Mexico

6 Months in Central America

 

40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.

Hitchhiking Mexico

As I packed up to leave San Cristobal I was on the border between total acceptance of what I was about to do as normal and not really believing what I was about to do. I was going to hitchhike halfway across Mexico with people I had just met. For the most part I seemed to be confident in the decision, I wasn’t having any inner or outer turmoil, but once in a while a wave of uncertainty would come. It was anxious uncertainty not fearful uncertainty so I decided it was a good thing – I wouldn’t want to enter into something like hitchhiking with blind confidence so some anxiety would keep me alert, and I hadn’t felt this way in a long time, not since I had gone back to the States, so I welcomed that something stirred it back up.

Saying yes to hitchhiking and actually doing it are two very different things. When I said yes I had the same idealistic visions that everyone probably does when they think about the freedom of the road. I saw us striding down the sun-drenched highway, music playing on the portable speaker while we entertained ourselves with jovial conversations or the street side version of car games, bonding while waiting with our thumbs out until the next pick-up truck told us to hop into the bed and took us as far as we needed to go. The reality did include moments like that, but if I said that was all it was it would be like reminiscing about school or a failed relationship – only acknowledging the good and ignoring the bad. Just like the rest of life, hitchhiking had plenty of both.

I’ll start with the good: we had some great rides.

On the way up to Tulum we were especially lucky, starting with Roxy. Leaving Ocosingo Brayan barely even stuck his thumb out at the first van coming our direction but it immediately pulled over. Roxy had driven from Vancouver Island down to Mexico in her Chevrolet minivan, which she had converted into a mobile home with a platform bed in the back. She had plans to go to Agua Azul and Palenque then up to Merida and said she would take us as far as she could without veering off her route. We spent two nights with Roxy, first camping at Agua Azul and then at a gas station about an hour from the intersection where we would have to say goodbye; she was continuing North and we needed to go East. She was a gem.

After saying goodbye to Roxy in Escarcega it took less than 5 minutes to get a ride in the back of a white pick up truck. That day was the day of white pick up trucks: three in a row took us almost all the way across the peninsula. I discovered the joy of riding in a truck bed and learned that the velocity of the car keeps you dry in a flash rainstorm. These rides felt like what hitchhiking was all about.

Our luck continued when we moved from Bacalar to Tulum. First we all crammed into the cab of a delivery truck whose hungover or maybe still drunk driver stopped to buy us all a couple of beers. Risky, but hilarious. We picked up another six-pack before jumping in the back of another pick-up that took us into Tulum. We arrived energized and quite tipsy.

On the way back to the Guatemalan border we snagged a ride that took us all the way from about an hour outside Tulum to south of Escarcega – around 10 hours of driving. Not for the claustrophobic, I spent the entire 10 hours closed up inside the back of this mobile exposition delivery truck. No windows, no air flow, laying on a horizontal dolly covered with moving mats. Somehow this ride was one of my highlights of the experience. Brayan and I just chilled in the back, talking about life and napping, while trusting that Ale and Matt up front would make sure we weren’t being kidnapped. We went through two police checkpoints and both officers that opened up the back door were shocked to see me inside the truck. I just said hola and, after a confused pause, they closed the door again and we kept moving. For a second I thought we were being sold, but everything turned out fine.

Our final great ride was in the bed of a pick-up truck that was covered by a cage. It took us through an incredibly gorgeous landscape at magic hour. We sat on top of the cage, smiling like fools, knowing that our hitchhiking would end the following day. We were almost at the Guatemalan border.

The second good: I got to see everything I missed the first time.

Like I said before, I was repeating my route through Mexico. I went back to Palenque, back to Green Monkey and Bacalar, back to the Pancho Villa campsite and Tulum, back through the same border crossing from Mexico into Guatemala, and back through Flores to get to Antigua. But this time I filled in the holes from my first visit.

On the way to Palenque I got to see Agua Azul and Misol Ha, two impressive and different waterfalls. Agua Azul is a large system with multiple levels of cascades and pools to swim in, and Misol Ha is a long solo drop. Back in Bacalar I actually did stand up paddle boarding this time (although I was not properly warned that it would be 5 long hard hours with wind and rain and without food or water). Back in Tulum I got to go to Akumal to swim with sea turtles. So even though I had already been to these places, it was thanks to hitchhiking that I now really felt like I’d done it all.

The bad: we spent a lot of time waiting on the side of the road.

Our first couple of days we were so lucky with getting rides really quickly that I was tricked into thinking hitchhiking was easy. Traveling back from Tulum to the Guatemala border was harder. We sometimes had to wait an hour or more for someone to pull over, and with the exception of the 10 hour truck ride most people didn’t bring us very far. It was hot sitting on the side and disheartening constantly sticking a thumb out at cars that didn’t even slow down. I think the difference was that on the way up we were always walking with our thumbs out, so people took pity on us. On the way down we were sitting on the side waiting, so people just keep on going. We tested this theory our last day and it was actually quicker to get a ride when we were moving. Lesson learned.

The second bad: tensions ran high.

I don’t want to get into it too much, but suffice it to say that when four people who are used to solo travel are now constantly together opinions will collide. How far we should go with a ride, where we should spend the night, what crossing we should aim for, how we should try to get rides – there are decisions that still have to be made despite the just go with it style of travel, and when people are on opposite sides it can lead to uncomfortable situations. And it’s not like there’s anywhere to go cool off for a while when fights happen on the side of the road; the only option is to walk 10 feet further down and wait it out. This contributed to our jumping on a bus when we got into Guatemala. We had made it out of Mexico, it was time to be done with this.

The overall: it was a great experience.

I can now say that I know how to hitchhike. And that I survived hitching in Mexico. Which is not nearly as scary as it might sound. I loved the uncertainty that came with it – we didn’t know how far we’d make it in a day or where we’d sleep that night. I never would have guessed that I would sleep in a tent at a gas station on the side of a highway. We met some great characters along the way. And most importantly, I made some great friendships. What started as a whim adventure up to Tulum turned into a life in Antigua, where I continued to hang out with Ale, Brayan, and Matt.

Writing this weeks later I can say that the decision to hitchhike changed everything. What that means I’ll elaborate on later, but it’s moments like this, when I decide to just say yes to whatever comes my way, that I cherish most about traveling. This yes attitude, this ultimate flexibility, this go with the flow life, this is why I kept going. Trust in the universe and it will lead you to where you should be.

And Then I Decided to Repeat Mexico

As I said, my last day in San Cristobal drastically changed my trip trajectory. It started with the temazcal, but more specifically in the cab on the way to the temazcal.

Over the past couple of days I had gotten to know Brayan and Ale, two friends from Antigua who were traveling together from San Cristobal up to Tulum. In the car ride to the temazcal they were talking about their plans to leave the following day, then seemingly out of nowhere Brayan asked if I wanted to come with them. I had already been to Tulum and was so close to Guatemala, my projected next destination, that it made no sense to go with them. But there was a catch: they were hitchhiking the whole way.

I’d never traveled by hitchhiking before. I’ve had to hitch short distances, like from the Queenstown airport back into town or from Masada to the Dead Sea, but nothing as extensive as they were talking about doing. The idea of trying to get across the Mexican peninsula by just sticking our thumbs out and hoping for the best intrigued me, as it would anyone who has a fondness for Jack Kerouac novels. So I changed my “it makes no sense” answer to “I’m actually thinking about it.”

Then I did the temazcal and things became clear. After the ceremony I was sitting on a bench next to Brayan; the first thing he said to me was, “So are you coming with us?” I didn’t even hesitate when I answered, “Yes.”

It’s no secret that I had become frustrated with backpacking in the weeks leading up to this moment. I’d had my revelations in the jungle about leaving the traveler life behind for stability. Hitchhiking was the opposite of stability, but it was a kind of adventure I hadn’t experienced yet. It was throwing planning and guidebooks and a bit of caution to the wind and seeing what hand the universe would deal us. Out of nowhere this opportunity appeared, a chance to really be as flexible as possible. Who knew what would happen along the way, from what kinds of rides we would get to how long it would take to get to Tulum and where we may have to stop in between our departure and destination. I was craving something different, something that would excite me again, something worth throwing away any plans for. This was it.

It helped that I liked Brayan and Ale. It helped even more that Brayan is from Costa Rica and Ale is from Guatemala, so Spanish is their native tongue. And it helped that Ale has hitchhiked extensively before. If there was ever a time to try traveling like this, it was with these people.

This meant that I would repeat my steps. From San Cristobal we had to go back up through Palenque and cross the highway to Bacalar before going north to Tulum. Oh well, if that was the route they wanted to take then so be it. This wasn’t about the destination for me, it was about the journey. Staying in Mexico wasn’t the goal, traveling by hitchhiking was. And I was all in.

I Did a Temazcal in Mexico and It Was Everything

My last day in San Cristobal drastically changed my trip trajectory. It probably seriously changed me as well, but whether the effects will be permanent or not has yet to be determined. It all started with the temazcal.

Brayan had come to San Cristobal to see a Shaman, who was unfortunately not there. So Claire offered up an alternative: she knew someone who could do a temazcal. The idea caught on, and by the time it was Sunday half the hostel was in. I didn’t know much about it other than what they told me, which was that it was like a sauna with someone leading chants, and it would cleanse my mind and body. Sounded good to me.

Here’s what it actually is. Temazcal is a type of sweat lodge indigenous to Mesoamerica. The structure in which the temazcal is performed varies, but it is typically a small, enclosed space with a hole in the center. Ours was in the backyard of someone’s house, and was constructed from an underlying wood structure covered in colorful blankets. It didn’t look like it could fit more than 4 people; we had 12. Somehow it worked. There was a small natural shrine in front of the lodge where we left offerings of fruit and water to be shared after the ceremony. The hole in the ground inside the lodge was for the stones, which were heated in an open fire for probably hours before we got there. The stones would be added gradually as the ceremony went on to raise the temperature.

To begin the temazcal we knelt at the door (a flap in the blankets) and asked permission to enter, then moved in to the left and around the circumference until we were more or less on top of the person before us. Then they brought in the first four stones.

Our temazcal was four doors: East for Man, West for Woman, North for Others/Family, and South for Self. For each door the leader would add four stones, shut the door, and throw water on them, causing steam to fill the lodge. He and another man beat drums and sang chants, asking us to focus our thoughts in the direction which the door was focused. Between each one they opened the door and a rush of cool air provided temporary relief as they added the next stones. After our ceremony was done we cooled down outside in various sitting and lying positions. The cold weather didn’t bother anyone. They said they were doing a fifth door, for Warriors, that would be very hot, but we were welcome to join. Everyone went back in, even those with claustrophobia or fainting issues. It was that powerful. We crawled back into the lodge over the previously bone dry but now sopping wet, muddy ground and resumed our friendly positions. They weren’t kidding about the heat. Most people agreed it was their favorite door.

It’s hard to describe what temazcal did for me. The easiest way to depict what actually happened is led meditation in a steam room, but that doesn’t do it justice. As my body released toxins my mind went clear. It focused where it needed to, showing me what was important to me, giving me answers about what I’m doing now or should do next, bringing me to a place of inner peace deeper than any meditations I’ve done before. When I exited my skin tingled with rejuvenation, and my mind silently echoed it. Everything felt good. I breathed deeply, wholly. I felt honored to have experienced this tradition.

Most of the time my eyes were closed, but when I did venture a peek it was captivating. The image is still with me, and I hope it never fades. The sun was above the blankets – a red one was on top – so the diffused light caused a red glow that intermingled with the steam, softly but barely illuminating the interior. The men with the drums were in front of me, eyes closed, soulfully beating and singing. Everyone was peacefully focused around them. It was mystical, powerful, serene, and beautiful.

A Chicken Sacrifice and a Trash Canyon

There are a couple of popular day trips from San Cristobal. I decided to do two that would give me a little taste of the region: one indigenous town and one natural wonder.

San Juan Chamula
Many people recommended going to see the nearby village of Chamula for its interesting church. Interesting did not properly prepare me for this experience.

The easiest way to get to Chamula is by minibus; it’s a quick 20 minute ride from the main market in San Cristobal. So naturally, I opted to walk, despite the fact that it had been less than a week since my 5 day jungle trek. Because.. I’m me? The walk was two hours all uphill on the side of a pretty major road. That probably sounds bad, but it was actually lovely – the landscape in Chiapas is beautiful, I was surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, I walked past sheep, goats and chickens that were hanging out on the side of the road, and the weather was perfectly sunny with a bit of a chill that made the exercise enjoyable.

When I got to Chamula I was at first entertained by the small town nestled in a valley. I walked past a few souvenir shops on my way to the main square. The church was not free to enter, so I kept walking around to see what else the town had to offer. Nothing. If it’s not a market day, there’s nothing going on in Chamula other than that church. People looked confused to see me wandering past their houses in a part of town tourists stay away from. So I went back, forfeited my pesos, and went inside the church.

I don’t even know if I should describe the church in case anyone reads this before they go see it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. So if you are one of those people stop reading now. There’s a reason they don’t allow pictures inside.

I did not look into the indigenous culture of Chamula before I went to the town so I had no idea what to expect. I walked into what looked like a colorful church to find long green grass spread out on the floor. Altars to dozens upon dozens of saints lined the walls on each side. I walked past worshipers who were on the ground facing the altar. They had used wax to stick small thin candles to the floor in even lines and were sitting behind them chanting. I stood at the front and observed the emphatic devotees. Then it happened.

A mall pulled a chicken out of a cardboard box. He held it by its head and feet, wings outstretched, and waved it in circles over the candles and over the man to his left, chanting the whole time. I watched these rotations oddly mesmerized, wondering what the man had done to need a chicken waved over his head, and as I was watching the man stopped moving the chicken and pulled hard at its neck. Oh my god, he just sacrificed it. I watched him kill this chicken. In a church.

I had to walk past the chicken on my way out – my scarred walk out – and saw it laying lifeless in its cardboard box. I immediately got in a collectivo and went home. After more time in San Cristobal I learned that the people of Chamula still use sacrifice all the time. It’s apparently worse on Sundays, when dozens of animals are sacrificed in and around the church. They also will still burn someone in the town square if he has mistreated the wrong person. It seems to be an old, lawless, backwards by modern standards society that is still allowed to exist somehow.

San Cristobal still has a vast indigenous population, and Chamula is just one example. There’s a reason it’s the home to the Zapatistas, another group I did not know much about before but learned more about while I was there. Their fight for indigenous rights has occurred during my conscious lifespan, a fact that I was shocked to learn simply because of how little I had heard about it living in the neighboring country. This is all part of the fascination of the Chiapas region, albeit perhaps less enjoyable than the beautiful landscape but worth looking into.

Cañón del Sumidero
Next I decided to focus on that beautiful landscape, so Ale and I went on the tour to Cañón del Sumidero. It started out gorgeous – towering limestone mountains rose out from the green water, reminiscent of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. Again I marveled at a landscape I did not know existed in Mexico. We saw giant iguanas, a huge crocodile chilling on the bank, and tons of birds. Then it turned sour. We saw a dead crocodile floating in the water. We saw rivers of trash that the boats simply drove around. We wondered how it was possible to have so much tourism money and boat traffic passing these problem areas and still have such a profound issue with garbage.

I tried to enjoy the ride. Our driver took us to a shrine inside a cave, underneath a multi-tiered waterfall, and past trees that floated off the side of the mountains, looking like they’d been put there by some talented CGI engineers. But I couldn’t ignore the trash. And then we reached the end of the river and our boat sidled up next to another boat that was selling snacks and drinks. We scoffed at the blatant attempt to get more money out of tourists, until we saw they were serving micheladas. Two please. If we had to go back through the river dump, we may as well boost the experience by sipping on a tasty michelada.

On the way back to San Cristobal we stopped in a town for an hour, another excuse to spend money. We took advantage of the time to get tacos and 1L micheladas (1 each) and the piñata that was in the Hostal Casa Gaia photo. Blame it on the michaeladas, but we were inspired to bring a little fun back to the hostel.

Would I recommend these excursions? Yes, hesitantly. The landscape of the canyon is beautiful but I would like to see some initiatives to clean it up before sending more people that way. And Chamula, well, it’s part of being in Mexico.

San Cristobal: The Town That I Was Waiting For

I was excited to get to San Cristobal de las Casas. The general impression I got from everyone I’d talked to about it was that I was going to love it. They were right.

San Cristobal is in Chiapas, the southern mountain region of Mexico. It is an ecosystem that I didn’t know existed in Mexico. Finally I had a break from the sweltering jungle and beach heat for rolling green hills and crisp fall-like air. I got to wear jeans and a jacket. I felt like myself again.

The town itself is the perfect confluence of colonial charm and modern appeal. Its small streets are lined by colorful stuccoed buildings that are home to charming boutiques and delicious treats. Chocolate stores intermingle with Zapatista cafes and international restaurants. Local artisans sell jewelry and crafts that make you want to forget that budget is a word. It has half a dozen churches to climb up to or wander into, all offering their own appeal. It has an artisan market for all your souvenir wants and an extensive food market that is easy to get lost in. Just walking around town is the highlight of being in San Cristobal. It took no time at all for me to wonder how I could make a life for myself in this town.

What I did in San Cristobal matters a lot less than how I felt about it. Most of the attractions I saw I listed above, which probably doesn’t sound much like attractions. Most of the time I’d spend half a day wandering and half a day hanging at the hostel reading or watching a documentary on the Zapatistas. The point is that I felt comfortable there.

My hostel helped. At first I was at Posada del Abuelito, a very nice place that I would recommend for the calm, older traveler who wants some quiet alone time. It was nice but it wasn’t for me. I found my perfect place at Hostel Casa Gaia. This hostel was homey, comfortable, clean, low-key, and owned by a wonderful family. As soon as I got to Gaia I was surrounded by the kind of people I have cherished meeting in my travels, from the fantastically eccentric German I knew from Palenque to the charming British couple who were always up for a mezcal to the friends from Antigua who would become my constant companions for the next month. I spent more time hanging in the hostel or wandering the streets with these new friends than doing the typically touristy things, which is probably what made it feel like home. My move to Gaia changed the trajectory of my trip more than I could have ever predicted, something I’ll explain further in another post.

I also had some fantastic meals in San Cristobal: street corn with mayo, chili sauce, and parmesan cheese; pollo enchiladas con mole; and the best tacos of my entire trip that came as a DIY platter of meat and things with unlimited tortillas and sauces. I wish I could give you the name of that place but I have no idea; thanks to the hostel owner for taking us to this local haunt. Also thanks to him for introducing me to the best mezcal I’ve ever tasted. I consumed like a queen in San Cristobal.

It was hard to leave San Cristobal de las Casas. At one point I wasn’t sure I ever would really, but then the universe told me it was time. I will return one day though, that’s for sure, and I’m positive I will love it just as much then as I did this time.

My Final Mayan Ruin: Palenque

After Mirador I had one ruin left that I felt I had to see: Palenque.

For weeks I’d heard travelers talk about the allure of Palenque, a ruin whose jungle location and restored structures earned it top ratings. At this point I had already seen Teotihuacan, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal, Tikal, and El Mirador – I was pretty much “ruined out,” as people say, but told myself to push through for this final one.

So back to Mexico I went, and in the mosquito-ridden jungle heat I stayed, to see what all the fuss was about.

As so often happens, Palenque deserved the hype. Most of the ancient city is still covered by jungle, so wandering through the site feels like being part of an expedition. While there is a main uncovered square around which large temples and the palace stand, impressive in scale and design, it was the less crowded side temples and houses that I more enjoyed discovering. Buildings were scattered around, hidden by trees or up a stone staircase. A side group of temples had a fantastic view out over the main square and to the jungle beyond. I sat up there for a while, contemplating my final Mayan site and all the other ones I’d been to.

Palenque was that same appealing mixture of wild jungle and restored buildings that Tikal was, but the sheer mass of tourists, even within the first hour it was open, and stalls selling kitchy trinkets were distracting like at Chichen Itza. It’s the only ruin in Mexico in the jungle, setting it apart for most tourists, but I had just come from five days in the jungle at Mirador plus Tikal before that, so this typical fascination was lost on me. It was, however, the only one I saw with a river running through it that led to a beautiful waterfall, which made the walk to exit uniquely gorgeous. I appreciated being able to climb up and wander through most of its buildings, especially the expansive palace, reminiscent of Tikal and Uxmal but better due to how much was open to explore. In the end, I ranked Palenque second in my Pre-Columbian ruins tour.

What is the final ranking, you ask?

  1. Tikal
  2. Palenque
  3. Uxmal
  4. Ek Balam
  5. Tulum
  6. Chichen Itza

I purposefully left out El Mirador and Teotihuacan: El Mirador because it’s so unlike the others, it’s more of a jungle exploration than a visit to a ruin, and Teotihuacan because it’s not Mayan. I realize I put the New Wonder of the World last, but I suppose I just wasn’t as impressed as whoever comes up with those rankings.

I was in Palenque for just one night. I opted to spend my night in the town of Palenque instead of the more popular backpacker choice of El Panchan. I had had enough of the jungle by the time I got there and wanted to be near the bus station. The town itself is nothing special, although it does have some very delicious gringas (tacos with cheese), and was sadly uneventful for Day of the Dead. On a return journey to Palenque a week later (I’ll explain how that happened soon) I actually saw El Panchan so I can now recommend staying there instead of town, as long as you’re in the mood for some jungle time.

Since I was there on a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed, so my time at the Zona Arqueologica was done by noon. Anxious to get to San Cristobal, I got on a 2 pm bus out of town. A short but necessary visit, beautiful Palenque was a good way to close out my Mayan exploration.