Deep into Zapatista country

We decided to have an early night last night as we were leaving San Cristóbal at 5am today. We failed to take into account the firecrakers, and the singing from the processions, and the special siren effects. Oh, and the enthusiastic local on the karaoke machine.

We then had another big procession at 1am, and one at 4.17am which ended up acting as our alarm clock. With our bags ready and waiting for our transport to arrive, we watched procession after procession make their way up to the church at the end of our street.

Even so early in the morning, we continued to come across many processions; all anxious to make good time. Today is the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

As we made our way down the valley, the political slogans and Zapatista propaganda messages increased.

I had hoped to see either the film or the documentary showing on alternate days at Kinoki in San Cristóbal but we were there during the Festival Internacional de Cine de San Cristóbal (!!!) and so normal programmes were suspended.

We stopped for breakfast at a standard tourist place, and soon after we got there, many other mini-buses arrived. We found out that the drivers co-ordinate their journey to travel in convoy, so that they can help each other should something happen. I need to make it absolutely clear at this point that we did not feel unsafe at any point during our journey. Their fight is over seeking indigenous control over resources, and especially land. The various military checkpoints we crossed explained – in English – that they are here to maintain order, and control the traffic of weapons and drugs.

Propaganda. Whichever way you look at it.

Anyway, the good news is that there were no activities planned for today (I wondered briefly whether they have a Twitter account which announces these things) and we were able to travel the shorter route, which means that we reached Palenque just after 2pm. Taking the long route would have added another two to three hours to our journey.

The extra time gave us the opportunity to visit Agua Azul. The limestone waterfalls are multi-layered, and the colour is an extraordinary blue-green. Andy got the tripod out and spent his time taking blurry shots; I walked the path as far up as I could and took in the Zapatista souvenirs for sale – t-shirts and dolls of subcomandante Marcos. The place is a busy tourist destination with many food, drink and souvenir stalls. You can swim in designated areas and it is free for Mexicans.

Once in Palenque, we hopped across the road from our hotel to K’inich Kan Balam for lunch. By spending 100 pesos each, we got to use the pool, which wasn’t too much of a hardship since it was happy hour (two beers for 50 pesos).

A walk around town shown Palenque to be a small town. It very much reminded me of a frontier town; isolated, and slightly edgy. The inflatable snowman in the Zócalo looked slightly incredulous.

I was impressed by the incredible range of chillies and Tequila in the local supermarket.

Wound down the evening back in K’inich Kan Balam for Margaritas.

Religion, but not as you know it

Chiapas is a troubled region.

Leaving Oaxaca behind, we boarded our overnight bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Just as we were set to go, a police officer boarded the bus and video-ed each passenger. I managed to get some sleep but I was woken up in the middle of the night, presumably when we crossed into Chiapas for a police check. Three officers boarded the bus independently, each conducting a search. And the bus itself was subjected to prodding and banging. A hour before we reached our destination, we stopped in Tuxtla Gutiérrez (the capital of Chiapas) where a number of people got off. Again, at the point of departure, an officer went through the bus and video-ed us all again.

The reason for all this? The area we were heading for is in the hands of Zapatistas. The region is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country. It is famous for the 1994 Zapatista uprising, which secured new rights for the indigenous people. The movement has had some successes, namely in agricultural economy and improved infrastructure. The region grows coffee, corn, cacao, tobacco, sugar, fruit, vegetable and honey for export, and tourism plays an important role. The troubles are low key these days, but can still affect travel plans as roads are often subjected to blockade.

It is one of the poorest regions of Mexico, and certainly for the little time we’ve been here, it feels a world apart from the Mexico we have seen so far.

Our bus arrived soon after 7.30am. We both managed to get some sleep overnight but it wasn’t as comfortable a journey I’d hoped for partly due to the fact that our ADO bus wasn’t one of the new ones.

We checked into our hotel, Casa Margarita, a lovely building with a central courtyard and a small roof terrace. And for the first time this trip, we reached for an extra layer.

Located at an elevation of nearly 2,100 metres, San Cristóbal de las Casas is again very colourful with a number of pedestrianised cobblestone streets. The buildings are even lower than the ones we’ve seen in Puebla and Oaxaca.

At 8am, we came across a queue of over 100 people, waiting for the bank to open to get paid. At the same time, various processions made their way across town, the devotees singing barefoot and bearing t-shirts of their Virgin. Political slogans adorn the walls.

We had a good breakfast and excellent organic coffee at Tonantzin, a great corner café just opposite the hotel, which had been recommended to us.

At 12 noon, we left San Cristóbal de las Casas for San Juan Chamula. Now, it doesn’t matter how much I describe what happened there or what we saw… I doubt I’d be able to convey how unreal it all was and felt.

The community of San Juan Chamula is indigenous and deeply religious. You cannot take photos inside the ‘church’, and you cannot take close ups of people. There are reports of cameras being confiscated, and people being thrown out of the community or put in jail. They have their own judicial system and goverment, and their own tribal sense of justice.

The valleys around San Cristobal are populated with Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages. The people of San Juan Chamula are Tzotzil. The women wear black skirts made of sheep skin, and the men wear matching jackets. These outfits are very expensive and to wear it shows your status in the community.

They do things their own way in San Juan Chamula. When the power and the church separated in 1859, they ‘claimed’ the church and now use it for their own celebrations and prayers. The inside of the church is dark and thick with incense, the smell of which mixes with the aroma of pine needles covering the floor. There were thousands of lit candles. The ones on wooden tables were in glasses, others were placed directly on the floor (which you would think would be a recipe for disaster with so much pine needles everywhere). There no pews, no altars. People sit on the floor, facing the Saint they have come to pray to in order to heal themselves or people they care about. They have offerings: four different soft drinks, each representing a different type of corn growing locally and pox (a liqueur made of corn, sugar cane and wheat used for ceremonies), which roughly translates as medicine. People took sips of pox (pronounced posh), passing it around. Burping is encouraged, as it means the evil spirits leave your body. Further into the chuch, a woman is holding on to a chicken which later on will be sacrificed. Some of the saints are holding mirrors because when you pray to the saint, your soul leaves your body and the mirror will help your soul find its way back by reflecting it back onto the body and in some ways, this is why you cannot take photos inside the church, as your camera’s mirror will steal souls. Where you would expect to see Jesus Christ, you see instead Saint John the Baptist who is held higher than Jesus as he baptised Jesus; he is also linked to a sheep which is why the sheepskins are worn.

As we were ready to leave, a procession entered the church. Incense, candles and musicians fill all the space. People deep in prayers with their faces lit by candlelight. The bells ringing outside. The music inside. The smell of incense and pine needles. The noise of people cleaning the candle wax off the floor, ready for the next devotees.

This isn’t Christianity. It’s deeply rooted indigenous beliefs. It’s nothing like we’ve ever experienced. It is a unique place. Oh, and they practice polygamy.

Leaving San Juan Chamula behind us, we travelled to Zinacantán (‘lands of bats’), and yes, the church there reveres bats. The bat is a symbol of the underworld where the pre-hispanic cultures believe the dead reside. The church is traditional at first sight but there are animal figures dotted around and the details in the architecture are picked out in black, a throwback to the bat. The area is famous for growing flowers and women weave flowers on their skirts. We made a stop at a local indigenous family’s house where we ate tortillas with cheese, omelette and olives. The tortillas were made fresh for us, and were delicious.

Back in San Cristobal, we got caught up in various processions to the Lady of Guadalupe. The small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe is packed with pilgrims. Yound children are dressed up as indigenous people (toddlers have mustaches drawn on them!) and there is a party atmosphere. Half way up the hill, we stopped to play table football (I won – Holland 4 Mexico 1) and from the top, the views of the town are unparalleled, or would be without all the Christmas decorations. Firecrackers becoming a background to our days.

We reflected on our day with local beers in Café Bar Revolución.

A day like no other; some of the most incredible sites we’ve ever seen.

Oaxaca [WA-HA-CA]


We were at the bus station soon after 7.30am this morning. Forty minutes before our ADO bus left for Oaxaca; just time for breakfast. We grabbed some pastries, coffee and Jalapeño crisps.

The five hour journey passed quickly thanks to the dubbed films showing on the bus 🙂

No seriously, the scenery was fascinating. Puebla slowly giving way to agricultural fields, winding mountain roads and deep valleys and gorges, cacti, wide sky and vultures. We saw some pilgrims making their way to Mexico City. They now have just four days to make it to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe.

Our hotel is a short walk from the bus station and a good 25 minutes away from the town centre.

Oaxaca is everything I had hoped it would be. Cobblestone streets; colourful low rise colonial buildings home to galleries, cafes, bar, restaurants and great museums.

You can’t really talk about Oaxaca without mentioning the ongoing protests in the town square. Teachers have been protesting since 2006 asking for a pay increase and greater benefits. The state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the whole of Mexico. The protests take the form of sit-ins – in the middle of a street, where under canvas tents, you’ll find teachers conducting classes or in the zocalo, which they have occupied for a number of years now. On the other side of the square, couples were dancing to a live band.

We shared a tlayuda regional (a crisp tortilla with nopales, courgette flowers and cheese), quesadillas de quesillo (a local cheese similar to mozzarella), and refreshing glasses of hibiscus water at a market stall for lunch.

After more aimless wanderings, we stopped at the Centro Fotografico Alvarez Bravo museum. A very small museum which was quite inspiring. I particularly liked the Tiradores series of Andres Figueroa – portraits of rubbish collectors.

Back in our room, we organised our bags for tomorrow serenaded by the sounds of Cuban music from a local band practicing, and a cold beer.

Puebla, the food kitchen of Mexico

Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church, Cholula

Popocatepetl volcano

Church of Santa María Tonantzintla

Cholula food market

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Capilla del Rosario, Santo Domingo church

We left Puebla just after breakfast this morning for Cholula. We climbed the Great Pyramid, admired the viewpoint (if you were to draw a volcano, you’d come up with Popocatepetl, wouldn’t you?) and went into Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church which was built over the pyramid.

From the very top of Cholula, we went to the very bottom. A walk through a narrow tunnel at the base of the pyramid enabled us to see the foundation of the temples and the many layers added over years.

A short bus journey out of town took us to the church of Santa María Tonantzintla. All surfaces are covered by colourful plasterwork – indigenous angels, chillis… Every space is filled with colourful objects and patterns, like a three-dimensional version of the trees of life we’d seen in the Popular Art museum in Mexico City. It’s fair to say we’d never seen anything like it.

Back to Cholula, we went to the food market and looked at the delicious looking fruits and vegetables, checked out the chickens and the food stalls enjoying brisk trades. It was past 11 o’clock but it had just started going; Cholula we learnt is a lazy town.

Lunch was out of this world. We went to a restaurant which specialises in pre-Hispanic food. And most of it was vegetarian. Heaven! Andy ordered a Tlaxke (a refreshing hibiscus yogurt juice combo) which was right tasty and Nopal Gratinado (cactus paddles with four types of cheese and beans). I had the Tortilla Cholulteca – a Mexican take on lasagna, with tortillas, vegetables, cheese and tomato sauce. And with seven types of chilli sauces to pick from, I was right where I wanted to be.

Back to Puebla, we had no agenda but to walk the colourful colonial streets and we did until our feet hurt. We stopped suddenly as we heard the Champions League’s anthem… looked at each other and carried on walking. The historic centre is very pretty. Most buildings are painted in bright colours (stunning against the blue sky) and decorated with tiles. We looked at antique shops and perused the ‘Street of Sweets’

We finished our walk in the Church of Santo Domingo, which is conveniently located right next to out hotel. The Capilla del Rosario (Rosary Chapel) is magnificent and one of the most elaborately decorated baroque chapels in Mexico. The walls and dome are coated in gold leaf and plaster. The stream of light catching the saints, cherubs and angels made for a golden spectacle.

Puebla’s my kind of town. It is obsessed with food. People are either eating, queuing to eat at street stalls, carrying food or talking about where to eat next. In fact, we’re about to hit the town again to look for cucumber and chilli sorbet.

Viva Mexico City!

Viva Mexico

Pasteleria Idea

Catedral Metropolitana

Templo Mayor

Manual de la Cocinera

Café la Habana

Day of the Dead musician

Museo del Arte Popular

Today was our last full day in Mexico City. We’ve barely scratched the surface and are plotting a return trip already 🙂

On our way to the Templo Mayor, we stopped at Pasteleria Ideal, a Mexico City institution, for breakfast. The bakery’s vast and filled with baked good as far as your eyes can see. So much choice! I found it hard not to get carried away. Most people there were pilling their trays high.

All museums and sights are free for Mexicans on Sunday, which is a great but it does mean places get busy. We got to Templo Mayor by 8:45am, and we had the sight more or less to ourselves for a little while. It was one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan. We were underwhelmed and found it hard to visualise its grandeur as the cathedral dwarfs it. A lift in the Porrua Bookshop nearby took us to a roof terrace café where we drank a cooling freshly squeezed orange juice whilst taking in the view of the archaeological site.

The site is just north of the Zócalo, one of the biggest public squares in the world. This is the heart of Mexico City and by then, it was heaving with people. We made our way to a metro station nearby. We’ve used the metro a fair bit over the last few days. At five pesos a journey (£0.19), we’d be mad not to. The metro is clean, runs a frequent service and has a separate section for women and children. It carries over five million people a day… If you think your commute is bad, try this one! On our first journey on Friday morning, we caught the end of the rush hour, and I was literally pushed out of the carriage by an old lady!

Our next stop was the Museum of Objects – a celebration of all things food related. Vintage toasters, tortilla makers and baking moulds (a whole wall of them). Quirky.

Quick coffee stop at Café la Habana, where Fidel and Che are said to have plotted the Cuban revolution. The café itself wouldn’t be out of place in Cuba.

Our last stop of the day was the Museo de Arte Popular. We got in for free. “But are you sure? We’re not Mexicans”, said Andy. It was a bonus but we would happily have paid. All museums should be like this. We spent close to two hours there, and it was just pure fun. “Come and see this”. From one gallery to the next, we kept coming across gems. Colourful and vibrant. Just like Mexico City.

Teotihuacan, birthplace of the gods

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

The Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan

Museum artefact, Teotihuacan

Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihucan

Ex-convent of Acolman

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our guide Miguel from Insólitours picked us up at 8am, the early start justified by the fact that this is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

There were only a handful of people there when we arrived, and the experience of Miguel was priceless as it felt like we had the place to ourselves (and this, despite the many coaches in the car park).

We started in the museum which was excellent, well captioned and full of artefacts which gave us an idea of the workings of the place. At its height, Teotihuacan was the epicentre of culture and commerce for ancient Mesoamerica. Yet, its inhabitants abandoned it suddenly for reasons still unknown.

The main thoroughfare, the Avenue of the Dead, runs north to south and if you were to follow it, you would end up in Tikal, Guatemala. This gives you an idea of the trade going on at the time.

When the Aztecs ‘discovered’ the abandoned site, they appropriated it and the site enjoyed a new lease of life.

Teotihuacan is located at an altitude of 2,121m. Slightly jet-lagged, covered in factor 50 (this you probably didn’t want to know), we made our way up the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (where remains of 260 human sacrifices were found). That’s a lot of steep steps.

On the way back, we stopped briefly at the ex-convent of Acolman. We spent a good twenty minutes there, enjoying the shade of the garden and the coolness of the church. Oh, have I mentioned how hot it was today?

Our final destination was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for catholics. And on 12 December, millions of people will descend on the place, with pilgrims currently making their way to the site. Already, there were easily a couple of thousands of people there today. There are various churches on site; the biggest one can hold up to 10,000 people and is earthquake proof. Which is a big thing. The oldest church will probably go when the next earthquake strikes. That was an odd experience, going into the church and walking down hill! We did not expect that. We’d come in through a side door. Which is just as well, as from the front, you can see the building leaning.

Culinary experiences of the day: we tried cactus paddles, sopes (tasty!), frijoles negros, cactus flowers in syrup (too sweet) and pulque.

Mexico City

En route to Mexico City

From the air, Mexico City (or the City as locals refer to it) goes on for ever. It’s quite something.

Here are two things I remembered from school: it’s a metropolis and it’s 80 kms long. Chatting to our guide Miguel today, we learnt new crazy facts: over 25 million people live here, it’s more like 100 kms these days, the city is sinking. And life here can only described as chaotic.

Back to last night. We landed with some delay due to turbulence but after that, things happened quickly. From immigration, to collecting our bags, clearing customs (Andy was feeling lucky so he pushed the button and got green so we went through; you get red, your bags get searched) and sorting out an authorised taxi to the hotel took less than an hour. Not bad hey? I declared this the second most efficient airport I have used (with Helsinki claiming top spot).

The drive to the Hotel Metropol, our base for the next few nights, took just over 30 minutes. The streets were teaming with life – street food stalls, bars and restaurants with small doors offering the briefest glimpse of what was inside.

We got the key to our room, dumped our bags and with a full day sightseeing ahead of us did what any sensible person would do and headed to the bar.

Welcome to Mexico!

Meet our best new friend

Xochipilli, our new BFF

Granted, we haven’t met him as such yet but I think we’re going to get along just fine.

We managed to find an hour spare today and used it to visit room 27 of the British Museum.

Call it research, call it getting in the mood. It was a good hour spent, and already we’ve learnt a few things about some of the places we’re going to travel through. And we’ve got a new friend.

Xochipilli was an Aztec solar deity, and the patron of feasting, music, dancing and poetry.

Bubbles and Sparkles

Bubbles and sparkles

What do you do when you have a week to go, you’re all packed and all the urgent items on your to do list have been ticked off?

Party!

We had our leaving drinks last night. We met up with friends in a local pub last night for a few drinks, and a few more.

It’s been pretty intense these last two months or so, and it felt like a real treat to be out and about… having nothing to do but catch up with people.

A big thank you to all you lovely people who made it last night. Thanks for making it a fun evening. Anyone else feeling a tad tired today?

Next stop: Auckland, New Zealand

Seven Seas box

Wow. This is really happening.

Our box is off to New Zealand. It left today, and should get there a week before us.

And whilst its departure fills us with a slight sense of panic ( ** this is really happening **), I am glad to see the back of it!

What do we need to pack? What will we want to wear in three months? Have we forgotten anything? How cold/hot will it be? Am I allowed to bring in a packet of mini cheddars?

And… you’d think it’s be easy to pack up a box. But to find the right box to put in the box, that’s another story.

Farewell box. See you on the other side.