Sunday, 21 April 2013

Cathedrals, hammocks and naked yoga

I am not going to launch straight into how I sit here in a deckchair on the beach living the life because a dog has just come and sat next to me after doing a poo just 10 metres away.
Also a small group of people have collected around an apparently very dangerous sea snake (a bite can kill within 6 minutes) that is bathing on the sand and are trying to coerce it back into the ocean.
I can assure you though that we are in paradise!

We have now been in Mexico for nearly 3 weeks and the time has flown by in a haze of churches, cathedrals, tacos, sun, sea and sand.
We arrived into Mexico City on April 4th and by our 30th minute in a country that I deem to be proper 'traveling', not the simple western vacationing of Canada and USA, we had been scammed. It is a standard that new arrivals at the airport will overpay for a taxi to the city but having been through this predicament before I felt that we had at least sourced the best price amongst the various cab operators. How did I feel when a little later I thought about the transaction and realised that I had been short changed so had in fact paid around $10 more than the most expensive ride into town.

Every city / town in Mexico is formed about the Zocalo, the town square as such. To explore the capital city we based ourselves in a converted colonial building just off the Zocalo meaning that we perfectly placed to partake in some much needed foreign tourism.
The next morning we set out for a day long walking tour of the city and as I stood in the middle of the Plaza de la Constitucion observing the historic buildings that lined all sides of one of the largest public squares in the world I took long and deep breath of the warm polluted air with that tinge of dried human p*ss and smiled contently to myself - we were now back to the real thing and back to a world where everything might not go as planned or advertised; home!
One building of note in this plaza was the cathedral. Yes it was huge and impressive but the real interesting thing about it is that it is sinking and a huge project was recently undertaken not to stem the slow destruction but to ensure that it sunk uniformly and remained intact. I am not sure what will ultimately happen to the cathedral but I imagine that it will come to rest at some point rather than disappear completely.
Due to it also being the weekend the centre of the city was awash with market stalls and other services of the indigenous Mayan populations that come down from the surrounding hills and into the capital to sell their goods. I guess it could be compared to a farmer's market back home where you can avoid the high street and buy something hand made and traditionally grown by your own kind that still embrace the ways of your ancient past. However, it would be more interesting attending farmer's market in England and seeing semi naked people dressed in palm leaves with pained skeleton faces conducting cleansing ceremonies to rid patrons of bad energy.
Also just away from the main square were the recently discovered ruins of an Aztec city that was only found when plans to build a new car park went ahead. I still find it amazing that entire complexes such as this and Forum in Rome can lay undiscovered and forgotten until they are once again found by chance and happenstance. Bonkers.

The Lonely Planet places Mexico City amongst some of the great cities in Europe and given that it was of course shaped by the conquering Spanish forces of the 16th century it is not surprising to walk around and feel like you are on a weekend city break somewhere in the home continent. (but not quite)
The architecture and city parks are very European and buildings such as the Belles Artes would be special anywhere in the world; but fortunately the Mexicans have their own way of painting a building that clearly separates their greyer cousins back home. If I already take one thing away from this country it will be that some parts of my house will be painted in the deep red, vibrant orange and bright yellows that the stones are adorned in here.
There is no way I would do it back home so why we decided to go to the primary park in Mexico City and go to the zoo on a Saturday when everybody else was out and about is beyond me but we did and it was packed but what better way is there to mix with the locals and get stuck right in to the culture? The zoo was free as I think all zoo's should be and had a great collection of animals, it had the lot. Thankfully the cages were not overly cramped and the gorilla enclosure was one of the best that I have seen. It was also amusing to take a photo of AJ at the kangaroo enclosure amongst the throngs of people to see this unique and foreign species.
The only complaint I would have is that a polar bear has no place in Latin America, let alone in an open air enclosure with little in the way of shade.

Something that became immediately apparent in Mexico was that life is all about love and the family. Never before have I seen such an openly tactile country where nobody is afraid to show anyone who cares to look in their direction how they feel about their partner. Combined with a god fearing attitude to do things in the Catholic way I think this level of amour is why there are quite a number of young families wherever you look. However everybody is content, together and seemingly loving parenthood. Of course you can see the homeless and beggars on the streets but so far we had completely safe and were thoroughly enjoying our time here and the people have been nothing but helpful and always with a smile on their face.

The underground tube network is also an experience to behold. As well as getting the public from A to B the system also acts as a place of business. A 30 minute journey can easily pass by as you watch salesmen shift all number of goods from duel ended screwdrivers to flexible pencils and buskers ranging from a blind guitar player to a man just carrying around a speaker in his backpack playing operatic music.

We decided that after 3 nights in the capital it was time to move on. Yes we probably should've stayed a little longer especially to visit the largest pyramid in the America's just a few kilometres out of town but with a lack of the Spanish language to help us along we felt it best to head south ASAP to get to the cheaper Spanish schools. On our final night I had my first beer on Latin soil. The pint was flat and didn't taste completely right - but more on that later.

Next would be one of two UNESCO listed cities in quick succession. Puebla was designed as the first perfect city in Mexico - which translates to it being built purely as a Spanish colonists only city, no indigenous allowed.
Generally the hostel / hotel booking websites are reliable when it comes to accommodation descriptions but the Hotel San Pedro was not exactly as described. Upon arrival the non English speaking 'boy' who was the only person around asked us how much we were supposed to pay. The booking was on my laptop so I said I would use the advertised wifi to call the details up. The said wifi didn't exist so I found myself loitering outside of another hotel opposite to take advantage of theirs which fortunately did not require a password.
The price was agreed so I got out my card to pay for the room to find that only cash could be accepted. In basic Spanish we got some directions to a bank and of course I was sent in completely the wrong direction. A full hour after arrival we finally got into our room / dungeon. It is funny how this room didn't appear on the website. I wouldn't really have minded that much except that during the bus journey there I was beginning to suffer from quite disturbing stomach cramps - damn beer.

What to say about Puebla itself? Colourful, beautiful and pleasant would sum it up. It is a tourist town for the Mexican's and the Zocalo has a certain Covent Garden meets Leicester Square feel to it with the numerous entertainers trying to make a few pesos amongst the gardens and fountains in its centre. There was plenty to see and the town tourist map had over 60 items listed including the obvious churches, cathedrals, museums and galleries.
During our first day we visited the main catherdral (huge), a colonial house noted for its internal walls displaying European style frescos but painted with local Mayan techniques, the grandest and most exquisite library you ever likely to see (just the type that will one day appear in Mansion Lambert) and finally the Chapel of the Rosary - listed as the most beautiful chapel in the world.
Was it the most beautiful? I am not sure but it was certainly impressive. The entire chapel was covered in the most intricately carved stonework and the entire thing was decorated in gold and gold leaf. Being an atheist I don't care for churches or places of worship and my views on religion are not positive, but I can still appreciate the architecture that is on display. What I didn't like about the chapel was the sheer level of opulence on show. It really irks me that the people that truly rule the world and preach about sin and the suffering of others do it from the surroundings of such riches where there are no doubt little boys locked up below deck for later. Sell off all of the treasures, clear world debt, give the money away to the needy and get back to basics! Amen brothers and sisters!!
With this view in mind you would think that I would have gotten myself out of the chapel quick-snap. No such luck. We were sat on the front pew and as I literally raised one bum cheek to leave the tour guide announced his arrival and set about his 40 minute dialogue in Spanish hemming us in.

During this day my stomach cramps diminished giving way a lovely condition that characterised itself as an anal waterfall that would strike exactly 20 minutes after every drink or meal. But more on this later!

Being a tourist town and considering that there were over 60 'to see' items on the map we thought it only right that we should take the open top tour bus. The commentary was all in Spanish so I can't tell you much about what I saw but what I can tell you is this:
  • The town really is a nice place to be - streets upon streets of multi-coloured houses and churches
  • It was hot - so much so that the visiting Mexicans even resorted to using a flannel or tissues as head protection - daft
  • Puebla sits in a valley and viewing the 3 volcanoes that surround the city from the top of a hill on the outskirts of the city was special (I can't wait until we get close up and personal with some volcanoes later in this trip)
  • Health and safety doesn't count for shit here - I wasn't paying attention and was nearly scalped by the electric cables that hang so low that you had to duck as the bus drove by. Seriously, it whacked me on the head whilst I wasn't looking.
On our final night in Puebla Arancha tucked into a traditional dish from the area - chicken coated in chocolate and sesame. I can't say that we were fans of this dish as it was quite sickly and talking of sickly I had to have chicken and chips as I was dealing with my own sickly chocolate dish!!

Next stop Oaxaca (pronounced Wahacka). Yet another UNESCO listed city but not nearly as beautiful as Puebla. However I preferred it.
Oaxaca is a major Spanish school location and so you walk around seeing many white faces but with that relaxed student energy about the place. We were staying in a great little hostel where all the rooms faced into the private sheltered courtyard that served a great breakfast out of traditional Mayan crockery. The simple things!
The Zocalo in Oaxaca really showed that this is the central place of each Mexican town and city. Each night the Zocalo was packed with locals, tourists and clowns alike (the Mexicans love a clown) either eating in restaurants or from the street carts or just milling about chatting and playing with the kids whilst the street musicians play away. On more that one occasion there were also full on bands belting out the hits as the locals hit the open air dance floors Samba style. A very nice place to be.
One tip though is not to play a spontaneous game of charades in the Zocalo with Arancha; you will end up looking live a div for much longer than is necessary.

My stomach had now taken a turn for the better so on our first night we entered the backstreets for a more authentic culinary experience but it wasn't the food that turned out to be memorable, it was the drink. We were introduced to the Michelada - simply a blend of beer, soy sauce and chilli juice - the result being a very fiery but tasty concoction.
The next day of course featured another church but the only Michelada to date ensured an explosive but upgraded return of my stomach issues. I now had a red and orange lava flow to contend with, with all its red hot fury!

Further adrift from the city of Oaxaca were a number of sights that we wanted to see. Having read about them we decided that one in particular would be too much trouble to get to on our own so we had to bite the bullet and take the tourist bus. How I hate tour trips and this one would live up to the reputation of ultimately taking you to the place you paid for but to all of those crap places in between where they want you to spent your money on stuff you don't really need and at inflated prices.
So the day went as follows:
  1. A visit to Arbol del Tule - a giant 2,000 year old tree that is over 9 metres in diameter. It was something that we wanted to see so this was a tick. Something I did not want to see was a Mexican toilet but it was no use - I was struggling
  2. A visit to a house famous for it hand woven goods. Arancha said that the chat about how they did the weaving and made dyes from naturally found elements was good but I did not get to see it. I spent the whole time crying in the loo along with the red tears exiting my rear
  3. I couldn't think of anything worse than alcohol at the point but the next stop was at a local distillery to see how the local Mezcal, a very strong local spirit is made and to have a tasting session. I couldn't say no so had 6 different shots of the stuff and bought a bottle!
  4. Next we moved onto some distinctly average ruins and whilst I found it both interesting and crazy that the Spanish didn't completely destroy this temple because it happened to have a the pattern of the cross running through its carvings meaning that they were possibly enlightened people, it was bloody boiling and I was dehydrated
  5. Then it was lunch time and whilst the rest of the tour group got stuck into the buffet I ordered a very plain salad. No good, within 20 minutes I still found myself wondering how long this could possibly go on for.
  6. By 2:30pm we had finally arrived at the place we had set out to visit - Hierve el Agua - a set of natural rock formations that look like petrified waterfalls. Whilst everybody else stripped off and enjoyed the naturally formed waterholes that doubled as green infinity pools overlooking the surrounding mountains we ventured further adrift and climbed down to the bottom of the waterfalls for a better look. We were rewarded with magnificent views out across the valleys and a more close up experience of these interesting formations.
The next day we scrapped the tourist trips and made our own way to another sight on the list. Due to a bout of laziness that seems to have lasted about 10 days so far we didn't get ourselves up to Monte Alban until late afternoon which turned out to be a blessing. We spent 2 hours in near solitude exploring the magnificent remains of this huge Mesoamerican city that was over 2,000 years old. Set atop an artificially created ridge this city was exactly why I found myself wanting to be an explorer in South America as a little kid. Back in the day there was a cartoon on TV that I watched religiously called 'Lost Cities of Gold'. When they did eventually find the lost city it looked exactly like this one did and the yellow rocks and stones here did nothing to dispel the fact that this was not made out of solid gold.
We took our time and marvelled as we wondered about as well as wincing when reading about how the leaders from local villages would be rounded up and sacrificed to the gods; only after being castrated first.
Forget castration, cauterising my bum shut was what was required. The good thing was that after 6 days it finally did stop and even though it wasn't pleasant I did lose some weight so silver linings and all that.

Already we were a little over churches and cities so we were looking forward to getting over to the southern coast of Mexico. Even though we were getting by with our tourist Spanish we had decided that we would make our way into Guatemala to attend Spanish school before coming back in to Mexico to explore the Yucatan and white sandy beaches of the Gulf in the north.

The bus to the coast was the safest way but given that it was more expensive and took 4 hours longer we thought that it made sense to take one of the local shuttle buses up and over the mountains. Along with 2 withered old Mexican ladies we clambered into the minibus who I am sure also hadn't paid $20 each for the pleasure of sitting in a seat that wasn't properly screwed to the floor so that every time we went around a corner or braked it felt as though I was on my own personal rocking chair.
Did I enjoy this 6 hour sweaty journey up and over the mountains in the state of Oaxaca - no! Why somebody would want to overtake a lorry on a mountainous road with a large drop on one side around a blind bend at close to the speed of sound is beyond me but when we stopped for a break by a shack on the mountainside and we saw how bald the tyres actually were I decided that it was what it was so I just had to keep my head down, read and not look at the road.
To top it off one of the old ladies shared her fruit with us and whatever type of fruit it was smelled and tasted of farts. We sneakily pretended to be dropping the pips out of the window but really we were dropping the fruits one by one like a stinky trail for a blind Hansel and Gretel. Yuk.
But we made it!!!!

Our hostel was another example of internet fact and fiction but this time it worked very much in our favour. We thought that we had booked to stay in the sleepy little seaside town of Puerto Escondido but fortunately, because Puerto was not the best place I have seen, we were 15 minutes down the road in La Punta, a dirt road of a village set by the beach with a little row of restaurants and bars that would do us just nicely.
We spent 3 days in La Punta and it can be summarised quite easily as follows:
  • Each day we caught a collectivo (a communal open backed van that acts as a bus) into Puerto Escondido and after lunch would walk the 3 miles back to 'home' along the beach
  • The whole look and vibe of the Mexican south coast is a fine mix between Goa, India and Thailand and the restaurants and bars at night support this very much chilled out lifestyle
  • The sea was un-swimmable - it is all about the surf here which is why there are quite a few Aussies dotted about. I don't think I have ever seen waves that big
  • Our hostel had a great roof top where each night we would do our 30 min skipping session (you have to keep fit on the road) whilst watching the sun set over the ocean followed by a Corona or 2
  • Each day consisted of searing heat, blue skies and palm trees - nice
To bring us to our current location we packed our bags and in the high heat of the early morning we headed to the highway to flag down the local rickety public bus.
50 minutes later we exited the bus and stood by a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately there was a taxi on standby and after brief negotiations we both got a decent deal out of it with no short-changing in sight.
As we turned off the highway and made our way through the dense bush along dusty roads we looked at each other with raised eyebrows and wondered if yet again we had been duped by the internet?

We needn't have feared because as we turned onto the 'high street' we knew we had chosen correctly. Playa Zipolite is my Utopia and exactly the sort of the place I could disappear to and not be heard from again for quite a while.
We were staying at the Posada Mexico and quite simply it was a collection of beach cabins all with a deckchair and hammock and a view of the beach. A seriously strenuous 10 second walk would take us from our hammock through the bar and restaurant area and out onto the beach. Zipolite beach was itself perfect, still giving off that sense of being in Goa but even more laid back if that is possible and was essentially a 2 kilometre stretch of golden coloured sand hemmed in at each end by a headland and lined with rickety beach huts, restaurants and palm trees.

Zipolite is also known for retaining its hippie culture of the 1970's and many a hippy could be observed during the day or at night time selling their homemade wares. The one well known fact that somehow managed to pass us by was that Zipolite was one of Mexico's very few nude beaches, although it didn't take long for us to see this in a very much first hand manner.
Obviously being exhausted from the 90 minute journey to our new home was were recuperating in the deckchairs on the beach when a naked woman walked by and cheerily said 'Hola'. We both looked at each other and laughed and thought nothing more of it; so we were staying on a nudist beach, no worries.
However, the woman then stood directly in front of us and began to chant at the ocean before launching into a full on yoga session with some very flexible manoeuvres that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. For me the funniest moments of this 1 hour epic were:
  1. One particular pervy Mexican guy walked by at least 3 times and would stop to decide upon the best route to take so that he could get the best view
  2. A fellow nudist guy walked by and for a brief moment Arancha wasn't telling me off for looking!
  3. The woman attempted to do a handstand and toppled over into a crab position and so it was there winking at us
The following 6 days followed in a blur of nakedness and beach action such as one guy lying with his leg as wide open as possible exposing his massive ball sacks. The almost horizontal attitude of the people here also makes Zipolite a gay friendly destination so it is not uncommon to see an old white male walking along with a young tanned Mexican guy.

The evenings passed us by with a little more umph. For our first evening we decided to explore the 'high street' which was little more than a 50 metre stretch of road lined with restaurants that all encroached onto the actual tarmac at night along with the hippie stalls to create something akin to a food festival.
We made sure that we enjoyed what was on offer and helped it all down with a couple of glasses of red wine before heading back for a relatively early night. Back at our gaff we got talking to another of the guests, Sara from LA, who we had seen about but during introductions all I could think about what that my dreaded stomach issues wanted to make a comeback. I promise this is the last of these tales but this is what travels can be about, it needs to be told.
I rushed off to the loo and realised that I was to expel this bug with a fury that left me not knowing which way to turn. There was a duel-ended explosion and I was left with more tears in my ears as I sat there with my head in the waste paper bin. Do you know what is the worst thing about Mexico? You can't flush your loo paper down the toilet so it has to be discarded into the bins!
Fortunately this bin was relatively empty (until I was done with it) but what was in there made me retch all the more!! Ha ha, it was gross.

With a clean bill of health we arranged with the Sara the next evening to catch a taxi along the coast to the mostly southerly point of the state of Oaxaca to watch the sunset. After a very muggy walk through the bush we emerged onto the breezy headland with a perfect vantage point to watch the glowing deep orange orb of the sun settle over the horizon. We didn't actually get to see the sun set along with the other loving couples dotted along the coastline as Sara wanted to move on whilst the sun was still in the sky (I have given her some stick about getting us out there to then leave before the finale) but we have many, many more sunsets ahead of us so we weren't actually that fussed.
After another sweaty bush walk we emerged onto a small beach full of locals either surfing or playing football and we settled ourselves into a restaurant for a superb meal of fish cooked in orange, lemon and chilli.
I am already a little over refried beans, rice and tacos so this fish went a long way to satisfying me. Overall the food in Mexico has been really good and you can always get hold of a western dish if required but we have been told that this is as good as it gets in central America. From Guatemala down to Panama it becomes decidedly more limited - but we shall see.

The following evening will be one those evenings that will be remembered on this trip and one that can only ever truly happen in a traveling environment. One of our neighbours, Nick from London came to introduce himself to us and we had a good old chat about home before heading out to meet Sara on the beach to take advantage of happy hour - which is more of a happy evening in these parts, 17:30pm - 22:30pm.
Before we knew it the 4 of us had downed a few cocktails and beers under the open starry sky and decided to move the party into 'town'. Later that evening after a few random conversations with the locals the party moved back to Sara's prime suite that had double doors that opened up to look out over the beach and there we partied good and proper until about 5am the next morning.

As for the next few days well they just passed us by like the tick-tock of the swinging the hammock; we did absolutely nothing apart from walk the beach, sit of the beach and partake in our 30 minute skipping ritual every evening to the amusement of others.

Tonight we are finally tearing ourselves away from the southern coast and are heading north on a sleeper bus to the town of San Cristobal, along with Nick, before heading further north to the delights of the Yucatan peninsular such as Mayan ruins in the jungle and the beaches on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier in the post I mentioned that we were supposed to be heading into Guatemala for some schooling. Given that Mexico is so tourist friendly and backpacking plans are there to be broken we have decided to complete Mexico, travel down the east coast into the Caribbean like country of Belize before then hitting Guatemala and the study. Why not!



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