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San Cristóbal de las Casas – A chilly adios to Mexico and crossing the border into Guatemala at Ciudad Cuauhtemoc

The night bus is not one of my favorite activities.  This one, from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas, is 10 hours and snakes around cliffs on tiny narrow roads.  Narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, we see bible passage quotations painted on the rocks at each treacherous turn.  We have the front seats.  We can see our narrow escapes accompanied by the various soundtracks courtesy of the drivers.  The first being hard euro dance and the latter having a more authentic mariachi feel.  Eventually, we arrive in San Cristobal.  A small mountain town 2000m up.  The sun is out and we decide to walk to our hostel and to our surprise, we both agree that this is one of the most picturesque scenes we have ever come across.  The mountains that poke through the clouds frame the streets of multi-coloured red tiled houses.  We find ourselves in the main square, and, overcome by the smell of fresh roasted coffee, we are tempted and sit to let the day begin around us.

EZLN still knocking about

View from Iglesia

Belisario Dominguez

Gimme the all the pics!

San Cristobal was only on our list of destinations as a jump off point for Guatemala, and originally planned to not stay in the town and just leave on the next bus south.  We then decided to stay for two nights.  We stayed for five days in the end.  Arriving at the charming hostel ‘Casa El Abuelito’, we were greeted by tranquil courtyard populated mainly by the French.  This really did feel like we had somehow found our way into the Alps.  We relaxed with more coffee for a few hours and after a quick nap went out to explore the town.  Wandering through the streets, we immediately began to relax and found ourselves at a local bar and listened to a busker play until it started to rain.  We decided to treat ourselves, after a month of eating from the street and had some steak and wine at the Argentinian steak house.  It was awesome!  Wandering home in the drizzle we felt quite content.  We booked an extra night when we returned.

Casa El Abuelito Courtyard

Casa El Abuelito Courtyard

The following days were similarly spent, just walking around and taking stock of our month so far in Mexico.  The town has obviously seen some money recently, with boutique shops along the main drag, mainly peddling the local specialty that is Amber.  Not only backpackers swarm here, there are all sorts of tourists who are mainly European.

A night of fine Argentinian Steak

Guitar on Real de Guadalupe

Diego Dougley at night

There is darker side to this little bastion of calm.  The town is surrounded by a poverty-stricken area known colourfully as ‘the belt of misery’.  The occupants of this violent area are mainly ex-inhabitants of nearby Tzotzil villages, such as San Juan Chamula.  Reasons for expulsion are mainly due to politico-religious tensions as the Chamulans, who still preserve some Mayan ways of life, are apparently fiercely independent and follow their own brand of ‘Chamulan Catholicism’ (which I am told heavily involves praying with Pepsi and burping to ward off evil).  The adults fill the streets attempting to sell clothes and handicrafts (many of which are well made and attractive), while children as young as five approach you and ask for money with huge sorrow filled eyes.  The area is also famed for being the base of the EZLN Zapatista movement from 1994.  The town still has a slight hint of rebellion in the air and there are anarchistic slogans painted on walls all around the backstreets.  It may be because of this history that the town attracts many Europeans with dreadlocks, who seem to have stayed to try to make a living out of making jewellery.  Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico and is the most in your face that we have experienced along the way.

Walls full of activism

Handsome blue church

On a lighter note, the place is wonderful and all sorts of activities can be undertaken in the surrounding area.  We did not partake which led to a German from our hostel labelling me ‘the lazy Englishman.’  We explored all the town had to offer, but mainly relaxed.  The weather is beautiful in the morning when the sun is out.  But when it goes away, you are very aware of the temperature, which led to three layers and wooly hats at times.  We were ready to go.  Bus booked to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, when we had a call from the bus company advising us that due to some kind of protest, we were unable to go.  So we spent another night, this time in the company of a German/Swiss couple who were on a similar mission, drinking red wine and complaining about the temperature.

San Cristobel street 2

The 260 odd step climb to Iglesia de  San Cristobel

San Cristobel Market

Real de Guadalupe towards Cerro de Guadalupe

We finally managed to get on the small transport bus the next morning to take us to the Mexican/Guatemalan border.  The town of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc was a four hour stint, steadily descending as we went in the company of 14 other souls.  The roads were again treacherous, and the driving a touch risky at times, but we made it.  On the way, I was feeling like we had cheated a bit by booking full transport to our final destination and not trying to do wander through the town of La Mesilla on the Guatemalan side and jump on the next chicken bus south.  For a total of M$300 pesos (US$22) each, it was hard not to take the easy option, and also, as we discovered quite quickly at the border, a good thing we had!

Mexican immigration was a quick process, having already paid the M$295 pesos on our arrival in Baja at a bank, they wanted no more cash from us and stamped us through.  Walking through the Mexican side was ‘an experience’ that I will never forget.  Markets selling everything and nothing, offering last chances to buy that crap you could have bought everywhere else in the country with a cacophony of sounds and smells attacking us as we gingerly followed the driver through.  There were some desperate looking people lining the road begging for money, that were at times heart breaking and far too much to take in all at once.  “Dude, did you see that guy with his skull exposed?” asked the Aussie I had been chatting to.  Unfortunately I had, and it’s something I am going to find hard to forget.  We were taken to Guatemalan customs by the bus driver, who left us after we all got stamped through (without any hint of bribes from the officials I may add).  We then all squeezed (I can’t emphasize that word enough) into a smaller van, once the driver had done a DIY wheel change, and off we went into the rugged jungle hills of country number 3,Guatemala….

Guatemala border in La Mesilla

Guatemala border in La Mesilla

If your reading this and thinking about fighting your way through this border and finding transport in Guatemala to ‘keep it real’, I can only suggest you take the easy option as it is a hectic and confusing place.  Pay the few bucks more and save your chicken bus adventures for later on!

The journey is tough.  The road is poor, the bumps many and the five hours punishingly slow, yet hectic as the driver nearly kills us at least three times by racing chicken buses along the passes.   All around however, the terrain is majestic.  Jungle-clad hills cover as far as the eye can see, as we snake through following a river upstream to our destination.  After we let passengers off near Xela, the bus sighed with relief and we shuffled a bit, but then two more came on board, including a giant jolly Swedish guy, who oblivious to our struggle and pained expressions wanted to talk about his adventures.  “You know in zee caves, zere are zese blind shrimp, zat will clean your teeth.  But if you pick zee wrong shrimp, zey will start to strip your mouth.  So far, I have only had ze good shrimp”.  (Not mocking the dudes language skills as they were much better than my own, but the comedy accent made it even better!) With chat like that, I slowly warmed and the time passed a bit quicker.

Lake Atitlan from the shores of Panajachel - Aldous Huxley was right!

Lake Atitlan from the shores of Panajachel – Aldous Huxley was right!

We got there.  Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan.  11 hours later and the lake slowly revealed itself to us as we descended.  At first only seeing the peaks of the three volcanos that surrounded it with quick peep here and there of the lake itself.  After finding a room, it was too dark to see, so we settled for some beers and grub to toast our new country.  The next morning, we awoke to see the lake in all its glory.

Lake Atitan Selfie

Lake Atitan Selfie

We may stay here for a while….

For all the snaps from our time in San Cris, click here!


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Oaxaca City – Chocolate box beauty, a big tree and some stunning scenery.

Hierve el agua pool 2We tackled the DF subway system one last time, this time with our packs, after visiting the tasty bakery Ols had previously championed for some Mexican cheese, ham and jalapeño pasties for the journey.  We were moving on to Oaxaca City, and it is something we had both been looking forward to.  It is in Oaxaca State, which in itself is the same size as Portugal.  As always, we were not sure how long we were going to stay in the city, and also, if we would adventure further into the state and visit the much talked-up coast of Puerto Escondido and surrounding beaches.   A 7 hour bus ride later took us through some excellent scenery, this time the seemingly endless hills were dotted with various cacti as we snaked round the passes.  The driver warned us of delays of the ‘environmental kind’.  We thought it was just a mis-translation, but when the storms came and parts of the surrounding hills were falling into the road, I was confident Ollie’s Spanish was still up to scratch.

Had enough of this waffle? Click here for the pictures.

The Zocola Plaza OaxacaThe colonial center of the city promised us beautiful tree-shaded plazas, colorful scenery and a bustling artisan crafts scene where Ols could dispatch some pesos.  On arriving at the bus terminal we joined up with a Canadian called Lee and he came with us to Hostel Pochón.   Soon we were out of the door and eating tortas the size of our heads on the recommendation of the French contingent at the hostel.  We all settled in for the night at Pochón, and exchanged stories round the table with the many other residents.  Really nice place…

The first day and we were out of the door, walking round admiring just how pretty the town is.  But my god…it’s a tourist trap.   Being sort of prepared for that, it didn’t bother me as much so we just joined in the natural flow, past the churches, boldly coloured buildings and into the Zócalo (main square).  Being in Mexico over a month now has given us only a tiny insight into the local way of life for many people.  What I have been impressed with is the quality and use of communal spaces.  The local squares or plazas are places where people come to sit and just be.  With their family or friends.  They may have an ice-cream, play the trumpet, practice a dance routine or have their shoes shined.  Unlike the UK, there are no urine soaked Tennants drinkers growling at passersby with tobacco stained whiskers.   We found ourselves just sitting enjoying a fizzy pop, watching the world go by.

Bold colours of Oaxaca And some more bold colour

Onto the local food market, we walked around admiring the selections of chillies, Oaxaca-style cheese, meat and mole Sauces.  Mole described very simply is like Mexican curry sauce, and Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven moles, with the main one, mole negro, including locally grown chocolate.  After doing some grocery shopping and picking up some chapulines (grasshoppers) we headed back for a chilled day and a rest.  Even though Lee was a vegetarian, he still enjoyed the tasty little garlic and chili roasted insects.

Oaxacan's take ther meat seriously The Mole catalogue Standsard dried chilli selectionGarlic and Chilli Chapulines, or crickets to me and you

The next day, we took a tour of the local area and found ourselves with two older Colombian couples.  The first stop was a tree.  Not just any tree, but the 1500-2000 year old tree of Tule.  It’s huge and dwarfs the surrounding buildings.  The second stop took us to the village of Teotitlán del Valle, where they are famous for weaving, using natural dye made from a base of Cochineal bugs that live in cacti.  The bug is squashed, then mixed with things like chalk, lemon or leaves to achieve different colours.  After, we headed for the Don Agave Mezcal distillery, where after a short tour, the Colombians helped us along, trying various tipples and eating more chapulines which cleanse your pallet after a harsh sip of mezcal, like a sorbet might during a meal.  Now the worm: most people have heard of the worm in tequila.  The worm is never in tequila, only mezcal and is just a marketing gimmick.  I downed the worm from the bottle and can confirm, with some disappointment, that it does not get you impressively drunk/high.  It’s just a worm…

2000 Year old tree of Tule.  It's fookin massive! Natural Dyed wool and the ingredients used Weaving Apprentice Mezcal and Chapulines with some Colombians at the Don Agave factory 55% Mezcal, made from 100% Horsepower

The frozen falls of Hierve El Agua..or a massive outdoor stalactite

After Ols was told some dirty jokes in Spanish by an increasingly intoxicated Colombian lady, we jumped in the van and headed to Hierve El Agua; two large white rock formations similar to stalactites look like waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.    Hierve El Agua, meaning “the water boils” in Spanish, has naturally bubbling (but cold) mineral pools, that appear to disappear over the cliff.  A beautiful spot, where we sat to soak it all up until a chap called Manuel (or Manny Pacquiao as he styled himself) arrived and spoke at us in a friendly, yet aggressive manner.  After some nonsensical conversation with our new-found fried we headed back to Mitla, a town with Zapotec  ruins.  These were pretty impressive structures, with a chance to go into some burial chambers.  The whole day was a great little tour, and for a value of M$150 per person it was incredible value for money.

At the edge of the Infinty Pool at Hierve El Agua A starjump on the edge of the pool

Hierve El Agua

The Zapotec Ruins of Mitla Cheeky spanish church right next to the ruins

Our last day was similar to the first, idling around the markets and admiring the town and square.  Oaxaca city centre is an extremely beautiful place, which it would be easy for some to spend lots of time in.  For me it was far too touristy, being a well-established must see place in Mexico.  Ols was also disappointed by the lack of ‘local crafts’ promised, as the markets we visited yielded only clothes mainly.  There may have been another market somewhere, but we didn’t find it.  We decided not to go to the coast, but everyone else we met was heading there.  We decided to start our descent into Guatemala instead, by travelling to San Cristóbal de las Casas via night bus.

Ollies moustash envy becomes worrying


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Mexico City – El DF, Teotihuacan and an intro to mezcal…

Templo Mayor ruins and the Spanish Cathedral behind

Mexico City (also known as Distrito Federal, or el DF) is one place where I genuinely didn’t know what to expect before I arrived.  It has had plenty of bad press in the past but I know people who’ve lived here for some time, and one thing Mexico has taught me so far is to take what you read in the papers with a big pinch of salt! The one thing I was sure about was that it was BIG. On the bus in on a Sunday lunchtime I confidently declared to Rich that we were only a few km out, so would be there in no time. This time his raised eyebrows were correct. The suburbs and stop-start traffic rolled on for miles and miles, but we eventually arrived at the North bus terminal, and got off, where much to my amusement Rich was repeatedly elbowed out the way by several elderly Mexican ladies half his size when trying to retrieve our bags. After the scrum we climbed into a cab and started towards the centre. Being a Sunday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend the streets on the way in were quiet, with lots of shuttered shops; it felt like driving though the suburbs in the early hours. We wondered where everyone was. On arriving at the hostal by the main square in the centre, the Zócalo, we found out.

As usual, if you’d prefer the pictures to the words, click here.

Ollie and some Mexican legends

Ollie and some Mexican legends

We stepped out into the throng and walked around for a while as Rich’s blood pressure slowly rose. Respite was found at a hole in the wall selling some of the best tacos so far (beef and chorizo in one – why has no-one done this before….) then into the bar next door for an overpriced warm beer. Rich looked ready to declare that Mexico City was rubbish, till we found Al Andar mezcal bar on Av. Regina. 10 minutes later he declared that the city wasn’t half bad and mezcal was his new favourite drink.

Muchos mezcales

Muchos mezcales

Not cheap but lovely and smooth, with orange slices and spicy nuts/beans/roast garlic on the side. A whole night’s accommodation budget later we went back to the hostel for a rather early night!

Looking out from the Moon  towards the Sun

Looking out from the Moon towards the Sun

The next day we were up with the birds (and only a hint of a mezcal headache) and tackling the DF metro system for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to navigate and the price – 3 pesos (about 15p) per journey. Also, all the stations have symbols as well as names which is surprisingly handy! We headed out on the bus (after Rich was frisked 3 times, which he was delighted about) to Teohuaticán, a huge site of pre-Aztec civilization ruins, about 20km north-east of DF. The site is anchored around a 2km wide pathway called the Calzada de los Muertos that runs north-south through the site. Towards the top end on the east side is the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) – one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever seen. The third largest pyramid in the world and you can still climb up the steep and uneven steps to the top and get a fantastic view of the whole site, including the second temple Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) that lies at the top of the pathway.

Before the climb up...

Before the climb up…

The view from the top of this second one is just as spectacular, possibly more so as it allows you to grasp the sheer size of its counterpart. The whole thing is even more awe-inspiring when you realize it was built without metal tools, pack animals or even the wheel. The site also contains many other smaller structures, including some remnants of murals of jaguars, pumas and birds (owls and quetzals) in faded colours that must once have been rich reds and bottle greens.

With only a touch of heatstroke and shaky legs from climbing hundreds upon hundreds of steps we caught the bus back into the city, then back into the bowls of the metro to visit the city’s leafier (i.e. richer/whiter) districts – Roma and Condesa. Things were very quiet due to it being a bank holiday Monday, but we found a suitably hippyish café where I could satisfy my craving for salad after weeks of tortillas/meat/cheese/sugary snacks. I must be getting old when I start dreaming of courgettes…

The next day was our big tour of just a few of the city’s historical and cultural highlights. You could spend a couple of weeks in Mexico City and still be lapping up culture, there’s just an incredible amount on offer.

Part of the Diego Rivera mural - Palacio Nacional. Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

Part of the Diego Rivera mural – Palacio Nacional. Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

We cherry-picked a few, namely the Cathedral on the Zócalo and the Palacio Nacional, where the President’s office lies, and which houses a huge and wonderful mural on the main staircase by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico – no mean feat. We followed this with the Templo Mayor, the remains of the centre of Tenochtitlan (the great Aztec city and which they believed to be the centre of the Universe). I marveled at not just the technical and engineering prowess of the Aztecs but also at the sheer audacity of the Spanish in casually razing the lot and putting a Cathedral over the top of it.

Panificadora La Vasconia - amazing cakes and iced ceiling tiles

Panificadora La Vasconia – amazing cakes and iced ceiling tiles

Before our next meaty chunk of culture we stopped at a bakery for coffee and a sweet treat (in fact Rich’s third cream horn in his time in this country – he’s quite the connoisseur now…)

The place was nothing short of a palace of cake (they’d even iced some of the ceiling tiles) and also picked up some damn fine cheese/ham/jalapeno pasties for lunch.

Ollie's favourite jaguar sculpture

Ollie’s favourite jaguar sculpture

Next stop was a gawp at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (just the exterior) before heading down to the Bosque de Chapultepec to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The place documents all the peoples of what now make up Mexico throughout history. We started with the Maya, and continued on through the people of the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca and the North. The sheer volume and quality of the exhibits is astounding, as is the information (often also in English) that accompanies it. I was particularly struck by the beauty of so many of the objects found and the breadth of variety of cultures that came before the Spanish. It leaves you with a real sense of poignancy that such a rich history was so systematically and seemingly callously destroyed and dismantled in so few years by the Spanish. They don’t come off well.

By that point our brains were at saturation point and the rain had begun to fall so we sought shelter in a pool bar in Condesa called Malafama where I was delighted to find some red wine after weeks of beer and less delighted to be trounced at pool by Rich… We had planned to move on to a few other places in the area but the rain gods had other ideas – a spectacular lightning storm and torrential rain fell for a couple of hours while we watched from a sheltered spot with a drink in hand. Once it finally let up a little we hopped through the puddles to find a mezcal bar called La Clandestina that had been recommended to us. On arrival we found that it was full of English people, including the chaps that had told us about it a couple of nights previously. A couple of rounds later and after some chat with some expats things got a little blurred around the edges and we headed for home.

Rich standing over the ancients

Rich standing over the ancients

Mexico City is a shock to the system after beaches and sleepy mountain villages but comes recommended – you’ll blow your budget and you’ll expand your mind as well as destroy a few brain cells (if you take a liking to mezcal, that is…)

So on to Oaxaca, which the glutton in me is very much looking forward to as it’s known for being a real culinary hotspot. Before that, here are a few general things about Mexico that have struck me so far:

  • The food – Rich say he doesn’t like to write about food too much, but I do! Mexican food has really exceeded my expectations, and the variety available, particularly between regions, is fantastic. This may warrant a blog post all of its own…!
  • Social levels – it’s striking that everyone in advertising and almost everyone on television looks very European. The smart areas of DF reflected that as well. It seems that the mestizo majority, followed by indigenous groups are more invisible in the media and in how the wealth is spread. Many bars/restaurants have signs up stating that they do not discriminate in any way but it seems that perhaps this does occur more generally or subtly.
  • And on a lighter note…. VW Beetles! – Apparently Mexico was the last country to continue producing the old-style Beetles, well into the 1990s in fact. As a result, the country is full of them, often in fantastic condition and pimped up. These have been an unexpected but great visual highlight in the streets!