Monthly Archives: May 2009

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.

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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.

Mexcaltitan: Home of Aztecs and Prawns

When I first read about Mexcaltitan in Lonely Planet, it sounded pretty interesting. Its main claim to fame is that it is the mytho-historical home of the Aztecs. Legend has it that before the Aztecs only arrived in the Valle de Mexico, where they founded Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City is today), after migrating from an island named Aztlan. One of the more popular theories for the location is Mexcaltitan, a tiny island in the coastal lagoons of the state of Nayarit in Mexico.

Mexcaltitan from the air

Mexcaltitan from the air

When no-one I mentioned it to, either Mexican or other travellers, had even heard of it, it made it even more of a must-see – everywhere I´d been to so far had been firmly on the tourist trail, so the chance to visit somewhere a bit more obscure was very appealing.

Now anyone who knows me will agree that I can be pretty stubborn when I want to be, even with myself, so I wasn´t going to let the fact I´d only had two hours sleep (thanks to the previous night in Mazatlan) get in the way of my plans. So despite the mother of all hangovers, I embarked on a journey that took in a three hour bus-ride from Mazatlan to Peñas, a forty minute collectivo taxi to Santiago Ixcuintla, a half hour collectivo bus to the wharf, and finally ended up packed onto a wobbly lancha for the final half hour through the lagoon to the island.

One piece of anecodotal evidence to suggest the legend is true is that Mexcaltitan has the same street plan as Tenochtitlan did – the island is divided into quarters by four roads that intersect in the centre of the isaldn to form the main square. Linking these together is a circular road that runs all the way round the island. And that´s it – it´s a tiny place that these days is inhabited by prawn fisherman, and it lives a sleepy existence largely uniterrupted by modern life.

The very simple street plan

The very simple street plan

In fact it´s so small, that after getting off the lancha, it took me all of twenty minutes to see the entire island. But what a fantastic place. The circular street is a dirt road, with pavements three feet above the road, and is called Calle Venezia, as every year in the rainy season it floods and turns into a canal.

Calle Venezia in the dry season

Calle Venezia in the dry season

In the main square sits a little museum outling the island´s fascinating history, and a pretty little church. By the looks of the visitor´s book in the museum it seemed I was the first foreign visitor for several months, and that´s just the way I liked it, despite the lack of things to see or do, it was amazingly relaxed and pretty. Here the street kids didn´t annoy me by trying to sell me stuff; instead they were just fascinated with my digital camera, insisting I take dozens of photos of them (and their pet iguanas), just for the pleasure of seeing themselves on the viewscreen, which they all found first mesmerising and then hilarious.

Friendly locals & their iguanas

Friendly locals & their iguanas

After that there was nothing to do but head to one of the island´s two restaurants, to try the local prawns. It´s a good thing I like them, as that was the only thing on the menu, both as starter and main course. For starters, I was served a plate of small prawns, fried in chili and served with the inevitable salt, lime and salsa. Seeing as they were served shell-on, I first tried to peel one, only for it to dissolve in my hands. So the only thing for it was to pop the whole thing in my mouth, head, shell and all – and they were of course, delicious. After devouring the whole plate, the next course was delicious albondigas, made of prawn rather than the usual meat. Fantastic.

The local speciality

The local speciality

The whole place was so relaxing, I lost track of time and ended up leaving later than planned, jumping on the last lancha of the day only to find that the last collectivo had left, meaning my only way back to civilisation was to hitch a lift in the back of a pick-up, perching precariously on a couple of boxes of freshly-caught prawns heading to market. Two more collectivos and yet another bus later, I finally made it to Tepic, my overnight stop on the way to meet my friends in Guadalajara. All in all I´d spent nearly ten hours travelling that day, all to see a 400m round island with nothing to do but eat prawns. And it was worth every second of it.

The Three Faces of Mazatlán

After three weeks of cities and canyons, most of which was almost stiflingly hot (not that I’m complaining, mind), it was time to hit the beach. Mazatlán was the obvious choice, sitting almost half way between El Fuerte, where I left the CHEPE behind, and Guadalajara, where I was due to meet my friends. I’d heard mixed reports on it, but I was just happy to see the ocean. While I was only there for a couple of days, over that time it revealed three rather different sides to me.

Morning mist over the beach

Morning mist over the beach

Mazatlan: the Torquay of Mexico
My first impression on arrival was that the city had clearly seen better days. Its heyday had been in the 50s, when I’m sure it was a rather chic little resort. Ever since it seems like it has made a gradual, graceful decline as it’s been upstaged by newer and smarter resorts. The impression was confirmed when I arrived in my cheap hotel, where it turned out most of the residents were Americans and Canadians spending the winter in the sun. By the looks of it, they were in the perfect place, as I suspect most of them had been at their most glamorous back in the 50s. That’s not to say I didn’t like it – I’ve always found fading seaside resorts to have a charm about them, like they’ve been slightly frozen in time, and all the nicer for no longer having to fit in with the latest trends. This part of town also revealed what the city must have been like back even before it developed as a resort, as the section of beach near my hotel was full of fishing boats bringing in the morning’s catch. To this day fishing still rivals tourism as the city’s big earner. The other highlight of this part of town was a chance to see the Clavadistas (cliff-divers) in action – they perform for tourists for money, and it’s a pretty impressive spectacle seeing them sail way out over the rocks and into the shallow churning ocean below.

Clavadista

Clavadista

Mazatlan: American cruise-ship destination
The next day I made the long walk along the beach, round the bay, up to the Zona Dorada (golden zone), where all the smarter, newer hotels and condo blocks are situated. I didn’t like it one bit. The hotels were huge, blocking out the view of the beach, and all were big and anonymous, like they could have been situated in any glossy resort in the world. The beaches were full of tourists who’d been bussed down from their cruise ships, with hundreds of hawkers milling around them, trying to earn a few pesos. I thought it was sad that all of these tourists were missing the older, more charming part of town. I quickly left and headed back down to the quieter, nicer beach near my hotel.

Mexican Mazatlan
Away from the beach is the old town, and handsome quarter of smart colonial buildings and pretty squares, a world away from the crumbling hotels of my part of town and the glitzy blocks of the Zona Dorada. It was in this area that I got my taste of the third face of Mazatlan, the one that would be my favourite.

There I was, enjoying a quiet meal of local seafood in a pretty little restaurant on the main square, when a clown turned up making a balloon animals (seriously – don’t come to Mexico if you have a clown phobia. They are EVERYWHERE. Seriously. I have never seen so many in my life. They must make up about 1% of the Mexican population. Weird). He made one for me, which then attracted the attention of a group of Mexican girls at the next table. They started off taking photos, and next thing I knew they insisted I join them for a drink.

Once we’d got the usual Anglo-Mexican formalities out of the way (Yes, England is beautiful. No, it doesn’t rain all the time, and Yes, English food is terrible – I’ve given up arguing on that point now, even describing the best bits still sounds pretty horrible to them. The only concept I’ve managed to impress any of them with is Horseradish sauce, as Mexicans are pretty disdainful of anything that isn’t spicy. Oh, and baked beans too – seeing as no Mexican meal is complete without a side-order of Frijoles, it’s comforting to know we have our own version), they made me get down to some serious drinking, and it ended up being a hilarious night, as they made fun of my accent (they’re more used to hearing American English accents), then moved on to talking me through the range of Mexican accents, with hugely exaggerated impressions, and then onto talking about all areas of Mexican life. Like all Mexicans, they were hugely proud of their country, and seemed to love having a foreigner to talk to about it. Despite my protestations that I had a bus to catch at 7am the next day, they wouldn’t let me leave until they’d taken me dancing, and we ended up down the road in a little backstreet club, where a Cuban band was playing, and the crowd were dancing and singing along, at various points various punters being invited up to sing various standards. I stopped worrying about the bus* and relaxed into enjoying myself, happy that I was having a much more Mexican experience than the cruise-ship passengers down the road. This is why solo travel is best, it’s so easy to get swept along into these kinds of situations.

*something I regretted somewhat when the alarm woke me up at 6am the next morning.