Dollars and Pesos

Early night last night – 10 hours sleep – feeling very relaxed. Up at 7:00 to watch the sunrise over the Caribbean then an early taxi to the Mayan city of Tulum a few miles up the coast.

We’re not far back in the queue; a Coati, a small furry thing about the size of a cat entertains us while we wait.

Tulum is the only substantial Mayan settlement right on the coast. It was also known as Zama, which means Dawn, it was one of the first place in the country to see the sun. It had a wall with ramparts and watch towers to control the comings and goings, the elite lived inside the walls, the commoners outside.

We head straight for the beach to try and get the best views without too many people. The sun doesn’t want to play and it’s already filling up before the light is good.

There are no big pyramids here, it’s more a seaside town than a big city like Chichen Itza. It’s known that the people of Tulum traded cotton, honey, salt, weapons and jade with other cities up and down the coast by boat. As well as living on fish and game from the jungle, people had small gardens and grew maize, tomatoes, chills, squash, beans and fruit.

The first hour is quite peaceful but Playa del Carmen and Cancun are only an hour or two away and it soon fills up to uncomfortable levels.

The beach was closed first thing because the tide was very high but it opened a bit later and hundreds of people squeeze onto the narrow strip of sand, including Florence.

We returned to the hotel about 11:30 and have a late breakfast\early lunch of green juice, green salad and quesadillas.

Read and wrote diaries for a bit then wandeedr down to the next hotel for a jalapeno marguerita (Florence) and Mexican coffee (Andy). Florence was befriended by a black cat. Read and wrote a bit more, lazed on some sun-loungers until the sun dropped a bit then went for a swim in the sea. The water is warm, the waves are stong enough to body surf in, the sun is going down, it’s all quite lovely.

Strolled down the beach to an Italian restaurant, nice view of the sea as darkness comes. The pasta is all handmade, my wild mushroom sauce is very tasty too.

A nice lazy day, early start tomorrow – and a new country!

Why did the Mexican throw his wife out of the window? Tequila!

The hotel was noisy so we didn’t get great sleeps. Up at 7:00 to pack a bit then out to the same place as yesterday for breakfast, very nice again.

Wandered back to the hotel, finished packing then time for a final swim to cool down. We walked to the bus station, got there in time for the last throes of Arsenal’s defeat to City.

We took the bus to Tulum, about an hour south. On the way there was a short, very heavy rain storm, the first rain we’ve seen in Mexico. It lasted about two minutes.

The hotel is very nice, eco-lodge style, loungers on the beach. With the orientation meeting out of the way, we made our way to some sun-loungers and watched the waves for a bit.

We took a short walk outside the hotel; there are lots of interesting looking bars and restaurants. This part of Tulum, Paradiso beach, has a very pleasant, laid back feel to it, everything is small and local and friendly.

Quick swim in the sea to cool down before the highlight of the day – dinner at Hartwood. This restaurant was opened by a New York chef Eric Werner a few years ago and has been the driving force behind the opening of a number of high quality places – next year Noma are coming here for six weeks while their main restaurant is refurbished. Hartwood has a tricky reservation policy, you can email them and you might get lucky, otherwise you have to queue from 2:00pm to be at the front when they start taking bookings for the evening at 4:30. Fortunately we’re lucky with the email.

Hartwood is open air, fine apart from a short shower. It has a relaxed feel, all cooking is done in wood-fired ovens. We started with cocktails – Cilantron for me Habanero Marguerita for F. The food was wonderful – again – starters of Jicama salad and tomato salad; a Jicama is crunchy like an apple but more savoury, all the ingredients are sourced locally.

The main course was a stuffed roasted chilli with some roasted beetroot, sweet potato and plantain. Finally corn and cheese ice cream – far better than it sounds.

The waiter convinced us to finish with a tequila – very nice too.

The waiting staff are a good mix of Mexicans, Americans and even someone from Hull. Florence told the tequila joke to one of the Mexican guys – he liked it.

Vamos a la Playa

Playa del Carmen is what it is.

The main thoroughfare, the fifth avenue, is packed with souvenir shops; the usual suspects (H&M, Nike and Starbucks), bars and restaurants. All this against a backdrop of the turquoise water of the Caribbean and soft white sand.

It is usually packed with tourists, but relatively quiet when we walked along it this morning at 8.30am.

We then retreated to the more Mexican side of the town, where we had tortas (huge Mexican style sandwiches) and great smoothies at Kiwi.

We spent the day slowly exploring the back streets and came across some great street scenes.

We caught up with paperwork, laundry and various other bits and pieces. We stopped for coffees at a small Italian place round the corner. I made a list of the number of beers consumed so far (nine each).

Today was always going to be a slow day. The configuration of the group is changing. Last night, we said good bye to our guide Valeria, and one of our travelling companions. This evening, we met our new guide, Erhard, and twelve new group members.

For dinner, we ordered a take away pizza and got a bottle of Mexican wine from Walmart. Don’t judge us, we’re on holiday.

“Almost free”

We were outside the hotel waiting for our private mini bus at 6:30am this morning. And two hours later, we were at Chichen Itza. The early start paid off as there was only an handful of people about and the sellers were only themselves arriving at the gates.

Due to its proximity to Cancun, thousands of people visit daily (an estimated 1.4 million tourists visit the site annually) and with only just under 3.5 hours to explore the sight, we opted to start with the most famous structures first whilst the place was ‘empty’.

The Juego de Pelota court is the biggest we’ve seen so far. There were more players per team and here, the captain of the winning team was decapitated as an offering, which was an honour as this bypassed the usual thirteen steps to heaven.

Offerings of shells, wood, gold, copper, rubber, textiles and skeletal remains (mainly of children and adult males) were found in the Cenote Sagrado. The natural well was an important ceremonial and pilgrimage destination.

Since 2006, you can no longer climb the main pyramid or many of the other ruins. The site is vast and there is a lot of ground to cover. There are helpful maps dotted around, so we were able to navigate the many vendors to our chosen destination – most of whom were selling tourist tat, with only a handful carving wooden masks and statues whilst waiting for a sale. “Almost free”, is the sale pitch you hear everywhere. “Only one dollar”.

I sat a moment and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live here when Chichen Itza was at its height. What we see now are just ruins; the buildings would have been painted brightly. You can see how they dressed from some of the reliefs. And some of the food we have come across is pre-Hispanic… and yet I struggled to picture the sights, smells and sounds.

We continued and took in the Templo de los Guerreros – which has reliefs of warriors on the pillars; the Plaza de las Mil Columnas, which was used for civic and religious functions just as the Palacio de las Columnas Esculpidas was. There are Sacbeoob (roads), canals, a Mercado (which strangely was’t actually a market and its original use cannot be identified). We came across further structures: the Templo de los Tableros Esculpidos (the reliefs on the north and south walls depict people, plants and animals both real and imaginary); the Temple of Xtoloc (a container of offerings with human remains was found underneath the floor) and the Cenote Xtoloc nearby. There are many many others.

But what really took our breath away was el Caracol (the Observatory), La Iglesia (the church) and nunnery complex – again, their original purposes are unknown. The windows and doors of the Observatory were aligned to astronomical events, specifically around Venus and the two equinoxes. Nearby, the Platform of Venus is dedicated to the planet.

A couple of hours later, we were sipping margaritas by the beach in Playa del Carmen.

It’s just a hole in the ground

Early start this morning to get some breakfast before our 9:00 departure. We stopped in Acanceh, a small town only half an hour from Merida, to pick up some snacks for lunch, it’s very different to the city, the market has very little choice and everything looks a bit run down. There’s a Mayan pyramid next to the main square, not something every village can claim.

Today was all about Cenotes, underground sinkholes filled with water. There are over 2500 in the Yucatan peninsula. We visited two different ones. Both have in common that they almost invisible from above until you’re on top of them. Wooden steps lead down to the water 15-20m below ground. The water is deep blue and where the sun hits them the rays are visible a long way down. The water is cool to swim in but pleasant once you’ve been in it for a while. We’re given masks and snorkels to get a better look.

The first has a bit more sunshine getting in, the rays make beautiful patterns in the water. Surprisingly there are a few fish, a kind of small catfish. The second is deeper and widens out under ground to a space 150m across. There are a few platforms to jump from, one of the local guides impresses us all by jumping from the top – probably 20m down to the water. There are roots from trees hanging all the way from top to the water.

The second cenote has another surprise – on the bottom is a nativity scene – only in Mexico!

Both are very beautiful, it’s a wonderful experience to lie back in the water and look at the sun reflecting onto the roof of the cave or the sky through the hole at the top.

We stopped at a convenience store in Telchaquillo on the way back, they sell many types of soft drinks and cheesy crispy snacks – and not much else.

Back in Merida we have some more ice creams and walk round for an hour, I think we’ve seen it all.

From Milan to Yucatan…

We’re in Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan, rhythm sticks not much in evidence.

We arrived this morning on an overnight bus from Palenque, not the best night’s sleep.

We set out at 9:00 for walk around town to get oriented and, more importantly, breakfast.

The town has a similar feel to San Cristóbal but older, this is the first place on the American continent settled by the Conquistadors. As usual many low rise colonial buildings. The cathedral dominates the central square, it is large but not as cumbersome as some we’ve seen. It’s built on the site of an older temple and uses the stones from that building. The Conquistadors had to prove their god was stronger than the indigenous gods so their cathedrals had to be bigger than the existing temples and have an overwhelming presence. The churches are massive but have no grace in their architecture.

Breakfast was very good, banana, peanut and berry smoothie and molletes – toast with refried bean and cheese and hot sauce (Yucatan has the hottest hot sauces in all of Mexico).

The sun was warming up and it was quite humid as we walked around town. The city is built on a grid pattern, for a while the sun shines directly along the north-south streets, no shade anywhere.

We tried the Contemporary Art museum, in some rooms the best thing is the air-conditioning but one room has a set of pastels by Spanish Artist Javier de Villota which are light and graceful and depict figures in motion – but these figures are Chilean police violently oppressing any opposition to the military regime, a powerful combination.

The palace of government is home to a set of 27 murals by local artist Fernanco Castr Pachero, like those of Rivera in Mexico City they cover epic themes on an epic scale, but there are many small scale elements within them. One depicts the brutal execution of the leader of an indigenous uprising; one pair concentrates on the hands and feet of a single worker as a metaphor for all the local people oppressed by the colonial power. Another shows the Mayan belief that humans are created from corn, their staple crop.

Back to the hotel for a swim to cool down via an ice cream bar, chocolate and chilli and tequila and lemon flavours – yum. One museum is open late, the house of the former governors of the city. It’s a very nice building but decorated with dark wood and heavy colours, stuffed with European furniture and decorations that seem incongruous in this setting.

We started the evening with a couple of local craft beers at a Cuban bar, La Negrita – Cuba is only 80 miles from Cancun. The beer is very good, the bar is full and buzzing, a Cuban band plays in the garden. This bar wouldn’t have fitted in any town we’ve been to so far, Merida is a bit different.

Palenque

Palenque sits in the jungle. It is hot here, and humid. The main reason to come here (well, the only reason really) is the ruins. Our first Mayan site.

After a very tasty breakfast, huevos Mayan and fresh juice, we got a taxi to the ruins. At 8:30am, you have the place pretty much to yourself.

We started with a walk in the jungle. The vast majority of the ruins are covered by a jungle of cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees. Only about 10% of the site is excavated, leaving many thousands of buildings buried under the jungle. There is money available for excavation we learnt, but not for restoration and maintenance.

As the walk progressed, we spotted signs of the ancient civilisation – walls, a pool, a temple and an aqueduct. We were given the chance to walk through the aqueduct; a narrow passageway with water underneath our feet, and a bat on the ceiling probably as perturbed by our presence as we were by its presence there. The pool is the only one of its kind discovered so far. The heat and the humidity rose rapidly and we were glad to have done the jungle walk first thing.

The most famous ruler of Palenque was Pakal, who got to power when he was 12 and ruled until his death in his eighties. His tomb was found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions. We saw a reproduction of his tomb in the Anthropology museum in Mexico City; the jewels we saw there however were real – a jade mask and necklaces.

We took in the Temple of the Skull, Temple XIII (commonly known as the Tomb of the Red Queen) and the Palace, which was used by the rulers for administrative duties, entertainment and ritualistic ceremonies and it comes complete with its own observation tower (the Mayan were keen astronomers).

Interesting fact of the day: the Mayan rulers elongated their skulls. This was done by binding the head of infants between two pieces of wood for about six months. The idea was to emulate corn, which was believed to be where people came from.

K’inich Kan B’alam took power at his father’s death, and added three important structures to the site: the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Sun, and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Each has many steps which we wearily climbed. In the jungle behind, the sound of howler monkeys echoed around the trees.

From next year, you won’t be able to do the jungle walk anymore, or climb some of the palaces and temples. I think it’s a good thing; at the same time I think it’s a shame. The jungle walk, for example, gave us such an alternative perspective on the ruins.

We jumped into a local bus and back in town, we picked the first bar we came across for refreshing beers. With nothing planned for the afternoon, we had a late lunch, and caught up with our diaries and had a snooze.

We have an overnight bus to Mérida this evening, leaving at 11pm.

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.

Firecrackers and Church Bells

We were woken this morning by firecrackers and church bells, at 5:45. We slowly got round to getting up and showering and exploring breakfast possibilities, not much open so we had a couple of very nice pastries and not so very nice coffees.

We left the hotel at 9:00 for a boat trip along the Sumidero Canyon. San Cristobal de las Casas is high in the hills, as we drove down to the river we’re above the clouds in the valleys below. All along the road we passed pilgrims walking up to San Cristobal with their local virgins, some barefoot or just in socks.

It’s a lot hotter at 90m above sea level but we’re warned to keep our jackets on because the boats are fast and breezy. Life jackets on and we’re ready to go. The boats are fast but slow down whenever there’s an interesting site or wildlife.

The canyon is up to 1,000m high, the water up to 250m deep, the Grijalva River twists and turns, often feeling like we’re heading straight for a rock wall – fast. Wildlife is abundant, vultures and white herons, kingfishers and cormorants, an eagle and a pair of iguanas. In the trees above the river a monkey family feeds.

After 35km we reach the the end of the journey, the Chicoasén Dam. The dam was completed in 1980 and supplies hydro-electricity to Mexico, Guatamala and El Salvador.

On the way back Florence said we’re unlikely to see a crocodile and within seconds we slowed down to look at one, it’s about 15 feet long, absolutely still on the water’s edge.

The river has a problem with pollution from the upstream settlements and logging operations, 5,000 tons of rubbish is removed every year, it tends to build up in the canyon because of the shape of the river and the dam. To illustrate this the next crocodile we see is surrounded by plastic bottles and rubbish, a sad site.

We stopped at Chiapa de Corzo for an hour on the way back, not sure why, it doesnt have much to recommend it. It’s full of pilgrims making their way up to San Cristobal. We walked round the market and the church in 10 minutes – then what? Round the back of the church, we found an old building that looked interesting, we signed the guest book and went in. The old colonades and cloisters glowed in the sun. There was also an exhibition by a local artist, tempting to say what I think of it in the visitors book but I decide not to.

We returned to San Cristobal around 3pm and wandered the colourful streets for a while. We tried a tamale, mashed corn baked in a leaf, ours has cheese and vegetables too, it’s very tasty. We fortified ourselves with a strong coffee before climbing up to the Templo del Cerrito de San Cristobal. There’s a panoramic view of the town from the top.

We walked back to the pedestrian street where our hotel is for a glass of Mexican Malbec at the a very nice La Viña de Bacco wine bar. Inevitably, while we’re there another procession passes with a virgin at the front and a brass band. This one also has some enthusiatic dancers in what look like Mayan costumes. A little girl opposite us has her fingers in her ears to keep out the noise.

Our last stop is another tamale and some lentil soup, another procession passes while we eat, finishing the day as we began with Firecrakers and Church Bells.

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.