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| 16 Feb | 17 Feb | 18 Feb | 19 Feb | 20 Feb | 21 Feb |
22 Feb | 23 Feb | 24 Feb | 25 Feb | 26 Feb | 27 Feb | 28 Feb |
1 Mar | 2 Mar | 3 Mar | 4 Mar | 5 Mar | 6 Mar | 7 Mar |
8 Mar | 9 Mar | 10 Mar | 11 Mar | 12 Mar | 13 Mar | 14 Mar |
15 Mar | 16 Mar | 17 Mar | 18 Mar | 19 Mar | 20 Mar |
16 February Monday - Day 1
After landing in Mexico City, I quickly found an ATM, got some cash, and called the youth hostel to find best way to arrive. Their pick-up service was no longer working, so they recommended using a white and yellow airport taxi. Now, I've been received warnings from everyone about the dangers of taxis, but this taxi service appeared legitimate, so I went for it. Though the driver didn't speak English, he understood when I said I wanted to go to the Zocalo, the main square in the historical center of Mexico City.
Since I arrived late in the afternoon, I didn't have time for much besides checking into the youth hostel, taking a walk around the neighborhood, and having dinner. While eating dinner at the Cafe de Tecuba (a recommendation from Lonely Planet and my friend Noel), a Mariachi band walked in and began playing music. Then, they walked around and played a song for each table. After dinner, I headed back to the youth hostel, but was drawn to the sound of drumming down the street. I followed the drumming to a circle of people dancing around a small fire right next to the Templo Mayor. Women were holding incense burners, and a man blew a conch shell. They appeared to be speaking in a Native Indian tongue, perhaps Nauatal. It was quite a cool, random encounter.
17 February Tuesday - Day 2
Hola, Diego Rivera
On this warm, sunny day, I headed down to the Zocalo, where I first went to the National Palace. A long line of school children stood in front, and they all shouted, "Hola" to me when I walked past. They did this to others as well, so I guess I'm not a local celebrity. Inside the Palace, I saw many great murals by Diego Rivera, including one that spans three walls and illustrates the history of Mexico.
Next, I visited the Metropolitan Cathedral. Construction was begun in 1573 on this massive structure and continued through many different periods of architecture. Here, I was able to take a tour up to the top of the cathedral, where we could see the Bell Tower ring up close and personal. This vantage point also gave us a nice view looking out over the Zocalo.
Adjoining the palace and the cathedral is Templo Mayor. Walking through the uncovered remains of this ancient pyramid, I could see the seven different layers where the Aztecs built another layer, widening and enlarging the pyramid. Inside the museum, I saw hundred of relics recovered during the excavation of the site, including the stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui. I also learned that much more of this Aztec site remains hidden under the National Palace and Cathedral. But I don't think they will be excavating those sites anytime soon.
After a lunch of chorizo (spicy sausage) at Cafe Popular, I headed to Alameda Central to walk around. My first stop was at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is a concert hall that houses murals by many artists, including Diego Rivera. Next, I walked along the park and stopped at the Museo de Arte Popular, which displayed many contemporary arts and crafts. Following this, I stopped at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, which houses the most famous mural of his that was rescued from it's original building, damaged in the 1985 earthquake. After a walk through the park, I headed back to the youth hostel.
For dinner, I went to the Hosteria de Santo Domingo, where I ordered the special, chiles en nogada. This was ground beef cooked inside of a large green chile and covered with a cold, sweet white sauce and pomegranate seeds. Despite the odd combination of hot and cold, it was quite tasty (and not spicy at all).
18 February Wednesday - Day 3
Today, I woke up at 9 am, and made it out by 10 am. I'm on vacation, so that's okay. I headed out to the Bosque de Chapultepec, which is a large green area with museums. Chapultepec is an old Nahuatal word meaning hill of grasshoppers. I first stopped at the Castillo, which is an old castle used by Emperor Maximilian and subsequent Mexican presidents. In 1939, it was turned into a museum. Since it's located on a hill, it offers nice views of the surrounding greenery and the skyscrapers on the horizon.
After the castle, it was past noon, so I tried to find some place to eat. But there were no restaurants in the park, only little stands selling water, hats, or other silly junk. I kept walking west, hoping to exit the park area and find food. I passed by the Jardin Botanico, so I decided to stop and walk around to get a view of the cacti and other plants on display. Continuing my walk, I finally found a little food stand, where I ordered a torta jamon and a fresca (soda). I wasn't sure what a torta was, but it turned out to be just a sandwich with guacamole and ham (jamon).
My stomach full, I headed to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, or National Anthropology Museum. Once there, I spentt the next 6 hours wandering around, checking out the relics of different Mesoamerican cultures, with rooms covering preclassical America, Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, Mexica, cultures or Oaxaca, cultures of the Gulf Coast, and the Maya. Exhibits displayed many examples of precolombian pottery, jewelry, textiles, carvings, and statues. The most famous exhibit was the sun stone, often mistakenly referred to as the Aztec calendar. After five hours of walking through the first floor, I discovered that there was a second floor. I quickly walked through this second floor, which mostly featured contemporary facts of Native Indian life.
On my way back to the youth hostel, I took the Metro, which was crazy busy. By mistake, I got off one stop too early, but when I waited for the next train, I found it to be crazy full. I waited a few minutes for the next train, which was also crazy full, but I acted like a local and squeezed myself onto the train, barely fitting inside as the door closed on top of me. The Metro in Mexico City is very cheap (costing two pesos or about 15 cents at the current exchange rate), but it sure is crazy packed.
19 February Thursday - Day 4
Pyramid of the Sun
This morning, I had to be up by 8 am, so I could my 9 am appointment with the tour I was taking. This tour took me and five others to Tlatelolco, the Basilica de Guadalupe, and finally Teotihucan, the site of two giant pyramids. This last site is a place to which I've dreamed about going for many years. The others on the tour included a young women from England on the tail end of her three-month trip, her English friend visiting her for a week, two Chilean women, and a son (of one of the Chilean women).
Our first stop was at Tlatelolco, where our tour guide explained (in both English and Spanish) the history of the site. Like Templo Mayor, there were seven layers of the pyramid ruin, representing seven building stages. Many of the stones were taken by the Spanish to build their edifices, like a church standing nearby. Our second stop took us to the Basilica de Guadalupe, but we had to park far away on account of the hundreds of buses lining the streets. Apparently, thosands of people from a distant Mexican city had decided to pay homage to Guadalupe. She is quite the deified icon. The basic story is that a man went to the top of this hill to gather some flowers in a sheet, and when he emptied the sheet, there was an image of this Guadalupe. So, church was built in her name. In the first part of the 20th century, the pope sanctified Guadalupe, in what one might argue was a strategic move to bring the Mexican people closer to the Catholic church.
It was then a 40-minute drive up to Teotihucan. When we arrived, we first received a short lecture on the agave plant and had a chance to sample pulque, tequila, and mezcal. Pulque is a milky, white drink with low alcohol content. Of course, I sampled all three. Following this, we had lunch at a cafe nearby. There was a buffet with fried chicken, taquitos, beans, rice, and some other things. After we finished, a band started playing music, and our tour guide jumped in on one of the conga drums. Then he encouraged me to bang the drums for a song, so I did. That's right, I was playing a conga drum with a Mexican band nearby the pyramids of Teotihuacan. How cool is that?
Finally, we went to see the archeolgical site of Teotihuacan. Our guide first walked us around, explaining the history of the site. He stressed that the early archeologists and gotten many things wrong. And he pointed out that the pyramid builders had sewage systems 800 years before the Europeans. Furthermore, since no written evidence is left from the people who built the pyramids, we don't know what they were originally called. The current names come from the Aztecs, who inhabited them hundreds of years later. The tour guide also explained that Japanese archeologists had been poking around in the Pyramid of the Moon six months ago, causing parts of it to become unstable. So, we weren't allowed to hike to the top. The tour guide literally blamed it on the stupid Japanese. Nevertheless, on the first stage of the Pyramid of the Moon, I managed to do a little Chareleston. (Video will be forthcoming.) Then, we had three hours to explore on our on. For me, that meant hiking to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, which is 65 meters high. It sounds high, and looks high, but it didn't really feel that high. After that, I walked down the Avenue of the Dead to the temple of Quetzalcoatal. Then, we met up with the tour guide and rode home.
20 February Friday - Day 5
Since I have been in Mexico for several days now, my confidence has been buidling, and I decided that it was time to do some adventurous sight-seeing. My plan was to take a bus two hours north to Tula, where there was an archeological site containing giant stone warriors on the top of a pyramid. Yesterday, I had taken a road trip to Teotihuacan, but that was easy, since I just went on a tour that I found through my youth hostel. Today, I would see if I could find my own way to a site.
I first had to take the Metro to the Terminal de Autobuses del Norte, or the Northern Bus Terminal. This wasn't too hard, although I had to take three trains to get there. At my last train stop, I saw that the bus station was right across the street. Inside, there were many bus stands with lists of destinations, but I couldn't see Tula listed anywhere. Finally, I asked someone ("Quiero ir a Tula"), and the woman pointed me in the right direction. I bought a ticket for the 11:30 am train. Since it was 11:05 am, I found a fast food joint in the station and ordered something that looked like a mushroom taco (on the picture menu). Well, apparently this wasn't a fast food joint. It was a slow food joint because by 11:25, they were only beginning to prepare my meal. So I left, buying a granola bar and a bottle of carbonated apple juice at a little shop, so that I could have something to eat and make my bus on time.
The ride took about one hour and forty-five minutes. Flat screen TVs showed The Golden Compass dubbed in Spanish. I mostly looked out the window. When I arrived, I followed Lonely Planet's advice to take a taxi to the site. The problem was that I thought the site was called Tula, so the driver took me to the town center. Then I said, "Zona Archeologica" and he took me to the right place. The site had a small museum, and a path leading out to two pyramids and two ball courts. It was mostly empty. Nevertheless, I soon climbed the pyramid with the giant stone warriors, and felt proud that I had arrived. Back on the ground, I wandered around to the back of the pyramid and into an enclosed area where I encountered a man who was singing a song in a Native Indian language. I stopped in my tracks and listened to him for a while. He didn't seem to mind my presence, as he kept on singing.
After wandering around and taking plenty of photos and video, I walked back to the entrance, where I would have to figure out how to return. I planned to ask the man at the ticket booth to call a taxi, but he wasn't there. And there were no taxis in the empty parking lot. So, I figured that I could walk back, as the drive here was only about 5 minutes. Following the guidebook, my nose, and a local's advice, I arrived back at the bus station in about 40 minutes. Then I bought a ticket for el D.F. (Mexico City) and in an hour and a half, I was back at the Terminal del Norte. I considered going back to the 'fast food' restaurant to see if my meal was ready, but I'm not sure if they would have understood my sarcasm.
21 February Saturday - Day 6
Today, I decided to have a slow day. I spent the morning woring on some videos, but when I tried to upload them, I found that I couldn't. The WiFi on my laptop wasn't working, and the network on the hostel's computers was very slow. I also had the hostel do my laundry, so that I could have clean clothes for the next five days.
After a late lunch, I decided to finally head out to Xochimilcho, an area on the southern edge of Mexico City. After walking past Plaza Garibaldi, which was full of Mariachi band members waiting for gigs, I took the Metro as far south as I could. Then, I had to transfer to an above-ground train and take that as far south as I could. By the time I arrived, it was around 4:30 pm and rain drops started to fall. Apparently, my streak of nice weather was coming to an end as Tlaloc the rain god decided he was going to have fun with me. I managed to see the street market, and decided to check out the Diego Rivera museum. However, It turns out that the museum was three train stops back. I made it to the museum by 5 pm (luckily it was open until 6 pm). The Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño was formally the house of a wealthy Mexican woman that was turned into a museum featuring a collection of artwork by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Outside, there were many peacocks walking through the grounds. There were also supposed to be hairless dogs, but I didn't see any of these.
I then walked through the pouring rain (my jacket safely placed in a locker at the hostel), hopped back on the train, and found my way back to my hostel. Since I hadn't spent much money this day, I decided that I would go to a nice restaurant for dinner. Looking through my Lonely Planet guidebook, I decided on Los Girusoles, which was supposed to feature some precolumbian food. Reading the menu, I decided on the fried Maguey worms, but the waiter told me that they were out. So, I settled on the ant eggs fried in butter. Hopefully, eating precolumbian food might please Tlaloc, the ancient rain god. I spooned up the fried ant eggs into tortilla shells along with some avocado sauce and munched away. It was quite good and spicy. This marks the second time I've eaten insect larvae (the first time being in South Korea four years ago), but hopefully not the last.
22 February Sunday - Day 7
Chilly and Blue
As I walked out of the hostel today, I noticed that there was a chill in the air. Nevertheless, I persisted in wearing a T-shirt because this is Mexico and I'm on vacation. I took the Metro down to the district of Coyoacán (place of the coyotes), which was where Hernan Cortes had his base after the fall of Tenochtitlán. I first walked through a park called Viveros de Coyoacán, where I saw locals jogging and practicing martial arts. Then I walked by two colonial era churches and through a market in Plaza Hidalgo. Soon, I came to the Blue House, or Museo Frida Kahlo, the museum that houses works of Fridha Kahlo. This was also were Frida was born, lived, and died. Many relics and photographs of Frida and her husband Diego Rivera remain on display. When I return home, I need to rewatch the movie Frida, as I've forgotten much it. And then I need to learn to paint murals like Diego Rivera. And perhaps start dating an art student 20 years my junior (unibrow optional).
For lunch, I happened upon a cafe in a blue colonial house. Perhaps the paint color was inspired by Frida's house? I had another spicy meal, then wandered over to the Museo Leon Trotsky. This is the house where Leon Trotsky lived, after having been expelled from one place after another (Soviet Union, Kazahkstan, Turkey, Norway). This is also the house where two assassination attempts were made on his life. The second one succeeded. His ashes, and the ashes of his wife Natalia, are entombed on the grounds of the house.
After returning back to the hostel, I decided that I would stay in and rest. I was feeling a bit tired and sick. Once again, I tried to upload video, and this time it finally worked (although it was still very slow). I also spent some time planning my trip, as I'm only booking hostels with short notice. It looks like I may have to skip Veracruz, as I could't find any open lodging there for this week. Tomorrow, I'll be taking a bus to Papantla, where I'll be able to visit the ruins of El Tajin on Tuesday.
23 February Monday - Day 8
The Long Descent
The Metro system in Mexico City is always very packed - especially in the central historical district. There are also countless people trying to sell you things, most of whom are the vendors wearing loud speakers in backpacks, blaring music, and trying to sell you cd's. I almost want to ask, "How much to turn that crap off?" Police officers are positioned on each platform. I'm not sure if this makes me feel safe or nervous. It's also mostly a transport service for the masses, although I did see a few men in crisp suits and a few doctors in white lab coats. And that's another thing, Mexico is very divided by class. According to Lonely Planet, the class distinction relates heavily to ethnic heritage: light-skinned Spanish being at the top, mestizos (or racially mixed people) in the middle, and darker skinned native people at the bottom. It's sad that after nearly 500 years, such stratifaction remains.
Since today was my last day in Mexico City, I decided to go to a nice restaurant for breakfast. That's why I went to El Cardinal, which is a high end restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. I had a sweet roll, semi-sweet hot chocolate, and Montados, or fried eggs on fried tortillas over black beans. Then, I headed back to the hostel to pack up and head out.
I arrived at the Terminal de Autobuses del Norte about 11 am and soon found the desk of the bus company selling tickets to Papantla. The next bus left at 1:30 pm, so I had to wait around, read my guide book, and buy a sandwich. When I went out to catch my bus, I didn't know which one was mine! But I remembered that it was the ADO bus company, so I found those buses, but no bus was marked Papantla. So, I looked for the bus destinations on a map, and one bus was going to Tecolutla, which is near Papantla, and this turned out to be my bus. After getting frisked, I boarded the bus for a five-and-a-half-hour ride across the desert plain and then down green, windy mountain roads. They showed three American movies, including 3:10 to Yuma in English with Spanish subtitles. (The others were dubbed.) We passed many small towns where I saw horses, donkeys, goats, and chickens. The bumpy roads gave me some motion sickness, however. It didn't help that I would occasionaly look out the window and see a thousand-foot drop off the side of the road. I hoped earnestly that the bus driver would keep the bus on the road.
By 6 pm, I had arrived in Papantla. I then had to figure out how to get to my next lodging. Luckily, I had the phone number and I found a pay phone. My first question was, "Entiende ingles?" since every hostel has someone who speaks English. His answer was no. So, I had to use my meager Spanish to ask for directions. He then said sometihing that sounded like he was going to pick me up. So, I said, "Adios." In a few minutes, a yellow VW bug, with "Hostal de Moncayo" written on the side, pulled up. I waved and got inside. It turns out that the lodging is a small, family-run hotel, and I got a private room - such luxury after a week in a hostel. After throwing my bags in my room, I walked to the town center to find a place for dinner. This small town is definitely a drastic change from the megalopolis of Mexico City. And I'm finally being forced to rely on my knowledge of Spanish.
24 February Tuesday - Day 9
Today, my mission was to visit the ruins of El Tajin, the largest site of the Classic Veracruz civilization. My guidebook said that I could find a bus from Papantla to El Tajin at a local gas station, but I asked the hotel manager just to be sure. He gave me the same information. Down at the gas station, I saw a bus labeled Poza Rica, so I asked about El Tajin. The driver said, "Azul or rojo," meaning blue or red. Then, a blue bus came with "El Tajin" written on the front. It only cost 10 pesos for the 8-kilometer ride.
When I arrived, I first walked through the museum, then headed outside. As I started walking through the site, I was amazed by the number of pyramids and ruins that lay around me. Most of the structures were in falling apart or had grass growing on them. Signs prohibited tourists from climbing most of the structures. I had to be content with walking around and snapping as many photographs as I could. The El Tajin site has 17 ball courts (although I only saw a few of them). The signature pyramid of El Tajin is the Pyramid of the Niches, which features many squares niches along each wall and level. Archeologists believed that the pyramid originally had 365 niches, and thus functioned as a calendar. That's a mighty big calendar if you ask me.
As I headed to the cafeteria for lunch, I heard music and realized that the Voladores were about to perform. Five men in colorful outfits climbed up a pole that must have been 100 feet high. Four of the men tied ropes to their legs at dangled off a frame upside down, while the fifth man sat on top playing a chirimia, a flute/drum combination instrument. The frame on the top of the pole then began to rotate, and the four men slowly descended, as the ropes tied to their legs unraveled from the top of the pole. Eventually, the mean reached the ground. It was quite an impressive sight to see. (And yes, I recorded it on video.)
I next ate lunch in the cafeteria (mole regional con pollo), then finished exploring the archeological site. Returning to my hotel was my next chore. My guess was that buses marked "Papantla" would be passing through. After a ten minute wait, a taxi pulled up, and I asked how much to Papantla. Since it was only 60 pesos, I took the ride. That made it easy.
Back in Papantla, I climbed the hill to see the monument to the Voladores. There was also a good view of the city from this vantage point. Then I walked back down and found my hotel, where I spent the remainder of the day downloading photos, video, and doing some video editing. In the evening, after dinner in town center, I found an internet cafe and was able to update my blog. Tomorrow, I head to Xalapa.
25 February Wednesday - Day 10
The Long Wait
The food in Mexico has been very good and very cheap. Since the dollar is so strong compared to the peso, I can pretty much eat like a king here. Fancy restaurants, steak dinners, it's all good, and I don't have to worry about going over my budget. Last night in Papantla, I had a Sirloin steak with fries and beer, and it cost me about 12 dollars total. I would pay twice that or more back home. Most meals in Mexico City also start with rolls and salsa as an appetizer (although that hasn't held up since leaving the big city). Sometimes, I also get a plate full of limes (even if I don't have a beer). I'm not sure what the limes are for, though. I don't mind slumming it by staying in youth hostels, but I do enjoy good meals. Maybe that's because sleeping is an unconscious act, while eating is a very conscious act.
Well, I arrived at the Papantla bus station by 9 am, hoping to catch an early bus to Xalapa. Unfortunately, the next bus was at 11:30 am, and it was full. The next bus left at 1:55 pm. So, I had to wait five hours for the bus. I spent my time reading Lonely Planet and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and watching Mexican music videos that were blaring on a TV. Around lunchtime, I walked down the street to find a meager eating establishment where I ordered a comida corrida (a basic lunch). The short, stocky woman spoke no English, so I couldn't understand much. I understood mole and pollo, though. Mole is a sauce, pollo is chicken. Then she rattled off some more words. I understood pierna (leg), so I ordered the leg. It was a good lunch consisting of a chicken leg covered in mole sauce served with Spanish rice. That and a Coke only cost 35 pesos (just over two dollars).
The bus ride to Xalapa was uneventful. We drove along the Atlantic coast, and a few times I was able to see the ocean. Then, we headed inland for Xalapa, arriving about 6 pm. I took a taxi to my youth hostel, checked in, and walked down the street to find dinner. Xalapa is real city (population half a million), which is big change from Papantla (population 50,000). There are no street vendors here selling whole skinned chickens or chunks of raw beef from a roadside stand as I saw in Papantla.
Tomorrow, I plan to visit the reputable anthropology museum, and see what else there is to do. Then, on Friday, I hope to head to Oaxaca -- buses willing. I have to skip Veracruz, as every place there is filled up for Carnival (although that would have been nice to see if I had planned more in advance).
26 February Thursday - Day 11
Today, I rode a bus to the Anthropology Museum here in Xalapa. I was fortunate that the bus driver was friendly enough to tell me when to get off the bus. The Anthropology Museum is very impressive, full of artifacts from the Olmec civilization and other Gulf Coast groups. It also features seven collosal Olmec heads, which are pretty darn cool. I spent the whole morning wandering through the museum, using an English language audio guide to learn about the various carvings and statues. (There were no written English descriptions here.)
Afterwards, I found a small sandwich shop, where I had a cheap lunch. Then, I hopped on board a bus that I thought was heading toward my youth hostel. As it turns out, it ended up passing by the bus station. This was a happy accident, as I wanted to go there anyway to check out bus tickets for Oaxaca. The schedule on the wall said that there was only a midnight bus to Oaxaca Friday and Monday night. I wanted to go tomorrow (Friday) morning, however. I considered taking a bus to Puebla tomorrow morning, and spending the night there. Then, I realized that I could probably take one bus to Puebla and a second bus from there to Oaxaca. I went up to the ticket counter to try and explain my desire. Although the language barrier slowed things down a bit, I ended up getting the bus tickets I wanted. The only downside is that my first bus leaves at 8 am, and I don't arrive in Oaxaca until 9 pm.
Then, I hopped on a bus that I thought would take me back to the center of town (Centro), where my youth hostel was. However, I didn't see any recognizable streets allong the route. I was about to get off, but then the bus turned left, heading in the direction I needed (I think). So, I stayed on to see if I would recognize any street names from the map in my guidebook. The bus made several more turns, and I got confused as to which way we were headed. No problem, the bus will soon turn around and head back to the bus station. However, the bus kept going, and I soon realized that we were leaving town. Still, I didn't want to exit, as I was sure the bus would turn around. The bus driver was also a crazy driver, passing other buses on a narrow two-lane road. I'm not sure what he was thinking. Then, we started driving up the mountain side, leaving the city of Xalapa behind us. This isn't good, I thought. I have no idea where we're headed, and I'm afraid to distract the bus driver as he whips around these curvy mountain roads. Eventually, the bus driver pulled over on a dirt road and stopped. I was the only passenger left. "El centro de Xalapa," I said, trying to get some pity. He seemed to tell me that I would need to take another bus going back to the city. I walked along a row of buses, but none of them seemed like they were heading anywhere. Then, a bus driver who spoke some English called me over and asked me where I wanted to go. He then said, "Follow me," climbed into a bus, and headed back toward Xalapa. Next time, maybe I'll just take the two-dollar taxi.
27 February Friday - Day 12
Up Through the Mountains
For today's adventure, I rode two first class, intercity buses - one from Xalapa to Puebla and one from Puebla to Oaxaca (pronounced wa HA ka). The first bus ride took me from the lush green region of the Gulf Coast into the desert. The second bus ride took me further into the desert and up through the mountains of south central Mexico. I was lucky to have chosen a window seat on the right side of the bus, as it gave me many spectacular views of the mountain scenery. I snapped many photos with my camera, of course, but photographs never give justice to mountain scenery.
As luck would have it, I was wrong with my math calculation on the previous day. Instead of arriving at 9 pm (17:00), I was scheduled to arriver at 7 pm. (The 24-hour clock confuses me every now and then.) Luckier still, the bus arrived early at 6 pm. This gave me ample time to check in to my youth hostel, tour around the Zocalo, and find a nice place for dinner. I followed a recommendation from my guidebook and ordered the mole negro con pollo, which was delicious and not at all spicy or zesty. Oaxaca is well-known for its mole sauce.
The Zocalo of Oaxaca is the best I've seen so far. Large trees shade the entire central area, making it a comfortable place to sit and rest. Nice restaurants fill up the east and west ends. The Zocalo is so full of life, energy, and character. It seems to be perpetually full of people, vendors, musicians, you-name-it. Of course, with the large crowds there are also many people trying to sell you stuff, as well as beggars, young and old. While sitting down for dinner, I must have been confronted with 15-20 people either trying to sell me something or begging for money. Even little children were being used to sell things or beg for money. The worst was a really old, wrinkled, and shriveled-up woman. She came to my table, looking like she had one foot in the grave, and shook a cup at me. As usual, I tried to smile and say no. But she persisted, looking really sad and desparate. So I broke my rule, reached into my pocket, and gave her a coin. At least she wouldn't spend it on drugs or liquor.
After dinner, I caught a free show of locals dressed in colorful costumes performing some type of country dance on a stage. It was fun to watch, though, being an avid swing dancer, I wasn't that impressed. Where were the aerials? That's okay, Oaxaca. I know your heart is in the right place.
28 February Saturday - Day 13
Mountain Top City
Since my first goal in Oaxaca was to visit Monte Alban, I decided to make things easy and take the tour offered by the youth hostel. It was cheap, and meant getting a ride there and back again without having to think too hard. Of course, the tour van was late, but eventually we made it up through the winding mountain roads to the ruins of Monte Alban, which are located on the top of a mountain just southwest of Oaxaca.
Our tour guide was bilingual, though I was the only gringo on the tour, so she spent a little more time speaking Spanish than English. The name Monte Alban means white mountain, as a tree on this mountain has white flowers. I didn't see any of these, but I did see many great ruins. Interestingly enough, these ruins were not found by the Spanish, as they were mostly hidden under layers of dirt. These ruins weren't well-known until 1931 when the Mexican archeologist Alfonso Caso fully excavated the ruins, which included a tomb full of treasures.
Since the site is on the peak of a mountain, it offers great views of the surrounding mountains, as well as the city of Oaxaca in the valley below. Besides pyramids, the site includes a large sunken patio with an alter in the center, a ball court, and an astronomical observatory. In one of the buildings, they found carvings of people, which were called Danzantes, or the dancers. However, these were not swing dancers. They are believed to represent the leaders of conquered civilizations. Many are pictured with their genitalia cut and bleeding. They were probably not happy dancers.
After returning from Monte Alban, I took my dirty clothes to a nearby lavenderia and had lunch. I have to admit that, like a desert, Oaxaca can get quite cool at night, but the daytime sun can be blazingly hot. I'm so glad that I was smart enough to wear a black shirt, allowing me to absorb as many of the sun's rays as possible.
Following lunch, I walked north to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, where I toured the Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca. Many artifacts recovered from Monte Alban were stored here, but overall, I wasn't very impressed with this museum. After I picked up my laundry, I walked up to the bus station to buy an overnight bus ticket to San Cristobal de Las Casas for Sunday night. It's a long bus ride (11 hours), it only goes overnight, and there's not much to see between here and there. Then, I returned to the Zocalo to enjoy another great dinner - tamales oaxacaqueños (or tamales Oaxaca-style).
1 March Sunday - Day 14
A Bumpy Ride
I took another tour that included a visit to the largest tree in the world, a demonstration by a local, native weaver, and a visit to the ruins of Mitla. We first stopped in the small town of Tule, in which there is a cypress tree measuring 14 meters (or 58 feet) in diameter. This was one ginormous tree! A fence surrounds the tree, so you can't climb it (darn!), and there is danger that the aquifer feeding this 2,000-year-old tree may be drying up. I hope they manage to keep it alive. It's quite impressive.
The second stop was in the town of Teotitlan, where we saw a local weaver demonstrate her trade. All the color dyes that the weavers use come from local plants and insects. For example, the red dye that they use comes from grinding insects plucked off of cacti. The weaver showed how the cotton was prepared and how to insert patterns into the loom. Then, of course, they tried to see if we were interested in buying a rug. I don't have much room for souvenirs, but a British couple bought a rug for 200 British pounds.
The third stop was in Mitla, a town located 46 kilometers southeast of Oaxaca. Here, we saw the ruins of a temple complex that included intricate geometric patterns carved in the limestone walls. These stone mosaics are very unique and rare, I believe, in ancient Mesoamerican buildings. I was expecting to return directly to Oaxaca, but instead, we journeyed to Tlacolula to see their Sunday market. It was interesting, but I'm not here to buy things. Instead, I found a local restaurant and had lunch.
That evening, after working on my Mexico City Video (but being unable to upload it due to poor network access), I had dinner in the Zocalo. Sitting at my table, I spotted a traveler, Chris, whom I had seen at my hostel in Mexico City, so I waved him over. We chatted about travel and our journeys thus far. Chris maintains an online travel show (amateurtraveler.com), where he actually makes enough money to finance his travels. He told me about an online group of travel bloggers. I definitely need to look into this. For dinner, I order the Chapulines con Guacamole, or the Fried Grasshoppers with Guacamole. The grasshoppes were ground up and not very recognizable. They tasted crunchy and very spicy. In fact, they were a bit too spicy for me, so I wasn't able to finish them. But at least I tried them.
Then, I hiked over to the bus station to board my 9 pm bus to San Cristobal. This would be an overnight ride lasting between 11 and 12 hours. A Danish woman at my hostel warned me about it, as she rode the bus from San Cristobal to Oaxaca. She said that the ride was so bumpy, she spent most of the time vomiting. That wasn't a good omen. It did turn out to be a bumpy bus ride, but I felt all right in the beginning. When I walked back to use the bathroom, I heard a woman inside dealing with her motion sickness problems. Soon after, I started to feel a little queasy myself. In addition, I didn't sleep very well, waking up sporadically throughout the night. Luckily, I survived the ride without getting sick.
2 March Monday - Day 15
I awoke on the bus at 6 am, and couldn't resume sleeping, so I tried to enjoy the view outside the window. We arrived in San Cristobal at 8:30 am, after 11 and 1/2 hours of windy, bumpy, stomach-churning mountain roads. It was nice to be on solid ground again. The first thing I did was write in my journal, then I rode a taxi to my hostel, dropped off my bag, and proceeded to expore the city.
San Cristobal de Las Casas is an old Spanish city, full of narrow streets and colorful buildings. There are no Mesoamerican ruins near the city, but there are some sights in town. I first saw an old Spanish church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The entrance is covered with detailed carvings (apparently done in a Baroque style). I then walked north, through densely populated street markets, until I came to the Museo de Medicina Maya, or the Museum of Mayan Medicine. Here, I had the opportunity to watch a video on natural childbirth as practiced by the local native people. I even got to see the father bury the placenta in the dirt. Apparently, if you want your next child to be a boy, you bury the placenta with the open end down. (Good to know for all of you family planners out there.)
After lunch, I went to the Na Bolom house, a museum explaining about a local indigenous group studied by a Danish couple. Then, I walked south to see a few more old churches and a large arch that used to be the gateway of the city. Before climbing the steps to see a church on top of a hill, I stopped in a little store to buy a gatorade. On the way out, I bumped my head on the low door jamb. Now, this is something I've done quite often in Mexico, on account of all the short doorways, but this was the first time I actually drew blood. I realize that I'm a little clutzy, but I'm starting to find it quite annoying being a giant in this country.
After climbing the steps to see the Iglesia de San Cristobal and getting a nice view of the town, I went back to the hostel to nurse my wound, to see if I could upload my Mexico City video (success!), and to work on my website. I sat outside in the courtyard, but with the sun hidden by clouds, the weather grew quite cold. As I write this, it's in the mid 50's. I'm wearing three shirts and my light jacket, and it's still not enough. It's not supposed to be this cold in Mexico, is it?
3 March Tuesday - Day 16
Into the Jungle
As I travel further east in Mexico, I see more and more indigenous people wearing coloful native clothing. San Cristobal almost feels like another country that's been swallowed up by Mexico. Maybe that's because a quarter of the people in the state of Chiapas are indigenous. The two largest groups in San Cristobal are the Tzotziles and the Tzeltales. According to Lonely Planet, their clothing identifies their villages and continues ancient Mayan traditions. this region of Mexico is also one of the poorest. One of the goals oft the Zapatista revolution in this region of the country is to end the injustices caused to these people by the mestizo Mexican government. For my dinner last night, I went to a restaurant called TierrAdentro, which is run by Zapatista supporters. Much to my disappointment, there were no leftist political meetings being held, nor were there any guerrila fighters hanging out with automatic weapons.
After sleeping in and taking a last walk around town, I rode a bus through the mountains to Palenque. Once again, the windy mountain roads and frequent speed bumps in the highway were enough to jostle my stomach into a mild state of queasiness. I did enjoy the scenery, which consisted of endless rows of green mountains that faded to gray on the horizon. After a five-hour afternoon bus ride, I arrived in Palenque, found my hostel, and went out for dinner. The good news is that Palenque is warm. The bad news is that it's full of mosquitoes and other bugs. It looks like I will finally need to use some insect repellant.
4 March Wednesday- Day 17
Land of the Maya
After breakfast at the hostel, I walked down the road to catch a bus to the ruins of Palenque. I waited about ten minutes on the side of the road before I saw a minibus with a handwritten sign that said "RUINAS." It pulled over, and I hopped in. The bus drove to the end of road, also the entrance of the ruins. I paid the driver ten pesos, then bought a ticket for the ruins.
Palenque is an amazing archeological site. There are numerous buildings scattered over fifteen square kilometers. I spent all morning and part of the afternoon exploring the buildings, climbing pyramids where permitted, and walking through tunnels inside some of the buildings. The Templo de Las Inscripciones, or Temple of the Inscriptions, is the tallest building on the site. This is where archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found the tomb of Mayan leader Pakal in 1952. However, climbing this pyramid was prohibited to protect it. Nearby is the Palacio, or the Palace, which is filled with many diffferent rooms and several tunnels through which you can walk. This was the first time I was able to walk inside one of these ancient buildings. It was a cool experience. There are several smaller ruins that are surrounded with jungle forestation. These used to be residences.
After exploring the site, I headed toward the end with the musuem. I was quite thirsty and ready to eat lunch at the cafeteria. Unfortunately, there was no cafeteria as Lonely Planet described. Apparently, it had closed. So, I bought a soda at vending machine and ate a protein bar that I brought with me. Then, I headed back to take some more pictures. I felt something biting leg, though. When I pulled up my pant leg, I saw that there were ants in my pants! I must have disturbed an ant hill. I quickly brushed them away. After I was satisified with my photographs, I hopped back on a bus to town, where I had a late lunch. At the restaurant, I was given a lemonade with ice in it. I wasn't sure if I should drink it, but I was really thirsty and thought that drinking it quickly would be safe enough.
Back at the hostel, I started to really sick. I won't go into the details, but it wasn't pretty. I'm not sure if it was the lemonade, the food I ate, or something else. But it was bad. Hopefully, the medicine I have can take of that. This is now the midpoint of my journey. It hasn't been easy, but it''s been educational and adventurous, to say the least.
5 March Thursday - Day 18
Today, I spent the morning in bed. I felt a little better, but not 100% yet. By noon, I was able to coax myself out of bed and head to the grocery store, where I bought water, bread, and Pepto. I'm also taking ciprofloxacin and loperamide hydrochloride. I had no hunger for most of the day, but I forced myself to eat one croissant, slowly over the afternoon. It's not fun being sick - especially when you're alone in a foreign country. If I feel better in the morning, I'll take a bus to Campeche.
6 March Friday - Day 19
I was still feeling sick today, but I managed to survive a morning bus ride to Campeche, which is a charming little seaport town. The old town area was once completely surrounded by high walls built in the 17th century intended to keep out pirates. Parts of the walls remain, and you can walk on top of them, checking out the rusty old cannons.
After checking into the Monkey Hostel, conveniently located by the Plaza Principal, the main square in the old town area, I went to the Museo Architectura Maya, or the Museum of Mayan Architecture. It was a small museum, but had many excellent pieces of Mayan art and nice English explanations. I then walked along the city walls, and checked out the canons on the waterfront.
In the evening, I mostly relaxed in my youth hostel. There was a great view of the Plaza Principal from the balcony. Then, I chatted with two other travelers in my room. One was a chatty Austrialian on a five-month round-the-world trip, the other was a spring breaker from Montreal.
7 March Saturday - Day 20
This morning, I signed up for transportation to the archeological ruins of Edzna. I rode in a taxi with a friendly Irish couple named Pascal and Margaret. Pascal was a chatty, funny fellow. He was giddy talking about all the ruins that they had seen. Margaret told me that Edzna was going to be their last visit to a set of ruins. Pascal also commented on how interested the Irish are in politics, relating how he had stayed up until 5 am watching the results of the American Presidential elections.
The ruins of Edzna were nice, but a bit small after having been to Palenque. The tallest structure was the Edificio del Cinco Pisos. This was a combination of a pyramid and a temple. A climb to the top of this building let you have an excellent view of the horizon. The one bonus was that I saw my first iguanas in Mexico. Pascal told me how the site of Tulum was crawling with iguanas, and he had even been bitten picking one up. Pascal also managed to catch a bat in one of doorways of the pyramid, gettting nipped in the process. He was definitely a source of entertainment.
It was also incredibly hot out. It's hard to believe that I was freezing cold less than a week ago in San Cristobal. Also, I think the medication I'm tires and dehydrates me, making the hot temperature even harder to take. After returning from the ruins, I spent the afternoon resting and trying to rehydrate. In the evening, I caught part of a show of music and dancing in the Plaza Principal.
8 March Sunday - Day 21
I leisurely found my way to the bus station, then hopped on the 11:20 am bus north to Merida in the state of Yucatan. A little more than two hours later, I had arrived. It was a short walk to the youth hostel, but a long wait to get my reservation placed, as the owner seemed to think it wise to let his 10-year-old son run the front desk.
I spent the afternoon resting and working on videos. In the evening, I walked out into a lively plaza, hearing live music being played. There was a large crowd of people dancing to a marimba band. First, I went to have dinner, then I came back to listen the music and watch the dancers. Most people were just shuffling their feet to the beat, but there were a few dancers who had some impressive moves. When the music ended, I went to bed, so I could wake up early to catch the Ruta Puuc bus in the morning.
9 March Monday - Day 22
My main goal in Merida was to see Uxmal (prononced Oosh-mahl), a site of Mayan ruins some 100 kilometers south of the city. I saw in my guidebook that there was a bus that visited several others sites, as well as stopping at Uxmal. This was cheaper than the tour offered by the youth hostel, so I took it. The bus left at 8 am, and stopped at three sites on the Ruta Puuc, or Puuc Route. The Puuc is one of several different Mayan architectural styles found throughout the Yucatan region. Each of these three sites (Labna, Xlapak, and Sayil) were small, but they featured interesting structures or carvings done in the Puuc style. We next stopped at the ruins of Kabah, which was a much bigger site, featuring a courtyard surrounded by buildings.
Our last stop was at Uxmal, where we had 90 minutes to wander on our own. Pink-hued limestone covers many of the buildings at this hilly site. The first structure you see upon entering is the Casa del Adivino, which is a tall pyramid on an oval. Climbing was prohibited, unfortunately. Next, there is a large courtyard with one building on each of the four sides. Very detailed carvings can found on the walls. Just past a ball court, you come to another large structure - the Palacio del Gobernador. This building had many rooms inside. While walking in one room, I heard the squeaking of bats. Then, two fell down to the ground, but lacked the energy to fly back up. Just beyond the Palacio is the Gran Pyramid, which only has the northern edge restored. The other four sides are just dirt, grass, and rubble. While I was at Uxmal, I saw many workers restoring the site. Restoration of ancient ruins is no doubt a slow process and delicate process.
Following my exploration of Uxmal, I walked back to the entrance to down a couple of Gatorades. Exploring ancient ruins under the hot Mayan sun is hard work!
10 March Tuesday - Day 23
This morning, I caught a bus from Merida to Piste, a small town neighboring Chichen Itza. After lunch, I went to explore the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the new seven wonders of the world. What I didn't realize was that it would be invaded with swarms of tourists. That was probably my fault for going late in the day, but that's just how my transportation worked out.
The centerpiece of the site is the Templo de Kukulkan, a large pyramid that towers above the surrounding grassy plain. There is also a very large ball court and a Temple of a Thousand Columns, which, as you can guess, is filled with many columns. And there is a cool building called the Observatory because it resembles an astronomical observatory. One disappointing fact is that you cannot climb any of these structures. Most likely, this is due to the fact that many have been restored and the powers that be are trying to maintain their status. The throgs of tourists in attendance are probably best kept on the ground anyway.
In fact, the one thing that really stood out about Chichen Itza compared to all of the other ruins I've visited is the large number of tourists present. There were large tour groups who moved around like schools of fish. There were young people who looked like they just stopped over from their spring break vacation in Cancun. There were more people speaking English, German, and French than speaking Spanish. The throngs also brought along vendors by the multitude, who tried valiantly to sell their T-shirts, carvings, and other artwork. The vendors also considered everyone their friend, as they greeted every passerby with, "Hola, amigo." Chichen Itza was impressive, but the large crowds present nearly distracted one's attention from the significance of the site itself.
11 March Wednesday- Day 24
Disappointment in Cancun
This morning, I rode a bus to Cancun. By mistake, I booked a second class bus, which meant no movie dubbed in Spanish. Oh well. The seats were still comfortable, though it was an older bus. I arrived in Cancun a little after 2 pm, which was a but later than I expected. After finding my hostel (and getting lost in the streets) and checking in, I still needed to eat lunch. After eating lunch, it was 4 pm, not leaving me much time to enjoy the sun at the beach as I had planned. But, I rode the bus from the city center to the peninsula where the beach is located. By this time however, the setting sun was so low in the sky that most of the beach fell under the shadow of the hotel buildings. At least, I got to see a little sand and a litte surf.
In the evening, I decided to join a BBQ being held at the youth hostel. While eating dinner, I met a few other travelers. Two guys, an Aussie and a Dane, were planning on going to a club that night, so I said that I would join them. Not that clubbing is exactly my scene, mind you, but one of the purposes of this trip is to immerse myself in all of the myriad subcultures of Mexico. And the spring break subculture qualifies as one of them. I consider it my anthropological duty. Anyway, there ended up being five of us who went to Pat O'Briens, which the Aussie heard was going to be packed. We waited over 30 minutes in line only to find that we were in the wrong line. Then, after waiting in the right line, the price was much more than anticipated. Once inside, I started having thoughts like "too loud" or "too crowded." These thoughts most likely belie my age. Perhaps I've become too old to enjoy this kind of scene. Furthermore, I ended up losing my companions in the thick of the club crowd. After watching a fascinating, impromptu breakdance display, I decided to head back and get some sleep. When I return to Cancun next week, I'll have to find some night life entertainment that is more my speed. (Perhaps there's some shuffleboard at the old folk's home.)
12 March Thursday - Day 25
I woke up this morning, and quickly made my way to the bus station, where I boarded a bus bound for Tulum, a small city with a well-known set of ruins. The ride only took two hours, after which, I rode a taxi to the youth hostel. After I arrived at my hostel, however, it started to rain. So I decided to write in my journal and let the rain pass by. Soon enough, the rain ceased.
The ruins of Tulum are not large, but they're set in an idyllic landscape. Three stone walls surround a rectangular area containing many old buildings from this former Mayan city. The walls were built for protection, while the fourth side is open to the Caribbean Sea. This was one of the few Mayan cities still inhabited when the Spanish arrived, but abandoned shortly thereafter. This port town was used to conduct trade with other citystates along the coast.
Several buildings remain standing, including one called the Castillo, or the castle, by the Spanish. Much of the interior space is flat, however, leaving the complete appearance of the city to the imagination. To protect the site, tourists are only allowed to walk along gravel paths, and it is prohibited to climb any structures. There is a staircase that leads down to an open beach. Many people came in their swimsuits to make use of the sand and surf. I merely took pictures, but it was definitely a very beautiful and scenic piece of beachfront property. I envy the Mayans who had the opportunity to live there.
Later that night, I went out for dinner along the main avenue. I took out my camera to snap a photo of my meal, as I have been doing all along. Unfortunately, the lens got stuck, and the camera refused to retract it or operate properly. So, it looks like my camera, which is only a year old, is no longer operational. I can still take photos with my camcorder, but the resolution will be much worse. That's kind of a bummer, but I am near the end of my trip, and I've seen most all of the ruins that I was planning on seeing.
Tomorrow, I plan to see one more ruin, Coba, before heading south to spend the night in Chetumal. Then Saturday, it's on to Belize.
13 March Friday - Day 26
To the Edge
My plan today was to check out the ruins of Coba in the morning and take an afternoon bus to Chetumal. After putting my backpack in storage at the bus station, I caught the 9 am bus to Coba. About forty minutes later, I exited the bus along with three other travelers. They invited me to sit down at a cafe before heading to the ruins. There was Ingrid, a woman from Holland, Daniel, a chef from Chicago, and Bill, a very friendly and flamboyant language instructor from Chicago. Bill did most of the talking. He was quite enthusiastic about being able to try out his Mayan with the local man running the cafe. Hee was also quite enthusiastic about all of the little Mayan statues for sale. He was quite enthusiastic about everything. After a bite to eat, we walked to the ruins together, though I left the group to explore at my own pace.
The ruins of Coba are separated by large distances. You can rent bicycles or pay to get peddled around on large tricycles. I opted to let my long legs do some fast walking. Climbing is prohibited for most of the buildings to protect them. However, tourists are allowed to climb Nohoch Mul, the great pyramid located at the site. This structure stands at 42 meters (or 140 feet) tall. It was definitely a fun climb up to the top, which offered a great view of the surrounding forest.
After lunch, I walked by the lake to look for crocodiles, caught a bus back to Tulum, then had an hour to wait for my bus to Chetumal. While waiting, I met a couple from Salt Lake City. I mentioned that I was going to Belize, and the husband said that they had been there often. He asked me about my travel plans, then recommended that instead of catching a water taxi from Belize City, I should catch one in Corozal, saving myself a very long bus ride. This made sense to me, although it meant trying to figure out how to cross the border at night and finding last-minute lodging.
When I arrived in Chetumal, I hopped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the Nuevo Mercado bus station, where I could get a bus across the border. However, the driver told me that it was closed, and asked where I was going. He then said that for US$20, he could take me to the Belize border, where I could get a bus or taxi to Corozal. I said fine. I had no idea how this was all going to work out, but I figured that I wasn't the first person to cross the border into Belize. At the border, I quickly went through immigration and customs. However, a porter told me that there was no bus to take. He was about to call a taxi, but then flagged down a transfer service van crossing the border. I hopped in, and the van driver asked me where I wanted to go. I looked in my guidebook for a cheap hotel, and said take me there. When we arrived, there was one room left, so I took it. The cost of the van ride was US$20, so I handed over 400 pesos, and got BZ$10 in change. I tried to do the math in my head, and figured it was close enough. And that's the story of how I arrived in Belize.
14 March Saturday - Day 27
I awoke at 6 am, so that I could catch the 7 am water taxi to San Pedro. We left on time, and it was a two-hour, bumpy ride. When I arrived at the narrow island community, I found a place to eat breakfast. San Pedro is a charming little beachfront city on Ambergris Caye, a narrow island off the coast of Belize. The narrow roads are full of people driving around on golf carts. And the eastern edge of the island is one long beach full of lazy palm trees that seems to extend forever in both directions. English is also spoke in Belize, so it felt like I was in Florida. It definitely felt like I had entered a surreal world.
After checking my e-mail at an internet cafe, I managed to get in contact with my friend Damon via text messaging. We met for beers, and waited for his wife Julia to return from scuba diving. Then we went out for a leisurely lunch. When I originally announced my intentions to visit Mexico back in January, my friends Damon and Julia told me that they were going to Belize in March. I decided to extend my travels so that I could meet and travel with them in Belize. Now, after traveling for nearly four weeks in Mexico by myself, it was a pleasure to see a pair of familiar faces, especially in an unfamiliar place. This also added to the surrealism.
After watching a local climb up a palm tree to harvest coconuts, then chop them with a machete to extract the coconut juice, we hopped in the rented golf cart to explore more of the area. At one lagoon, we saw a young man throwing a dead chicken tied to a rope into the water to attract crocodiles. One crocodile made a grab, but quickly lost interest. Soon, we were driving the golf cart down a dusty, bumpy dirt road with nothing but trees and sand around us. We almost wished we had a dune buggy. San Pedro is a fun, little beach resort and just a little bit surreal.
15 March Sunday - Day 28
My friends, Damon and Julia, and I decided to take a jungle river cruise to see the ruins of Lamanai, the biggest set of Mayan ruins in Belize. It was an all day adventure. First, we rode a small speedboat over the choppy waters to the mainland of Belize, getting soaked during the ride. After they served us breakfast, we rode an old school bus up a bumpy, dusty, unpaved road. Then, we had to board another speedboat and take that down a river to reach the remote location of the ruins of Lamanai. From San Pedro, it took us about 4.5 hours of transit to reach our destination. During the jungle cruise, we had the fortune to observe many forms of wildlife such as great blue heron, spider monkeys, small bats, a pygmy kingfisher, and Mennonites. (Yes, there are overall-wearing Menonnites living in Belize.) Unfortunately, we didn't see any crocodiles as we had hoped.
After we were served lunch, a guide took us around the ruins and explained the details of what we saw. He also warned us that there were boa constrictors in the jungle. Fortunately, we did not see any during our tour. We were able to climb a 33-meter tall (or 108 feet) pyramid given the unfortunate name of structure N10-43. And when we walked to the Mask Temple, we saw a carving of a large human head that had been revealed only after archeologists had removed an outer staircase.
Following our tour of the ruins, we hopped back into the little speed boat, where we were given brownies and a choice of beer or soda. The food breaks on this tour made it very enjoyable. (Granted, it was a fairly expensive tour, so it had better be enjoyable.) On the boat ride back, our tour guide finally spotted a baby crocodile on the side of the river (while going nearly 40 MPH). Although not impressive in size, at least we could claim that we saw one during our ride. Overall, it was quite an adventurous trip into the Belizean jungle.
16 March Monday - Day 29
Today, my friends and I caught a water taxi from San Pedro to Belize City. It was a 90-minute ride from the happy, seaside resort town to the dodgy, historical capital of the country. Damon and Julia had arranged to be picked up by a driver from their lodging near San Ignacio. Luckily, it was okay for me to tag along. The ride turned out to be a pick-up truck driven by a man named Marcus, who I will henceforth call the Dude. He was an American ex-pat, who grew up in California, and he had a continuously-happy, always-excited, surfer-guy personality. Damon and I hopped into the back of the pick-up truck, and we rode for an hour before stoppiing for lunch.
For the next hour, I traded places with Julia in the front cab. Apparently, the Dude had lived in Belize for five years, taught at a local community college, and helped run a jungle lodge called Parrot's Nest. The Dude loved living in paradise, but he mostly spent time with others in the local ex-pat community, since he had very little in common with Belizeans. The Dude dropped me off at my hotel in the central part of town. Later that night, I rode a taxi to Parrot's Nest to join my friends for dinner. Then, we headed back to town to enjoy a few drinks at Bonkers, a bar recommended by the Dude. It was full of ex-pats, including a bartender who occasionally blew fireballs, and a woman who occasionally went out into the street to crack her whip. Apparently, this is how ex-pats pass the time during evenings in San Ignacio, Belize.
17 March Tuesday - Day 30
Journey to the Underworld
In 1989, a cave was discovered in western Belize, in which researchers found over 200 ceramic vessels and 14 human remains. The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is three miles long and located in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. The ancient Mayans called this place Xibalba, or the Underworld. Entrance to this cave is restricted to those in guided tours. My friends, Damon and Julia, and I took the guided tour today, and we had quite an unforgettable experience.
The day started with a 2-mile hike through the tropical forest, including several river crossings by foot. Then we donned helmets and headlamps and entered the cave with a 15-foot swim across a deep pool of water. For the next hour, we hiked through the narrow limestone passages, many of which were full of knee-deep, waist-deep, or neck-deep water. Along the way, we were treated with views of massive stalactites and other impressive rock formations. After a long, wet hike, we climbed up the rock face to enter a series of chambers full of pottery shards left by the Mayans. We even saw several skulls and human bones - the remains of human sacrifices conducted in the cave. The highlight of the hike was a complete, crystallized skeleton of a woman in her 20's, who had been sacrificed to please the gods. It was an impressive yet chilling sight.
After we had hiked back to our van, we were completely soaked. I had the misfortune of wearing my leather boots, but I had no other choice. In retrospect, I should have purchased a cheap pair of sneakers just for this hike. The day of walking through water most likely destroyed my boots. Back in town, my first stop was at a local store to buy some sandals. Then, my friends and I went to eat dinner at Hanna's, apparently one of the best restaurants in town. We all ordered the spicy ginger rum shrimp, which was delicious. After a few more beers, we bid each other adieu, as I will be heading to Cancun tomorrow, while they continue their adventures in Belize and Guatemala.
18 March Wednesday- Day 31
When I originally booked my flight, I considered flying out of Belize. However, this made the flight cost ridiculously expensive compared to flying out of Cancun. So to save money, I decided that I would bus back to Cancun from Belize, spend a day in the sun, and then fly home. The only unknown was how long it would take to bus it from San Ignacio, Belize to Cancun, Mexico. Lonely Planet said that there was an express bus that left San Ignacio at 8:30 am for Chetumal, Mexico. In San Ignacio, I found this bus station and was told that the bus arrives anytime between 8 and 9 am. Today, it arrived about 9 am. I was also told that the ride to Chetumal would take about 4 and 1/2 hours. We didn't arrived at the Mexican border until 3 pm.
Going through border control and immigration was slow, so we didn't arrive in Chetumal until ten to four - making it a seven-hour ride. Then, I ran into the bus station to buy a ticket for the next bus to Cancun. Luckily, there was one leaving at 4:30. After a quick hamburger, Fanta, and a bag of plantain chips (yummy), I was on my way to Cancun. I was expecting a five-hour ride. We didn't arrive until 10:30 pm - making it a 6-hour ride. In total, I spent thirteen hours on two buses, one with open windows providing a mild relief to the heat, the other blasting so much AC that it felt like it was the North Pole. After arriving in Cancun, I first found my hotel - the Radisson. I had decided to treat myself to luxury for the last two nights of my trip. Then, I walked around to find a restaurant, but most places were closed. A little after 11 pm, I finally found a place that featured a local blues band. After a long day spent in buses, it was nice to finally enjoy a dinner with some good live blues music.
19 March Thursday - Day 32
Today was a day to relax and do nothing. That's not a very easily achieveable goal if you're me, however. After breakfast at the hotel, I spent the morning sitting out by the pool, soaking up the warm rays of the Cancun sun. Oddly, the pool area was fairly empty. Next, I went out for lunch, buying my last comida corrida, or set lunch, at a smal local eatery. I walked by a few souvenir shops, but did not see a lot that interested me.
After buying a bus ticket to the airport for the following morning, I headed back to my hotel to check e-mail and work on videos. That's when I realized that I had some sunburn. When I headed out for dinner that night, I realized that I had even more sunburn. The delay effect of sunburn can be a painful surprise, but luckily I had only spent a couple hours under the sun. It could have been much worse.
For dinner, I headed to La Parilla, a recommendation of Lonely Planet. It was a crowded, traditional, Mexican restaurant that catered to the expectations of western tourists. I heard music from an eight-piece mariachi band and saw a waiter carrying a tray of drinks on his head. It was definitely a good place to have my last dinner in Mexico, as it featured a traditional Mexican atmosphere with an exaggerated western flare - a foreshadowing of my return to the U.S. After dinner, instead of going out to a night club by myself, I opted to return to my cush hotel room, work on video editing, and try not to let my sunburn bother me too much.
20 March Friday - Day 33
I woke up early to catch the 7 am shuttle bus to the Cancun airport. I wasn't sure how long it would take to get to the airport and check in, so I made sure to leave very early. When I arrived about 7:45 am, the clerk at the AeroMexico Airline desk wouldn't let me check it, since it was more than three hours to my flight. So, I had breakfast at a restaurant in the airport before checking in. While waiting for my flight, I walked through the souvenir shops and wrote in my journal.
The flight to Mexico City was two and a half hours, after which I had to wait about an hour for my flight to Seattle. The flight to Seattle was five and a half hours, during which we were served a sandwich, nuts, and a beverage. They also showed Journey to the Center of the Earth, a cheesy, but entertaining move. (Channel one for English, channel two for Spanish.) After landing, I walked through the usual airport maze you find upon entering a new country. When I passed through customs in Seattle, the agent asked me my occupation, then gave me a job tip: they're hungry for teachers in Houston. On my way to the bus stop, I paused to put on a long-sleeve shirt, but saw my bus drive by to it's stop, so I ran out to catch it. Once on board, I happen to sit next to a drunk man, who began conversing with me, as well as others around us. He insisted on helping a pair of German girls find their hotel, then proceeded to give me tips on the ladies. Crazy, drunk person talking to me on a bus - that's right, it's good to be back in Seattle.
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