Monday 4 July 2011

Exit Mexico

I've been a little slack with these updates recently - one of the side effects of being a 'student' again (with lessons everyday and homework every evening!). So, despite the fact that I've now been studying Spanish in Guatemala for a couple of weeks, I still need to finish blogging business in Mexico.

Main street in San Cristobal
My final week in Estado de Mexico was spent solely in San Cristobal de la Casas. Everything here is in great contrast to the places I visited previously in the country: situated 2000m up in a highland valley and surrounded by pine-covered hillsides - you can't get much further from a 'Playa'. San Cristobal is also in the state of Chiapas - very distinct in comparison to Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche. The rich, mountainous environment and frequent rains combine to create the perfect coffee-growing conditions (meaning real, quality coffee is readily available here, as opposed to the sweet sludge that is the norm on the Yucatan peninsula). The altitude and the rains also mean that things can get very cold and very wet in the afternoons; something I definitely wasn't prepared for in terms of clothing!

Main square in San Cristobal
The people are different too: approximately a quarter of the Chiapas population are indigenous Maya, and San Cristobal is surrounded by traditional Mayan villages. Many villagers make their livelihood selling clothes and crafts in the traveller hub of San Cristobal - they are easy to spot in their brightly-coloured, elaborate-embroidered outfits. It's also possible to visit some of the surrounding villages and (respectfully) observe modern Maya life - one of the most fascinating aspects being the way they have merged their pre-Hispanic beliefs with modern Catholicism, but more on that later...

Church viewpoint
San Cristobal itself has been a popular traveller's hangout for decades (and some of the more aged hippies look like they've been here for the duration). There's not so many fixed 'sights' or 'attractions' to see, it's more the look and vibe of the city as a whole that captivates so many visitors. When I first arrived I spent a couple of days just wandering around the city - perusing exotic fruits and eating way too many cheap tacos at the bustling local market, purchasing clothing more suitable for the cool climate at the crafts and fabric market, aimlessly sauntering down the cobbled central streets, and taking in the panoramic views from the two church lookout points on the edge of town. As night draws in, a healthy (in one sense of the word) after-dark scene emerges; with pubs and wine bars dotted all over town, followed up by late night salsa clubs - usually occupied by phenomenal local dancers who shame the tourists (like myself) into standing at the sidelines, nursing a beer and gawping at their hypnotic hips. I also quickly learnt that hangovers can be a tad more severe at altitude...

It would have been very easy to follow this relaxed routine for the entire week (and many people do!) but I really wanted to make the most of what the surrounding area has to offer as well. Thankfully, I found the drive to drag myself out of the city on three different day trips.

The bicycle crew
I was accompanied by four other travellers on my first expedition, as we hired bicycles to explore some of the neighbourhoods and forests right on the edge of town. Actually hiring the bikes turned out to be as much of an adventure as the trip itself. The first 'bike hire shop' we visited (as recommended by our hostel) turned out to be more of a 'clothes buying shop' and the owners looked very confused when we enquired about hiring bikes. Luckily, they were kind enough to provide further directions. On following these we reached a small restaurant: still no bikes, more confused looks. Eventually, we found ourselves at the front door of a random house. After a few minutes of knocking a rather dishevelled and dreadlocked hippie man appeared: "No problem", he said. "I have bikes". Before enquiring offhand, "Are any of you from Brixton?". Very odd.

Our eclectic range of bikes ('secured' with a single lock)
While it was technically true that he did have bikes, they turned out to be the most ridiculous and random set of cycling machines ever - all in various shapes, sizes and states of disrepair. I ended up with a giant, turquoise ladies bike (sporting the text 'comfort long bike' along the frame) simply because I was the tallest and the saddle was stuck on the highest setting. One of the other guys sat proudly astride a low-slung chopper with a seat 5x larger than necessary - it actually looked quite cool, but the floor-level riding position and complete lack of gears didn't really suit the rugged, mountainous terrain around San Cristobal. The other 'vehicles' were just as preposterous: featuring random, non-functional accessories - such as a spare inner tube (cut in half) or the world's smallest front basket - and adorned with pretty floral decorations and absurd slogans such as 'turbo speed' and 'professional rider'. We were also provided with a single chain and lock for all five bikes. For obvious reasons, we didn't make it very far out of town on these machines, but it did make for a very amusing expedition and we just about reached the pine forest with enough time to enjoy a short hike up into the hills.

Soggy street in San Cristobal
My second outing was a lot more organised. In fact, it was a bit too organised for my liking, as I booked myself onto a group tour to a famous canyon about an hour or so from the centre of San Cristobal. One of my biggest pet hates is tour groups; I can't stand the feeling of being herded around with scores of other tourists - all getting in each-others way, constantly and aimlessly clicking their cameras - and the standard 'breaks' at false restaurants and tacky shops operating solely for the tourist trade. There's never the chance to get truly 'off the beaten track' in this scenario - there's no chance of seeing anything really authentic about the country you are in or encountering any real local people. I much prefer the challenges that come with independent travel and the feeling of genuine achievement when you reach somewhere completely off your own back.

Anyway, despite my natural revulsion to tour groups, there are certain occasions when you just have to bite the bullet and sign up. The canyon tour was one of these occasions - it's very difficult to reach the town using public transport and when you arrive you're just thrown into a boat with an oversized tour group anyway, so there's no real benefit in attempting to get there independently.

Big bird on the canyon river
Once I'd gotten over the constant shepherding and the naff items for sale at the dock, the boat trip down the canyon was actually great fun. The river flowing through the centre has, over millions of years, created towering cliffs on each side - some reaching as far as 1km into the sky. The banks are lush green and rich with wildlife - home to flocks of exotic birds and the odd croc or two; stealthily skulking just below the water's surface. In spite of my initial reluctance, a grand day out was had by all! (although it would probably have still been improved without the presence of other people.... :)

En route to San Juan Chamula
My final jaunt out of town was also technically part of a 'tour', but the conditions of this trip were much more to my liking. It was a very personal and intimate setup - me and 3 friends from the hostel paid a local anthropologist guy to take us out to a couple of the numerous traditional Maya villages that encircle San Cristobal. The mode of transport was his snug little hatchback; we were able to dictate the pace of the trip and how long we spent in each place. Our guide was also very knowledgeable with regards to the local area and the culture, beliefs and traditions of the inhabitants.

Templo de San Juan
Our first stop was San Juan Chamula, a small town approximately 10km from San Cristobal - home to the Tzotzil indigenous Maya group and their unique religious practices. In the centre of town, the stark white Templo de San Juan is a nominally Catholic church, but churchgoers actually observe a fascinating blend of modern catholicism with the traditional customs and traditions practised by the locals before the Spanish arrived. On entering, the first thing that registers is the sheer number of candles - there are literally thousands of them - constantly flickering and casting a yellowish hue throughout the interior (I asked our guide if there had ever been a fire. "Yes", he responded. "Often"). The floor is covered with rich, green pine needles (representing the earth) and interspersed with prostrate worshippers. Lining the walls are many glass booths, each containing an effigy of a different Catholic saint. Locals position themselves in front of their favourite Saint and begin to pray; chanting, lighting yet more candles, proffering gifts and then spraying these offerings with 'Pox' (pronounced 'posh') - a highly alcoholic holy drink, consumed religiously by the Maya here. The only beverage that is imbibed more fervently is coca-cola, which is drunk on an industrial scale by the villagers all around San Cristobal - some refuse to drink anything else (even water) which can cause some pretty serious health problems later in life.

Different flavoured 'Pox'
In the short time we were inside the church we also witnessed a couple of chickens being sacrificed - having their necks broken by hand at the climax of a particularly important prayer. Ethereal music and mystical Mayan shaman add further to the other-worldly atmosphere in this place. Photos are strictly forbidden, which actually deepens the effect further as visitors are forced to take in and remember everything - the sights, smells, sounds - through the old fashioned method of human sense and memory. This is one place you definitely don't want to visit as part of a tour group!

Once we'd dragged ourselves away from the church, we headed to the neighbouring village of San Lorenzo Zincantan for a spot of lunch. However, this wasn't a standard food stop: our guide had organised for a local family to cook us a typical Maya village meal. The friendly family matriarch greeted us at the door to her rustic abode and insisted we adorn ourselves with traditional garments before coming inside. I'm still not convinced that the light-blue and gold-embroidered oversized waistcoat was really my style, but my companions declared it looked very fetching, especially accompanied by the ribbon-adorned bonnet that was placed on my head.

Suitably-attired, we entered the gloomy dining area - the only source of light being the open wood fire used to cook our meal. We crowded around the miniature table, hunched over on chairs designed for toddlers, and spent the next hour feasting on tough morsels of beef; doused in fresh salsa, crumbled cheese and powdered peanuts, and all wrapped up in fresh tortillas - of which there was an endless supply as our host and her young daughter (with her own child wrapped in a sheet and strapped to her back) were constantly kneading, pressing and cooking throughout the meal. The whole experience was very humbling and educational - it was a real privilege to be welcomed so openly into this stranger's house and to be attended to in this way, without hesitation or question.

A wonderful way to end my time in San Cristobal. The next morning I took a shuttle bus south across the border with Guatemala and onto the Spanish learning hub of Quetzaltenango (referred to as Xela - pronounced 'Sh-ela'). I've been in Xela for nearly two weeks already - taking five hours of private Spanish tuition every weekday and living with a non-English speaking local family. It's been an incredible experience so far and I still have another two weeks left. But that's for the next blog....

(as always, more photos below - click the image for a bigger version)

Another church viewpoint
Waiting for a bus

Random outdoor gym
Local market

My favourite Taco lady in the local market

Arts and crafts market

Beads for sale!
Hiking around San Cristobal

Driving above the clouds en route to the Canyon

Driving above the clouds en route to the Canyon

Driving above the clouds en route to the Canyon

The Canyon

The Canyon

The Canyon (my favourite pic)
Graveyard in San Juan Chamula

Graveyard in San Juan Chamula

Painters in San Juan Chamula

Our chefs in San Juan Chamula

Host lunch family in San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula


  1. Hi son,

    Lovely update. I half expected it to be in Spanish? Picture of the canyon looks amazing, and well done you for putting up with other humanoids on your trip!

    Lots of love, Mum xxxxx

  2. Really lovely blog James, one of your best. Nice piccies and full account of your travels since your last message. I had a similar meal with a local family in Eygpt - that resulted in three days stuck to a toilet and serious medical assistance - still I'm sure your stomach of iron will cope! Lots of love Dad & Fay XX

  3. Hey hunny,

    Im glad that your enjoying (even when having to share the experience with other people lol). Glad that you have some travel companions and love the picture of the bikes! Also love description of you in your waistcoat lol bet you looked dashing! Love you loads xxxx

  4. I can't believe you sent me home !!!!