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Here be Sea Monsters – The Giants of Baja California

Whale shark, Baja California

I’m at the half way point of a 12-day whale watching trip that started in San Diego and has just rounded Cabo San Lucas (southern tip of the Baja Peninsula) into the Sea of Cortez, a body of water described by Jacques Cousteau as “the aquarium of the world”.  We’ve been in search of some of the ocean’s largest creatures and on the way south, along Baja’s Pacific coast, have already shared beaches with elephant seals, been introduced by grey whale mothers to their inquisitive calves and hung out with fin, humpback and Bryde’s whales. All offered spectacular wildlife encounters but today has been a Top Trump day – meeting the largest, record-breaking beasts of the deep.

Today’s aim was to locate and swim with whale sharks. Neither a shark nor a whale, this is the biggest fish on the planet, measuring up to 12 metres in length and weighing up to 22 tons. Yesterday, as we passed over Gorda Banks (a submerged mountain range off the peninsula’s southern tip) we had a tantalisingly brief encounter with a 9 metre “tiddler” that glided past the prow of our vessel, its dorsal fin cutting the water, before gliding under the boat and reappearing on the other side as it leisurely checked us out prior to slipping into the depths.

The bridge deck of our boat (The Searcher) offered grandstand views of a broad flat head and brown polka-dotted body, colossal mouth gaping as the whale shark sieved plankton. While it was very impressive to witness this huge and striking creature effortlessly and elegantly take a spin around the hull of the Searcher, it was reassuring to know that one of the world’s largest animals only has a dietary penchant for some of the ocean’s smallest. However, it was still a sobering thought that we would be swimming alongside this creature the following day.

And so at 7am this morning, we were ferried by pangas into the Bay of La Paz and donned wetsuits, fins, snorkels and masks for our appointment with whale sharks.

The bay is a huge shallow natural harbour that attracts whale sharks to feed. After just 10 minutes our skipper, Santos, spies a large tell-tale shadow and manoeuvres our panga to anticipate the route of the fish and instructs us to “enter the water and follow”. Simple as that! After an initial flurry of fins, frantic scanning above and under water, I somehow manage to find myself snorkelling alongside this magnificent creature.

Whale Shark, Baja California

Over the course of 5 minutes, I swim my way from an impressive 2 metre tail-fin past the dorsal and gently rippling gills to find myself alongside its expansive head and spend a few moments eyeball-to-eyeball with this fantastic fish.  Glancing back, I note teeth scars that striate a pectoral fin, bearing testament to a less gentle encounter, most probably with a large predatory shark such as a white, tiger or mako.

For most of our swim together, my vision is completely filled with the sunlight dappled spotted body of this muscular creature. I speed up, slow down and make turns as it alters its course, all the while just a couple of metres away as we both skim he surface. I’m very aware that just a flick of its tail could leave me in its wake (or hospital) but the whale shark seems largely indifferent about our presence and I start to feel very comfortable in the company of my new swimming buddy.  It’s just as we are eyeballing each other and I start to mull over metaphysical connections between myself and this giant, that the spell (and any imagined bond) is shattered by a momentarily submerged snorkel and I return to the surface thrashing around with a mouth and nose full of salty water.  This spluttering, mucousy and rather inelegant end to our swim together reminds me that I’m really “the fish out of water”. The whale shark has tolerated me as a visitor in its back yard and as I doggy-paddle my way back to the panga, I realise how completely exhausted trying to keep up with the whale shark has left me. A fixed grin is the other legacy.  This has been a very special experience.

After a few opportunities to swim with three whale sharks, we head back to the Searcher. Santos’ radio crackles with extraordinary news. Art (skipper of the Searcher) announces that a blue whale has been spotted within the bay.  This is highly unusual as the bay is relatively shallow and the blue whale is the largest animal known to have ever existed on earth, weighing up to 190 tons and up to 30 metres in length (think three London buses).

Astoundingly, it turns out that there are actually four blues in the bay and we set off in our skiffs to view this iconic creature.  In my over-excitement, I ask whether we’ll be able to snorkel with the blue whales. Santos stifles a laugh and suggests that it’s not a very practical idea. I soon understand why as one of the whales breaks the water just 50 metres from our panga.  The body is immense and seems to take forever to complete a surface roll before submerging. We spend an hour in their company.  No flukes were lifted as the whales were in very shallow water, possibly shallower than their own body length. One passed almost under a skiff and we saw the strokes of its flukes.

It’s been a remarkable morning, sharing the water with and company of the planet’s largest whale and fish species.  Next underwater encounter is with California sea lions in the Sea of Cortez at Los Islotes………. it’s not all about size!

Join our whale watching cruise to Baja California on board the Searcher. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Swimming with Whale sharks in Mexico

“This is not an everyday experience” reminded our guide when asked if we want to go in again.

The last time I went snorkelling, was in Belize. There, I achieved an impressive Arab spring out of the water into the boat when my husband mentioned there was a large black grouper approaching my right foot.  So in the name of duty, on my recent visit to Mexico,  I signed up to put myself in the way of a 30ft (average size) whale shark.

With my mother in tow we joined a small group to go swimming with Whale sharks. We headed off from Isla Mujeres in our motorboat, with great excitement across the aqua marine waters, reportedly some of the bluest in the Caribbean. It’s June and the Whale shark season has just begun. Starting almost a month later than normal, it seems the big fish are being a little temperamental. They have arrived late, and not in the usual numbers; moving between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox in the Gulf of Mexico, making their location somewhat unpredictable.  It has also been raining. The rains, we are told, push the plankton below the surface of the water causing the whale sharks to feed deeper than normal.

The decision is taken to head for the area of Isla Contoy which sits between Isla Mujeres and the mouth of the Gulf. After two and half hours of exhilarating motoring, we are still not in luck. On the plus side we have seen flying fish, dolphin and mating turtles, a trip in itself, and I’m happy to head for home. The radio crackles. We see another boat on the horizon and we change our course a little. The anticipation mounts but a shake of the head by our Capitan dashes our hopes. Seeing our faces, some fairly green by now, he points to his watch. Shouting over the engines; “By 11am. We’ll see them.”  It’s 10.35am.

It is a bold promise. Land is barely visible and we have been searching in earnest for almost 3 hours. Then no more than 10 minutes later, there is a shout on the radio and the boat is put into full throttle. The atmosphere on the boat changes immediately. Excitement mounts once again. There is a great sense of urgency suddenly from our guide – who instructs us to get kitted up. Flippers, masks snorkels and life jackets are handed out. We are told to move in a circular direction around the boat. “Two at a time – get ready. We will drop you in ahead of the whale shark and come round again to pick you up – go.” My mother (in her seventies) is the first to go. I pause in total admiration. She hasn’t snorkelled for 20 years and is still trying to work out her breathing technique when she is pushed overboard. I click into action and follow her in, wondering whether I had pushed her too far this time.

Go Pro in hand, running on video, I frantically search the water – where is it? Out of the murk I see it swimming towards me. Surprised by my profound lack of fear, I actually swim towards it. The Whale shark glides through the water beneath me. I watch as the tale wafts past. I turn and follow. I try to keep up but I can’t. He dives and disappears from view.

I come up looking for the boat, looking for Mum but the swell keeps breaking my view. There are three boats and I have no idea which one is ours. A wave comes over me and as it passes I spot both Mum and our our boat coming round in our direction. Mum and I swim up to the ladder, thrilled, exhausted.

We get two further turns and each one is better than the last. The second time, I kick and kick determined to get a view for as long as I can. I study the markings, watch the gills, the movement, the size; hearing nothing but my own breathing. Then there is a magical moment as I watch our friend Matteo free dive some 20 metres alongside the Whale Shark as it sinks slowly into the depths of the ocean.

The third time, I rid myself of technology and Mum and I leap in. We’ve got the hang of this now.  It’s our last go. We even locate the whale shark before submersion.  I try to savour the moment again. Absorb everything I am seeing, for one last time. All too soon we lose the docile giant to the deep once more.

Are you ready to start planning your holiday to Mexico? Get in touch with us on 01258 880 980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Our 5 best boutique hotels in Tulum for your Mexico holiday

Tulum-ruins,-Mexico

Leaving the uninspiring Cancun highway behind, the drive down to Tulum on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is somewhat a relief. This is exactly what I was looking for in my Mexico holiday.

A single pretty paved road is flanked by verdant jungle with rickety wooden signs to mark hotel entrances. Beautiful people cycle serenely up and down; their dresses floating behind them. Clothes hang from branches that sway in the breeze signalling a small business venture. Palapa shacks with driftwood bar tops sell fruit cocktails and pancakes.  Then there is a break in the palms and I catch sight of the glittering topaz-coloured Caribbean Sea with its sugar like sands that summon travellers to its shores.

The once undiscovered beach at Tulum, is a breath taking slice of white coral sand and turquoise waters. Those that had bothered to venture this far, were welcomed to this secret coast by only a handful of hotels providing rustic accommodation, in tune with their surroundings, on impossibly idyllic beaches. Happy campers arrived with their psychedelic vans to find themselves, ending up wonderfully lost.

Today, Tulum has seen a rebirth of accommodation. A new era of Eco Boutique (sustainable upscale hotels) hotels is in full swing with A-list celebrities for guests including Jude Law, Mick Jagger and Drew Barrymore, all executing their ideal Mexico holiday.  With the increasing popularity of Tulum every inch of the coast has been swept up by investors jumping on the bandwagon and the hotels are packed like dominoes along the coast, all offering their version of a bohemian beach holiday, but they don’t all get it right.  Like the shabby chic furniture, some pieces pull off the distressed look and just about warrant the whopping price tag, others just look tatty and overpriced. Many of the Tulum hotels, I have discovered, fall into the latter category, failing to recognise the difference between a hostel and an upscale boutique hotel. With the majority of hotels now charging in excess of US $500 per night, one would hope for more than a curtain for a loo door or a rusty pipe for a shower.  So who does get it right?

Top Trumps in Tulum

Be Tulum

For the 30-50 somethings wanting to escape city life but maintain a certain level of cool.   The adult only hotel has a welcoming reception with pretty gardens that lead to a stunning fine white sand beach. Just 20 rooms, beautifully decorated, some with private pool others with a jacuzzi. It all happens at the beach club with a beach shack bar, open grill kitchen and inviting pool. Movie nights are held on the sand. They do have a ‘b green with us’ policy and have gentle reminders to guests to be conservative with their water and electricity consumption.

The Yaan Spa across the road is quite simply amazing. Vast angular cabins like something out of Grand Designs are dotted through the gardens, each its own treatment room offering energy healing therapies.  One only needs to stand in the wafts of Copal smoke to feel completely healed.  Herb gardens provide organic remedies and oils used in the treatments and there is a Temazcal in which cleansing and purification rituals can be experienced. For spa lovers, this is a must and the bonus is you get an hours’ treatment included with your booking.


The Beach Tulum

For the more conservative traveller who wants a slice of the Tulum action Beach Tulum offers 20 spacious rooms. Fresh, clean lines, white decor they make a point of no plastic bottles. The beach is to die for, and the swimming fantastic, with a range of water activities allowing you to enjoy the Caribbean waters. A pool has been created to give swimmers privacy as it meanders in figure of eights through a tropical garden. The superior rooms all have roof terraces with spectacular ocean views. It also boasts a jolly restaurant with swings for bar stools that add a unique dimension.


Ana y Jose

One of the first eco boutique resorts in Tulum. The success of Ana y Jose started with their restaurants and the food is certainly excellent. Whereas many other properties cater for adults only, families are welcome at Ana y Jose. The beach is beautiful and continues inside to the restaurant which has a sand floor. Unlike many other properties they are on a spacious plot and even the lead in category offers a pool to be shared between 4 rooms. The ground floor luxury rooms, however have their own private pool.  Amidst the luxurious oceanfront suites, Ana y Jose maintain a level of sustainability, using recycled water, environmentally friendly a/c and refrigeration systems as well as waste separation.


Jashita

Located on the beautiful Bay of Soliman, Jashita sits a little further north of Tulum. It is its own little oasis on a white sand coral beach, the epitome of sophistication. Popular with the British and European guests, afternoon tea is served between 4 – 5pm.   There are 16 rooms of which the Waterfront bungalows are the closest to the beach.  It is a delightful set up with small patio hammocks and those on the ground floor have direct access to the beach. Soliman bay is protected by the reef (the second largest after the Great Barrier) offering wonderful swimming and snorkelling. For the more active, kayaks are available to explore the bay further.


Mi Amor

A charming and stylish property with a warm welcome, and outstanding views to the ocean on entering the hotel. This is a small hotel with 18 rooms, located just inside the national park of Tulum. Focused on couples it is a quiet retreat so children are not allowed. Perched on the rocks, there is no direct access to beach here, but there is a trail to a large rock pool for swimming.

Tulum is a mystical, almost mesmerising place. An unusual mix of well to do and dreadlocked travellers holiday side by side.  The vibe is relaxed, though clearly an effort is made.  Hot water supply is iffy, if you get water at all. The electricity is run from generators and Wi-Fi and phone signal connections are intermittent, so don’t rely on paying your hotel bill by card and don’t expect the ATM’s to give you any cash.   But that is the charm of Tulum. No high rises, no sprawling resorts, no techno into the early hours, with its blindingly beautiful beaches, where turtles still come ashore to nest, Tulum definitely ticks the ‘beach escape’ box.  One should treat Tulum like an expedition.  Be prepared, choose your hotel carefully and it will come up trumps.

See our other recommendations for beach escapes or get in touch with us for more information, call me on 01258 787 560 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Book review | Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico

“I didn’t have a driving licence of any sort. In fact not to put a too fine a point on it (and it was something I had only half admitted to myself), I didn’t know how to drive.”

– Hugh Thompson, Getting Lost in Mexico

Tequila Oil is a frank account of Hugh Thompson’s 18 year old self driving through Mexico. His adventure is sparked by a brief encounter with a fellow passenger on his flight to Mexico City. He is told that good money could be made by buying a car in Mexico and selling it in Belize. The idea seemed a perfectly good one and despite not having a driving licence, he decided to do it.

Hugh’s travels start in the state of Chihuahua and is peppered with good stories, great scenic portrayals of Mexico, many literary and musical references and some good laughs. It also reveals a deep understanding of Mexico’s ancient civilisations.

His adventure, as perhaps you might expect, follows a rather teenage rationale; making one reckless decision after another. In fact, it does not take long for him to question what he has taken on:

“The full enormity of it was just beginning to dawn on me. Mexico was a surprisingly big country – surprisingly because I had always thought of it as small in relation to the United States.”

 

He raises many a smile (or disapproving frown) with the stories he recounts, but you can’t help but share in the thrill of his adventure, provoking my own a nostalgia for the feeling of teenage invincibility.

“The driving was a breeze. Now there was nothing but highway, I could drive the car as fast as I liked. The speedometer wasn’t working too well, but the power underneath me felt enormous. I headed for the dwindling horizon. I felt terrific.”

In contrast, the final chapters where he returns some 30 years later provide a rather melancholy conclusion. The free spirit of the young Hugh no longer reigns, reflecting perhaps how age and life experience can weigh heavily. The independence of travel which once guided his journey, was no longer apparent.

It is however, the characters that Hugh Thompson brings to life; the friends he makes along the way and the refreshing generosity of strangers that really resonate. Whatever the age, the place or the time, it is the people we meet and the relationships formed that make travel experiences so special and are still very much at the forefront of travel today.

Beyond the grit and the often misconstrued Mexico Tequila Oil shows just how easy it is to fall in love with Mexico, again and again.

Looking for an adventure?

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Our Steppes: Colonial Mexico & Pacific Coast

My journey to Mexico, allowed for a small glimpse of what this huge and fascinating country has to offer. The silver cities, just north of Mexico City were great to explore and experiencing the colonial history of the area passing through central Mexico; the cultural home of Mariachi, sombreros, Rodeo and Tequila, before ending on the glittering palm beached Pacific Coast.

Take a look at just some of the places I explored and get in touch with us to start your journey.

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Baja – Beneath the waters

Names can be deceptive. Baja California is not in the USA but Mexico and is the earth’s second longest peninsula – it is more than 1,200km long and is larger than Italy.

Although some believe California to mean literally ‘hot oven’, Baja California, or rather the waters around Baja, are cool and contain some of the richest and most diverse marine life in the world.

In short Baja is one the best regions in the world for whale watching. Having said that I was not there at the best time of year – January to April is best for grey whales. You can see whales all year round and we did indeed see a Fin whale and her young calf. We also saw dolphins and not any ordinary dolphins but a hugely acrobatic school who seemed to delight in using the wake of the boat to surf and launch into the most brilliant somersaults.

Notwithstanding its whale pedigree, we had come to swim with sea lions and headed off to the magical island of Espiritu Santo an hour out of La Paz.

My first contact with the sea lions was when one juvenile came racing towards me, bared its teeth and then veered away at the very last minute. My initial reaction was fear but this quickly turned to exhilaration as I realised that he was only playing and before I knew it I was trying to imitate these underwater acrobats. But try was all I could do for the sea lions were in a mesmerising class of their own wheeling, twisting, turning and somersaulting effortlessly around me.

We then floated off to watch a bull sea lion swim around his harem. He would pop his head out of the water and bark his pleasure with territorial pride before submerging to cruise once more past his ‘chicks’. It was thrilling to be so close, to watch him so close at hand under water.

OK, yes, maybe I have used some poetic licence. The land is arid, hot and full of cacti (yet surprisingly you could be jailed for twenty years for chopping down a cactus) but I hope that you get my point and that beneath the surface there is a treasure trove. There is more to this area than you might imagine and I have not yet touched on its wonderful wines let alone tequila.

Have you been on a whale watching holiday in Baja?

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Yucatan – Maya little secret

“They used to distort the shape of their heads to differentiate themselves from the lower classes.”

“That must have been painful.”

“Why? Look at my head. It is round because I slept in a hammock when I was a baby. Yours is not so round because you slept in a bed.”

I shook my head in disbelief and was left wondering – such is the curiosity of Mayan culture. It is not an uncertainty that leads to frustration but more a sense of intrigue, a sense of fascination. The Mayan civilisation is utterly absorbing.

At its height, approximately 1,000 years ago, the Mayan civilisation included 10,000 cities – a total of 10 million people – over an area of 400,000 square kilometres. They were great builders, using architecture as a display of wealth. Labour and stones were readily available; the problem was how to bind these stones together. The Mayans solved this by burning limestone in a charcoal oven along with the sap of a rubber tree to create a stucco that was then plastered onto the buildings to bind them together and make them smooth.

Short-term solution, long-term problem: the appetite of the ovens for charcoal led to deforestation, which in turn meant a fall in humidity levels and in due course a lack of rain. No rain equals drought equals no food equals unhappy people. In 1100 AD the beginnings of a revolution broke out in the south at Tikal and from there spread northwards ultimately leading to the collapse of the civilisation a century later.

As I arrived in Cancun airport and was accosted by signs of “Go large, or go home” I thought that the modern day inhabitants of the peninsula must have a similar reaction to the influx of brash drunken revellers as their forebears did to the arrival of the Spanish. Yucatan literally means ‘I don’t understand your language’ and was how the Mayans first answered the Spanish, who mistakenly thought it to be the name of the region.

The other historical parallel that could be drawn is one of sustainability. Forty years ago Cancún was a fishing village of only a couple of hundred. Since then it has grown exponentially at one time holding the dubious title of the world’s fastest-growing town.

Fortunately the hedonistic pleasures of the present prevail over the allure of the past and not all make it to the Mayan sites and few as soon as they open, which is when I arrived at Tulum. Perched on cliffs overlooking the sea, the walled city of Tulum is more recent than some of the other Mayan sites, being in fact a combination of Mayan and Toltec. Tulum was at its most powerful between the 13th and 15th centuries and even surviving for the first few years after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. It might have lost some of its authority but it certainly had a powerful effect on me, not least its quixotic location by the sea. It certainly whet my appetite for more.

The jewel in this crown is Chichén Itza, the emblem of Mayan culture that’s prosaic meaning, ‘The Mouth of the Well of the Water’, belies the extraordinary geometry of the complex. It is such mastery of the calendar that has meant that Chichén Itza has the questionable pleasure of being voted one of the seven new wonders of the world and now has to cope with the resulting tourist traffic.

I run the gauntlet of souvenir stalls hoping to escape and seek sanctuary once within the site but all I could hear were jaguars growling all around me. I turn around again and again hearing this sound constantly until I realise that it is the artisans blowing a toy that they are hoping to sell. Who would buy such tourist tat but then Chichén Itza does see some 7,000 tourists a day thus there will be some easy targets who will fall prey to such gimmicks.

It is not a large site and it is crowded. Nonetheless the buildings rise above the fray, impressive in their stature, beguiling in their symbolism and significance, they leave you wondering at and in awe of the Mayan civilisation.

Everything here, particularly the magnificent Pyramid of Kukulkán, was designed with the heavens, all nine of them, in mind. The Mayan astrologers were so ingenious that the temple acts as a calendar, designed with such exactitude that during the spring and autumn equinoxes the shadow of a snake, a revered animal, slithers from the top of the temple to the bottom and back again.

In another amazing trick of engineering, the 365 steps of the temple have been constructed so that when you stand in front of them and clap, the echo sounds like a quetzal, a bird venerated by Mayans. What is all the more surprising about such precision is that the shape of the pyramid is not uniform, it is in fact a trapezoid and many of the edges of the pyramid are not aligned.

I was however most struck by the Great Ball Court, a 450 feet arena where the Mayans played the onomatopoeic pok ta pok – a game that involved two teams of seven, with the captain on each side being the only one able to score by shooting a large rubber ball through a hoop high one side of the wall. More than a game, pok ta pok was a life ritual that involved the winning captain having the ‘honour’ of being decapitated, taking him nearer to the gods. It was not this sacrifice that I found arresting, although it is not without effect, but that this playful pageant that involved great ceremony was watched by the king alone.

I left Chichén Itza really appreciating the grandeur of the Mayans but not with an understanding of them. They are an engrossing puzzle that I can’t get out of my mind. Stopping off in the charming colonial town of Valladolid I am warmed by the pretty pastel colours of the buildings but instantly reminded that Chichén Itzá would have been painted and full of colour. How eye-catching that must have been.

Arguably the site that I was most taken with was Uxmal. Four hundred kilometres from Cancún, Uxmal does not see the numbers of the other sites. Added to which I was overnighting at the Lodge at Uxmal, which is literally a minute’s walk from the entrance to the site. This allowed me to be first into the site of Uxmal when it opened at 8am. What a privilege that was. I felt like Catherwood, an English explorer who rediscovered the sites in the nineteenth century, moving alone around the complex the only noise being the industrious tapping of woodpeckers and the scuttling run of iguanas. Here I was finally far from the madding crowd. I climbed the Pyramid of the Fire Macaw and gazed out over Uxmal and the surrounding jungle. Here I felt as if I had the honour and distinction of being a king. It was an amazingly special moment.

The Mexicans have a saying, “No sumos moneiras de auro.” We are not gold coins. I am not sure if this is true – although I appreciate the sentiment of modesty – but what I would say is that the Mayan sites of the Yucatan are gold coins that need to be treasured forever.

For more information on the Yucatan Peninsula or any part of a holiday to Mexico please contact our Mexico specialists on 01285 880 980.

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The Copper Canyon’s not Copper

It’s not just in the USA that everything is bigger.

Its southern neighbour, Mexico, also does things on a grand scale albeit its nomenclature is a little more modest than in America. A key example is the Copper Canyon, arguably the deepest and largest network of canyons in the world.

“It’s the same size of Switzerland.”

I looked incredulously at Gustavo, my guide. Surely he was wrong.

“How big is that in square miles?” I questioned as if I knew better.

“About 25,000 square miles,” he said matter-of-factly.

I shook my head in disbelief. Not only was I unable to comprehend the staggering size and depth of the Copper Canyon in front of me but now Gustavo was challenging me further by saying that Copper Canyon refers not just to this single canyon but a series of more than twenty spectacular canyons that altogether comprise a region that’s four times larger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Added to this several of the canyons are much deeper than the Grand Canyon. The Copper Canyon itself is 5,770 feet deep, whilst Sinforosa Canyon is 5,904 feet deep and Urique the deepest at 6,136 feet. In comparison the Grand Canyon in the USA has a depth of 4,674 feet. If it were in America this staggering series of canyons would certainly be more extrovert and extravagant in title.

The name Copper Canyon, which was misleadingly named by the Spanish who mistook the greenish-glow of lichen for copper as they traipsed through the area, does not do justice to the region but selfishly means that it is a well-kept secret and only visited by a few. We and a handful of other tourists were the only ones to board the train the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway at El Fuerte. A one hundred and thirty kilometre train ride that would see us gain 1,600 metres in altitude and snake through a series of tunnels, bridges and valleys. It is not just scenic but one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring train journeys in the world.

We stopped at Bauhichivo station, no one else disembarked, the train pulled out and we headed off to Cerocahui. Here we were able to go for walks in the pine forests, the wind soughing in the trees around us, go horse riding and look out over and marvel at the Urique Canyon. We did this with no one else around. How special is that?

The next day we rejoined the train and a couple hours later and six hundred metres higher were in the Copper Canyon. The region is home to one of Mexico’s largest groups of indigenous people, the Rarámuri. Better known as the Tarahumara, they retreated to the high sierras and canyons such as Copper Canyon on the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Theirs is a hard life – then and now – many living in caves in the steep faces of the canyon. The women, dressed in colourful garb, sell baskets, their faces quietly and patiently looking up at me in the silent hope of a sale. I didn’t see any men – maybe they were all running. The Tarahumara are renowned for their long-distance running ability.

I would be misleading you if I was to leave you with the impression that the Copper Canyon was just about outstanding natural beauty and a hardy indigenous people whose way of life has changed little over the centuries. Change is in the air (no pun intended): there is a cable car (the third longest in the world) and a series of zip lines, one of which is over a kilometre long. I was filled with dread, both at the thought of what they were doing to the landscape and the prospect of ‘having’ to do the zip line.

Standing up to the first zipline platform, hands sweaty and bowels constrained by a harness, I asked myself why I was doing this. Seconds
later I was whizzing out over some of the most spectacular scenery in the world at seventy kilometres per hour. Minutes later I was wanting to do it all again. Hours later I had just had one of the most adrenaline-filled and amazing experiences of my life.

If this was in the US the whole world would know about it. Thankfully it’s not and you have the chance to go and experience one of life’s more inspiring sights.

For more information on organising a holiday to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, please contact our Mexico experts on 01285 880 980.

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Whale Sharks arrive off Mexico

Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish species. Every year they migrate to feed in the warm waters off the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and tiny Isla Holbox is one of their favourite feeding grounds. They will remain here until September and it’s possible, through strictly controlled local operators, to snorkel with these impressive creatures.

Although these giants of the fish kingdom can grow to be over 40 feet in length, they mainly feed on plankton and pose no threat to humans. Hundreds of whale sharks migrate to Mexico each year and their distinctive patterns of pale-yellow spots and stripes make them a truly beautiful sight.

We can offer a specialist trip to Mexico specifically organised to allow you to swim with whale sharks. This can be arranged as part of a tailor-made itinerary that takes in more of the wildlife highlights of Mexico.

To find out more about a holiday to Mexico, please contact John, the Steppes Discovery Mexico specialist, on 01285 643 333.

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Monarch Butterfly Increase in 2010 – 2011

A study by the WWF in December 2010 has found that the area covered by Monarch Butterflies in the Michoacan state of Central Mexico has grown by 109% compared to 2009.

Monarch Butterflies take part in one of the greatest migrations on earth. Every year they head north from Central Mexico and spread across North America as far as Southern Canada. This northerly Migration is done over three generations of butterflies. The fourth generation then turn aroundand head back to the valleys of Central Mexico to spend the winter.

During the winter months (December-February) millions of Monarch Butterflies can be seen in a mere handful of valleys within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

WWF has been monitoring the monarch butterfly populations year on year by measuring the area covered by butterflies in Michoacan state. Whilst 2009 had the lowest area coverage on record they found that the area covered in 2010 has more than doubled from the previous year to cover an area of 4.02 hectares.

Steppes Discovery can organise tailor-made trips to go the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

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Mexico’s Copper Canyon and Baja Sur

If you are looking for a different kind of holiday then the Copper Canyon, Mexico is the destination. You need time, but as I discovered on my recent familiarisation trip, the effort is hugely rewarding, and you can relax and pamper yourself in a 5* luxury beach resort on Baja California afterwards.

The Copper Canyon is a vast network of canyons and valleys with the highest point falling in the region of 8000ft and said to be five times the size of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. A charming train journey takes you through tunnels, over bridges and past sparkling lakes, but the famous train is just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing quite prepares you for the spectacular view on arrival to El Mirador Hotel – a view which you can enjoy from the privacy of your own balcony from sunrise to sunset.

Take time to delve deeper into the maze of canyons – visit historic towns such as Batopilas, founded in the early 17th Century and the first town to receive electricity after the capital. A boom in Silver mining meant large fortunes were made, and a remote and elegant colonial town was established. Sadly the fortunes ran out, and today a faded grandeur remains, with a community stronghold of some 2000 people who survive through trading with neighbouring communities and subsistence farming.

Tarahumara Indians are the indigenous group in this area, usually seen weaving baskets from pine needles. The Tarahumara’s are famous for their endurance running and many families still live in caves within the canyon.

Steppes can arrange a visit to the Copper Canyon by private driver and guide. Alternatively a number of incredible multi day treks can be organised, and are no doubt one of the best ways to visit this striking region. Combine a trip to the Copper Canyon with a few nights on the beach at one of the superb resorts in southern Baja to unwind in style. If you travel in February, you will be able to tie in some fantastic whale watching on the Baja’s Pacific Coast.

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Naturalists fear the worst is yet to come for Gulf of Mexico wildlife

An unmitigated environmental disaster, an economic crisis and a personal tragedy, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to elicit more questions than environmentalists can be answer. President Obama’s rhetoric on the matter is becoming increasingly bellicose as he responds to public demand for those responsible to be brought to task.

As Obama talks of ‘kicking ass’ one assumes it will be BP CEO Tony Hayward who will be bracing himself and assuming the position, along with thousands of pensions in the UK. Meanwhile the Gulf’s myriad wildlife bears the ultimate brunt of the oil spill which some estimate to be at a rate more than 24,000 barrels a day.

The pictures of fish, turtles and sea birds being washed up on the coast, rendered lifeless by thick, cloying oil are becoming depressingly familiar however many local naturalists are saying it is the damage we cannot see that should be of greatest concern. The territory of dolphins covers hundreds of miles in the Gulf and consequently they are more susceptible to the effects of the oil spill which in the case of marine mammals causes death by internal bleeding. These casualties will only come to light in the next few years along with the long term effects on bird and turtle reproduction. The long term impact on manatees is also of particular concern as following a winter that saw over 500 manatees die due to extreme weather, there is a real threat that the oil spill will seriously damage grass sea beds and other vegetation that forms the basis of their diet.

While the President is currently pre-occupied with establishing blame and delivering reprisal we can only hope that as the sheer scale of this unprecedented eco-disaster is realised, he will be moved to channel his efforts into finding alternative clean energy sources.