16 Sep 2011

Unbelizeable

A short bus ride south from Tulum and we arrive in Chetumal to get a boat to Caye Caulker, one of the Belizean Cayes sat behind the second biggest coral reef on the planet (and one of our marine guides said it is the biggest 'living' reef on the planet).


We are definitely now in the Caribbean, this was the most relaxed immigration process we have ever seen, leaving Mexico at the end of a pier and entering Belize leaning gently on a well positioned shelf on the arrival jetty, chillisimo...


The motto of this area is 'go slow' but our 35ft watertaxi powered by 3 x 200hp engines pushed 10 of us + luggage along at an average of 50kmh...




on a flat calm, not a ripple in sight (until we went past!) beautiful blue / green sea that merged delicately into the sky at the mangrove defined horizon.




We arrived at sunset and as we walked along the beach to our cabaƱa Pam said quietly 'this is paradise...'




The highlight of a most fabulous week was the day trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve where we swam with a green backed turtle (so so cool), several nurse sharks of up to 3 metres, two manta ray's (babies at 1.5-2 metres across) a moray eel who the guide fed and both seemed quite relaxed about it (the guide still had all his fingers when getting back into the boat) and thousands of beautifully colourful fish of all shapes and sizes cruising around the stunning coral reef - all this with just a mask, snorkel and a 20 litre vat of rum punch to finish off a perfect day...





Would you belize it...

Grades of traveller - a few observations

We are now approaching the end of the 6th week of this trip and we have met many peeps along the way, most of whom have an interesting story or two - here are a few observations...


Tourists - In these parts they don't really step out of the airconned bubble of aeroplane airport taxi hotel private/hotel beach, tour bus to Mayan ruin, bus back to hotel bar/restaurant, back to the airport, home. They pay for everything in US dollars whatever the country, trample through the ruins/sights where they shouldn't, speak too loudly about nothing much and wear a target on their foreheads that says 'Please take me for everything that is in my wallet/handbag/bum bag/bank account...'


Tourist Traveller - Tourist travellers have just left the air-conned reservation and are proud to have done so.  Their traveller shorts/trousers (zipped at the knees) still have the hint of a crease down the front, their shirts/t-shirts still smell of lenor and their well shaved/waxed faces/armpits/legs are still trim as a trim thing. The guide book is their best friend, camera their weapon of choice but they still can't sleep on the overnight bus.


Gap Year Traveller - The GYT's (pronounced 'g-i-t' in case there was any doubt) travel in packs of 5 or more, their main item of luggage is a keg of beer, the last personal hygiene focussed washing session (swimming in the sea does NOT count!) was....hmmmm just before A levels/graduation ceremony/military service? and when asked 'occupation?' on the immigration form they respond 'hell i dunno, that's what this trip was supposed to be all about man, self discovery...peace maaan, and dond'esta el bagno?'


Traveller - knackered rucksack and/or hair, gave up on the timberland sandals ages ago (havaianas are a la mode whatever the weather) big smile all the time especially when they meet someone new (or is it the side effects of too much peyote), lost the guide book in country 2, been on the road for at least 3 months but not always sure where, severely the best tan in the building, have 3 or more stories of being mugged/robbed/asked for a donation to the cause and surviving to tell the tale (death would just mean slipping down to tourist class) and in moments of clarity admit to dreaming of an air-conditioned room, mini-bar, sports channel and the oh so sweet aroma of spring fresh lenor...


Right now we are still mainly tourist travellers on an extended trip but elements of 'traveller' are beginning to develop, and not just the attraction of the mini-bar!

13 Sep 2011

Tulum

So after a long bus ride (11 hrs) we arrive at our final Mexican location, 135 kms south of Cancun on the Caribbean coast.


We are now walking/eating/talking like Mayans (think Egyptian but more chilli) so what better place to hang out than down the road from the Mayan beach house?



These ruins are cool, sunrise over the ocean, fresh breeze and fish, all good Caribbean ingredients. The mistake we made was to visit after the first few tour buses had arrived from Cancun, the contents of which eminently demonstrated how Americans (north) can be the greatest pains in the nation. Top tip - get there before 10 otherwise it's like Mayan Disney World on sea.





We haven't done much else here other than chillax and work on the tan, apply more after sun than ever before and eat ceviche, which we are sorry to report is no where near as good as the Peruvian version of the same dish :(




Other than that I did manage a few hours of kite-surfing when the wind blew briefly, we cycled a lot in 35 degrees (shade)/90% humidity which is good for something I am sure and otherwise just did our best to stay cool in what the locals said were unusually hot and humid conditions.




Then a short (4 hrs) bus ride to the port of Chetumal to catch a boat to Belize.


And that is the last we will see of Mexico for a while. It has been an incredible month of great (often new) food, people, colour, music, more food - so thank you Mexico, you are fab and we shall miss you!


Yours
extremely Zen Ben

Palenque

We stayed in a cabana in the jungle, it was hot hot hot with a lot of humid for comfort, mosquitoes the size and agility of WW1 aircraft and we loved it, give us hot and humid over cold any day.


A short combi ride to the Mayan site of Palenque and we spent the day with the ruins pretty much to ourselves. Considering they average 1000 visitors a day over the year we count ourselves extremely lucky and privileged to have passed the time in such an incredible place just the two of us!




Couple of new things we have learnt here - it is now firmly believed that the Mayans (and other Central/South American civilisations of that era) did have the wheel, but they did not have any beasts of burden so carts would have been pulled by men or dogs. All the paintings/images that have survived on stone/rock etc only depicted the rich and famous (oh my that hasn't changed much) who wouldn't have pulled a finger out let alone a cart, hence why there is no pictorial record of such things.


The Spanish conquistadors burnt libraries of books leaving only a few (9!) for us to work from. What must have been lost in terms of scientific knowledge including astrology/medicine/engineering etc etc?


Tropical rain is v wet - knew that already but always amazed by how much of the stuff can fall all at once.




11 hours on an overnight bus is still rubbish however soft and luxurious the adverts and seats pretend to be - grumpy Ben made an appearance...


Yours
slightly less Zen Ben

7 Sep 2011

San Cristobal de las casas

A little bit higher (2200 metres) than Oaxaca but wo, much cooler and it rained and rained and rained...

And even though the hostel was excellent (managed to watch the Belgian GP at 7am with two damp dogs for company which cant be bad) being wet and cold with continued wet and cold with no way of drying things out properly, well it moved from being highland charm to a little bit sucky quite quickly.

the delightful hostel which unfortunately got very wet!

Of course one of the delights of this trip is that if we don't like it, we pack our sacks-of-ruck and move on, so adios SC and hello jungle - wehey...

blue corn at the market

Oh and by the way, SC is a beautiful little town with tres interesting stuff to see such as:

Casa Na Bolom - home of Frans Blom (archaeologist) and his photographer wife Gertrude (Trudy to her mates). Lovely place, great ethos and founding principles focussing on the protection of the Lacandon people (only Maya NOT to be conquered by the Spanish) and jungle.


Frans was obviously a bit of a raver in his day, sent off to the US in his twenties by his wealthy Danish family (clearly leaving behind a juicy scandal or six and no real direction) got a degree or two, went to Mexico, fell in love with the Lacandon people, settled in SC, carried out many expeditions into the jungle, unearthed and documented thousands of objet d'foret, built THE pre-eminent library on the Maya (still free to access for all) published many many books and articles, drank at least a bottle of local hooch an evening from what we could see and from one end of a looooong dining table hosted lots of fascinating locals and non local visitors.

At the other end of the table Gertrude was obviously no wall flower either. She died only a few years ago at 93 leaving 55,000 photographs of the Lacandons and other tribes of Chiapas, a lasting legacy in terms of the library, the institute and positive environmentalist action in the surrounding areas - all in all a beautiful place to visit and story to hear.

Chiapas is also home to many other ethnic groups, all of whom retain their individual identity, language, customs, clothes, food etc.  We spent a day with a guide visiting San Juan Chamula (small town) and  San Lorenzo Zinacantan (small village) both of which are populated by Tzotzil (cho-chil) people but are completely different and very independent.

The Chamulans were celebrating the fiesta of the day of 'Santa Rosa de Lima' which basically means the place just goes totally bonkers, loads of music/canon fire/fireworks launched from the hand/more music/gringo sacrifice, you know all the usual town fete stuff.

Thing is that although it might have appeared to all be to celebrate the memory of a catholic saint, this was not the Roman Catholicism that we know. Outside the church was procession after procession leaping and lurching and thrusting various animals in carnival fashion, whilst inside the church hundreds of candles, clouds of incense and soft chanting surrounded many worshippers who had their noses planted in the pine needle carpeted floor. And amongst each group (about 10) was one leader/shaman/medicine man who was there to rub eggs on the 'patient' to remove the evil spirits. Amazing sights, sounds and smells...

Despite all this sensory excitement, we had been warned by our excellent guide that photographs are strictly forbidden when within the town's limits, they literally incarcerate anyone (for a day and it definitely did not have en-suite facilitations) that brandishes a camera near the locals who do not want their souls stolen by the digital devil.

Inside Chamula church (courtesy of google)

The other two members of our tour group were a young Israeli couple who spoke little English, no Spanish, hadn't heard of Columbus or Cortes, didn't know about a certain conquest approx 500 years ago - I kid you not!  As our guide gave them the idiots highlights to the past few centuries both from a Mexican and European perspective and the pesos dropped regarding minor factoids like why people speak Spanish in these parts, why there are catholic churches everywhere and why people talk about pre and post Columbian history, I encouraged them to take as many photos as their batteries could muster.

Next stop San Lorenzo Zinacantan (with two spare seats in the minibus) only 10kms further up the road but a completely different world. The Zinacantans are very successful flower producers exporting all over the place. After the edgy slightly crazed and febrile atmosphere of Chamula, the Zinacantans are clearly the flower power mellow side of the Tzotzil family, all very chillisimo. 


We were welcomed into a family home, served 'posh' the local liquor, given the opportunity to purchase some textiles that the family had made - :) - and served some amaaaazing tortillas by Granny made from scratch herself, which tasted completely different to any other tortilla we have tasted in Mexico, beautiful.


And with that we got on a bus to Palenque which dropped through the highlands into rain forest into jungle, often rounding hairpin bends (no crash barriers) with a looooooooooooong drop and amazing views of 20-30 kms across wide wide valleys of junglely forests.

Still no news from the historically challenged photographers, but I'll keep you posted...

4 Sep 2011

Violence in Mexico - a few observations

Of course before we arrived in this fair country we had read all about its descent into mad max mugging/kidnapping/beheading craziness, apparently over 40 thousand people have been killed since the current president - Felipe Calderon - took charge in 2006.


I can assure you that neither Pam nor I have suffered anything more than a mild hangover since our arrival, more importantly every single Mexican we have met or interacted with so far, whether it be in the street/restaurant/hostel/bus/tube etc, has been extremely welcoming and helpful brandishing nothing more than a sense of humour, a moustache and a guitar.

Even in moments when one thinks hmmm am I going to be decapitated now - for example when a road block of Zapatista activists stopped and then boarded the bus - they proved to be most charming. Rather than pointing a firearm and shouting 'your money or your life' as one has been led to believe is likely to happen, there was a polite explanation of their cause, further explanation of what they wanted the money for (to travel to Mexico City in order to demonstrate about the 'desaparesidos') and then they calmly passed through the bus asking for contributions.

The worst thing we have heard about that has happened to anyone we have actually met took place in Oaxaca. One of the ladies on the cooking course with Pam had her earrings stolen from her ears as she walked down the street. Yup, gold hoop earrings removed from the ears of a walking person...

Now does that = incredible prestidigitation worthy of an appearance on Mexico's Got Talent or a violation of international human rights the likes of which should be used as evidence for not visiting this incredible country?

It has certainly been a little ironic watching London go up in flames, reading many articles searching for explanation of the 'unexpected' violence in the land of law and order, listening to David Starkey's outrageous account on Newsnight that bastion of intelligent and tolerant Britain, all whilst travelling through the most peaceful land of 'lawless' Mexico.




The journey so far...

'A' is behind 'D' if you see what I mean - and click on the 'view larger map' link to see more/less


View Larger Map

Oaxaca (wah-hah-kah)

At the risk of sinking into inane hyperbole the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca is the first magical place we have been to so far.

 

It sits at the crossroads of three valleys (500 kms south east of Mexico City) still populated by bustling indigenous communities (Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Someothertecs) ancient ruins (not the local ladies) and fabulous fabulous food...


Cleaning nopales (cactus leaves)
in the market

In our six days here we have visited several churches, the cultural museum covering just under 12,000 years of human activity in the area, contemporary art + textile + Benito Juarez (more later) museums, the botanical gardens, the out of town hill top ruins of Monte Alban, photography/graphic arts institutes...



and Pam did a cooking course focussing on local delicacies - I had to turn up for lunch and eat the results, tough gig...


making sweet corn cake with caramelised chili


tuna (prickly pear) 


chapulines (crickets with garlic / lime /chili)
Pam still hasn't figured out if they count
as fish or meat, so had to try a
few anyway... crunchy with a lemony twist :)


flor de calabaza (squash flower)

and we ate loads of fabulous new (to us) food in great (inexpensive) restaurants and from the many street vendors, oh yeah.

We also explored the extraordinary limestone waterfalls of 'hierve el agua' (thanks Xabi), the best infinity pool yet encountered.

 

Unfortunately for the locals we were just two of way too few tourists. Much of what we visited was nigh on empty, which is a real shame as this city and the surrounding area should absolutely be on everyone's list to visit before the large lady sings.

Reasons for us being alone may well include; eco crisis meaning fewer north americans and europeans travelling to these parts, the constant stream of negative news that the western world is dished up of Mexican narco violence (more to follow) and a demonstration in the centre of Oaxaca in 2006 that the local governor and then government tried to violently shut down when 37 people died.

Clearly that was serious (particularly for those who died) but not once have we felt or experienced any moment of danger or even the sense that anything untoward was about to happen, on the contrary the locals have been super hospitable.

All we can say is that we had an amazing time in this beautiful city and we would highly recommend it for a visit if you are in anyway interested in food, history, cultural heritage, textiles, photography, art....to name but a few of the local attractions.