Category Archives: Mexico

The Best Hostels in Latin America

Travelling for a year, constantly on the move, rarely staying more than three or four days in one place, where I end up staying makes a huge difference to my my stress levels. End up in a nice hostel, with things like comfy beds, warm showers, free breakfasts, a good location and a nice atmosphere keeps me far more relaxed and happy than when I’ve been unlucky enough to end up in somewhere lacking some or all of those factors.

Luckily, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find the vast majority of places I’ve stayed in have been brilliant. Finding the good ones isn’t too hard either – best of all is to get personal recommendations from other travellers, failing that, a quick look on hostelworld or hostelbookers gives a pretty good (and crucially, up to date) steer on where’s good. One of the main reasons to avoid using guide books is that new hostels are opening all the time, and in many places the best hostels have only opened recently.

Seeing as personal recommendations are the best kind, I thought I’d thank some of the best places I’ve stayed in by giving them a bit of a plug here – I make no apologies for the fact this list is entirely subjective (it’s not like I’ve been everywhere in Latin America, and I only ever stayed in one place in each town). But I reckon if you happen to be a budget traveller in any of these places and choose to stay in them, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

1. Casa de Dante, Guanajuato, Mexico

Me on Dante's roof

This one has pretty much everything going for it – Dante is the perfect host, welcoming new arrivals with a beer and a brilliant explanation of everything to do in the fantastic city. His mother is an amazing cook, and the free breakfasts (including fresh fruit, a cooked breakfast, delicious fresh smoothies and coffee) cooked by his mother are the best I had in any hostel by far. Add to that the peaceful roof terrace with views all over the city, and wonderful personal touches like the fact they fly flags on the roof for every nationality staying there on a given night (although let me know what Dante does if you happen to stay there and come from a small country he doesn’t have a flag for) and you have a real home from home.

2. Hostel Lao, Mendoza, Argentina

The Hostel Lao probably had the friendliest atmosphere of any hostel I stayed in. And it definitely had the friendliest (and possibly maddest) dogs too. There’s a huge garden (with a pool) too, and the weekly barbecue is really not to be missed – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that much meat (and the salads are pretty awesome too).

3. Casa Felipe, Taganga, Colombia

There can’t be many backpacker hostels in the world that have a chef who cooks posh restaurant quality food. Casa Felipe is certainly the only one I’ve ever come across. Great breakfasts too, and the rooms are really spread out, each with their own hammock, and with a lovely shaded outdoor seating area for chilling in, this is the perfect place to relax and recover after trekking to the Lost City. This is also one of the few where it’s definitely worth booking ahead – it’s always full.

4. Hostel Patapata, Valparaiso, Chile

Hostel Patapata

Valpo was my favourite city in Latin America, and a not insignificant part of my enjoyment was the wonderful Patapata. It’s in a big old 19th century townhouse on the best of the city’s hills, and is another family run place that really has a proper family feeling. Another place with great breakfasts too.

5. Albergue Churup, Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz sunset from Albergue Churup's balcony

Huaraz is a hikers’ and mountaineer’s town, and if you are either of those, Albergue Churup is the perfect place to stay. It’s really popular with the serious outdoor types, which can help if you’re looking to join up with people for activities. Best of all is the top-floor communal area, with huge windows giving perfect views of the mountains (and even better ones from the outside terrace), and a coal fire to keep you warm on the cold mountain evenings. Really hot showers are also an essential after a big hike, and they don’t disappoint. Yet again (bit of a theme developing here from me) the breakfasts are great (I can highly recommend the banana pancakes before a big day of activity).

6. Altons Dive Shop, Utila, Honduras

Alton's Dock

If you’re diving, this is the best bargain in the Americas I reckon. For a start, you get free accommodation if you’re doing a course. Even when you’ve finished a course, divers get a special rate, which was easily the cheapest I paid anywhere (just over $3!). And for that, you can get a room right on the dock, with beautiful views across Utila harbour. Hammocks on the dock are perfect for chilling too, there’s a bar right on the dock too and a weekly sunset booze cruise (more civilised than it sounds) and barbecue too. In fact if they just did decent Baleadas (yummy Honduran street food) I would barely have needed to leave the place the entire time I was there.

7. Camping Mihinoa, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

It’s in one of the best locations on the island, sitting right on the edge of the ocean facing some of the island’s most dramatic waves. The beds are comfy, the showers are hot, and there are not one but two decent sized kitchens. Marta is the perfect host too. And best of all, it’s the cheapest place to stay on what is a pretty pricey island.

8. Medialuna Art Hostel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is HOT. Ridiculously so. And very humid too. Walking around the city by day is a sweaty and tiring experience. So what you need is a hostel with somewhere to cool down. The Medialuna has two: a pool in the downstairs courtyard, and a nice high roof terrace that frequently gets a breeze that’s missing at street level. Housed in a lovely, whitewashed colonial building, it’s one of the more beautiful hostels I stayed in too. One note of caution – out of all the ones listed here, this is one that can be a bit noisy at night.

9. DN Hostel, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota is COLD. In my first hostel I nearly froze to death, even in my room. The DN, on the other hand, comes with wonderfully warm, thick duvets, atop one of the comfiest bunks I’ve stayed in. It has a really friendly owner too, and is another place that does a great weekly barbecue.

10. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico

Margarita’s gets a bit of a knocking sometimes, because the staff can apparently be a bit pushy about tours (although they weren’t to me), and admittedly the rooms aren’t quite up to the standard of most of the rest on this list. But it earns it’s place here for one very good reason – value for money. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed in Mexico, and yet it included not only a two course breakfast, but also a huge three course dinner – unique amongst all the places I stayed in.

That’s it for Latin America now – posts on New Zealand, Australia & Indonesia will be on their way soon as I work through my backlog of posts!

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Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ‘em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

Gallery

Mexico & Guatemala in pictures: Shop fronts

Mexico & Guatemala are very colourful countries in so many ways, from the food, to the landscapes and the traditional dress of the indigenous peoples. But my favourite of all are the hand-painted store fronts and advertising that brighten up … Continue reading

Mexico: Budget & Other Numbers

I’m rubbish with money. Really rubbish. For years I was stupidly in debt, a situation that wasn’t helped by firmly sticking my head in the sand when it came to dealing with any financial matters – for example, I never used to even look at bank statements. When I phoned my bank and the machine insisted on reading out my balance before letting me speak to someone, I used to hold the phone away from my ear because I knew the numbers would be too depressing. I had no control over my spending, to the extent that one month I’d spent my entire salary three weeks before pay day and ended up living off scraps from the back of the cupboard. Over the years I finally managed to haul myself out of debt and save enough for this trip, but if I’m honest with myself it wasn’t really because I managed to get a firm grip on my spending, but because I worked my arse off to earn more money which was what basically made all the difference.

So when it came to planning my trip, the think that worried me most was not getting mugged, or getting ill, or dying in a bus crash caused by crazy central american bus drivers (turns out that was what I probably should have been worried about). I certainly didn’t anticipate needing to worry about getting caught up in the outbreak of a pandemic in my first country or in a potential coup in my second (more on that in a future post). No, my major worry was staying within my budget of $50 per day for the year.

Now that the first country is out of the way, how did I do? Well, the good news is that I managed to stay within budget – by all of 96 cents. Considering my normal spending habits, that’s definitely something I’m pleased about. In fact, it could have been a fair bit lower. Firstly, transport costs really bumped the total up. I knew Mexico was big, but didn’t really appreciate quite how huge it is. In particular, my decision to go massively out of the way to head right to the north of the country to visit the Copper Canyon (and then all the way back nearly to where I came from) added a huge amount to my transport costs. Also, the swine flu outbreak necessitated an unplanned internal flight to avoid Mexico City. Together, these two things made up nearly $8 out of that $49. Furthermore, I also overspent a fair bit in my first few days in Mexico City & Queretaro while I acclimatised to my new spending regime and got a feel for what was cheap and what was expensive – for example the hostels I thought were cheap in my first two stops ended up being around double what I ended up paying everywhere else. I also spent a lot more on food and drink in the three weeks I was travelling with friends from home than I did when I was just hanging out with other backpackers. I also found it interesting to note that the mere act of recording my spending has helped me spend less as I have a much better feel for where all the money is going and what’s expensive and what’s not.

The bad news is that, even though I knew Mexico would be one of the more expensive countries I visit (as it’s one of the richer ones), it certainly won’t be as expensive as the 5 or so weeks in total I plan to spend in the USA, Australia & New Zealand. Easter Island will be very expensive too. So the average of all the other countries needs to work out a fair bit cheaper than $50 to account for them. Hopefully I can make that up over the rest of my time in Latin America (luckily that seems to be the case in Guatemala so far).

But ultimately I’m not going to let it worry me too much – as well as my budget I have other savings that can act as a cushion if I do overspend, and I’m not going to let money worries spoil the enjoyment of this trip of a lifetime. Plus I need to remind myself anyway that the point is not to do this as cheaply as possible, but to the budget of $50 a day, and so far I’m safely within that.

Right, preamble out of the way, the geek in me will now delight in spelling out exactly where the money went and a few other numbers as well.

Average daily spend:
Total – $49
Transport – $11
Accommodation – $11
Food & Drink – $24
Museums, courses & excursions – $2
Other (e.g. laundry, internet, postage) – $1

Most expensive transport:
Bus from Zacatecas to Chihuahua: $49
Copper Canyon train: $28
Flight to Puebla: $115

Most & least expensive accommodation:
Oaxaca hotel: $23 per person
Creel hostel: $7 (including two two-course meals – best bargain of the holiday)

Most expensive touristy thing:
Bus tour to Divisadero: $15 (but boy was it worth it)

Some other numbers:
Buses caught 40
Taxis taken 22
Flights 2
Boat trips 2
Car rides 7
Bike rides 1
Churches 19
Beaches 4
Beds slept in 19
Canyons seen 2
Thermal baths swam in 3
Laundry done 6
Postcards sent 2
Phone calls made 5
Cash withdrawals 11
Islands visited 1
Museums visited 14
Pyramids climbed 6
Runs along the beach 2
Flu pandemics survived 1
Injuries & ailments: 4 (scraping my arm tripping over a pavement on day one, gashing my back on a jagged rock after overbalancing while crouching down to take a photo of an old VW Beetle, a bout of the trots brought on by a dodgy taco – thank god for Cipro – and a big allergic reaction to Mexican soap, also on day one, which was particularly troublesome considering the official advice for avoiding swine flu involved washing your hands regularly).
Items lost 2 (shower gel & one padlock)

People I’ve shared a beer with:
Mexicans 20
Americans 12
Brits 7
Swiss 4
French 3
Italian 3
Czech 2
Kiwi 2
German 2
Canadian 1
Irish 1
Israeli 1
Spanish 1
Aussies 0 (remarkably)

So there we have it. Not a bad start financially, but must try harder. That’s it for my first country, Mexico. Thanks to everyone who has visited, subscribed and commented, it makes the effort all worthwhile and it’s nice to know people are interested enough in what I have to say to keep reading. Next stop: Guatemala (although I’m now behind enough that I’m already in Honduras before I’ve even posted anything about Guatemala. Whoops)

In case you missed any, you can find all my Mexican photos here and read all my posts from the country here.

And if you want to subscribe to catch future posts, you can click either link on the top right of this page to either do it in an RSS reader or get updates via email.

Impressions of Mexico

When I wrote about my ten (pre-trip) favourite countries at the end of last year, Mexico was the winner. After spending six weeks there, I’m even more in love with the country than I was before. Here are some of the reasons why:

The colours

One of the first things that struck me about Mexico was how colourful the country is. chili, limes & tomatoes in bright green and red. Colonial cities with their churches and houses painted in shades of pink, yellow, red and terracotta. The delicate purple of the jacaranda trees and the dark pink of the bugambilia. Shops and businesses with premised hand painted in bright shades of every colour of the rainbow. The multicoloured outfits of indigenous women everywhere, especially in the Copper Canyon, Oaxaca & Chiapas. The deep blue of the pre-rainy season skies, and the even deeper blue of Frida Kahlo’s house. And all of them glowing brightly under a sun that feels twice as intensely as it does in Europe, which is going to feel very grey and drab comparison when I return.

The landscape

It’s not just all the colours that make Mexico look amazing. Even without them the place would be pretty special. Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, San Cristobal de las Casas and Oaxaca are easily the match of historic cities in Europe in terms of the beauty of their architecture. The copper canyon is the most breathtaking piece of scenery I’ve ever seen. The beaches of Zipolite and Tulum are wonderful places to chill out, and are as beautiful as my favourites in Spain’s Formentera and Thailand’s islands. Even journeys are invariably stunning – it’s a huge country, and a very mountainous one, and almost every long bus trip I took allowed me to either see them rising up in the distance or to wind my way through them on narrow, twisty roads, such as the road from Oaxaca to Zipolite or best of all, the long descent to Batopilas. The Copper Canyon railway must be one of the finest in the world, especially the section that clings to the side of the canyon itself, and my flight from Guadalajara to Puebla gave me the spectacular sight of the twin volcanoes of Popo and Izta poking above the clouds.

The food

Mexico doesn’t just look gorgeous, it tastes and smells pretty great too, thanks to all the amazing food. It’s pretty impossible to write about Mexico without mentioning the subject. It’s hard to imagine food without chili, tomatoes, vanilla and chocolate – and yet European cuisine lacked all of them before the Spanish conquered Mexico. All the Mexicans I met are immensely proud of their culinary traditions and the variety of food they have, and for quite good reason. I don’t think I ate a single bad meal their, whether it was in nice restaurants or simple street-food stands. Aside from any individual dish, one the things that stands out most for me is the quality of the ingredients – the ubiquitous trio of lime, chili and tomato were juicier, spicier and sweeter than I ever find at home, and the pattern seemed to be repeated for everything. Fruit in particular was always fresh and packed with flavour. It’s hard to pick a single highlight, so I’m going to go with four, all of which I bought on the street. First of all is fruit with chili. Now I love chili, but had never been previously convinced at some of the uses Mexicans put it to, such as in beer or desserts. But eventually curiosity got the better of me and I had to try this popular snack, which is basically a fruit salad of various types of melon and mango covered in chili powder – and it’s amazing. Second would be the gorditas I tried in Zacatecas – a gordita is basically a fat tortilla split in half, filled and then fried. In Zacatecas I had one made with nopal cactus and chili. Not only was it the spiciest thing I ate in the country, it was also one of the best. Finally comes the humble street taco. I feel like I should be ending this section by describing some obscure dish only cooked in one little village on the first Thursday in April, hitherto undiscovered by the world of travel. But no, one of the best things in Mexico is the most common. Available everywhere, the simple snack of floury fresh tortillas, finely diced grilled meat (chicken and chorizo is my favourite), covered with a salsa of onion, tomato, coriander and lime, maybe some guacamole, and always a selection of chili sauces (smoky chipotle being the best in my opinion), really is hard to beat in terms of flavour and freshness. And all ridiculously cheap too.

The music

While the treats that Mexico has to offer for the eyes, nose and tongue are always delightful, the ears get a more mixed deal. Music is everywhere in the country, and it’s not always welcome. It feels like there is no escape from it anywhere. Buses blare out frantic reggaeton and Mexican pop even at 5am. It can be hard to find a restaurant or cafe that doesn’t have someone playing live, and the ones that don’t will invariably be playing the radio or MTV loudly. Gay clubs pack out to the sounds of local pop heroes such as Gloria Trevi (the Mexican Madonna, whose life story makes the original one seem pretty tame) and Yuri. In Guadalajara Mariachis stalk the streets, and in Mazatlan it’s the huge brass bands playing Sinaloense music. Even the pharmacies for some reason always seem to have huge speakers in the doorway blasting out some form of frantic pop throughout the day. English language music is not all that popular, so it’s no surprise that I heard numerous soundalike covers of a range of US records, most odd of which was a cover of ‘Another brick in the wall’. Inexplicably most popular of all are the various styles of music from the desert states in the north of the country, immensely cheesy love songs (there appears to be some form of law that requires all Mexican songs to include the word ‘corazon’ (heart) every dozen words) played by bands of men in matching spangly cowboy suits and hats, and which always comes with an oompah-style instrumental backing that makes them sound strangely Austrian. Strangely enough I even grew to like some of it by the end, especially the rather bonkers ‘Fine fine fine, very good very good very good’, which really has to be heard to be believed:

The people

Last but not least is the people. It must be one of the friendliest countries in the world, and I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with Mexicans about their country, something they are all very passionate about. They’ve also shown me a remarkable amount of patience with me as I’ve mangled their language in my attempts to communicate in Spanish.

I definitely plan to return – Mexico City is now one of my favourite cities in the world, and I’d love to go back and spend more time there. Guanajuato is another place I could easily see myself spending more time, and I’d love to return to Oaxaca state to hike in the mountains of the Pueblos Mancomunicados, to see Monte Alban, take a cookery course and return to the beaches of Zipolite and Mazunte to relax. Plus there are still loads of places that I didn’t get to see that I want to come back for – Baja California, the Chihuahuan & Sonoran deserts, the Cañon del Sumidero in Chiapas, the whole of the Gulf Coast, El Tajin, Campeche, Taxco, Morelia and Cuernavaca to name just a few. It’ll be interesting to see if I’ve peaked early in my trip – I hope not, but it’ll take something to topple Mexico.

In case you missed any, you can find all my Mexican photos here and read all my posts from the country here.

Mexico in pictures 2: Murals

Aside from Frida Kahlo, probably the most famous Mexican artists are the great Muralists of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican revolution, the education minister commissioned various artists to create a series of public murals to increase awareness of the country’s history and cultures amongst the population, and to help build a unified sense of national identity. Many of the best works (by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband, and David Alvaro Siqueiros) have strongly left-wing message, including highlighting the past and ongoing repression of indigenous peoples.

The movement spread across the country, and I saw examples in Mexico City, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara and Oaxaca, in various public buildings. Normally huge and often brightly coloured, they are a great way to learn a bit more about the country’s history. The ones by Jose Clemente Orozco in Guadalajara’s Instituto Cultural Cabañas are so impressive and historically important, they are now a World Heritage site. Here are pictures of some of my favourites.





Mexico in pictures 1: VW Beetles

I’m no car nut by any means. I can’t even drive (and currently have no desire to. Looks far too difficult and dangerous. And buses and trains are far more fun anyway).

Despite that, one of the first things I loved about Mexico was all the VW Beetles. Production continued there into the 90s, long after it finished in Europe, and as a result they are everywhere. Many of the owners take a lot of care of theirs, and the sight of them shining brightly in various colours on the already brightly coloured streets of Mexico was wonderful. As well as serving as private cars, they are also variously used as Taxis (especially in Mexico City) and even police cars (sadly I didn’t get to see that, but Matt saw some in Palenque). I soon became obsessed with taking photos of them (often to the bemusement of their owners), and here are a few of my favourites.

You can see the res of my photos of Beetles here and the full set of all my Mexican photos here. Last two photos are by Matt from his time in Palenque, and the rest of his shots can be seen here

Time for a holiday

Travelling’s not all fun fun fun you know. There are endless hours spent on bus journeys (especially in a country as big as Mexico). Waiting around in bus stations (just as dull as back home, just twenty times busier). Sitting around waiting for photos to upload over veeeery slow internet connections. Sitting inside your hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Dull things like laundry still need doing. So after five weeks of relentless, non-stop travelling and sightseeing (and swine flu-induced stress) it was quite a relief to arrive in Zipolite for a bit of a holiday.

Getting there is pretty fun itself (or it was for me anyway…one of my friends felt quite ill thanks to the insane bends and even madder driver) as the road winds its way through the mountains for about five hours before finally dropping back to sea level just before it hits the Pacific. Arriving was even nicer – the beautiful beach gently curves its way for nearly two miles between two rocky headlands, and we soon found ourselves a thatched cabaña set just back from it, with hammocks on the porch. We could have chosen any really – almost all of the accommodation on the beach consists of similar places, and for some reason, despite the place having been firmly on the backpacker trail for decades, more upmarket places have yet to arrive, leaving the place a tranquil contrast to the brasher resorts that make up most of Mexico’s more famous beach destinations.

After we’d found somewhere to stay, we very easily slipped into a routine of doing very little – long lie-ins in the morning, fresh fruit and granola for breakfast, the rest of the morning spent alternating between relaxing on the beach and then tiring ourselves out by jumping around in the huge waves that reliably crash onto the shore day and night, then spending the afternoon lying in a hammock reading or sleeping. Best of all was the fact that we arrived just at the end of the season, before the rains arrive for the summer, meaning that the place was almost deserted – probably less than 200 tourists when we arrived, almost certainly less than 50 by the time we left, making it the perfect place to relax. We were there for a week, and the routine of doing very little was so nice I could happily have spent far more time there (in fact it seems to be the kind of place that happens easily in, quite a few of the longer-term residents seemed to be tourists who’d never left). It’s interesting that the longer I travel, the less stressed I get about wanting to see everything, and the more I’m happy to just find a place I like and stay there for a bit. It feels like the stress of London life and working has finally well and truly left my system, and I finally know what it feels like to be truly relaxed for the first time in what feels like years.

Once the North American leg of my trip is out of the way and I arrive in Colombia, I think I may well try and find myself a place to stay along the Caribbean coast and just stay there as long as I feel like it. Now that’s a nice thought.

Hippies, Riot police & Swine Flu in Oaxaca

Considering the first reported case of swine flu was in Oaxaca, we were expecting it to be as badly affected as our previous stops. Turns out we were half right: all the museums, including Oaxaca’s renowned art galleries were shut. As were all the major archaeological sites, meaning we missed out on nearby Mitla, and as well as Monte Alban, the pyramids spectacularly sited on top of a hill overlooking the city. That was particularly annoying, as it’s supposed to be the city’s highlight. Most disappointing of all was that I wasn’t able to do the Mexican cookery course I’d been looking forward to since I first planned my trip.

Oaxaca is famous for having some of the finest cuisine in Mexico, and has numerous schools that offer one day courses, including a trip to the market to buy the fresh ingredients before cooking the meal. Thanks to the swine flu, most of the schools were closed due to the lack of tourists. Only one ended up replying to my original email, and despite confirming the time, date and price, the owner of Casa Crespo never turned up on the day, nor did they answer the phone. With my days in Mexico running out, there would be no time left to reorganise in another time, and I was gutted, it was probably the thing I’d been looking forward to most. Looks like I’ll have to try and find one in another country – but sadly it won’t be Mexico, which is such as shame as it’s my favourite food in the world.

At least we’d got up early that morning, meaning we had time to hire a car and drive out into the countryside to explore a bit more of the surrounding area. Highlight was getting to visit Hierve El Agua (literally ‘the water boils’), one of the world’s only calcified waterfalls (the most famous being at Pammukale in Turkey), where water coming up from natural springs is so full of calcium carbonate that it deposits it as it pours down the mountain, making spectacular ‘frozen’ waterfall effects in the rock.

Hierve el Agua

Hierve el Agua

As well as the natural formations, the channels have been dammed in a couple of places to form bathing pools perched at the top of the cliff looking out onto the valleys and mountains of the Sierra Madre del Norte beyond. With the views, the pools and the warm sun, it should have been a wonderfully relaxing day – except for the infestation of hippies.

I’m sure the original hippies in the 60s must have started out with genuinely well-meaning intentions, but these days they are just like a plague, pissing off other travellers with clouds of marijuana smoke, smelly dreadlocks, dancing that looks a bit like they’re constipated, and worst of all, the dreaded bongo. This group came with all of the above, and even managed to confuse the annoyed stares of the other visitors with appreciation, and had the nerve to come round and try and collect money from us. I might even have given them some on the condition they’d stop the incessant noise, but didn’t think they’d stick to their side of the bargain.

So we soon left and headed slowly back along the valley to Oaxaca, giving lifts to various villagers along the way, and stopping at various ruins to see if we could get in, to no avail, until eventually we found one, Yagul, where access was just controlled by a locked gate in the road. So we just parked the car, walked round, and yet again were left as the only visitors to a set of ruins, set on a hill, where we got to watch a spectacular electrical storm play out in the distance towards the city (sorry – no pictures of that – have you ever tried to capture lightning on camera?). I must admit, as I’ve said before, it’s terribly sad that the country is so empty at the moment, but it has been a wonderful experience sometimes feeling like I have the country to myself. Quite a magical and unique experience. I also got to see El Arbol del Tule, the biggest tree in the world, over 50m around. Not all that exciting, but it’s one of those things I’m glad I got to see.

Biggest tree in the world - just look at the size of the people in the background

The Biggest tree in the world - just look at the size of the people in the background

Before I’d arrived in Oaxaca, I’d heard it many travellers describe it as their favourite in Mexico, and I can quite see why, it’s a beautiful city, and at the heart is the finest Zocalo (main square) I’ve seen in Mexico. Like many, it’s tree-lined, with a bandstand at the centre, but it’s also bigger than most, and it really feels like the heart of the city, being filled at all times with a cross-section of Oaxacan society, from middle class families, to indigenous women and children selling artesanias, as well as tourists of every age and nationality. We spent hours there just sitting around in the cafes surrounding the square, watching the world go by. It’s a shame so much was closed – although I suppose that gives me a reason to head back some time.

The other highlight, and mercifully unaffected by swine flu worries, was the central market, with its narrow lanes and stalls selling everything – and so many brightly coloured things such as piles of all kinds of chilli, fresh ice cream in hundreds of flavours and pinatas. I got to sample two of the local specialities: grasshoppers fried in oild and chilli – which is exactly what they tasted of, and Oaxacan chocolate, which was much nicer. Most atmospheric of all was the food section, one long narrow lane filled with clouds of smoke, and every stall selling the same thing – freshly barbecued meats (every stall is ladened with strings of chorizo, sheets of beef skirt and hanging trip) served with blackened spring onions and fresh green chillis.

Fanning the flames in Oaxacas meat market (taken by Matt)

Fanning the flames in Oaxaca's meat market (taken by Matt)

After that, with the options of things to do rapidly running out, we decided it was time to head to the coast (after all, it’s pretty difficult and rather pointless to close a beach). Which turned out to be easier said than done: less than an hour outside of Oaxaca, our bus was stopped by a roadblock. For some reason the local villagers had decided to protest about something or other by closing the road with a series of fires. Unsure of what to do, we were slightly alarmed when the police closed the road behind us, leaving us stranded in a no-man’s land between the two roadblocks, along with a couple of buses. Everything felt rather tense for a while, especially when we saw a huge phallanx of riot police begin to descend the hill towards us. We needn’t have worried: the police vastly outnumbered the protesters, plus with their shields and batons they knew the locals were no match. The villagers made the sensible decision to retreat back across the fields, and soon we were on our way again, very relieved that the situation hadn’t escalated. Still, nearly being caught up in a riot is one more travelling experience I’ve chalked up.

Riot police on the road to Zipolite

Riot police on the road to Zipolite (photo by Matt)

The internet’s been too slow to upload most of my photos, so you can see lots more of my friend Matt’s (far better) photos of Oaxaca at his Flickr page.

My travels get a dose of swine flu

The first I heard of it was on the BBC news website on the saturday I arrived in Guadalajara. By saturday night, it was still something for people in far-off Mexico City to worry about. It wasn´t until sunday that it began to become clear that everyone was taking it very seriously indeed.

On the saturday, hardly anyone was wearing a mask, and the streets were still full of people, including numerous girls dolled up to the nines celebrating their quinceañera (the coming of age ceremony all Mexican girls have when they turn 15).

Quinceanera in Guadalajara

Quinceanera in Guadalajara

By sunday afternoon, I’d say around 50% of people were (no idea where they were getting them – we couldn’t find one for love nor money), and the drastic restrictions came into effect – all bars and nightclubs closed. All museums and art galleries closed. Football games played behind closed doors. All sites managed by INAH (the national archaeological society), including all the major pre-hispanic ruins were closed too. So began a very quiet couple of weeks, as options for things to do were so limited.

Masks on the streets of Guadalajara

Masks on the streets of Guadalajara

Luckily I’d met up with my two friends from England who live in Guadalajara the day it all started, so at least I had company, and we resolved to have a good time anyway by finding outdoor things to do that weren’t closed. So we managed to find a balneario (outdoor pool & spa) fed by hot springs on the shores of Lake Chapala, just outside Guadalajara, where I had my first experience of a head to toe mud bath, which was a very peculiar feeling, but at least despite my scepticism about all the alleged health claims, it finally cleared up the dry skin I’d had since an allergic reaction to Mexican soap in Mexico City (being allergic to cheap Mexican soap was rather unfortunate on my part, considering WHO advice for avoiding swine flu included washing your hands several times a day with soap and water. I chose to ignore that one).

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Mud, mud, glorious mud

One plus side of the swine flu panic was that the few things that were open were empty anyway, as all the tourists had been scared away and the Mexicans were largely staying at home. So when we visited Guachimontones, site of some of the world’s only circular pyramids, we had the site entirely to ourselves, which was both beautiful, and quite a relief as I’d be lying if I said the swine-flu paranoia hadn’t effected us – every time someone sneezed on a bus, we’d be imagining the worst.

The circular pyramids of Guachimontones

The circular pyramids of Guachimontones

After five days in Guadalajara, and no end to the crisis in sight, we decided the change our travel plans: originally we’d planned to head overland via Morelia, Cuernavaca, Mexico City and then on to Puebla. However at the time, we thought the safets option would be to skip Mexico City, which meant flying direct to Puebla, which added a fair bit to my budget, but we figured it was worth it for the peace of mind.

The flight itself was beautiful, as central Mexico was bathed in a sheet of thin cloud, leaving just the volcanoes poking their cones up into the air. Just before landing in Puebla, we circled round two of the most famous, the extinct Istaccihuatl and its neighbour, smoking Popcatepetl.

Popo peeking above the clouds

Popo peeking above the clouds

Puebla itself was more of the same though – masks everywhere, everything shut (although that didn’t stop the trade unions marching on May Day, many of them carrying banners denouncing swine flu as a government plot to keep the workers down – if nothing else, the Mexicans love a good conspiracy theory, especially one involving politicians). So almost as soon as we’d arrived, we hopped on a collectivo to nearby Cholula, home to the biggest pyramid ever built. Not that you’d know it – it was already overgrown and abandoned even before the Spanish conquest, and as soon as they arrived they decided to plonk a church on the top. It’s not all that exciting a sight (although on a clear day, it can look spectacular with Popocatepetl looming away above it in the distance), but at least now I can say I’ve seen the 1st, 3rd and 4th biggest pyramids in the world now (the 3rd & 4th are in Teotihuacan). Now I just need to visit Egypt to see the second.

The great pyarmid of Cholula. Cunningly disguised as a hillock.

The great pyarmid of Cholula. Cunningly disguised as a hillock.

With little else to detain us, we moved on the next day, hoping that the swine flu panic would have subsided by the time we got there.
You can see more of my photos of Guadalajara & Guachimontones, Puebla & Cholula and the effects of swine flu over at my Flickr page.