We both had such an amazing last 3 months in NZ and OZ but both agreed that we were looking forward to a challenge again. One of the fun things about travelling is trying to work out how to get somewhere when nobody understands you and meeting people from a completely different walk of life. Even though Tom speaks basic to intermediate Spanish the next 3 months in Mexico, Central and South America were definitely going to be challenging.
On arrival into Mexico City we found a taxi counter (as it was 1.30am and all public transport had stopped) and headed out to find our lift into the big city. Unfortunately we’d picked the busiest company to go with and even though there was no sign of any taxis, the queue of people was getting bigger and bigger. Sssooo, back in we went to change our ticket to another company that had umpteen taxis waiting….and finally we were on our way. Apparently there aren’t many road rules in Mexico apart from; drive as fast as physically possible, get as close as you can to the car in front and definitely don’t stop at any red lights….the journey was eventful to say the least. Just before arriving at the hostel the driver had to ask a policeman to move a road block from his way as all the old historic centre of town was blocked off. We stepped out of the taxi to the sight of policemen guarding our hostel entrance and riot police on every corner…welcome to Mexico!! (We later found out that the police were everywhere as a precautionary measure as there had been some political rioting weeks before we arrived)
By this point it was about 2am and we quietly scuttled into our dorm and attempted to make our beds without waking up our room mates, we failed!
After sleeping through breakfast, oops, we headed out for a wander around the city. We both felt there was a bit of a strange feel about the place, I think it was something to do with the amount of riot police everywhere. We headed to a little cafe that had been recommended to us and Tom put his a-level Spanish to good use. We immediately realised that travel around Mexico was going to be tricky. Very few people spoke anything other than Spanish, and as I knew little Spanish communication was hard. Through Tom and our Spanish phrase book we managed to decipher some of the menu and ordered a few things. The food was lovely and the portion sizes massive. Everything seems to come with tortillas regardless of what you order. To be honest we weren’t sure what we were eating but it tasted nice.
Whist we were in Australia we were meant to sort out our malaria tablets for S.America and Africa but we completely forgot! Then when in USA we found out it would cost an absolute fortune so we decided to wait for Mexico. I’d done a bit of research and found out that if we went to a pharmacy with an attached surgery we could, for M$30 (about £1.25) get a prescription to buy the tablets, so off we went. Tom’s Spanish is good, but unfortunately the doctor thought we had malaria and started to bring out needles to take a blood test, Tom quickly explained that this wasn’t the case!! After a few lost in translation moments he agreed to write the prescription for us and we headed next door to pick up our tablets. Unfortunately they didn’t have enough so the poor but helpful pharmacist had to run between 4 different pharmacies to collect all our medication!! All sorted in the end though and at a fraction of the price we’d have paid in either Oz or USA.
Next day we had a load of stuff we wanted to do so there was no time for a lie in. After a breakfast of tortillas scrambled egg, pineapple, refried beans and various spicy sauces we were off. The first stop was very near to where we were staying in the Zocalo (main square) and was Museo del Templo Mayor, which was a partial excavation of “the great temple” of Hispanic origin. Neither of us were that bothered about going in, so we took a few photos from the outside and headed off.
Next we went to the National Palace, which has been the home for the ruling class of Mexico since the Aztec empire and is now a government building. There were swarms of armed guards and army men with guns all around but we’d gotten used to this by now. This was actually really good with an amazing mural by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico from 1521 to 1930. We’re not really into things like this but both admitted that it was pretty impressive.
Next we had to attempt the metro. After our experiences in Tokyo with the most confusing underground system in the world we didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully it was relatively straightforward, and cheap. 25p for a ticket, bargain. We were heading to the anthropology museum which was highly rated by everyone we’d spoken to. There was way too much to take in in one day but we were both pleased we went as it was really interesting. One thing that stands out was information about a game that the aztecs used to play. I can’t remember all the details but it was a ball game with a heavy ball where you had to somehow use your hips to make the ball mimic the movement of the sun…something like that anyway. Anyhow the part that stands out for me was if you were the losing coach, you were decapitated!!! And this was a game…..
After the museum we headed outside and in the distance we spotted some kind of maypole dancing. Eager to investigate we headed over and the scene was fantastic. We’d missed all the dancing on the floor and as we arrived a man was climbing up a huge pole whilst other people were sat at the top playing flutes. They seemed to be wrapping the ropes around the top of the pole then all of a sudden they just fell backwards and span around upside down until they were back on the ground. If this was in England health and safety would have had some kind of heart failure!!!
Next we wandered around an area of Mexico City called Coyoacan which was almost like a little town within the city. Even though Mexico is renowned for making travellers sick we decided to stop at a random street stall to get a snack…you can’t pass up the chance of a Quesadilla for 90p! Let’s hope we don’t live to regret it!
By now it was getting late in the afternoon so we headed to Garilbaldi (not the biscuit) where mariachi bands can be found playing gigs for visitors to the plaza.
There wasn’t much going on when we arrived so we thought we’d risk having some more food from a little street food place. The local grub was really good, but there was enough for about 5 people!! It seems that fajitas aren’t the norm in Mexico (well not so far anyway) and I ordered what sounded like something similar…and it was. Amazing little wraps with fillings of chicken, beef and mushrooms piled high on each of them. That along with the 8 homemade sauces on the table (Tom was in heaven) I could barely finish my plate, which is very unlike me!
Once back outside there was a bit more going on but the place seemed relatively quiet so we headed off a bit disappointed.
This was our last night in Mexico City. Neither of us were that fussed about the place so we decided to move on. I think the police presence on every corner just gave the place an odd vibe. Before leaving the following day we went to visit Teotihuacan, a city thought to have been established around 100 BC. It’s also home to the third largest pyramid in the world, the pyramid of the sun. I’ve never been to Egypt to see the pyramids there but I was impressed with this site. Plus the views from 248 steps up were pretty impressive.
We were eventually heading to a city called Oaxaca but enroute we decided to stop off at a place called Puebla for a couple of nights. We arrived at the hostel to news that there was free beer and food on the roof terrace, we immediately loved the place. After exhausting all free supplies we headed out for a wander around. For some reason Mexico doesn’t seem to want Christmas to end (a bit like me) and the Zocalo was still covered in decorations, it looked so pretty.
Tom decided he was hungry so we found a little restaurant that was still open, and they sold fajitas!! We tried to order one portion to share but somehow it was lost in translation and we ended up with 2 plates! I didn’t care, they were the best fajitas I’ve ever had!
We didn’t do much the following day apart from wander around the city, it was absolutely beautiful and kind of how we’d though Mexico City would be. All the streets were cobbled and the buildings all different colours.
We’d read about a little cafe that was an institution in Puebla with the locals, so we headed off to find it. For less than 5 pounds we feasted on mixed meat in corn tortillas and a chicken taco. Plus Tom had this weird cactus drink which I thought was vile, but he seemed to like it.
Next we headed to Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-kah) The state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico and we were both keen on doing some voluntary work whilst we were there. After getting an extremely comfortable bus from Puebla (the buses are a far cry from the tin cans on wheels we travelled on in much of Asia) we arrived in our next city. It was Saturday night so we thought we’d head out. On our way towards the centre a couple who had just got married were being driven around in a car and were throwing sweets out to passers by, what a great tradition! Oaxaca is meant to be one of the culinary capitals of Mexico but we couldn’t really work out where to go. Because we arrived in the dark we couldn’t really get a feel for the place and we just aimlessly wandered around for ages, eventually finding a little brightly coloured restaurant to eat. As usual we weren’t 100% what any of the food was so we just ordered a few things and hoped for the best!! Afterwards we went to a few different bars, one of which had live music and gave you chilli oranges with every drink. I don’t really understand the obsession with putting chilli on everything. For me it totally ruined the oranges but all the locals seem to love it. After a stop off at a mezcal bar (a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant native to Mexico) where we sampled three different varieties, we stumbled across a salsa club. Not our music of choice, but we were intrigued so we headed in. It was amazing to watch everyone on the dance floor salsa dancing to all sorts of music. Such a different atmosphere to clubs in England but absolutely mesmerising. It was almost like we were going back in time and standing in a 1950’s club with people ballroom dancing. We both people watched for ages, it was great fun.
After a day of wandering around the town and the markets, Tom thought it would be a good idea to sample a local delicacy, fried crickets! As usual they were covered in chilli spices, which actually didn’t taste very nice. I nearly gagged when I ate the cricket, I don’t quite understand the obsession with eating bugs but the locals seemed to love them, each to their own!
The following day we did something that I was really keen on doing whilst in Mexico, volunteering with local street kids. I’d read about a charity called Oaxaca street children grassroots, a charity where children from very poor backgrounds are sponsored and the money is used to pay for schooling, equipment and to give them a hot meal each day. The centre we went to work at was somewhere for them to do their homework/be in a safe environment/play before going to school in the afternoon. As I don’t speak much Spanish barring the odd word I didn’t know if I’d be much use but I managed to help a boy with his maths homework (and confiscated his calculator) The little boys who’d done all their work just wanted to play so Tom spent the morning being ‘horse’ and generally had 2 little boys hanging off him all morning. The place really was amazing and I chatted to the deputy manager quite a lot about the centre and all the good they were doing. He informed me that he didn’t want to stop the children from going out on to the street and selling things as their families needed that income to survive. The centre was there to help them see that they can do more with their lives and they can have a bright future. To keep on the program the kids know that they have to work hard at school and not waste the opportunity they are being given, otherwise it will be taken away. All in all it was an excellent charity and one that I hope we can help out again in the future. Please click here to view their website
We ate food at the centre and were planning on staying for the afternoon but one of the other volunteers told us about an orphanage she worked at in the afternoons and asked if we’d go along to help her. At the start of the trip I read so many negative things about going to volunteer at orphanages so at the start I wasn’t keen at all. But after hearing a bit more about it I felt the need to go and help out. The orphanage called children of the night (which I thought was a horrible name) was for orphans of prostitutes. The lady that ran it wasn’t very nice at all and barely spoke to the children, let alone played with them. The girl who asked us to go along said that she could do with extra pair of hands as the children were just left on their own all day. The conditions the children were living in was pretty shocking. When we arrived they were all outside playing and we helped them sit down and eat some food. The problem was that because they’d never been taught how to behave properly they were really naughty and it was hard work trying to get them to just sit and eat. The owner just sat inside and if it wasn’t for us trying to help some of the younger kids eat they’d probably have ended up eating off the floor. The inside of the orphanage was pretty grubby. There was one bathroom for all 20ish children and it was really dirty. All the kids lived in one bedroom and judging by how many beds there were I’m guessing it was 2 to 3 kids per bed. The conditions made me feel really sad. Outside there was broken glass on the floor and the metal swings were so dangerous. I wish we could have done more to help but just being there and playing with the kids helped in a small way. They just wanted and needed a bit of attention and we gave that to them. It was really hard to leave as it was obvious that as soon as we left the kids would just be left on their own until bedtime. It was a heartbreaking experience and one which will stay with us for a long time.
We spent another day at the streetchildren grassroots before heading off to our next destination. I taught them how to make snowflakes, something I loved to do when I was younger. The girls seemed to love it and spent hours decorating them, but the boys were more interested in kicking the beach ball around and riding on Tom’s back, oh well, at least I tried!!
We had two options on how to get down to the Oaxaca coastal town of Puerto Escondido. Either go to the bus station and get a big bus that took 10-12 hours and costs 360 pesos or, get a mini-van for 6-7 hours at a cost of 180 pesos. The difference being that the bus takes the long but main road around and it’s relatively comfortable and the mini-van takes the more direct route up and over the mountains!! So off to the mini-van we went! I don’t know why but we always have a story to tell when it comes to public transport, nothing is ever straightforward. Our driver who for the sake of this I’ll call Speedy drove our mini-van like a F1 car. I swear at one point he whizzed round a corner on a mountain road so quickly that the van was on 2 wheels!!! We drove through some really traditional mountain villages and it was great just to people watch as we sped by.
Eventually we stopped in a mountain town for some food just as it was going dark and I was thankful for a rest from the bumpy ride. Unfortunately once back in the van the engine wouldn’t start, typical. Speedy and the other driver found a spanner and hit something in the engine a few times, it seemed to do the trick! The other driver, who we’ll call Careful was now driving. I didn’t for a second expect speedy to slow down just because it was dark so i was pleased the other guy was behind the wheel. I thought I’d be able to get a bit of kip now but the van had other ideas. I was just drifting off when we suddenly stopped at the side of the road, and the engine started making some odd noises. We were in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain, not the place you particularly wanted to break down. Speedy, who’d been sleeping shouted a load of instructions to Careful and in the end they swapped seats and Speedy was back behind the wheel. After a bit of engine revving we sped off into the darkness…any chance I had of a quick 40 winks were now non-existent!!
Thankfully we arrived in Puerto in one piece and on arrival at our hostel the bumpy journey all seemed worthwhile. The place looked amazing, it was just a huge apartment with a lovely swimming pool and hammocks everywhere, a bed in a dorm was less than £5 a night, bargain.
After a night in our palace we headed down to the beautiful beach for a spot of sunbathing. It was perfect…apart from being caught by a freak wave and my kobo (e-reader) ended up going for a swim…amazingly though it still works!
Afterwards we walked into the town along the cliffs and sat watching the sunset on the beach, beautiful. (I wish we had pictures but unfortunately I was in charge of bringing the camera and I forgot to charge the battery!)
The next day was what we’d been waiting for, the boat trip to hopefully see turtles, dolphins and whales. We were down at the beach by 7am ready to head out. The boat we were on was just a basic 6 seater boat with an engine. Slightly different to the huge boat we’d been on in New Zealand when we went swimming with dolphins. Our guide, Roberto, kept saying that we would definitely see turtles and dolphins but whales were a bit more tricky to find but he’d try his best. Off we went and within about 5 minutes we’d found a huge turtle coming up for air. It was massive, but as you can see, it was pretty hard to photograph.
We carried on and suddenly out of nowhere a huge pod of white bellied dolphins appeared. It was absolutely amazing to be out in the middle of the ocean, low down to the water watching dolphins leap about.
There were tons of them but we couldn’t get too close as they just vanished under the water and would then pop up in a different location. We stayed there for ages just watching them, it was mesmerising. After a while Roberto declared that we were heading off to find a whale, so off we went. He explained that there were 7 different types of dolphin in these waters so we’d also look for those. By this point, there were no other boats around (earlier there were 2 small boats watching the dolphins with us) and in the distance we spotted dolphins doing amazing flips so we headed over. This time we’d discovered spotted dolphins and these were completely different to the earlier ones. They were very inquisitive and wanted to stay with the boat all the time. There were even babies, which were so cute. They put on an amazing display for us flipping and jumping out the water and it was absolutely breathtaking to watch. Because we were so low down in the water and it was so peacefully quiet all we could hear was them coming out of the water to breathe, it was amazing.
We were enjoying watching these dolphins so much that we didn’t pay any attention to what was going on further afield and suddenly our guide shouted WHALE and the boat sped off in a random direction. None of us onboard had any idea how he spotted it but he’d seen a spout of water way off in the distance so that’s where we were heading. The dolphins came with us too which was amazing. Roberto explained that we had to wait until we heard or saw the water spout again so we knew which direction the whale was headed. This time we all heard it and off we went again. This happened a few times and then off of a sudden there is was next to our boat. A magnificent humpback whale. We stayed there for probably half an hour just watching and listening. The engine was turned off and the only noises we heard were the dolphins and whales (it turned out there were two of them) breathing. It really blew us away and was one of the most amazing experiences of our trip so far. At one point the whale ended up under the boat and the water was so clear that you could make out it’s huge frame. The captain quickly turned the engine on when it was under us though and manoeuvred the boat so it didn’t capsize us when coming up to the surface.
I still can’t quite believe how lucky we were to experience all that we did. We were just watching these amazing mammals in their natural environment and it really was a once in a lifetime experience.
Still buzzing from our morning excursion we had a few hours at the beach in the afternoon and went snorkelling in the bay. We decided to have a few drinks in the evening and went to a bar where it was ladies night so ladies drank for free until 11pm, excellent news for our budget! The highlight of our evening was watching an old man, probably around 70 years old dancing with his cup of coffee. He kept challenging people to a dance off. It was highly amusing as he was by far and away the best dancer in the club!! We went to bed that night still on a massive high from our amazing day.
Our next destination was San Cristobal which I hadn’t really read much about but Tom was really keen to go so off we went. We got an overnight bus there so as not to waste a day and also save on accommodation. The 13 hour journey was one of the comfiest I’ve ever had on a bus and we both arrived fresh and ready to go. Unfortunately as we were now at slight altitude (7000ft) and as it was early in the morning it was freezing! We had to go delving in our big bags to find more clothes before heading out on to the streets. Even in the freezing temperatures we could see that the town was beautiful. Little cobbled streets and brightly coloured houses, exactly how I’d expect a mexican town to be.
After grabbing some breakfast we headed to our hostel which was in fact a homestay. We decided to stay somewhere a bit different so we were staying in a family’s house for the next 4 nights. The family were lovely. Thankfully the Dad (Arturo) spoke English so I could communicate with him. They showed us up to our lovely little but very cold room and then chatted to us about what we wanted to do whilst in the town. Tom mentioned that there was a football match going on in a nearby town that we were keen to go to and Arturo gave us instructions on how to get there. The match was Jaguars v Cruz Azul and was to be played in a town an hour away called Tuxtla. Cruz Azul are one of the top 4 teams in the country so we thought we’d better try and buy tickets before heading there for fear of not getting in. We managed to reserve some online but only after buying them we got an e-mail saying we had to pick them up at one of four pharmacies in Tuxla…random! The match didn’t kick off until 9pm so we spent the afternoon wandering around the pretty town and investing in some knitted gloves. If the morning temperature was anything to go by we were in for a cold night at the footy.
Getting to Tuxtla for the match was easy, but I wish I could say the same for picking up the tickets. We traipsed around for ages and went into numerous pharmacies but none of them could give us our tickets. Eventually in pharmacy number 6 the guy behind the counter informed us that we could just pick them up from the ground, aaarrggghh. So tickets in hand and a newly bought Jaguars shirt (for £4.50) on Tom we headed in. The stadium was pretty big and apparently there was a crowd of over 25,000 there. Just before the match kicked off there was a firework display. I’m not sure if that was the norm but it certainly added to the excitement.
It was just great to be watching football again. Plus you didn’t ever have to leave your seat as there were tons of people wandering round selling litres of beer and snacks. We were in the main stand at the side and the hardcore Jaguar fans were to our right and didn’t stop singing for the entire match. The atmosphere was electric, which made up for the standard of the match which we both decided was like watching a poor championship/good league one tie in the first half and league two in the second!! It started off ok but by the second half both teams were tired and I don’t think there was even a shot on target. As it was unallocated seating we just decided to stand in the second half to take in the atmosphere. Suddenly a couple of men came over to us and asked if they could have their photo taken with us. We laughed and said of course and then that was it, loads of people wanted a photo. One guy even pushed his child towards me and asked for a picture!! It was all very random, I think we were the only non-mexicans at the match which was why there was such a big hoo-hah!
After the match we bid farewell to our new friends and headed to find our transport home. (the final score was Jaguars 0 Cruz Azul 1) On arrival at the makeshift bus station all was dark and there was no sign of a mini-van let alone one heading in our direction, aaahh. Luckily after a bit of wandering up the main road I spotted a van with San Cristobal on the front so we managed to head home without any more hitches. On arrival back at our homestay we noticed a little dog sat outside a house across the road. He got angry every time Tom tried to stroke him but we vowed to befriend him and named him Brian. (We ended up buying him doggy chews the following day and by the end of our time in San Cristobal he was happy to be stroked!)
The following day I really wanted to visit some of the local villages. I’d been reading about them and they sounded really interesting. We decided to do a tour even though neither of us are keen on walking around in a group, the only way to understand the different cultures was to have a guide. The first village we went to was San Juan Chamula and was about half an hour drive from San Cristobal. On arrival we were advised by our guide that photos are only allowed to be taken in certain places and he’d let us know when we could and couldn’t take them. The leaders and any spiritual ceremonies must not be photographed. Honestly the whole place was intriguing and one of the most interesting towns I’ve ever been to. Our guide, Cesar, walked us around through the market and explained lots about the town and all about the rituals of the local inhabitants (Indigenous Tzotzil Maya people) They have their own police force, dressed in the traditional woolen outfits but with an added gun! Their own prison, where the maximum sentence is three days and even have capital punishment for serious crimes. (our guide told us a horrific recent story about this) As we were there on a Sunday the place was unbelievably busy and there was huge market spread out over most of the village.
We visited a spiritual leader’s home before heading to the church and Cesar told us all about the different things we’d see in the church from chickens being killed, different coloured candles and the use of alcohol and fizzy drinks. I found it all so fascinating as it’s so different from anything else I’ve ever experienced. Once in the church (where photos are strictly forbidden) we saw everything he’d told us about including a live chicken in a bag which was being wafted over someone and would later be sacrificed (this is done because that person is thought to have lost their soul and sacrificing a chicken, amongst other things, is a way of retrieving their soul) The church inside was very smoky and dark and there were no pews, everyone was sat on the floor on pine needles. There were even Mariachis in there playing instruments. It was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited and really proves how diverse our planet really is!
After a wander around the market to sample some local food we headed to our next town of Zinacantan. Cesar explained that even though the same Indigenous Tzotzil Maya people lived here there were many differences between the two groups. The outfits they wore were different for a start and rather than the fluffy woolen clothes the people of Zinacnatan wore brightly coloured cotton clothing. Whilst we were there the festival of San Sebastián was going on and the whole town was out drinking and doing traditional practices. One of the most interesting being a tradition that every year a tree in the town was stripped off all it’s bark and someone dressed as a Jaguar climbed the tree whilst other people with blackened faces threw stuffed squirrels at him which he caught and threw back. We asked Cesar why they did this and he said he’d asked many different people but the answer was always “because it’s traditional”. Unfortunately we didn’t see this in action but we did see the tree and people in the appropriate outfits.
After this we went to a local family’s home which also doubled as a weaving shop and sat in their kitchen eating tortillas. All in all it was a unique day and so amazing to experience such culturally different people from us just getting on with their everyday lives.
The next day was my birthday. Originally we were going to head to Guatemala but Tom decided we shouldn’t spend my birthday travelling so we decided to stay an extra night. We planned to go to another town nearby called Chiapa de Corzo where there was meant to be a beautiful boat trip through a canyon and also the finale of the festival of San Sebastián. After a breakfast of 2 birthday cakes and a slightly complicated journey in 2 mini-vans we arrived on the outskirts of the town and walked along the pretty streets which were just setting up for the festival. We decided to head out to the canyon first which really was beautiful. We also saw 2 huge crocodiles by the water.
Once back on land we wandered around the festival where all the men from the village were dressed up in incredible outfits and all the females in brightly coloured dresses.
We were only going to stay for a few hours but we got sucked into the excitement of it all and ended up staying all afternoon. There was loads of beer on sale everywhere (1 litre for £1.50) and once again all the locals had chilli stuff all round their cups and a shot of some weird spicy stuff in their beer. Tom, not wanting to miss out decided to give it a try and instantly regretted it. Just sipping it made me gag and his face was a picture every time he drank it. This is one tradition I cannot understand..why ruin a nice beer!!
After a few more hours people watching and playing fairground games we decided to call it a day. We’d had so much fun and to experience a traditional mexican fiesta was fantastic. We hardly saw any other tourists and it really felt like we’d immersed ourselves into a local tradition, it’s definitely a birthday I won’t forget for a long time.
Then that was it for Mexico. After not being keen on Mexico City things just got better and better and we had an unbelievable couple of weeks. A usual we were sad to be leaving but looking forward to our next country, Guatemala.