I’m sitting outside a fake Italian restaurant drinking my first glass of white wine in weeks. It’s 8:45pm and probably still 30 degrees. The heat is bruising but at least it’s drier – I was tired of being shiny all the time.
I’m so happy today – I hate how it always seems to take right until you’re about to leave a place to settle into it. I succeeded in trying on clothes, ordering this wine and buying a hat today. There’s a lot you can do with mime and apologies once you lose your sense of shame.
Today was magic. Possibly the best day of my life – or up there. We visited the cenotes, which are a system of freshwater sinkholes that run all over under Yucatan.
Getting there required an hour in a public van – after we’d waited almost an hour for it to fill up in stifling city heat. It was so hot and so full that the driver eventually opened the van door and left it open as we drove. A mother sat in the dickie seat by the wide-open door with her toddler crawling around her lap. The NZTA would lose their minds.
[Author’s note: in Playa I saw a lady with her baby lying in the footwell of her scooter, which beats even this.]
After the van, we (Ian didn’t come, of course. He was “exhausted. Simply exhausted. Oh, it was so hard!” from the jungle) climbed on the front of modified motorbikes – like front-facing motorised tuk-tuks. It would have been worth it for this ride alone – being tacked on the front on a bench made every pothole and speed bump an adventure.
The houses were a haphazard collection of tiny concrete bunkers and thatched cottages, all piled higgledy-piggeldy around the road. Every dog I saw looked dead, lying prone in any shade they could find.
When THIS ride stopped, we were at a tiny railway track, like the ones you see in kids’ playgrounds. It ran off into the jungle around us. We climbed on a little rail cart, and our driver hooked up a horse to it. The horse then pulled our cart along the rails at a gallop for a tooth-loosening 20 minutes, bursting through clouds of milling butterflies and startling iguanas. If we encountered a cart coming the other way, everyone piled out and derailed the cart. The horse would take a minute to snatch some grass, and the little biting yellow flies would take a minute to consume all our exposed flesh. The other cart would rumble past, and we’d lift ours back onto the tracks and our horse would resume its gallop.
The first cenote (we went to three) is the easiest to get to. We had no idea when we got there what we’d see. Ivan had just told us it was a pretty place for swimming, and it involved a cave somehow. In my head, I’d been picturing a hill (even though I knew the Yucatan is completely flat) with a rocky overhang and a little deep lake to swim in. Instead, we saw a signpost that seemed to lead nowhere.
When we got closer, we realized it was a staircase down into the earth. At the bottom of the stairs was a diving platform down into the bluest, deepest, most perfect pool I’ve ever seen. The sun streamed down the stairs, steaming all the water it touched. In the deep cave past it, little birds and little bats flew and rustled around in the ceiling, and tiny fish flittered around our hands and feet, so unafraid in their predatorless paradise that you could cup your hands around them and feel them flick.
It was magic. Magical. Just mind-blowingly amazing. And soon after we arrived the other couple of people there left, so the three of us had it to ourselves for a good half an hour. I floated around, watching the bats wriggle and the birds flit, and thought I’d never been anywhere better.
Eventually we got back in our cart, and thundered our way to the next sinkhole. This one was a tiny hole in the ground – so small that it was a squash to get down the ladder with my backpack on. The ladder seemed to wind down this tiny tunnel of limestone forever – I don’t love small spaces, so it was almost as hard as the tomb I crawled into in Oaxaca, but once we popped out the end, it was amazing. This one was bigger and deeper. The bats were more active, the dive in was higher, and the long, twisted roots of the trees above reached down for the water like long vines.
Periodically Brenda would ask me what I was doing, and I’d say “nothing”, because “pretending I’m doing synchronised swimming in a cave under Mexico” didn’t seem like a good reply.
At the third hole, the dive was even higher and the climb in and out was even harder, involving a knotted rope and more upper body strength than I’d usually use in a week. But this one had mini caves around the cavern, with little warm pools in them, and people had etched their initials and their who-loves-whos all over the walls.
The only bad bit: my bikini bottoms fell pretty much to my knees every time I dived. For the record, this didn’t stop me.
Eventually we clambered our way back to the surface and the horse and the bitey yellow flies, and then our friend with the motorbike and our other friend with the stinky, sweaty van. And then Brenda and I parked ourselves at a restaurant and ate EVERYTHING. Guac and chips, a mango daquiri, an enormous and supremely delicious plate of the incredible local pulled pork. When we couldn’t eat another bite, we declared this the best day ever, and retired to our rooms to wallow by the AC.
Note: There’s a breeze in the square I’m sitting in (and a kid screaming as his sister keeps knocking him over, but that’s another thing) and I have a second glass of averagely excellent white wine and some pasta on the way. Today is very good. I’m excited to get to Playa and the beach tomorrow, and hopefully be in enough of a tourist town that I can work out where to find eye makeup remover and shampoo and someone will be able to tell me in English what my shoe size is here. I’m excited to spend a few days lazing on white sand before I head to Japan to eat too much sushi and conquer Tokyo. This is all going much too fast. In three weeks I’ll well and truly be back home and at work. I both feel like I’ve been here forever and can’t believe it’s gone so fast.
The trip to Palenque was about the most miserable of my life. Ivan warned us that it was nine hours on a bus on the windiest, bumpiest roads in Mexico, and so we upgraded to a tour that included stops at two waterfalls – and transport in a van.
Sounds good, right? A van over a public bus?
I repeat: no.
The van was packed full. There were no seatbelts, no AC, and it set out at 6am. Ivan once tried to count the speedbumps between San Cristobal and Palenque, but got bored at 300. And that’s not including the potholes, the tight corners, and the altitude.
I was sitting between Ian and Brenda and we’d all taken Dramamine to stop ourselves getting motion sickness, especially since Brenda, Ivan and I may have been a tad hungover after two buckets of margarita and two glasses of wine at dinner the night before. Also, Ian had asked Ivan to wake him up at five – and his room was between mine and Brenda’s. And he’d prepared himself for his 5am wakeup. I know this, because I was already awake and listening to him banging around and making his Ian noises when I heard Ivan knock on his door at five.
So we were hungover, sleepy and drug-induced drowsy, but we were playing an involuntary game of corners that was only interrupted by the frequent speedbumps, popping in our ears as we gained or lost altitude, and dips into potholes. It took all our energy just to stay upright and on our seats. FOR THREE HOURS AT SIX AM. Our first stop was at the weirdest breakfast buffet ever: an open-air tent where all the servers wore surgical masks. It’s also worth mentioning that my stomach had finally got REALLY, REALLY sick of me abusing it, and was kicking off a revolt that would last several days. So I watched, hungry but knowing I couldn’t eat, as Ian polished off plate after plate of breakfast with his long-nailed, fluttery hands.
When we got to the first waterfall, I was hungry, shitty, tired and nauseous. I couldn’t have cared less. It was pretty – so what? I’ve seen pretty waterfalls before. I was prepared to enjoy nothing but getting 45 minutes away from that fucking van.
And then there was the snake.
I’d had a wander and taken a few pictures of the falls, and was preparing to park myself in the café by Ivan and clutch my stomach until we left. My diet at this point was down to unflavoured chips and flat coke (again), and, oddly, even that wasn’t doing me any favours. Mexico as a country is not a fan of vegetables unless they’re firey hot or ground into tortillas. I don’t think you’d want to be a vegetarian here.
I was walking back from the unused swimming hole to the café when I saw a little boy crouched beside what I initially thought must be a really big toy snake (like 3 metres of toy snake? What was I thinking!). It was a green that couldn’t possibly be real… and a snake couldn’t possibly be curled in the bole of a tree that had a SOUVENIER STAND on the other side of it.
And then the snake moved.
It was eating a frog. Because of the way it was screaming, I thought it was a bird until I looked at my photos. The frog-bird disappeared slowly down that yawning green throat, and I was transfixed. The little kid and I stood there, me taking photos and him just staring, until the frog was swallowed up. By this point a crowd of locals had gathered. The snake swallowed, paused, and then shot across the grass. The crowd screamed in unison, and people ran like startled birds, fleeing in all directions. The snake, quicker than I would’ve thought possible, slid over the grass and twined itself up a tree.
The other waterfall was cool – you could walk behind it, blah blah. The van never stopped sucking. After a millennia of awfulness we arrived in Palenque – and I realized our “hotel” was a hippie jungle commune of awesome.
Hotel Panchan would be more at home on a Pacific island than in Mexico. It’s a serious of random, independent buildings dotted throughout the jungle and criss-crossed by a stream. There’s an open-air restaurant, nothing has windows, and about ten different dogs amble around at all times. There’s a body-modifier on-site, live music every night, and the biggest collection of unwashed hippies you’re likely to see outside of Burning Man. It’s the kind of place that’s already preparing for its December 21st end-of-the-world party.
So, basically, for normal humans it was loud, and hot, and humid. And amazing. The howler monkeys screamed all night over the strains of Eminem, and a water pump outside my room sounded like someone vacuuming in the next room ALL NIGHT LONG. Combined with the mosquito-netting windows, it really made for a restful sleep. Also not helping was Ivan’s caution to check our blankets because of that one time someone found a scorpion IN THEIR BED.
It was so humid that I woke up in the middle of the night and my pillow was damp with my own sweat. We were sticky the whole time we were there. The jungle is amazing, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do while sticky.
The ruins at Palenque, however, were definitely my ancient highlight – far better than Chichen Itza, in my opinion. They’re set deep in a clearing in the jungle, and there are far fewer tourists. You can also go inside one of the main structures, and walk around in ancient stone bedrooms (with ancient stone beds and ancient stone toilets), while listening to the howler monkeys growl in the jungle, sounding more like a dozen jaguars fighting than anything to do with a monkey.
Because of my stomach, this was the hardest day physically. After my chips in the van, I’d managed a small dinner and gone straight to bed at 6pm the night before, and that dinner had spent the night making itself felt. I figured I could go to the ruins because there was literally nothing that could possibly be left inside me, but two days without food doesn’t marry well with three hours climbing ruins in the blazing hot sun. I walked slower that day than I’ve ever walked in my life. I also knew the heat and humidity would be dehydrating me, but I was too scared to drink much water in case my body decided it had something to eject.
Still, I’m glad I did it – and glad I made the effort (with a couple of stops to sit down (although I still made it up faster than Ian, who was puffing and blowing and mopping sweat from hmself all day)) to climb the temple of the cross and look out across the jungle. The view was incredible.
Luckily the next day we were on a bus for nine hours (has anyone ever felt lucky for a nine hour bus ride before?) so I could sit still, watch Camp Rock 2 in Spanish for the second time (oh, Joe Jones… I hate that I love you), and drink my hoarded supply of Vitamin Water.
I slept more than I thought I would on the bus – eventually, stretched over two seats with a spare blanket cushioning the armrest in the middle, full of Dramamine and over-the-counter sleep goo – but I still felt delirious and out of touch the whole first day in San Cristobal. Sound would rush in and out or my head would suddenly drop and I’d realise I’d been on the verge of drifting off.
The town of San Cristobal is beautiful – probably the prettiest town we visited. It also has the biggest split between the rich and the poor. The town was gorgeous, and decked out for tourists with fine shops and great restaurants. But the native people of Chiapas are very, very poor, and lined the streets begging or selling embroidery or crafts.
(I wanted to say ‘handcrafts’ there, which is Ivan’s word. Everyone has handcrafts, and we can do “many varied (va-RYE-d) activities (ak-TEE-va-ties)”.)
I couldn’t get past it. Women try to push woven friendship bracelets into your hands while their babies sleep strapped to their backs, dirty toddlers drifting along behind them. Old men with one arm or no legs shake cups in your face in the restaurants. A stooped old lady shoved her stump between my face and my latte inside one café, and I was so grossed out – and so upset at BEING grossed out – that I gave her all my change and ran.
One night, as it hammered with rain, I watched a woman matter-of-factly cutting up plastic bags to spread over her sleeping children.
Ivan took Brenda and I out to a canyon where we rode in a boat down the river. Gators sunned themselves on the banks and vultures circled high on the cliffs above, pelicans perching in the trees and monkeys hiding out of sight. It was beautiful, but the river was choked with trash and coke bottles, to the degree that a few times we had to steer around islands of tangled rubbish.
I got another excellent coffee and a mango smoothie from the place across the road from our hotel. Despite the fact that latte, mango and smoothie are all the same words in English as in Spanish, I still had to point at a menu to order after the girl behind the counter and I had traded confused stares and shrugs for a while. Pointing at the door works pretty well for “to go” though, a phrase Ivan has tried to teach me but for some reason I just can’t get.
Brenda is beside me wetting her pants watching An Idiot Abroad, trying to muffle her giggles into her thoughtful travel blanket because the rest of the bus is trying to sleep already.
All three of us caught the bus up to Monte Alban – a huge Aztec ruin. It was beautiful and so peaceful – it’s thought the Aztecs actually flattened the top of the mountain to build it, and the scale of that project once you’re up there is flabbergasting. It was boiling, boiling fucking hot though, so after about 20 minutes I was all full up of ruins and ready for some air conditioning.
A team of guys were weed-whacking the pyramids, which was amazingly surreal.
Went back to the big markets Ivan showed us on the first day – home of the grasshopper vendors and meat-bit sellers and chili growers. Outside, I got genuinely lost for about the second time in my life – if I hadn’t looked at a map I wouldn’t have even known — I thought with every fibre of my being that I was headed in a direction I absolutely wasn’t. The grasshopper labyrinth confused me.
I got back to the hotel a sweaty, fried-up mess, and then it poured and poured with rain. An excellent excuse to sit in the lobby and eat tamales.
Now we’re on the night bus to San Cristobel de las Casas. The bus is better than a plane – footrests, huge comfy seats, pillows and blankets and tea and coffee and a can of pepsi on arrival. There’s even an entertainment unit, but all the movies are dubbed in Spanish and they don’t have Camp Rock 2, so.
We hired a van with our tour guide, left Ian to his own devices, and headed out to explore. We stopped at one of the largest trees in the world, which was suitably fat. The gardeners had trimmed the other plants into a dilapidated collection of animals – a duck, a boy riding a bull, a kangaroo.
A dog sunned itself in the street.
We went to a tiny village that has the ruins of a Zapotec temple. I climbed down inside the tomb, which involved crawling along a tiny concrete passage with the weight of the temple above pressing down on you. It was stuffy and tiny and close, and we got tomb water in our shoes. The catholic church in the town was plonked right on top of the ruins of a Zapotec structure, geographic designs and heavy blocks underneath a towering old church.
I saw a lizard scurrying away dragging a fat caterpillar.
We drove up into the mountains, past staked-out or hobbled donkeys and fields of corn and cactus. Villagers farmed, herding goats or leading laden donkeys. At the top of the mountain we found Hierve de Agua (?), a petrified waterfall. The springs that feed the falls are tiny, and the water is full of calcium, so over the years the calcium has cascaded down the side of the mountain with the slow-dripping water, creating this frozen white mass of a waterfall. At the top are pools you can swim in. So we did. It was amazing, floating in a blue pool on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
We ate a traditional Oaxacan pizza for lunch at a stall by the falls. A very old, very fat little lady cooked the pizza on a wood-fire stove, and a skinny little dog nosed about under the table. It got half my pizza.
Then we went to see a traditional Zapotec weaver, who still uses all-natural dyes in his weaving. He showed us how he gets each colour – the bright red all our chemical colours are derived from comes from a bug that lives on a type of cactus. He put one in Brenda’s hand and squashed it, and a pool of violently red liquid gushed out.
Finally, we visited a mescal distillery – a family operation that still makes everything on the premises. They use the heart of a type of agave (a different type than tequila). It’s chopped up and then cooked in a big hangi – buried underground for up to a week with hot rocks and a fire. Then they use a donkey pushing a huge stone wheel to smash the cooked hearts up, and the pulp is fermented before it’s distilled. They make a number of flavours of liqueurs as well as straight mescal (the aged stuff is smoky like whisky but burns like tequila – delicious!), and we may have tried one or twenty.
At dinner, over two for one margaritas that were all of $2.25 each, a photographer approached us and asked for help – he’d been traveling Mexico taking photos for five years, and wanted us to tell him which of his photos we each liked best, to help him choose pieces for his next exhibition. His pictures were gorgeous, and after we were done Brenda and I each bought a print off him for a measly donation of $50 (five NZ bucks). Ian spent ten minutes telling the guy that he liked the picture of a cat because he likes cats. So much. So very much.
“I bought a postcard when I was here fifteen years ago. I should have brought it to show you! Oh, you’d have liked it so much.”
After serious study, I’ve concluded the following about Mexican road rules: there are none. Dodge or die. Many of the main highways are one and a half lanes in each direction, and everyone drives wherever they fit. The road will yawn out or creep in at will, and people pass everywhere, all the time.
One stretch of highway was filled with butterflies. The bus drove through clouds of them, spattering them all over the windshield.
Oacaxa is beautiful – the streets are narrow and cobbled and the buildings old and intricate and every colour, with wrought iron windows and huge old doors like the buildings in Paris.
My stomach was in serious rebellion this morning, so most of the day was spent on a strict diet of flat coke and ready salted chips (it sounds bad, but it’s proven effective over many years of annoying IBS) – but I did eat a grasshopper.
It was lime flavoured and crunchy.
I could spend a lot of time in this town. The markets are insane – selling chilies and meats and cheeses and, of course, huge bins of fried grasshoppers. There are chocolate factories, where you can go and buy the raw ingredients and then churn (is that the right term?) your own chocolate. The samples we tried were amazing, like chocolate condensed – less sweet but more powerful. Delicious.
Just drank only my second glass of wine in five days. I’m so parched I’m like a desert – but the margaritas are delicious. It’s storming outside again. Ivan has promised good coffee tomorrow, and I’m considering throwing myself in the adorable hotel pool before we head off to see some ruins… maybe it’s time for bed.
Ian quote of the day:
“Have you tried the English delicacy ‘Yorkshire Pudding’?”