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Published: January 16th 2019
Our hearts, particularly and peculiarly that of Mrs fitness - Ali, have been pounding each time we climb the four flights of stairs to our room. This reminded me that Mexico City sits at quite a heady elevation; indeed at 2240m it is in fact the eighth highest capital city in the world. I knew it was high, but I did look that up. And I'm glad I did because who knew Harare was loftier than Kathmandu, or that Addis Ababa looked down on Thimphu? It also has a hefty populace, coming in at number 23 in the list of bloated cities. No doubt it was once much nearer the top of the table, before China ran amok. I mention the mass of humanity here in Mexico City simply because they defy the norm for such crowded metropolises. The people are endearingly kind and helpful, even straining their limited English abilities when confronted by a pair of lost Spanish-less tourists; directions, advice and aid are all given with patience and a friendly, often beaming, demeanor. We warmed to this side of the wall within minutes of touching down.
Having said the last of our goodbyes and having crashed for our
last few American days at chez Sim (it's becoming a tradition) we were taken to the MegaBus stop by the Blanfords. Justine, bless her, thought we should acquire a Walmart shopping trolley to maneuver our packs until the bus arrived, that we should get a taxi from NY to JFK and then check into a hotel for the night. Our concepts of backpacking are definitely non-aligned. Arriving in New York at 11.30pm we took the slow (cheap) E train subway that runs all night and is always good for a few characters. One chap kept nipping out into the precarious space between the carriages for a semi-discrete spliff (we weren't invited to join him), whilst another informed us that the train - due to line works after midnight - would not be progressing as far as our targeted Air Train link: we'd need to hop off at X and get the free shuttle bus. It materialised that our advisor was correct, but all links went smoothly regardless. And a chill 2am saw us at the airport where we duly pulled a couple of beers from our packs and bade farewell to the States.
As per usual these days we
were not the only tight sods bedding down for the night in the terminal and before you knew it we were aboard InterJet 2799 and Mexico bound.
At this point I would usually start spraffing about the best options for exchanging money and the cheapest way to get into the city. However, on this trip, backpackerly advice is to be confined to footnotes, thereby saving such tedium from those merely interested in how we survived yet another ill-judged situation.
And so with some unasked, but very welcome, guidance and via a little traipsing, we happened upon Hostel Historico in Centro Historico. This place is a gem. Yes the walls are a little thin, but the rooms and bathrooms are immaculate, the roof terrace great, the staff amazing and the clientele - predominantly Mexican - diamond. Hostel Historico is also exceptional in not objecting to patrons bringing their own alcohol onto the premises. This all equated to a most chilled scene. Within two days Ali was tight with the cleaners - no surprise there. And, amazingly, we were actually practicing some Spanish, mainly with two new chums they being Mexican (Johan, yep that sounds Swiss, or German) and a
beautifully crazy young Chilean, Edwardo. Less likely new companions included a Pakistani post-doc who insisted, against all protestations, on calling me Professor and who was rather keen on informing us, repeatedly, of his current research - neural networks, please; and then there was Shay, a wild young Canadian girl who unbeknown to us was an alcoholic. Unbeknown to us when we were quaffing litre after litre of beer with her, but the matter of her having fallen off the wagon did arise, somewhat tearfully, once sobriety was long past.
The street food in Mexico city is fantastic. Antojitos (small bites) are everywhere, with the most common of these being the humble taco. Soft tortillas are laden with meat, fish or vegetables - the former being far more common, dressed as you desire with dynamite chili sauces, maybe a salsa and then topped off with a healthy squeeze of lime. The limes themselves are plump emerald citrus heaven. Common variants include: tacos al pastor, spit-roasted pork; tacos de carne asada, grilled beef; plus a myriad of unknowns, where delicious meats - chicken, beef steak, pork (hunks of or flattened into steaks), or - less targeted - intestines and tripe simmer
in bubbling pots of sumptuous sauces. These may be coriander based, subtle or fiery chilified, or thicker unctuous moles. Of the latter no doubt much more when we reach their culinary heartland, Oaxaca. Of course there are dozens of alternative flatbreads, all reheated on hotplates before loading and this process may be performed atop local cheese creating, upon flipping, a molten lining to your taco. Quesadillas always have cheese in their filling and are typically vegetarian; huaraches are a flat, non-folded manifestation with drier toppings - usually including a smear of re-fried bean paste - that may be of gargantuan proportions. Oh, and then there are the flat oval de-spined appendages (limbs, plates.... branches, arms - no idea as to the correct floristic terminology) of cacti that may also be lightly fried and then coated in goodies. Beer accompanying snacks include peanuts, but peanuts with chick peas, seeds and whole mini cloves of roasted garlic, all coated in chili flakes; or, and these are seriously good, deep-fried grasshoppers, chapulines.
Over the course of a week in Mexico city such road-side, hole-in-the-wall or market vendors were our go-to eateries - no hardship I assure you. However, the city does have
some seriously fine restaurants and so one night we decided to treat ourselves. This place came highly recommended by Lonely Planet and indeed got the thumbs up from Travelblog's RENanDREW: El Lugar Sin Nombre (The Restaurant with no name) specialises in slow cooked dishes and their menu is - supposedly - dictated by seasonal availability. Disappointment didn't come close. We'll ignore the freebie teeth-threatening fried tortillas and innocuous accompanying "dips". Starters of guacamole with green tomatoes, pipicha and grasshoppers was good, the roasted bone marrow with potatoes and papalo was not - greasy bland marrow whose quantity laughed in the face of the large longitudinally-split bones (marrow is always a minimalist dish, but...), accompanied by raw potato wedges (we did inform them that the potatoes were not, remotely, cooked). The first main of organic rabbit with peanut mole was a total disaster: tough, tough rabbit with a flavourless mole: peanuts, really? The octopus seasoned with mora chile did look very good, but once again the visually nicely seared potato wedges were raw. It went back. On re-emergence the potatoes, not surprisingly, were still inedible. Our amiable waiter explained: the potatoes are brought in "pre-cooked" and are merely finished in-house.
My pained retort of "you don't actually cook them here yourself?" received an apologetic shrug. The octopus, it has to be said, was succulent and delicious... even having, no doubt, sat for twenty minutes during the panicked potato rescue debacle. The artesanal beer we drank was exceptional, but hardly compensated. Both of the dishes tried by Ren and Drew were still on the menu (seasonal?). And here, probably, comes the reason for what must surely be a serious decline in the restaurant's standards: it has gained a certain celebrity, it is mighty popular, now takes bookings and has extended its hours from a four hour window of 7-11 to lunch til late. They are over-extended, cutting corners and, maybe, the great chef that once was has left in an overworked huff...
Mexico city lends itself to wandering and we did, although we've still only dipped our toes. Nevertheless, day six saw us making a pre-dawn start and heading off for a day trip, via Metro subway and bus, to Los Pyramides at Teotihuacan - the pyramids of the sun and moon. Pyramide de sol is the world's third largest, surpassed in size only by Egypt's Cheops and Mexico's own
pyramid of Cholula at Puebla. We weren't quite the first to arrive, but we did beat the hoards. Both are massively impressive, although I think viewing in a less intense late afternoon light would have been even more spectacular. Sadly the great soaring facade of the steps up Pyramide de sol currently has a scar, a strip of orange safety fencing that was a bitch to etch out of photos, especially with our pants photo-editing software. The souvenir vendors here, mightily exposed to the sun, provided us with our first witnessed sombreros (a cross between a Stetson and a Panama is a far more common headwear). By 1pm we had retraced our steps and were back at Hostel Historico, much to the bemusement of our hosts: "back so soon?"
The day before we were due to move on the collective staff of the hostel materialised on the roof terrace mid-afternoon; the owner was in town and this called for a pizza fest. Ali and I were the only patrons present - already mid-way though a large Indio beer - and they insisted on us joining them. Then on hearing that we intended to head south the following day there were
hugs all-round. These really are a warm generous people. They are obviously very family orientated as witnessed during the countless rounds of pre-Christmas celebrations in the surrounds of the Zocola (central plaza); and the youngsters are certainly not shy about demonstrating their personal affections in public - snogging is still very much in vogue in Mexico City. Ali's current precis of Mexicans is simply that "they are charming" and she isn't wrong.
Day one had seen me make a rookie mistake, performing my night time ablutions with tap water. Nevertheless, my bowels held firm. Superbly timed, just prior to departure for the bus to Oaxaca Ali's were suddenly anything but. Cue the first dose of Imodium and crossed fingers (and legs) as there was no loo on our 2nd class bus.
Totally unexpectedly the scenery on the eight hour journey south was spectacular with wonderful, angular, inter-spliced hills covered with phallic cacti, agave and ancathocephalic palms stretching for miles, the low shrubbery giving the impression as if all were covered with a shaggy khaki rug. Occasionally there were stout trees, but trees with the most perfectly proportioned broccoli-shaped canopies in the deepest of greens. And behind all rose
pale grey barren mountains.
Much like Mexico City, surrounded by mountains, Oaxaca sits in and clings to the sides of its limiting bowl. The fringes of Oaxaca are unremarkable but walking towards Centro it became clear quite why it is such a popular destination. All is low-rise. There are tatty concrete builds, but these are easily out numbered by old stone houses intermingled with museums, food markets, art galleries and many ancient churches. The latter may be pink and white, stocky, with mogalesque domes or frail ornate structures in milky pale stone. The sun dappled plazas are dotted with huge shading trees, whilst to the north and east the barrios have broad lazy streets that harbour dreamily inviting eateries and picturesque houses whose plastered walls may be yellow, orange, blues or pink and hide quaint courtyard gardens. As appealing as the city is, finding a hostel proved a little problematic. The streets of Centro are organised in a grid, but many change their name mid-course making initial orientation difficult - a surreal first outing for the compass.
It was approaching Christmas, but we'd presumed that most visitors would have already decamped to the beaches - evidently this wasn't
the case: places were either fully booked or had, more annoyingly, hiked their prices due to demand. Eventually, having slogged it up hill to the top of town, saviour was found at Hostel Ponchon. This was, at the time, overseen by work-awayer Elizabeth, her hubby and a rather expensive dog. Alfie had been a Beijing stray who, thanks to Elizabeth, became an American citizen and is now - over the next eight years - on his way to Argentina. We could only secure a dorm room, but the shared outdoor communal spaces and friendly clientele more than compensated. Nevertheless, the next day saw us scouring town anew for a private gaff and luckily we chanced upon Hostel Andaina. On high it has a single room on the massive roof terrace, a just completed and never previously occupied room that we snatched up. The cheapest private room in town (of the seven or eight hostels we had checked out) provides 360 degree views over all, essentially our own bathroom (people just presume it isn't communal) and washroom (a washing line was rapidly hung and adorned), with sun loungers, shaded tables and.... seclusion. OK, the odd punter does occasionally wander up, and
we did befriend a couple of these interlopers, but pretty much we had the roof to ourselves.
An immediately observed Oaxaca curiosity is the abundance of very old VW-beetles. It always intrigues why certain destinations hang onto specific, largely jettisoned, means of transport. Although, now as I try to remember what and where, all examples seem to be Indian: the ubiquitous Enfield motorbikes; its hill stations' ancient Land Rovers; and Kolkata's Ambassador taxis... You'd think Laos or Vietnam might have old Citroen C5s but, to my recollection, sadly not.
Anyway, youngsters snogging on street corners is not confined to the capital; nor for that matter are Ali's charming locals.
Oaxaca is renowned as a culinary centre and we were not disappointed. There are two excellent backpacker-friendly markets that sell both produce and house dozens of eateries. The larger, southern situated, 20th Novembre mercado specialises in bakeries and butchers, although its maze-like interior hosts a myriad of tiny eateries where patrons sit at counters that surround the minuscule open kitchens. Some sell hearty soups, others corn husk-wrapped tamales; then there are tlayadus, a huge crisp tortilla laden with re-fried bean paste, salsa, cheese, avocado and meats - the
chorizo ones are our favourite (Ali calls them Mexican pizza); cuts of meat swimming in a variety of moles; but, for those carnivores able to tolerate the smoke haze you head to the barbeque section. Here dozens of vendors line the narrow passageways displaying their meats (typically beef, cecina - pork with a paprika-resembling dry rub, or stout moist chorizos) on sloping vertical racks, to the sides of which are charcoal barbies. You select your meats, are led through the masses to space on a communal bench table, your meat is duly delivered, obviously with an accompanying basket of soft tortillas, and there, at your snug smoke-enshrouded perch, roaming vendors appear proffering mini plates of sides and the requisite beers. On the streets themselves are all manner of restaurants, some are local haunts, others more tourist-orientated, but all provide amazing Oaxacan cuisine. And then there are the top end establishments, many with spectacular reputations. We'd been stung in Mexico City but we did still have some credit on a card, care of a rebate on our canceled American car insurance. Casa Oaxaca, widely regarded as the best of the best, was fully booked for Christmas eve and Christmas day but
was taking walk-ins on the 23rd... Lonely Planet says : "iron your shirt and make a reservation".
With the sun disappearing behind the hills I selected my least grubby pair of shorts and gave the flip-flops a cursory wipe-down, the T-shirt was barely stained and would surely suffice. Ali, meanwhile, was contemplating the evening wear section from her monstrous pack. On arrival the rather swanky restaurant was already buzzing. We walked into the courtyard reception and were told a twenty minutes wait would be necessary. Ha, no dress code; although maybe they'd simply been wowed by the pristine condition of my Havianas. Be suited potential clientele seemed less prepared to wait and many didn't, either that or the thought of being sat in my vicinity had curbed their appetites. Five minutes later and the scruffy bugger - and his rather polished partner - were ushered away from genteel appreciation and up onto the rather lovely terrace. And not, I might add, in some hidden corner. Thus began a meal to remember. We ordered a margarita and something that sounded bizarre, but interesting: a gin based slushy infused with rosemary. Both were excellent. We ordered two more. Even as we
contemplated our food orders a trestle table laden with all manner of ingredients was placed at our side and a young chap began to get serious with a pestle and mortar, creating a bespoke salsa for our house freebie. "Si, poco chapaulines por favor". Who doesn't require a smattering of grasshopper in their salsa? I won't bore you with every detail of this magnificent meal, but a starter incorporating yet more grasshoppers alongside grubs and ants was a deep smokey heaven, the piquant giant chili stuffed with passion fruit-marinaded ceviche divine, grouper with its citrusy butter sauce scrumptious and the veal tongues simply melted. Somewhat replete we lazed long into the evening under our patio heater with a succession of a new favourite cocktail to hand: mezcal with mint, lime and ginger ranks right up there with the finest caiparina or pisco sour. Wow, really wow. Thank you Travelers insurance. Damn you Vonage (phone company) who not only didn't issue a rebate, but had the audacity to charge for disconnection: peevishly shoddy customer service.
Meanwhile, amidst all the joviality, Trump's lust for a wall had instigated a partial shut-down of the US government. Amusingly, though not for us, this
resulted in a marked rise in the value of the Mexican Peso. In a week the dollar had dropped approximately 4%, or, put another way, Mexico had just become 4% dearer. On the up-side, a recent poll now had 60% of Americans in favour of impeaching said loon.
The first, accepted, marauder into our airy domain was Diana, a towering Amazonian Canadian from Yukon. She denied it, OK I didn't actually put it to her (she might have taken exception), but I'm pretty convinced she earned her travelling money by standing in as the stunt double for Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones). Anyways, following an amiable afternoon we arranged to meet up the next day and walk up to Monte Alban, a Mayan site atop an apparently relatively near hill. Indeed 8am saw us striding out with detailed map to hand. An hour later we were lost amidst some elevated barrio when we were approached by several young men. The glassy-eyed spokesman informed us that if we enjoyed residing on this mortal coil then we were somewhat off route, death by gunshot was surely only a couple of bends ahead. Brienne was without her broadsword so we duly,
with suitable nonchalant haste, backtracked. The rather less direct route up necessitated following a more frequented road (by tour buses and taxis) that, nevertheless, deposited us at our objective a mere two hours later. Brienne was going in and was appalled that the English heathens were more than happy to simply wander the hillside until she, presumably now fully educated in the finer aspects of Mayan ball sports, returned.
The following morning we looked down from our lofty perch to find town universally shut-up. Ah yes, it was Christmas day. We hadn't thought this through and consequently it looked like our remaining eggs and two semi-stale rolls might be all that would feature on the festive menu. Fortunately, come midday, people began to emerge, shutters were raised and smoke began to coil up from the market. In case this was a temporary reprieve we rapidly procured beer stocks and were just contemplating food matters when both Brienne and Nick, an equally imposing young Aussie, emerged on the terrace. Roast fowl was fondly mentioned and suddenly we were on a mission: two chooks (heads and feet removed - after some seasonal charades), rosemary, potatoes and other food miscellany were purchased
alongside a large bottle of mezcal, ginger and limes. Brienne performed some magic with the hostel cooker and a Mexican twist on Christmas dinner, with lashings of good tidings, was served.
Ignoring the throbbing heads we were up early the following morning. Our main packs were left in storage and we headed off with the bare essentials for a few days in the hills. The rural area of Pueblos Mancomunados consists of eight remote villages, linked by high-country trails, situated at elevations of 2200 - 3200m. The villages are quaint and most have rather nice, if a bit pricey, cabanas with their own fireplaces (and free wood) - very welcome come nightfall. The big downfall is that solo, unescorted, trekking is difficult: the trails are very poorly marked and no one, absolutely no one, among the rarely encountered but welcoming local farmers, speaks any English... Whilst our Spanish is still lamentable. The walks are pretty and extremely tranquil, the only sounds those of chattering birds or the occasional distant tinkling of a cow bell. The terrain, especially without acclimatisation, is tough with some horrendous endless-seeming climbs. But the killer really is the frustration at the number of false trails
and enforced backtracking upon becoming lost. Personally we'd say save your hillside wanderings for four hours further south: San Jose del Pacifico.
San Jose, another small village on high, lies at the mid-point between Oaxaca city and the coast, making it an ideal stopping point on the way to the beach. However, its fame - and for most its lure - has nothing to do with the great walks and views, but rather its local harvest. Magic mushrooms grow prolifically here and these have propagated a devoted hippy scene. Hostel La Cumbre is the in-know place to hang. Its location necessitates an arduous climb further up the hillside from the one street village that already sits nestled upon a crest, but what awaits above does not disappoint. It is a labyrinthine maze of random building, Gormanghast meets favela. Intermingled, piled-atop, strapped alongside are concrete or wooden rooms, the latter with corrugated iron roofs, that collectively form one rambling interlinked - and shockingly lethal - structure scaling the hillside. Esher-like concrete stairs rise and fall amidst passageways that lead between and behind. Rickety wooden bridges and planks criss-cross all, precariously straddling gaps between dwellings or ascending some to give access
to others, the concrete roofs merely acting as further thoroughfares. Above all sits the restaurant and its associated patio, several floors below is the hammock verandah - home to the most hardcore imbibers, and on any horizontal surface are lazy chairs that all face... towards the view. Come 5pm even the most drug-addled stumbles to assume a viewing spot.
On our first afternoon the beautifully clear sunny day deteriorated progressively. With the magic hour approaching the massively wide and deep vista of inter-spliced hills was smothered as clouds flooded the valleys below, accumulating until cold encircling wisps forced on socks, boots, fleeces and hats. And then we were simply sitting amidst the clouds. Having been informed of the unbelievable sunsets we were somewhat taken aback. Already dug-in, with beers to hand, we chatted with our fellow disappointees. And then it all got rather biblical. The in-your-face clouds spread left and right, whilst the lower fug rose and dissipated. There was a warmth once again as the sun burnt through the lingering white haze and suddenly the sky was orange and the foreground a pastel pink lake. OK, it was a bit biblical, but it was also a bit theatrical
at the beginning. Regardless, the performance was entrancing as it developed, evolved and morphed over the next hour. I was jolly impressed. The man on mushrooms next to me was positively ecstatic. We exchanged very satisfied beams and a salute of cans.
The following three days were equal, but very different, masterpieces, whilst days five and six presented an impenetrable grey screen.
Of course we didn't spend our entire time sat poised for sunset. Of all the walks the best was that along the river to tiny San Mateo, a leisurely 10km meander in the tranquil wilderness, culminating in a bitchy climb into town. On our first visit with Londoner Mark, Kiwi Fred and Aussie Steph we discovered (with some difficulty - the fifth asked local knew of it) the organic microbrewery. The Spanish lady proprietor was away but her cheery Costa Rican Man Friday welcomed us into the pub (room) and was soon encouraging sampling. This certainly isn't, yet, a high capacity operation and unmarked bottles emerged from random locations, although all seemingly in the correct ordered order. The agave pale ale was particularly good. On our second trip over our numbers were swelled to seven when
we were joined by a horrendously attractive German couple. Actually we joined them. Our intention hadn't been to go again, but in providing guidance to the river we were suddenly walking it with them. Steph was in a miniskirt and totally unsuitable shoes, Fred was in bare feet. He may have been barefoot but he was far more lucid this time and indeed identified eight edible wild plants on route. Well, he said they were edible and their consumption didn't appear to incapacitate him further. This time beer was not our quarry; it was the lure of stone-fired pizza that pushed Steph on. Casa de la Abuela is a chilled posada and restaurant with a reputation for its food and a cinnamon-infused mezcal. Yet, on scaling the height of town we were informed that it was closed on a Sunday. Mark refused to countenance such cruel misfortune and pushed on to the end of the dusty lane. Sure enough it had been open, but had closed at 1pm. And... they only fire up the pizza oven on a Saturday. Nevertheless, they were more than happy to provision us with beer. This was less than conciliatory to non-drinker Steph. On the
latter: with time running out before sunset we elected to catch a camionetta (truck with canopied facing bench seats in the rear) back to San Jose. Ali and Mark were in the cab, with Fred, Steph, the Germans and myself in the back. A few moments later a friendly young local lad hopped on up and was soon providing all with slugs from a bottle of mezcal. Steph took a sip and her pizza-less day worsened, announcing an imminent chunder.
I should mention our room at La Cumbra, a private room in name only: paper thin walls made the strip of four equivalents essentially a dorm. Unfortunately our adjacent room was initially occupied by a trio of young Mexicans who laughed incessantly throughout the night; these were then replaced with a pair of Chilean girls and an American guy who engaged in a lengthy threesome on the bed inches from our heads. We contemplated moving rooms but it seemed an awful effort, plus our narrow rickety balcony's view was second only to that from the main terrace.
On exiting La Cumbra you decend a steep narrow path lined on each side with wire fences, these you are very
grateful for when returning at night as you'll be greeted by none too friendly-sounding dogs on either side. Never fear though because the onset of hostilities will see La Cumbra's Brewski, growling menacingly, magically appear to escort you back home. Not satisfied with ensuring a safe return after dark he regularly accompanies anyone he deems in need of a chaperone, at any time of the day. Wandering out for breakfast (the gauntlet of dogs now sleeping in the shade) he will trot along beside you and then sit waiting by your feet for the return. That said, if you're tardy he may decide that he is more urgently required elsewhere and toddle off.
The local Oxacan coffee, Cafe de Olla, is good: moderately strong, a little sweet, with more than a hint of cinnamon. Tortes, everywhere, are good, and town has some cute little eateries. However, the munchie stand-out is to be found in what amounts to little more than a transport cafe. Here there is one particular table by the wood-fed stoves (late night toasty heaven) where the vast elaborate hambrgeresas are salivatingly cooked before your eyes.
We had, against advisement, intended to endure a Tamazcal. This
is essentially a spiritual sauna performed in a concrete igloo. Individuals sit in the pitch black around a pile of extremely hot rocks in said steamer. Periodically the Tamazcal practitioner will pop in to add medicine-infused water onto the rocks thereby ratcheting up the temperature. When, in his opinion, things get a bit tame in come more rocks, followed by more medicine, and so on.... "for two bloody tortuous hours" according to Mark. It should be noted that Mark's approach to the experience was not fully in-line with the purification theme, having taken a six pack in with him. Sadly, somehow we failed to organize the event which pleased Ali greatly: fearless of the heat she has an extreme aversion to the inevitable chanting.
And so, following the two sunset-less nights, we managed to rally the motivation to head south to the beaches. Most people were heading straight to Puerto Escondio, others favoured Zipolite or Mazunte, although rave reviews were coming back from the more distant Lagunas de Chacahua. Here the town of Chacahua, accessible only by boat, edges a pristine beach. The lagoon itself, within a national park, is home to egrets, ibis, cormorants, spoonbills, turtles and, less
Unable to make a decision we headed for the closest, the plan being to visit them all. So, first stop, the naturist and gay friendly Zipolite. Not so friendly is Zipolite's sea. Prior to arriving in Mexico this was already known to me as it made - without the presence of any nasties: box jellyfish, sharks, stingrays, stonefish, snakes, lions (yes, there's a Kenyan beach where the uninformed might delight at the total solitude until the lions come to investigate) - the top 10 of most dangerous beaches. Really, the rips are treacherous and without a surf board securely attached to an ankle the sensible advice is to advance no deeper than your knees. Previous visitors have regaled us with tales of countless witnessed rescues as well as less successful attempts; people may simply disappear without trace or be first broken on the rocks. Often the life guards and beach dwellers can simply only gawp impotently as aid is impossible.
On that cheerful note, tomorrow brings up our first month in Mexico. It is not a destination that had previously called to us and we totally expected to simply pass through on our way to Central
America. How ignorant we were. Already, having visited just four destinations in one small area, we are in love with the country and its peoples. Fortunately, on arrival, we had been given six month tourist permits; fortunate as we will be here for a considerable time yet. This is a country to be savoured, lingered over and basked in. If ever there was a destination to caress a rusty backpacker back into the groove it is here.
The prices/rates listed below are obviously prone to changes, touristic seasons etc.., but the logistics, locations and relatives should hold true. All dollar prices are always, unless stipulated, US.
A few pointers here for those flying into Mexico city: do not change money in the luggage collection area (16.5 pesos - henceforth "p" - to the US dollar); nor should you do so immediately upon exiting customs (17.5). If you do want to exchange currencies then head to the far left of arrivals, some 100yds odd, where the exchange rate climbs to over a respectable 19.
We weren't changing our precious dollars though (with the lack of acceptance of Travellers cheques,
especially in Central/South America, these are our last fall-back - it seems that if we get robbed of everything we are simply in total doo doo), instead we needed an ATM. Things aren't what they once were and there is no UK or US bank that currently offers a debit card free of foreign transaction fees (also most US banks no longer issue TCs). Consequently, post-costs, our withdrawal translated into an exchange rate of 19.2 rather than the actual 20.2 ForEx rate of the day. Saying that, we had been informed by InterJet that our el cheapo flights would not include the price of the required "tourist permit" ($28.20/pp) that we presume is marked on your immigration form (tab must be retained in order to exit Mexico). Yet, to our delight, immigration demanded didley squat (it appears all flights do actually cover this cost); not only that but the maximum tourist stay of 180 days was granted even without discussion.
Mexico city is huge so targeting an area to stay is essential. Our, limited, research suggested the cheapest relatively central location was Centro Historico. It seems many now opt for an Uber in (150p, $7 is markedly cheaper than
a taxi), although the Metro bus is a much more reasonable 30p/$2, whilst the Metro subway is bargain basement at 5p/25c. The Metro subway runs 5am-12am weekdays and starts at 6am and 7am, respectively on Saturday and Sunday. However, this system is mighty busy and if you have personal space issues (pickpockets are also rumoured to be rife) then the next cheapest route from the airport to Centro is the Metro bus: directly outside arrivals (exit 7) is the line 4 bus stop that will take you to Zocola (the big Centro Historico landmark). Bus staff will let you know when to alight if you ask. Another note here: both bus and subway Metros require a Metro card (interchangeable and eternal) that costs 10p. This is then loaded, at the same dispensing machine, with money for subsequent journeys. Two people or more can travel on the same Metro card.
Accommodation in Mexico City isn't the cheapest. We trawled around half a dozen hostels and the best price we could find - at this time of year - was 480p ($24) for a private room without bathroom (Hostel Historico just up from the Zocola has an excellent roof terrace with
small guest-use kitchen, 4 small private rooms two with patio windows (and two without any windows, 450p), mixed, male- and female-only dorms (200p) all of which, like the shared bathrooms, are immaculate. It has terrific helpful staff; plus, a rarity it seems, it lets you bring your own alcohol onto the premises. For 550+ pesos you might get breakfast as well elsewhere, but we already had that covered: 16p for a big french loaf from Pastelleria Madrid, down from the Zocolo and as little as 1.4p/egg from local supermarkets. The very cheapest of these (for water, coffee, hand-washing soap and more) is out towards Mercado de la Merced to the south east. They also sell a range of local cigarettes, notably Botas at 20p/20 that is half price of anything available at 7/11 or Oxxo (another mini mart-like establishment). The previously mentioned Mercado and another, Mercado San Camilito, to the north west are the places to buy fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish. Beer is cheapest from the supermarkets, although 7/11 and Oxxo often have deals on multiple buys, e.g. 2x 1.2L Indio (4.1%) for 58p; 4x 500ml Indio cans for 56p; 2x 1.2L Carona (4.2%) for 60p. Generic beers
sampled thus far, progressing from palest to somewhat maltier, include Tecate (4.5%), Corona, Victoria and Indio. There are "artesanal" (micro-brewery) beers now available, particularly in swanky bars, but these are markedly more expensive.
The cheapest bus (at the time of writing) to Oaxaca was "Au" at 389p - they did have an offer on though. Nevertheless all the bargain buses leave from the Tapo bus station a mere four stops from Centro on the subway. Mexico city - Oaxaca takes closer to 8hrs than the 6-6.5 stated. The first Au bus departed (going all the way to St Martin) at 8am.
If arriving by Au bus stay on until the final Oaxacan stop (they make three in Oaxaca and the last is closest to Centro - a mere 5 mins from the cheapest - that we found - hostel, Hostel Andaina.
Hostel Andaina (on Garcia - look out for the black silhouette of a hiker on the tall yellow building) charges 190p/pp regardless of room. All rooms are private, but have shared bathrooms... Unless you are in the know: there is one room (currently un-numbered) actually on the massive roof terrace (complete with sun loungers, shelters,
tables and chairs) and, by default, you essentially have your own private bathroom; it is also next to the handwashing facilities. Of course you also have the roof terrace pretty much to yourselves, whilst this terrace happens to be just about the highest point in town giving 360 degree views over all. All rooms have good sized lockers - requiring a padlock. There is free drinking water and somewhat watery coffee, tea and biscuits 24hrs. There is also a communal kitchen. Hell, there's even a bbq. They'll store your packs for free if you want to wander off for a few days.
A slightly more expensive private room option (390p-490p, the latter has a private terrace) is the charming Hostel Ponchon on Carmen just off Palacious (a fifteen minute walk up hill from the 2nd class/western bus station) - great outdoor communal areas, guest use kitchen and friendly scene . Here they also have dorms (4, 6- and 8-bed) that get cheaper as the number of beds increases (170, 160, 150/pp, respectively). All rooms have mid-sized lockers and they'll loan you a padlock. The bonus here is the free breakfasts of roll and eggs in some format (scrambled, fried
and omelette when we stayed), fruit salad, and limitless good coffee (breakfast times only, 8.30-10.00am). They also have a book exchange and free drinking water, plus the staff are a font of knowledge.. The downside is that the number of toilets is limited given the number of potential residents; showers are less of an issue.
A note here: thus far no hostel has negotiated on price (it is high season) and most clearly list their rates. Several do have slightly lower rates for walk-ins but, and I hate to say it, there is little to deter people from booking on-line. Apparently many hostels suck up the booking commission and this isn't passed on to the punter.
Walking up to the Mayan site atop Monte Alban is totally do-able (12 mile round trip), but (for safety) stick to the road winding up from the right. 100p entrance fee to the ruins.
Mercado de 20th Novembre is the place for reasonable food: tamales, bbq'd meat fests, hearty soups and Tlayudas (huge crispy wafer thin tortillas piled with goodies). Small bottled beers (330ml) are 25p.
Although the smaller market very close to Hostel Ponchon has a litre of freshly squeezed
orange juice for 30p and 'yellow cafe' does amazing tortes and sandwiches - the cook has aspirations for higher things, given his artful presentation.
Cheapest beers: mini markets or the chains - once again look out for special offers on multiple buys. Best deal we found: 2x1.2L Coronas/Indio for 60p (don't lose your bottles - these have deposits: keep your receipt); 500ml Indio cans for 14p each.
Getting there required a collectivo (shared taxi, 25p/pp ) to Tlacolula and then a further one up into the hills to Beneto Jaurez (min. 25p/pp). Well, that was the route suggested to us. A far better option is a public bus (50p) from the 2nd class bus station all the way up to the neighbouring village of Cuajimoloyas. Public buses only leave (for return to Oaxaca) from Cuajimoloyas and Llano Grande. These towns also have camionettas that go back to Tlacolula (30p) and from here to Oaxaca by bus is 18p.
Cabanas are 600p; dorms 200p.
SAN JOSE DEL PACIFICO.
Mini buses leave from Eclipse on Lopez (nr junction with Aldama/Rayon): 110p
Hostel la Cumbra: from minibus stop go 20yds up hill, take dusty
road to right (between restaurant and shop), head uphill (steep) take left hand fork. Go past shop on left and then up stairs by the pile of white sacks. Is only a 5 min. walk but a tiring one. Cost (high season): 150p/dorm; private double bed room w/o bathroom 200, w bathroom 330-350p
There are however a number of other hostel alternatives, many of which are very cheap with better rooms, but lack the perfect sunset view (you can sneak into La Cumbra for this). Hostel Evelin (near a shop and restaurant) slightly down and to the right (on the way up) of La Cumbra has dorms from 50p and private rooms w/o bath 100, (w bath 150?). Wander a bit along the road to San Mateo and you'll find even cheaper deals.
Tamazcals - spiritual saunas (last 2hrs) are meant to be torture. Concrete igloos, pitch black, repeated addition of hot (very hot) stones on which medicinal water is repeatedly added until all present swoon..... There is also chanting. Cost approx. 150-200p/ pp communal or 500 for one or two peeps. Clothing is optional.
Cheapest beers in town are 20p / 500ml can or 30p per
950ml Carona bottle (big deposit on these). Bars will charge min. 25p/ 330ml bottle.
Mushroom season is not now: those available at this time of year are either preserved in honey or dried and are not particularly potent; although, equally, others have sourced some dynamite "teas".
Walk to hill top takes about an hour - no views though; walk to San Mateo by road 1.5-2 hrs, by river route (best way) 2+ hrs. For the river walk head down hill from town until you are past all the houses (about 3/4km) and look for two paths/rough roads coming off almost together to the left. The second will (about 1km) take you to the river. The path criss-crosses the river (stepping stones where required). Approx. 1km ascent into San Mateo at end. If knackered there are taxis back for 150p or camionettas (if numbers greater than 5) 30p/pp - can get shop (with taxi sign) near town square to order for you.
In San Mateo there is a tiny organic (home) brewery (below church - look for large aluminium tank with conical top) - 35p per 330ml bottle, flavours include pale ale, pale ale with agave, stout, wheat
beer.... Depends what she's brewed recently (the Spanish lady proprietor was away when we visited and "the pub" was overseen by a charming Costa Rican guy). There is also, at the top of town - over the bridge and turn off to the right - Casa de la Abuela. Accom 300p w/o (composting shared). 400p w/ bath - lovely romantic rooms for couples, all have fires. Place is famed for good food (is a wood-fired pizza oven - Sat only) and a mezcal and cinnamon cocktail - although no idea as to food prices as it closes at 1pm on a Sunday (they did serve us beer though). They also do Ayahuasca ceremonies! Beer (330cl) is 20p - that's pretty good for a remote place.
ZIPOLITE (more to follow in subsequent blog).
Mini buses leave from 'the street' San Jose hourly to the junction town of Pochutla, cost 110p, journey duration 3-3.5hrs. From Pochutla catch a camionetta (shared canopied trucks) 12p to Zipolite or Mazunte (is further so would be about 20+p; camionettas between Zipolite and Mazunte costs 10p). Camionettas leave from behind the small church off the main street, or you can flag one down if you
see one labeled with your required destination.
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