Mexico / Nature / Travel

Shake, Rattle, and Roll: Riding Out a Mexican Earthquake

The tag line for our blog is Travel Tales with a Twist, and two weeks ago while traveling in Puebla, Mexico, we experienced a truly unexpected twist … an earthquake. This surprise shake was our first, and even though the 7.2 magnitude quake’s epicenter was 175 miles away in coastal Oaxaca, there was enough shaking to convince us to grab a backpack, and bolt from the building.

The street scene that greeted us outside our town-center hotel was strangely quiet and absolutely eerie. The streets were crowded with small groups of people speaking in hushed voices. Drivers abandoned their cars, and school children sat cross-legged in the middle of the street surrounded by protective parents. The noisy Spanish chatter from a lone policeman’s radio was the only sound.

As rattled earthquake newbies, we didn’t need much encouragement to skedaddle from our 4th floor room with its trembling furniture and swaying floor lamps. Ring-of-Fire veterans may think we overreacted, but at that point, we were taking our cue from the locals, who seemed to be dead serious.

And later we learned why. On September 19, 2017 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake killed 220 people in nearby in Mexico City and 47 died in Puebla, which was only 35 miles north of the epicenter. Coincidentally, the 2017 quake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 Mexico City Earthquake that killed 10,000 people. In an even stranger coincidence, the 1985 quake was commemorated, and a national earthquake drill was held at 11 am, just two hours before the 2017 earthquake occurred.

Our adrenaline levels were red-lined, but we were happy to be outside the hotel and safe. Our hearts had stopped racing, and after a few moments we began to reflect on what had just happened. Standing there in my jogging shorts and T shirt, I wondered how the coming 45-degree night would go if I couldn’t return to our room. And you’ll notice the absence of photos that normally accompany our blog posts. Basically, everything we had with us, including our camera, was left in our hotel room. We worried about the next day’s bus and plane e-tickets that were loaded on our iPhones and iPad up in the room. It was not a comfortable feeling.

Our time on the street, facing the uncertainty of knowing what would happen next, made us realize how ill-prepared we had been and how scatterbrained we had reacted. As a geologist, I of all people should have thought about the fact that we were traveling in earthquake country, and we should have prepared – or at the very least talked about it.

After an hour of standing around, eavesdropping and trying unsuccessfully to understand a few words of the policeman’s Spanish radio conversations, we reluctantly returned to our room. That’s when we got our act together.

We were leaving Puebla the next day to return to the States, so our first priority was to totally pack up our backpacks, just in case we needed to make another hasty, unscheduled exit and weren’t able to return. And while we sat talking, an aftershock convinced us to take our packs and wait in the lobby as close to the exit doors as possible.

After an hour of watching seemingly unconcerned drinkers in the lobby bar, and tracking minor aftershocks online, we decided it was safe to return to our hopefully-stable-for-the-night hotel room.

The good news is that we made it through our first earthquake with nothing more than jangled nerves. But still, it was a frightening experience and a good reminder that as travelers in a foreign country, when it comes to dealing with emergency situations, whether natural disasters or civil unrest, you’re pretty much on your own.

The point is this: being prepared is never a bad thing. And while you shouldn’t travel in places that make you paranoid about safety and security, know the risks, and prepare as best you can. It’s easy to get complacent, thinking that it only happens to someone else, but now we know what it feels like to be fleas on a shaking dog.

Had an earthquake experience? We’d love to hear about it.

Happy Trails and Safe Travels,
James & Terri

P.S. The header photo from the disastrous 1906 San Francisco earthquake kinda says it all.

42 thoughts on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll: Riding Out a Mexican Earthquake

  1. That is a “header” photo in more ways than one!

    I’ve not felt a strong earthquake, but believe it or not, the biggest shaking I’ve felt was in the Chicago area when the New Madrid fault line did a little jiggling about a decade ago and we felt and saw it there at 4 am. Lamps walked off tables and pictures bounced crookedly on walls – that was enough for me! I do occasionally think about evacuation or other emergency plans when traveling, and right now one of my small worries is the volcano near Mexico City that threatens to erupt big time. My husband travels there almost weekly, and they say when this thing blows, it could halt things quite severely, in part because it’s not far from the airport. 😐

    Glad things settled down enough for you to leave. I could feel your nervousness through your words and know I’d have many of those same thoughts!

    • Lexie, I think that most Americans, me included, thinks that this area of Mexico sits there quietly, when in reality, it’s one of the most seismically active areas in the world. As a flying visitor, your husband should definitely keep an eye on Popocatépetl, as it could definitley be a threat to planes. It smokes almost constantly. We flew over Popo on a flight from Palenque to Mexico City on a clear day and got some dandy cell phone photos of it. As for the New Madrid Fault (shameless self-promotion to follow), if you haven’t read this post, it will certainly give you a bit of insight into the New Madrid area that you haven’t heard.

      BTW, LOL on the “header” comment. Wish I’d thought of it myself. 🙂 ~James

  2. I lived in Vancouver for 25 years and felt a few minor quakes. One happened when I was at work on the 12th floor of a downtown building. I was quite fascinated and stayed in my office watching the window washers swaying on the building across from us. My co-workers suggested I move away from the window. Duh!! We did earthquake drills regularly in Vancouver and had earthquake kits in our cars and offices. I was lucky to have never experienced a big one. Glad you were both OK.

    • Darlene, we lived in Oregon for a couple of years, and didn’t feel even a minor shake. We lived on the coast and tsunami warnings were a bigger deal. As I said, it’s easy to get complacent, but one of these days there’s going to be a whopper somewhere on the west coast of the US or Canada that will be in the 9/11 category. And I think that earthquake kits and plans are a great idea. I’ve been in swaying high rises before and it gives me the major-league creeps. ~James

  3. Living in Christchurch, New Zealand I’ve lost count of the earthquakes I’ve experienced but it’s easy to get complacent when I speak the language, live in a developed country and go through them on a regular basis – every household in NZ is supposed to have an emergency survival box and we don’t. I am in no way trying to diminish your experience – I know the feelings you went through & I can only imagine how the language barrier & fear of poor-quality buildings would have added to it. Safe travels.

    • Fi, I suspected we’d hear from you and a few others around the Pacific Rim. You and everyone else in NZ are on the earthquake hot seat for sure. I guess that just about anything can become routine, and hopefully, the quakes you routinely experience will continue to be small. We lived at the beach in Florida for a few years, and consequently, had the annual threat of hurricanes. But at least with hurricanes you have lots of warning. The thing that would worry me about earthquakes is that they can happen at any time, and be any magnitude. BTW, in Florida it’s difficult and very expensive to get hurricane insurance for your house. How is it for earthquake insurance there? ~James

      • Oh dear, it would seem I’m a bit predictable! We were originally renters and couldn’t get contents insurance initially but that didn’t last. Getting insurance is now not a problem although there are all sorts of clauses regarding the exact value of your property and at what stage during a build it becomes insurable. There are still people fighting the insurance companies 7 years on. I can totally appreciate that Florida suffers the same insurance woes.

  4. We’ve had several small earth quakes in Deep River and some even in Toronto, but they weren’t significant, just enough to make the china rattle. A near miss was – we were in Japan exactly one year to the date of the big one. We were very glad to miss it.

    • Leslie, earthquakes can, and do, happen literally anywhere. Of course, places like Japan are some of the highest risk places on earth, and I wouldn’t want to experience one there. BTW, I googled it and the city which has the greatest risk of experiencing an earthquake is Tokyo. They’ve grown accustomed to that life, but it’s not for me. ~James

      • Fortunately, nothing happened when we were there, James. Tokyo has to be on a major fault line. Sure glad we weren’t there for the big one.

  5. James, I’m glad to hear that you survived the recent quake, and that the experience will leave you better prepared the next time the seismic waves roll beneath your feet. We were in a 4th floor movie theater inside a modern shopping mall on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City at 1:15 pm on September 19th of last year. It was not my first rodeo (Loma Prieta, San Francisco, 1989), but one never gets used to the terror and uncertainty of an earthquake. As a fellow geologist, I am hoping to see an active Popo next month in Puebla. All the best, Joe

    • Ummm – another globe-trotting, blogging geologist – not something I’ve seen a lot Joe. I thought that your post on the Chicxulub meteor was awfully well written and informative for a non-scientist. Check it out folks!

      I don’t know about you, but as for earthquakes, I knew about but didn’t give a damn about those p-waves and s-waves rocking our hotel when we were in Puebla. I just wanted out. I now know that this phenonemon is best viewed in the lab. Popo was quiet while we were there but we got some great cell phone photos on our flight in. Enjoy your visit. ~James

      • Thank you, James, for your review of my Chicxulub story, and for encouraging your readers to check it out. Based on your blog posts and thoughtful commentary, I have to assume that you were attracted to earth sciences out of curiosity and interest in how our world is put together. Now that we are retired, isn’t it satisfying to travel to see the world in a broader perspective?

    • Alison, after our experience in Mexico in a fourth floor hotel room, I’d stay avoid high-rise hotels. Also, keep all your important gear and docs at hand and ready to grab and go. ~James

  6. What a terrifying experience – to realize how truly ill-prepared you are for the worst-case scenario. Thanks for the heads-up on this one. I chronically don’t know where my phone is at the best of times. I’d hate to be looking for it in a crisis.

    There is one thing I’m rather OCD about – at night before I go to bed I ALWAYS make sure the path from the bedrooms out of the house is clear without obstacles to trip over in the dark, in a panic. I’m not sure where it’s come from … probably some basic fire prevention stuff I learned as a kid at school.

    • Joanne, OCD or not I think that a clear escape path is a good idea. All of this planning sounds a bit OTT until something happens. The big lesson I learned is when traveling in potentially dangerous places don’t get your stuff any more scattered than necessary. We were panicking and deciding what to grab and where it was didn’t work well at all. In the end, we hardly took anything. And if you’re in a foreign country this could be a big mistake. ~James

  7. Glad to hear you’re both safe, even if a little shaken (and photo-less!). As a 7-year Ring-of-Fire earthquake vet (and a volcanic-ash vet as well, if that counts for anything ;), I think it’s not anyone else’s call to make – about how a given person reacts to a quake. I’ve gone through quite a range, from those little burps you might feel while others / your neighbors don’t.. all the way to full-on tremors where the Balinese are running around yelling ‘hidup! hidup!” (life! life!). Maybe because our island quakes and quivers so often I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the possibility – but life still goes on…

    • Amit I thought we’d hear from you. We spent a month on Java and Bali and luckily the only action we saw was a smoking Mt Merapi. The Indonesian Archipelago has it all and you’ve seen it all. I know that if I lived there I’d have an emergency kit and a “go-bag.” I think your biggest threat is Mt. Agung, but as you say: life goes on. Be Safe. ~James

      • Thanks. Yup, the ditch bag was organized and packed up right after the initial eruption and ashfall. Since then, I’ve ditched the ditch bag 😉 .. and take it one day at a time. It also doesn’t hurt that I moved to Sanur, further away from Agung. Come back and visit sometime!

  8. Glad all came out OK! It is a shocking thing to experience for sure. We felt numerous ones in California. I always felt that the small ones mag 3 or 4 were interesting, but things quickly got scary when they were bigger than that. In San Francisco people generally made sure that nothing would fall on the bed if an earthquake happened during the night. Once a quake happened at bathtime – it was a bit disconcerting! It was a quick sharp quake – sort of like an truck hit the building. I am surprised at your comment about the quiet after the quake. In my experience, after a quake it sounds like every alarm in the city goes off – cars, homes, etc. After Loma Prieta everyone was paranoid about bridges and tunnels. It took at least 6 months before we didn’t floor it to get the car out of there. At Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco you can see a displaced fence from the 1906 earthquake. It is offset about 6 feet! The first tremor I ever felt was in Alaska. The bed was shaking and I was wondering why Richard was rolling around so much. He was a child when an earthquake hit Alaska in 1964 – mag 9.2. The ground literally turned into liquid and rolled like waves. A good book on that is “The day trees bent to the ground”.

    • Pam every time I hear scary stories like these I wonder how many Californians really know the actual risks and think it through. Given the risk and the concentration of people … one of these days it’s going to be bad news. And re: the quiet, it really was disarming, and I wondered where all the traffic went. Luckily the internet never went out so we could see there hadn’t been any serious damage in Mexico City so our transport out the next day wouldn’t be a problem. Thanks for your personal experiences. ~James

  9. James and Terri – It’s bad enough to experience earthquake at home, horrible when you are traveling. One of my earliest memories is the rattling of bottles at my grandparent’s home during an earthquake (native Californian speaking.) I’ll look forward to reading the non-earthquake posts about your trip – I’ve always been curious about Puebla. Cheers – Susan

    • Susan, we enjoyed Puebla. We’d been traveling around the Yucatán and Chiapas and finishing our trip there in Puebla was nice. We’re just glad that the earthquake happened on the last day of the trip instead of the first. ~James

  10. Hey, I was really looking forward to some photos! Just kidding, of course. What a shock, experience and fearful day. Once in a while, we need to be reminded (hopefully not in a way you guys experienced, though) to not take things for granted or become complacent, like you mention. I’m glad everything worked out in the end and everyone was safe. “Now you know,” as they say, and you will be prepared for the future as well.

    I always imagine taking my valuables when an emergency happens, but, of course, you only know this for sure when it actually does. When panic sets in, the brain becomes useless more often than not.

    I have felt some smaller earthquakes, once in Belgium and a few times in California. After house and pet sitting in an area prone to wildfires, and being prepped by the owners about what to do, we now ask every home owner whether they have procedures in place and/or valuables we should save in certain events.

    • Liesbet, luckily, I don’t remember the last time we were truly panicked. But we were really freaked this time and I can say that there wasn’t much thought involved. We just wanted out of a shaking building. We had some experience with a coup and the need for emergency evacuations in Sudan, and based on that, what we should have been most worried about was our passports and cash. And you’re right, it is easy to get complacent. And asking each owner about plans to evacuate is a good idea. ~James

  11. So glad to hear you two are safe. What an experience to have in another country. I have been in two substantial earthquakes, one back in the 90’s while sleeping in a little cabana I had rented on a pier in So. Cal. That was my first and the whole pier felt like it was swaying. The second one was in OK City a few years ago. We were in our RV, which probably was a good place to be as it sits on wheels and we just bounced a bit. That was Terry’s first and his eyes were as big as saucers as I said, “I think that was an earthquake”. Now, living in So. Cal, we often feel small earthquakes that never amount to anything. Surprisingly, living in Yellowstone NP for two years we never felt a quake, although there were often several small tremors almost daily. As we travelers know, it pays to be aware of your surroundings, but I have never thought to consider being prepared for an earthquake.

    • LuAnn you Cali folks, like everyone else on the Pacific Rim, are in a whole different category when it comes to earthquake risk and planning. I can believe that it all becomes routine and is usually not something to fret over. But I guess there’s two types of quakes: the shake and startle type and the ones that might bring the building down. As travelers, what we should have done in Puebla is given some thought to what we were going to do if we had a big one and needed to leave quickly. When we lived in Sudan my company had an evacuation plan in place which meant every person had to be ready to leave the country in one hour with one suitcase. Mexico was a good reminder for us. ~James

      • That was a significant quake that you experienced and given that many countries don’t build to the same earthquake standards as the US, I would be concerned about bringing the house down as well.

  12. My first thought was “how scary.” But then I thought, “You are lucky to be writing this post!” Things could have gone south in a heartbeat, of course. We, too, would have left all in the room — camera, passports, backpack, etc. Lucky for you, the retrieval occurred and you’re home to tell the story. This is definitely one day you won’t soon forget.

    • Rusha, I’ve always had a healthy respect for forces of nature, and for me, earthquakes have been added to the list. In addition to being scary it was amazing how disorienting it all was. I’m not sure how people deal with the uncertainty all the time. We’re in the Netherlands now I’m happy to report no shaking ground. ~James

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