Monthly Archives: November 2012

From the coast to the jungle, to the mountains, to the Day of the Dead and then adios to Mexico…


(Brace yourselves – it’s something of a mammoth post as we try to catch up!)

We were glad to be leaving Campeche and as we started our longest bus trip yet it felt like another leg of the journey was afoot. We were leaving the flat green expanse of the Yucatan peninsular and heading for the hills.

The ruins of Palenque were constructed at the very point these hills spring up, and we’re inclined to believe the Mayans must have liked a view – in the Yucatan about the only things peeking above the tree line are the pyramids and temples they built, and some latter-day tourist towers – if the pyramids are a sight for sore eyes, these recent additions are the eyesores, but there’s definitely something appealing about gaining some height and perspective. At Palenque there’s an impressive array of pyramids and towers nestling amongst thickly forested hills and if you can stand the heat and humidity and climb up some of these structures an appealing vista awaits…

There’s plenty to see at Palenque…

There’s also a rickety-Indiana Jones-style bridge across a river with water cascading down the slope above, and some atmospheric moss-covered old dwellings overgrown with trees…

Ancient green houses, Palenque.

It’s all very impressive but by lunch time we were finding the heat a little oppressive so headed back to the hotel for the afternoon. We’d met an Australian couple called Ben and Carley at the ruins and arranged to meet them later on for dinner – they were staying at the hippy hangout of El Panchan so after a cool swim we headed back to the jungle for a fine evening of fun and pizza amongst the fireflies. Tilly made friends with a local girl who offered her a snack – she asked us if it was vegetarian and we had to say, no, it was a fried bug! Don’t think she’d have eaten them even if she was a confirmed meat-eater!! (I’m a vegetarian, get me out of here?)

The next day brought another adventure, as we visited the nearby cascades of Misol-Ha and Agua Azul; at least we thought they were fairly nearby when we booked our bargain basement tour, but as soon as we saw our transport we knew we were in for a long journey and some chronic discomfort. The friendly guide turned up as planned and things were looking good as we walked towards a modern white minibus – he then took us past this to a ramshackle old skip of a vehicle and announced that we would all be travelling in the front seats as the tour was full. He attempted to make this sound as if it was some kind of treat but after nearly an hour with the four of us folded together like a game of tetris we were more than ready to see the first of the waterfalls. Thankfully Misol-Ha was worth the wait: a torrent of water emerging from the jungle with a path leading behind it to a cave, which in turn contains another waterfall crashing down through the darkness. The girls also got to swim in the pool at the foot of the main fall and we’d almost forgotten that we needed to contort ourselves back into position for another hour’s drive to the next stop.

Misol-Ha – the journey was no laughing matter but the view was worthy of an exclamation.

It’s not even as if we had two proper seats between the four of us – some enterprising scamp had tied an old office chair (presumably found on some local rubbish dump) between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat. (Rach thought back wistfully to worrying about using a lap-belt with a car seat when we’d pick up an extra child from school, rather than the more secure three point harness – how travel brings new perspectives!)

Given that the driver’s door also flew open whenever we went over a speed bump (and anyone who’s been paying attention will know Mexico has a lot of these!) and that the fuel light was constantly on, we were very relieved to arrive at Agua Azul with nothing worse than a total lack of feeling in several limbs. Again though, this paled into insignificance when we saw the view: a breathtaking series of turquoise pools cascading down the hill surrounded by more verdant jungle.

Agua Azul – apparently it means ‘blue water’ – to think there’s a shopping centre in Kent with the same name!

As if that wasn’t enough there was also a rope swing over one of the calm stretches of water and we had great fun flinging ourselves into the chilly pool. On the way back we dropped off two passengers who were heading in the opposite direction and we had the luxury of a seat each for the rest of the journey, as we chatted to our fellow passengers and reflected on a great day.

This part of Mexico had seen more than its fair share of trouble in the past and was the centre of the Zapatista uprising in 1994. There’s still some tensions between the local indigenous groups and the Mexican state, and the Mayan people have certainly had a raw deal over the centuries. We’d read some reports suggesting there was a potential risk in visiting the area but we were so glad we did. Mexico does seem to now be embracing its indigenous heritage, perhaps due in no small part to its tourism potential, but hopefully some of the benefits filter down to the poorer population. Being relatively wealthy tourists often feels like an uncomfortable juxtaposition but at least some of our money was going directly to local people – who knows, the Mayan tour operator driving our minibus might even be able to afford a new vehicle soon, or at least proper seats.

The next day it was time to leave Palenque and catch a bus further into the hills – cue beautiful scenery that we couldn’t fully appreciate because the winding roads made us feel travel sick! However after a couple of hours we reached Ocosingo; now I think even it’s most ardent fan couldn’t describe Ocosingo as a picture-postcard kind of place, but it did have a clown in town, which kept the girls entertained for a while. We’d stopped off here to visit the ruins at Tonina, partly on the recommendation of Kylie and Jez, who we’d met in Merida. The next day we took the local transport and arrived at the site with no problems.

Travelling pick-up class.

Tonina is quite different from the other ruins we’d visited – it’s a series of temples, pyramids and buildings built on a series of terraces climbing ever higher up a hill. You start at the bottom and climb up each level, going through tunnels, a maze of passageways and up many steps until you reach the 9th level – at this point the natural hill had run out so the ancient ruler at the time had to extend the hill with a further mound constructed to support his temple – it seems each new ruler wanted to go one higher and better than the previous one! It’s hard to give much of a sense of the place with a photo, but here’s one of some cows, quite unmooved by their surroundings!

Tonina ruins, middle of nowhere.

Jolly as all this was we had a bus to catch back in Ocosingo, and a hotel to check out of. We’d gone early to give ourselves plenty of time to get back – however we hadn’t bargained on the fact that there might not be any transport back! The nice man who’d given the girls a pony ride from the gate to the actual ruins said that ‘collectivo’ minibuses usually came every twenty minutes or so: this ‘or so’ was obviously an elastic concept as 45 minutes later no transport had arrived and we were up against it, time-wise. We ended up walking to the junction with the main road and getting a lift back to town in a pick-up; obviously we arrived back just in time to miss our bus! By the time we’d packed up, checked out of the hotel and walked up the hill to the bus station there it was, disappearing into the dusty distance. This meant we had to wait over two hours for the next bus, and Ocosingo bus station is not the easiest place to entertain two children; the most exciting thing was watching three armed security guards filling up the cash machine – thankfully this took up most of the two hours, due to the number of small bills and elastic bands involved!!

However we arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas in the evening and checked into a good hostel where we had an en-suite room with a double bed and bunk beds and a balcony. San Cristobal is at an altitude of over 2,000m so it’s really chilly at night – we’d been looking forward to a bit of cooler weather but it came as a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as there’s no heating or insulation in the hostel. They have a bonfire every night but that doesn’t help when you’re shivering in your room!

San Cristobal is a pleasant town surrounded by hills, with lots of good restaurants and lots of indigenous traders selling craft stuff. It’s a place to amble around, drinking coffee, browsing and killing time before going to the next restaurant – in short, it’s a great place for adults but not necessarily the most exciting town for kids. We traipsed far and wide trying to find a decent playground – we managed to find one that was ok, and also found a running track, where Tilly decided she wanted to start training for the next-but-one Olympics!

We’d decided to stop here for over a week, to have a base for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, and to let the girls settle down for a bit. This tactic couldn’t be described as an unqualified success however, and temper tantrums were the order of the day for all of us (in varying frequencies and magnitudes!). This led us to start thinking that a month at home over Christmas might be a good idea, to recharge our batteries, see family and friends, and find some food that the girls would eat. We were managing fine, and San Cristobal in particular had a fine selection of vegetarian options, but the girls were struggling – thank goodness for Lala Chocolate Milk, which seemed to be the main thing keeping Tilly going!

We got to meet up with Ben and Carley again though, which was great fun, particularly when they gave the girls skulls stuffed full of candy for Halloween, along with some of the traditional Day of the Dead sugar-skeleton sweets.

Two very happy Halloween girls!

In Mexico Day of the Dead is one of the biggest events of the year. It dates back to pre-Hispanic pagan rituals (originally held in August), but became combined with Christian All Saint’s Day/All Hallow’s Eve festivals, and is now held on November 1st and 2nd. It’s a time to remember and celebrate lost loved ones, and people choose to do this by making all things skeleton-related – sweets, costumes, even bread. Now however, Halloween seems to be becoming more popular, and is impinging on the more traditional Day of the Dead festivities. This is a bit of a shame, though here people seem to combine and celebrate the two events (and since they both share All Hallow’s Eve I suppose it makes sense) – hence you now see pumpkins and American horror-movie costumes in amongst the dressed skeletons that are more typical of Dia de los Muertos. However the girls had great fun and managed to find some American ex-pat children who were also trick-or-treating, and who knew the song to sing to get candy! All the kids go from shop to shop, to restaurant, to bakery to bar and sing the same song while holding out their skulls or carrier bags for sweets. Tilly and Kiah joined in and came back with a handsome haul – however, since most of it was chile-flavoured candy they wouldn’t eat it! Still, they had a great night out and their teeth didn’t take too much punishment.

One of the great things about travelling is when you meet up with people you’ve met previously and we went out for a day trip to San Juan Chamula wth Ben and Carley. We’d heard about San Juan Chamula from a Belgian girl we met on the waterfall trip from Palenque (another great thing is picking up tips from the people you meet along the way). It’s a fiercely independent town with its own version of Catholicism, and any residents who don’t adhere to it are forced to move out of town. They also sacrifice chickens in the church, where it’s strictly forbidden to take any photos. This may not seem like ideal day trip material but it was interesting, and we went there on a two hour horse ride. It was also the start of the proper Day of the Dead celebrations, which in San Juan Chamula’s case involved setting off massive fireworks every few seconds, and men swaying and chanting outside the church, glassy-eyed from some concoction they were all drinking. Inside the church was a fug of smoke and incense, with the floor covered in pine needles, and the odd person (some very odd!) sleeping off the aforementioned concoction! Thankfully there was no chickens being sacrificed while we were there, and also Ben and Carley looked after the girls while we went in – even if the smoke didn’t set off Tilly’s asthma we thought the scene might have freaked them out a bit!

The people seemed to be enjoying themselves though, and almost everyone was in their traditional dress.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – though presumably not drink no evil!

The next day was then the main Dia de los Muertos, and this is when people go to the cemetery to decorate their loved ones’ graves with flowers and objects from their lives, and to eat, drink, sing and get together with the family. It was quite a moving and uplifting experience. Whole families were there, with youngsters running around, youths on their phones and the older members making picnics or getting food from the myriad stalls surrounding the cemetery. In amongst all this were mariachi bands, solo guitarists and the occasional slightly drunk, swaying senor. In short, it was like a vast family event, but all to commemorate those members of the family who couldn’t be there.

We didn’t feel right taking photos while all this was going on, but an American lad called Will, who we’d met in the hostel, went back the next day and got some pictures of the graves. There’s one of his photos, along with some more of ours to go with the rest of this section in the accompanying post.

We also visited Las Grutas, or the grottoes – a vast cave extending several hundred metres under a hill, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. The grown-ups thought it was quite impressive, but the children were much more interested in the other two attractions – huge slides and pony rides. We’d already heard about some massive concrete slides in Guatemala but didn’t know they also had them here; as our taxi pulled into the car park Tilly’s face lit up as she saw the sign with a picture of them – four lanes of polished concrete flying down the hillside. Actually, they weren’t that fast if you went down them in the normal fashion – that’s why all the local kids sit on squashed plastic bottles. When you do this you really fly! The girls also had a short pony ride to complete a fun day out.

In San Cristobal we also met up with our first travelling family for a while – an Australian woman called Jane and Jamie, her four year old son. We found them in the indoor play in Burger King and the girls really enjoyed having someone new to play with. They came round the next day to watch a film at our hostel and we may even meet up with them again, somewhere along the way, as they’re doing a similar trip to us, but in a different direction.

We also bought some Dia de los Muertos flags and decorated the balcony of our room…

It was nearly time to leave Mexico, but before we did we wanted to see the Canyon del Sumidero. This turned out to be a breathtaking boat trip through stunning scenery, with wildlife thrown in for good measure. It’s a gorge that was flooded for a hydro-electric dam scheme, but until you reach the dam itself it’s like a natural paradise: steeply wooded slopes rising above a blue/green river, with crocodiles, monkeys and birdlife to be spotted. It also has a weird formation at one point – water seeping out of the rock face has produced cascading fans of foliage, and this is covered by a misty spray whenever there’s a passing breeze.

Canyon del Sumidero and its otherworldly foliage.

Well, that was just about it for Mexico, and next day we were off on a long bus journey over the border into Guatemala. That’s another story for another day, but what did we think of Mexico? Mostly we loved it. In many ways it’s an ideal travelling country – it’s got good accommodation, great transport, lots of fantastic things to see and friendly people. It can seem a little trite when guidebooks or travellers say that the thing that really makes a place special is its people, but apart from the mystery of some missing money on Isla Mujeres we found people to be very welcoming and helpful (though there was one young man in San Cristobal who wore a t-shirt expressing a desire that gringos should go home in no uncertain terms!)
We’d become familiar with certain aspects of Mexican life, and come to rely on certain comforts:
ADO buses – first class, air-conditioned coaches, rarely full and reasonably cheap.
Oxxo convenience stores – air-conditioned, and with most of the daily essentials (though curiously there always seemed to be two staff and two tills, but with only one of each actually working – the other member of staff was always apparently busy checking some paperwork, or idly watching their colleague!)
Lala chocolate milk – the number one source of nutrition for our picky offspring.
We’d generally managed to find good food and being vegetarian had proved easier than many other places. Travelling with kids wasn’t an issue either – we found lots of hotels with rooms with two double beds, and a couple of great hostels.
Travelling as a family though had proved challenging, and spending every moment together gets difficult at times, for everyone. But in amongst the tetchy tantrums we’ve had some fantastic times in Mexico and seen plenty of amazing things. Now it was time to see how Guatemala did things…

Colonial city, Mayan ruin, Mayan ruin, colonial city, then another Mayan ruin and another colonial city…


The next part of our journey had something of a theme running through it, or rather two themes – cute colonial cities of old and restored buildings, and Mayan ruins of, yes, old and restored buildings. A lot of the ruins round here have had parts of them reconstructed and while they’re undoubtedly impressive there’s something more atmospheric about proper ruins covered in jungle. If the ancient Mayan rulers who built them time-travelled through the ages and cycles of the Mayan calendar you wonder if they’d be more upset by the ruin of their temples or their reconstruction.

First up though was the colonial city of Valladolid, a pleasant city built on a grid system with pretty coloured one- and two-storey buildings. The old cobbled streets may have been replaced by a concrete approximation but otherwise it was fairly unspoilt, and was a nice place to wander around. We found a playground and the girls got playing with a local girl, and tried a bit of Spanish with the help of the phrasebook. This led to them making their own little phrasebooks that they could carry around to help them in their efforts to communicate. The girls were really missing some contact with kids their own age and travel makes this a difficult issue to solve, moving from place to place and having a language barrier to contend with, but they had fun trying out some new phrases.
Our hotel in Valladolid was a lovely looking place, with the rooms set around a courtyard with a pool – as you can see we weren’t really roughing it so far…

Not your typical backpacker place!

We’d also found that travelling around Mexico need not be too uncomfortable, if you stick to the first class buses. These are modern air-conditioned coaches that transport you around in relative luxury, though even they struggle with the number and severity of Mexico’s speed humps; in England speed humps used to be known as ‘sleeping policemen’ – in Mexico they’re more like ‘wide awake, crouching policemen just waiting to surprise you and make you jump in the air’.

The only problem with our hotel though was the night porter’s love of high-octane, high-volume action movies – we complained to the formidable looking woman who ran the hotel the next day and on our second night got peace and quiet, and the odd sullen look.

We visited the ruins at Ek-Balam, which means ‘black jaguar’ – when a ruin has such an evocative name it’s got to be worth a bumpy taxi journey, and we really enjoyed it. These fell more into the proper ruins covered in jungle category, and as well as another hot climb up a pyramid had some great carvings.

Huge pyramids, middle of nowhere, Ek-Balam, Mexico

I’d like my pyramid just a liiittle bit higher…

Back in Valladolid there was some kind of festival on (actually, there pretty much always seems to be some kind of festival on in Mexico!) and there was some traditional dancing involving beer bottles balanced on heads – not for the last time were we reminded of Morris Men dancing back home. The girls also did some painting at a stall run in aid of the Red Cross and drew a picture of Tinkerbell, which in turn drew a small crowd!

Leaving Valladolid’s understated charm we took the bus to Chichen Itza, where understatement is not on the agenda. Touted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s probably Mexico’s most famous and popular sight/site. If you’re there at lunchtime one glance at the car park leaves you under no illusions – this is not the place to go to for serenity and spirituality. In addition to the hoards of tourists there are almost as many hawkers and peddlers selling all manner of tat, trinkets and trash, and some decent clothes and crafts. Every bit of shade has a stall set up and there are also people walking around selling stuff – just in case you hadn’t found the exact item of tosh you were after there’s also an artisan’s market at the exit. Walking round you get assailed by shouts of ‘Very cheap, almost free’ and ‘One Dollar, One Dollar’ – throw in the ever-present jaguar calls from the people selling jaguar-call-whistle-things and it’s an assault on the senses. You can’t even climb the pyramids to get away from it. If this puts you off though, we should point out that Tilly loved the stalls and took some great photos…

Stall number 437 out of 4,037!

It is also pretty impressive, particularly if you go first thing in the morning as we did – as you walk round you can see all the stall-holders emerging from the woods with their wares, and you can see most of the sights before the tour groups swamp the place. The ball court is certainly worth a look, a vast pitch between huge walls with stone hoops set high up as goals, like an ancient version of Quidditch, but where the losing captain got decapitated (as graphically illustrated on stone friezes round the court). It’s also got amazing echo acoustics (echo acoustics, echo acoustics…)
You’ve also got to get at least one shot of the main pyramid…

However we’ll probably remember this part of the trip more for our stay at the Hotel Chichen Itza in the nearby town of Piste. On arrival we knew we’d made the right choice when Luis, the manager, upgraded us to a three-bed room and suggested the kids would probably like to jump from bed to bed. He then looked after us throughout our stay, introducing us to his family, lending us books in English, feeding us, driving us to the ruins so we could be there early, and even thrashing Pete at table tennis! The girls loved playing with Santi, his son, and still talk about being pulled round the car park in a Luis-drawn carriage (there being no horse to pull it!)

He and Santi then dropped us off for our bus and it was quite sad waving them off as we headed to Merida, but this city would prove to be another highlight. There’s not a great deal to see or do but it’s one of those places where people go for a couple of days and end up staying a week. We loved it, and partly this was down to our stay at Nomadas Hostel – this was more or less everything a hostel should be: friendly, helpful info on arrival, reasonable kitchen, decent rooms, beautiful pool in the garden and a great place to meet people. We met an eclectic bunch including a lovely 71 year old lady from Hawaii, an Australian couple (Kylie and Jez) doing a similar trip to us and an English couple (Isabel and Byron) who were motorbiking from North America all the way down through South America – whatever you do there’s always someone going further, faster or more far-flung than you! (Have a look at their blog on if you get bored of ours!)

We did a touristy horse-drawn carriage ride (the girls had obviously developed a taste for carriages at Piste!), went to the park and played on the fantastic playground (including a small plane converted into slides!) and visited the free zoo. We also went to the new/under construction Mayan Museum which was good, or will be when it’s finished. We spent a lot of time chatting in the hostel and lazing by the pool and several days passed very enjoyably. I’ll put some photos of Merida (and a few more that go with this section) in a separate post after this one.

We then thought it was about time we saw another ruin – or rather the grown-ups did, the kids were already perfecting their refrain of “Oh, no, not another ruin”. This one wasn’t as easy to get to and involved a stay at a posh place in the nearest town, some 10km away. I say posh, but perhaps mean posh/boutique/rustic – we stayed in a hut with a palapa-leaf thatched roof which looked lovely but was perhaps a bit too much like being in the jungle for the girls. Pete also got stung by a wasp and we were serenaded by the noise of various crickets and cicadas as we went to sleep under our mossie nets.

It was all worth it though for our visit to Uxmal the next day. Uxmal is as impressive as Chichen Itza but without the crowds, and I always like a place with more iguanas than people. If you stopped to look there was one on virtually every temple, pyramid or pile of stones…

Iguanas now rule over the ruins of Uxmal.

These were close to being my favourite ruins so far on this trip, but from the highs of the pyramids here we sank to a bit of a low with our stay in Campeche. It’s another picture-postcard colonial city, with some impressive walls still standing, sculpture on the streets and a nice main square. In short it sounds like a fine place to stop for a couple of days but somehow we just didn’t warm to the place, which was strange since it was absolutely sweltering. Perhaps that was part of the problem – it was too hot to do much and there was a pervasive odour to the city. We had two days there; two days, too hot, too tetchy and two tantrums too many. A storm was obviously brewing and on our second night the heavens opened and the streets were flooded, and strangely our moods lifted a little. We’d wondered why the kerbs were nearly a foot high and now we knew. We had to shelter in Burger King and they had to shut the door and batten down the hatches to stop it being inundated. Shops everywhere produced sheets of cardboard to act as makeshift doormats as people ran for cover. If we’d been feeling homesick this was a timely reminder of weather back home, albeit on a bigger, wetter scale.

We were glad to leave Campeche, and the most memorable thing was the downpour…

Road junction or river crossing? Campeche, Mexico

Next installment soon!