Monday, May 29, 2017

Overseas Adventures: Peña de Bernal

The last few months have been crazy. Work and home life have made finding time to write nearly impossible and with all the other commitments, the insanity of constant go-go-go has left my wife and I a bit exhausted. So we have been looking forward to this trip to Mexico to attend a friend's wedding for some time. Our initial research seemed to turn up little about the destination beyond the fact that it was just short of three hours drive north of Mexico City at the foot of one of the largest monoliths in the world. With few preconceptions in mind, we boarded our flight to Benito Juarez Airport.

As we made our final descent into Mexico City, it looked little different from any other major city I had flown into. Aside from signs in Spanish instead of English, this could really have been a major airport in the US. Customs and immigration went smoothly and before long, we were roaming the terminal in search of the rental car desk. When we finally found the desk, my rudimentary Spanish and the desk agents rudimentary English made communicating a challenge, but eventually, we were being transported to the actual off-site rental car location.

Now, as someone who rents cars not infrequently, I have experienced what I thought was the entire range of terrible rental car experiences, but picking up a car in Mexico City has got to have been the slowest experience I have ever had to date. Even with a reservation and pre-selected insurance options along with my driver's license and credit card on file, it took nearly 30 minutes after we arrived at the off-site location for a car to be made available. When the Jetta was finally presented to us, and after a thorough inspection, we set off towards our destination.

I have been in cars in Mexico before and fully expected the driving conditions to be somewhat unpredictable, but the first moments in traffic were downright frightening. Lanes pretty much were non-existent to say nothing of lane discipline. It was not infrequent to see large convoys of Federal Police along with Military and State Police, packed into marked pick-up trucks and carrying enormous amounts of firepower, cruising down the road. We made quick progress and transitioned from local highways onto the nationally built toll roads where conditions improved quickly. Well-maintained and thoroughly modern, the toll roads allowed us to make quick progress through central Mexico towards our final destination.

The drive itself was most horrendously uneventful. For all the horror stories I had read online prior to the trip, we made good time and had absolutely zero difficulties safely navigating our way through the interior of the country and to the tiny town of Bernal. As we rolled into the outskirts of town, the landscape shifted from empty plains to rolling hills. We approached a traffic circle and suddenly, the town materialized before us as if by magic. The main street quickly gives way to cobbled paths as we approach the town center and our accommodations for the evening.

Were it not for the tourists and cars, this town could just as easily have been plucked out of history. The architecture is largely older masonry construction and looks weathered by decades of the sun's rays. Of course, the weathered outsides belie thoroughly modern insides. Our hotel, for instance, with its imposing wooden doors and knurled wrought iron door handles and knocker are contrasted against a modern courtyard and filled with properly modern amenities, including a jetted soaking tub and LED lighting. Looking into the neighbor's homes as we walked by and we could see that while their homes looked aged on the outside, the insides were equally filled with modern amenities.

While we stayed just steps from the town center, the wedding we were attending was on the outskirts of town. Conveniently, the very edge of town was little more than a 5 minute walk. The wedding hotel looked even more out of place, feeling like a movie set with its historic looking facades book-ended by desert shrubbery and an elaborate looking chapel. It was hard not to feel transported to a whole different world every time we walked around.

On first full day in Bernal, the main activity was a tour of a local vineyard and winery. While I am certainly no expert, I have been to enough wineries and consumed enough wine to know what my personal preferences are and understand pretty well what goes into a decent bottle of wine. The La Redonda Winery, is a relatively new winery established in a region that is quite warm and dry. It produces a rather large number of varietals in both reds and whites, and is among the few wineries in Mexico to begin to export to areas outside its home region.

We started the afternoon by sitting for a late lunch and then strolled the grounds in the afternoon sun to tour the vineyard and winery facilities. It is immediately evident from the way the graftings are done and the plantings aligned, there is still a gap in the refinement compared to the more established wineries we have been to in the past. Still, one cannot argue with an inexpensive meal and good company.

Returning to the town in the late afternoon, a woman we had met at the winery offered to show us a bit of the town where we got to see the work of some local artisans and grabbed an impressively tasty meal for not very much money. Since she used to live in the town itself, she knew all of the local shop owners and was kindly able to help me track down a Cuban cigar (well, more a cigarillo, but better than nothing) that I could enjoy later in the evening.

The morning of the wedding, we got a late start and wandered around the town for a bit in search of a suitable brunch, passing by many a small shop filled with wondrous curios. While we strolled, our stomachs eventually guided us to a cafe that appeared to be the only one in the area serving a mixture of Mexican-Italian cuisine and a brunch that included some lovely looking fruit filled pastries. We sat up on the roof, enjoying the impressive view of the peña while we dined on our meal. The food was tasty, if not particularly memorable, but the views were worth the price of the meal.

Our bellies full, we continued our wanderings and found ourselves in a haphazardly but beautifully decorated courtyard. Filled with all manners of flowers and trees, the real highlight of the courtyard was several live animals, including an entire pool of turtles and several very chatty birds. At the very back of the courtyard was a restaurant built up around the base of a massive tree whose canopy provided diners with shade during their meals. This led to yet another spectacular view of the monolith, looming protectively over this quaint village. We enjoyed our stroll around the town, soaking up the rays of the afternoon sun and enjoying the stiff breeze before we headed back to our hotel to get dressed for the wedding.

After an epic night of food, drink, and dance, we got a chance to once again enjoy the town, this time sitting for breakfast with a group of friends on yet another rooftop with a stunning view of the monolith. As we dined, it was possible to spot the tiny figures of people making climb up the rock; a climb we would be making later that day. Despite slow service and a meal that took far too long, we still had a great time. To top it all off, we trekked to a different part of town to escape the heat and grab some ice cream to cap off our lunch and watch in bemusement as one of the neighborhood's stray dogs respectfully followed us around until he found a shady spot to lay down for an afternoon nap.

Later that afternoon, we met about a dozen others to make the climb up the peña. A short drive took us to the base of the rock where a number of vendors had set up shop selling everything from chotchskies to clothes to food and drink. We had waited until the heat had abate a bit before setting off so while it was warm, dry, and breezy, the conditions were near perfect for making the trek. Hiking up the rocks combination of hewn outcroppings and man-made steps, we made steady progress towards the highest point that could be reached. Occasionally the path narrowed, necessitating crossing one person at a time, but for the most part, it was a pleasant hike.

As the trail gave way to slick rock face, reminiscent of the surfaces we once traversed by mountain bike in Utah, some of our compatriots decided they did not want to continue on. Those that did scrabbled up the rock and found ourselves perched upon an outcropping almost three-quarters of the way up the monolith. The views were understandably spectacular and it was possible to observe the entire village from this vantage point. In fact, most of the valley was visible from where we stood.

However, as the sun was starting to set, we needed to make the descent back to the base. The hike up was a lot less intimidating than the hike down. When you can keep looking up, it is easier to not realize how high up you are, but when you are headed down, you can't help but realize just how precarious a situation you are really in. Of course, as we made our way down the rocky, dusty surface, we crossed paths with many people making their way up carrying large quantities of beer. It appears the peña was quite the well known hangout for getting drunk, which is probably why the locals were telling us stories of people frequently tumbling off the rock and ending up seriously injured.

Luckily for us, sober and well hydrated, we made it safely down, rejoining our larger group, now made up of a dozen weary and hungry hikers. As it was nearing 9PM on a Sunday evening, we managed to work out with a local pizza shop to deliver us a few pies as we made a valiant effort to consume the leftover beer and liquor from the wedding. Over pizza and booze, international politics, social justice, and many other heady topics of discussion were passionately debated, backed by a soundtrack of indie rock and pop piped over a small speaker in the corner of bar. Everyone was happy to be letting off some steam and relaxing before we all had to depart the next day to return to our real lives soon.

The morning of our departure was relatively relaxed as we had allotted plenty of time for the drive back to Mexico City. Stopping to grab a pan con queso, a local favorite we had seen advertised in several places, we hopped onto the toll road and started the long slog back towards the airport. For the most part, the drive was uneventful, aside from one panic moment where a herder's goats had gotten loose and ran onto the highway, directly in our path of travel. Luckily I had been looking far enough ahead that that heart stopping moment translated into little more than a a test of the Jetta's braking prowess. As we neared the airport, road closures took us off course and resulted in a bit of a test of my sense of direction, but eventually we were able to locate the car rental place, though it took nearly 20 minutes to actually process the return of the car.

Another 20 minutes later, we were seated in the Aeromexico Lounge, enjoying a drink and some snacks while we waited to board our return flight back to LA.

When we tell people we recently visited Mexico, people immediately assume that we visited one of the many touristy cities and stayed at one of those all-inclusive resorts. While those sounds like fun places to go, we were genuinely happy to have had the opportunity to visit a part of Mexico we would never have even known existed, much less visited if not for the decision by our friends to host the wedding there. It forced us to practice our much atrophied high-school Spanish and gave us an opportunity to meet local people and eat local food we might otherwise have missed. These are the types of off-the-beaten-path travel experiences my wife and I have always loved. A chance to experience a more authentic side of the culture of a foreign country. Hidden gems like Bernal exist in every country and we hope we will continue to have the opportunity to discover many more.

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