Friday, 16 March 2012


Dressing up in Chihuahua.
Across the border from Belize and back into Spanish-speaking territory. It would have been a fairly easy crossing were it not for the fact that our bus, which was supposed to pick us up again after the border, had gone on without us to Chetumal, presumably because us foreigners took a few more minutes than the driver could cope with. We were stranded at the border with no money and no cash machine for 10km, and taxis waiting eagerly to rip us off.

We walked a hundred yards up the road and stuck out our thumbs. Almost immediately, a British-born Belizean living in Mexico picked us up. He never quite said what line of work he was in, but from his stories about being raided by the police in Bolivia and having $47,000 in cash stolen, I knew it must be something very sound and moral. I asked him about the food in Mexico. “Oh, it’s great!” he exclaimed. “You can have McDonald’s, Burger King… anything you could want!”

We were dropped in the bus station in Chetumal and we jumped on a nice bus to Playa del Carmen, a real tourist hotspot. I must admit it’s not the sort of place I would normally go, but it’s the port for boats to Isla Cozumel, where we were due to meet an old friend of mine the next day. We spent the evening watching the hordes of American (mostly) tourists pay through-the-roof prices for semi authentic Mexican food and faux-Mayan souvenirs along the very clean and bright streets of the beach area. We had a bowl of soup, then took the ultra-modern ferry across to the island, where an overpaid taxi driver took us to our hostel at the northern end of the island.

The next day we met my friends as they disembarked the Oasis of the Seas, the world’s second largest cruise ship, and together we rented a car for the day. It was a beaten up old thing, but it had an open top and we relished the breeze blowing away the heat of the tropical, Caribbean sun. We explored the peaceful, white beaches, enjoyed the blue, warmish water, and sipped on tasty, fresh coconuts. We explored the wild southern end of the island, where the yellow grass of the marshlands contrasts with the bright blue and white of the coast. Amongst the deadwood lay crocodiles, almost imperceptible with their camouflaged backs basking in the heat.

Crocodiles on Isla Cozumel
We visited San Gervasio, some Mayan ruins seemingly guarded by iguanas. Honestly, they were everywhere. While it may have a lot of tourists and the associated businesses in the main town of San Miguel, the island nevertheless has a charm that hides in its relatively untouched corners. Despite the exaggerated cost of exploring it, it’s a rewarding adventure.

The wild coast of Isla Cozumel.
After a meal of fajitas and tacos (well, we were in Mexico after all), we said goodbye and spent one more evening on the island before taking the ferry back to the mainland the following morning. We asked at the bus station for buses going inland but baulked at the price and opted for the local way: a minibus up to Cancún and then a second-class bus to Piste, some seven hours in total. Ever since leaving Chile some six months ago, these local forms of transport were always packed to the rafters with people, objects and animals, but here they are efficient and organised. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the minibus refused to stop for someone because there were no available seats.

We arrived in the tiny town of Piste, a far more typical Mexican village of small house painted in pleasing shades of yellow, where tacos were about 50p each. (They were not, funnily enough, crunchy shells like I expected. They were flat, soft and very floury, with meat and sauce put on top. Further north, however, they do become fried and crispy. I prefer the latter.) Although Piste is a fairly sleepy, unassuming town, just a mile down the road is a site packed with thousands of tourists a day: Chichén Itzá, a World Wonder.

Ever since Chichén Itzá was named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2001, its popularity has skyrocketed. Consequently, the paths between the Mayan temples and structures are lined with about a billion stalls of souvenirs and people pretending to whittle wood (they absolutely do not do it themselves, since every mask/statue/model is exactly the same as the one on the next table). On the upside, however, the buildings are extremely well taken care of, with no walking on the stones allowed. The result is a fantastic view of a well-preserved collection of pyramids, temples, observatories and courtyards of pillars.

Chichen Itza
The centrepiece is of course El Castillo, which rises up majestically above a raised, grassy platform. But we particularly enjoyed the numerous ball-game courts, where the Mayans played a complicated sport where the losers ran the risk of being sacrificed, which probably made them focus a bit. These pitches are surrounded by walls that produce amazing acoustic effects, with claps and shouts echoing loudly and repeatedly.

We took an overnight bus to the capital, Mexico City. Now, I’ve always had this idea of Mexico City in my head, that it’s a huge, sprawling, poor city with no centre. Well, it’s certainly big, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a large, colonial heart with wide, clean streets and historic buildings galore. It’s home to over a hundred museums, and the streets are abuzz with people shopping, drinking and watching the free shows that occur all over. I liked it a lot. We stayed a few days and wandered its neighbourhoods, some of them green and leafy, some of them busy and noisy. One area was filled with a huge market, the scent of exotic fresh fruit spilling around the corner along with the friendly shouts of the tradesmen offering free tastes.

The central plaza of Mexico City.
On a hill outside of the centre is Chapultepec Castle. Here, in 1847, six young men between the ages of 15 and 19 essentially martyred themselves by refusing to give in to the US army as it stormed the city. One of them wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death rather than surrender. Six pillars now stand at the foot of the hill representing their lives. Today, the castle contains murals depicting the tumultuous history of the country and the beautiful gardens give way to a fantastic view over the city.

The Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City
We left the city on another comfortable night bus, to arrive in Los Mochis on the west coast. I was finally out of the tropics for the first time since Chile; this coupled with the altitude led to a large but welcome drop in temperature. From Los Mochis we took a bus to the small town of El Fuerte (The Fort) and stayed the night in this small, friendly town, where a local eatery cooked us up all the Mexican delights we could ask for.

The next day we took the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico one of Mexico’s two passenger railways, from El Fuerte all the way to Creel, a journey that took us through the heart of the Copper Canyon, which is in fact larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. It was a stunning trip. The train wound its way through gorges and tunnels, and across mighty bridges spanning the Río Fuerte. The colours of the rock gleamed from orange to red to green (when covered in moss) and the erosion revealed lines of ancient earth layering its way down to the bottom, almost 2000m below in some places.

Through the Copper Canyon by train.
From Creel we caught a bus to Chihuahua, a large city in which we spied no dogs. Shame. The city itself, far from being doglike, has a small but busy centre, where a couple of old plazas are joined by a pedestrianised street to form a vibrant focal point flanked by baroque churches and imposing statues. The city is perhaps most famous for Pancho Villa, a thoroughly dubious criminal-turned-revolutionary now revered for his efforts against the government in the 1910s. His house has been kept exactly as it was, save for the introduction of several overly biased signs explaining what an amazing man he was. In the garden sits the Dodge in which he was killed, bullet holes and all. Our favourite building, however, was the Government Palace, which aside from the murals tracing the city’s history was for some reason filled with girls in brightly coloured wedding dresses. We later realised that these weren’t the new fashion or marriages, but a coming-of-age costume for fifteen year old girls.

We dined in Pancho Villa’s favourite restaurant, then took a night bus towards the US border. We were headed for the one place everyone has consistently told us not to go to: Ciudad Juárez, the last stop before Texas. Evidently I survived, but I’ll tell the story of the eventful crossing in the next instalment.

1 comment:

  1. have just spent a delightful few hours reading your central american adventures - i just love your writing!