Published: January 25th 2009September 3rd 2008
I have been home for over three months now, and it has taken this long for me to build up the courage to produce my final Latin America blog. I think it is a bit like an electronic-mental block. Once I complete this blog, then the trip is officially over. No more exciting adventures! But, such is life. Below is the final (for now) Latin America blog.
We took a long, but sometimes fun, crossing from Flores in Guatemala to Palenque in Mexico. The journey involved a bus, a 20 minute boat journey along a river, and another bus. Oh, and bribing a Guatemalan border guard to leave the country. Our usual kind of border crossing then... Palenque
Our first stop in Mexico was the town and nearby Mayan ruins of Palenque. The town didn't get a great write-up in our guidebook, but we liked it. It was very much a locals town, full of nice little restaurants, happy people and a good vibe. After my dodgy stomach in Guatemala I was finally feeling a bit better and able to enjoy local pizza as well as tacos.
We visited the Mayan ruins in a morning and found
that this was enough time to see the main sights. Palenque is a great site, with plenty of temples as well as chances to go climbing up lots and lots of steps. The pictures explain it better than I can, although unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a photo of the howler monkeys who were up in the treetops screaming their lungs out whilst we wandered around slightly scared below them! San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal turned out to be one of our favourite cities of our whole year-long adventure. It has a wonderful energy to it, existing as a working town for locals as well as a colonial gem for gringos. The centre is covered in great architecture, the main Cathedral alone makes the town worth a visit. We stayed at a hotel near the bus station and were easily able to walk in to the centre from there. We spent a few days in and around San Cristobal. Plenty of time was spent doing what we do everywhere: wandering around, slowly taking in the sights and stopping for plenty of coffees and snacks along the way.
For me, San Cristobal summed up the
kind of place I have loved on this trip, with its nice plazas, busy streets, friendly locals and positive vibe. I also found the history of this area fascinating. In the 1990s a local group calling themselves the “Zapatistas” took over the town hall in San Cristobal demanding recognition of indigenous rights. Since that time there has been a tense stand-off between the government and the Zapatistas. It is not difficult to see why the Zapatistas have been embraced by international socialist movements who see this as the struggle of the underclass against the ruling elite. Whatever your political leanings, a visit to the local Zapatista shop and watching the local film about the Zapatistas is definitely worth a go. San Juan Chamula
Our guidebooks warned that visiting San Juan Chamula without a tour group was not a good idea as there had previously been dodgy incidents between locals and visitors. However, we decided to brave the trip alone and ended up being very glad that we had. An easy minibus journey from San Cristobal de las Casas got us to the main square in Chamula which was much bigger and busier than I had expected. Apparently the
main area of contention previously between locals and visitors has been about the tourists taking photos of locals and of important religious shrines. So, we just played everything cautiously and didn't have any problems. Indeed if anything we felt very welcomed by the locals.
The main highlight of a visit to San Juan Chamula is a visit to the Church on the main square. From the outside it looked colourful but nothing prepared me for the fantastic experience once we entered. There are no pews inside the Church, and instead people sit on the floor in family groups chanting or singing. The floor is covered in pine needles which mix with incense to give a strong aroma. There are candles everywhere
, as people light them to represent each family member, dead and alive. There were many sights that were a little out of the ordinary, but by far the most extraordinary was watching a mother holding aloft a live chicken which she then passed over the head, chest and back of her son. Our fascination quickly turned to horror as she proceeded to then break the chicken's neck!
For us, one of the best experiences of our trip
happened when we left the Church and sat down to have a snack and read our books in the main square. Local kids kept coming up to us asking if we would buy souvenirs from them. We relented to a few of them and bought a variety of jewellery. Then a little girl came up and I think we were about ready to say "no gracias", but then realised she wasn't trying to sell us anything. Instead, she just sat down and played with us for half an hour! It was a great time to just have the company of Alicia, a girl with limited Spanish but one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. Barry and I came up with various games to play with her and she let us take her photo. It was difficult saying goodbye to Alicia after having so much fun and having given her some of our pepsi and bread. I wondered what would happen to her and hoped that she would be ok. Whilst she had the innocent smile of a child, the condition of her feet and hands made her look more like an old woman. Oaxaca
bus journey from San Cristobal de las Casas took us to Oaxaca. A lovely example of a colonial city and bursting with life, Oaxaca was bound to be a highlight of our time in Mexico. This was made even better by the fact that we stayed in one of the nicest hotels of our trip, a treat to ourselves as we were nearing the end of the journey. Oaxaca is one of those places where you can’t help but wander the streets aimlessly, popping into the occasional museum or to see some murals. We enjoyed many good meals (of course) although I must admit that the local “mole” sauce (made of various ingredients including numerous chillies and chocolate) didn’t quite work for me. We also discovered the local bars to be good places to sit and relax.
As the trip is so close to finishing we are less keen on spending hours in museums but did make an exception for the Santo Domingo museum, housing a range of artefacts from the City's history. I am afraid though that we could not spend as many hours there as we should have and ended up sneaking away for a mezcal (similar
Chapulines (fried grasshoppers)
I tried one, but that was enough for me!!
to tequila)...! We did manage to enjoy a day trip to the local Zapotec site of Monte Alban though, with it's pre-hispanic architecture and history.
We also went for a day trip exploring the area outside of Oaxaca. We visited a few market towns where we bought hammocks and I got to try the local speciality of Chapulines (fried grasshoppers). To be honest they tasted more of the salt and chilli they were smothered in than anything else! Good fun though and we also got to see another pre-hispanic site at the town of Mitla which was worth a wander around. Mexico City
I was a little worried before heading to Mexico City that we were going to finish our trip on a low-note in a smoggy, ugly, overpopulated city. But, of course I needn’t have worried. Mexico City turned out to be a fantastic, vibrant metropolis, full of interesting sights, friendly people, great bars, yummy food and a worthy end to our year-long Latin American epic.
I had never realised before our visit that Mexico City was actually originally a small island situated in a large lake. The Aztecs and their contemporaries lived in the
area, using boats to travel across the lake and a complex canal system. The whole society at Mexico City was highly developed and apparently when the Spaniards arrived they couldn’t believe that this urban landscape had not been created by Europeans. Sadly, the Conquistadores were quick to change Mexico City and they set about draining the lake. The majority pf the city is now on dry land but facing serious subsidence problems.
We spent nearly a week in Mexico City, visiting the main sites and living the Mexican life. Our hostel (La Moneda) was situated perfectly, just one block away from the main plaza, known as the Zocalo. The Zocalo is huge, apparently the third largest main square in the world, after Tianenman and Red squares. There were always some demonstrations or parades or pre-hispanic dancing going on at the Zocalo and this gave the city so much energy. Also, at 8am and 6pm each day the national flag is raised at the centre of the plaza by what seems to be half of the Mexican military - great fun.
It would take me a long time to write in detail about our week in Mexico City, so
instead I will just list some highlights:
- Discovering the history of the place was particularly enjoyable, with Mexico City having once been a series of islands on a massive lake. The Aztecs and their contemporaries used to hold a huge market on the site. Pre-hispanic temples are still available to see in the city centre and they are well worth a visit (especially the Templo Mayor).
- The food. We had some excellent meals in Mexico City, and often they were some of the cheapest of the trip. Enjoying a whole plate full of roast chicken with tortillas and salsas has to be my idea of heaven! We also became locals at the central Cafe La Blanca, where we got to try lots of Mexican dishes (such as "Chiles en Nogadas") along with good fruit juices and coffee. The food has definitely been one of the highlights of our year away and Mexico gave a great finish!
- Taking a lift (elevator) to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper gave great views across the city, despite the slight haze over the city. Being able to see so far gives a great idea of just how
huge the city is, as you see it sprawling into the distance.
- Tracking down the art and homes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. These two are perhaps Mexico's most famous artistic couple and we very much enjoyed discovering more about their art and lives during our time in the city. I was particularly impressed by Diego Rivera's murals with their communist flavour, but still unwaveringly latino. The murals are mostly free to see in various places around town, including inside the National Palace on the Zocalo, the Ministry of Education, the National Courts (with free audio guide!) and the Diego Rivera Museum.
- Seeing where Leon Trotsky lived (and died) in Mexico. Nothing like some communism to make a place interesting!
- We lasted a few hours at the massive anthropology museum before finally giving up and going back to the hotel for a snooze! I think this city has managed to finally wear us out. The museum is excellent though and easily worth a day or two of thorough exploration. We also went on a day trip to visit the Teotihuacan aztec pyramids near to Mexico City. Another interesting outing, and made even more
interesting with a trip to visit the local tequila factory! And so to home...
Our flight back to the UK was delayed by 17 hours, which meant that we got to stay in Mexico one extra night. To be honest, it was not my finest moment as a mosquito managed to get into the room and so I had a farewell gift of itchy bites to deal with the next day!
Looking back on our trip now it is still hard to cope with the realisation that it is over. After all of that planning, all of that expectation, and all of that excitement, I feel a little lost! Still, I have my blogs from the year to keep me company and, even more importantly, I also have Barry - the only other person who understands what I went through on that year away and who I can always share my memories with.
And of course, it's not like I'm never going back to Latin America...!
There are more photos below