Thursday, 22 September 2016

Pools, pouring rain and pyramids

This was the hottest house on earth. The aircon unit was ancient and the noise it produced echoed off the tiled floors and spartan walls which meant the only way we could sleep was to be both drunk and wear earplugs. A busy main road ran just feet from the metal doors (that heated in the sun) at the front of the house and these had to remain closed in order to avoid deafness and carbon monoxide poisoning. The one fan in the kitchen, dining, living area roared like a prop engine on a spitfire and whilst it did move the humid air it meant we could not think or have coherent conversations. To top it off the storms which rolled in each afternoon caused the road to flood to about 200mm. This meant getting wet feet if you went out side, or wet everything if the doors were open when a lorry passed. Ironically with all this water about the place ran dry on two occasions meaning there was often a smell of unflushed poo loitering on the air. Thats the negatives. The positives were the things we did whilst staying in this town.

The street outside our house
We hired some bikes and toodled off to another Cenote. This one very different from the previous two in that it was underground. The pool is reached by descending about 15 metres down some slippery steps until you reach the cavern with some flat areas for standing and further steps leading into the water. The cenote is about 25m across and was filled with cool clear water with elaborately finned black fish swimming in it. Large stalatites dripped their slow way down to the water and vines dangled from crevices overhead. A hole of about 1 metre set overhead let a shaft of brilliant midday sun down to the pool which then reflected tortoise shell shapes onto the rock walls and ceiling. Bats squeaked and flapped in and out of the hole above whilst we stripped off to our cosies and swam beneath them. All very different from a plunge in the local swimming pool.

Rachel swimming in underground pool
We had to forgo going to a bee farm owned by the guy we rented the house from due to the rain. The same rain that waterlogged the video equipment used for video mapping a lightshow on an impressive church. That's life...As Esta would say.

In Valledolid there is a portly American who has converted a huge townhouse into a magnificent home that he opens daily for charity donations. His home is filled, no, stuffed full of Mexican folk art which he has avidly collected for 50 years and is quite extraordinary. Many pieces featuring skeletons (Katrinas), and fantastic dream creatures. Some whimisical and commissioned directly by him but all richly coloured and taking up nearly every available bit of wall and floor space. Thank you Casa de los Venados for a interesting and informative few hours.

Mexican folk at at Casa de los Venados
Next (and this is the last of these for a while) is Chichen Itza. How many hours did we deliberate about going to these, the biggest Mayan ruins in Mexico?? We had seen amazing ruins all through our travels here. Ones you could touch, climb upon, discover in jungle and stare at in awe. The common denominator with those being that they were largely deserted due to their locations. We decided to take everyones advice....thinking it would make little difference....and got a collectivo heading that way so we could be there when it opened at 8.00am. WE WERE FIRST IN THE QUEUE!!! Queue is overstating it though. Whilst we bustled through the gates with the wide eyes of kids being the first in Disneyland there were for the first 30 minutes no more than 20 others there. We could look and immese ourselves in fantasies of what went on here without the distraction of people - who 2 hours later were arriving in their hoards. The scale of the place is impressive. The main ziggarat stands 30 metres tall and dominates the main plaza. And its not hard to picture the place crowded with natives cheering as sacrificial heads are lopped off and cast from the dias above.

Chichen Itza
There are various buildings in various states of decay or renovation and it certainly deserves its tourist strapline of being one of the 7 wonders. But...... In truth, it's all a bit sanitised and hyped up. Because of its size and openess it does not connect with you in a way that you want. Whilst smaller sites make your skin prickle. It maybe because we have seen several that we feel like this but i could argue that experience gives me a yardstick to measure against. Who knows... If you are over this way. Do it. It will blow you away but if you want something more from your ruins check out the blog on other ones we saw.

I am now sitting on the roof terrace of our latest little pied de terre in Merida. The winds are blowing in huge thunder clouds and its only seconds from raining so time to go in and spend time planning our next few days or wonder whether my daughter (who is pregnant and 11 days overdue) will ever deliver my first grandchild.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Tulum, Tulum, Tulum-Tulum-Tulum-Tulum,Tulum, Tuluuuuuum, di, diddle, de dum.

Dar-de, dar-de dar-de DAR DAR DAR DAR, bum diddle bum bum...... Bum diddle bum bum......
Bum diddle bum bum......

OK enough of that. Tulum is nice. Something of a late addition but it's been fun. Here are the highlights.

Day one. Rachel's bum was covered in spots, mozzy bites, pustules, boils, lesions, swellings, pimples, blotches, rashes and....have I described the bomb site of buttocks enough? We had travelled overnight on an 11 hour bus journey and it had some sort of hissy fit so needed almost constant verbal reassurance of its beauty as well as having copious amounts of Germoline and bite cream rubbed in. A fun day made slightly easier by catching up on sleep and drinking rum and cokes.

Exact drawing off the offending arse
Day two. Walked out into the little garden of our studio apartment to find that the owner (whilst we were asleep) had dug a hole, purchased and planted a 10ft high palm tree.... "Rachel! Come here a second and see if you can see anything different"..... She couldn't!

Tulum Beach
Later went to see more ruins. These are on low cliffs overlooking the beach and sea and again have their own personality = Crowded! They are all lovely and bleached with big iguana's  clambering over them. But the thing i will recall is more the people. The others we have seen have taken some time and effort to get to but these are a short coach ride to a site just off the main road. Deffo a place to visit early in the morning or late in the evening but then the buggers charge three times the price (Archeological crooks!). Anyway, we had taken our cosies and spent sometime getting burnt on the wonderful beach close by.

Bathing in a Cenote
Day three. We have pushbikes at our apartment - heavy frames, fat, bald tyres, rusty basket, hand painted ones with no brakes. They do the job and today their job was to get us to some Cenotes about 5km away. Not the best examples of Cenotes but those too are pretty crowded so would lose marks there. These however were nearly empty. Cenotes are crystal clear pools or sink holes that sit on a limestone base and are fed by underground rivers of which some are traversable by scuba. They are cool without being cold, deep and have some tropical (but mainly brown) fish in them. Surrounded by the chirruping of the jungle and a warm sun overhead made this a lovely way to spend time splashing about in the water, jumping from platforms and worrying about passing water snakes

Tulum Ruins
Day four. Swimming with turtles.... Catch a colectivo to a beach 20km away. Short walk down a path where you bat off the men trying to persuade you that you need a guide and onto a lovely beach with palm trees, gentle lapping blue waters and a lot of people. We found a shady spot under a spare palm tree took our snorkels and masks and wandered about 300 metres up the beach where there we far less people. Didn't think we would actually see any turtles with all the humans about but suddenly, there they were. In all we saw about 10 turtles feeding off the bottom just a couple of feet below us. Not only turtles but a largish sting ray and various tropical fish. The turtles however are the main attraction. Wonderful creatures that are so at one in their aquatic world. Swimming effortlessly along, diving and coming up for air. Rachel summed it up as "One of the most wonderful sights in the world". Shame the camera didn't work.....Grrrrr

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Look at the state (Chiapas) of these ruins

Guatemala to the left of me, Mexico to the right,
here I am, stuck in the middle with you
Sorry that these blogs are coming thick and fast at the moment but we are seeing some good shit and need to share!

Yaxchilan lies beside the broad, brown Usumacinta River that forms the Eastern border between Mexico and Guatemala. It takes 40 minutes on a motorized 40ft long canoe from Frontera Corozo to get there. A journey in which one becomes hypnotized by the drone of the engine, the sound of thrumming water beneath you and the dense green jungles on either bank. Vultures and monkeys loiter in branches and crocodiles bask on the muddy banks whilst birds glide by above in the brilliant blue sky. Leaving the jetty you have to walk up some steep steps and then along a jungle path until suddenly you are see the first of the Mayan ruins festering amidst the virulent vegetation. 

Towering trees laden with vines, creepers and dense foliage filter the sunlight into shafts of brilliance which light patches of the jungle floor alive with leaf cutting ants who hurry in never ending lines into the bushes. Howler monkeys roar to one another in a fearful chorus and the ever present noise of Jungle insects fills the air. It’s not quite the Cambodian experience of going to Ta Prohm but here, conversely, there are hardly any tourists so you can just immerse yourself in the sounds and sights and get a real feel for the place. We wandered around for two hours ‘discovering’ the same stuff as others before us and taking little paths to find the more hidden gems as well. Eventually we emerged with me sodden and dripping in so much sweat you would have thought I had fallen into the river. 

Next stop the ruins of Bonampak. The thing with these, which again are situated in the jungle but this time down a very long dirt track, are the murals that are still in pretty good condition with all of the original paint still in place. It’s only when you see this painted stucco covering that you can picture how impressive these cities were in their heyday. All we get to see are the basic constructs. But to have seen them coated, painted and topped with all the inherent wooden aspects would have been astonishing. And through the eyes of the Mayans (who had neither the wheel or iron tools at their disposal) truly humbling.

The last of our ruinous two days are those of Palenque. A site of 15sq km of which only a portion has been excavated. The surrounding jungle is thick and jealous of giving up its treasures that have been hidden for hundreds of years and to unearth and maintain it all would be a mammoth task. These Mayan ruins are once again unique in their offering to the tourist. Big, impressive and fantastically displayed against the verdant backdrop. Some dominating clearings of many hundreds of metres square, others mere piles of stonework amidst the undergrowth. Here, however, you can enter inside some of the buildings and wander in the damp stultifying tunnels that are home to bats and spiders.

We are ruined out but am sure we will find some more. Pictures of above now in the gallery

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Drugs search, murder, looting and Shagpile carpet coats

So, San Cristobal. But before that a quick last note on Oaxaca. They seemed to be tearing down the market stalls that clutter many of the downtown streets surrounding the Zocala (the town square).  Yayyyy!!!! The square itself had become little more than a cluster of low slung tarps covering hundreds of stalls and dwellings of pop up tents. The square therefore no longer a focal point for the town. Walking through this area without paying careful attention meant being garroted or tripping over cables or small children. Of course, I could be wrong. It might all be something to do with Independence Day her in a week or so!!

San Cristobal walking street
Anyway San Cristobal at 2200m up is a little colder than Oaxaca. A charming town. Mostly single storey or at most two storey buldings. Not in the overtly colourful style of some places but still bright enough for you to know you are in Mexico. There are walking streets that are full of restaurants and nice shops which indulge the needs of the more wealthy. There are a few tourists but, more noticeably, there are scores of indigenous village people here. They come in daily to sell their wares. Most dressed in the normal embroidered, traditional clothes, but some, wearing a sort of black shag pile carpet that is wrapped around the waist and tied with a decorative scarf. Numerous children from 4 upwards are in the streets selling stuff too and it makes you realize how poor this country is and how the poor kids receive virtually no education.

We have been horse riding to place called Chamula about an hour outside of San Cristobal. About 14 people in total and a few guides. Many had never ridden and I, having been on a horse about 5 times and had a few lessons, was one of the more proficient ones. Although my seeming proficiency, I’m sure, was down to the intuition of my horse rather than my ability to control her with my heels, reins and clicking tongue. 
This was Rachel’s first (and probably last) time on a horse. During the two hours of actual riding she came to realise that she didn’t particularly enjoy being on or about these beasts. And, when one fell backwards down a small incline, toppling the rider and resulting in both having to be manhandled from bushes her conclusion was set and she (and indeed most others) were happy to arrive back in one piece.

Anyway, in Chamula there is a church that practices a strange, bastardised version of Catholicism. There is all the normal Jesus on a cross and wax saints in class cabinets malarkey but that's about where the norm ends. Tables filled with thousands of flickering candles line the church walls and, instead of pews, the floors are empty apart from clusters of more burning candles. Often there is a thick covering of flammable pine needles as well to keep the pious on their toes in the eyes of God and the fire department. Gathered around these candles or in front of the glass cabinets are locals who drink coke which makes them belch and represents the bad spirits being expelled from the body. 

Borrowed pic from online as you can't take pics inside
They then drink a clear liquid (sometimes alcoholic) which symbolizes taking in purity (or just getting quietly pissed in a church). Then there is the sacrifice angle!!! People take in chickens (just eggs if really poor) and break their necks. All very weird. Outside, we come a cross a group of men wearing full length shag pile carpet coats and holding sticks. 
Shag pile cops
Turns out these are the local law enforcement. Something that didn’t seem that necessary since the square was surrounded with hundreds of armed police with riot shields standing ready for action. It turns out that a a couple of weeks ago these gentle townsfolk went rogue, formed a mob and bludgeoned the mayor!!! Apparently a prominent politician doles out several thousand Pesos to each of them yearly to ensure their votes. It hadn’t happen as expected in the previous fortnight and it was suspected that the mayor had pocketed the lot.
Sumidero Canyon
There is a fantastic place called the Sumidero Canyon near to Chiapas de Chorzo where you can take a boat ride for several kms down river. It is an amazing ride with the walls of the canyon steadily growing until they stand vertically either side of the river. Towering hundreds of metres high. Cactus and more usual vegetation cling to the sides and cast a further green hue on the already green slow flowing water. Where the slopes are not so sheer trees have managed to take root and are home to herons, pelicans and spider monkeys. Below them, in the murky water, are crocodiles (we saw several of 2 to 3 metres) who no doubt hope for a wrong footed monkey to provide a tasty meal. Aside from normal water falls we came across one that had formed calcified ledges on the canopies of trees upon which the fresh water splashed out to create a thin mist which glittered in the sunlight.

On one turn of the river we found a section completely covered in debris. A huge floating pile of vegetation, trees, plastic bottles and other detritus that had washed down the river and was being managed by floating garbage disposal boats. Finally the river opens to a small lake caused by a dam and here flocks of birds gather and flap about competing with one another to catch fish.

Don't you hate it when there's a bit of litter in the river
Our stay in San Cristobal has been with a talented musician – Carlo – who plays a plethora of instruments including bagpipes and accordions. He plays in several of the bars and along with his band makes and sells their CD’s which are a fusion of Mexican folk and Gaelic music. Very jolly. Music is plainly an important part of life in San Cristobal and on our last night with Carlo we enjoyed far too much drink and an Argentinian Folk band.

We are now on the bus to Palenque – an 8 hour journey through mountains and lush hilly countryside. It is truly a beautiful and diverse country but as with everything Mexican there is a twist.

On this journey it was first being stopped by, what we assume to be, police - although we saw no insignia. 5 men with utility belts and a couple wearing bullet proof vests directed the bus off the road to a slightly quieter side street and then commenced searching the holds of the bus and unscrewing panels all over the place. Poking in mirrors on sticks, shining torches and, presumably, looking for drugs or weapons or something. Bit scary since a few people looked decidedly nervous.. Next we drove past an articulated lorry on the side of the road. Its back wheels appeared to be hanging over a steep drop and the back doors were open. All around, like ants around a pile of sugar, there were dozens of people, young, old, some with wheelbarrows, some loading up cars with what looked like the looted contents of the trailer.

Finally at a ticket barrier of a toll road we were confronted with about 40 people, many with scarves pulled up for anonymity or protection from fumes, I cannot say. The payment booths were all unmanned and locked. But the barriers were manually operated by the crowd who still exacted a toll that was scrawled on a cardboard sign and collected the money in a cardboard box. There was no sense of danger and everyone just accepted it as a normal day on the wild west roads of Mexico.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Walking the Pueblos Mancomunados in Oaxaca

The Pueblos Mancomunados are a group of 9 villages set high up in the beautiful Sierra Norte Mountains to the North East of Oaxaca. The villages are situated between 2000m to 3200m above sea level.

These are pretty insular little communities. Examples being that many locals still only speak the indigenous pre-Hispanic language of Zapotec. No problem. We have spent nearly four years struggling with different languages so at least here with our newly acquired broken Spanish, some English, mime and laughter we get by ok; They also choose to not recognize the silly notion of summer changes in time so their clocks are set to a constant ‘mountain time’ which meant they were an hour behind all the surrounding country.

Lachatao from the trail
These villages are set in stunning surrounds. So, in an effort to bring money into the communities they have mapped out some treks, built some cabins and put an information office in each village to encourage eco-tourism. The cabins are great and the treks are varied and lovely. However, there is a weird lackadaisical attitude towards signage. Consequently the treks (the whole point of the exercise) are hampered and made far more difficult to follow due to lack of signs at places where you need it.. A fact we discovered when one day we walked 32 kilometres instead of 16.

Anyway we leave home and jump on a bus that after 30 minutes brings us back past our AirB&B in the wrong direction. Start again. Walk to bus park and spend further 30 minutes looking for a collectivo (private hop on-hop off van) find one and get in. 15 minutes later still no other passengers (we need 6 to make the journey worthwhile for the driver) so get out. Start again. Find a taxi prepared to drive us for 200 pesos. It's a ninety minute drive and things are going well until we are stopped by the police and have to wait on the side of the road until a suitable bribe is haggled over by the driver.  And so. About 4 hours after leaving home we arrive at the starting point of our trek.

Entrance to our cabana
The cabin is amazing. Its set on the outskirts of a tiny village up a dirt path about 200 metres in pine woods. Its large, has chunky furniture, is clean and has a huge hearth with piles of wood. We start walking tomorrow so for now we saunter and find food in a restaurant of sorts (a cross between a house, shop, restaurant and private living room) where we drink a beer and eat whatever was cooking – probably some variation of tacos, beef, onions, frijoles and rice. Soon the clouds came in, we lit the fire and spent a pleasant evening and night holed up in our cozy den.

Typical restaurant cum someones kitchen
The following day the sun is shining. We pack our bags and set off towards Benito Juarez via Cuajimoloyas. Two 8km treks with lunch in the middle. We are told we probably won’t need a guide so are optimistic that all will be well. It wasn’t. After an hour we drop off a trail as it joins a quiet road, expecting to see a sign where to pick up the route leading back into the woods. We find none and decide to follow a dirt road which runs encouragingly downhill, until we see a route marker which eggs us on cross country – eventually we come to a proper sign which effectively said “You have walked 4km downhill following the wrong route in the opposite direction. Return to go, do not collect £200….Dicks!” It was pretty though. Both times!!!

We trek the 4km back to the cross roads but then had no option but to carry on along a road (still virtually deserted) until a logging lorry came by and gave us a lift.

OK . Have lunch and set off for part two. Down a really steep collection of rocky paths to a river. Then follow the only path for 4km during which torrential rain sets in and we are plagued by hundreds of blackfly. About here we start to think we haven’t seen any signs even though this is definitely the only route. Check on phone and Google Maps shows us a plain background with a blue triangle pointing the wrong way. We walk about in circles a bit. 100m one way, then the other just to make sure we are worried. then decide that, as time is dragging on, we cannot risk going further into the unknown and turn around and follow the only route back finding no obvious alternatives. It's a hard struggle back up the rocky paths and as we approach the tourist office again (thinking we would just get a room there for the night) a colectivo comes by and says he is going to Benito Juarez. We jump on but when after 25 minutes we have not arrived I tap the driver on the shoulder. He turns, looks surprised, mutters under his breath after a swift U turn, drives at break neck speed back up the valley and more or less throws us out on a dirt road that leads to Benito Juarez – 4kms away. Arrrghhh!

We start our slow and tired walk until a pick up comes by and understands the meaning of a man on his knees begging in the road and runs us the last 2 km.

And that's it as far as drama goes. The walk for the following two days is perfect. No mistakes or false trails. Just peaceful trekking through beautiful country side. Sometimes the views are either side of us as we walk along crests, other times we look way down deep wooded valleys. We scramble the occasional trails over rocks but mostly the way is sandy paths. Each night we stop in a cabin with a fire blazing and after stretching, showering and eating are able to relax in comfort as the clouds lower or late afternoon rains wash everything around us. All in all we covered 70km going on past La Neveria – a town of 200 people where the biggest thing in the village was the enormous sign over the dirt road at its entrance. 

To Latuvi where the cabins were on the edge of a steep drop giving views of the valleys below and finally to Lachatao. A quaint village where they loved trumpet practice and squabbling in the small square outside our window until 11pm….Grrrrr! There were several highlights over the three days. We saw skunks, a snake, a profusion of wild flowers. We passed only one other couple the whole time we walked (oh and a diminutive backwoods woman with no teeth and two donkeys). So it was very peaceful. We ate in people’s living rooms, The weather was perfect. The vistas sublime and we both felt a sense of achievement having completed what we set out to do. 

Our return journey went super smoothly with the collective stopping outside our cabin dropping us in the middle of nowhere where another one picked us up in minutes and took us all the way back to Oaxaca. A real experience seeing the small villages in operation and how these private transports form part of the overall communities wellbeing by not only servicing people with transport but even taking shopping orders to buy stuff for the locals whilst driving around.

Our route starting bottom right at Llano Grande