05.10.2013 - 23.10.2013
We are walking the cobbled streets of Flores at 5am and gladly settle into the empty mini bus that picks us up for our journey to the Mexican border. The bus quickly makes its way out on to the main streets and at express speeds takes us off the island town of Flores and soon we are pulling into the main bus terminal, where we are instructed to board a rather full and somewhat beaten up looking bus. We are given seats near the front, which are falling apart and distinctly less comfy than those inside the bus we have just left. The bus station bustles with early morning activity, as stalls are set up, and the heavily armed police stand around sipping hot drinks. We are the only tourists aboard the chock-full bus as we pull out in the 6am early light. It isn't long before we leave the sealed road behind and the uncombable seats really come into their own as we are bounced around the bus for several hours. We cross the border at Corozal, and we stop at the Guatemalan immigration, where we are sent in ahead of the locals to be processed. The bus driver gets us back aboard so that he may drive down the road to a small village to pick up some passengers before begrudgingly returning to pick up the remaining passengers who are getting their passports stamped. We are in no-man's land, between the two borders, and the unsealed road takes us through a small village of wood houses with straw roofs, and men, women and children carry heavy loads of wood and water on their shoulders. We reach a river, and are given our ticket (all included in the original ticket price) to board the boat that will take us across. We are led down to the water's edge by a young lad, and we climb into the 7m long canoe with outboard motor. The brown river is some 30m wide and we zoom out into it, feeling the cool breeze on our faces. On the far side, we are put into a taxi and taken to Mexican immigration for our entry stamps and then to the mini bus that will take us on to Palenque, our final destination, in the state of Chiapas. We order chicken and beans to go at a small restaurant next door, where the locals are amazed at hearing how many languages C can speak! We head off in the bus, and must pay 15 pesos tourist tax for the roads in the area, and then we are on our way. A rather smooth and exciting border crossing, out last one! In Palenque town, we find an ATM that works. We decided not to change our Guatemalan Quetzales on the border as the rates are always bad. Luckily we had some pesos already with us, from a previous money trade with other backpackers, the best rates guaranteed! We then find the collectivo to take us to El Panchan at the gates of the National Park, where there are several guesthouses in amongst the jungle. Small pathways lead us through the forest and over little footbridges with streams babbling beneath. There are several places to stay here, and several restaurants and bars, with a definite hippy feel. We stay at Margarita y Ed in a rather fancy room with ensuite. The weather is very hot and humid, and we gladly take cooling showers, before getting a bite to eat and a cold Corona beer to toast our arrival in Mexico!
It is already steaming hot at 10am as we buy our entrance tickets for the park. C thumbs a ride and we clamber into the back of the pickup truck to take us the 4km uphill to the site of the Mayan ruins. As we speed along in the morning sunshine, the wind in our faces, we are grinning at each other. At the entrance, we dodge the myriad offers for guides, and armed with our kindle guide we wander inside. The ruins are magnificent and we walk beneath the trees by the beautifully kept lawns that run up to the ancient steps of these buildings. It was built and inhabited from 100BC to 870 AD, and much of the ruins are still hid in the dense surrounding jungle. We hop between places with shade, guzzling water in the heat. There are a lot of tourists here, in groups, and from other central and Latin American countries. We spend 3 hours or so in the ruins, and then find a magnificent set of waterfalls in the shaded forest with intricate limestone formations like those found inside caves. Exiting the park we buy homemade pineapple flavoured ice lollies from a man with his coolbox, which are so delicious. We spend time in the excellent museum before taking a collectivo back to the gate entrance and exhaustedly making for our room and cool showers. We go for dinner in Don Muchos and as we tuck into that most un-Mexican of dishes, a pizza calzone, while the skies overhead flash with lightening as the rumble of thunder grows ever nearer and with it comes heavy rains.
Border crossing by canoe
Hitching a ride to Palenque
The ruined Mayan city at Palenque
In the morning the small babbling streams are now bigger, raging torrents of brown water. We go for breakfast in a little restaurant (Don Muchos is flooded, so has become Don Nada). We over-order our food, and have Quesadillas with spinach and huevos revueltos (and take the latter with us for lunch). We are booked on a tour to see the nearby waterfalls of Misol-Ha and Cascadas de Agua Azul this afternoon.
The bus is full of Mexican tourists who are a lively bunch, tucking into midday bottles of Corona! Our bus manages to break down after 20 minutes, so we wait for a replacement one. Then the road is blocked by a village that is protesting against government corruption, and taking 50 pesos from vehicles before they can pass. A piece of wood with upturned nails is pulled back and forth across the road. The waterfalls are particularly amazing as the heavy rains mean that they are raging spray, foam and water in massive amounts. The shear power is staggering. The Cascadas de Agua Azul are not actually living up to their name as being blue today, rather a dirty brown, and should be called Cascadas de Agua Marron instead. Back in El Panchan, another night of storm and rain arrives.
Raging torrents at Misol-Ha
..and the inappropriately named Cascadas de Agua Azul
We leave the next day to return to Palenque to take a bus to the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas. As we depart, the road that we walked on yesterday that takes us from the guesthouses to the main road is now a river. We must take off shoes and socks, and wade across the below knee deep water with our backpacks on to reach the dry land on the other side! We breakfast near the bus terminal, and watch a lady preparing the tostadas on a huge circular iron cooking plate, on which sit the coffee pots bubbling away. The bus is a big coach, and a party of Dutch and Belgian tourists with their guide take up most of the front seats. We pass through valleys and gorges on our way, rising in altitude to San Cristobal. It is raining heavily when we arrive in the early afternoon, and walking north into the centre we take refuge in a chocolate shop, and order a round of unusual chocs, filled with tequila, baileys and chilli. The rain abates and we carry on walking to the Posada del Abuelito, along the cobbled streets and a throng of VW Beetles (known locally by the kids as “cucarachitas”) of all colours. We stop and ask directions several times before we find this Posada which has been recommended to us by other travellers. The small gate opens onto a little courtyard and a very peaceful environment. We meet Marco who tells us they are full save for 2 dorm beds. We decide to take them for a night before being able to move to a double room. We sit and chat with the other guests and find a very friendly and interesting vibe here. We wander out on the streets which are safe to walk even at night, and find a little bistro called La Cueva del Tigre, which offers a menu with stew and a glass of red wine, perfect in the cool rainy weather!
Dining at La Cueva del Tigre
Around San Cristobal de las Casas
The sunny mornings over breakfast bring the Colibri (hummingbirds) to the garden. We visit a nearby museum dedicated to the Lacandon tribe and set up by two Europeans who spent their lives with them. A fascinating place, and we have a tip from C's contact Dick to track down one of the Mayan specialists who works there. He's not around and so we plan to return later. We wander the food markets which are a warren of stalls and small alleyways beneath plastic sheeting and roofing, through which the pouring rain drips down. We pick up some supplies including fruit of the cactus, which is more than fairly full of seeds! Then through the Artisan market surrounding a huge church as the sun comes out to bake us. There are some great cloth and blankets on sale, and plenty of bargaining to be done. The stalls are run by indigenous people. We visit a nearby town with 2 friends from the Posada, Janie and Lissa, which we get to by collectivo. The town is San Juan de Chamula, and is inhabited by the Tzotzil Mayans, and it has a church. This is no ordinary church, which was abandoned by the Catholic Church about 10 years ago, and is now a mix of Mayan culture and Catholicism. The outside is painted white with colourful butterflies and flowers painted over the doors. It costs 20 pesos to enter and we are not allowed to photograph the inside, so it is somewhat touristy, yet as we find out, it is very real culture. Inside it is busy with throngs of people dressed in traditional clothing of black fleece worn as ponchos by men, and as skirts by women. The women also wear tight colourful waistbands, with bright and colourful embroided tops. There are no pews, and the floor is covered with green pine needles. Candles are the only light and fill the tables, and are stuck to the floor with wax where groups sit and pray in spaces cleared of pine needles. Offerings of Coca-Cola, local firewater called “pox” (pronounced “posh”), and the occasional chicken are made to the spirits. Statues of Saints in perspex boxes line the wall and masses of white flowers are everywhere. The scent together with incense burners and men smoking local cigarettes mix in the room. A band plays accordion, drums and harp, while one holds a pile of their hats. Light slants in through the windows in the smokey interior. We spend an hour watching the scenes around us. Tourists troop in, but are tolerated by the locals. After a good lunch of chicken and beans and rice we take a cab over to the town of Zinacantán, another Tzotzil Mayan village. We are looking for a lady who makes fabrics, and is known to C's contact Dick. It takes a while as we are sent in differing directions by locals, but eventually we find it, and are given a warm welcome (nothing to do with the pox we try!). The traditional clothing worn by locals here is a purple in colour and is rich in detail.
The church in San Juan de Chamula
In the village of town of Zinacantán
Local dress and textile makers in Zinacantán
C .... and E
We visit the Sumidero Canyon next day by tour group, near the town of Chiapa de Corzo. We pass through a toll booth that is now occupied by a mass of teachers protesting about their working conditions. There has been a national strike of teachers for the passed 2 months, and all schools have been closed for this amount of time also. Our driver pays the fee to pass and we continue on. At the river edge we climb aboard a large motor boat and head off downstream into the national park. Huge towering rocky cliffs of limestone upto 1000m high in some places are looming overhead. The water is a deep green, and along the banks are crocodiles warming themselves in the morning sun. Owing to the heavy rains, thousands of plastic bottles have been washed into the river and in sections huge areas are covered with the debris. They are doing their best to clean it up but it is difficult with so many crocodiles in the water. Pelicans nest in the trees as we pass waterfalls cascading rainbows down the walls of the canyon. A very pretty place. We stop for lunch in the town of Chiapa de Corzo, where E & C find a small restaurant for quesadillas and the owner tells us to check out the views from the nearby church and belfry, which we go ahead and do. From the viewpoint we are able to wave down to the owners of the restaurant.
Back at the hostel we have a great evening with the fellow inmates; there is Sushi from Japan, whom we speak Spanish with which is fantastic fun, Lissa from NZ, Martu and Falc from Spain and Germany, and Ama from India. The mescal and tequila flow and later we head out to a local bar called Cocliche where a band is playing. A fine last night for us in San Cristobal.
Having lunch and seeing the views in Chiapa de Corzo
E and Sushi (with moustaches!) toasting with mescal
E, Sushi and Falc
Martu and C
We have a full day left before our bus to the Pacific coast, and fill it with a visit to Iglesia de Guadalupe on a hill in town for lovely views over the streets below. The church is slightly gaudy inside with its neon red and green lights. A christening ceremony is about to start. After a good Falafel lunch at a restaurant called “Falafel”, we head back to the museum we visited a couple of days ago to track down C's contact, Chip Morris. We are sent to his home, nearby and he welcomes us in. C has some information from Dick that Chip is able to help with, relating to imagery on locally made clothing. Chip is from the US, and has been living here for over 40 years, and speaks several of the local Mayan languages. His latest book is about the changing fashions of the tribes, for example the Tzotzil in Zinacantan change the design of their traditional clothing every 6 months or so, making them incredibly fashion-conscious!
On the way to Iglesia de Guadalupe
C next to bbq-ing chicken
Iglesia de Guadalupe and views
The goings-on in the main square
Lunch at "Falafel"
We have a last meal in Posada Abuelito of homemade pizzas made and delivered by a local girl in a large wicker basket. We then take our bags and walk the 25 minutes through the town, passed mariachis warming up, and to the terminal. Our night bus to Pochutla departs on time as the skies flash with dramatic lightening forks and rain pummels the bus. We settle down in the very comfy bus seats. Water drips through the roof vents and soak E in the night, so he must use his waterproof jacket as a blanket!
11 hours later we arrive, and as we step off the bus out of our Air-con bubble we strip off layers in the morning humid heat. We pass the expensive private taxis and soon find a collectivo taxi to take us the 30 minutes to the beach town of San Agustinilla and our guesthouse calledPosada La Mora. We are greeted by the lady owner and shown upto our room which has views right onto the beach and the crashing surf of the pacific. What a spot! Downstairs is a cafe so we have a good breakfast and then relax for the day, taking in the sun and having a swim. The sun is hot, but there is a breeze, and the ocean is cool, but not cold. As we sit on the fairly empty beach, hawkers come by selling boat trips, ice pops, fish tortillas and jewelry. It is a time to reflect on our travels in Africa and around the world, and we realise how lucky we are to have the opportunity to undertake such a journey with all its ups and downs. We watch the sunset on the beach with a cold beer from the shop, and meditating students from the nearby yoga retreat are silhouetted Buddhas on the sand. We have dinner of octopus and dorada (mahi-mahi) which are excellent before retiring early. We spend the next couple of days in similar fashion, soaking up the sun and reading. Our final day approaches, and we decide to take a boat trip out to see turtles and dolphins. A good idea. We all meet at the beach nearby and help launch the boat. The burly rotund captain checks the outboard, and the girls all climb aboard. The boys then push the boat on rollers into the huge surf and must then swim out to the boat and climb aboard. A great morning dip! We trawl the area for sometime before we spot turtles and dolphins, but the scenery is so colouful, and the horizon so very straight.
The beach at San Agustinilla
Bringing in the Catch of the Day
Dusk on the beach
Breakfast on the balcony
Lunch at the beach
Juggling things in life
Shopping on the way home
Our last Pacific sunset
Our final morning and a boat trip to see turtles
Our rotund Captain
We return to the guesthouse, and find a collectivo to take us into town, where we pickup a mini bus to take us to Oaxaca (pronounced “O-a-h-a-c-a”) . The drive is 7 hours up over the mountains on a winding road. We descend through clouds, and on the plains below, and the afternoon golden sun bathes the landscape. We arrive after dark and walk to a Posada we have researched. A big room on a central courtyard. Out we go to the central square and have a feast of chicken fajitas with mole (sauce made from cacao beans, like a chocolate sauce, but not so sweet).
In the collectivo, with C and the bell to ring when you wish to get off
chicken fajitas with mole
Oaxaca is another beautiful colonial city, and we visit the great cathedral of Santo Domingo, and the museum next door full of Aztec treasures and artifacts from the nearby Mixtec site of Monte Alban.
We find a locals sea food restaurant called La Red, for excellent ceviche and Cazuela de Mariscos, washed down with a Dos XX and a Bohemia beer. We watch Mariachis play in the square to the big restaurants, before visiting an old Cantina serving mescal since 1916.
We visit markets over the next two days picking out fabrics and souvenirs for taking home. We sell our remaining Guatemalan Quetzales to a couple (Matt and Trina from England and Ireland) at our Posada and meet Byron, a retired gent from the US.
The streets of Oaxaca
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
Cacti in the Botanical Gardens
Decorations for the Day of the Dead celebrations (1-2 November)
The main square in Oaxaca...
..with the mariachis
Dancing in the main square
Next morning we take a bus to the city of Puebla. The route takes us through spectacular scenery on a very new road. Enormous canyons covered in millions of cacti! We reach Puebla early afternoon and after getting to our hostel, we head out to visit the Planetarium which is a short bus ride away. We thought this would be a great fun way to look at the stars in Spanish, however, it was a very quick zoom around the galaxy and then we were treated to a film about the migration of the Monarch butterfly. Very interesting, but not what we went to the Planetarium for! Outside as we run to get our return bus, we can see the distant peak of Popocatapetl volcano.
Our time in Puebla is spent looking for a part for E's VW Beetle that is back in the UK. It is a model that was made here in Puebla in 1997, and we try several places including the VW plant itself, all to no avail. Still, we find an alternative part, and get to visit the birthplace of Eduardo (the name E's sister gave to the car a few years ago!)
Skulls on display in the market, for the Day of the Dead celebrations
Possibly the biggest sandwiches ever conceived
Tiles on the outsides of buildings in Puebla
Views from the museum roof
Inside Iglesia Santo Domingo in Puebla
We take a bus next afternoon to Mexico DF (Mexico City), and we arrive in the heavy traffic in the pouring rain. Our last port of call before flying back to Europe. A taxi gets us into the old centre and to our hostel. We wander the streets and visit the enormous plaza before dining in a local eatery. We visit the museums of Diego Rivera and see his huge murals, which are fascinating. All the Frida Kahlo paintings are on a European tour somewhere, which is a shame. The streets are busy and the decorations for the Day of the Dead are everywhere as the city gears up for the big celebrations. We taxi to the airport for our night flight to London, and so ends this chapter in our odyssey!
At a local restaurant in Mexico City
Ahhh, those Mexican chilis!
Our costumes for Day of the Dead..!
In the central park in Mexico City, the cold and wet weather due to hurricaine season
A church in the centre that is beginning to lean over on its ancient foundations
And finally, after our return flight to London, we have a special meal with E's family (Rosie and Eddie), of Paella......The End!