Category Archives: Mexico

Taking it easy in Belize, a meander through Mexico, then back to Blighty for a chilly Christmas…

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The time had come to leave Guatemala, and as we headed to Belize, December arrived to herald the advent of a new stage in our travels.

After getting up for a 3am start the day before for our trip to Tikal, we were afforded the luxury of an extra couple of hours kip, as the bus to Belize didn’t set off until 5am! Consequently we were a bit bleary-eyed as we reached the border a couple of hours later, and it felt very strange to hear the border officials speaking in English as we passed through passport control into the sixth country of our journey. As the bus set off again, straight away it felt like a completely different country: different houses, different language, and a different feel.

After a couple more hours driving through green countryside we reached Belize City. Now this is a place that comes with a daunting reputation, and most travellers head straight through it and catch a boat to the island of Caye Caulker. We were also ready to take it easy on a sunny island in the Caribbean, so we decided to do the same, and half an hour later we were on a boat. After a quick skip across the water we were dragging our bags along the sandy road on Caye Caulker, feeling the sun on our backs and feeling like we’d entered a different world again. This was more Caribbean than Central America; most of the population is black and there’s a lilt in the voices and a swagger and a stroll in the step. One man was walking up the road, half shouting and half singing “Melt in the mouth…, and not in the hand…” as he sold something from his cart. We didn’t quite catch the rest of his refrain, or work out what he was selling, but this sing-song-sales-pitch was to be an almost constant accompaniment to our time on the island, as he worked his way up and down the main road. Well, main road might be overstating it a little: more of a sandy track running parallel to the sea, with only golf buggies, bikes and occasional delivery vehicles meandering their way along.

IMG_20121202_084249We booked into a pleasant hotel, where our room (a hut on stilts) was only a hop, skip and a jump from the sea. We then went shopping and found Heinz Baked Beans and decent milk in the shops, and when we got back to the room the movie ‘Elf’ was on in English, so we watched a cheesy Christmas film while eating Baked Beans and mashed potatoes – cue two happy girls. Sometimes it’s nice to find a place that feels a little bit like home, albeit a bit more tropical than we’re used to back home in December!

Hugo, Kiah, Jamie and Tilly

Hugo, Kiah, Jamie and Tilly playing at the Split

The next day we met up with Jane and her son Jamie, who we’d met in San Cristobal, Mexico about a month earlier – social media makes all kinds of meetings possible nowadays. We met up at ‘The Split’ which is a famous spot on Caye Caulker that divides it into north and south islands. There’s a local story that a hurricane created the rift but while it might have started a small channel, it seems that the locals then dredged it to create a passage to allow boats to cross the island. Whatever the truth is, the split is now a popular place for snorkelling, hanging out, drinking and watching the sunset at the Lazy Lizard bar. Over the next couple of days we would do a quite a bit of snorkelling, some hanging out and a fair bit of drinking, but that picture-perfect sunset would elude us for now.

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Caye Caulker is in many ways an ideal size for an island – small enough to find your way round and to meet people, but big enough to have a decent selection of shops, bars and hotels. It also felt small enough and safe enough for the girls to have some freedom and they had great fun exploring on their hired bikes, nipping to the shops and visiting Jamie at his hotel.

One day we all hired bikes and tried to cycle round the southern tip of the island but had to abandon it when we cycled into a cloud of midgies- this was quite horrendous, and we were wiping bugs off our skin for about an hour afterwards!

We also bumped into some other old friends that we’d met along the way, including the Barnsley bicyclers and a Dutch couple who had been on our trip to Tikal. Jane had also made a few friends on the island , including Fernando, Aurora and Hugo, an interesting Portuguese/Angolan/French family who were living on the island, and the girls loved playing with Hugo.

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Hence we had quite a social group and the next few days passed very pleasantly, with eating, swimming, meandering and chatting taking care of the days.

We found a cool ice-cream place that provided a daily treat for the girls, and it was next to a place that did good coffee – it’s surprisingly easy to while away the time when basic needs are being met!

The evenings inevitably led to the split and it was easy to see how people ended up staying here longer than they anticipated; it’s easy to get into a routine, but after a few days we were ready to move on. It’s a great party place for a few days but then you start to notice the tensions that run through the island. Before we left though, we had to go snorkelling…

P1020675P1010093Belize has a coral reef running parallel to its shoreline and it lies just a short boat ride away from Caye Caulker, and this was one of the main reasons to come to the island. We’d had to wait an extra day for weather and sea conditions to be favourable, and even then it rained on the way out to the reef and for our first stop: however, as soon as you put your eyes and mask below the surface it was all worth it. This first stop was imaginatively called the ‘Coral Garden’, but it was beautiful – tropical fish darting in and out of the different types of coral, all in a glorious technicolor that the overcast day couldn’t ruin. The next stop was even better.
P1010112Again, competition must have been fierce amongst the local poets when it came to naming the spot – it was a channel full of rays and sharks, so (and you’ll never guess) it was known as ‘shark and ray alley’. Again though, it was marvellous – if you don’t feel at least a tingle of excitement when you’re in the water and only a couple of feet away from a majestic shark or stingray, then snorkelling really isn’t for you.
The final stop was the Hol Chan Nature Reserve and here were more fantastic fish, and some sublime turtles effortlessly paddling their way through the water. All in all, it added up to a brilliant day, though we did get a little seasick on the journey back to shore, something even the free rum punch couldn’t knock out of us.

And that was that for Caye Caulker. It had been a fun few days, and we’d miss its laid-back charms, and the way the ladies would say “You’re Welll….Com” when you’d thank them for your coffee or meal, with a rhythm that seems inherent in the island. While it’s not without its problems, and it’s not quite paradise, it was another memory that would have us smiling in years to come. We never did get to find out what that man was selling though, or quite where it melted, but on our last night we finally got our sunset – a glorious riot of colour, painting everything in a warmth and glow that felt very Caribbean, with boats and a bird posing obligingly for a near perfect photo opportunity…

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Caye Caulker sunset, from the Split

Caye Caulker sunset, from the Split

Not wanting to come all the way to Belize and only visit one place, we thought we’d spend the night at the zoo! Admittedly this decision was made much easier as Jane and Jamie were heading there, and we realised we could book a lodge for the six of us. Belize zoo is quite famous for its conservation and education work; all the animals are ones you could find in Belize, and many of them are rescued or orphaned. They are kept in enclosures designed to be as close as possible to a natural habitat, and they have amusing rhymes on the information boards for each animal! In short, it’s acknowledged as a model zoo, and they’re trying to teach the local population to appreciate the local wildlife that shares their country.
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They also have some rustic but beautiful accommodation in a nature reserve on the other side of the highway. We stayed in a huge cabin with a fully-screened balcony, that looked out over a lake – and if you looked out carefully you could see small crocodiles and turtles swimming around. Dinner was included as part of the deal but was nothing to write home about – unless that is, you really wanted to let the folks back home know what caused the crippling stomach cramps later that night!

However we got to visit the zoo both during the day and on a special guided night visit. On the day visit we got to hold a snake, see lots of beautiful birds and experience the foul-smelling stench of two varieties of peccaries.
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On the night visit we got to feed tapirs and touch a jaguar’s paw, on a torch-lit perambulation through the site. However the highlight was hearing the howler monkeys – boy, can these creatures make a racket! Our guide told us that they actually recorded howler monkeys for the dinosaur noises in Jurassic Park, and when you’ve heard the low, primeval roars up close you can appreciate how prehistoric, and slightly unnerving, it sounds.

The next day we said our goodbyes to Jane and Jamie, as we were heading in different directions. We’d had a lot of fun, and it was all down to a chance meeting at the indoor play in Burger King in Mexico! We then set off on a long journey back to Mexico – first back to Belize City, then to the border, and then to Chetumal. We didn’t see too much of Belize City, and the main thing of note was an enormous graveyard on, and around, the main road out west – at one point we went round a roundabout and even this had gravestones in the middle. It then took an absolute age to get beyond the city and its outskirts. It seems to be a Latin American rule that buses must stop every few yards whilst in a city, town or village. Often a bus will set off from the bus station, drive less than fifty yards, and then stop to pick someone up – and even occasionally to let someone get off! Quite why those people can’t make it all the way into the bus station to get the bus baffled us, but travelling the first couple of miles on most bus journeys would often take more than fifteen minutes.

Eventually though we got to the border and bade bye-bye to Belize: we’d had a great time but somehow it was one of the few countries that we were quite glad to be leaving. It had an edginess about it, and though we’d had no problems at all, and met mostly friendly people, there was a vague feeling of malevolence lurking somewhere under the surface.

Getting back to Mexico felt quite familiar in comparison, though our poor grasp of Spanish had almost wriggled out of our memories entirely, and it took a little while to get used to saying “Si” and looking dumbfounded again. Having had enough travelling for one day we decided to stay in the nearby city of Chetumal for the night. This was a mistake, as was our choice of lodging – the Hotel Ucum was not the charming hostelry our guidebook made it out to be. Chetumal itself wasn’t too endearing either, though perhaps we weren’t in the mood for a busy, grimy city with hardly anywhere to eat. When we eventually found a pizza place and ordered a pizza with pineapple on, there was an air of inevitability when it appeared with ham on it. This had happened to us three times now, though this was the first place that had tried to bring us the same pizza back, with the ham shambolically removed. They had hardly even bothered to disguise this fact, leaving great big gaps where the ham had been! We complained again, whereupon the girl made out she didn’t understand us, even though we were speaking in our finest Spanish! Eventually though we got a fresh, meat-free pizza, and having had quite enough fun for one day, returned to the salubrious surroundings of Hotel Ucum.

The next day we moved on to the lovely lake-side town of Bacalar. If Chetumal was a disappointment, Lake Bacalar was more of a delight.
P1010137P1020735We stayed at the very pleasant Casita Carolina, in a comfortable round hut with thatched roof and en-suite facilities. It was set in a large garden with the lake near enough to hear the gently lapping water. At least, we could hear it until the place next door cranked up its disco that night, proceeding to belt out awful pop music ’til sunrise!

P1020731P1020736That apart though, it was a great place to stay, and we met lots of interesting people. Having stayed in a fair few places over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the most important thing in any hostel is having a good communal area where people can sit and chat and meet other people. There were a couple of Americans staying who were thinking of buying somewhere and living out here, an English lad who was living in Mexico City, and two Dutch sisters with unpronounceable names who the girls took to straight away. We spent a very relaxing couple of days here, kayaking on the lake and enjoying the sunshine, and it felt like a great place to stay before we flew back to the cold climate of England.

However before we caught the plane, we just had time to stay at one of our favourite places again – Posada Yum Kin in Tulum, where we’d stayed two months ago. As soon as we walked in the door, Ricardo greeted us as if we’d never been away and gave us our old room again: it really did feel a little like we were already back home! We spent our final day doing some Christmas shopping – the main street had all its Christmas decorations up, as had every town we’d been in for the last month or so. Bizarrely though, the decorations here are more or less the same as at home, complete with snowmen and reindeer, even though it never snows here (or for that matter, in the middle-east).

P1020737We also found time to have a last swim, and watched a film with a Canadian family who were staying at the hotel – Padme was travelling with her two sons and her brother, and one of the lads was also called Kyah, though we may have spelt that incorrectly (guess our Kiah will have to get used to that too!!)

And with that, we were off on a long voyage back to Britain, via a bus to Cancun, plane to Atlanta, plane to Manchester, and a lift home from our friend Sally, arriving back at Pete’s parents house just over three months after we’d left. It was significantly colder than when we’d left, and much colder than where we’d just left, and Pete was feeling a little under the weather (wherever that weather was), but more of that next time…

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

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(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…

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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 http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Adventures-on-the-flying-Aga/ 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!

Leaving the United States, and entering a slightly different state (of mind, money, Mexico and manana…)

Standard

To travel from Las Vegas, USA to Cancun, Mexico, took us two flights, most of a day, crossed two time zones and took us to a slightly different world. Mexico is somewhere between the USA and Central America, between modern commercialism and traditional values, and even though there’s McDonalds, Walmart and American TV (dubbed into Spanish), there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve crossed a cultural and historical boundary.
Cancun, however, is not typical Mexico. I’m not sure what it is typical of, maybe all-inclusive holiday-land, but it’s a bit of a strange place, separated into a downtown area and a Hotel Zone, the latter strung out along a dual-carriageway with each hotel claiming their own bit of beach. We had a nice hotel, met some nice people on the beach and found a nice restaurant but somehow the place just didn’t do it for us…and that’s not even taking into account the tricks and trips that greeted our arrival.
On landing at Cancun airport and walking through customs you are greeted by a cabal of seemingly official, uniformed, tourist information people (for want of a better word). They then try to sell you taxis, tours and time-shares, or failing that, offer ‘free’ jaunts that need a five dollar deposit and entail a visit to a ‘presentation’. The sad thing is that we nearly went for it – or perhaps it was all genuine and the sad thing is that we didn’t – but something didn’t ring true, we were tired and wanted our hotel, and so we said “No, gracias” and headed for the bus.
Maybe it was the tiredness, but on getting off the bus and leaving the bus station Rachel and Kiah then went flying for the third time that day, tripping off a kerb and into the gutter, fully laden with backpacks. We had planned to get another local bus but the taxi drivers couldn’t believe their luck, and scooped us up for a slightly-overpriced trip to our hotel. Fare enough or taken for a ride, but we were at least glad to be in our room with nothing worse than a bruised and twisted ankle for Rach, and a slightly mucky Kiah.
We then had a couple of days in Cancun, which was more than enough, before moving on to Isla Mujeres, which is a small island half an hour away by ferry. There we had a lovely hotel, almost to ourselves, complete with resident iguanas, and their own kayaks (just to be clear, the hotel had kayaks, not the iguanas!)

Iggy Half-tail, the hotel iguana, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

We went kayaking, did a bit of snorkelling, and saw some fairly funky fish.

Kayaking off Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Now we all have an image of snorkelling in the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, and the sea did approximate to that vision – however when you pictured it, did you do so with a stormy, overcast sky above? Thought not, but that’s what we got, with regular downpours and stifling humidity, and that was the pattern for our three days on the island.
We went to the picture-postcard beach of Playa Norte, with it’s white sand and azure sea, and Tilly commented that she didn’t think beaches like this really existed, and it was how you might draw a typical, tropical beach. But again, one minute we were sat there, sweltering, next we were running to a restaurant, already drenched from the sudden deluge.
When we then found that some money had gone missing (almost certainly) from the hotel room, we were starting to get a little downcast ourselves. We couldn’t prove anything, or be absolutely sure, so had to let it go but it tainted our first few days in a new country. Sad that you tend to remember the odd bad incident, rather than the overwhelming majority of helpful, friendly people, so we’ll try to think instead of the taxi driver who took us out to the port – as he dropped us off he ran inside the terminal to make sure we caught the ferry about to leave.

After the island we then got a little hire car for the drive down the coast to Tulum. On first glance it looked fine, and it got us from A to B, but reminded us of how cars used to be – no central locking, a metallic clang when you shut the door and more scratches than our mosquito-bitten legs – when the man went round the car marking off the dents and scrapes he might just have well have given the card to a toddler and asked them to scrawl all over it. Driving was also an experience – first through downtown Cancun (busy and confusing), then down the highway – this is like a motorway, but every so often they like to put a speed hump the size of a low wall to catch the unwary. However, apart from nearly entering the stratosphere a couple of times, we made it to Tulum and the very lovely Posada Yum Kin, a boutique hotel that we could somehow afford. We had a kitchen, hammocks and there was a pool that you could only reach by going up a spiral staircase, across a bridge and down some more steps. However it says something about the level of luxury that the only people we got talking to were two American couples, both on their honeymoons.

We also found the delights of the Chedraui supermarket. As you pull into the car park it’s almost like driving into another world, and if you want to know where to find all the tourists and gringos just head over to the extensive wall of imported and luxury foods. There amongst the Californian wines, jars of pesto and Thai curry paste you can find bewildered westerners looking for something familiar that definitely doesn’t involve refried beans. We were delighted to find instead Heinz baked beans, which says something about our girls’ (and my) adventurous palates!

We then finally got to see our first ruins in Mexico, though there would be many more to come. If the USA doesn’t have too much in the way of ancient monuments, Central America has them by the bucket-load, dotted throughout the jungle, and maybe some of them would make it on to most people’s bucket-list.
First up for us was Coba, and it was great fun, particularly since you could hire bikes to travel between the various bits and cool down a little on the way. Climbing the huge pyramid was certainly very hot work.

Climbing down the rather steep pyramid at Coba, Mexico

But then we were in the middle of the jungle, and the jungle had certainly tried to reclaim it’s territory.

Funky tree at Coba ruins, Mexico

To cool down on the way back we visited a cenote – these are sink holes that lead into an underground world of rivers, pools and caverns and we’d seen documentaries about them years ago. It was suggested that it was partly these that allowed the Mayans to create their advanced civilisations, as they had a reliable water source under their feet. Whatever, they make enticing places to swim, with cool, clear water and dappled sunlight, and the girls loved spotting the turtles.

Thursday then arrived to bring our weekly battle with anti-malaria tablets. I think we got it down to a mere couple of hours this time and as a treat we decided to go to the Hidden Worlds Adventure Park. This was, without doubt, a highlight that I’m sure the girls will look back on for years to come. First you get a truck to bump you several miles into the jungle, then you climb on a bike suspended from a cable in the treetops for a ‘skycycle’, that starts up high amongst the leaves and drops down into a cave. You then turn round and go on a different cable through three more caves before having to climb back up to the start again. Given the heat and humidity we were very impressed that we all made it!

On the skycycle, Hidden Worlds, near Tulum – cycling through the jungle!!

We then did a zip-wire and a rappel down into a cenote – fairly exciting but only a mere preamble to the main event, a weird cross between a rollercoaster and a zip-wire that they called the Avatar. It had been designed and built there and was the first, and probably, only one of it’s kind – I’m not sure many places would have a sufficiently relaxed enough approach to Health and Safety. But it was brilliant: exciting, exhilarating, invigorating and powered entirely by yourself walking up the steps to the start. You twist and turn, dip and rise through the trees then career along a slide into a cave before plunging into the cenote below. I whooped, Tilly yelled and Kiah made not a peep of a sound, but we all went for a second go. Rach started off screaming, increased the intensity, built to a crescendo and hit the water with blood-curdling screetches echoing around the cavern. She declined the offer of a second go.
The day finished with a swim through the stalactites of the cenote, which the girls found more scary than the avatar.

Snokelling at the Cenote, Hidden Worlds

Next was the Tulum ruins, which are famous for their setting overlooking the sea. They weren’t as exciting as Coba, with manicured lawns and a no climbing rule making it feel somewhat less adventurous, but you can’t deny the ancient Mayans picked a lovely spot. The information boards waffled on about it being a strategically important, defensible position but maybe they just liked the view.

Tulum ruins – you can see why they built it so near the beach!

And so that was our first week or so in Mexico, and before we headed inland we had a last walk along the beach and found a bar with a live band playing cool music as the sun set and the sea breeze whipped the sand past our feet. Even though this part of the Yucatan peninsular is particularly flat, we’d had our ups and downs (in more ways than one!) but the last few days had been a lot of fun. Also, we’d seen a heck of a lot of lizards and iguanas, which is always a bonus…

Groovy lizard, Tulum