Dec 9, 2004
|Well I made it back to Mexico. Two flights with Air Cubana and I am still alive! I believe that fate is smiling on me. I had about two weeks in Mexico and tried to do as much as I could. Stacey and I had already visited a smallish town called Valladolid, about two hours from Cancun. We stayed there for two days while waiting for our flight to Cuba. We only spent one night in Cancun before we left because we received many reasoned opinions from locals and other travellers that Cancun wasn't the greatest town in Mexico. These people were right, it wasn't a bad place to have a party but you could hardly call it Mexican at all. There were more fat Americans than Mexicans, by about two-to-one. In a kind of perverse way however, it was funny to walk around the town and see all the morbidly obese tourists walking around with short shorts and tank tops and sunburns so bad I felt like recommending they get straight to the nearest hospital. As well as being full of gringos, the town works on gringo prices as well, so one day was more than enough.
Valladolid by contrast felt very Mexican, a smallish town, by Mexican standards, of about 100 000 or so. It was built around a old-world style little town square that was bordered by the towns cathedral, a pattern I was to see repeated all throughout Mexico and Latin America. From the town we headed out and visited some local Mayan ruins called Chichén Itzá. After paying my $10 entry fee to get into the ruins, I discovered that if I had walked about 100 meters down the road, I could have just walked in for free. Oh well, as long as the money goes into maintaining the ruins and I think I kind of like the idea that the locals can get in for free and it is just the stupid tourists who don't know any better who get hit with the entry fee. I also headed to an underground cave complex about 20 minutes outside Valladolid, the caves were apparently formed about 60 million years ago by a giant asteroid hitting the area (this, by the way is the same asteroid that is currently thought to be the most likely to have lead to the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs). The caves themselves are full of pools of water, some quite deep, in which you can go for a swim. This was something a little different, and the water was cool and clear. The one major drawback however, was that I had to dodge the hundreds of little balls of bat shit that were floating in the water. I suppose this is the price you have to pay for swimming in a cave.
Our third stop in Mexico, after getting back from Cuba, was in the deep south of Mexico, just above the border with Guatemala, in a town called San Cristobal de las Casas. San Cristobal is a cool little colonial town set amongst the hills and surrounded by a heap of little highland, predominantly indigenous, villages. It was a great little town in which to hang out for a few days. Stacey and I spent about three days here, hanging out with a bloke named Vaughan who was a DJ and announcer on a pirate, something or other style of electronic music, radio station. He was a cool guy.
We managed to turn up for one of the town's big religious festivals, which I hear are not that infrequent. In Mexico, a party means fire works or should I say explosives. On the Sunday of the festival, the locals lined about 5 kilometres of the streets with gunpowder and placed what appeared to be little sticks of dynamite along the gun-powered trail. They then lit the end of the gunpowder trial, and guess what, the little sticks were dynamite. The town's people then have a nice hour and a half running through the town ahead of the oncoming explosions. And they are real explosions, you can only get within about thirty meters of the thing before the heat and noise get to much and you have to move again before you go deaf or catch on fire. What is more amazing about all this is that the people who seem to be in charge of setting all this up looked to have an average age of about 10.
One day Stace, Vaughan and me headed out horse riding into the hills around San Cristobal, hoping to run into some Zapatistas (a Mexican revolutionary group, mostly indigenous, based in the hills around San Cristobal). We found a company that did the horse riding tours cheap, really cheap, too cheap. When we got there, the horses were tiny, so damned tiny that it would be more correctly labelled as a pony riding tour. So I jumped on a 'horse', that would have been better suited to one of the ten year olds who were lighting the fire crackers the day before, and found that the saddle was also 'budget' and not adjustable. This was a big problem for someone of my height. I looked like a real cowboy on my midget horse with my knees somewhere around my ears. Needless to say that the ride was extremely comfortable for both me and the horse and I came back with half as much skin on my arse as when I left four hours earlier. When I stopped thinking about the pain and started to pay attention to my surroundings, it was almost all worth it. The hills and the villages were amazingly picturesque.
I paid for my cowboy delusions by not being able to sit down without pain for about two weeks. The great thing was that I had a 13-hour bus ride to the city of Oaxaca sitting on my sore arse the very next day.
Oaxaca (pronounced whoa-haka) is a Spanish styled city with a beautiful town square and some great, narrow, colonial period streets. We met up with Christian, the guy who had shown us around Guatemala. He had organised to travel to Mexico at the same time and we organised to meet up. We spent most of our time slowly wandering the streets, I have become an expert at the slow meander, hopefully a skill I can maintain when I get back to Australia, and hanging out at the cool cafes that surrounded the town square.
I didn't manage to avoid strenuous physical exertion completely however. One day Christian, Stacey and myself decided to hire bikes and head just out of town to check out some Mayan ruins. The ruins were just out of town, and I thought that the hardest thing about the ride would be surviving the crazy local motorists on the way to the outskirts. I was wrong, after getting to the outskirts and asking around, we found out that it was only another 5 or 6 kilometres to the ruins, however the 6 kilometres were unfortunately straight up a hill. I found out later that the Mayans tended to build at the top of the highest point in the area for protection, possibly from stupid Western backpackers who hire bikes. On the way up we had to stop several times so that we didn't die, and on one of the stops we were passed by a bloke in the tight body suit and the full cycling kit who looked like he took it all pretty seriously. About half an hour later he came whizzing past us at high speeds coming back down the mountain. I really started to question my self-image as a young up-and-comer athletic type when the same bloke passed us again about 45 minutes later going back up the hill. After about three hours riding we finally made it to the top and I had a nice sit (fall) down after having just sacrificed my thigh muscles to the mountain god. The ruins were spectacular however and the view back over the city was great, making the whole ordeal more than worthwhile. The ride back down was much more fun than the ride up.
We all then jumped on a night bus to Mexico City, which, according to Lonely Planet, is the world's third-largest metropolis (after Tokyo and New York City). Mexico City encompasses the best and worst of Mexico. It is a city where there is so much to do and so many great people to meet, and so many people trying to steal your stuff while you do it. We managed to be in town for about 20 minutes before Christian was robbed. We jumped on the subway train when our bus arrived to get to our hostel. The train got so packed that you literally couldn't move. Soon after getting on the subway you started to feel the hands going into your pockets. Luckily I had nothing in my pockets except my wallet, which I was holding onto for dear life, Christian however had his digital camera, which was long gone by the time we got off the train. After this first incident however, we had no more problems during our time in Mexico City (I did carry my wallet down my underwear for the next week however). Some of the locals we met shared some crazy stories about things that had happened to them, and it put a pick-pocketing into perspective, it seems that violent car-jackings are one of the biggest problems.
Central Mexico City is full of some beautiful parks, which were great for a long stroll. Yet you feared that if you breathe the brown air for more than about half an hour it might do permanent damage. The pollution in the Mexico City is bad. Just before I left, I asked someone what the name of the town was I kept seeing in all the postcards. Only to be told it was Mexico City. I had been thrown off by the gigantic (and I mean absolutely gigantic) volcano that was towering over the city in the picture. I had been in the city for a week and the pollution was so bad that I never even knew that the giant volcano was there. People told me you can only see the thing on about 5 days of the year.
However there is a lot that is great in Mexico City and it far outweighs the negatives. I went to see Teotihucan, an ancient Aztec site and home to the world's third largest pyramid in a mountain-ringed valley just past the outskirts of Mexico City. I got to see heaps of Frieda Kahlo paintings, and see the home where she grew up and where they now keep her ashes. However the best of all were the great people we met. They really let us into their lives and shared it with us for a few days. In particular Caroline, who lived in Melbourne for a year studying and worked with Stacey, took us under her wing and she and her friends really looked after us. And Alicia, who I met at a party and took me out on the town and showed me all the cool spots a couple of days later. These people showed us the great spots to visit, to eat, and to get a drink that I imagine most tourists don't get to see. All in all, it is a lovely city and by the time I left it was on the list as one of the favourite cities in the world. Eventually however I had to leave, and I flew out of Mexico City and into South America.