From an island, to the big city, to a cobblestone town in the highlands
09/01/2014 30 °C
Isla Mujeres (literally the Women’s Island) was our next stop, which is only a short 20 minute ferry ride from Cancun. Our travel plans at this stage had been fairly sporadic, so we were backtracking a bit on the map back to where we’d started, but we’d had loads of recommendations from fellow travellers that this was a must visit spot so we happily obliged.
The main beach on the island, Playa Norte, covered the majority of the hotel area on the north side and was beautiful. Creamy white sand and gorgeous turquoise water. Again though, the rain gods were in full force and our daily beach plans were quickly replaced by reading, Internet & card games.
In the end we were pretty disappointed with Isla Mujeres. Being so close to Cancun we should have known it would be overly Americanised with inflated prices. Don’t get me wrong the beach was stunning, there was great live music and loads of fresh seafood, I guess it just didn’t have that authentic Mexican flavor we were hoping for. Probably didn’t help that the hostel we stayed at (the only one on the island) was definitely the worst room we’d stayed in thus far on the trip - think thin, ratty, stained sheets & a mouldy, humid bathroom. The live bands every night and 2-4-1 margaritas were a plus though.
So instead of our initial plan of 9 nights here we opted to pop back down to Tulum (our first and favourite stop in Mexico) for another few nights.
A local house
Beautiful sunset one night
Live band at the Hostel
It was then we hit up the big city. It’s a seriously long trip from Cancun on a bus (about 24 hours) so we flew in on a local airline. As we began the descent, the great view of the city I had been anticipating was instead substituted by an extreme, thick layer of smog. You could barely make out the city at all.
We knew Mexico City was one of the biggest cities in the world (going off Wikipedia’s latest stats it now ranks as number 7 in terms of population) so it was certainly a big change from the sleepier beach towns we’d been visiting. There were hoards of people EVERYWHERE. And everyone selling something – there was a pencil guy, a shopping bag guy, a toys guy, a gum guy, a jumper guy….
I thought for sure we were going to be targets, getting harassed to buy some shitty souvenirs. However, they weren’t there to sell to tourists at all (of whom we hardly saw any the entire 5 days we were there). They were selling to locals. All 20 million of them.
Despite the smog & dirt & billions of people, it was still a super interesting city to walk around. There are loads of museums and art galleries to visit – actual decent one’s – unlike some of the other “museums” in Mexico we had attempted.
And then of course there’s the food. Delicious, mouth watering, colourful, sweet smelling street food. We’d heard it from everyone, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Tacos were abundant as were the plates of juicy charcoal chicken, and then a variety of other quesadilla/tortilla/corny/fried deliciousness. And all for less than a dollar.
One of the other interesting things to note about the city, is as you walk around you start to notice that many of the big old buildings are on a slant. This is because the city is built on an unstable lake bed. The buildings are literally sinking into the ground. And at an even faster rate than Venice!
The rest of our days included; getting lost in the biggest market in the world, Brendan having the worst $5 haircut imaginable by an apprentice who took a chunk out of the back of his head when the clipper guard flew off, me celebrating my 30th birthday in style at a trendy restaurant with far too many Mezcal’s and getting taken to the hottest club in town by new friends we met on the next table, a couple of tummy upsets, 2 nights in a hotel as a birthday treat, and more visits to some super cool Mezcaleria bars.
People selling everything and anything
Brendan thoroughly enjoying his haircut
Tasty 80c pork tacos from the market
A sinking church & loads of people everywhere
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
Busy market street
San Cristobal de las Casas
Our last stop in Mexico we headed south to the Chiapas region to the beautiful town of San Cristobal de las Casas. We took an overnight bus from Mexico City, which took about 14 hours. We opted for ‘GL’ class which is above first class, and basically means your seats fold almost all the way back so you’re flat, there’s a good amount of leg room, separate male & female toilets & free tea & coffee. Sounded like a pretty sweet deal and we were both excited for the adventure. I tend to sleep pretty well on trains, cars, planes etc so I didn’t have too bad a time on the bus. Brendan however struggled to barely sleep, and had a timely case of an upset stomach, which meant he spent a good part of it sitting on the loo.
Anyway, the town is a lovely highland colonial city surrounded by forest. It was here the Maya culture seemed to truly emanate. Most of the women wandering the streets were dressed in traditional dress which consists of a thick black skirt, a colorfully embroidered belt and frilly top. The town in general just had a slower more genuine feel to it, although in some ways it still felt somewhat touristy. Many of the women wandering the streets were selling an array of scarves, friendship bracelets, table runners & jewellery. Coming from such poor farming communities many of the families have opted to head into the local towns trying to make a few dollars from tourists. All the while they are hauling around a load of handicrafts, there was usually a small baby strapped to their back as well.
We decided to do a couple of ‘cultural’ activities while we were in town too. One was a chocolate making session, which was actually super fun. We had to first sift through the cocoa beans making sure we selected only the best, then roast them on a small bbq-like hot plate, then we ground them up in a meat-like mincer machine. A few rounds through the mincer and it turned into a thick paste, the warmer parts melting into liquid chocolate. We added 15% sugar so it wasn’t too bitter, and that was it. Both got our own hand made block of Mexican chocolate.
The second activity was mountain bike riding. The woman who sold us the package said it was for people of all ages & abilities, so it sounded great - a nice leisurely ride around the mountains, beautiful views, and stopping off in a few remote villages. Couldn’t have been more wrong. As we arrived and gave the bikes a quick test run the guide asked how many times a week I mountain bike – 3? I told him I had never mountain biked. I’m not even that confident riding a normal bike on the road. Well apparently this tour was for able & regular mountain bike riders, who are fit & confident. He was pissed, I was scared. Got off to a wonderful start 5 minutes in as we rode over a muddy patch and I put my foot deep into a mud puddle. I was totally hating it, the guide wasn’t exactly super friendly or helpful, and to get out of the town you have to climb this ridiculously massive hill. I walked most of the way up. Trying to not get killed by the huge trucks pummeling past and throwing dust in my face.
Well I made it. Just. Almost died from exhaustion. We were at almost 2500m above sea level so were out of breath a lot of the time, and that paired with not being the fittest we’ve been for a while made for a tough ride. At one point the guide mentioned some apparent great tobacco we could buy in a local town. I said I wasn’t interested as I don’t smoke, and he replied he thought I must be a smoker based on how heavily I was breathing!!
It was actually quite beautiful when I managed to catch my breath, so not a complete waste of time. We passed through some extremely poor little farming villages, the young mothers often with around 10 children herding their handful of sheep or cows across the hillside. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos though because the Maya’s believe that their soul will be captured in the picture.
And that was how we spent our last day in Mexico. An exhilarating, wild, beautiful, delicious, fascinating country that we’d go back to in a second. Can’t recommend it enough and we only saw a small portion. There’s still the entire north & east coasts left to explore.
Local oldie walking up the main street
Gorgeous colonial church
Roasting the fresh cocoa beans for our chocolate
Molé molé molé molé!
Loving the mountain biking
Traditional women's Maya dress (image from http://fansdelespanol.com/)