leading up to New Year’s Eve: there’s a bit of pressure to keep outdoing myself, but statistically I can be confident the years to come will probably keep getting better. In any case it’s a hell of a streak, and I’d love to see how far I can take it.

I usually make between two to five resolutions, but I’m getting to good at checking them off. This year I think I’ll make twelve. Why twelve? This won’t mean much to you if you don’t live in Mexico, but the answer has to do with grapes.

More on that next week.

Reject Victory, Reject Defeat

We’ll see.

In this third and final segment of Real Talk, I reserve the right to talk about whatever the hell is on my mind, regardless of whether it pertains to anything else or makes any sense.

Today a thought popped into my head in a rare moment of self-reflection. Though I try to be supportive and tactful on the inside, I have a bad habit of judging people when it comes to assuming defeat. Throughout my life I’ve met countless people who desperately want to pursue a certain job or move to another country or what have you, but “just can’t”. They have reasons, but if you present solutions to all their problems, they’ll deliberately make more of them. This is not an original observation of mine; the front half of a lot of self-help books is dedicated to dealing with this very mindset.

As someone who dropped out of university, quit my job, and moved to Mexico with a girl I’d been dating just over a month on the assumption that I’d find a way to make a living by writing before my meager savings were devoured by my mounting debt, maybe I’m justified in how I feel about people who wait for the perfect moment to pursue their dreams. At least that’s how I felt until a brief interaction with someone who had the opposite problem. I think I’ve met a lot more people who assume they can’t do anything, but sometimes I meet people who think they can do everything, but can’t. When these people make plans or promises, I go in with the expectation that they will never actually follow through. I developed this reflex after burned a few too many times by these people who assume victory, burns that make me almost long for the icy desperation of the defeatists.

Today it finally occurred to me I am one of these people. Yes, I have accomplished many things in my life that everyone around me told me were impossible, and I am extremely proud of that fact. But I also fall short sometimes. When I do, I disappoint people, or even hurt them.

When I say this occurred to me today, I mean it literally popped into my head five minutes ago. I’ll keep thinking on it and hopefully come out a better person. In the meantime I think it’s safe to say that it is destructive to assume defeat, but also to assume victory. Something for you to think about as you go into the new year: which end of the spectrum do you tend toward, and how can you bring yourself closer to the center? Instead of saying “I can” or “I can’t”, can you learn to say “We’ll see”?

One Night in Taxco: Hotel de La Llorona

This is the first post in a biased two-part discussion of the paranormal, religion, skepticism, and spirituality. Discretion is advised.

View of Taxco and surrounding landscape
For those who haven’t been, Taxco is a beautiful example of a colonial pueblo in modern Mexico.

Last weekend, Venezia took me (Evaric) to Taxco de Alarcón for her cousin’s quinceañera. The beautifully bizarre celebration that is the quinceañera is a whole other discussion, but this post is about the hotel I stayed in overnight: Hotel Victoria, a charming little bungalow on the edge of town which nobody told me was haunted until we arrived. That was fine, since I don’t believe in ghosts.

Alone in the Dark

Arched hallway in Hotel Victoria in Taxco
Seems ghosts appreciate a tasteful interior as much as the rest of us.

“I don’t believe in ghosts” is something I like to say when I’m at home in the daytime, surrounded by familiar comforts and faces. It’s easy for us skeptics to laugh at supposed accounts of the paranormal: unlike those who experience strange events, we have the luxury of responding only with reason, rather than emotion.

A funny thing happens to reason when you find yourself alone in the dark. Let’s back up, though. Leading up to that night, everything was aligning just right to make me feel I was living in a poorly-written horror movie. Entering the Hotel Victoria, Venezia recounted the stories of family members who had seen and heard strange things while staying there. We noticed crude crosses nailed to the front gate; the hotel’s proprietor unironically explained that La Llorona, a popular Mexican folk, had been coming by the past few nights and he was trying to ward her off. As I settled into my room, I noticed I had lost cell service.

Pool surrounded by plants in Hotel Victoria in Taxco
Beautiful, in a haunted sort of way.

A storm rolled in during the party, and when I returned to my room the lightning was so close that the walls literally shook with the thunder. The hotel is up on a hill a little outside of town, and being an old-school rural pueblo, Taxco gets dark at night in a way even small-town Americans aren’t used to. The second-to-last thing I noticed before turning out the light (and plunging myself into pitch darkness) was a cockroach half the size of my hand crawl out of the wall. I wish I’d gotten a picture – didn’t seem a priority at the time.

What I did get a picture of was the last thing I noticed: the little square hole cut in the blanket of the bed beside mine. I’d already made myself antsy by imagining waking up in the middle of the night to see someone else in the other bed looking back at me, but usually I’m a little too old for under-the-bed nonsense. I didn’t have any explanation why someone would cut a window in the blanket, though, or why when the bed was made it just happened to fall to the level where something could peer out at me from a hidden spot beneath the bed.

A square hole cut in the blanket of a bed
It opens its eyes when you close yours.

The Cold Light of Reality

Sun setting behind a mountain over Taxco
I didn’t take any pictures of the sunrise so this is actually a sunset. But shhh, don’t tell anyone.

I had a brief scare when I woke up. Before going to bed, I’d closed all the curtains and the door leading to the other room. I was awoken by light streaming in through the cracks in that door. For a horrible minute I was convinced something else was in there with me – something had to have turned on the light in the other room. It turned out that the sunrise was in fact so brilliant that it shone bright enough through a curtain and a door to wake me up. I laughed at myself and went back to sleep.

My experience didn’t make me a believer. Nothing happened that I couldn’t explain, and if nobody had told me the place was haunted, it would never have crossed my mind. Only with that in mind did I begin to form a narrative out of ambiance and coincidences.

I did rethink the way I look at believers. If anything even slightly spooky had happened that night (and I had survived the ensuing heart attack), I doubt logic would hold much sway over how I interpreted things.

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Venezia, who has earned most of a degree in Molecular Biology, is one of the smartest and most rational people I know, and didn’t even experience staying the night in the hotel, admitted she was nervous about leaving me alone there. There we were, two highly-educated people raised in an age of science and reason, still ruled by the same primal fears as our caveman ancestors, ten-thousand years ago.

Science and Scienceability

Family attending Catholic Mass during a quinceañera
The quinceañera that afternoon involved attending Catholic Mass at a local church. Maybe that saved my life?

Inspired by this experience, Venezia and I sat down to discuss our perspectives on science and religion, skepticism and the paranormal. The conversation was full of surprises: not only did we not know everything each other believed in, we each believe in concepts that the other had never even considered. We both came away with at least small changes to our worldview.

We’ll share our discussion next week – stay tuned. In the meantime, we would love to hear from you in the comments. Are you a believer, and have you had any experiences, paranormal or otherwise, that shook your deeply-held beliefs?

Exploring Mexico Episode 1!

Trail in a monarch butterfly reserve
Getting to the butterflies is a bit of a trek.

We are very excited to announce the first full episode of our first series, Exploring Mexico!

Chasing Butterflies in Michoacan

You may have seen our earlier post covering our trip to the monarch butterfly reserve in the state of Michoacan. This is the video that came out of that trip. It’s a little late, but we think you’ll enjoy it.

If you have ideas or suggestions about what else we should explore, hit us up in the comments here or on YouTube!

5 Mexican Foods You Need in Your Life

Sabritas Adobadas and Sabritas Limones arranged into a flower
Made this to celebrate the Spring Equinox. It was supposed to be a flower….

If you have not lived or traveled in Mexico, you have not tasted Mexican food. Even if you go to Mexican restaurants (or God forbid, Taco Bell), chances are you have no idea what pastor is and think that burritos are something that actually exist south of the border. You just can’t get the best Mexican foods outside of Mexico, and believe me, you are missing out.

5 Mexican Foods You Need in Your Life

5. Oaxaca Cheese

Fresh ball of Oaxaca cheese
The first thing you need to know about Mexico is that all good things come from Oaxaca.

With the consistency of string cheese and the shape of a soft pretzel, Oaxaca cheese can be a bit confusing at first. Try it, though, and you will find it puts all other quesos to shames. It’s mostly used in cooking, but I find myself eating strings of it raw as a bedtime snack more often than I care to admit.

4. Mexican Junk Food

Sabritas Adobadas and Sabritas Limones
Adobadas are the undisputed champion, but Sabritas Limones are pretty great too

Mexico’s colorful and ancient culinary tradition mixes classic Aztec and Mayan dishes with flavors drawn from all over the world, creating something truly unique and beautiful. Sometimes, though, you’re just not in the mood for unique and beautiful. Mexico has you covered: just head down to the Oxxo on the corner and grab a bag of Sabritas Adobadas (read: Lays but better) and a couple Carlos V’s (read: Hershey’s but better [but actually read: Carlos Quintos]).

Carlos V candy bars
For real though, there is legit an Oxxo on every corner.

3. Flan

Two slices of flan
Mini Spanish lesson: when someone asks “¿Quieres flan?” the correct answer is always “Sí, por favor, lo dame ahora si deseas vivir.”

There was more than one episode of Friends mocking this traditional Mexican dessert, which pretty much confirms none of the cast or crew every tried it. With a consistency somewhere between jello and pudding and a taste somewhere between “I’m happy because I’m eating flan” and “I’m depressed because my flan was so delicious I ate it all already”, this is a unique treat that can’t really be compared to anything.

2. Pastor

Authentic pastor being prepared at a restaurant in Mexico City
Shoutout to Taqueria Los Hornillos for putting up with the weird gringo photographer snapping photos of their kitchen.

What is pastor? Hell if I know. I’m not even sure what type of meat it is – pork, I think? It’s probably the one food on this last you would be hardest pressed to find outside Mexico – some gringo restaurants offer “pastor” on their menu, but if you don’t see a spinning fiery pineapple-topped meat wheel in their kitchen, it is not even close to authentic. There are a million ways to eat pastor, but the best way is no contest….

1. Tacos

Tacos al pastor with limes and salsas
Shoutout to Taqueria Los Hornillos for being absolutely fricken delicious.

Not a lot needs to be said about tacos. If you haven’t been to Mexico, you haven’t had tacos. If you haven’t had tacos al pastor, you haven’t lived.

Bonus: Mezcal

Bottle of Oaxaca mezcal
Not only is it good luck to eat the worm, but it’s so saturated with alcohol it will get you wasted all by itself.

Not technically a food, but this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning authentic Oaxaca mezcal. I’ve known a lot of gringos who like to think of themselves as serious drinkers, but I’d love to see any of them pound back a shot of real mezcal. It’s hard to describe the experience and do it any justice. You know when you take a swig of tequila and get that sudden burn in the back of your throat? Imagine if just as that burn started to go away, it came back again, stronger than before. And then again and again and again. Literally forever. That’s mezcal.

A Day in Mexico

I just passed my 22nd birthday and am coming up on the three-month anniversary of my arrival in Mexico. It’s still a lot to adjust to and a lot of things are still up in the air, but for the most part I’ve gotten settled and adopted something of a routine. So what is a typical day like for a gringo in Mexico City?

Daily Living in Mexico

Not a stock photo – this is a picture I took of the house I live in

Casa Hemingway

Rented room in a house in Mexico City
The floor is concrete, but the bed is warm

I rent a room in a large old house with a handful of fellow tenants. The landlady also lives here. Between her family coming and going, the maid, and all my housemates, the place is always lively and bustling. I love the feeling of activity and community. There is always someone to talk to while I cook or eat, even if the conversations are mostly in Spanglish. At least I’m learning.

I had a couple room options when I moved in, and the other ones were more “normal”, but as soon as I saw this one I had to have it. It’s cozy and a little removed from the rest of the house, and there’s something almost…frontier about it. Venezia and I dubbed it Casa Hemingway because we agreed it was the room Hemingway would have picked. Moving here was the adventure of a lifetime, and now I live in what feel’s like an adventurer’s home.

A Run in the Parque

Plaza in Parque de los Venados
This horse is stone, but people ride real horses and donkeys around the park every day

In the mornings before work I’ll sometimes go for a 5K jog in Parque de los Venados, a beautiful park a couple minutes’ walk from my house. There’s a surprising amount of wildlife there for a park in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, including many kinds of birds and squirrels. There’s also vendors hawking their churros and cheeses, young couples canoodling in the grass, and men and women shooting hoops in the nearby courts. As often as not, I share the paths with donkeys and horses.

Beneath the Jacaranda Trees

Patio of a house in Mexico City
I was on facebook when I took this, but I do actual work too, I promise

I work as a content writer. Basically, clients tell me what they want me to write about and how many words they want me to write, and I write it. My dream job is writing novels and I might not be quite there yet, but at the very least I can call myself a professional writer now. Besides, look at my office. I spend my 9-5 in the brilliant Mexican sun beneath the flowering boughs of the jacaranda trees that grow beside the house. Tiny birds sing all around me, and across the street there’s usually a group of construction workers joking and listening to Mariachi or Reggaeton. I’d take my office over a cubicle any day.

Tacos al Whatever

Tacos with chorizo and lime
Not really sure what I was going for, but chorizo is delicious no matter what you do to it

During my lunch break, or just whenever I get hungry, I step into the kitchen and whip up some tacos. I’m still learning when it comes to Mexican cuisine, and I wouldn’t call my tacos authentic, but with a fridge full of traditional ingredients anything I make ends up being delicious. I have the privilege of working with tropical fruits, veggies, and herbs fresher than any you could get north of the border, and meats that are delicious even if I add nothing to them – arrachera, cecina, chorizo, the list goes on. Not to mention tortillas that don’t taste like cardboard.

The Coolest Library in the World

Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City
Yes, there’s a whale skeleton hanging in the middle of the library

When I need a change of scenery, sometimes I’ll bring my work to a local cafe (if there’s one thing Mexicans know, it’s coffee) or else Biblioteca Vasconcelos. There’s an outside chance you’ve heard of this place before – it shows up all over the internet in lists of “Coolest Libraries” or even “Coolest Buildings”. I swear half the pictures on Pinterest under the category Books are just pictures of this library. That said, photos don’t do it justice. When you’re inside, it feels like being in some sort of futuristic space station.

A World of Exploration

Chapultepec castle in Mexico City
What do you get when you cross Spanish, French, and Aztec?

When Venezia and I get off work, the real fun begins. I may have been here for nearly three months, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the amazing things to do in Mexico City, let alone the rest of the country. From Bosque de Chapultepec, where you can find the only genuine castle in North America, to Teotihuacan, where you can climb massive pyramids built by an unknowable civilization that was ancient when the Aztecs were young, to Centro Historico, where you can walk the very same streets where Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez once walked alongside Aztec Empire Moctezuma, as these unlikely allies struggled to hold on to a crumbling empire, there is enough to see and do in this city alone to keep me busy for a hundred lifetimes.

So here’s to another three months in this beautiful country, and then another three years after that. The odds may be against me, but I hope to explore and learn as much as humanly possible in the time I spend here, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.