I have to admit, I am a massive Fry-ophile – I’ve watched basically everything he’s been in, been to two of his spoken word tours and when he once walked by my desk when I was working in the UK I audibly squealed. So I’ve been really looking forward to him taking me (be it via my lounge room) on this Central American adventure.
It’s been six years since he took us on a tour of all 50 American states in his iconic London black cab and I for one and extremely pleased to see Stephen Fry back on our screens for a second journey. And this time he’s travelling through Central America in a pimped out US school bus.
It might seem an odd choice of transport but Stephen explains, “These buses are the workhorses of Central America, retired from active school duty [in the US], they head south for the more arduous life ahead of them.”
So far I’m pretty thrilled to be along for the ride, especially considering I can enjoy it in pyjamas on my couch.
Fry’s opening words give insight to his ambition for the series “To cross the bridge from El Paso into Mexico is to step into a wholly different world, full of excitement, contradictions, violence, passion, danger. I’m about to find out what life south of the border is really like”. In place where fact can be stranger than fiction, this isn’t your stereotypical travel piece – sheltered from the reality of everyday life in Central America nor is it a hazy gap year memory.
Fry’s first stop is Chihuahua, where we learn the concept of cowboys originated during the Spanish occupation and where the words lasso and rodeo originated. Stephen then boards a train to the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, where he marvels at Copper Canyon (the Grand Canyon’s sister south of the border).
Copper Canyon is truly stunning, a marvel of the natural world and it’s here that we really start to see that Mexico is so much more than preconceived perceptions of drug cartels and tequila. Bigger and deeper than its American sister Fry decides to take an 80 mile and hour zipline half way down to meet the native Tarahumara people who managed to escape the Spanish invasion by making the canyon home. And for me, seeing Stephen Fry on a zip line is reason enough to watch this show – it is fantastic! It is like I am right there with him…
Our next stop is Real De Catorce, at 9000 feet this once bustling and wealthy silver mining town is now just home 600 people. That said this ghost town is now going through experience a new boom in international tourism. We arrive on Revolution Day, where the humble donkey is celebrated for its part in the freedom of Mexico. One of the fantastic things about this festival, is how inclusive it is native tribes and Catholics celebrate side by side in one church, something rarely achieved in the first world.
From here we travel to Teotihuacan, 30 miles from Mexico City. The old Mesoamerican capital offers culture hunters a taste of what life was like at 100BC, it’s easy to understand why this stunning archaeological gem is a UNESCO world heritage site.
By this stage I’m on Google looking up flight options because I need to get to this place ASAP. This is far from the preconceived Mexico in my head, Fry’s unique sense of humour and warmth makes watching this feel like a friend recounting their travel adventures willing you to start your own.
Next, our trusty school bus takes us to Mexico City where Fry has a small part in a telenovela (the hugely popular soap operas which have even been recreated for western audiences with programs such as Ugly Betty) and visits a family operated piñata maker.
Mexico City is home to 21 million people and as Fry tells us ‘it takes something extraordinary to stop its pulse’. A mass demonstration against the eight yearlong narcos wars has ground traffic to halt and Fry to tears. And me too. Recently 43 students disappeared and are believed dead due to government corruption and these disappearances are becoming all too common.
The Michoacan on the Pacific coast is home to one of the mostly deadly drug cartels but juxtaposed is a million-strong colony of monarch butterflies, many of whom have migrated up to 3,000 miles south from North America, acting as a living analogy for Mexico’s two sides.
Our last stop for this episode is fabled city of Acapulco. Once a fashionable resort for likes of Frank Sinatra, the name alone conjures up images of old Hollywood glamour. While perhaps not the jet setting place it was during the 50’s and 60’s it has retained some of the charm in the cliff divers who somehow manage to dive from 120 feet up into only 12 feet of water. Fry was nervous for them, and honestly, so was I.
One of the things I really enjoy about Fry’s adventures is that they seem so tangible, this is a holiday and life experience that you could actually do. There are no fancy hotels and expensive restaurants, it feels like Central America from a local’s perspective, the real Central America and I can’t wait for the next episode.
Here are a few more sneak peeks from the episode.
Have you been to Central America? What was your experience?
Broaden your horizons on BBC Knowledge this November, when Stephen Fry embarks on a Central American adventure in America’s backyard in a pimped up school bus.
It’s a journey through some of the oldest, most dangerous and breathtakingly beautiful countries that for most of us mean little more than a gap year, postcard from a beach or volcano, or a hazy idea of drug cartels, banana republics and forgotten civil wars.
Take a unique look at the people, places, wildlife and history, presented with Stephen’s beguiling sense of humour to reveal the best and worst of this part of Latin America.
BBC Knowledge available on Foxtel and Fetch.