Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hard Yakka

We stayed at a nice place near Chichen Itza but had to share the pool with the ducks. The place was run entirely by young men in matching yellow T shirts. As there were about four of them and most of the guests headed off early in the morning to visit the site and didn't return until late in the day, they were able to spend most of the day hanging about in hammocks or watching their favourite Tele Novelas (Mexican Soap Operas). We had to wake one up one day to get a margarita.
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Tulum II

Tulum has a great beach and that's the main attraction. Most people come for the beach and the scuba diving on the barrier reef off shore or in the cenotes (sink holes and underground caves). Chris did swim in a cenote and Pat had his first swim in the Caribbean but since we don't have our diving certificate and we discovered that beaches are beautiful to look at but hanging around them puts sand in your pants, we used the stay here to relax, read, and have a holiday from the hard work of being on a holiday.
The Barmacia helped relieve some of our stress too!
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Set on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan peninsula these Mayans had a pretty idyllic spot. Plenty of beaches and sunshine. The site was small, clearly an outpost but interesting. It was so packed with tourists though that we quickly gave up and headed back to the bar.
We returned later, just before closing, and managed to enjoy it much more.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009


We stayed the weekend of 28 March in Campeche. We went there because we read that it was a 'colonial gem, by the sea, not yet overrun with tourism'. It had an interesting history- attacked over 15 times by various pirates and sacked a few times until they built the fortress walls. It was also colourful and beautiful in the colonial centre. But...

Nothing much open, mostly ordinary restaurants, almost non- existent services. And on Sunday it was like being in the city in Hobart on a Sunday- nothing happening.

We did enjoy the pan de cazon though- A sort of lasagne dish made with layers of tortilla, shredded shark meat and tomato sauce. We will have to try that with our lasagne day group.
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A ball game was popular throughout mesoamerica. The ball court was in the shape of a capital letter I. The rules and objectives seemed to vary over time and in different cultures/regions but they almost all seem to have had it. The pictures show one at Monte Alban, one at Palenque and one (the largest discovered) at Chichen Itza. In Chitzen Itza there were seven players to a side. They could hit the ball (hard rubber) with just about anything accept hands and the objective was to knock the ball through the ring on the wall. Looks impossible to me.

The game was important ceremonially and at various times was used to settle disputes rather than fight. That sounds good, but in some cultures they sacrificed the loosers and sometimes the winners (offering the strongest and best to the gods)
Maybe this is why Mexico will never win the world cup?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009


A very long bus trip trip took us from San Cristobal to Palenque. The usual road was closed for some reason, and the alternate route (as well as a flat tyre) meant that a five hour trip turned into a 9 hour trip. We also were stopped to have guards (with assault rifles) check the bus & search inside all the luggage in the hold of the bus. We were tired when we arrived & (as happens when you are tired) I didn' t realise that I had left my (prescription) sunglasses on the bus. They are now gone forever. But Carolann will appreciate the joy of me chosing new ones at some stage when we hit a larger city.
One of the only reasons for going to Palenque was to visit the massive Mayan ruins there. They did not disappoint.
We went from the cool hills of San Cristobal, towards the Yucatan penninsula, & into the jungles surrounding Palenque. It was hot. We caught the local bus (a colectivo) up to the ruins early in the morning & spent until about 3.00 exploring the ruins. Inspite of drinking a lot of water we both felt rather dehydrated after we got back, so we did what any sensible person would do: we drank two margaritas each.
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San Cristobal Chiapas

Our next stop was San Cristobal. We stayed there three nights. It is a small place up in the hills, and is a favourite destination for European travellers, although we never quite worked out why. Our accommodation felt like an old Europeran hunting lodge. Lots of wooden floors, & old wooden furniture & panelled ceilings. The whole place creaked when anyone moved about. The most remarkable aspect of our stay in San Cristobal was our trip up to the villages of Chamula & Zinacantan. They are both indigenous towns, proudly hoplding on to their heritage, teaching their own language in their schools. We went with a guide who had been visiting the villages for 18 years. He spoke some of the language & clearly knew a lot of the locals who were friendly to him & on a couple of ocasions offerred him & us some home made posh (cane spirit) to share. We would not have intruded without him. The villages can be visited using a tour group, which is totally inappropriate.
The villages are still somewhat isolated & visits to the church are somewhat controlled which is the only thing saving them I think.
They hold to their own form of religion, which is a strong mix of their own, melded with the Catholic religion. In each village elders are chosen to perform religious ceremonies from shrines put together at their own houses. We went into one & tasted the home made posh from a Corona bottle. There was no one there, but the insence was still warm & aromatic. The shrine had pine needles spread over the floor & a curtain of vines in front of the alter where the baby Jesus doll lay under a green velvert blanket with a gold fringe. There were gourds made into shakers to conduct the singing & control a small gathering.The crosses were all decorated with pine branches.
We then went down into the village church. It is a big church, called the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. It was built & still operates as a Catholic church, but one where the local customs of the people have to be tolerated.This includes the priest having to tolerate chickens being sacrified during the service. Apparently there is a fairly high attrition rate of local priests. We happened to go to the church on a Tuesday, which is the day that the healers usually come to the church. They chant & use eggs & sacrifice chickens to help heal the sick. When we walked into the church we saw a carpet of pine needles (changed weekly on a Wednesday), and rows, & groups of candles stuck directly onto the floor, all over the floor, lighting the church. (Apparently the church had already burned down once). There were small groups of people seated all over the floor of the church. There were no pews, or chairs. Some were family groups there to worship & drink posh together in the church afterwards, but most were groups with a healer. We saw the healers chanting & waving eggs over people. Each group had brought along a chicken to be sacrified in the church. The evil of the sickness is passed on to the chicken in the ceremony & then the chicken is killed. We heard one being sacrificed, but did not see it happening. There was a lot of insence, dust, dim lighting & smoke from the candles, chanting, lots of people (drinking posh, & offering us some) & chickens. The walls were bare, except for statues of the Catholic saints behind glass along one of the side walls, and a statue of San Juan Bautista at the alter. It was mesmerising. Then a tour group arrived.We left.

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Oaxca 3 Monte Alban

Just outside of the city of Oaxaca is a high plateau with the Zapotec city of Monte Alban on top. Well, it's not really a plateau. They cut the top off and flattened it to expand the city. This was, at one time the main city of the Zapotecs. A close look at the carving seems to indicate a figure with his intestines hanging out. There was a collection of these sort of carvings that are perhaps sacrificed captives.

The city was abandoned for unknown reasons but remained a sacred site. Perhaps the fact that it has no natural water limited its ability to sustain a large population. But we reckon it was just too hot. It certainly was the day we were there.
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Oaxaca 2

From Oaxaca we went on two day trips. The first one took us past Arbol Tule. A very large tree over 2000 years old, not the oldest tree in the world but the oldest in mexico - and a grand tree it was. Then on to a limestone (solid) water fall (like a huge stalagtite) & later to the ancient Mayan ruins of Mitla. People were swimming in the limestone water pools, on the edge of the cliff, near the waterfall. Not us. We also went to a place where we saw Mescal being made and had some tastings. Oaxaca is the home of Mescal and there are many small family distilleries along the roads. Complete with donkey pulling an enormous grindstone to crush the maguey. It was rougher than a good tequila but flavourful and powerful.

The second trip took us up into the mountains to a little indigenous town called Benito Jaurez. We then walked along some trails through the mountains, some of which linked the old villages. Benito Juarez only had electricity into the town & a road about two to three years ago. The place we ate in the town was run by a few local families who took turns in cooking & running the place. Each week they rotated the family who cooked & ran the place. A sensible way to run an eating establishment. A few of the local lads were sitting at a corner table, not eating but drinking a few Coronas by the bottle, with one of the boys opening the bottles for everyone with his teeth. On the way back we stopped at a very old Catholic (of course) church. It still had some of the original frieze work done by the indigenous people under the supervision of the Spanish.

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Oaxaxa 1 Xoloitzcuitli

We spent 6 nights in Oaxaca. We stayed in a hostel with a lovely courtyard filled with trees & flowers & a small private library. There were parrots in cages. One parrot barked, the other whistled like a workman & another kept calling out for someone. The owners also had a Mexican breed of hairless dog. The breed is called Xoloitzcuitli. The dog was called Rex. He was lovely & friendly but very strange looking. He looked like a stone statue. It was weird to pat a dog and feel smooth skin. At night they put a woollen doggie coat on him. This breed is a natural mutation that dates back to pre Aztec times.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009


There is not a lot of English spoken, and the signs outside this church show some of the wonderful "Spanglish" we have seen. It would be a lot more difficult travelling around Mexico with no Spanish.
There have been some wonderful signs, & I couldn't resist taking photos of some of them:

Here are a few photos we took of signs which we thought you might enjoy.
Two of the signs were at the door of the cathedral at Puebla. We guess that the intention is that you should take your hat off & respect their religion. We did so.

An E stands for Estacionamiento (Parking). So an E with a cross through it means "No Parking". A lot of driveways have this sign on the gate, and some go further & have this other sign as well.

A lot of the premises in Queretaro had the last sign in the window.

There have been lots of interesting signs, but I think people have been looking at me strangely when I take photos of them. So I hope you enjoy the ones I have taken.

We have now been away 7 weeks. We stayed in Guanajuato (for 4 weeks), then Morelia, Patzcuaro, Ururapan, Queretaro, Puebla, and now Oaxaca. The only place we probably did not warm to was Uruapan, but we primarily stayed there to go to the volcano & village at Paricutin.
Puebla was a more hectic city. The first time we really struck cars honking & bustling crowds. One of the main churches, the church of Santa Domingo has a chapel (the Capilla de Rosario) which is described in our guide book as being a lavish orgy of gold leaf & Baroque excess. This is an understatement. It (as are a lot of the churches) is exceedingly lavish. The photos only gives a mild impression of its richness.

From Puebla we went to Cholula for the day. It is the site of the Great Pyramid of Cholula. The pyramid is now mostly buried, but there are still tunnels you can through under the pyramid. The ones that have been excavated are about 8k long. The ground area of the pyramid is larger than any in Mexico or Egypt. The Spanish didn't think much of it & pretty well destroyed & buried it & then built a Catholic church on top of it.
At Cholula we ate lunch from a street stall. Blue corn quesadillas, filled with zucchini blossoms, barbecued pea greens (I think), frijoles, and local cheese. Yumm. We didn't buy the local specialty of crispy fried grasshoppers, but have had them since as part of a meal in Oaxaca. They taste bitter, but are very crunchy indeed. Mangoes are sold on sticks, pealed & cut into a blossom shape, to make it easy to eat. Street stalls sold a chocolate drink from a large ceramic bowl, which they whipped by hand with a wooden tool. We didn't have one but have since been to the market in Oaxaca & had local drinking chocolate. We watched the chocolate being made. The drinking chocolate had cinnamon and almonds in it. Just delicious. We did eat a local confectionery made from sweet potatoes. Some are sold as whole sweet potatoes which look like they have not been pealed but just cooked in a sugar syrup.
Today we went through the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. The building itself was wonderful. It was built as a convent starting in 1572. From 1608 until 1812 it was occupied by Dominican friars. It is a massive building with amazing water catchment & storage systems, beautiful friezes, grand staircases, vaulted ceilings, courtyards with "plumeria" (which look like frangipani -same thing?), and a massive garden. Jacaranda trees and creeping bougainvillea in abundance. The weather here is perfect. Dry & warm. Life in such a convent could not have been so bad. Certainly the surroundings would help alleviate other hardships.
The climate here is so good (compared to much of the US where winters are harsh) that again there seem to be many Americans who have moved here to live. The climate & the cheaper life style. The constant news of violence in Mexico that is in the US press has not seemed to put them off, at least this far south anyway. There have certainly been some violent incidents since we have been here. Mostly drug war related. The most recent was 5 decapitated heads in
styrofoam eskies on the road outside Guadalajara. The trick is to stay away from the border towns where the US exports guns & Mexico exports drugs, stay away from drugs, & stay away from police stations. The police station and the superintendent's house in Uruapan had cluster grenades thrown into them a few days before we arrived.
However, Mexico is sunny, colourful, friendly, cheap, and has an amazingly rich history & culture, and it is not understandable why more people from Australia don't travel here. They travel to South America, but not Mexico.
PS I am not missing family law.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009


We visited Cholula where a significant city once stood including a great pyramid- larger than the pyramid's of Egypt. Unfortunately the people were allies of the Aztecs and tried to ambush Cortes. In true conquistador style, he wipe them out and leveled everything he could find, then they built churches on top of it all.
Chris had to be convinced to sit for this photo. This little alter was apparently used to sacrifice children so the gods would produce some rain!
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Monday, March 9, 2009

Volcan Paricutin

Uruapan - Paricutin
Greetings from Tired and Sore! We decided to tackle Mexico's 'newest' volcano, Paricutin. It grew out of some farm fields in the 40' and 50's. We took a bus to a little village that is entirely of Purepecha people. They are indigenous people related to the Terascans. The village maintains their traditions and language and very few people speak Spanish (let alone English) and they don't teach Spanish in the local school.
We hired a guide, Jesus, who did speak Spanish and a little English, and horses and headed off to Paricutin. Neither of us are horse riders, so we bumped along at a fairly gentle pace. When we got our first glimpse of the Volcano, we began to wonder if we had signed up for something we couldn't finish. It seemed very far away and very high.
The ride in was eerie. We rode around a great ocean of solidified lava. In places it must have been well over 100 feet deep. We rode around the edge where it just stops suddenly and forms a blacky rocky wall of lifelessness. Even after fifty years since the volcano ceased belching it out, the immediate area is covered in lava and ash and very little grows.
Two villages were buried in the lava and we visited a site where the village church pokes up above the lava.
When we got to the volcano, it was too steep for the horses so we had to scramble up over very loose lava rock. Although it's 'inactive' there were many places where steam was coming up through holes in the ground and bits of ground had been broken by the pressure of the steam. If you put your hand to one of the holes the steam was scalding hot.
We reached the top and walked around the rim. The ash making up the vocano itself was still quite hot to the touch. Fantastic views everywhere and the best way to take in the extent of the lava flow. We were the only ones there and that made it feel special too. With a steep slope into the Crater on one side and a steep slope down the volcano on the other, Pat's fear of heights kicked in and he shuffled more than walked around the rim of the crater.
The climb down was easy and fun. You just took off running down the slope. Although it was steep, The ash was soft and easy to run in.
Then back on to the horses and back to the village. We had delicious blue corn quesadillas filled with cheese and poblano chiles and couple of cokes with Jesus. All up we were gone about 7 1/2 hours with about 5 1/2 in the saddle. Everything hurts. Sit on a wine barrel for a few hours and see how your knees and the inside of your thighs feel.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Morelia and Mariposas

We are in Morelia. Another (Unesco- world heritage listed) colonial gem with buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century. Block after block of beautiful sandstone. First night we were here they decided to put on a fiesta for us, complete with traditional indigenous dancers, and fireworks and light show. The fireworks all came from the main Cathedral which was lit spectacularly. We still don't know what the celebration was but it could be the beginning of the lead up to Easter. The catholic traditions are strong and serious. On ash Wednesday, practically everyone we passed had a black cross on their forehead (charcoal) that they get when they attend church.
Yesterday we took a trip to the Monarch Butterfly reserve. We bussed to a small town called Zitacuaro and stayed overnight, The next day we took a smaller bus up the mountains further. It was a classic with many people returning to their village from the market. We didn't quite sit with chickens on our laps but the aisles were full of buckets of strawberries, avacados etc.
Beautiful views and countryside. Not at all like one's stereptypical image of Mexico. We had green fields, rich looking volcanic soil, pines and cypresses.
When we got to the town of Ocampo we had to get a little combi 'colectivo' the rest of the way up to the reserve. At the reserve we then walked about 2 kilometre in a steep climb- but all stairs and trails. The reserve itself sits at about 3,000 metres so we got a bit of hight altitude training for our Inca Trail trip.
The butterflies were an incredible sight to see. It was observing nature in its most wondrous guise. These butterflies fly down from Canada every year, 150 million of them! They lay their larvae on the plants here - then when the butterflies form, they hang around for a while, getting up their strength to make the journey to North America.
We arrived early in the morning when they were all 'asleep' hanging in the trees. The pine tree limbs bend down with the weight of all the butterflies en mass. Then, as the sun hits the branches and warms the butterflies they all fly off to get water and nectar. Millions! Absolutely incredible to see. The pictures we took don't do them justice but check them out anyway on-

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