It was hard to leave San Cristobal, but we´re on a serious mission here and we can´t afford to hang about. What do you think this is? A holiday? OK, I guess we´re a little concerned with running out of time with so much to see, so we jumped on a bus to Palenque in order to visit some Mayan delights. Oh and a couple of waterfalls too. You can´t beat waterfalls, in my opinion.
Like the book said, you should stay in El Panchin, just outside Palenque, if you want to have a nice time. Full marks to the book on this occasion! 10/10. El Panchin is a little community set up by some hippy a long time ago and its based in the jungle. My first thought was that I´d most likely be eaten alive and it wasn´t going to be a lot of fun, aside from being close to nature and all that. Well, I didn't see one mosquito. Yes I was wearing a layer of DEET, but even so, I thought there´d at least be the odd bite.
El Panchin has a number of places to stay and we got ourselves a nice cabaña next to a stream. Basic but absolutely fine. Instead of windows it had bug nets, so not only could you hear the jungle as you slept, you could also see the odd gecko and firefly peering in!
There was a choice of restaurants. Yes, a choice. In the jungle. It´s not sounding very hardcore, I´ll admit! We chose Don Muchos and with our new found English friend Iain, happily ate and drank while listening to live music. They had girls performing with Fire Poi too! Easily the best night so far.
With sore heads (I´m out of practise) we took a tour to the ruins, met Jasmin, a lovely girl from Germany and the four of us walked around taking in the sights, while eavesdropping on some of the guided tours!
The tour ended with a trip to two waterfalls, Misol Ha and Agua Azul. Because of the rain, Agua Azul was not very azul (blue) but nonetheless really impressive. I had to have a swim!
Another overnight bus took us away from Oaxaca, up and down the winding roads towards San Cristobal de las Casas – and boy were they winding roads. Hairpin followed by hairpin. After the first couple of hours even the most cast iron of stomachs would have been gurgling!
The bus was almost empty so we had room to spread out and try get a bit of shut eye. It wasn’t going to happen. Once the roads opened up, the driver put his foot down, either to make up time or just for the fun of it, and I couldn’t get my head to stay still for more than 20 seconds.
That was the worst of it though. We arrived at the bus station and were greeted by a young chap who had the answer to all our needs. At first I thought I’d have to dodge an attempt to steal the white man's dollars, but instead Jonathan opened up a brochure of a new hostel in town. Free taxi there, 24 hot water, breakfast, wireless, private bathroom, all for less than we’ve paid anywhere else so far. It was delightful. No need to run around town looking for cheap and clean accommodation, on the back of a night without sleep. This was a low season/new hostel discount. We’ll have that thank you very much! They even have free salsa dancing lessons if you want!
And, from then on the day just got better. There are actually people here willing to talk to you and discuss their travels. Crazy notion, hey?!
San Cristobal is a little like Oaxaca, and a little like Patzcuaro. Mountains surround the city, which makes all the street views so impressive. Its very much more geared up for tourism, and we have already booked ourselves a trip on a boat down a nearby canyon. There are plenty of reasonably priced restaurants and everything seems so chilled out and easy here. While sometimes it's nice being away from tourists, here we welcome not having to work hard for what we want. Plus, white faces aren’t a novelty. Although we had difficulty shaking off a couple of 10 year old (?) Mexican girls selling small ornaments! "No, thank you" wouldn’t cut it. So I had to try out some newly learned sentences. "I don’t need it and I don’t want it, thank you", I said. Still didn’t work. We left the restaurant and walked down the street and they eventually gave up. It takes a lot of will power not to cave and just give them five pesos. They’re very cute kids they send round here!
We met a Kiwi on the way round the Indigenous Medicine Museum (I know Sophie will have plenty to say about that place) and have arranged to meet her for a drink later along with a French guy from her hostel, who looks like John Lennon.
This place is wonderful!
ps. I forgot, we also had a boat trip down the Sumidero Canyon. I hope I don't become indifferent to amazing views!
About 20 Km away from Oaxaca city centre is Monte Alban, a pre-colombian Zapotec archealogical site, 400m up at the top of a hill. The Zapotecs apparently ruled the surrounding lowlands and settlements from here. The views of the valley of Oaxaca are perfect and you can see how it would be an ideal place for the Zapotec elite to keep an eye on things! Although it must not have been so great to operate a city from here. There is no water source, and being at the top of a large hill inhibits trade somewhat.
The site consists of tombs, buildings and ball courts. I wonder, was it football they were playing? Who knows!
The Zapotecs fought a lot with the Aztecs but both were undone by the Spanish in the end.
We got a good look at three circling birds too. I got a few shots (with the camera!) I think they're common buzzards. Magnificent!
I'd forgiven the canyons for roughing me up a bit and sadly we had to head somewhere new. Aware that time is ticking by, heading south was the plan, and the city of Oaxaca (pronounced wah-acka) the destination of choice. There are many many miles between Creel and Oaxaca. We talked of taking a flight but the bus easily won on financial grounds. Here's how it went; five hours to Chihuahua, change bus and 20 hours to Mexico City, change bus, six hours to Oaxaca. Dark, hey? That's 31 hours on a bus and about 37 hours total trip time. Unfortunately, we spent the longest stint at the back of the bus right near the toilet. It's potluck on buses, and this one hadn't been cleaned as recently as I'd hoped. You start to think, what constitutes a smell? Well, tiny particles..... I'll stop there!
We arrived in Oaxaca at 5.30am and had a nice chat with a lovely Japanese girl who lives in London. She'd been credit crunched (are we still in a recession in Blighty?) into a bit of traveling, so we chatted until sunrise when we could realistically go searching for accommodation.
Oaxaca reminds me of Florence. It has quite a relaxed feel about it. The architecture is attractive and there are plenty of museums, cafe's and restaurants - plus you can go to the market and grab a handful of fried grasshoppers, an Oaxacan specialty! Not very Italian, and not for me, thanks.
Oh, and a note about our accommodation. We're in a great little hostel that comes with breakfast and wireless Internet. It's our first time in a hostel thus far, and aren't you supposed to meet lots of fellow travelers and exchange stories and generally have a bit of a chat? Not here. Its as much as you can do to get a "hi" from these guys. Thankfully today we met a nice guy called Andrew from Denver (but originally a Brit) and had a good old chat on the way to some ruins.
Friday was our last full day in Copper Canyon. After the exertions of the previous day, the best way to see as much of the area as possible would be by hopping on a tour. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there is a lack of tourists here in Creel at the moment. Most of the tours need four, if not six people, to make it affordable. So, as a next best option, The 3 Amigos offered us their pick up truck for the day. It still wasn’t cheap, but this way we could see what we wanted at the pace we wanted. And driving around here is a lot easier than cycling!
In all, a 200 kilometre round trip took us as far as a town called La Bufa, which overlooks another town called Batopilas. From there we headed back, stopping to take photos of the wonderful scenery. It was a lot of ground to cover in a day. We were supposed to have time for a three hour hike to see the Cusarare waterfall. I don’t know how! It was probably for the best that we didn’t have time for that one!
Some of the roads were good, some were flooded dirt tracks and in between there were dusty roads like something out of a rally stage. The Nissan pick up was rear wheel drive – fun for rallying – but there were moments where we could have quite easily got stuck in mud on some of the off road tracks!
In Creel there is a great little place called The 3 Amigos and from there you can book all sorts of tours in order to experience the best of this vast canyon area. We hired mountain bikes (only £15 for 2, bargain) and headed for The Recowata Hot Springs, a 22Km ride.
Before we headed out, one of the amigos explained that the first few kilometres would be uphill, then flat road and then a left turn would take us on a flat off-road track. And also, once we got near the springs, there would be 3 kilometres of downhill on a stone path. Oh, and our helpful guidebook said that you will need some degree of physical fitness. No problem.
We made good progress. The first 15 kilometres flew by. The uphill at the start was challenging but it was morning so we were fresh. Then we started to head downhill on the track. Good, I thought. Not long until some hot spring action. Then the stone path started, huge stones of all shapes and sizes, set in concrete. It was probably the most uncomfortable path I’ve ever cycled on, even on a mountain bike with front suspension.
We continued down, and down and down. We must be almost there, I thought. Then the stone path started to get very steep and zig zag back and forth. We were going down the side of the canyon. I don´t know how far down perhaps a kilometer in altitude? No one said anything about this. These canyons are deep. We must have done three kilometres by now. No, the path went on and on. Some parts too steep to ride. Then, the bumpy stone hill got the better of me. Constantly on the brakes, my hands slipped forward off the handle bar and the rest of me followed. I broke the fall with my elbow and shoulder. The bike went sailing over my head. Ouch doesn’t cover it. But after a moment I realised I was very lucky. No broken bones and the bike still worked.
A short hobble and we’d reached the hot springs. Huge volumes of warm water pouring down the side of the canyon had been captured by a number of differently sized swimming pools. The water cascaded from one to the other and then eventually joining the river below. This is a seriously relaxing place to be. Sun shining, warm water to bathe in, and beautiful views. Perfect. Healing, even. And I needed healing!
After lunch and a good chat with some Mexican tourists, we decided we’d better try and make it back by the 18.30 deadline. However difficult it was coming down, going back up wasn’t going to be amusing. We couldn’t cycle it, so we pushed the bikes up the steep canyon. Almost a full two hours later we got to some flat ground. Only the small matter of 15 kilometres left. I don’t know how, but we made it back to Creel on time. I straightened out various parts of the bike from the crash, hid my left arm and we handed the bikes in.
We were exhausted. I’d said that I wanted some exercise and I got it. The springs are a wonderful place to go. On bikes? I’d say you need more than “some degree of physical fitness”!
The only way to get into the Copper Canyon area (there is and never was any copper here) is by a train which runs daily from Los Mochis to Chihuahua – perhaps where the little dogs come from? I’ll have to google it!
We boarded at El Fuerte and bought tickets to Creel, which is roughly halfway but still eight hours.
The views were spectacular and really do keep you amused for all those hours.
Arriving at Creel we were met by many people trying to tax us a few pesos in exchange for showing us to hotels – something we are more than happy to do ourselves. We eventually shook off some particularly persistent kids, who were pretending to guide us to hotels when in fact they were just trying to second guess which way we were going to go - we’re not in the business of giving our money away for nothing! (I´m not being harsh, they weren´t starving)
In Creel we again find ourselves in a place with a lot of warmth, friendliness and character. It’s surely what rural Mexico is all about.
A six hour journey up the coast and we arrived in Los Mochis. A very wet Los Mochis! This was some serious rain. The roads were flooded and more like rivers in some places. We had two tasks; firstly to find a place to stay (that had hot water) and secondly to find out some information on how to get into the canyons the next day. This wasn’t all that easy here and after much wading, we were pretty wet and miserable. Still, a good hamburger got me back in high spirits!
We decided to leave Los Mochis the next day, get a bus to El Fuerte (2 hours) and then catch a train to the canyons the following morning. This apparently is the best way to start the railway journey and should have been our first move.
El Fuerte reminded me of a place straight out of an old western movie set. There were colourful buildings, cowboy hats, saloon doors and plenty of places to kit your horse out.
Our hotel here was a tranquil arrangement of rooms set around a garden and in taking the small room, was a bargain. The proximity to the garden meant it was time once more to construct the mosquito net. I think we’re getting rather good at it!
We drank beer with the locals and tried our best to share a conversation. Perfect way to improve the old lingo, right? Wrong. They were so drunk I don’t even think they knew they were talking to foreigners. No amount of “no comprendo” or “no hablo Espanol” was going to work. They could have been Glaswegian and us Lithuanian, it made no odds. So, we had to ditch them. It was only 8pm! Luckily there was more than just one bar in town.
Confident about the quality of Mexico´s buses, we took an overnight one from Uruapan to Mazatlan - just 13 hours! (Did I mention Mexico is pretty big?) OK if you can sleep, but we made the mistake of booking seats right at the front, just behind the driver. He was playing his Mazatlan music - called La Banda, it´s traditionally "tuba dominated and exuberantly-spirited" according to the guide book. Basically its full of saxaphones, trumpets and clarinets and a fair bit of um-pa, um-pa, um-pas. - not the little orange variety!
Not exactly music to go to sleep to, but as Sophie pointed out, whatever keeps the driver awake!
Despite this and a change of bus at 2am (we got our sleeping bags out at this point as the a/c was begining to freeze the bones) I actually slept more than I thought.
We awoke in Mazatlan, which is a port town/resort on the west coast, and set about getting some accomodation sorted. I left Sophie with the bags and went searching - we take it in turns. The cheaper places the guide suggested were all pretty rough, especially the one owned by a Mexican Rab C Nesbitt!
But on my trek I stumbled upon the Hotel del Rio, a very basic place (and a bit crawley), but vitally it has A/C.
Its very hot and humid here and there isn`t a great deal to see, but there are some nice beaches and we found a lovely restaurant called El Shrimp Bucket - tasty food served with a smile, and believe me that´s rare!
The seaside part of Mazatlan reminds me of expat Spain, only substitute Brits for Americans. Although we did overhear some Mancunians in a bar - well you can´t have everything!
A swim in the sea and a photo of the sunset and we`ll be on our way thank you. We`re making our way to Copper Canyon. Lets not muck around!
As we discovered yesterday (by taking the wrong colectivo) the reason they use these large trucks to ferry people around in, is because not all of the roads are tarmac. And when its been chucking it down with rain all night, you need something heavy duty.
We set off early yesterday to have a crack at this volcano, seeing the San Juan ruins on the way. We arrived in Angahuan, (50 mins on bus from Uruapan) which is a lovely little village with a market by the square in the centre. It’s a 10K trek to the volcano, and fancying a bit of exercise we turned down several offers from guides with horses. I had a feeling they thought we were mad – one guide sarcastically said "hasta mañana" as we rejected his offers. But they have a very friendly way of hassling you. Its by no means the hard sell.
As we approached the lava field, a mile or so from town, there was only one path to take, which led us to the ruins. The old church was surrounded by 15ft of black lava rock that we climbed over to get a good look. It was strange knowing that beneath our feet there was an old town that had been buried only 60 odd years ago.
We pushed on, again taking the one path available through the lava field. The directions in our guidebook were extremely vague and there were no helpful signs. So when we came to a fork in the trail, we just had to go on instinct. The second sign (out of two we saw) had a scratched arrow on it which pointed the way to the volcano. We duly followed. It was a hard climb, and after a few hours the path suddenly ended leaving a few miles of lava field between us and the cone of the volcano. That put an end to our journey - the lava field contained many boulders. You`d have to climb rather than walk over it. We didn’t have time to turn back and find a different path for risk of being stranded in Angahuan. It was disappointing, but we really should have taken a guide. On the way back I scratched a little correction to that sign with my swiss army knife. Sounds petty, but I`d rather someone else didn`t make the mistake we did!
It was an enjoyable days walk though, and we did see some great views – the volcano appeared to still be active with white smoke/steam coming from it -just to add a little tension! We got a taxi back to Uruapan with a friendly Mexican who teaches English on the side. So we had a good chat and it worked out cheaper than the bus – bargain!
We took the bus to Uruapan, 45 mins away from Patzcuaro, in order to go see the Volcano Paricutin. This volcano last erupted in 1943 burying San Juan, a nearby village, but has since died down. However, the church tower is apparently still visible, sticking up through the lava (the lava apparently stopped at the foot of the altar). Should provide a good photo opportunity!
We’re looking forward to the trip to the Volcano tomorrow. It is a days worth of walking either by foot, with a guide or on a horse. The crater should be amazing to see, as I’m sure will be the sight of me on a horse, if we get one!
The town of Uruapan isn’t all that pleasant. It is clogged with traffic and fumes, - not a pretty place to look at. In Patzcuaro there were colectivos, which are small mini vans that act as a cross between a taxi and a bus. Superb value at only 5 pesos a ride (25p) you didn’t need to use a taxi. They have the same system here, however they use huge, loud snorting beasts, that throw out plumes of black smoke. And there are so many of them. Surely, replace them with the small minivans and pollution problem solved!
This afternoon we escaped `the beasts` and had a quick walk around the national park, which is just on the edge of the town. This has to be Uruapan’s one redeeming feature. Bring on the volcano!
There is a very large lake which starts on the outskirts of Patzcuaro, and a 40 min boat ride took us to a small island called Janitzio. The boat trip came with entertainment, in the form of a Mexican band and there were great views in the form of mountains – plus the odd eel swimming by.
As we approached the island, the boat slowed to take in a synchronised boat show from some local fisherman with their butterfly fishing nets (below) - and very impressive it was too. The island is famous for these fishermen and the "pescado blanco" they catch. This is a small white fish that they put in stew, but we had some deep fried, before we left!
On the island there are tourist shops and restaurants that line a steep path up to a large monument that our guide book called ‘unfortunate’. Although the island itself was a little spoilt with tacky shops, the one redeeming feature was this 40-meter statue of José María Morelos, a great hero of Mexico's independence. OK, I’ve seen better looking monuments (The Angel of the North?!) but this one had impressive murals inside and steps which took you all the way to the top for some fantastic views of the lake and surrounding mountains (top picture). It was well worth seeing. At least our 2009 Footprint guidebook has accurate restaurant and hotel listings… oh no, wait. It doesn’t.
I`ve just spent ten minutes trying to work out how to type the @ sign. It shares a key with Q and in order to get it, I ended up having to ask the Internet headmistress here at the town library. She wasn`t so impressed by my keyboard skills. You press the ALT key followed by the number 6, then 4 - in that order or it won`t work. Simple, hey? Don`t know what all the fuss was about! As you can guess, there is no wireless to be had so its internet cafe time.
We arrived here yesterday after getting a bus from Mexico City to Morelia, followed by another to Patzcuaro. I had geared myself up for the first leg, a 5 hour journey and came fully prepared with three freshly downloaded episodes of Hugh Laurie, playing that well known American doctor. Hardly acting like a serious traveller, I know. But we`re lugging this laptop around, so why not?! Anyway, after successfully negotiating the Metro with 200 odd litres of backpack between us, we arrived at the terminal and boarded the bus. We had first class tickets but I wasn`t prepared for just how nice this bus was. The seats were leather and fully reclining, which meant you could actually go to sleep if you wanted. They were pretty much first class airline seats -not that I know much about first class airline seats! The bus was air conditioned of course and they provided us with a packed lunch, which was very nice of them. And critically they had toilets, both ladies and gents, that were odour free. So, hats off to Mexico´s bus system!
The bus from Morelia to Patzcuaro was more interesting however, as we had stepped down to second class. The first bus didnt show and the second certainly wasn`t odour free! But this was only supposed to be an hour journey, so suck it up, I thought. (Not literally!)
About ten minutes into the ride, we stopped at a bus stop and as the driver pulled in, another bus pulled in front and side-swiped our bus taking the wing mirror off. I knew this had to happen at some point with all this crazy driving. A wing mirror on a bus here is about as essential as having at least four wheels. But this wasn`t going to stop our bus driver. Once we got going again, we made regular pit stops at garages where our driver would run out and ask if he could buy a wing mirror -or any mirror- I assumed he must have some masking tape or something. Sadly, they were all out of stock, so we continued on with no wing mirror and a prayer! Thankfully the journey only cost us $1.50 each (pounds, im not searching for the sterling sign!)
Having arrived in Patzcuaro, we took turns to check out hotel prices while the other guarded the bags. There are some really luxurious hotels here, all done in the colonial style of building. However, on a budget we must be frugal. Frugal is the word we tell ourselves everyday. So, we found what appeared to be an acceptable hotel for 250 pesos (12 pounds) per night for a room. On the outside it looked fine. But unfortunately, the inside was a little less than fine. And that`s me being very kind. The first thing I thought was, has the rat checked out of this room, or is he staying another night? Actually, I was fully prepared to be brave about it, but it wasn´t secure, there was no window and it just wasn´t cheap enough for that.
So, time becoming an issue, we checked into the Hotel Refugio del Angel which was twice the price but ten times as nice! Here was a seriously nice room, with double height ceiling, walk in shower and HUGE bed. Its been a long day, we´ll treat ourselves for one night.
But frugal being the word, today we found a 250 pesos hotel that is perfectly reasonable, and where I´m sure rats aren´t welcome!
Patzcuaro is a charming little town with many picturesque plazas surrounded by brown and white colonial buildings. The locals smile and are very happy to talk to you - and they even stop their cars if you want to cross the road.
First of all, thank you Emilio for being my first follower... and maybe my last. I feel the pressure building on this blog writing malarkey! But no, this is just my diary and who cares if I put it on facebook.
Today (actually Saturday, I'm behind) we went to see the pyramids which are just an hour away by bus. To throw in a fact, they are the third largest pyramids in the world and belong to the ancient city of Teotihuacan. (I'd like my readers to be informed, but awake!)
One thing we hadn't expected was to be a target for groups of Mexican school kids. There were hundreds of them and they had split up into groups to target any tourist they could find to practice some English- by way of an interview. As annoying as it sounds, I actually really enjoyed the chance to show that I could speak the odd sentence of Spanish. And in terms of getting to grips with a foreign language, we were very much on a par, if not better than some of these kids. Impressive hey! No? Well it made me feel good anyway.
So, in-between the ten or so interviews, we climbed up to the top of the pyramid of the moon and found great views of the ancient city and also the odd person meditating - it is apparently a place of great energy. Still suffering from the thin air, I could have done with some of that, but I couldn't have got in 'the zone' with all the crowds swarming over the summit!
Despite suffering from a 17 hour flight, being given the run around by Continental Airlines* and the thin atmosphere - we're at 7,349 ft above sea level, no less - I've thoroughly enjoyed the last couple of days here. I must add that I'm the only one of the two of us finding a lack of oxygen in the air hard going.
The city has a very happy-go-lucky feel to it and the 19 million Mexicans that live in the greater metropolis all seem to get along just fine! There seems to be just about enough room for all of them - and the cars they drive. Its certainly a different style of driving they have here. I'm used to London driving, but this is something else. There must be an unwritten law that says that there should be no space between each car, no matter what speed you're traveling at. Breaking distances aren't welcome!
But we'll let them off as, after all, they use old style VW Beetles for taxis and the Fed Police drive around in mean looking Dodge Chargers. I'll try get a photo of one if I can be brave enough! I'll have to get onto Boris about getting some for our Met. They just look the business and must make a criminal think twice. Probably not great MPG though.
The streets are vibrant but not buzzing with the multiculturalism I had expected. We really stand out here and as a consequence get stared at a lot.
The city appears to have been designed very well and the roads are quite wide - the picture at the top is just a side street where we're staying. So hats off to the Spaniards. They must have known this was to become the third largest agglomeration in the world!