San Cristobal to Playa del Carmen

 

Palenque

2 February

Balloons and food in the Zocolo in San Cristobal
Balloons and food in the Zocolo in San Cristobal
Town Hall
Town Hall in San Cristobal

I woke up early and went for breakfast with Barbara.  After that, it was back to the room to pack the bag and go for a last walk around San Cristobal before catching the bus to Palenque.

It was another beautiful day after a cool start and I walked down to the Zocolo for a bit of people watching. There were plenty of them strolling around as it was Sunday. There were also a couple of large tables set up under canopies by the Cross in front of the Cathedral where food was being served. Apparently this happens every Sunday.

Cross int eh Zocolo
The Cross in the Zocolo in San Cristobal

We walked to the bus station, which was about 10 minutes away and then sat on the bus for 6 hours doing 200km.  It was extremely windy road up and down the mountains. San Cristobal was situated at 2,300m and we are now down to 80m, so quite a difference. The scenery was beautiful along the way. Around San Cristobal, it is quite hilly (as you can imagine, given that it is so high) and green and fertile. As we went further on, it became more and more hilly with a lot more tropical vegetation. There were a number of interesting road works along the way, including one in which it looked as though they had taken part of the road to build a wall a bit further down the mountain!

On the road to Palenque
On the road to Palenque

Once checked into the hotel, we went out straight away to a taco place for dinner. This was followed by a stop at the Oxxo (local mini supermarket) to stock up on supplies for the morning as we have a very early start for a jungle walk with the ‘mozzies’.

Tropical vegetation
Tropical vegetation on the way to Palenque

Palenque

3 February

Map of Palenque
Map of Palenque

Our guide for the Jungle Walk this morning was Salvador, who also brought his very shy young son, Jorge. We set off at 6.30am and headed for the Palenque ruins. The walk was through the unexcavated part of Palenque, which was one of the most important of the Mayan cities built in the Classic period of the Mayans, between 600 and 900 A.D. The part that has been excavated is tiny compared with what still lies covered in jungle and foliage. Salvador showed us the entrances to houses and palaces which had long tunnels underneath. The structures are so strong, particularly the arch ways that are the entrances to the buildings, that trees are growing on top of them and have been for several hundred years.

Unexcavated Mayan Palace
Unexcavated Mayan Palace

We heard a howler monkey in the distance as well as a variety of birds as we walked. The extent of the ruins is quite extraordinary and excavations have been limited due to corruption, money and the question of who is actually going to undertake the archaelogy. There is apparently a huge palace, that was discovered by a local man in 1999 that, when a digital camera was lowered in, showed enormous amounts of jade. (Everything that has so far been unearthed has had large amounts of jade on the floors and in tombs).

Jungle canopy
Jungle canopy

Once the walk was finished, we were taken on a tour of the excavated part of Palenque. By this time, it was warming up and there were a lot more tourists around. We were shown the Palace of the Inscriptions, so called because an enormous number of inscriptions or hieroglyphics were found within it, the Burial Chamber of the Red Queen, whose tomb was full of jade and pearl objects and so named because she had been painted red with cinnabar, the ground dust of mercury, and Temple 20 (all the temples are referred to by numbers).

View from the top of the Temple
View from the top of the Temple
Skull carving
Skull carving

Once the tour was finished, some of the group went off on a trip to see a waterfall.  Becky, Trevor and I, however, sat at the top of a temple for about 2 hours, just watching the tourists and taking in the atmosphere, which was truly spectacular. There were people of all nationalities, unsurprisingly, including a couple (possibly Israelis, we thought), who were juggling and smoking at the top of a pyramid until someone shouted at them from below to show more respect. Hundreds of people took our photograph so we will be featuring far and wide (although I suspect it was not our charismatic selves that they wanted but the temple we were perched upon!).

Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple at Palenque
Palenque temple
Temple at Palenque
Temple at Palenque

I had quite a headache by the end of the visit so we got a Collectivo (mini bus) back to town after we had walked the long way through the jungle back to the exit, passing a waterfall along the way. I went back to the room and lay down with some paracetamol whilst the others went to Burger King for lunch.

We went out in the evening to a restaurant in the jungle (very touristy) where there was some live music playing. The food was once again excellent and we got taxis back to the hotel. I was with three others from the group and the taxi driver managed to find some music that we all knew that we could sing along to at top volume. It was an excellent way to finish the evening!

Then I had to sort out the mess I had left on the bed and Becky and I were off to the bus station to catch the overnight bus to Merida. We wanted to do 2 trips there and wouldn’t have been able to fit them in if we went with the group tomorrow. Tomorrow could be a long day….!

Merida

4 February

We arrived in Merida at 7 am on the overnight bus from San Cristobal. I managed to get some sleep, but the bus, as usual, had air conditioning blasting forth. I really should have learned by now to take more clothes (as well as the socks, trousers and polar fleece!) We had a bit of a disagreement with the taxi driver, who took us to the hotel and who had quoted 30 pesos and then tried to charge 50 but that was the only little hiccup. (We paid 40 – and, OK it is peanuts, but it is the principal!

A Plaza in Merida
A Plaza in Merida
Government building in Merida
Government building in Merida
Pinata shop
Pinata shop

Luckily, we were able to check into our room straight away so could have a shower and breakfast. Then we went for a walk into town via the laundry. The hotels so far have all been very close and handy to the Zocolo, which is proving to be a bonus.

Merida is predominantly an old colonial city, the Spanish having destroyed all things Mayan when they arrived and then constructed buildings using their own style of architecture. It is known as the White City, as a lot of the stone used is of that colour, although, I would have to say, on my walk this morning, I saw little of this but a lot of the colours that Mexicans seem to prefer for their buildings.

Dress shop in Merida
Dress shop in Merida

Becky decided to go back to the hotel for a rest and I carried on wandering and observing the street life. There were lots of stalls along the pavement selling fruit and vegetables and I could not believe the number of material shops and shops dedicated entirely to ribbons and bits to sew on dresses. These have been in all towns so far. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as the dresses that are for sale all seem to be fairly heavily adorned with beads and ribbons etc. There are also a lot of pinata shops, which look quite bizarre with all the pinatas hanging up outside. A lot of them are shaped like animals, or Mickey Mouse etc. The Mexicans appear to be very fond of their stuffed animals, as I have seen a number of shops selling these too.

I sat in the Cathedral for a while. This is very simply decorated with a plain roof and dome. The organ started playing and I left when a service appeared to be starting and went and sat in the Zocola, until some Mexicans came and invaded my personal space. (Alright, they came and sat on the bench next to me but they were small benches!)

Round Pyramid at Uxmal
Round Pyramid at Uxmal

After that, it was back to the hotel to rest for a bit before going on the tour to Uxmal – pronounced ‘oosh-mal’. Our driver/tour guide, Manuel, picked us up in a fuchsia pink mini van and proceeded to hurtle round the streets of Merida, picking up a French couple and a Mexican couple to go along with us and the Chilean man who was already in the van when we were picked up. He then raced to Uxmal, which took about an hour, only stopping for us to buy drinks and lunch if we needed it, at a cafe, where I have no doubt he had friends and was getting a percentage. He appeared to be unfamiliar with driving a manual car, couldn’t seem to locate the indicators and obviously the speedometer didn’t work! However, we managed to get there safely.

We arrived at Uxmal at about 3pm and he gave us and the French lady, whose English apparently, was better than her Spanish, the briefest tour imaginable before allowing us to go off on our own, whilst he adjourned to a social meeting with his friends. We didn’t see him again until just before the Light and Sound Show, where he decided we didn’t need English translator earphones, because it was mostly music and not much Spanish. The entire show was narrated in Spanish and we didn’t understand a word. As we had paid for an English speaking guide, our tour leader will be following all this up with his office tomorrow!

Uxmal
Uxmal

View from the Pyramid
View from the Pyramid
View from the top of the Pyramid
View from the top of the Pyramid in Uxmal

In spite of our ‘guide’, we really enjoyed Uxmal. It is of an entirely different construction to the other sites we visited, with a round main pyramid. It is primarily Mayan with one part having an Aztec influence. There are many carvings of the rain god.  As there is little or no water in the area, they were constantly praying for rain. We actually had a few spots whilst we were there and, at one point, the sky became very black and threatening (and atmospheric!). There were also carvings of snakes with a human head coming out of its mouth, depicting the rain god, I think. The Mayans were very clever with the construction of their archways into buildings and each site has been different. They somehow balanced the rocks on top of each other so that if one side of the arch fell down, the other would remain.

Restoration at Uxmal
Restoration at Uxmal
Rain god carvings
Rain god carvings on the Pyramid at Uxmal

We admired the view from the top of one of the pyramids and had a lovely chat to a French man who came by (in a mixture of English and French), before joining up with the rest of our small group for dinner. This was fairly excruciating, with a mixture of Spanish, French and English and a Frenchman that seemed to switch between Spanish and French in the same sentence and spoke Spanish with a French accent. This was more than my middle aged brain could cope with! The food was good though the drinks were very expensive.

Carvings at Uxmal
Carvings at Uxmal

Our guide reappeared to direct us to the Light and Sound Show and then did his disappearing trick again. Despite the lack of English translation, it was still a beautiful event. Just looking at the ruins being lit up with the different coloured lights and hearing the voices was quite magical. An added bonus at Uxmal has been that it wasn’t nearly as crowded as Palenque, for instance, and was more enjoyable for that.

Sound and Light
Sound and Light
Illuminations at Uxmal
Illuminations at Uxmal

After that, luckily, Manuel was waiting to race us back to Merida where we arrived about 9 pm. Our laundry awaited us, the laundry man having delivered it to the hotel, and we were certainly ready for bed by then. It was quite a long day…!

Snake illuminated at Uxmal
Snake illuminated at Uxmal

Merida

5 February

Today was a spectacular day. After a large breakfast in the hotel, which included some rather tasty green rice, we were picked up by our guide, Raoul, in a mini van (thankfully, not bright pink), and taken to see some Cenotes.  Four Mexican boys also came on the tour with us.

Horse drawn transport
Horse drawn transport at the Cenotes

The Cenotes are large sink holes, of which there are about 2,000 in Yucatan, and several hundred in the surrounding States. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the world. Unlike the sink holes in Florida and other places, they do not suddenly swallow up people and houses, as they are underground and made of limestone, so are hard rather than swampy. There are apparently some in the middle of Merida, and also one at the airport that has a 30 metre tunnel leading from it.

Locals make way for tourists
Locals have to make way for tourists on the one track

We visited three, all different and totally unlike anything I had expected or had visited before. We were transported by horse drawn carriages on rails between each one and, I must say, I did feel sorry for the horses, which were small and rather puny looking.

At the Cenotes
At the Cenotes
Cenote
Cenote
Staircase out of Cenotes
Staircase out of a Cenote

When we arrived at the first Cenote, we could hardly believe that this was what we were going down. It was a small hole between tree roots, which looked much too small for us to fit in. Inside, we had to descend on a ladder and then clamber  around stalactites and over the rocks to reach a deep channel, in which the water was between 3 and 10 metres deep. (We had all come suitably attired for swimming.)

Big splash in the Cenotes
Big splash in the Cenote

The water was warmish although, by my reckoning, not the 27 degrees that we had been promised! Luckily, the guide and the horse owners had brought torches with them, as we had not been warned that we would need them and it would have been somewhat dark in the cave without them. After we had all swum through, some members of the party jumped off rocks and into the deepest part of the channel. It was quite narrow between the rock walls though, so I was not brave enough to do it.

The second Cenote was quite a bit larger and had some natural light coming through from the sun. Both this and the next one, had the most amazing clear blue water and the reflections were quite magnificent when the sun shone through the entrance holes above. In all three, there were stalactites coming down from the roof and stalagmites coming up from the floor, some of which were very thick. Everyone enjoyed the swimming and the boys, particularly, enjoyed jumping in. The third Cenote had a very high rock from which they could jump and it was apparently so deep that it was used for scuba diving.

Reflections on the water
Reflections on the water in the Cenote

Stalactites in the Cenotes
Stalactites in the Cenote

After we had spent several hours travelling to and in the pools, we were taken to a local restaurant for a very late lunch (it was about 3pm by that time.) This was quite an unusual place, in that it was very large, with a very high brush type of ceiling and there was only us in it. Those of us that ate found the food to be excellent.

Entrance of the Cenote
Entrance of the Cenote

We eventually got back to the hotel at about 5 pm by which time it was almost time to order the pizzas to eat on the hotel roof top. I had eaten so much at lunch, that I decided not to eat but got some wine instead from the local shop. The view from the roof was beautiful, looking over the city, which was all lit up by this time. We stayed up there for a while, but once the drinking games began, I came back to the room for diary writing and bed. We have a very early start in the morning to beat the rest of the tourists to Chichen Itza.

Cancun

6 February

We had all paid a bit extra for private transport to get us to Chichen Itza when the gate opened and thank goodness we did, as when we left at midday, the place was crawling with bus loads of tourists. We left at 6am and had a very smooth trip to the site, which is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Even so, we were not first in line at the gate and not the first tourists through in. We met with our guide, Guillermo, who was very knowledgeable and gave us a tour for about an hour and a half, after which we had free time to explore.

Main Pyramid at Chichen Itza
Main Pyramid at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is a walled city, with the temples being within the walls and the houses and living areas being outside them. In fact, it is believed that there were at least three walled areas, the second one housing the University, and a third one, that has, in fact, been restored but we weren’t told what it housed.

Men at work
Men at work on top of a temple at Chichen Itza
Snake head carvings
Snake head carvings at Chichen Itza

The main pyramid was built so that the four corners lined up with the sun at the equinoxes in the morning and afternoon. The steps go up at an angle of 45 degrees and there are 2 other older pyramids within. Only two sides have been able to be restored as, when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they destroyed much of it and used the stones to build their own houses. The Spanish do not appear to be well liked in Mexico, even to this day, as, being ignorant of the Mayan culture, they destroyed so much when they arrived. Once again, there are many carvings of the rain god in evidence, as there is so little rain in the Yucatan. Each temple site has carvings of the gods that were important to them and their situation, so it might be rain or it might be the sun, for example. The rain god is very easy to spot (at least when his nose is still attached) as his nose resembles an elephant’s trunk.

Ball court at Chichen Itza
Large Ball Court at Chichen Itza

There are 11 ball courts at Chichen Itza, one of which is the biggest we have seen so far. Normally, they hit the hard leather ball with parts of their body, but it is likely they used rackets on this particular court, because of its size. The ball had to be hit through large rings attached high on the walls and the winners were likely to have been human sacrifices to the gods. There were some carvings on the walls depicting headless men, knives and dripping blood which lent a little support to this theory!

Other buildings at Chichen Itza included the Palace of 1000 Columns, an Observatory, with its top window openings lining up with the horizon, and, what is believed to be, the University.

The large ring on the wall of the Ball Court
The large ring on the wall of the Ball Court at Chichen Itza

Traders at Chichen Itza
Traders at Chichen Itza
Observatory at Chichen Itza
Observatory at Chichen Itza

There was also a sacred Cenote. However, the waters of this one were a lot greener and murkier looking than the ones we visited yesterday. Apparently, 150 human skeletons were found at the bottom of the Cenote and there is a legend (not supported by Guillermo) that they were human sacrifices. They must have made the drinking water quite tasty!

Sacred Cenote at chichen Itza
Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza

We all met at the restaurant for lunch by which time, what seemed like hundreds of traders had set up their stands and thousands of tourists had joined us at the site. It is the closest Mayan site to Cancun, which is a very developed tourist destination. I had a delicious bowl of spicy vegetable soup and then we were on our way again.

Temple of a Thousand Columns
Temple of a Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza

The road was very straight and the countryside flat and green all the way to Cancun. We had one minor halt in proceedings when the driver pulled over in the outskirts of Cancun and we noticed smoke/steam coming from the engine. Luckily, it was only a broken hose, which was soon mended, the water replenished, and we were on our way again.

The hotel proved a little tricky to access as the pavements on both sides of the highway were pulled up and were being worked on by many men and diggers for several hundred metres. However, we eventually got there, checked into our rooms and went on a brief familiarisation tour, which included the supermarket and laundry, both essential locations to know about! After that, I managed to lose everybody (deliberately) and had a wander on my own for a while. Sometimes, one just needs that space!

Once back at the hotel, Becky, my room mate of the last few days, and I had a quick swim in the pool and then we finished my bottle of wine from yesterday, whilst watching re-runs of ‘Friends’ on the television. We have discovered, that several episodes of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Friends’ run back to back at the appropriate drinking hour so have been watching them over the last few days. Sad, I know, but at least they are in English.

We met the rest of our group for what was meant to be our final dinner with everyone. Will, Jacob and Kerrilee are leaving us here (although it sounds as though we might be followed by at least two of them) and 10 new people are joining us. Nell, Becky, the tour leader’s, kiwi friend who lives in London, arrived tonight and also came out to dinner with us. This was at a restaurant round the corner where we sat outside and ate because it is, at last, warm enough to do so. Everyone was in fine form aided by a few ‘two for the price of one’ cocktails. We were discussing what to do tomorrow, the options being pay to go to an island beach, pay to go and sit on the beach on the hotel strip, go shopping or blob. Apparently, the 20km strip of beach is owned by the various hotels and restaurants along it, each of which charge to sit there for a day. One group member, who wants some ‘glam’, is going to pay $120 US to go to the Hard Rock cafe and sit on their beach for the day, one or two people are taking the ferry (140 pesos or approx $14 NZ each way) to go to Isla Mujeres to sit on the beach and some of us are going to take the bus to the Plaza des Americanos, go to the shopping mall and then come back and blob by the pool and read our books. Guess what I am going to be doing?

Cancun

7 February

I woke up quite late (for me) and sat in bed catching up on three days worth of diary, downloading photos and writing the blog. Becky was still asleep, so I went down to breakfast about 9.30am where obviously everyone was having a late morning. As we had a free day today there was no rush to do anything.

After breakfast, a group of us caught the bus to Plaza des Americanas, which is a large shopping mall. I’m not quite sure why I went and I soon got bored, not surprisingly. We met for lunch and then Becky and I came back to the hotel where I spent most of the afternoon messing around with photos and the blog when I should have been lounging by the pool reading a book. I had to sit on a landing as there wasn’t any wifi in the room and there was quite a lot of foot traffic so I had one or two interruptions (usually nice ones though)!

Pavement repairs in Cancun
Pavement repairs in Cancun

I considered going to have a look at the hotel strip but decided it was too much effort to get a bus to look at a lot of hotels backing onto the beach. Cancun is very much a tourist town. The Mexican Government, several years ago, decided that it needed to promote tourism and develop a tourist area. After a lot of research, they decided that Cancun would be the ideal location. It then had about half a dozen families living there. Sand was shipped in and a beach created. Hotels were built along the beach and now it is one massive resort. The hotels and restaurants all charge to go on the beach that they ‘own’ although there are apparently a few public beaches.

Oxxo shop
One of the Oxxo shops – purveyors of life saving Americano coffee!

At 6pm, we had a meeting for Becky to welcome the new people joining the tour and to give us some details about the next part. The new arrivals comprised three French Canadian couples, a French Swiss couple, an Englishman and Canadian man, meaning that more than half the group is now French speaking. Quite impressive! There are actually a lot of French speaking people in Mexico, it seems. After the meeting, everyone else went out to dinner but Becky and I were feeling anti-social so we got some quesidillas and had them with our wine in the hotel. There was a balcony along from our room with suitable table and chairs so it was very comfortable. We were forced to go to the supermarket for extra supplies though and I did a trip to the Oxxo for much needed coffee. (The Oxxo has been my main source of coffee throughout Mexico.)

Playa del Carmen

8 February

We had another early start today as we were catching an 8.15 am bus to Playa del Carmen, which is about an hour’s drive from Cancun. However, we had a free day once we arrived, so it was worth it.

Mayan ruins at Tulum
Mayan ruins at Tulum

We were unable to check into our rooms at the hotel so we parked our bags and took a Collectivo (mini bus) to Tulum, which is another Mayan site. By the time we got there, it was very hot and we had to walk about 1 km from the bus stop to reach the ruins.  There were hundreds of tourists.

The exit gate at Tulum
The exit gate at Tulum

There is no doubt that Tulum is in a beautiful setting right next to the sea but Trevor summed it up perfectly when he said that it didn’t seem real and it was just like a theme park. Thank goodness we had the opportunity to visit all the other sites. There was a beach next to the ruins and we left Trevor there and came back to Playa.  I was in dire need of some alone time so we decided to go our separate ways on our return.

Iguana
Iguana

Playa is extremely touristy. The main street is just full of restaurants and tourist shops and the beach is full of sun beds and people. There was a bit of entertainment happening at one end of the beach and also volleyball etc. However, I just watched and kept walking. All interesting to see but I am glad we are moving on to Belize tomorrow.

Wedding car at Playa
Wedding car at Playa

Interesting display outside shop
Interesting display outside shop in Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen beach
Playa del Carmen beach

Once I had stocked on supplies at Walmart for our long day on the buses tomorrow, I came back to the hotel for a swim. I then monopolised one of the tables by the pool and set up my office to do my diary/blog!

Mexico City to San Cristobal

 

Puebla

27 January

This morning I sadly left Thomas in bed and walked around to the hotel where the rest of the tour group were staying. We had an early start (supposedly at 6.45am but the bus driver was very late) to drive to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. It was about a 45 minute drive through the rush hour traffic, luckily against the flow, to reach the site where we met with our local tour guide, Ricardo.

Hot air balloon
Hot air balloon over the Pyramid of the Sun

He took us around the ancient temples, telling us about the indigenous culture, demonstrating the natural acoustics that occur when clapping or speaking towards the pyramids (it is not an echo but the sound of the Guatemalan quetzal bird), explaining the significance of the carvings on the stone and the thirteen month year.

Pyramid of the Moon
Pyramid of the Moon

All the pyramids are solid inside and are built in accordance with the position of the sun and the moon at the equinoxes.  The shape of the two main ones reflect the shape of the mountains behind them.

Asian tourist
One of the few Asian tourists

Steps down from the pyramid
Steps down from the Pyramid of the Sun
View from the Pyramid of the Sun
View from the Pyramid of the Sun

We climbed up the two main pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun, which is apparently for men, and the Pyramid of the Moon, which strengthens the spiritual energy in women. The view was wonderful from the top, although we couldn’t climb the whole of the Pyramid of the Moon as it had been closed because of graffiti. Prior to 1968, the temples had been completely open to anybody, with the result that some of the carvings had been removed. Since then, they have been restored and protected.  There were surprisingly few tourists at the site.

Avenue of the Dead
Avenida del Mortes from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon

After this, we were taken down the road and were shown the uses of the agave plant, which, apart from being used to make alcohol, was also used for writing paper and for needle and thread. Obsidian objects were much in evidence as only the local indigenous people had the right to extract it.

The use of the agave plant
Demonstrating the use of the agave plant
Street decorations
Street decorated for festival of San Sebastion

We had a tasting of a variety of drinks, including tequila, mescal and pulque, made from the prickly pear, agave and cactus plants before driving to Ricardo’s home in San Sebastian for lunch. This was excellent with lamb, pork and chicken served with the usual sauces but including mole which apparently takes 3 days and 100 ingredients to make!

We were initially welcomed by Ricardo’s uncle and had to crawl into a very small igloo shaped building, through which a small hole in the roof allowed the sun to come through. It was a place of healing and re-building energy. The people here are extremely spiritual.

Place of welcome
Place of Welcome/Healing

The village was currently celebrating the festival of San Sebastian and there were fire crackers going off throughout our visit, both to the ruins and during lunch.

View from hill
Spot the churches amongst the gloom in Puebla!
Cathedral at night
Cathedral at night

City of Angels
City of Angels

After lunch, it was another 2 hour drive to Puebla, the City of Angels, where we checked into the hotel and immediately went out for the walk to the Zocolo (or main square). Most of us then decided to take the open top bus tour around the city, which lasted for about an hour and a half, by which time it was getting dark. The tour was, of course, in Spanish so I am none the wiser about the city’s history, but it certainly gave me a feel of the place. After a coffee, we had a wander around the now wonderfully lit square and, as we went into the cathedral for a quick look, were treated to some beautiful organ music.

Then it was back to the room. All the younger members of the group went into town so it was only the old ladies that stayed at the hotel!

Oaxaca

28 January

After a ‘delectable’ breakfast of 2 slices of toast resembling fried bread and a cup of coffee, I went for a quick walk into Puebla before our 4 1/2 hour bus trip to Oaxaca (pronounced wha-ha-ka.)

We passed through some very variegated landscapes during the day. To start with, it was fairly flat with a reasonable amount of horticulture on land that had obviously been irrigated. There seemed to be a number of small holders still using horses or donkeys to plough, which surprised me as, in a lot of ways, Mexico is very advanced. There was also considerable haze over the countryside, as usual. This could be a result of stubble burning, of which there is plenty, or it could just be haze/pollution and it makes me realise how spoilt we are in N.Z. in that we still have such lovely clear days.

Bridge on the road
Bridge on the road

We then passed through some very dramatic scenery, high in the mountains with very dry soil and cactuses that are now of the very tall and straight variety. The cactuses do seem to change in different parts of the country. Once we were on the plateau, the terrain became very sandy and extremely dry looking. One wonders how people can live in such conditions.

There were a number of road works along the excellent roads and each time we stopped there was someone there selling some dubious looking snacks (definitely not the healthy and good varieties!) Lastly, as we approached Oaxaca, the landscape became softer and there were a lot of trees, many of which had autumn colours, although I thought it was winter here!

Lots of cactuses
Lots of cactuses

We stopped once along the way, beside a toll booth and had tamales for lunch. I was quite ready for this as it seemed a long time since the tasty toast we had had at breakfast. We have travelled along a lot of toll roads throughout the trip and the highways are usually very fast. The speed limit is supposed to be 110 kph but I don’t think that the drivers adhere to this restriction and have a tendency to race along. There are also a lot of police in evidence, some of whom wear balaclavas to hide their faces. These apparently are the drug police.

Tasty grasshoppers
Tasty grasshoppers

Once we arrived in Oaxaca, we left our bags at the hotel and went out to sample things. First stop was the market and a taste of fried grasshoppers (not as bad as you might think), cheese (a bit like mozzarella and quite salty), pure mole (chocolate, chilli and sugar) and a huge number of different mescals, the first of which was taken in the traditional way, i.e. sculled and then followed by sucking on an orange coated in worm salt (and no, we weren’t told what this was before we ate it – quite disgusting!), and all sorts of cream based mescal that in the end made me feel quite sick. Our last stop was at a chocolate factory, where we sampled cocoa bean paste without sugar (yuck), with sugar (much better), chocolate and milk shake. And all this at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had to come back to the hotel for rest and recuperation before dinner after that!

Mescal tasting
Mescal tasting in Oaxaca

Dinner was across the road in a restaurant that was a bit like a covered courtyard. Cocktails were 2 for 50 pesos so more than one margaritas were consumed. I then joined some of the younger members of the group at a bar around the corner where we were entertained by one of the boys, who was very merry, chatting up a Mexican lady on the next table and a band who played the trumpets at a decibel or two on the high side. A good time was had by all!

Oaxaca

29 January

I had a good breakfast at a cafe around the corner – revueltos eggs (which is not revolting, but scrambled) and refried beans, which were a lot more palatable than some I have tried. We then all went in a minibus with our guide, Suzanne, to Mount Alban, which is a Zapotec site dating back to 500 BC or thereabouts. It is situated on a hill about 15 minutes drive from Oaxaca in a very strategic position overlooking the town of Oaxaca and the Y shaped valley below.

Map of Monte Alban
Map of Monte Alban

There are a number of pyramids around the main plaza. These are all flat topped and would have had a temple above them. (There weren’t actually pyramid shape.) The Zapotecs were similar to the Aztecs and Mayans in that they also built over other edifices, with the effect that there were buildings within buildings.

The main plaza at Monte Alban
The main plaza at Monte Alban

Everything would have been covered in stucco and painted red and other bright colours. (Very little evidence of this remains.) There were also tunnels within some of the temples so that people could go between them unseen.

When the site was discovered, it was completely overgrown. Some of the early archaeologists used dynamite to break into the pyramid in their search for the treasures that they expected to find within. However, no treasures were discovered and one or two of the original temples were completely destroyed by the dynamite.

Hieroglyphics
Hieroglyphics
Monte Alban
Monte Alban

There is not very much known about the Zapotecs and their way of life. There are differing interpretations of the hieroglyphics and it is thought that they would have made human sacrifices. As it was considered to be an honour to be a sacrifice to the sun, those sacrificed could possibly have been the winners of the ball game. This game involved a leather ball weighing 5 – 8 kg, which they hit back and forth with various parts of their bodies. There must have been quite a few bruises at the end of the game!

The site is on 3 levels and it depended on where in the social hierarchy you were placed as to where you were allowed to venture. The general populace were permitted in the central square, the lords and ladies on the next level and the top level was the preserve of the king and his family.

Stained glass window
Stained glass window in Santa Domingo

We had to make a bit of a diversion on the way back to town, as there was a fairly major traffic jam, possibly because of the teachers’ protest in the Zocolo, (apparently the teachers are always striking) so we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 1pm. We then had a free afternoon, prior to catching the overnight but to San Cristobal which left at 8pm.

I wandered around on my own and had a look at the Basilica in the Zocolo and the  church of Santa Domingo, the latter being very ornate and far more like the Catholic churches I have seen in Europe.

Dome in Santa Domingo
Dome in Santo Domingo

I also had yet another mystery lunch after going into a restaurant where there was no menu. The waitress rattled off a list of things and I just said “I’ll have that”. It turned out to be a plate of rice followed by a green soup, which may have been spinach, that also had a large meat bone in the middle of the dish, some sort of marrow and green beans. It was all very tasty and at last, I had some vegetables today!

I did a bit of people watching in the Zocolo and got a torta in the market before wandering back to the hotel. We all had to meet at 6.45pm and be ready to get in to taxis for the trip to the bus station. Once there, it was just like an airline and after we had checked in our bags, we sat in the VIP room and watched Spanish TV.

Doorway into courtyard
Doorway into courtyard in Oaxaca

Ceramics shop
Ceramics shop in Oaxaca
Craft shop window
Window of craft shop in Oaxaca

The bus left promptly at 8pm and we were all handed bags with water and ear phones (for the TV) as we got on. I found that it conveniently fitted my ipad so was able to listen to music for a while before trying to sleep.

San Cristobal

30 January

A very gentle day today after taking the overnight bus last night. We arrived at about 7am in San Cristobal, having had a bit of sleep on the bus. Luckily, we were able to get straight into our hotel room, which was quite a bonus. It is a lovely, very quaint place with rooms situated round a central courtyard or two. (It is a bit of a rabbit warren!)

Our room
Our room in San Cristobal with the towel hanging outside

We went straight out for a short orientation tour and then had breakfast all together. It was a very gloomy day when we arrived and quite cold but it soon warmed up. There are two churches at opposite ends of the town.  You can walk up to see both the churches and the views. I did one after breakfast and the other this afternoon. The sum total of my effort for the day! After the walk, I went back to the room, had a shower and off loaded my clothes at the laundry to be picked up at 5.30 pm.

Stained glass window
Stained glass window in San Cristobal

Neon lights
Neon lights above the altar in San Cristobal
Church up the hill
Church up the hill
One of the churches
One of the churches up the hill

I pottered around for a while and then went out again with another group member and walked up to the other church. We had a coffee and wandered round the town before coming back to the room and sitting outside on the verandah in the sun, reading and using the internet. The only remaining “chore’ was to pick up the laundry and then have dinner. It is such a hard life!

San Cristobal is a delightful town of the colonial era and we are here for three nights so there is plenty of time to wander and have a bit of rest and relaxation. A lot of the buildings are painted in bright colours, and cafes and ‘artisan’ shops abound. It is famous, apparently, for its amber, jade and silver. ‘Hippies’ are also much in evidence here. I thought this was a bygone era!

Road works
Road works – Mexican style

Becky (the tour leader) led us to a restaurant that did very good tostados. We rounded off the day at a cafe in the main street where most of us had hot chocolate, whilst we listened to a guitarist singing in English (although he couldn’t speak the language), and decided which of the street kids was going to be given a custard tart that Becky had purchased for the purpose. (A hard decision that had specific criteria attached!)

San Cristobal

31 January

We woke up to a beautiful morning and I went for an early walk up to the church on the hill with my two current room mates, Becky and Barbara.

On the way back, we stopped for breakfast at a cafe that specialised in coffee, although we didn’t realise how specialised it was until we sat down. The menu was full of coffees we had never heard of and Becky had one called Dancing Cappuchino, which turned out to be cold coffee with hot milk on the top, and mine was a French something or other which required a major performance at the table to make! The scrambled eggs were good as well so all in all, it was a very successful and unexpected start to the day.

View from the church steps
View from the top of the church steps in San Cristobal

Making coffee
Making my coffee in San Cristobal
Cloths for the sale in the market
Cloths in the market

Hammocks for sale
Hammocks for sale in the market
Cafe in the main street
Cafe in the main street of San Cristobal

We went back to the hotel and then Becky and I went off to the market and had a wonderful time wandering around as I encouraged her to shop.

Local ladies
Local ladies in the market

She was very obliging and came back with lots of stuff. I, however, was extremely restrained and just bought a couple of pieces of jade jewellery and a table cloth (as if I really need another one of those!) We had fun bargaining though. (Actually, Becky did the bargaining, as I am hopeless.)

After this, we went to the Plaza to go to one of the banks as Becky had some notes that had small rips in them and the shop keepers won’t take them in that condition. However, there were queues a mile long at all the banks, not only for the ATMs but also the bank itself, so we gave up on that. She will have to do an early morning visit to avoid the queues. Queuing at banks, shops and cafes seem to be quite common here as I have noticed this a number of times before. There must be very limited space in the buildings or something. As an alternative, we sat in the Plaza and people watched for a while before returning to the hotel to rest our legs temporarily.

Sweets and cakes
Sweets and cakes for sale in the market

Then it was out for a bit more wandering, this time with Barbara and two other group members. We aimed for the ‘sweet’ market, which had a few stalls selling cakes, biscuits and other sweets. I managed to force down a pastry ‘horn’ filled with egg custard (delicious) and then Helen and I carried on wandering whilst the others went back to the hotel. I bought a bottle of Chilean wine, the first I have had on the trip so far, and we enjoyed this in the room before going out to dinner.

View from the roof
View from the hotel roof

Dinner was at a steak restaurant that had an ‘all you can eat’ salad bar, amongst other things. I made the mistake of deciding to have the meat and salad option rather than choosing off the menu. This included 5 steaks (yes, 5, and, no, I couldn’t eat them all so the starving dogs outside benefited). This was the first time we had really had food that wasn’t Mexican, which goes against the grain, but those vegetables were so delicious….!

After dinner, we went to a bar where half the group tried a Mayan Sacrifice. This was about 5 shots of varying liqueurs and tequila, to which cinnamon was added and then it was set on fire. For some reason, the waiter than had to shake the drinker’s head from side to side (made the drink go down better or something!).  No, I didn’t try one (in case you were wondering.)

San Cristobal

1 February

We went out for breakfast up the road before we went out on our trip today. The breakfasts have always been very good in the cafes, although, I have to say, the hotels have been a bit disappointing. There are always eggs of one sort or another and today I had an excellent omelette and fresh fruit.

We all met down in the Zocola and went for a trip out to two Chiapan villages, called Chamula and Zinacanton. Our guide, Cesar, was very good at explaining the different approaches to the culture that both villages had, although he definitely took an anti-religious and very political stance.

Graveyard
Graveyard in Chamula

The first one we went to was Chamula, which maintains its independence from the Mexican Government, as well as the Vatican, so is totally self governing and not amenable to any interference in their community life from outside. Our introduction to the village was a very aggressive old lady who didn’t think we had given her enough money for taking her photo. This rather set the tone for the visit to that particular village.

We started off at the cemetery, where all the graves had pine branches on them. These are apparently changed in October/November. They certainly looked very dead today. The crosses were of different colours, according to whether they were adults or children.

White 'uniform'
Man wearing white sheepskin in Plaza in Chamula

The church
The church in Chamula

Following on from this, we walked into the village and went to the church. This was nothing like I had ever seen before. There were pine branches on the floor and candles burning everywhere ( a veritable fire hazard!). The culture is descended from the Mayans and the current beliefs are a mix of Mayan and Christianity.

The paint pots
The paint pots!

The Priest comes to baptise children, which is the only Sacrament that is permitted. Otherwise, Shamans heal people using chickens (which are sacrificed in the church) and eggs to determine what is ailing the person. They believe that the soul leaves the body when a trauma or accident occurs and it needs to be reunited with the body. Once the Shaman has determined the cause of the illness, the ritual with the chicken is performed and the person then stays in their room for 9 days (if it is a serious trauma), after which the bones of the now dead and eaten chicken are buried at the site of the trauma.

Apart from the religious aspect, they also practice their own jurisdiction. If a man has committed rape or murder, the neighbours beat and kill him. Any other misdemeanour is punished by a day or two in the prison followed by community service. There are police men around, wearing sheepskin uniforms (black in the winter and white in the summer) so they are easy to spot.

Policemen in Chamula
Policeman in Chamula

The next stop was at the house of one of the Shamans. They apparently move from place to place, staying a year in each one. We had to pass through an archway of leaves to go into the house where we were shown various items that were used in the healing rituals performed by these people. Apparently, Shamans are born, not chosen, and various signs, such as having 6 fingers or 6 toes, depict whether you are a Shaman.

Back of a man's jacket
Back of a man’s jacket in Zinacantan

Texting
Mobile phones are everywhere!
Entry to Shaman's house
Entry to Shaman’s house
Cooking tortillas
Cooking tortillas

We had time to wander around and look at the handicrafts and town before going on to the next village. In Chamula, wool was primarily used for handicrafts and clothing and many of the women were wearing heavy black woollen skirts. I felt quite uncomfortable whilst we were there and was quite pleased to move on to Zinacantan.

This village also had a combination of Mayan and Christian beliefs but the church was far more conventional. There were flowers on all the altars as if there had been a festival. There was also dancing (if you can call it that – more of a shuffle) going on outside the church. Interestingly, it was only the men that seemed to be involved with the celebrations. The band was quite loud and they also added firecrackers (home made) to the mix. We visited a family home where they wove handicrafts, predominantly from cotton in this village. Needless to say they were for sale! We were then invited into the kitchen where the lady of the house cooked tortillas for us over an open fire and which we had with ground pumpkin seeds.

Woven items for sale
Woven items for sale

Back at the hotel we sat talking on the veranda for a while before going out for a walk. Becky and I had dinner at a small cafe, served by a most delightful older lady, who I presume was the cook. She asked us which piece of the chicken we wanted by pointing to her breast, thigh and leg! It was delicious when it came with basil sauce and mashed potato. I had a creme caramel flan to follow and Becky had chocolate mousse. A very successful venture – with very little Spanish/English!

After that, we went back to the hotel with a bottle of wine, having stopped at a jewellery shop or two where I encouraged Becky to spend a bit more!

Parral to Mexico City

Durango

21 January

Street in Parral
Street in Parral

Today was a bit frustrating and somewhat of a wasted day. After a good night’s sleep in a comfortable, warm bed with no noise or street lights (what more can you want?!), I went for a short walk around Parral whilst Thomas did some Spanish homework, about which he is being very diligent, unlike his mother.

The shop windows were quite entertaining, one being full of very, very, frilly dresses (what I would call, frou frou) which I would assume were for weddings. There were also what seemed like hundreds of shoe and, particularly, boot shops. I never saw anyone wearing them though so maybe the owners keep them for best. The square had a shoe shine on every corner and a policeman tried to engage me in conversation but the language barrier was too great to overcome satisfactorily.

Flower shop in Parral
Flower shop in Parral

Once back in the room, we packed up and walked to where we thought the bus stop was, according to information gleaned from Google. Unfortunately, the website I had been using for bus information proved very wrong in both the bus stop and timetable so, when we eventually found the bus terminal, it was to discover that we had missed the morning bus to Durango and had to wait 4 hours for the afternoon one. We were quite familiar with the inside of Parral bus terminal by the time we left!

Stop on the road from Parral to Durango
Stop on the road from Parral to Durango
Parral to Durango
Parral to Durango

The journey took 6 hours, half of which was in darkness, and initially passed through a lot of flat sierra. There were quite a number of big gates denoting ranches, with dusty tracks leading into the distance, but rarely were any houses in sight. The buses are extremely comfortable and have films playing virtually non stop. On each occasion, we have been the only non Mexicans on the bus and, it seems, there are very few other tourists around at the moment, in this area.

We eventually got to the hotel at 10.30 pm local time as, somewhere between Parral and here, we lost an hour.

Zacatecas

22 January

View from the balcony
View from the balcony

After an excellent sleep, we had breakfast and planned to take the bus this morning to Zacatecas. However, whilst I was on the internet in the lobby, the Canadians I had been talking to in Creel happened down the stairs and told me that we had to go and see the Plaza, which was just a few blocks down the road. I am so glad they chanced along as we would have missed a beautiful part of Durango. Sometimes it pays to read the tourist brochures!

The Cathedral is in the Plaza and there are 7 blocks that are pedestrianised. I visited three churches in the area and they were all quite simple and not at all adorned like many Catholic churches.

The Mexican men must be very keen to look after their shoes as there was a shoe shine every two feet in the Plaza. I have never seen a woman having there shoes shined though – probably do it themselves!

There were also a number of balloon sellers, both along the streets we walked and in the Plaza, so that must be another Mexican custom of some sort.

Cafe in Durango
Cafe in Durango
Shoe shines in the Plaza
Shoe shines in the Plaza
Balloon seller in the Plaza
Balloon seller in the Plaza

The whole area was very like a European city and, judging by the shops, seems to be very wealthy.

Cathedral
Cathedral
Spot the armed soldier behind the fountain
Spot the armed soldier behind the fountain
Jardin de Santa Ana
Jardin de Santa Ana

Street in Durango
Street in Durango

After wandering around for a couple of hours, we got a taxi to the bus terminal for the bus to Zacatecas. The bus terminals always seem to be a long way out of town but, luckily, taxis are cheap. There were a number of buses doing the four hour trip to Zacatecas so we didn’t have to wait long for the next one. I must say, the bus services are excellent here – very comfortable and all air conditioned (sometimes a little too efficiently!)

The journey took us through yet more tracts of flat land although, as we got closer to our destination, the soil got much redder and looked a bit more fertile. Zacatecas itself is nestled in some hills. We arrived as the sun was setting and the landscape was reminiscent of the Southern Mediterranean.

Cathedral window
Cathedral window at night
Zacatecas at night
Zacatecas at night

Again, we had to get a taxi to our hotel, the Posada del Carmen, which was situated in the old part of town.   The taxi driver seemed to be a bit of a boy racer and had a horn that sounded like a police car. Luckily he had excellent judgement when it came to squeezing through small spaces between other cars.

What a beautiful town it is! All the buildings were lit up when we arrived and it was very like fairyland.

We checked into the hotel and then went out to find something to eat. I ordered something mysterious, which turned out to be soup (very tasty). We quite often don’t know what we are ordering but it is usually excellent.  And so to bed and looking forward to exploring tomorrow.

Zacatecas

23 January

The Cathedral
The Cathedral

Our room in Posada del Carmen is right on the street and the noise was quite loud when we went to sleep last night – the Mexicans certainly love their music. However, it didn’t disturb us too much.

It was a beautiful day yet again today and whilst Thomas went for a run, I had a wander round the old town, which is truly spectacular. I am already regretting not having enough time here. It is a Unesco Heritage site and the buildings have all been restored and maintained. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have been discovered by many non-Mexican tourists though. Zacatecas is a rich mining area, particularly of silver.

View from the balcony
View from the balcony after the cannon had been fired

I wandered round for an hour or so but started to get a headache and feeling nauseous. It then registered that we might actually be at altitude (I have a big problem with altitude sickness) and, in fact, on consultation with Google, we discovered that we were actually at 2,400 metres – even higher than Mexico City!  Activities were confined to observing street life and drinking 2 litres of water over an hour or so, by which time I was feeling a bit better. (Diamox is a last resort.)

View from the balcony
View from the balcony looking away from the Cathedral

Jardin Juarez
Jardin Juarez

However, street life is extremely entertaining. The traffic police are quite vociferous with their whistles when cars that are double parked are disrupting traffic flow, and there was a ceremony of some sort going on in the Cathedral Plaza around what appears to be a melting artificial ice rink. (Looks a little bizarre!) The ceremony involved brass bands (of which there is a plentiful supply, it seems, in Mexico) and a cannon, which was quite loud and unexpected. There were also a number of armed police and soldiers around. We never discovered what the ceremony was though.

Santa Domingo
Santa Domingo
A bride, I presume?
A bride, I presume? Very frou frou!

Coloured houses abound
Coloured houses abound in Mexico!

This afternoon, I went for another walk whilst Thomas persevered with his Spanish. I managed to get my hair cut by a hairdresser who had about as much English as I have Spanish, but between us we achieved the desired effect!

After this, we took the cable car up to La Bufa, which is the hill above the city. There were spectacular views, of course, and we had an enjoyable, fairly steep, walk down through all the back streets, which I always find fascinating. By this time, it was time for another delicious dinner and back to the room.

The cable car
The cable car

At the top of La Bufa
At the top of La Bufa
view from La Bufa
View from La Bufa
Hotel with Christmas decorations
Hotel with Christmas decorations

Zacatecas

24 January

It was my turn to wake in the night and listen to the night noises last night – drunken singing (surprisingly in tune), cars rattling over the cobbles and car radios. (For some Mexican drivers apparently only have 2 volumes on their radios, off or very loud, and seem to be under the assumption that everyone within a mile radius wants to listen to their music.) There was also, of course, the church clock letting you know how many quarters of an hour you have been awake.

Roof of Santa Domingo
Roof of Santa Domingo
In the mine
In the mine

In the mine
In the mine

We decided to visit the silver mine this morning – El Mine. It appeared to be quite straight forward on the map but we ended up walking round and round in circles for some reason. However, we did find some most delicious tamales for breakfast on the way and the mine was definitely worth the perseverance in searching for it. Luckily, we had an English speaking guide, who translated a lot of his narrative. It is no longer a working mine but when it was operational, was 7 levels deep. Not somewhere I would have enjoyed working!

Torta man
Torta man

Cafe
Cafe in Zacatecas

On the way back to the hotel, we bought some excellent tortas for lunch from a very nice man to whom Thomas was able to have quite a chat. We also picked up our laundry that cost a grand total of $5. Why would you bother hand washing yourself for that price?! As Zacatecas is well known for its minerals, we also checked out a couple of crystal and mineral shops and both bought a small rock.

I left Thomas in the room to do some more Spanish homework and had a last wander around the town. Of course, I felt obliged to buy some silver jewellery as a memento. We both just love Zacatecas and are sorry to be leaving tomorrow. I also managed to find some ‘normal’ shops and was able to buy Thomas some more socks to replace the most disgusting smelly things he has had on his feet.

Cafe
Cafe in Zacatecas

Book shop
Book shop in Zacatecas

When we went out for our meal tonight, we found that the city was buzzing – even more so than on the previous nights. A band was playing outside the Cathedral and there was some sort of magic show going on on the other side of it. Swarms of people were out walking and shopping.

Not long after we had returned to the room, the brass band moved, with its followers, up the road so we had the full blast of the music and dancing! It was all so animated!

Street stall
Street stall

Hats for sale
Hats for sale
Zacatecas by night
Zacatecas by night
Brass band
Brass band going up the street

Mexico City

25 January 2014

We both had difficulty getting to sleep last night as we seemed to have music coming from every direction and some was still going whilst we were waiting for the taxi at 6 am this morning!

Sunrise
Sunrise

We were up early to catch the bus to Mexico City, which was an 8 1/2 hour trip. There was a beautiful sunrise but the first part of the journey after that was decidedly gloomy.

A gloomy day
A gloomy day

Our bus was one of the ‘Select’ service buses and as we boarded, we were handed a bag of goodies, including a newspaper, sandwich and biscuit for lunch (which disappeared quite rapidly), and some ear phones for the in seat screen – just like on a plane! The buses really are excellent.

The journey was relatively uneventful apart from seeing an accident that must have given our bus driver a bit of a fright. A car hit another one on the opposite carriageway and rolled over several times in our direction. Luckily, it stopped, on its roof, in the median strip but I didn’t like the chances for the occupants if they weren’t wearing seat belts, which they probably weren’t as Mexicans tend not to wear them. We only stopped in a couple of large towns and then for a quick lunch stop at a taco stand. Thomas and I were the only takers amongst the passengers for the latter. They didn’t know what they were missing!

Road to Mexico City
Road to Mexico City

The scenery got a bit more varied, more hilly and fertile and obviously a lot more populated the closer we got to Mexico City. The weather also improved considerably, which is just as well as we have now got used to blue skies. Once at the Terminal del Norte, we again took a taxi to the hotel, located right in the centre.

Cathedral in the Zocolo
Cathedral in the Zocolo
Altar in the Cathedral
Altar in the Cathedral

As it was getting late, we left our bags and went straight out for a walk to the Zocolo, which was only 10 minutes away. There, we were confronted with swarms upon swarms of people! I know, this shouldn’t have surprised us given that the city has a population of 30 million, but we come from N.Z. and aren’t used to it. It was almost too much for us to cope with.  Anyway, I had a wander into the Cathedral (Thomas wasn’t allowed in as he had shorts on) and then we walked up to the Plaza in front of the Museum of Belles Artes.

There was a big variety of street entertainers, including a group of dancers and drummers, who we thought were members of one of the local indigenous groups but it was hard to tell which one as most of them were wearing jeans.

Street entertainment
Street entertainment

Dancer of some sort
Dancer of some sort

Lastly, we stopped at a cafe for dinner and had the worst meal we have had to date. We are never quite sure what we are ordering and on this occasion, mine turned out to be something white and flat (no, not fish) that was swimming in grease and had little flavour. It may have been tripe but really it was completely unidentifiable! Thomas’s meat, whatever variety it was, was tough and chewy. This was most disappointing as we have come to expect good food. Anything we have bought from street stalls has always been excellent.

Mexico City

26 January

This morning, our first stop was to find a money machine that would accept my Air NZ card as we couldn’t even have breakfast without doing so. When we looked last night, they all either had big queues or were locked, so it was getting a bit desperate. We went out early and had no problems finding one, luckily, so we were able to afford the morning tortas and coffee!

Mexico City from the suburbs
Mexico City from the suburbs
Cyclists
Cyclists

Thomas decided that he wanted to go for a run in the large park that he had seen on the map that seemed to resemble New York’s central park (in size, at least). We worked out the route and took the metro, for the grand total of 5 pesos each (about 50 cents). However, as luck would have it, the station we required was closed and the train just went flying on through! We got off at the next stop and walked around in what we thought was the right direction. Of course, it wasn’t. We found a small park and had a bit of a walk around that and then gave up and got the metro back again.

The nearest metro to the hotel was Bel Artes, which is in a huge plaza and all morning there were cyclists, runners and roller bladers going around a circuit, which, when Thomas Googled it, seemed to be 28 kms. I suspect a lot of them didn’t quite make the whole distance! It seems to happen every Sunday and the entire route is closed to traffic. There were certainly a huge number of people taking advantage of it.

Cultural dancers
Cultural dancers

Street entertainment
Street entertainment

I left Thomas to go to the gym in the hotel and went to look for the hotel at which I was  joining the tour. Luckily, it was just a few blocks away. Once I had done this, I wandered around the centre again, absorbing the atmosphere of all the people, street entertainers and generally observing what was happening. There are just so many people…!

A model outside the art museum
A model outside the art museum

Delectable food for sale
Delectable food for sale
Girls' dresses for sale
Girls’ dresses for sale

I had a meeting with the tour group at 6 pm so came back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before going out again.  The group primarily consists of Australian and New Zealanders with one English girl. As far as Cancun, there is only going to be 9 of us but after that more people will be joining so it will be up to 17 (a bit of a big group). The age range is mixed and Thomas joined the group for dinner afterwards and is now regretting that he is not coming with us! It’s and early start tomorrow for the trip to Pueblo.

El Chepe to Parral

El Chepe

17 January

After arriving late at night, we spent Thursday mooching around Los Mochis. We had been warned that there were drug related problems in the area.  However, it didn’t appear to be dangerous, although the one or two jeep patrols of armed police (with machine guns) that passed us whilst we were walking gave us an indication there might be a bit of trouble in the area.

On the train
On the train
Pink flowers on the railway route
Pink flowers on the railway route

The next day, we got up at 4am, after a noisy night, to get a taxi to the station to catch the Copper Canyon train (El Chepe) which left at 6am. As the second class tickets had to be bought on the day, we had to get there early just in case it was very busy. As it happened, there were very few tourists and the bulk of the passengers were Mexican.

It took about 9 1/2 hours to travel to Creel and we passed through some spectacular and varied scenery at a fairly leisurely pace. To start with there were flat plains, which looked a little desolate, but, as we climbed, the scenery became softer and more attractive with very tall cacti growing alongside trees that had beautiful pink flowers so, looking at the landscape, there were swathes of pink mixed amongst the greenery.

The further we went, the more rugged the countryside became and we ended up travelling through steep gorges with rocks towering above us. The only real disappointment (actually we felt very cheated!) was that the only view of the Copper Canyon itself was from a viewing platform at Divisidero where the train stopped for 15 minutes for us to see the view.

The Copper Canyon
The Copper Canyon
On El Chepe
On El Chepe

We arrived at Creel at 4.30pm by which time I was frozen. The town is extremely cold and I am not used to these temperatures now! Also, in an attempt to lighten my load, I had given away some of my winter clothes thinking I wouldn’t really need them. Luckily, I still had one or two merinos left!

We were met at the station, unexpectedly, by someone from the hotel we had booked on the internet, which was lucky as we would never have found it otherwise.

It is a wonderful, slightly quirky (and very cheap) place just off the main street, called Hotel Real del Chapultepec. Three brothers seem to operate the business – one running the hotel, another organising tours and the third actually taking people on tour. We booked to go on two tours over the next couple of days.

At Creel station
At Creel station

Creel

18 January

Cave dwelling of a Tarahumara family
Cave dwelling of a Tarahumara family

This morning’s tour took us to a Tarahurama “reservation” (for want of a better word) where we saw one family living in a cave, the outside of their church and various rock formations, including the Valley of the Monks (or Valley of the Penises, as the Tarahurama more appropriately, in my view, called it).  This was fairly spectacular. Apparently a number of families still live in the caves but it is now more common to live in houses. At each point, there were items for sale and, as Thomas finds it very difficult to say ‘non gracias’ to small children, we ended up with an assortment of items that we didn’t actually need (or want).

Valley of the Monks
Valley of the Monks/Penises
Thomas standing in front of one of the Monks'
Thomas standing by one of the ‘Monks’
Tarahumara Village
Tarahumara Village

At the Valley of the Monks/Penises we were accompanied by 2 young boys who were very amusing and didn’t bother us to buy anything once we told them we would do it later. However, we are now the not so proud owners of a fairly crudely hand crafted wooden rosary!

The afternoon was spent pottering about in Creel and around the hotel. We (by the royal ‘we’, I mean Thomas)  lit the wood burner in the room and we embarked on tequila and coke, which seemed a slightly odd combination to me!

Creel

19 January

Today we awoke to a somewhat gloomy day with a layer of smoke from the woodfires hanging over the town. We were booked to go to for a walk down a canyon to some hot pools built using hot natural spring water. Samuel, our guide from yesterday, had to go to church so Tomas, who seems to work at the hotel, took us. First stop was his house on the other side of the railway track to pick up his son, Patrizio. He was obviously also intending to do some wood chopping whilst we were walking, judging by the equipment he collected as well!

Hot Pools
Hot Pools
Thomas and Patrizio
Thomas and Patrizio

We travelled along a track into another Tarahumara ‘reservation’ where a 4 wheel drive was definitely required. Patrizio accompanied us to the pools, having rock throwing competitions with Thomas on the way down. He had obviously had a lot of practice!

The pools themselves were a little incongruous in the landscape, being the normal bright blue colour that swimming pools tend to be, but were a lovely temperature for soaking. Patrizio watched us for a while but the temptation eventually proved too much, so he pulled off his t shirt and jacket and jumped in! As we then found out, he had no prior experience of pools or swimming. Thomas spent the next hour teaching him how to swim, which amazingly enough he learned very quickly (although not to breathe!)

Cave dwellers in the Canyon
Cave dwellers in the Canyon!

It was extremely cold back at the hotel, so we lit the wood fire again and warmed up round that. We then spent the evening having dinner with a German travel photographer who is also staying at the hotel. He had lived and travelled all over the world and kept us entertained with a lot of stories!

Parral

20 January

Road from Creel to Guachochi
Road from Creel to Guachochi
On the road
On the road

When we got up today, we weren’t quite sure where we were going to end up. We had now begun the trip down to Mexico City and I had been told that we could get a bus direct to Parral without going via Chihuahua. Finding out any further information seemed to be almost impossible though. There was a bus going to Guachochi, which I thought we could take as it looked as though it should go via Parral, so we boarded that.

It actually went along a road that looked very minor on the map but, in fact, was quite a main road with very little traffic. The bus driver raced through some of the most magnificent scenery yet – up and down and around canyons. It was a totally unexpected journey and even more awe inspiring than the train. Unfortunately, the bus windows were very dirty and that, combined with the speed we were travelling, meant my photos didn’t do it justice.

Guachochi to Parral
Guachochi to Parral

We arrived in what turned out to be Guachochi and the bus driver told us to get off and catch the bus going in the opposite direction that was just coming along the road. I’m not quite sure what would have happened if the two buses hadn’t crossed at the same time! An unplanned night in Guachochi possibly?

The second bus took us through yet more beautiful scenery with the mountains becoming much more rocky. There were also tracts of sierra. It was absolutely stunning in the late afternoon light. We made one stop somewhere (but who knows where?) and bought food from a girl selling to the passengers. Whenever we (i.e. Thomas) has done this, it has been excellent and usually only cost a few pesos.

Boot shop in Parral
Boot shop in Parral

We arrived in Parral about 5.45pm by which time it was getting dark. I had written down the name of a hotel near the bus stop so we started heading there. Whilst it wasn’t too far, we ended up succumbing to the persistence of a taxi driver and drove the 2 blocks (which really went against the grain!) The hotel was a bit more expensive than we have been paying, but what luxury by comparison. It even had a kitchen but, on investigation, there were no saucepans, cups, cutlery or, indeed, anything apart from a couple of plates and a few glasses. Quite bizarre!

We went out and bought a few supplies and had a walk around the centre, which seemed to be buzzing. There seemed to be an enormous number of shoe shops and even whole shops dedicated just to boots of all shapes and sizes. A band was playing in the square and Mexican music always seems to put a smile on the face. We brought street food back to the room and appreciated the warmth and very comfortable beds.  An excellent and satisfactory day!

Baja to Los Mochis

Los Mochis

16 January

Before commencing my travels, I spent a very relaxing 3 weeks over Christmas and New Year in Rarotonga (Cook Islands) with very good friends, Steph and Steve. From there, I flew onto L.A. and had the last night of luxury in a hotel before flying to San Jose, Cabo to meet Thomas, my eldest son.

A French man trying to squash a long haired pekingese dog into a holdall provided an Australian and me with some amusement while checking in at L.A..  Try as the French man might, that hair would not fit in! It was not a sight that we would have encountered in either N.Z. or Australia.

Thomas's truck
Thomas’s truck

Once on board a spectacularly empty Air Alaska flight, an extremely fast passenger announcement told us that the crew weren’t too worried about the insufficient cargo and passengers to balance the plane’s load and if anyone would like to change seats they had 45 seconds to do it, but they weren’t to go forward of the exit row! Hmmm….

The airport at San Jose (not to be confused with Costa Rica) was very new and modern, the Baja Peninsula having become, in recent years, an American playground.  In fact, it is always referred to as Baja California. Thomas was there to pick me up in the truck that he had driven from Alaska. He hadn’t quite had time to clean it so it was only just visible beneath the dust. Wonder why I put clean clothes on this morning?

Robert's house
The house where Thomas had been staying
Cactus outside house in Todos Santos
Cactus outside house in Todos Santos
Cafe in Todos Santos
Cafe in Todos Santos

We drove 70km through fields of cactuses (or is it cacti?) to Pescadero, which is where he had been living for the last 5 months at a house right on the beach that had rooms to rent. In theory, we were going to stay there but, when we arrived, there was no room at the inn, as the saying goes, so we watched the sunset and set off to find a hotel in Todos Santos, the nearest town.

The next day we pottered about and I had a walk around the town, which was a bit touristy but not overdone as yet. Later on, we went back to Pescadero with its beautiful beach, watched the sunset again and then Robert (whom Thomas had been working for) took us out for fajiitas. Food, so far, has been excellent and cheap (at least in the Mexican rather than tourist places).

Pescadero Beach
Pescadero Beach
Road to La Paz from Pinchinglue
Road to La Paz from Pinchilingue

Yesterday was a long day as we had to catch a bus at 7.15am to get to La Paz for Thomas to sort out his Tourist Card that he hadn’t got at the border 5 months previously and couldn’t leave the country without.  We then had to catch the ferry at 2.30pm.

I ended up sitting for 5 hours in a cafe, guarding the bags and nursing 2 coffees and an unwanted crepe, whilst he ran back and forth to various offices to obtain the document. He returned at 1.50pm and luckily we found a very obliging taxi driver prepared to ignore the speed limits to drive the 18kms to Pinchilingue and the ferry. Needless to say, we were the last passengers aboard, having made it by the skin of our teeth, and I had had one or two tetchy moments during the course of the morning! The otherwise uneventful ferry ride to Topolobampo was 7 hours so there was plenty of time to recover from the stress (mine, not Thomas’s).

On the ferry leaving Pinchilingue
On the ferry leaving Pinchilingue
Sunset on the boat
Sunset on the boat

We eventually arrived at our hotel in Los Mochis (somewhere we had been warned was a bit dangerous because of the drug cartels) at 10.30pm.  And so to bed, after not eating the most disgusting hot dog Thomas managed to find on a street stall nearby.