(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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…