Part 1 – Chiapas
Here I am in a tree house in the middle of the jungle at Palenque in the heart of the state of Chiapas in Mexico. It is so bizarre to be in this primitive place with all the jungle noises buzzing around us and they have wireless access! Anyway we got here the other day, whatever day that was? It was just getting dark and I seriously thought our accommodation was the ruins, we walked deep into the jungle up the stairs into our mouldy looking Cabana which had windows without glass in them, a couple of beds and a light bulb. It didn’t take long though to appreciate that we were privileged to be here and with the extreme heat and high humidity everything goes mouldy and you need to allow the breeze to flow through. This place is a real find, during the night you hear a cacophony of weird noises and there is this constant buzzing sound, the jungle is really thick and a small river runs through the middle of the place – I say place because it is not really a hotel, just a bunch of cabins and a few straw roofed open sided restaurants. The first decent food we have found in Mexico too! This is a real hippy hang out, the guy next to me has the original Guy Sebastian hairdo and there is a VW beetle parked below me with a purple peace sign on the roof! Everyone has tattoos, piercing and do these weird handshakes, they even had fire dancing and some folk singer last night. Sheridan loves it all; I just left her on the stage at the restaurant helping the guy set up the mikes for the show tonight. (She’s still got the braids so fits in pretty well – just hope she doesn’t get on the weed!).
So what’s the attraction at Palenque? More ruins of course – except these are the best so far. I’ll tell you about yesterday! Well suddenly in the middle of the night we had our first rain and the temperature dropped. While we were having breakfast a VW kombi got stuck in the river and the river rose nearly a metre. They wanted to call off our day at the ruins but nothing was going to stop us, so we waded through waist deep water to get to the main road (Sheridan getting a free ride on my back) and hailed down a collectivo which took us to the ruins. It was almost deserted as we spent 3 hours completely soaked in torrential rain amongst the most amazing ruins. We learnt all about the Mayan empire as we crawled through chambers, climbed temples, shivered in secret chambers and slipped and slid our way through the ancient city. We managed to get a few shots off, trying to keep our cameras dry to at least have a record of our day! A couple of times Sheridan turned purple and Nikki looked like she was ready to kill Trevor, but it made it the experience all the more special. We must have looked ridiculous coming through the jungle, Trev in a 50 peso plastic bag – leading the troop, followed by Michelle who had her day pack on backwards and looked 6 months pregnant, finally me and Sheridan singing Jingle Bells to keep warm, but we made up our own words, something like Jungle Balls, Jungle Balls….. Where was Nikki, standing under a tree dreaming of the beaches at Playa del Carmen – I promise Nikki it does get better!!
Speaking of….I’m now allowed to reveal that Trev proposed to Nikki on the end of a pier at Caye Caulker! They told us the news as the huge breasted woman was braiding Sheridan’s hair, she teared up too – breast heaving etc… (That’s supposed to say tear as in tear drop….funny language English). Might stick to Spanish….Una Cervesa mas por favour…gracias, cool got a beer – now I can keep going! Hate me yet? Yeah this is tough!! Anyway that’s the intro over; I need to tell you how we got here!
So we drove all day through northern Guatemala up into the southern part of Mexico and the state of Chiapas. It was mostly agricultural mountainous country, very poor; most of the houses were made of mud brick with straw or tin (for the lucky ones) roofs. There was no discernable difference between the countries and historically the indigenous people are all descendants of the Mayas and even the Spanish ruled Chiapas from Guatemala until the Mexican Revolution. Apparently it was a really long drive, but I lay in the back of the van reading “Culua – My other life in Mexico” by Samantha Wood, she is a journalist from Melbourne that came to Mexico to discover her roots, it was amazing to read a bit then glance out the window and breath in what she was writing.
Finally we arrived in the Colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a beautiful 16th Century town with cobbled streets and very clear light due to the altitude of 2100 metres. Our hotel made even my colour sense seem bland – our room had orange walls, with fluro blue trim and a yellow ceiling – actually what am I saying, not just our room, the whole town was like that!! On top of this, it was Easter weekend and there were people and celebrations happening all around us. We were even lucky to witness the crowning of “Miss Festival of Spring and Peace 2004” – bit of a spunk too, gotta say though their dresses all looked like….um well most of us have been to a Greek wedding…..enough said! We bought a few souvenirs; my favourites were the “Marco” doll, a man in a black cape donning a balaclava and holding a rifle!! Who was Marco you ask? He is the leader of the Zapatistas, a bunch of revolutionaries that tried to overturn a corrupt and wealthy state government that held all the power and land in these parts. In 1994 it all got messy when the government responded by wiping out a few villages, lots of people died and eventually they hid in the hills gaining the support of the world via the Internet. Anyway, they are now a political party and nothing much has changed!
We spent Easter Sunday in the villages in the hills nearby. Firstly Chamula, which was seriously creepy, there were hundreds of guys dressed in costumes that varied from very intricate robes to literally strapping two sheepskins to your body. Everywhere we walked, kids were begging us for money and tugging at our clothes. We had to keep our cameras hidden as they are very religious and believe their souls will be taken away – shame as the old church was amazing and inside all the saints were represented in lifelike effigies and families were lighting candles for the departed. There were literally thousands of candles burning, firecrackers were exploding everywhere and Shamans were leading families through prayer rituals. Happy to get out of there as I felt like I was an intruder. Basically like sitting in the Collingwood Cheer Squad wearing a Bulldogs jumper….maybe not, these people may have been poor but they had some hope! In stark contrast, was the village of Zinacantan – a tiny cluster of shacks where the men work in the fields and the woman run the house and do weaving in their spare time. We were welcomed into a family’s sparse mud brick home where they fed us some tacos with mole cheese, washed down with Porsh (tasted like 100% alcohol). Sheridan ran around with the kids (she was taller than the 10 year old!) whilst we bought a few weavings, actually Trev and Nikki virtually purchased their whole collection. It was a lovely couple of hours where we felt really comfortable, Trev had some video footage of an automated weaving machine from Guatemala – they were so excited by it!
So after a few days at a higher altitude, we descended to sea level to visit the Sumudera Canyon, pretty spectacular over a thousand metres high. We saw every inch of it during a 2 hour speed boat ride of which the first 10 minutes was exciting after that it was pure hell. We kept making jokes like – “Don’t worry guys at the end you get a tour of the Hydro Electric plant and they give you a free bottle of water!” The driver even had the gall to take a side tributary to drop into his girlfriends place and disappear in the bushes for 10 minutes. Finally with Sheridan standing at the front of the boat yelling “Hombre, Amigo, Hombre Amigo” did he emerge and we finally went home. On top of this, Sheridan did a big chunder in the van and Trev was suffering from “Guate Go” (I made that up, it’s like Bali belly). So good morning!! The afternoon was better as we had a taste of (the state of) Tabasco, it was really hot – then we went through some flat boring country back to Chiapas and in to the jungle. Our visit to the oil rich city of Villahermosa consisted of ten minutes in McDonalds and a discussion on the virtues of Walmart v Carrefour neither of which we stopped at! The contrast with yesterday’s activities already was already too hard to bear.
So I’m still here in this tree house / internet café the rain has stopped and I forgot to tell you about today. We went to visit the waterfalls of Agua Azul which are an amazing light blue colour and have these translucent pools that offer the most magnificent opportunity to swim in a beautiful setting surrounded by pristine jungle…..anyway ’cause of the rain it was this brown slushy mess! Oh well, shit happens!
Part 2 – Yucatan & Quintana Roo
We are now in Playa del Carmen, which is smack bang in the middle of tourist country. A cruise ship must have docked in nearby Cozumel as the main street is full of fat Americans getting very red whist sipping Coronas. Today whilst walking down the street (5th Avenue), not one shopkeeper hassled me – looks like they can tell the difference too!
We left Palenque with much regret and headed for Merida, a prosperous colonial city in the heart of the Yucatan with nearly a million inhabitants. We were in a fairly ordinary part of town, however a few blocks away was the really pretty main square – with the oldest cathedral in The Americas. Every night they have a free cultural event, it was heavy metal night on Saturday – hilarious, the crowd of mostly Mayas looked totally bewildered – Sheridan was doing her best air guitar impersonations, which got a few laughs. We spent the couple of days just wandering around town, deciding not to drive to the north seeking the famous flamingo colony. We even spent a couple of hours in the Museum of Anthropology, shouldn’t have been that long but Sheridan wanted every single item explained. I now know more about the Mayas than I ever wanted to. Merida also meant that we were now on our own, having left Patrick and Amy to continue back home to Canada and USA. Trev and Nikki bought up big in Merida, another suitcase in Walmart (Gotta love Walmart!) then plates, bowls, trinkets, wall thingys, dangling things, sparkly things etc.
Somehow, this all fitted into our VW Jetta – me driving, Trev navigating whilst balancing a bowl on his lap. In the back were the others, somewhere amongst the hammocks which we purchased from the guards at the Valladolid prison – they are really good quality and you can tell that they are made by people with lots of time on their hands. I wonder if the proceeds ever get back to the craftsmen – I somehow doubt it!
Our destination was Chichen Itza, the greatest of all Mayan cities and one of the biggest tourist magnets in the world! Our first night we went to the Sound and Light show where they illuminate the pyramid and a few temples with bright colours, tell you the history of the people in this dramatic voice with plenty of echo and just when you are about to nod off – it’s all over! After seeing the 20 or so tourist coaches on the previous day, we decided to get up really early and hit the ruins as soon as the gate opened. It was certainly worth it, when we climbed the Pyramid of Kukulan there were only half a dozen people around – it was a beautiful day and the view was spectacular. It was an easy climb up as long as you didn’t look back! Standing at the top and seeing Michelle’s face as she contemplated the 91 extremely steep steps below her was very funny, Sheridan and I raced to the bottom so we could watch the fear etched on her face as she slowly crab walked down the face of the temple. It was Sheridan’s idea…..not mine. Anyway, within an hour or so the place filled up with thousands of day trippers from Cancun….easy to spot, they have their Hawaiian shirts tucked in….hello?? Either way it is an amazing place, our favourite being the Temple of 1000 pillars, we took lots of silly photos of us hiding between pillars – it’s great having a kid on holiday you can say all the silly things were their idea!
We then drove to Tulum, only a couple of hours on a straight quiet road where we actually shared the driving. Trev did the usual stuff with the wheel and pedals whist I controlled the hazard lights (When slowing down, overtaking or for no apparent reason), the horn (whenever you feel like it) and indicator (not required). I also provided advance warning of speed humps, which appear at least 10 times in each village – accompanied by little boys trying to sell you masks, blankets etc (Couldn’t they see we were overloaded already?). Sheridan also did her bit by yelling out “No Gracias” at anybody that got anywhere near the vehicle!
We left Chichen Itza a day early therefore we didn’t have anywhere to stay in Tulum so we cruised around checked out a couple of places and ended up in this cool joint. The sort of place where you pay lots to feel like you are one with nature. Basically we were in straw huts with no electricity, the walls were sticks and the only security was the giant mosquito net draped over a King Size bed that took up the whole room. When it got dark, with the candles on, it was very romantic as the wind went through the room, the sea crashed nearby and strange noises came from outside. Maybe the 6 year old squeezed between us didn’t see the romance though! Forgot to mention the best part, we were situated right next to a fantastic beach with magnificent blue water!
Next morning I woke up and suddenly I was forty! A bit ironic that someone who spent most of his childhood living in straw huts and sleeping on the floor of a tent turns 40 in such primitive surrounds. I thought I was doing OK for myself too!!
Anyway learning from Chichen Itza we did the Tulum ruins really early. They were small, basic but beautifully situated on the cliff edge with the turquoise waters contrasting with the brown grey of the ancient structures. Then the tourists arrived, I counted over 30 coaches with an average of 21 people per coach wearing white shoes!! Sheridan and I counted whilst sitting out the front of Subway….yep we’ve come a long way from the Jungle!!
So it was off to Playa del Carmen and the Mayan Riviera. It can be best described as a bigger version of Noosa, with a 3km long Hastings St and a much better beach. Similar types come here though. All along the main street are restaurants and souvenir shops but they are all quite stylish in an outdoor Mexican way, the food is really good and competition keeps the prices down, expensive compared to other parts of the country but still great value for money. Our hotel is really nice, a bit far out from the main street but is beautifully designed.
Today is a rest day for those with upset stomachs to recover, then tomorrow we go to Xcaret – Mexico’s answer to Disneyland. Basically everything we have experienced in the last 3 weeks all disinfected and wrapped in plastic and sold at US$49.00. It will be a big treat for Sheridan and there might be a chance to swim with the dolphins.
Then it is off to Cuba, I’m very excited by the next chapter of our trip – can’t wait to get away from this whole tourist scene and you probably guessed that I hate shopping!
Until then it is time for some Havana Daydreamin!