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Published: September 17th 2008
More Mayan Magic
Sometimes you get a good feeling about a place and know you're going to love it; that's what happened with us in Mexico
, as from the moment we arrived we felt right at home, and throughout our 2 weeks in the country, as we got to know more of Mexico, it just got better and better.
Palenque was the first stop. The journey from Flores in Guatemala involved 7 hours of travel on roads that when they were paved they were good but when unpaved they were very bad. The border runs along the Rio Usumacinta, but there was no bridge between the countries at the point where we crossed, so we had to enter Mexico by boat - a very scenic way to arrive.
The town of Palenque exists mostly for tourism but unlike at some tourist spots in Guatemala we didn't get the feeling that everyone was trying to overcharge us. The big attractions in this area are the Mayan ruins. Having already seen the Mayan sites at Copan and Tikal, we were familiar with Mayan hieroglyphics and temples, but each Mayan site is unique in its own way, and the first sight
of buildings such as the Temple of the Inscription
in Palenque takes your breath away.
Like Tikal, Palenque is surrounded by dense forest. After exploring the main temples we went walking in the forest and were rewarded with our first view of howler monkeys
. It's a scary experience the first time you hear these monkeys, as the sounds are so loud, and the howls so deafening that you think a pride of lions is about to attack.
Zapatistas, sacrificed chickens and a beautiful colonial town
There's no doubt we´ve seen stunning colonial cities over the past 12 months on this trip, such as Granada, Antigua, Sucre, Cartagena and Salta, but the best of them all was San Cristobal de las Casas
. After the heat of the jungle, it was great to get back to the cooler mountain air in San Cristobal, which lies at 2100m altitude. The town is well set up for tourists, with many good hotels and restaurants, while there is much to see all over town, with its beautiful, bright coloured churches probably the highlight.
In addition to its beauty, San Cristobal is known for its politics. In 1994 the town was taken
Just one of the many fine churches in San Cristobal.
over by the Zapatistas
, in a rebellion aimed at giving a voice to the grievances of indigenous people in Chiapas province. The government responded by sending in the army and a ceasefire was declared after a couple of weeks. However, the two sides have found it hard to agree ever since, and progress has been slow as the government seems reluctant to meet Zapatista demands. The Zapatistas look the part - their spokesman and leader is Subcomandante Marcos, who is rarely seen without his mask, pipe, or penguin mascot! There are many shops selling Zapatista souvenirs in San Cristobal, and you can even watch movies about the rebellion in small cinemas in some local bars restaurants.
A popular day trip from San Cristobal is to the traditional village of San Juan de Chamula
. There is a church in Chamula but there is no evidence of Catholicism in this town, home to the Tzotzil people, whose ancient rituals and ceremonies take place inside the church. The church looks normal enough from afar, though some of the facade design reflects local art and beliefs. But it's inside where things get interesting. We weren't allowed take photos in the church as the
Local girl in San Juan de Chamula
This is Victoria, who lives in San Juan de Chamula and makes a living selling souvenirs to tourists.
locals believe this steals spirits, but the scene was fairly unforgettable so I'll attempt to describe it here: After entering the church you are greeted by music, chanting and incense. There are no pews, no pulpits or no priests. Two rows of musicians playing accordions and guitars, while the floor of the church is covered in pine leaves. On both sides of the church are pictures of saints above tables of candles, some of which have mirrors which I think are supposed to deflect evil spirits.
Another group of musicians play maracas on one side. Near them is a large group of women sitting on the floor doing something with textiles and fabrics. Moving further along up the church we see men standing around tables ironing coloured ribbons which they wear around their neck.
Towards the front of the church there is more concentration on prayer. Individuals & families sit or kneel on the pine leaves in front of lit candles and sing, chant or talk aloud. I think the candles represent family members or loved ones. We also see Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles - I'm not sure what these are used for, presumably some sort of
Returning to the back of the church we see a woman carrying a live chicken. She moves it slowly over the candles in front of her, then holds it on both sides of her son's head. But the chicken doesn't live much longer as she wrings its neck in what I assume is some sacrifice to the spirits. She does a poor job of it as the chicken continues to move it's body slowly for a few minutes longer before dying. We spot many more chickens on their way to a similar end. Fairly horrible to watch but also slightly intriguing.
We didn't have a guide so I don't really understand the whole ceremony, but it was fascinating to observe. Any religion seems strange at first to those who nothing about it, but this one was especially different. It's fascinating how they've incorporated images of saints, everyday products like coca cola, and even the church into their ceremonies.
A taste of Oaxaca
The Mexican food you eat outside Mexico is very different to what you have here in the country. Like the Englishman who goes to India and finds the curries not quite to
We left all our present shopping for Mexico and did much of it in one day at the Tlatoluca ?? market near Oaxaca.
his taste, it took me a while to get used to the different dishes of Mexico at first. Much of the food in Mexican restaurants outside the country is in reality Tex-Mex, so if you hope to see this everywhere in Mexico you'll probably be disappointed.It was the dishes I didn't know about that really impressed. Such as Chile en Nogadas
, a delicious concoction of mince stuffed in peppers, covered by pomegranates, with a rich white sauce, colours which make it resemble the Mexican flag.
Oaxaca is well known for it's exotic food (worms, ants and grasshoppers are popular dishes) and while I wasn't as brave as Ruth in trying fried grasshoppers, I did try Oaxaca's best-known food, chicken in mole sauce. Mole
comes in all different colours, with the black version supposedly containing over 20 ingredients. My unrefined palate could only distinguish one - chocolate - which tasted a little strange with chicken and rice. It's an acquired taste but an interesting experience nonetheless. Mezcal is the big drink in these parts and this being Oaxaca it's no surprise to find that many of the best bottles contain a worm.
Mexican food surprised me and so did
Mexican drink. Tequila
is the one drink that everyone associates with Mexico, and most people, myself included, have memories of painful tequila fuelled hangovers. However, the best tequila is supposed to be savoured and enjoyed slowly - and allegedly it will not give you a hangover. It's the cheaper stuff, full of sugar, and drunk in shot glasses and accompanied by lemon and salt, that non Mexicans know best and that gives tequila its reputation.
Like San Cristobal, Oaxaca is a great place to spend 4 or 5 days, with plenty to see in town, and even more in the surrounding region. Perhaps the best known site is Monte Alban
, where the ruins of a Zapotec village stand on an impressive ridge overlooking the valleys of Oaxaca. We also visited the Sunday market at Tlacolula, where you can buy everything from tequila to grasshoppers to hammocks.
Final stop - Mexico City
Mexico City may be one of the world's largest cities but it was surprisingly accessible and didn't feel quite so big as say London or New York. The suburbs stretch for miles and miles but with so many sights in the central area, not to mention
Evening in Mexico City
View from the top of the Torre LatinoAmericano at sunset.
the hotels and bus stations being so central, it wasn't so daunting at first. We gave ourselves 9 days in the city and planned to take a few day trips but in the end we ended up spending most of our time seeing sights in the city centre. Not only because there much to see in the city, but also because we were quite tired after 11 months of travel and not too keen to take any more buses.
Our hostel offered free walking tours of the city so that's what we did the first day. Until that morning, I had no idea that Mexico City was once a small island on a large lake, and that the Spaniards drained the lake after they arrived and defeated the Aztecs. If you're wondering why so many buildings appear to be leaning in the city, it's because they were built upon this drained land. The Spanish built over or destroyed most of the Aztec buildings, but some temples have been excavated, the most impressive of which is the Templo Mayor
, where there's an excellent museum in addition to the ruined temples.
The highlight of the tour was seeing the Diego
Rivera murals in the Palacio Nacional. Rivera, along with his wife Frida Kahlo, is one of Mexico's best known artists. After studying in Paris he returned to Mexico and in an attempt to make art accessible to everyone he painted hundreds of murals, which can be seen all over the city. He tackled all manner of subjects, but the most prominent themes are Mexican history and left wing politics.
It's the things you almost miss that give Mexico City its charm. Everyone goes to the Zocalo (main square) to see the Palacio Nacional and Cathedral, but it's very easy to miss the workmen who sit on the western edge of the church, offering carpentry or plumbing services, a tradition almost as old as the city itself. Or the scribes who sit along one side of Plaza Santa Domingo writing official business letters, or love letters (as in Love in the Time of Cholera
). Though from a quick a walk through the arches, it seems that Fake IDs are what bring in most business nowadays. But it's another example of an ancient tradition that still lives in the modern madness and mayhem of Mexico City.
For a brief escape
One of the great sights of Mexico, you can see him everywhere!
from the centre, we went out to Coyoacan
, an upmarket suburb in the south of the city, where we saw two fascinating museums. The Leon Trotsky museum is the only memorial anywhere in the world to the famous Russian Revolutionary. Trotsky is one of those characters whom everyone has heard of, but about whose life perhaps not so much is known. He moved to Mexico in 1938, and lived initially with Diego Rivera and Frida Kalho in Coyoacan before moving to a another house in the same area. There he lived until 1940 when he was murdered by an ice-pick wielding Stalinist agent. The house where he lived is now a fascinating museum about him and especially about his time in Mexico. You can see the room where he was killed (though the ice-pick is long gone!) The Frida Kahlo museum was equally impressive and a good introduction to one of Mexico's most interesting personalities.
Walking home one evening we found ourselves in the middle of a huge march, surrounded by thousands of people wearing white shirts. These people were taking part in an anti-crime rally, protesting against the security situation in the country, which has seen almost 3000
people killed and hundreds kidnapped in 2008. I read later that 150,000 had taken part in the march in Mexico City, in addition to hundreds of thousands more in other cities across the country. Hearing about the number of deaths a bit of a shock to us, as Mexico appeared a very safe place based on what we'd seen. Perhaps tourists are insulated from all the violence, but the people marching certainly felt they weren't.
The end of an adventure
The days just flew by as we visited the famous Anthropology Museum, climbed the Torre LatinoAmericano, visited the spot where Cortes first met Montezuma, and in general just walked about and discovered a fascinating city. Another day was spent at Teotihuacan
seeing the astonishing pyramids. Teotihuacan means "Place of the Gods", a name given by the Aztecs who discovered the site and couldn't believe that such monuments were man made.
We also visited the famous Basilica de Guadalupe, an important shrine to Mexicans, and the second most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, containing the famous cloak on which the apparition supposedly appeared suddenly. The story goes that Mary appeared to an indigenous man who was
Alicia is a local girl in San Juan de Chamula, who sat down beside us outside the church. We saw her later outside a cafe so invited her to join us. Like many in Chamula, she speaks a Mayan dialect as first language and Spanish second.
out walking one day, and she told him to build a church in that spot. She gave him flowers which were not native to Mexico as proof of her appearance, so the man put the flowers in his coat. When he opened his coat in front of the bishop, the flowers were gone and in their place was the image of the virgin! I think you'd have to be a very devout Catholic to accept this story as the image is obviously a painting and the story a clear fabrication designed to convert the indigenous people.
So Mexico was our final stop in what has been a fantastic year in Latin America. We started our trip 12 months ago in one great city, Buenos Aires, and appropriately, we ended it in another great one, Mexico City. The last days of the trip were a combination of excitement at returning home and sadness at leaving. The trip may have only lasted a year but the memories will last a lifetime.
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