Land Of Mezcal Con Gusano, Never Ending Tacos
& Freddie The Grasshopper Snack.
I love that the traveling bug only every gets stronger the more it is fed. It had been my dream to explore Mexico for years. I had visions of a lazy sombrero wearing nation with tequila drinking gun fighters on the street. I knew that without a doubt I wanted to experience it all, more than anywhere else in the world. I wanted to spend two weeks in Mexico but ended up spending 7 weeks in 6 countries across Central America. I figured it’s an unlikely part of the world to return to so I may as well tick it all off at once so I booked a 46-day Intrepid tour. I’d finally get to experience Mexico and the rest would just be an indulgent bonus.
From South Africa the 16-hour flight goes via Atlanta, USA to Mexico City. On arrival in the USA I was sent to the interrogation booth, which felt a tad unnecessary. They interrogated me to determine why on earth a young woman was travelling to Mexico City, alone. This all made me even more excited for my adventures ahead.
I love America. I love everything about it. The arrogant glory. The electric trash bins. The granite and carpeted airport. The patient Starbucks queues. The free wifi. The overweight but stylish people. The elaborate branded stores. The smell of potential. My transfer call almost came too soon as I could have happily just hung out in Atlanta airport all day. I bounced onto the 3-hour flight ready to take on Mexico.
When my pre-ordered transfer from Mexico City airport arrived an hour late, there was no mistaking that I was in a different time zone and the pace was vastly different from the relentless Johannesburg rush I was accustomed to. It took me about 4 weeks to stop hyperventilating when a cup of coffee took 3 minutes to long or a queues had an extra 4 people in it. I did however try from moment one, to be open to the notion of being present and not worry about time (failing horribly I might add).
My tour book had said that Mexico City is considered to be the 2nd most dangerous city in the world. However I received comfort in the same book saying that the most dangerous city was Johannesburg. I figured that if I’d survived the most dangerous, surely this would be easier. (Both countries have since dropped down on that list I am happy to report.) Although I was familiar with the horror stories of kidnapping, drug mules and violence, I can truly say I seldom felt unsafe or in danger during my time in Mexico. Plus, I offered my kung-fu services to the others on my tour for payment in ice cream.
Mexico City is the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world and the 8th richest city in the world. There are 250 neighbourhoods, 9 million people in the city and 22 million people in the metropolitan area. Over 80% of Mexico City residents are Roman Catholic. There are over 100 art galleries and 160 museums, making it the city with the most museums in the world; take that boastful New York. It is 60km by 40km and surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. It was discovered by the Aztecs and reinvented by the Spanish. If it weren’t for the unfortunate looking people, I could easily have been in Barcelona.
After traveling for 24 hours to reach my hotel I dumped my bags and headed into the City for the afternoon. Far too excited to contemplate sleeping, I wondered the streets for hours. Lost the entire time but not being bothered once. Each street was as interesting as the next. The buildings were old and ornate. The busy traffic seemed strangely calm. The short, chubby people were friendly and walked slowly. The streets were lined with sculptures, strange art, spray painted walls and purple jacaranda trees. I was in my element.
I decided to wonder to the Angel De la Independencia (Independence angel). Much like the Arc de Triumph In Paris, this magnificent piece of art stands at the center of an enormous traffic round about. A golden angel is poised gracefully atop an elegant 36m high column. At its base stands a giant lion, like the one sculptured into the rock in Lucerne, Switzerland. It commemorates Mexico’s’ 1910 independence. It was the evening by the time I arrived at this famous landmark. I sat on a bench amongst several other locals and passersby. I admired the sight and the freedom I felt before heading off to find a coffee shop.
My trip that evening involved much walking, a cab, bus and subway ride. The 175-station subway was tremendous fun. People crammed onto the train so tightly that I was about 12 deep wondering how I would ever escape, never mind breathe. I did notice the train smelt surprisingly good considering how many armpits I was nuzzled into. Each stop meant an alarm would go off due to overloading. People hung out of the train as the doors frantically tried to close. Being a physical nation nobody had any issue pushing and pulling people onto the train to allow more people to fit. To get off I forcefully pushed my arm through the crowd. Some guy literally pulled me through the sardine packed crowd onto the platform. Me leaving meant at least 6 more people could jump on. I don’t think I will complain about my comfy drive home from work again as it sure beats getting chiropractic’s done on the train every day. There was no calm magazine reading like London or iPod listening like NYC. Travelling by subway is a great way to get insight into local social behavior.
The following day I walked around the old city center. Many buildings dated back to the 1500’s and were abandoned, moderately restored or in use for the sale of cheap clothing or cellphones. Each street had a theme and each store sold the same goods. Militant security stood outside stores and on every street corner. They were dressed for war with massive guns and shields. I kept waiting for a revolution to break out as I walked out of Zara or Berksha. However, I never actually felt unsafe in Mexico City.
I found people warm, friendly and polite. Men let me move to the front of the queue. Street vendors allowed me to sample food before purchasing it. A lady even bought me a train ticket and took time during rush hour to point me in the right direction when I was a tad lost. I communicated in hand signals and soon realized the Portuguese I could speak was not as close to Spanish as I’d been hoping.
In the city Center I visited the majestic fine arts Palacio de Bella’s Artes. It was magnificent, majestic and truly beautiful. Its shiny dome roof and white marble walls looked almost out of place among the bustling crowds and packed sidewalks. Flying sculptures and florid decorations surrounded it. The structure is so sizable and heavy that it has sunk noticeably into the ground.
Walking around the city it is easy to feel quite dizzy as the heavier buildings lean. Due to trees being cut down during Aztec times the city has poor drainage and has been susceptible to floods. Giant drains were installed in 1600 and early 1900’s to help take water away from the city. The soil is soft from all the rain and an earthquake in 1985 added to the challenges. The churches, palace and cathedral are built of heavy marble so they have been slowly sinking for centuries. Many buildings are on the verge of collapse. In most cases soil has been removed from beneath the main facade to lower them so the whole building can appear level. The Cathedral is now several feet lower than originally intended. This Cathedral is also the oldest and biggest in the Americas. Its alter is made of solid gold. A black Jesus hung on one of the many crosses beneath a colossal organ. People filled the aisles to pray for the newly appointed Argentinian Pope Francis, whose portrait already hung above them.
Besides the ornate leaning churches and over-elaborate buildings, some of the other Mexico City highlights for me was eating street food. Mexicans are always on the move so there is street food available on every corner. They eat tacos, tacos and more tacos. I was convinced I was going to get malnutrition, as it was impossible to find a meal that didn’t consist solely of carbs and sugar. It certainly explained the typical Mexican physique we saw waddling around. I did enjoy eating cactus. It tasted like a version of green peppers. Nachos were disappointing and bland. However, all the other strange taco filled treats were delicious. A local, indigenous looking lady threw a corncob at me as I took a photo of her without asking. This was fairly awkward as I was in a queue so everyone looked at me as I tried to duck her attack of flying corn. Nobody seemed too phased by her hurling abuse at me. The irony was that I was in the queue to buy corn from her and a small boy. I escaped with a plastic cup full of oily corn for 12 pesos and a jacket with a few wet patches where she’d hit me. I had a good chuckle as I walked away.
I enjoyed the markets, which sold cheap, basic goods. There was minimal tourist junk. Locals seldom approached me as a foreigner, or bothered me with their nail files or socks for sale. They were welcoming and went about their own business hardly noticing a tourist roaming around their cluttered stores. I explored the city by myself as I’d arrived in Mexico City a day before my tour began. Once having met the girls on my tour I was able to play tour guide and take them around to explore what I’d seen the day before.
It amused me to learn that so many of my tour mates had been too afraid to walk out the hotel alone. We’d all read the same tour book and they hadn’t been to Johannesburg, so our fear levels and awareness of danger was vastly different.
‘Tour guide Shera’ took them to the spot where the eagle landed on the cactus, as seen on the national flag. This was just off the zocaló (the main square in every city). The palace overlooks the zocaló, which had previously been used for executions. We watched the impressive changing of the palace guards numbered in their hundreds. It is the 3rd largest square in the world (1st being in Moscow and 2nd in Beijing). In the square hangs the largest flag in the world. The zocaló was grand and we went to a rooftop bar for sangria and snacks to watch the sun set over the cathedral and the square below. I bumped into a South African friend of mine Greg, who now lives in the UK. Such a lovely surprise and a reminder of how small the world is.
By this point I was really starting to get to know my tour group. Faby our Guatemalan tour guide was lovely and calm. I spent most my time with Dani and Jasmine, two Aussies and Sandra, a German. Rob and Trace an English couple and 2 other English guys made up my first of 3 tour groups.
We took a tour to the largest pyramids built in pre-Columbian America called Teotihuacan. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour out of Mexico City. The name means, “where man met the gods.” The city was established in 100BC and was finished in 250AD. It was the largest city in the world in this period. This site consists of 2 main pyramids called the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon. The Avenue of the Dead is between them. It is believed it took 2 000 men 20 years to build, working 24 hours a day.
I loved Mexico City, which surprised me. I expected an overcrowded, polluted, neglected, crime filled city. Instead I got art, warmth, history and one of my favourite big city experiences. It carries the Mexican temperament and an unexpected politeness.
Mexico City to Puebla was a 2.5-hour luxury bus trip. Our view throughout the comfortable journey was of 2 snow-capped volcanoes. The city of Puebla was founded in 1531 by the Spanish and now has over 2 million inhabitants. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 and is one of the largest in the world. It was built upon the ruins of conquered Amerindian settlers and has 5 centuries of old artistic, architectural and cultural heritage.
The city is referred to as “La Puebla de Los Angeles” which means City of the Angels. Legend has it that once the building of the cathedral was complete, engineers didn’t know how to raise the 18 000 pound bell to the top of the tower. This impossible question caused sleepless nights and much talk in the town. Then one morning the city awoke to the bells already atop the towers. Since it seemed like a miracle, nobody doubted that angels had come down to raise the bell. Hence the cities name.
The key sites in Puebla are; The Cathedral, which has the tallest bell towers on the continent and is one of the most beautiful in the world. The Capilla del Rosario (Lady Rosary Chapel) is considered to be the 8th wonder of the world. It is covered in shiny gold from floor to ceiling and intricately decorated. The library (Biblioteca Palafoxiana) is the oldest in Latin America. It is the only ancient library in the American continent recognised as a UNESCO’s memory of the world in 2005. It contains 50 000 volumes on ornately carved wooden shelves. No photos of it are allowed to protect the books. Needless to say, I took one and ran.
They also have a street dedicated to sweet stores called Calle 6 Oriente. The whole glorious road displays locally handmade confections. Puebla’s gastronomy is something to savour. It is well known for dishes such as Mole Poblano (containing over 20 spices, chillies, nuts and chocolate sauce poured over chicken). Chiles en Nogada (stuffed Poblano sweet chili with walnut and pomegranate sauce), is white with green foliage and red pomegranate seeds to represent the Mexican flag. My favourite Mexican dish by far. It was sweet, savory and delicious. The Chalupa (slightly fried tortilla with sauce, onion and chicken) was soggy and less pleasant. The local drink is called Posita. It is raisin based and we tried a shot of it in a 100-year-old bar. The shot is served with cheese and a raisin. It tasted similar to Jaggermeister. In a local market I also discovered tequila-flavoured ice cream. This was genuinely one of the happiest moments in my life. Still not quite sure why, but I wore a smile and commented on my exciting discovery for hours afterwards to anyone that would listen.
Walking through the markets was hassle free. The people calmly sit and say ‘buenas tardes’ to passes by. They never hustle or harass. I felt the prices were already too low to haggle, although they would if it led to a sale. The city’s local artisans make decorative talavera tiles. These also decorate many of their beautiful churches. After the market stroll my German friend Sandra and I decided to rest in a lovely little restaurant. It was traditionally decorated and festive looking. We ordered sangria, which is layers of red wine and spirits. We had a lovely afternoon debating life, love and everything in between. That evening we watched live Mexican wrestling.
One of Mexico’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Modern Cholula is famed for its many churches. According to legend, the conquistadors vowed to build a Catholic church for every pagan temple, or one for each day of the year. This is why the city is believed to have 365 churches, although it actually has far less. We took a morning tour to visit the Cholula pyramid and churches. The sleepily slow Mexican tour pace was a reminder of this go-slow culture.
We visited the largest man made structure ever-built covering 46 acres of land. This pyramid is 405m each side and was built 200BC to 700AD. 8 different Civilizations took ownership of the pyramid, each time building upon the initial design. The final inhabitants were the Spaniards. Not to be outdone, they build a church on top of the rocky pyramid. It is difficult to imagine the might of this ancient world, as today it is predominantly unexcavated. It looks like a scraggly hill covered in grass and cacti as the Spaniards had removed many of the stones to build their churches. Next to the pyramid is a museum showing the usual dated ceramics, sculptures and modest treasures. Some clever people built 8km of tunnels through the pyramid of Cholula. This took them 25 years to complete. Giving a greater understanding of the magnitude of this mammoth undertaking. The pyramids are solid rock and were built for the glory of their gods. They made sacrifices and believed that people who died would be taken to different worlds. This particular pyramid was famed for sacrificing children to the rain gods.
One of the reasons it is believed the people moved away, abandoning the site, was due to drought. Quite ironic I thought. Another one of their beliefs was that drinking alcohol made them feel closer to their gods. I liked this excuse and debated whether I’d finally found a reason to make Kevy-bean take an interest in religion J.
Pronounced ‘wa-ha-ka’. It is a 5-hour bus trip through mountainous, cactus filled scenery from Puebla. Founded in 1529 it makes you realise how young South Africa really is. The colourful city is rich in well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, a thriving artistic community, fine museums and vibrant markets. With 500 000 residents it is a vibrant city and certainly felt more touristy than the previous, bigger places we’d visited.
As with most Mexican cities there was a beautiful zocaló. Off the square is the cathedral with fine baroque facades. Other sumptuous churches are sprinkled on most roads with green stone facades. A visit to Mercado 20 Noviembre, the local market is such fun and a welcomed assault of the senses. Locals sell fresh food, chocolate caliente (local hot chocolate), silversmithing, wire or stone jewelry, painted art, black pottery and woolen, colourful textiles. A crunchy local snack we got to try was Chapulines, meaning toasted grasshoppers. After being thoroughly cleaned and washed, they are toasted on a comal (clay cooking surface) with garlic, lime juice and salt containing extract of agave worms, lending a sour-spicy-salty taste to the finished product. Sometimes the grasshopers are also toasted with chilli, although it can be used to cover up for stale chapulines. Once nibbled on, the little legs float all over your mouth. Fun to try as they make tasty bar snacks. For lunch I tried Tomale, which is chicken wrapped in mole sauce wrapped in corn bread wrapped in leaves. Tasty and fun to unwrap and eat. Early one morning I visited Santo Domingo church, as I walked out a bird pooped on my head. I figured it was payback for all the local wildlife I had been devouring.
A day trip out the city took us to Monte Alban, an archeological wonder. This pyramid ruin is built upon a mountaintop with a commanding and compelling 360-degree view. It is laid out in astrological alignment. Already impressive and only 14% of it has been excavated. We visited a petrified water spring on top of a mountain called Hierve el Agua, which was totally unexpected and breathtakingly beautiful. We wondered around the steep paths and had our ‘Aussie Bogan’ lunch on a cliff overlooking agave plantations. We swam in fresh springs bubbling out the rock forming stalactites.
There was much excitement as we headed to the mezcal factory. I was elated as this was for some silly reason one of the predominant reasons for me visiting Mexico. My new year’s resolution was to have ‘mezcal con gusano’ which I was super excited to achieve. Mescal is stronger and more complex to produce than tequila. It can contain a worm, which comes from the maguey plant. The worm doesn’t have the hallucinatory or magical side effects, as legend tells, but have no doubt, the novelty remains.
Mescal is served neat, never in a cocktail, with crushed gusano (worms), chilli salt and a lime or orange chaser. Naturally we had to try a shot of each type of mescal, so there was no hesitation when it came time to finally swallow the chubby white worm. Finally swallowing the ‘tequila worm’ was truly one of my happiest life moments. Achieving a long-standing goal, no matter how ridiculous, is always monumentally rewarding. We ended the daylong tour visiting the oldest and largest tree in the world called Arbol del Thule. It is 42m high and 14.5m in diameter. It takes 30 people to surround it and is over 2000 years old. This Ahuehuete Tree was worth the visit. No doubt the several shots of mescal made visiting a tree a tad more exciting.
Mexico was getting more interesting and beautiful every day. Set in a gorgeous highland village in the state of Chiapas 2100m above sea level. The city was founded in 1528. It is surrounded by pine forests and is a pleasure to explore with its cobbled pedestrian streets and colourful markets. This archeological gem oozes colonial charm with its mostly one-story houses with red tiled roofs and walls in blue, green and ochre. With many tourists, the streets are full of children and women selling woven belts, bracelets, sweets, amber stone jewelry and wooden items. Restaurants are plentiful and spill out onto the pavement adding to the bustling atmosphere. This also means a tap on the shoulder every 3 minutes by a vendor, but a simple “no thanks”, sends them off so harassment is minimal.
The nightlife in this town is festive and varied with a bohemian flair. We visited a wine and tapas bar and were moderately impressed with the Mexican wine selection. We relaxed one evening at the Revolution Bar, which had live music, great cocktails, delicious quesadillas and an entertaining crowd. San Cristobal has a laid back atmosphere with trendy cafes and likable restaurants.
We realised that Mexico does not have the coffee culture of Italy so most if its highest quality coffee gets exported. Mexicans drink instant Nescafé, a hot chocolate type drink or sweet, black coffee, often referred to as ‘sock water coffee’ as the taste is so diluted. A must visit was a French bakery called ‘Oh la la’ as it had the best coffee we’d found in Mexico. In every city we visited, we noticed that the sidewalks were swept and washed down from early in the morning. They eternally look grubby due to their age and the endless foot traffic, but broom salesmen must make a killing in Mexico as the people are fanatically neat. They lead hard working lives. Often younger kids go to school in the morning and older kids in the afternoon, due to limited classroom facilities.
Santo Domingo Cathedral, on the tiny zocaló was nothing particularity special. It had a facade painted in highland-style yellow and red ochre. A random Catholic church in the middle of the market I found far more impressive with its intricately detailed exterior. A great thing about the time I chose to visit Mexico, besides the best weather being in March/April, is it was also Holy Week. Being a Catholic country this is especially celebrated with flowers in churches, celebrations, events, fireworks, parades and extra church services throughout the day. I attended an early morning Palm Sunday service there, which was truly extraordinary. The massive church was packed. Every seat was taken; side and middle isles were full and people queued outside to enter. Every person held up a decorative palm cross, purchased from ladies and children on the steps outside the church. They’d been there from the day before working tirelessly to make a few pesos from this special occasion. I stood amongst the packed crowd and listened to some of the service. As it started everyone held their crosses up in the air and waved them around while singing in Spanish. This was a moving experience and wonderful to see such active Christians.
Guadalupe Church is on a hill at the end of Real De Gaudalupe Pedestrian Street. With 80 steps it is worth the climb for the city view. On the opposite end of the town, within easy walking distance is San Cristobal Church. This one is more tiresome to reach with 280 steps but the city view is moderately impressive.
After my early morning explore I joined a guided tour, which took us to the indigenous village of San Juan Chamula. This was quite an experience and certainly a great cultural immersion. We wondered through the town learning about how these people do not follow the Mexican governments laws. They have their own justice, education, religious and political beliefs. They stay out of the Mexican governments way and visa versa. When Mexico has daylight saving, they do not. A criminal is punished by being put into jail. The jail is at the market entrance in a public location to disgrace the inmates. Crime is low as the society is community, and not individually focused. So if a crime is committed being shamed by the community is considered the worst punishment. A man is jailed for 1-3 days. Should the offender repeat an incident then he is then given community service. They have the death penalty although this is never needed.
Women have an average of 8 children, live off the land and have no say in any serious matters, such as politics. It is a good reminder of how far women’s rights have come when visiting a community like this where women wear traditional dress, stay at home and have no vote. The quintessential act of women is to weave while the men’s first role is to grow corn and tend to the livestock. Men vote either by throwing their hats in the air and cheering or booing and throwing rubbish at candidates.
A differentiator is also that these men don’t grow any facial hair and are all born with birthmarks on their lower backs, known as the Mongolian Spot. The most interesting part of the village tour was their strange religious beliefs. They blend Catholic and their own native pre-conquest Maya religious beliefs.
The last Catholic priest who lived in the village was expelled in the 70’s and missionaries are not tolerated. They have a green cross but it represents a tree. People get married at home and not in church. A coffin does not get brought into the church for a funeral, only the tombstone cross does. The tombstone varies in colour depending on age/gender of the dead person. They have spiritual leaders who volunteer for the auspicious task. They must be married as one of the numerous things needed to qualify. It may take years to be selected but once a family is, they wear spiritual leader outfits and perform rituals all day long for 20 days. This is rotated between families and lasts for 1 year. It is an expensive job as the spiritual leaders have to buy all the decorative plants, pine needles to cover the floor of the worship room, candles and a special kind of tree resin, which is used as smelly incense. Candle lighting starts at 4am and goes on until late evening. To make money during this time they are allowed to sell bottled coke only. The power of this brand never ceases to impress me. No wonder Mexicans are the number 1 Coke drinking market in the world. After that strange visit we went to their main church.
I felt uncomfortable from the moment we entered, although many people on our tour were enchanted and felt drawn to the experience. There is no priest, only Shamans who hold a person’s wrist checking their pulse to tell what is wrong with then and direct him to advise the person what they need to bring so he can pray with that family. The room is filled with saints in glass boxes wearing mirrors around their necks. They have 52 saints they pray too. No photos can be taken, as they believe this captures the saint’s spirits. There are no confession booths, no bibles, no services and no chairs as all activity takes place on the pine needle covered floor.
A complete fire hazard I thought, as there are candles all over the large room. People kneel down and light many candles. The colour of the candles is significant to the prayer request. Coke or Fanta drinks are used in the ceremony due to their colour. Chickens are brought in to help rid people of curses or negative energy. After prayers the chickens neck is wrung. The intensity of the prayers were admirable and seemed lengthy. Our guide told us how if a child falls or gets a fright from fireworks, for example, they could loose their spirit so a mother picks them up straight away and rocks them.
An adult cannot be picked up and rocked, so they have a special ceremony performed by a Shaman to bring back their spirit, should it get lost through a traumatic event such as a car accident. It involves candles, prayer, staying in a room for 5 days, killing a chicken and burying it where the event took place. If a women can’t get pregnant it means her body is ‘cold’ and she must eat a ‘hot’ animal like a rat or possum. Our guide Cesar’s birth was testament to the success of this belief.
After the village of Chamula we visited the ‘more advanced’ village of Zinacantan. They have a more colourful and floral traditional dress. We visited a home and ate tacos and beans with them, while the women showed us their weaving. They use the same Maya back-strap loom technique since 800AD. A highly labour intensive process with a beautiful result. In Mexico there are 15 million indigenous people and 300 languages. So it was interesting to explore two of them on this tour.
A 6-hour trip took 10 hours due to a few hold ups along the way. Firstly, protesters blocked the road, so after waiting for an hour we took a 2-hour detour on a tiny village road. At the end of the village, logs blocking the road stopped us again. A 50 Peso bribe got us through eventually. I noted that both the driver and tour guide politely said thank you and smiled as we drove past the perpetrators. Clearly this was not too unusual an event. The drive from San Cristobal to Palenque is on a windy road through tree-covered mountains. Motion tablets were a necessity as we raced along hair-raising bends.
Palenque town itself is tiny and dull. It rained for the 2 days we spent in the area, which made our outdoor activities damp, but a welcome relief from all the hot cities we’d visited beforehand. There was a lovely restaurant just out of town called Don Muchos. We ate vegetables for the 1st time in 10 days, sitting at plastic tables and chairs, enjoyed live music, while rain poured down. Key activities to do in the area were to visit Agua Azul, which means ‘Blue Water’. Misol-Ha is a waterfall with a path behind it, which leads to a cave. In both cases Rio Tulija flows out of the mountains on a limestone riverbed. This gives the water a radiant turquoise colour.
The other key attraction is the creative genius of the ancient Maya civilization. They were responsible for the elegance and craftsmanship of the UNESCO World Heritage archeological site in the Palenque National Park. Palenque dates back to 226 BC, was at its prime in 500 to 700 AD and fell in 1123AD to be reclaimed by the jungle. Amidst this now lush, thick tropical jungle only about 5% of the sculptured relics have been excavated. These were by far the most impressive temples, burial chambers and palaces we’d seen. Unlike other pyramids we’d visited in Mexico built by civilizations like the Aztec, the Maya people had lived in their buildings. They were decorated with carvings, inscriptions and gems. Making them far more impressive to view. The relics supply more information, so we were able to learn about their line of kings, their beliefs and their way of life. The few ruins we we able to explore were powerful and refined.
They represented only the central area of a vast city whose total area spans across about 15km in perfect astrological alignment. The most famous ruler of Palenque was Pacal the Great who ruled from age 12 to 80. An unusually long period as the average life expectancy was 45.
During his rule he carried the nation to new levels of splendour, building most the palaces and temples in the city. His tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions. His sarcophagus was discovered wearing a rich collection of 700 pieces of hand-carved jade covering his face and body. The pyramid he was found in is 60 meters wide and has a small pathway to it built within the rock. This was to allow his soul to escape at the time of his death.
Also impressive is the Temple of the Cross, the Sun and the Foliated Cross. They are graceful temples set atop step pyramids. The largest temple has 109 steps, to be exact. Each one decorated with elaborate carved relics in the inner chambers telling stories of ancient events. Besides grand burials they also had some elaborate beliefs. They saw the sun rise from below and plants grow from the ground so they believed these good things came from the underworld. They believed in 9 underworlds and 13 heavens.
Mayan’s believed that when someone died they came back as corn and worked their way up. Royalty would tie ropes around their babies heads to make them cone shaped and force their eyes to go squint as a sign of their superior position. It amazed us how the sheer scale of these massive structures were possible without metal tools, pack animals or even the wheel. A highlight was to see the Aracari Toucans and noisy parrots fly overhead as we casually wondered around. The sound of howler monkeys echoed thunderously from the jungle while we explored, truly one of the great sounds of Mexico.
This city, with a population of around a million people, felt a bit rushed. It was a chilly 8-hour bus trip to get there. The hours were passed watching movies in Spanish, with our guide translating them from time to time. Busses in Mexico are wonderfully luxurious with reclining seats, icy air-conditioning and constant entertainment. It was a surprise as I’d mentally prepared to be travelling on dodgy ‘chicken busses’, like we did in Belize.
As always, the first thing to do in any city is head for the zocaló as every notable building seems to sprout from this central location. Merida has one of the largest town squares. It is well manicured and festive with people littered on benches. A tad tired of looking at cathedrals we rather headed to a cocktail bar overlooking the square. Feeling behind in my tequila drinking I ordered a local shot and a cup of tea. A fair Mexican combination I felt. That evening out our tour group of 8 had dinner at a lovely 2 for 1 restaurant. I had a salad, which was literally a first and a relief from tacos. The smell of which by now was making me gag. The hotel was my favourite as it had a revolutionary feel to it. Plus any place with a hammock is a treat.
An early morning stroll took me down Paseo de Montejo. This is a road lined with elaborate homes that belonged to millionaires in years gone by. Now these decorative, large buildings are owned by banks and insurance companies. I did see a Walmart on the street, which I can only assume, would have horrified the boutique residents.
Merida offered a mix of optional activities. From cenotes and Bompak Ruins to city tours. We decided to go on a pricey excursion an hour and a half out of town to see flamingoes. Expecting an intimate experience like we’d had on our tours to date, we were soon to be disappointed. We climbed on a tour bus of 36 people. We froze for an hour and a half looking at bland dense bush. We finally arrived, only to then wait for every person on the bus to go to the loo. After much eye rolling we jumped on speedboats each seating 6 people in anticipation. To my dismay we raced passed some pelicans, seagulls and a few other birds at such pace that we weren’t able to even identify them. Hardly a nature lovers tour.
On arrival at the flamingoes I was hoping to get a detailed talk from our guide to report back to my bird obsessed parents – expecting to get at least an extra Christmas gift for sharing their passion. Alas, there was no such ornithologist on board. When I asked the not so fancy guide we’d hired to at least tell me what type of flamingoes they were, his priceless answer, as if I was clearly mentally challenged for asking such a silly question, was that they were ‘pink flamingoes’. No kidding! There were only a few dozen, clearly pink birds standing in some murky water. Not thousands like I’d envisioned. They eat with their heads upside down to filter out the shrimps with their comb like tongues. They are pink from the shrimp they eat otherwise they’d be white (info from Google, clearly not our tour guide). We laughed with annoyance that we’d spent a full day to just see 47 damn PINK flamingoes.
After 6.4 minutes of admiring these scrawny birds we did a quick trip through a mangrove and saw a Tiger Heron. I never got a photo of the heron, as apparently we needed to rush somewhere. We did stop for a brief moment at a magnificent spring, which had 75% fresh water so it was crystal clear. We watched some locals splash around noisily and feed fish bright orange crisps. The round trip which was the point of our full day pelagic trip, was 30 annoying minutes. It took longer to get everybody back on the bus. The restaurant stop was lovely, besides the raging wind and the fact that our starters came long after our mains. By this time I was fighting waves of nausea realizing I’d now picked up a bug. A nap on the windy beach made the nausea unbearable only to be told we had to wait for some lost people before returning to Merida. Our 9-hour day for 4 minutes of flamingoes will certainly not go down on my ‘ top things to do in Mexico’ list. The pretty pictures will tell a very different story. Nonetheless, even a bad day in paradise still beats a great day in the office.
Once I’d slept my bug off and spent some time on Skype, we left at 6am for a 2-hour mini bus trip to Chichen Itza (or Chicken Pizza as we were fondly calling it). We were all exceedingly excited to arrive at one of the 7 wonders of the world. It is the most visited of all the Mayan sights. We expected crazy crowds at this top tourist attraction as it was Good Friday. Chichen Itza sees over 1.2 million people a year but luckily we were one of the first groups to arrive. We paid our 182 Peso entrance (12 peso to 1 USD so only about R125) and skipped inside. At first it sounded like a Kruger National Park breakfast spot with birds chirping in every tree. The site was massive and well maintained.
It was peaceful and we kept commenting on how lucky we were to see this Mayan wonder before the hordes descended upon it. The key ruin with its 9 levels is truly impressive and worthy of its UNESCO word heritage site status. Ambitious Chichen Itza was built around 700AD and is of extraordinary scale. The 4 sides each have 91 narrow and steep steps. Including the top platform this totals 365, intentionally the number of days in a year. Each side has 52 panels, representing the 52-year cosmic cycle. The pyramid stands 30 meters high. On the Spring and Autumn equinox the light falls perfectly to make a serpent sculpture look like it is slowly descending the steps. Quite haunting to witness I’d imagine. Laser scanned images of Chichen Itzas’ great limestone columns reveal it to be in the shape of a cross, which represents a tree in the Maya mythological beliefs systems. Perfectly astronomically aligned the full site is spread across 5km. This mythical site is thought to have had the most diverse population in the Mayan world. This is also seen in how varied the carvings and architectural designs are. It did not fail to be awe-inspiring. I kept looking back at the site as we walked away, trying to take in each precious moment.
10 minutes away from Chichen Itza we visited Ik Kil Cenote. What a cool natural site. A cenote is a hole in the ground, caused by the ground caving in, now filled with clear fresh water. There are several of them scattered around the area and they’re a great place to dive and explore the caves. Colourful Mot-mot birds and swallows circled the cave as long roots draped down to the water. It all looked very fairytale like.
Playa Del Carmen
Within 3 hours we were in the party capital of Mexico. A newer version of Cancun it was an American tourist paradise. It is completely cosmopolitan, expensive, glamorous, over the top, loud, bright, playful and obnoxious. It is everything you’d want if you were 21, on spring break and looking for 24 hours of full on party craziness. The streets are numbered so it is easy to navigate ones way around, no matter what state you’re in. Everybody pretty much just hangs out on 5th Avenue which is where all the action happens. If you speak Spanish to a Mexican waiter in Playa, he’ll answer in American English.
After 2 weeks of nobody uttering a word of English to us this all felt wrong. Yet very right for this multi-national tourists mecca. The gentle Caribbean ocean is various shades of turquoise and blue. Postcard picture perfect with pelicans and black-headed seagulls floating above the tanned, glistening bodies sprinkled across the blindingly, white sand. No visit to this part of the world is complete without the brilliantly marketed Señor Frogs, the epitome of American food portions and fun.
Easter Sunday morning I woke up at 4:40 for a SA Skype call. There was no need for an alarm though as the club music was still so loud we could sing along in our room. Music ended around 6 am but the streets were still packed with drunken partygoers. while walking to the sunrise Easter service I looked out of place for being the only sober soul around. I joined a group of Mexicans and caught the end of their Spanish church service as the sun rose over the calm glistening sea – such a special way to start the day. Both of my days in Playa I awoke at the crack of dawn to walk on the beach and enjoy the peace before the masses headed for the beach. Playa del Carmen at times felt like Larnaca in Cyprus or Fortaleza in Brazil.
By now I’d said goodbye to my first tour group and met my second group. My tour was a combination of 3 different tours. Group 2 consisted of 15 chatty girls and one poor Canadian guy. At first, exhausted by the idea of having to hear that many new life and boyfriend stories, I quickly got into the swing of it. Plus I realised I was usually the overly loud one telling those stories anyway. My 2nd group was younger so a few more nights out were scheduled. All in all Mexico was very civilised and involved more taco dinners than tequila drinking sprees. A sure sign of premature aging and a lack of good influence that I usually have back home in the partying department.
An hour from Playa, Tulum was another beach paradise. The towns’ layout is scattered and divided into 3 parts. The ruins, beach resorts and town. A taxi ride is needed to get between them. Our time was spent at the beach staring at the turquoise ocean while nibbling on tacos con pollo. We visited the Grand Cenote, which was a real treat. There are over 3 000 cenotes in the state of Yucatan, 70% of which remain unexplored. There were turtles and fish swimming in the crystal clear spring water. A swim into the caves revealed stalactites and nesting swallows.
We caught a taxi to Akumal Beach, which is a conservation area due to nesting turtles and a wealth of fish and coral. We spent a perfect afternoon on the white beach and had a tasty lunch with a sea view. The highlight was snorkeling with turtles over a meter in size, stingrays up to 2 meters long (they look like tadpoles that have had their heads stood on), bright parrotfish and several other colourful aquatic creatures. Just off the tourist beach was the Las Casitas Resort, which looks like a spot of paradise I wouldn’t hesitate to return to for a complete rest.
Mexico has 3 times SA’s population with 151 million residents. They are blessed with 500km of coastline, deep cultural roots, a temperate climate and constant smiles. They celebrate and pray for a good life, as well as a good death. For this reason it is common to see skeletal memorabilia. On 1 November they have a carnival type celebration to honor the dead. Mexicans love any excuse to celebrate. They even have a celebration for the day of the pencil.
I loved Mexico and appreciated every busy moment of the colourful country. Some slightly less enjoyable moments of cultural adjustment was putting loo paper in bins as it couldn’t be flushed, as is the case through most of Central and South America. Spanish is a beautiful language and we were blessed with an amazing tour guide to translate every menu for us. Had we not had her with us, I fear that the language barrier may have been a serious challenge along the way. So a guided Mexican tour is certainly recommended for maximum enjoyment and minimum stress.
Mexican food was a bit of a disappointment to be honest. What we experience back home is more like Tex-Mex with huge, cheesy portions. Mexicans eat tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The novelty of these corn snacks wore off quickly and by the end of 2 weeks even the smell was met with our pulled up nose. They say corn is to Mexicans as bread is to the French or rice is to the Chinese. Their daily food is generally bland so they add salsa, a watery guacamole sauce and chilli to try add some flavour. Few meals arrive with a side of veggies and it is quite common to just eat carbs with carbs. Everything contains sugar; from their bread to all beverages. There were several tasty traditional highlights along the way but the average Mexican is at risk of diabetes and obesity with their general diets. Their physique is testament to this. Mexicans are also big snackers and so a taco, nuts or churros stand is available on every corner. I did get used to drinking take-away coffee through a straw and bars giving popcorn (poporopos) or salsa with corn taco chips as snacks.
My top highlights were discovering tequila flavored ice cream in the market in Puebla. Hearing the howler monkey call out from the jungle at the Mayan Palenque ruins. Finally drinking Mezcal con gusano. Early morning walks alone, exploring cities and beaches. Snorkeling with turtles and stingrays. Hearing Spanish spoken all day long. Experiencing the beauty of the turquoise, calm Caribbean ocean. The Mot-mot bird at the cenotes, endless fireworks and making special new friends. Mexico is a vast, modest country. It is rich in natural splendors, creative people and is large enough for you to find every, and any, experience you may be looking for. I never felt unsafe. I was enthralled by the ever-changing vegetation and humbled by the simplistic and modest lifestyles. A gem of a country, in every regard, which I would return to tomorrow.
“Pa todo mal mezcal
Pa todo bien tambien.”
For everything bad there’s mescal
For everything good as well.