Learning to ride.
Leg two: The training wheels are off and the intrepid journey begins…
Mexico is different to Asia; few bikes, fast traffic, much more expensive (but not much more developed), but very relaxed and (mostly) very friendly. Pretty easy really. And no, we have no intention of going to Cabo, San Lucas, but hopefully some snorkelling (no reef yet), and some more beaches before we catch the ferry from La Paz to Matalazan. And a lot more Spanish practice!
6 August 2010
We took advice from a fellow ADV rider and crossed the border at Tecate. It was the simplest crossing ever. But we still managed to balls it up.
Firstly, the USA doesn't really seem to give a hoot if you leave or not. There were no signs to their immigration and it was on the opposite side of the road. Before we knew it, we were in Mexico organising our tourist visa. We had some difficulty with Spanish explaining that we have to 'stamp out' of the USA, but we found someone with English. We ended up going backwards through US immigration asking for a stamp; to which immigration replied - you don't need a stamp; she didn't want to see our passports either! But we knew we had to do something to 'prove' we had left, and then we remembered the tourist card. Hopefully it's been processed, and we've officially left.
It took us a while to realise we were in the wrong Banjercito que, but we did, and we finally paid our immigration fee. It also took us a while to work out that we couldn't get vehicle importation permits here either, but that we could at Ensenada or La Paz. That's good, it will give us time to work on our Spanish before we try. Then we headed off towards Ensenada. Road works the whole way. Mexican traffic can be a little erratic, but once the idiots and impatient pass you, you are sweet.
Our first night camping was at St Thomas. A funny experience. We were at a swimming resort (balneario - pools, BBQ and space for camping) but they have a sign that says 'no moto'. Apparently bikers have a bad rep here (grrr to all of the loud drunken dirt bikers). Anyways, the guy from the restaurant across the road started to speak in English to ask if we needed help. Seeing he was thinking of potential customers, we got him to speak nicely to the owners of the pool place, and voila, we had a camping spot. All was good except for dirty looks from the guy who had told us 'no moto' and pointed to the sign.
Second night was in a town called El Rosario. Cute, and we managed a dirt road to the coast to see and smell the ocean for the first time in 3 months. The sea smells so good when you haven't been near it for so long.
9 August 2010
From here, we wanted warmth rather than the cold pacific coast winds (we were back to riding in two wool jumpers, jacket liners, and windproof jackets), so we headed to Bahia de los Angeles on the east coast on the Sea of Cortez. The drive was stunning - finally some real desert; it’s a truly awesome landscape. And it goes all of the way to the sea on the east coast. It was hot, 40°C plus and humid (70%). Perfect for sitting in the shade and learning Spanish. The local taquilleras (tacos, tortillas and coke) are like chippies in NZ. They're cheap, tasty and everyone gathers to chat. So we had lots of fun practicing/learning Spanish with friendly locals who corrected our grammar, took us to try and find someone who sold tobacco, and just made nice conversation. More than we can say for the campground hosts. It was a nice place with effort put in, but they were about as friendly as rocks. And very rich (4 new cars/trucks, a nice house, several boats). Must be the money. Still, kids are the same everywhere; their kids were on the roof stealing wifi from the neighbouring restaurant, just like we have been doing!
11 August 2010
My birthday. Liking the heat, but disliking the camp hosts, we headed south on the bumpy and sandy 160 km dirt road to Punta San Francisquito. We were tired of the camp hosts as they clearly could not be bothered with us.
40°C plus heat means you also need to carry around 3-4litres water per person per day - that's an extra 9-12kgs for 2 days which didn't help!
It was a late start, thanks to a mass wedding in town the night before (10 couples), which meant all of the shops were closed. Finally got on the road. Talk about corrugations; I swear you could make butter or cheese on the back of your bike down this road, in about 10min. We didn't manage to escape the 40°C heat and 90% humidity either, and turned ourselves into little sweat bombs. Near the end of the day, we followed a little sign for gasoline and stopped at a ranch for coke (and a siphon, which we would not have bothered with had we realised they didn't have fuel in drums like the other little places with signs). We then went to the beach (15km more of the shakes) but a guy wanted $40US for a dilapidated shack on the beach; he and his mates also looked really dodgy. What a joke. Sensing they could take more than our money, we went back to the ranch, shake, shake, shake, and organised to pitch the tent on their lawn (no lawn just palapas and sand, but you get the idea). Cost $12us, the standard camping fee.
We had a great time trying to chat with the gauchos (farm workers) who spoke no English whatsoever. They were lovely guys; they were saying they were bad for not knowing English, and we just kept saying no, it’s us who can't speak Spanish. A great place to practice anyway, but very tiring after a 10 hours in the heat on the bikes. However, it proved to be a fun chat over another coke. They're building something for parties, with an open walled area, bar and stage for live music and dancing. The owner lives in Guerrero Negro, they're young (17-26) and apparently I'm a little old, and one worker has 2 girls back in Tecate. That's all I remember. We went to bed too shattered to be bothered with dinner. The next day, more shake-shake-shake, a steep little hill with deep sand, more shake-shake and then some nice compact and fast sand tracks and gravel (can't believe I was doing 60 in sand).
So that was my birthday. Reminds me of our last big trip in Asia, where we were in Bario Asal (Borneo), had organised to plant rice with the village headwoman, then walked to Pa Umor. Sadly, I gorged on pineapple the day before, and spent the day on the loo with the squirts. Not exactly amazing days, but definitely memorable.
14 August 2010
Next day we took our poor aching arms and butts and sweaty stinky bodies over another 120km of the worst corrugations ever, and headed to this little junction town (Vizcaino) part way between Guerrero Negro and the east coast. Great little hotel for $45us (and boy did we need it) and free wifi! Old, colonial style house with rooms put into it with outside doors, window shutters and cute little bathrooms with fresh water. Met an American expat from Mexico City last night, who was telling us about the water issues. There are no rivers or dams here, and the peninsula is about 2,500 km long, and about 200 km wide, so all of the water is either from aquifers, or trucked in. Water is therefore very valuable; which causes problems when miners want to use it in their new operations. Apparently there is a feud boiling at the moment near this town. Vizcaino is close to the west coast, so it's a bit cooler which is good, and super friendly. We liked the peace (no yappy dogs at night), cool air and green fruit trees so much we decided on a second night (nosotros gustamos otro noche por favor) before continuing across back to the east on the criss-cross that is mex 1, Baha. Gives us a chance to finally update the site, enjoy being clean, get to the bank, and practice our Spanish some more.
Maybe Mexico was a little crazy of an idea without Spanish. Maybe we are a little crazy. Chris did have a little - a course 7 years ago of 2 hours a week for 12 weeks. Baha was our choice for this reason - a little English is spoken, it's the non-peak season (too hot for the poor darling Californians) so people are not overly tired from tourists, and it would give us a chance to ease into Mexican travel. So we planned (well, as far as we go with planning) a 3-4 week visit to the peninsula, armed with Spanish grammar books, and Spanish for dummies tapes and book on our computers, oh, and some Mexico guidebooks seeing as we didn't get around to planning this leg of the trip while in the USA (time just ran away from us there). Our limited Spanish is enough to read around half of the road signs, ask for directions, introduce ourselves, get a place to stay and get fed. It will be good to eat something other than carne asada con queso (chopped steak with cheese for Alan), but we are slowly improving allowing 2-4 hours a day for study.
After a fairly sleepless night in the heat and deserted RV park, we head off south again.
We stop at the dairy for brekky, and have a fairly disturbing, almost laughable encounter with a not so light fingered thief. We were sitting 3 m away from the bikes, eating bread rolls and a pickup with 3 guys pulled up beside our bikes. One of them heads off into the mini-market to get something, and the younger of the three guys gets out of the truck to look at the bikes. With us staring straight at him, and him staring straight back at us, he tries to unhook the tank bag of Al’s bike. He is as sly as a bull in a china shop. We stand up, and he backs away quickly, and jumps back into the truck, trying to look innocent.
We make it all of maybe 50 km down to Mulege and manage to set ourselves up with a house for 350 pesos a night. Air con (very hot and humid here), internet, heaps of fruit trees surrounding it. Sweet. Also the holiday from our holiday we were much in need of. The town has a crazy one way system, but it's very laid back and quiet, and has a great Paleta shop.
27 August 2010
We got up early and packed only to find that the tire on Al's bike was flat... again. The second screw had found its way into the rubber just days after getting our first flat.
So off with the gear and on goes the bike on top of the panniers. It was already in the mid-30s and very high humidity, so we were starting to get very hot before even starting...
Duh #1: We were relying on the plastic value remover to remove the valve core. Dumb mistake, they are not strong enough.
Al visits 6 shops using his broken Spanish to finally track one down. After fixing the hole, we have a nightmare of a time trying to get the tire back on.
Duh #2: Always ensure that the rim seal around the tire is broken and that the tire side opposite to where you are levelling it back on is clearly pushed down from the rim.
After what seemed like forever, we finally got the wheel back on after discovering some tricks with the rim.
Duh #3: Make sure that you do not pinch the tire with the levers.
We try to fully inflate it. It doesn't get past 15psi. Another hole which was caused by the tire irons.
Off comes the wheel, the tire and tube. We quickly find the hole after testing half of the tire and patch it too.
So in goes the innertube again, and we fit the tire again. Before putting the wheel back on, we test that it is holding the pressure. This time it only goes to 20psi. We get the tube out only to discover a second pinch on the tube.
Duh #4: Make sure you test the entire tube in water for holes.
Finally we fix that and the pressure holds and we get the bike functional again.
Total time 5 1/2 hours.
We decide that fate doesn't want to allow us to leave and we stay for another night. Least we know that we can do this on the side of the road in minimal time.
28 August 2010
After nearly two full weeks locked up away from it all, we finally left to head south, but only to Loreto, 130 km down the road. The sea in Bahia Concepcion was great to cool off a bit on the way and we finally found some of those postcard picture perfect beaches, although we bypassed the ones wanting 80 pesos per person just to swim in the ocean.
Loretta is bloody hot. It seems to be above 40°C and near 100% humidity in the tent during the night, and we struggle to sleep.
29 August 2010
A great ride to St. Javier and down to the pacific. Beautiful mountain vistas, cooler temps, fun dirt/rock road, and the picturesque mission town of about 100 people, with cobbled roads in and out, that looks like it just does not belong. A stunning day to make up for the chinga madre se una caliente noche de antemano (use your dictionary!)
2 September 2010
We spent most of the day in cafes drinking cokas by the sea as we waited to catch the ferry.
At least 4 different ferry staff ensured us that there were tie-downs for the bikes before we boarded, so we didn't buy any for the trip. However, once on board, there were none to be found, so we spent 2 hours in the hull (at 50°C), trying to secure the bikes using our washing line. After making it out, we spent $700 pesos on a cabin - just for the showers as we sunk. The boat was very luxurious, and there would have been no issues finding a quiet spot to sleep.
We spent the evening talking to a couple other fellow explorers on calm seas.
4 September 2010
After the boat was late in, we decided to skip the devil's background road to Durgano and as Mazatlan was meant to be going through a violent phase, we didn't stay and opted for Tepic instead. We took the toll road for the first 20 km only to find it dead boring and expensive (about $15 dollars for the 20 km), so we changed to the libres, the free ones. These were a bit slower, but definitely more fun. You spent half the day dodging pot-holes, and the other half trying to get past the slow trunks. Unlike Baja, the drivers were much slower, around 100kph, and they even looked before overtaking (most of the time)!
After complaining about having no rain for 3 months, Chris finally got her wish granted and we got heavy rain as we rode the last 50 km into town. We hit Tepic fairly late and found a cheap motel.
It was only when we left Tepic that we found out that there has been daily drug related violence. At least one assassination per day. We didn't see or hear anything, and happily made our way out of town the next day.
A lesser known tourist state San Luis is still friendly with well kept secrets
Please look to the diary for updates, as we are over a month late with this update.
While we had planned to ride to Durango and then across to the east before heading south, we changed our minds when the ferry was 2.5 hours late, and we realised we would not have sufficient day light. Instead, we headed to Tepic, which, unbeknown to us has an equally scary murder rate. Finally, we got some rain albeit we were unaware Chris's panniers were not waterproof and thus it would result in damp clothes for three days. From there we survived the 2nd largest city in Mexico (Guadaljarra) and headed north via Zacatecas to a little town Al picked from the map - Real de Catorce.
Getting to Real del Cartorce was a lesson in reading the Guia Roji - our road map. It was an interesting little road, along which I kept waiting for the tunnel and paved road, after being told there is only one road in. Wrong Alan. Real is a gorgeous little town - an example of old Mexico especially for the tourists. The most common activity is horse riding. I didn't like the horse, it didn't seem to want to take directions from me, so that was quickly dealt with. But we did enjoy ourselves, and the nice ride out (complete with tunnel).
7 September 2010
Today we drove out of the fertile highlands of Zacatecas and into the arid Mexican plateau deserts of north San Luis Potosi. It was great to drive through the deserts again, especially with temperatures in the mid-twenties.
We made our way up to an old silver mining town via the backroad, a road that locals walk their donkeys on. After making two wrong turns on the way up, we finally found the correct road as it snaked its way up the hillside. The road gradually got steeper and narrower and the views of the valley and the old Spanish ruins got better and better. After nearly turning around at a particular steep section two thirds of the way up, we motored onto Real de Catorce.
The whole way up Al was saying "oh, it’s easy, the school bus comes this way every day" and "a guy on a road bike did it". The locals don't ride bikes this way, they don't even ride their horses or donkeys. The craziest road yet. Too damn steep, and too damn rocky. After hearing it is only 1 km more (or 3 scary km back), Chris decides to walk and let Al ride her bike up the steep section. The locals are surprised to see us coming up this road. The usual is a mellow, wide, paved road on the other side of the hill. The locals say this road is very dangerous. At this point, Chris realised she knows how to say she will murder her husband (in Spanish).
This was a very charming small town, just as if it came straight from the set of the Mexican, in fact it was the set of the Mexican. An amazing little town. Worth the anxiety bender
8 September 2010
We had a fairly quiet day looking around town and doing a small horse ride up into the protected highland areas above the town. The pictures will tell the tail, we just need to find a good internet connection before we can upload these...
We spent the night drinking beer with a Mexican and a Brit while watching the footy. A very pleasant day.
9 September 2010
After what was going to be a small travel day, ended up being a 12 hour monster.
We left Real de Catorce on the normal road (albeit not until 12:30, late even for us). Maybe a steep 2 degrees and nice new cobblestones laid down just 30 years earlier. This goes through a 2 km tunnel before it slowly makes it way down the valley 1,000 m below. We got to Matehuala before running into problems. A 10 cm length of wire goes straight into Chris's tyre. We quickly got the wheel off and patched the holes (it went through the entire tube), much to the surprise of a local that stopped to help. He ran off to his home to get us some extra rubber cement for us after he saw that our tube of glue was low! An hour or so, we were off again.
About 75 km later the patches failed the test, and Chris experiences her first blowout in style. A slight wobble at the start, but she quickly gets it under control. Chris: this was at 100km+ per hour, and the scariest experience yet. On top of that, it was getting late with only 1hr daylight left we thought we were fine seeing as we were only 50 km from the next town, but this is something I never want to experience again. I'm still nervous on the bike 5 days later).
Off comes the tire again, to discover the blown patch. We quickly fixed it and we tested it, only to discover that the tube was not holding air. With no water to test it, we give up on the tube and organise a tow on dusk. We're on the couta (toll road), so no one stops to help. After stashing half of our gear in the bushes, an locking the bike to a fence, we give up and ride back, on one bike, to the toll station The local motorway guys are pretty helpful, they order a tow truck and stay with us until it arrives and we finally make it to a hotel in Rio Verde near midnight. Lucky for us they were good guys, and they got us a great deal on a hotel in town.
A happy ending this time, but not something we want to repeat. Seems that glue needs 3min to dry, not 30sec once you get out of the heat of Baja.......lesson learnt, the hard way.
9 September 2010
We headed south east through SLP looking for an easy route that would take us to friends in Xalapa, Veracruz. A tyre blow out on my bike was very unnerving, and resulted in a few days in Rio Verde, where we also visited the beautiful Laguna del Media Luna - some of the clearest springs we have ever been in.
Not on many people's list of must see places, but we picked this off the net. A smaller town, the laguna near Rio Verde was just stunning. We've never swum in water this clear, with lilies’ flowering underwater, and little fish everywhere. We wouldn't come here again just for this, but it is a nice place to visit if you want to avoid the normal tourist route down the sierra madres and take the jagged, untamed eastern mountain range instead.
11 September 2010
From there, with a new tyre, we headed towards Xilitla. Xilitla contains the most magical garden I have even been in (Las Pozas de Edward James). Its surrealist sculptures, set in stunning temperate rainforests, were truly unreal and one of the tourist highlights so far. If you have ever read the books of Enid Blyton you are in for a treat. From there, it was a fast track south out of the mountains to the coastal plains and down to Veracruz and then Xalapa. We missed some of the tourist destinations, but we were already a month late getting down to Xalapa.
12 September 2010
We spent the morning in the dream-like gardens of Edward James, a Scottish surrealist that built the fantastic Las Pozas (the pools) in Xilitla, San Luis Potosí.
If you have ever read any books by Enid Blyton like the secret garden, or the faraway tree you are in for a surprise - the gardens are real! This was the garden of your dreams, more real and alive than you could ever have imagined. Set in the jungle, on a hillslope, 17 windy kms up a mountain, with paths leading in every direction; fantastic buildings with few walls, staircases and bridges that lead to nowhere, unbelievable lizards, butterflies, dragon flies, and then the sculptures of flowers, the pebble and stone paths with flowers and trees inlay made from broke tiles, the stone snakes, the stunning waterfall.
It is Chris's favourite so far. Well worth the detour.
14 September 2010
Nothing better than seeing old friends.
Alex was a PhD student in Chris’s department in Aussie, but when he finished 2 years ago he and family (Suriya & Emillio) returned to Coatepec, 10min from Xalapa, Mexico. It was always our plan to catch up again when we were passing through Mexico, especially given the expected arrival of a new baby (Andreas). In addition, Al was asked to take on more work, and Chris was interested in going to language school. Our arrival timing could not have been worse with the new baby just arrived, but in demonstration of just how easy things are in Mexico, Alex took us to see a friend’s house that would be available to rent in a couple of weeks and at the same time, found out one of the little cabanas across the road was empty; so we moved in that night. Gas (and other things you may want) are easily organised - just listen out for the right music as they drive down your street and flag them down. Unfortunately, it took us a couple of days to work this out. I'm in debt to Suriya for teaching the song for the gas man, or else we'd have been waiting more than 4 days for the hot shower (we managed to bathe with hot water from the camp stove before then). Water is easier - the guy just rings the bell on the gate and shouts out what he is selling.
Where to begin with telling you all about Mexican life. We love it, and after a month and doing the sums I can tell you I would live here at the drop of a hat. Comparative savings (in USD) after living costs and tax are on par with NZ if not better, at least for academic positions. Don't believe me, I'll email you the spread sheet. We were ourselves shocked! Rent and mortgages are cheap and easily obtained (ca. 5000p or $400AUD per month for a compact 2-3 bedroom house), utilities are great (400p/mth for gas, around $30AUD) and $2AUD for 20 L drinking water (about a month for 2); internet is also much more reasonable than Aussie ($30AUD/mth for cable TV, phone and unlimited wifi!). Doctors are also cheap ($2AUD) as are medications ($2 for my anti-giardia treatment when my tummy played up badly, and not because of Mexican food, as I never returned a clear test after my last bout in Indonesia).
And just don't get me started on how wonderful the food is even for someone who doesn't eat dairy. Perhaps mind the chilli seca though…it tastes good it ain't good on its exit. Big meals are breaky, and lunch (late, around 2 or 3) with a smaller evening meal (cena). The food here is very different to Mexican food outside of Mexico. You can get just about any cut of meat. And they cook it shredded (picadillo), roasted, poached, fried (asada), you name it. Pork is also high on the list of favourite foods, including yummy pig skin deep fried and served broken up (called chicharron) which is just delish. Most meals are accompanied by beans (and here it’s common for black beans which are yummier than pinto beans), tortillas (like a burrito wrapper but smaller and made from ground corn; they don't actually eat burritos in Mexico!) and either red or green salsa. Or you can have gorditas (like a harder pitta bread that you load stuff onto), crispy tortillas called tostadas that you load stuff onto, tortas/tortugas (toasted bread with sandwich filling), tacos dorado (deep fried tortillas wrapped around stuffing like potato or a meat), and then there are enchiladas, soups that you add herbs and salad bits to, cactus salad (Napoles) which is like a cross between cucumber and capsicum but bitter/sour, and so many other yummy things. Morning and afternoon teas are sweet breads, filled with cinnamon and sugar spices, nuts and fruits, and topped with syrup, nuts or icing; or there are icing shaped animals filled with a spicy pumpkinseed past. Yum, yum yum. And then there are the restaurant meals - a splash at $20AUD for two including fine dining, beer (also great!!!), and desert, or you can do the classy burger joint combo for < $10AUD for 2, or lunch of pasta with sauce for $7 for 2.
What I love most about Mexican life is the sense of community that exists… there are the markets that seem to be open 24/7 for veggies, then separate butchers, bakers, and tortilla places, as well as restaurants, takeaways and . And the kiwi dairy is alive and kicking on each street corner. So everyone has their favourite venders for each thing they need, or you can go to a big supermarket if you prefer. What this means is that you have so much fun with your day. I didn't start Spanish school until a week and a half into our stay here, but happily spent my time going to the markets and tiendas (small shops) every other day, and then an extra 4hrs in the kitchen per day cooking. And then there is the plaza or park as locals refer to it, which is just teeming with people at all hours. On top of that, a busy schedule of various festivals, amazing colonial architecture and brightly coloured shop facades, and amazing coffee…
Crazy drivers? They let everyone in irrespective of whether they have the right of way!
With Al working, and me doing the hard yards with study (10+ hrs a day), we haven't done a lot. The 2-3 different cyclones that have taken flight around the Caribbean (and severely damaged roads up and down the northern coast) have not helped as it's been rather wet, but no major problems as we are sheltered by a small mountain range. We've seen the anthropological museum down the road in Xalapa (500,000 people compared to Coatepecs 50,000; great as you can get anything you need for the price of a 70c, 1/2hr bus ride), Xico, a rafting river town (from the banks, as it hasn't been above 25 while we've been here) and well, that's about it really other than spending lots of time with Alex and his family.
We're now at a point where it's time to move on, however much we enjoy the lifestyle here. Only 5 months before we must be back in Australasia so Chris can begin that Marsden (yes, Marsden). Nevertheless, I can assure you, we will be back.
14 September 2010
We have arrived in Coatepec, near Jalapa, Veracruz. We will be spending the next few weeks here while Alan works and Chris studies español. Our stay here could possibly be as long as a month.
Coatepec is a small town of around 50,000 and is very nice with heaps of cafes and markets. It is about 800 m above sea level and is surrounded by coffee plantations in the mountains.
16 September 2010
We have settled into a nice one bedroom house with power and internet for a mere $3850 a month. That’s under $80 AUD a week! We expect to be here for 1 to 2 months, so don't expect too many updates, as we'll both be working. Alan with IT stuff and Chris will be studying Spanish.
22 September 2010
Chris started a 20 hour course in Spanish today. She loved it.
13 October 2010
We finally had to leave sleepy little Coatepec. It was a great place to hang for a month, and it almost made both of us want to shift to Mexico to start a quiet life in the city. We worked out that Al only had to work for a couple of months each year to pay for all of the living expenses, or add another week's work to pay for a cleaner too! It was so tempting to stay...
We made it down to Acayucan today. We started off on the coatas, the pay roads, for the first bit and we made great time getting to Veracruz. After that we hit the libras and about a gazillion trucks. The main coata that runs the length of Veracruz state was closed after the recent flooding and the traffic was diverted to two of the older roads. Thankfully the topes make life easy when it comes to passing these. The trucks slow to about 2 or 3 km/h and it is dead easy to overtake or undertake them in every small town. You just have to be careful with the vendors, potholes, stray animals, taxis, ... in the process!
For those that do not know what a tope is, it is like a speed bump, but nastier. These cross the roads in towns, bus stops and often random places in the middle of nowhere. They spawn life in these areas, and you tend to get about 4 or 5 vendors per tope selling prawns, drinks and other crazy stuff. And they are also the number one overtaking lanes for trunks!
Acayucan is a nice small city, and is full of life and there are no tourists here. Well the looks were because of that, or the crazy mo that Al has at the moment.
The poorest state in Mexico and home of the Zapatistas.
Think you understand Mexico? Have you made it to Chiapas yet? Chiapas is the poorest state in the country, and it’s noticeable from the highway that you have changed states. Gone is the high grade tarmac - hello to unmarked lane collapses on steep hillsides, poor rural villages of bamboo, mud and tin roofs, women and men in traditional dress (this place is home to many indigenous groups), different languages, a lack of power in places, and a return of needy beggars and children selling all sorts of handicrafts, shoe shine, working as cleaners etc. when they should be in school. The state also happens to be one of the most beautiful, from waterfalls such as Agua Azul, parks such as Simeron Canyon, and amazing handicrafts including pottery, textiles, woollen toys, jewellery and leatherwork.
We began our stay in Palenque, visiting the Agua Azul waterfalls and then Palenque ruins. From there it was on to Tonina, near the town of Oscinosco for more ruins. When we stayed near the ruins, we were invited to a 4 year olds birthday party next door, which involved piñatas, football, cakes, jelly, and lots of traditional Mexican sweets.
16 October 2010
Years ago, a kiwi friend lived in Palenque, but we never made it over while Craig was here. To our surprise, tiny Palenque was quite the tourist pit stop, burger king included, but we managed to see waterfalls without being mugged, and the main ruin site, as well as eating plenty of delicious empanadas, and finally, a posada with tonnes of parking space.
19 October 2010
To break up the supposed slow tedious ride to San Cristóbal, we decided to stop at the ruins at Tonia. It's further off the beaten trail, so tends to attract self-driven tourists, including two orange VW combis, one from Monterrey (Nth Mexico) and another from Quebec. There's great cabanas right next to the ruins, but we had an extra special stay there, when we just happened to arrive for 4yr old Alan's birthday party to which we were invited. Needless to say, I'd like to take my 4th birthday in Mexico in my next life, please. Piñatas, party games including pop the balloons under your butt in the funniest way possible, and endless football, not to mention plates with jelly, cake, lollies, and bizarre Mexican sweet treats. Must have cost a packet, especially given the usual income in these parts. And we (and the Canadians) were made to feel very welcome. The ruins at Tonia are set on a hill and just awesome in scale; well worth the visit.
Palenque is at the base of the mountains, set in the jungle. You climb the foothills to find grazing valleys surrounding Tonina, and then further upwards the forest changes to a type of pine, and then you are greeted by San Cristóbal, a larger town (80,000) with an amazing historic centre and great food, albeit plenty of tourists. San Cristóbal is famous for the Zapatistas - and you can't miss references to them - there are murals on many village store fronts. Zapatistas are a movement for the large indigenous population here in Chiapas - one of the poorest states in Mexico. Our understanding is that sometime in the 90s (?) Commander Marcos set about making the world aware of the plight of indigenous people here, the lack of government services and infrastructure and the will for greater autonomy. It culminated in armed struggles with the federal army here in Chiapas, including taking control of San Cristobal, and meeting with the Mexican president in Mexico City. Many years on, after calls for greater government support, the differences between Chiapas and other states are still very clear and the federal military presence remains. The poverty here is noticeably greater than other parts of Mexico, and investment in infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, pharmacies, water, electricity etc. is still noticeably lower.
The pattern here is one repeated time and again world over in indigenous issues. With requests for resources usually comes the banter about wise investment, prioritising efforts and the need to demonstrate efficacy, all of which appear quite reasonable. However, each of these things can act to reinforce power centralisation in agencies detached from the poverty and circumstances they seek to illuminate. It seems forgotten that the same tools applied to these issues (risk analysis, cost benefit analysis and evaluation) ultimately lead to unrealistic comparisons with government programs in other states. Further, they act to marginalise the differing needs of indigenous people (e.g. the retention of indigenous languages and cultures), and ignore the additional efforts required to alter the trajectories of people in different socio-economic circumstances (i.e. it costs more to improve the lives of poor a little than it does to improve the lives of the middle class by the same amount). On the other hand, where should you draw the line on the appropriate level of support? Is it realistic to expect a culture and lifestyle to remain intact even if it reinforces the disadvantage governments seek to alleviate (e.g., the desire of Aboriginal Australians to in a country where there are few jobs)? Governments worldwide have signed agreements on protection of indigenous languages and cultures, but they have also signed up to many other things they haven't a hope in delivering on (e.g. conservation, human rights, nuclear disarming).
In the next few days, we'll be visiting some zoos, of the cultural tourism type. This is touted world over as a means for supporting economic growth in indigenous communities while promoting cultural retention, and provides a means of staying in the country. On one hand, I'm pleased we will feed some much needed cash into the local economy, on the other, I'm dreading the culture we'll create in the process; the 'why won't you give me 5 pesos' barrage, and the creation of greater disparities between the haves and have nots of cultural tourism (which leads to muggings on route to waterfalls when the proprietors of the waterfall collect rent but those whose land you pass over, take a roadside piss on, and stare at because they dress differently, don't).
The creation of self-sustained community growth via cultural tourism is a potential alternative to ongoing government support. But I'm wondering when we'll start discussing the bigger questions: questions about who gets to determine how quickly a culture should evolve and in what direction; questions about how we manage our support for the heritage we have now, the heritage we had, and the creativity we need to re-orientate our cultures; questions about how much we value the rights of people to be involved in decisions that affect them; and questions about whether we can support different modes of governance without losing our sense of combined, national, identity. I expect I will have more questions too in the coming days. As far as I can tell, liberty and democracy are experiments in progress, despite their frequent adornment on Zapatista murals surrounding us.
20 October 2010
On to San Cristóbal, where Al worked and Chris shopped and went back to school, and we visited mountain villages and markets in the mornings. And then the amusement of our family run hostel - which was not particularly well run (no soap or loo paper, bed bugs, and we had to complain to get hot water on to be greeted with comments like 'it's a long way up there'; bikes had to be moved in and out each day to leave space for people to walk around and also to enable 2 taxis to get into the parks too; but heh, it had a kitchen!).
We had nearly 3 weeks in San Cristóbal. San Cristóbal was an interesting place to visit but not a place we would choose to live. It's a 3 tier economy - tourists, locals with money (running posadas, etc) and then indigenous people. The kids do a better job selling crafts than adults, so they are put to work in the tourist zone, which means any time you are not in your hotel, you are mobbed by people trying to sell you stuff, including any time you are eating out. The latter might sound bad, but at least you can offer kids food (it's surprising how many take it). It's better than having a beggar tell you that 3 pesos is not enough (luckily this only happened a couple of times), Some surrounding villages (like Chamula) are very touristy, while in others (e.g. Tenejapa) you become the zoo and locals know how to stare. The markets are crazy but fun, just watch your wallet and don't park your bike on a corner where the crazy taxi drivers will knock it down when they come barrelling around. While they do a mean coffee, amazing chocolate (it is afterall mayan in origin), great tortas and huaraches, and great pozole, for us, the town was just a little big, and the constant harassment by kids and sellers and beggars (with targeting based on your skin colour) would just be too much on a permanent basis.
Chris was unimpressed by the language school (Xalapa Kiosk International teachers were outstanding, so this was a real let down), and unless you want to be treated like a 5 year old (there are 5 rules for this here they are, no we can't use your examples, if you don't understand after I have explained it twice then you clearly don't want to learn) I would not go to Jovel Institute. Perhaps they need more than 2 weeks training in how to teach Spanish as a second language… and while they are at it, some training on teaching styles for adults would help too.
We also had some unexpected events during our stay. A BMW convention provided ample eye candy and entertainment, and we got new gloves (Mexican made, but really good quality and fit), and helmet intercom (fun fun fun). Then we caught up with a traveller we met in the states, Brian, (who rode his vstrom from new mexico to Yellowstone where we met him, then around Alaska, Canada and back). Brian arrived with a Belgium we call V, but this time without a bike; nonetheless we had a nice time catching up and trying to convince V to take up riding.
Things took a turn for the cold in SC (highs of 5-7, and no heating!), and feeling colds coming on we decided to high tale for warmth of Yucatan and Belize.
21 October, 2010
Today we went to Tenejapa, about 30min along the windy mountain roads from San Cristóbal, for market day. I have previously written about my misgivings in relation to cultural tourism. This was a full reversal in comparison with my expectations. We were the only tourists, and consequently, we were the ones being stared at, laughed at, having lots of questions fired at us, and just generally standing out quite severely, not least because we were both much taller and dressed funnily. Tenejapa was a great experience, and the locals showed us their ingenuity and determination; a 10 year old boy offered to go and buy us drinks after we had sat down to eat tacos, and the local women would not budge on the prices for their goods. It was also one of the liveliest markets we have ever seen, and only two beggars. This is not however an untouched indigenous village, but one where modern things (e.g. pot scrubbers, plastic buckets) blend seamlessly with high quality locally made clothing, and where little Spanish is spoken, and people prefer traditional dress. Perhaps it's because of the distance from SC, but this was a great market to visit.
24 October, 2010
Zoo experience #2 - after finally finding the cuota to Tuxtla, we headed off to see the canyon. We arrive and are greeted by the usual 'I can watch your bike for you' which always has us thinking, 'what’s going to happen to it if you don't watch it?' Usually, nothing, but 10pesos is a nice donation for the elderly, especially if it means you can park away from the cars (Al's bike was knocked over by a taxi at the central markets here, no damage done and people were sure to tell us about it, which make a nice excuse for a chat about life in general, but also made us more cautious with parking choices).
Herded down to the restaurants and boat waiting point, by fluke we ended up on a Mexican boat for the 2hr trip, whereas White and Mexican tourists are usually separated. The upside of this is when you see the crocs, and get to hear the jokes about who is stupid enough to swim here, and who should be fed to the crocs. Also a great opportunity to practice Spanish! The canyon was stunning, but also a good insight into the problems with rubbish and water quality.
After that, a visit to the Tuxtla zoo, with lots of cool animals including the big cats....Chris was very unnerved when the jaguar stalks its prey (us) through the glass..... I do NOT want to meet one of these in the wild thank you. Very scary!
29 October, 2010
I'm in heaven... for the last 3 days there's been a BMW convention here. Soooo many nice bikes. Just for a joke, we went and parked ours with the other 30 or so in the main street. People got a bit of a shock when they found out I ride, but then a dirt bike...
And the upside is I can probably fit a GS650.... now we have something to save for when we return!
A 250cc is a bit of a joke in comparison to these bikes. However, it helps when you can ride a bike you don't drop and need two guys to pick up. Case in point. We just hopped on Al's bike. Some riders walked past talking in Spanish, and were making comments to each other about the fact that they had seen us and I only had a 250. Traffic was quite heavy along a little one way, with cars parked down the left. Next thing, a BMW tries to lane split (when you ride between parked cars and traffic going past so you can get to the front of the other cars). He (almost all the riders of BMWs were men) hits a cobble at an odd angle, clips a wing mirror on the right, and goes down on the left. 2 guys have to lift it back up, and the traffic has to wait. What's more, there was a tonne of space to his left (enough to drop the bike without touching any moving traffic). I might be slow, but I haven't dropped my 250cc on the road since week one. Who's laughing now?
A major upside of the convention was that they had intercom headsets for sale. This is something we looked at in the US, but decided was a bit expensive. With al's work, we can now afford. I cannot tell you how good these things are. Instant feedback on your riding from your buddy, warnings about cars, you can still easily hear the road, the bike and each other, and there will be no more heated discussions about what the last long horn, short horn and double flash to the left was about. Works around corners and with cars between us too up to about 400 m! May be switched off when we ride two up though....poor Al has a backseat driver!
31 October, 2010
Zoo experience no. 3 today as we headed to Chamula, to see the most popular tourist market. It's just 12 km from the town centre. I personally don't see what the fuss is all about. Some shops selling tourist fodder, and then a grubby little central market area, and not much energy. Unlike Tenejapa, tourism has changed this place... we hear stories about kids offering gifts and then getting their parents to return so you pay them something, people being chased for 3hrs while they try to shop, etc., beggars, and the general ignore what the tourist asked you and show them the most expensive item you have. Not our cup of tea, the city markets are much better.
7 November, 2010
After Al started getting over his cold, we decided to get onto the road again after getting sun for the first time in 5 days.
After packing and getting ready, we suddenly realised that we had just run out of bike insurance so we spent an hour trying to get this organised over the phone, only to find out that they couldn't do this on Sundays. We reckon that the woman on the other end was just being lazy. So we headed off in drizzly mist that had appeared and started making our way down out of the cold.
About half way down, Al had the craziest crash on his bike. The super hard rubber on his rear just lost all friction in the wet and the bike started to fish-tail badly with his heavy rear load. After just about getting it back under control, he hit a tope and the bike spun and dropped heavily onto the road. Total damage was limited - 3 front wheel spokes popped when Al's boot went through them, some minor scratches to the fairing and a small ding in the panniers. Al had some minor grazes on his legs, and badly bruised ribs.
In pain, we continued onto Palenque. 2 hours later, Chris dragged Al to the hospital and after a 20 min wait in AnE, he walked out with a script for some painkillers and Chris had some piece of mind that there were no broken ribs.
9 November, 2010
Not exactly what we had planned when leaving San Cristóbal. The idea was to high tail it north to get to the cenotes, ruins and beach to relax before hitting Belize. The ride here was slow (70km/h max when your spokes go), only to find we have another 200-600 km of this speed until we can get new spokes for Al's bike. In the meantime, Chris's cold has worsened to the point where she lost her voice (lucky Alan... but then again, limited Spanish means limited ability to do much like renew that insurance or find bike parts), and Al's ribs are still too sore to ride. So we are stuck in Palenque. At least we have cleaned the viruses off Chris's computer and updated the website. It is much warmer here too, with no bedbugs/fleas. Also great to get back to our favourite little empanada and juice shop, and we have a hotel with bikes under cover right outside our room (ground floor, yeah!), plus a cafe that does room service next door, and a great panaderia for our favourite sweet breads (a la mexicana, not french as per SC) on the other side.
Hoping this cold decides to go away soon.....
We later found out that guests at our hotel at San Cristóbal were coming in from the countryside to be treated for Typhoid. Luckily, we had our Typhoid shots, but unluckily this bacterial infection still hit us fairly hard.
With news of Al’s Dad needing an operation, we delayed our departure from Mexico even more. One year is not going to be enough for this trip!
Quintana Roo still had the tourist hot spots like Cancún and Tulum, but also had many areas to get off the beaten track like the road to Punta Allen.
24 November, 2010
After a night in the pinkest hotel ever in Tulum, we headed south to Punta Allen. The road started off following the tourist route on tarmac, and degraded rapidly as we entered the protected area. We were dodging half meter wide potholes that were filled with water after the overnight rain. These ranged from 5 cm to 25 cm in depth, so we were really testing Als new suspension when our line went wrong. About 5 km down the road, the size of these had increased so that the entire road was one massive pothole. These were from 25 cm to over 50 cm deep. It was so much fun! Of the 50 km trip, we had about 100 of these river like crossings.
Punta Allen was a nice laid back town. It has yet to be taken over by tourists and it still has the native Mexican feel about it. We camped on the beach and overnight rain added to the enjoyment as we returned to Tulum to wait on news from Alans Dads operation in NZ
2 December, 2010
After a week in the town of Tulum, we finally made it to the ruins at the beach. Very nice setting, but they lacked the atmosphere of the other sites that we have visited and they seemed to have as many tourists. The beach was one of the nicer ones that we have visited in Mexico, so we spent a few hours swimming under the ruins. We also had an excellent fun 2 days of riding to Punta Allan and back through 60 km of huge full road width knee deep potholes filled with water. The bikes loved it, as did we, and the lagoon was stunning! Al's dad had major brain surgery (the reason for our most recent delay in Mexico), which went really well, so we are now busy trying to plan how we will get from panama to Columbia when all the boats are full before the windy season... looking like cargo or flying the bikes, so we may well have a section of this trip in backpacker style yet... but we haven't given up hope on the San Blas Islands in Panama. Tomorrow Belize and onwards to Guatemala....