Monday, 24 November 2014


N.B. The story could be a little inaccurate because of the lack of communication between us and those with authority. A group of volunteers trapped in a Mexican volcano observatory with little and no spanish is a situation that was never to go smoothly. I apologise if I make the bomberos sound hostile, its just what I felt at the situation. The three bomberos on our first day and the one who offered us a lift were, on the other hand, very lovely!

Before I even stepped on Colima's grounds, I was asked if I wanted to join a field trip the day after I arrived. I had no expectations what this field trip was going to be like, I never did any volcanology field work on an active volcano before, so I waved it off thinking it was going to be a day trip... That was until I found out a sleeping bag was going to be involved (and possibly every piece of clothing I brought over). The other volunteers soon confirmed that the trip they planned was a big one. A night in El Playon (about 2-3 km from the lava dome) followed by another night near the summit of Nevado de Colima (the extinct volcano north of Volcan de Colima). This is probably the most dangerous and highest point I would ever walk.

Dat sharp peak (Nevado de Colima)

Ignoring the signs

We should have seen the signs that we were not meant to be on this trip. Moments after seeing the peak of Nevado for the first time (that peak!) we came across the remnants of a recent landslide. They've come across landslides before which haven't stopped them but this was too big to drive over or dig through. We quickly changed our plans to going straight to Nevado because we didn't have much time til sunset.

Sara, in the pink jacket, for scale.
The second omen was that we weren't initially allowed to stay in Nevado. Nick needed to call the next day so we could have permission but he was in another state for a conference so he didn't know our abrupt change of plans. The sun was setting and it was getting late and really cold (we were 4000 m high up man) so the first group of firemen were kind enough to let us stay the night. They set up the fireplace, which we took full advantage to make smores, and they had a playful big kitten that just didn't seem to like me on the first night.

We named him Alfredo.
The team got straight to work when the firemen gave the thumbs up to stay. The infrared camera and digital SLR was set up to take overnight data. The former used to take thermal data while the SLR was used to record any visible activities like rockfalls. The day after we tried to set up the FLYSPEC, which collects SO2 data, but we didn’t seem to have any luck. That was a real pity because it was the first thing they were trying to teach me how to use. Turns out it really was unfortunate about the flyspec not working for reasons mentioned later. 

SLR, Thermal camera on the wooden board and Toughbook, FlySpec on the ground.

Disaster strikes

We waved the three bomberos adios (they have a changeover around 10 am) and told them we’ll be hella out of there by 1-2pm. You should have seen the happiness in our face as we packed up the truck again, ready to be back in civilisation (I was looking forward to be in the warmth again)… and then it happened. The truck refused to start. I can’t remember how exactly the events unfolded, the horror that we’ll have to stay there another night was so great that my mind still remains clouded. We tried to bump start the car, we tried to push it but our effort remained fruitless. The new set of bomberos tried to help but if I’m being honest, they just made the truck a little bit worse because now it sounded like a old man who was wheezing in his deathbed.

Tom pushing the truck while I was too busy taking photos (sorry!)

Stuck between a feud

And this is when we saw the ugly face of bureaucracy. At first I thought we couldn’t have had this failure in a better place, we were staying with civil protection, surely they’ll help us! They’ll know what to do! Sadly I was just being optimistic at that point. They told us it was Nick’s responsibility to help us, Nick our supervisor who was in a different state for a conference. Nick who we couldn’t call because neither us or they had a phone to call him. Nick who probably didn’t have a clue how bad the situation was. 

The only advantage of being trapped at 4000 m altitude was witnessing this beautiful sunset.

The Struggle

Being stuck at 4000 m altitude with very little to do is not fun. I made the mistake of not sleeping in my sleeping bag on the first night which meant I couldn’t sleep at all because I was shivering so badly. Each day we woke up with a headache (except for Sara who luckily had come prepared with altitude sickness pills) and we became exhausted just by walking to and from the truck. Sure we could collect more data but it was hard for us to pass the day. Thank god the observatory had wifi. 

However, passing the time was the least of our worries. We only packed food for two nights. We were only left with snacks and bread (which were all turning pretty hard). I was surviving on almonds and donuts for the last two days. We weren’t getting hungry because the altitude seemed to have suppressed our appetite but we knew we couldn’t stay a day longer (was it ironic that we watched the hunger games on Wednesday evening?). To make it worse, the bomberos were cooking up omelettes and other cooked food that just felt like they were taunting us. 

Living above the clouds


There was hope when the firemen told us that they could get a mechanic up and he would arrive by the afternoon. We held on to that hope even though it was getting around four but we were crushed when they broke the news he won’t be coming and that he’ll try again tomorrow. To be honest, at that point we felt like we couldn’t trust them. The only time they showed concern for the truck was when they needed to move it out of the way for their car. One of the bomberos invited two of us (Sara and me) to go down with them on the Wednesday swap over but it seemed like a bad idea to split the four of us, so we stayed together (good idea in retrospect which I could explain if someone asks). 

Nick finally came through when he contacted the National Park authority who contacted a tow truck and a mechanic. The only problem was that we needed to escort the tow truck to our truck at the top of Nevado. Now how do we get down?! We could have hiked down but that takes 6 hours, mechanics would refuse to work that late. We asked the bomberos to drive us down so we could bring the tow truck. They said they would double check with their boss but it should be okay (or so we thought he said).  The next day we waited eagerly for the truck to arrive. It was running late, but that didn't worry us because we finally had a solution, we were finally going to go home! Their truck finally came and we ran up to the bomberos asking to hop on.


They bomberos were breaking one bad news after another. They told us they didn't have the authority to give us a lift down. I thought they were the civil protection, that they were there to help us but it seemed like they were doing anything but that. Sara was suppose to leave Colima on Saturday, we didn't have anything more to eat, we couldn't cope with the altitude, we wanted to go home! We became desperate... there was crying and a teensy bit of begging involved, couldn't they let atleast one of us down? 

Lesson learnt: being hysterical can sometimes be the key. Turns out that the bomberos do not know how to handle a crying girl and maybe it's okay to ignore authority sometimes (for some reason the words like permission and Alfredo wasn't being thrown around anymore). They decided to take their big truck down during the swap over and let us jump on the back of their truck so we could hitch a ride with the bomberos down to Guzman. We were finally free. 

The girls were obviously more excited about finally coming home

... But it wasn't over

Nick wasn't impressed that we deserted the truck. We tried to find the mechanic the Park authority contacted as soon as we got down but we were too quick to get back home (after having some trashy chinese food at a supermarket) when our first taxi failed to find it. Tom and I returned to Guzman the next day to find the said mechanic (and we did). Never did I expect to be on a tow truck driving up to a mountain summit in Mexico, but hey I come back with a story to tell. Everything went smoother than expected, I think even the driver was surprised, and we brought the truck back to Colima. 

The rescue mission wasn't without a cost though. While we were busy trying to decipher what the tow truck company was explaining to us in Spanish, we missed an explosion! Volcan de Colima produced a 5km high ash cloud and pyroclastic flows can be seen in the photos. You won't believe how incredibly upset I was to miss such a sight and how guilty the team felt for not being able to collect SO2 data. However, from a volcanologist's point of view, this is an exciting time for field work! We'll be back to investigate the site of damage including from El Playon and...


Volcan de Colima the day before the explosion

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A trip to one of the World's wonder

A World Heritage Site status (UNESCO) and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s no surprise that Chichén Itzá is one of Mexico’s most visited tourist destination. More impressive is that it was one of the "greatest Mayan centers" in the Peninsula of Yucatan. It was definitely one of the reason we prioritized the visit over closer sites such as Ek Balam (which had planned to go until we both fell ill).

No matter where you are in the Yucatan peninsula, it’s likely that a tour group will be offering a day trip to Chichen Itza but we decided to, like all of our day trips in Mexico, to do it individually. We took a coach to Valladolid, a colonial town closer to Chichen Itza is worth a trip on its own. We then took a collectivio the next day (after having possibly the best pancakes in the world) straight to Chichen Itza.

The Temple of Kukulkan 

A comparison of the restored and soon to be restored faces of El Castillo
Also known as El Castillo, this square based step pyramid is the the first thing that greets you as you enter the ruins of Chichén Itzá... after all, it's the thing we came to see. Now a little back story on the temple: it while it was built to show dedication to the Feathered Serpent God Kukulcan, it was also was thought to be used for astronomical uses. The beautiful pyramid can be seen as a massive calendar as each of the sides have 91 steps adding upto 365 (if you count the top platform). The number 91 also significant as it the number of days between the four phases of the solar cycle (new fact for me, yay).  

The Gruesome Mayans 

An eagle eating... a human's heart
Although the Mayans founded Chichen Itza, the city was invaded by the Toltecs, who brought their own culture with them. One such contribution from the invaders includes the introduction to and obsession with human sacrifices. Many of the structures, including the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars, have cravings of animals grabbing (and eating?) human hearts which are suppose to be analogous to the brave warriors capturing sacrificial victims. There was even a Platform of Skulls which were used to exhibit the heads of the sacrificed victims. 

The Mayans aren't my favourite set of architects sadly...
I felt like I was constantly being reminded of how barbaric the Mayans while James was telling me about the ruins (courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide, before you think of him as Indiana James). The ruins don't give a day trip tourist a glimpse to their academic contribution My views of the once great civilisation went from awe to little more awful. Fortunately, the structures in Chichen Itza are more than just temples and palaces. El Caracol pictured below is an observatory that they used to study venus.

Maybe I should mention they observed venus to make decisions on their next battles and rituals...

Chichen Itza – A commercialised experience 

The minute you step out of your bus, you’re greeted by a myriad of merchants trying to sell you hats (the rows and rows of hats!). There's a small photo-op right outside the entrance and the standard restaurants and gift shop. The most prominent difference between the previous ruins I visited and Chichén Itzá were the abundance of market stalls inside. Now I can already hear Rishi warming up to talk about how commercialism is required for development and sure, people do depend on the tourist sales to make an income but I am allowed to complain about the chantings of "Only US $1" and "Almost free" following me everywhere I walked combined with the intense heat just made my experience a little less enjoyable.

On the way to the cenote - the pathway is lined with markets
Saying that... the level commercialism isn't as bad as I've seen in other countries and it's only a small drawback. I'm glad that they are wooden market stalls rather than permanent buildings. I also glimpsed a peak how the handicraft was being made, showing us how talented the people behind the market stalls were!

Overall, Chichén Itzá is full of impressive Mayan structures that anyone would be a fool to give this a miss!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Water stirred by wind - Visiting the Cobá Ruins

It doesn’t take long before you start exploring the Cobá ruins that you start to feel like you’re in a game of Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. Set deep in the jungle, with only a sleepy little town at its entrance, both James and I felt like an adventurer as we spent the whole day climbing and searching for what this place had to offer.

Entering Cobá

Visiting the ruins in Cobá was never in the initial itinerary… in fact it was more of a last minute addition which we were both unsure about. I actually hadn’t come across it during my cursory research and the Lonely Planet just mentions it as a bypass. The first time I heard about it was when a friend recommended it especially because you can get to climb a Mayan Pyramid… Climb an actual Mayan Pyramid? Hell yeah!

The Big Mound

At the time we were visiting Cobá, we were staying in Tulum. We caught the ADO coach service at 10:11 (very specific timing) and it was only a 45 minute ride to the current, small sleepy town of Cobá. Since we were catching a bus to Valladolid in the evening, we booked another bus ticket back at 3pm, which we initially thought would give us plenty of time to explore... but ended up being just enough time. 

Exploring the ruins

Cobá itself was one of the larger Mayan cities, with a population of 50000 at the peak of its civilization between 600-900 AD. It was thought to have been abandoned when the Spanish invaded the Peninsula around 1550 and then rediscovered in the 1920's. Although the ruins are open to the public, there is much more to be excavated in the dense jungle... so who knows what we unwittingly walked past!

Walking from one ruin to another

We went to Tulum the day earlier, which set the barrier low for expectations (believing that Tulum ruins were the best Mexico had to offer) and I’m glad that our experience at Cobá far surpassed these. From an archaeological point of view, Cobá ruins seemed better preserved. It was the first time I saw what an actual ball court looked like (boy do they look difficult to play). The hieroglyphics were less weathered away and traces of paint still remained on some of the structures. You could even walk on the ancient sacbes - Mayan roads! From a travellers point of view, Cobá is undeservingly less popular with tourists, hence less crowded and commercialised. It also does help being in the middle of the jungle - shade kept us going on for longer. I think I enjoyed it more than Chichen Itza!

A peak at one of the ball courts

Climbing Nohoch Mul 

Not so keen on climbing Nohoch Mul as we approach it

The highlight of the ruins, and the reason why anyone comes to Cobá, is being able to climb Nohoch Mul. The pyramid stands proudly at a height of 42 m and invites tourists to climb up the 120 steps to gain a spectacular view of the jungle, the two lagoons and rest of Cobà. I took my time sitting in the shade, topping up on sun cream and bug repellent - there was no rush, right? Then I saw the light - or lack of - as a cloud blocked the sun and covered the pyramid in shade. 

"James! Lets go now!"

I ran towards the pyramid but it was too late, the cloud was a little too small and the sky was a little too blue (damnit, why did we have to have such wonderful weather today?). I had no choice but to climb up the steep, uneven steps (all 120 of them) in the blazing sun. Many had tried to conquer the beast before me but alas, I had to clamber past the unhealthy-sized americans, the too-keen-to-pace-themselves athletes and the poor poor kids who had no idea what they were up against. Alas, all those geological field trips became worthwhile because the great Mayan Structure seemed easy enough to climb and the bane of the whole experience was surviving the intense sun at the top (there was a dearth amount of shade).

James would like to think he is one god-damn sexy explorer

Thank you Harshnira for suggesting the Cobá ruins! Maybe I felt a bit like an explorer dashing through and searching for the next remnants of a great Mayan civilisation, but I can say for sure this has been one of the highlights of our tour of the Yucatan peninsula.