Friday, May 24, 2013

Leaving Mexico via the Plains of Yukatan

Maya ruins - Palenque 
Emerging from the Lacadon forests, I made my way to some of the most spectacular ruins in Mexio - Palenque. Very impressive and consequently also busy with tourists but fortunately they all stay in the main squares and it is easy to wonder off around the periphery and have it largely to oneself. In fact, just across the road from the ruins is a beautiful forest with extensive trails. But what is amazing about this forest is the sheer quantity of ruins scattered everywhere. What appears to be a pile of jungle-clad rocks turns out to be just that - but a closer inspection reveals that the rocks are all hewn and form bits of walls, a couple of steps, a stone-lined viaduct with big slabs of rock covering the top - in many ways more alluring than the reconstructed temples in the main tourist area - and not a soul to have to share it with - actually, not entirely true. When I left the trail in pursuit of howler monkey calls I encountered a couple of additional primates - two french students studying the social behaviour of the monkeys, one doing her masters and the other a volunteer. Feels like Indiana Jones territory in here!

Howler monkey - my early morning wake-up call
From Palenque, I left the mountains behind and ventured onto the hot steamy plains of Yukatan. This wasn’t really what I had been expecting - not that I had any real idea of what to expect, but it seems that much of the Yukatan peninsular is a vast limestone shield riddled with holes (cenotes) that have filled with water, many providing delightful, jungle surrounded swimming holes. I don’t know if it is the shallow water table or low nutrient limestone soils, but the forest here, while thick, is not tall so doesn’t have the lushness that one normally expects from a rainforest. Also, it is the end of the dry season so everything is looking a bit stressed, I suspect that in another month or so it will be a completely different place. Visited more ruins at Calakmul, then traversed northwards through quiet backroads to Uxmal and the spectacular Chichén Itzá, all in great forest settings, before cutting to the coast at Tulum, with yet more ruins perched on the cliff tops overlooking the sea. This spectacular location makes it a big draw for Mexican and foreign tourists alike but many were more interested in swimming at the beaches below the ruins than they were in the ruins themselves. The beautiful beach of Xpu-Ha, just north of Tulum kept me entranced for a couple of days before heading southwards once again to spend my last two nights in Mexico in the very pleasant Yax-Ha campground in Chetumal as I got organised for Central America! 

Ruins at Chichén Itzá
Some of the wildlife around the ruins...

Idyllic beach at Xpu-HA

Beach-side camp spot

Ruins and tourists at Tulum

So...somehow, six months seem to have slipped by. I’m not sure how that happened. Actually, I can see how it did...Mexico is an amazing country, and even after 6 months, there is so much more that I could have done. Muchisimo gracias to the many, many Mexicans that I met along the way for their endless humor, hospitality, great company, insights and learnings - not to mention the wonderful food.

Last camp in Mexico - Central America here I come!
If you’re reading this blog with a view to taking to the road, and people are telling you that you shouldn’t go to Mexico, based on my experience, my advice is - ignore them!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Crossing the America’s version of Wallace’s Line - the Yukatan peninsular and the land of monkeys

Heading yet further eastward, I passed through the (relatively) narrow bit of land where the gap  between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific is at its narrowest. And from there you start to climb - upwards towards San Cristobal de las Casas, after which the influence of the Caribbean to the east starts to kick in and you know you have moved into very different ecological systems. The humidity increases, the pine forests give way to rain forests and you meet your first monkeys - feels a bit like Wallace's line in Asia ( 

The central plaza of San Cristobal
San Cristobal is another very quaint little town with a beautiful and relaxed central square surrounded by little lanes lined with stores and restaurants, mainly directed towards the tourists - most of whom are Mexican. Caught up again here with Pat and Monique and kids and a few other overland travelers which provided handy tips for places to go through Central America. Also chatted with a British-Mexican who is studying the bird communities of the coastal lagoons and is interested in ways to develop community conservation in the region. 

From San Cristobal to the ruins of Toniná, picking up a couple of hitch-hikers on the way (French and French-Canadian). Another delightful campground next to the ruins was perfect for an early visit before it got too hot. 
Maya ruins at Toniná

A visit to the Zapatistas

Protest camp in San Cristobal
And then, to the backroads again, this time heading south towards the Guatemala border, the Lacadón Rainforests and Laguna Miramar, and the lands of the Zapatistas - a group of communities that initiated a guerrilla uprising in the 1990’s against the one party rule of the then PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). In order to get into the North American Free Trade Agreement the Government tried to privatize the lands that were, up till then, managed by local ejidos or community collectives. The Zapatistas were after greater political and cultural autonomy for the region and after several years of conflict eventually signed an agreement with then President Zedillo that outlined a program of land reform, indigenous autonomy, and cultural rights, but after less than a year, Zedillo reneged on the accords. In the meantime, presumably with support from the US, government sponsored paramilitary units staged attacks on local villages - one of which resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people - mostly women and children. And, according to photos and reports on display in the square at Oaxaca, people are still being murdered if they are seen to be a problem for those with power, influence and money.

It seems there was widespread community support throughout Mexico for this movement, and after 70 years the first non-PRI government got elected. The Zapatas have since established local governance arrangements - effectively unilaterally implementing the terms of the accord, moving away from armed conflict. While things seem relatively peaceful now, tensions with the government continue to simmer, as evidenced by protests in the squares of towns like Oaxaca and San Cristobal. 

Passing through Zapotista farmlands...
I guess it is this very recent history that causes locals to look at me guardedly as I pass although, while not initiating interactions, they respond quickly with a smile and a wave when you wave to them. 

And into the Lacadón forests
Some of this history I picked up from Roberto, a local in yet another pueblo called Emeliano Zapata. He was a guerrilla fighter in the past but now was my guide as we hiked to Laguna Miramar, and then my boatman as we paddled  around the edges of the beautiful, forest fringed lake, with the roars of howler monkeys echoing over the water. My spanish was tested as conversation ranged across politics (capitalism versus socialism), religion and family, not to mention the environment that we were in, all whilst paddling around the lake!

The shores of Laguna Miramar

My namesake and guide

This is all limestone country and hence riddled with caves. In one of these by the lakes edge we found large tortoises hiding in the dark chambers, with many small bats clinging the walls overhead. Spider monkeys also swung off into the forest as we passed and a pair of keel-billed toucans watched with bemusement from the safety of their high perch.

Unfortunately, because this is the burning season (slash and burn agriculture in preparation for the coming wet season) it was quite hazy, but the blood red full moon over the lake that night was a rewarding offset. My bed for the night was a hammock strung under a shelter, with the breeze off the lake keeping me cool and the insects at bay.

Overlooking Laguna Miramar
My bed for the night

While the forest is magical, its area is diminishing as everywhere the locals chip into its edges with machete and matches - clearly the resultant income is only marginal. It seems like a high price to pay to generate only subsistence income - seems like a place that desperately needs a scheme that pays them for not cutting the forest down. 

The villages around here are all very well organized and very tidy - these people are obviously very committed to their community collectives, and the results are quite impressive. It feels good here, in spite of its recent history. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Back on the Pacific Coast

Parque Nacionale Lagunes de Chacahua

A new playground for the locals
My next camp was in the tiny fishing village of Zapotalito on the edge of some extensive coastal lagoons east of Puerto Escondido. I was quickly the centre of attention for a group of local kids and before I knew it they were in and all over the car. They were particularly fascinated by my books and spent ages looking through my bird book, atlases and spanish language books. 

Exploring the mangroves of Laguna Chacahua
The following morning I threw a few things into a backpack and headed off across the lagoon by boat with Antonio, one of the few people here who had a bit of english. We motored through “the labarynthes” - tunnels through the mangrove forest, past islands with many nesting birds and finally arrived at the small coastal village of Chacahua - a spot popular with surfers who obviously settle into the cabañas here for much of the season, taking advantage of what seem to be very reliable, and quite sizable waves. 

After a couple of nights here I then took the local “bus” (a rickety pickup with wooden seats) back along the coast road with a bunch of the locals - much cheaper than the boats that seem to be priced for tourists, thereby precluding their use by the residents. 

Chacahua Beach
On returning to Zapotalito, I went for a cycle with Antonio and his son, firstly around the village and then across to a neighboring coastal village at what used to be one of the entrances to the lagoons. The building of a huge rock wall into the ocean effectively blocked all the sand that used to move along the beach with the current and deposited it in the estuary, blocking the channel and impacting on the water quality, fishing and health of the mangroves. Apparently the government has agreed to do something about it - this time by building a new stone wall on the other side of the estuary, rather than removing the offending one - will be interesting to see the consequences, assuming it actually happens. 

My biking companions
Some engineer presumably thought this was a good idea..
Another idyllic view from my camp
From there, I made my way into Puerto Escondido, a bit of a resort town, but very laid back and low key with some funky restaurants along the beach front. While much of the waterfront now is directed towards tourism, it hasn’t completely destroyed the local flavor as is the case in the bigger resort towns. 

Beach at Barra de la Cruz
Heading eastwards, a detour down a side road towards the coast brought me out at the beautiful beach of Barra de la Cruz - a very tidy little beach managed by the locals, with palapas and a restaurant but all accommodation back in the adjoining village, giving it a nice, isolated feel. Another great surf here - apparently this location has been used for international surfing competitions. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Oaxaca's Sierra Norte and the Pueblos Mancomunados

Cosy forest campsite....
From just east of Oaxaca, a steep winding gravel road took me away from the heat of the valley and into the cool of forested mountains. Tucked away in the highlands behind Oaxaca are a series of small, friendly and very tidy villages, perched on ridges or mountainsides in among the forest. These indigenous Zapotec villagers have a system of sharing the resources of the region among the various pueblos (OMG - they must be socialists!!), resources which now include a small numbers of tourists. A coordinated network of accommodations, hiking and biking trails, together with very friendly locals, make this a fun place to spend a bit of time. 

...with an impressive backdrop for an evening cervesa!
My first night was spent in a clearing in the forest just out of one of the many pueblos in Mexico called Benito Juarez (after the indigenous Zapotec Prime Minister of Mexico in the mid to late 1800’s). My campsite was 50 m from a spectacular lookout, perfectly located for enjoying sunset and beer as storm clouds broiled over the adjoining ridges. 

Next morning, while exploring the  the forest roads, I encountered an elderly woman who was walking the 11 kms from her village to the next. I gave her a lift and she told me that she did this “cada dia” (every day) both ways. I couldn’t quite figure out why, but it had something to do with the local school. By the time we reached her destination, I had picked up another three people headed in the same direction so I had a car full of happy chattering locals.  

Morning view from my bedroom window.
That evening was spent on another ridge-top, this time overlooking the village of San Miguel Amatlan. I was here courtesy of the extremely friendly and helpful "manager of tourists" who suggested that this site, out of town, with spectacular views over the surrounding valleys, with villages glued to the slopes, was better than the eco-retreat in town. Obviously I took his advice and had the mountain to myself, with the exception of a chat with some passing locals, and some flickering light from the resident glow worms - Magic!

The next day,more very slow driving through the forests, with frequent stops to explore on foot, led me to an enticing little unused forest trail which, after a few hundred meters opened into a beautiful glade. Here I set up camp and spent what remained of the day wandering through the forests in search of birds and whatever else cared to show itself - in this instance, with the exception of a squirrel, only the birds obliged.

From the mountains to the sea

Awoke to a crisp clear, still morning. A quick coffee and then off wandering through the forest once more - a perfect morning for birding - every wing flutter, every cheep or twitter, and every movement detectable in the otherwise perfectly still and silent morning. The only other noise, the clatter of debris, as squirells or woodcreepers dislodged bark and pine cones as they breakfasted. Across the valleys I could occasionally glimpse villages nestled on the slopes, the smoke from morning  cooking fires hanging languidly on the still air. Whilst not the Himalaya, it evoked memories of hillside villages in Sikkim. The need for more coffee eventually lured me back to camp, followed by leisurely drive back into Oaxaca. 

An interesting consequence of good roads with wide verges in this part of the country (rare up till now) is that everyone drives with their right wheels on the verge, ensuring that there is room for faster vehicles to pass, even tho the middle line is unbroken and there is traffic coming the other way. Effectively this turns a two lane road into three, the only problem being that traffic from both directions think they are entitled to the middle overtaking “lane” (ie one wheel on either side of the centre line). This results in regular attempts to fit four vehicles across two lanes. Generally it seems to work, although the frequent shrines on the side of the road (not to mention the occasional completely trashed car) suggests that it isn’t always successful. 

I had meant to get off to an early start from Oaxaca but instead, spent the morning chatting to a Dutch couple who were doing the Panamerican from south to north. They had lots of handy tips, and very generously donated their maps from central america.

Eventually got going just before midday for what was probably a 300km drive. However given that my chosen route was via winding third-class roads through two tall mountain ranges that stood between me and the pacific coast, it was always going to be a stretch. But I was happy to be off the freeways and in charge of my own destiny again -  if you can describe not having a plan and making it up as I go as being “in charge”.  

The rains don’t come here till June, so it is all quite parched, but scenic nonetheless, with the backdrop of craggy mountain ranges. Initially I meandered across the broad Oaxaca valley as the day heated up. The first hour or so was spent bumping over hundreds of topes (these are usually un-signposted, and often very severe, speed bumps). These are usually located at the entrances and exits of the numerous small villages - but seemingly also at every roadside comedor (restaurant) - presumably set up by the owners hoping that, having slowed you down, you will come in to eat (or having broken your suspension you have no choice!). The next several hours were then spent grinding uphill into the mountains. Scrubby agricultural land started to give way to pine forests but still they were dry and parched, with the greener, deciduous trees confined to the slightly damper gullies. The approach to the top of the second range passed many small pueblos tacked onto the mountain slopes.  The people here are mostly “indigenas” and they look questioningly at me as I pass in my strange vehicle - I suspect that not many extrangeros come this way. 

Roadside comedor seemed like a good place to spend the night...
At the top of the ridge I disappeared briefly into clouds - presumably the result of cool moist air coming in off the ocean to the south and rising over the range, only to emerge on the other side on a different planet - obviously I had crossed the line of a rain-shadow and suddenly I was descending towards the coast through luxuriant rain forest. Having found this new world I didn’t want to pass it by so, in a small ridge-top village, I stopped at a roadside cafe and asked if I could stay the night.

...with a rainforest backdrop...

..and a very friendly chef for tonight's dinner!
My Spanish is obviously reasonably functional, as they understood what I wanted and directed me to a spot with spectacular views over the forest. I then managed to order dinner (only one thing on the menu - chicken broth with tortillas) and hold a conversation about fishing in the local streams, about the parrots that they had caught in the forest and had in a cage, and about my travels. Interestingly, my spanish is better when I’m on my own than when I have an audience of other extrangeros. So, all in all a delightful day and I have to say, estoy muy contento!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In the blue house of Frieda Kahlo

You can't go to Mexico City without visiting Frieda.. having a cat for company
The woman that was..

....and her tortured view of herself.

When time stopped, and restarted...separation from Diego Rivera

Puebla, Oaxaca and Maya ruins

Wednesday is washing day......
From Mexico City, it was a dash down the toll roads to Puebla, where we set up camp in the adjoining suburb of Cholula, alongside Monique, Pat, Fin and Sophie, who were our neighbors from previous camps in San Miguel De Allende and Teotihuacán. 

A twenty minute walk took us towards the Cholula pyramid - apparently the largest in the Western Hemisphere - however a friendly little cafe on the corner, with views of the pyramid, distracted us for a beer or two, before we continued on to explore the site. Rumor has it that there is a spectacular volcanic peak just on the edge of town but the haze and smog ensured that it was not to be seen today. After exploring the ruins, we tried one of the local delicacies - fried crickets - but they were a bit over-salted for my palette and, apart from the crunchy shells, didn’t have a great deal of substance. 

The navigator and the chef -
Mariana asking directions, Miguel ordering crickets!
...and would you like fruit with your crickets?

Mariana and Miguel with the "mole" chef
Our big decision for the following morning was that one really should eat Mole Poblano (Puebla Mole - the region’s signature dish) when in Pueblo, so we agreed that we would drive in to the centro and, if we could manage to find a parking spot, we would have a look around. Fortunately we were early enough that most of mexico was still in church so, with the help of a friendly parking attendant we found two spots and set off on foot to explore the town. A good decision on a couple of fronts - firstly because we found a local “food-hall”, a cluster of eateries in a small market where we had a delicious mole - chicken with a chocolate and chile sauce, and secondly, because the streets of Pueblo are delightful - this being a town that specializes in tiles, both in its buildings and its crafts.

The wedding cake architecture of Puebla

Busy in the bakery.
Chatting in the plaza
Juggling for tips at the traffic lights

Red meat tonight?.....
...or maybe the chicken feet?

The afternoon saw us tollwaying again, this time on to Oaxaca, where a fairly grungy but conveniently located campground provided our home for the night.

The seasons are changing and it is getting hotter and much more hazy. It’s important to note this, because all reports of Oaxaca is that it is a beautiful city, not to be missed. For some reason I found it a little underwhelming - the majority of the city sprawls across a broad hot valley and is  pretty unattractive. While the old centro is much more pleasant, it didn’t really have the charm of places like Guanaghato and San Miguel De Allende. The exception tho were the local markets, an amazing agglomeration of stalls selling every from a diverse array of fried insects, to meat and vegies,  the usual trinkets and most importantly, chocolate - still made to ancient recipes.

The ruins of Monte Alban
Adjoining Oaxaca are the impressive ruins of Monte Albán, perched atop the ranges behind the city. After wandering around these for the morning, I took leave of Mariana and Miguel, as they now need to get moving in order to fly out of Costa Rica in a few weeks. I don’t have the same time constraints so rather than rush with them I’ve decided to head for the hills and have a break from cities and freeways.