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17th June 2011
México at last!!!
We began in Chetumal , just over the border from Belize, with a visit to the “must see” Museum of Maya Culture. The Yucatán Peninsula is dotted with the remains of grand Maya cities so we headed inland to the small village of Xpujil  to see the ruins of Xpujil. A large structure topped by 3 towers dominates the site.
Becán (550 BC – 1000 AD), a few kilometres away, is surrounded by a moat, unique in the Mayan cities. We had the ruins to ourselves surrounded by only the jungle and its eerie early morning sounds.
The vast World Heritage site of Calakmul sits within a biosphere reserve. Our guide Nicolas (Kaan Expeditions) pointed out birds and animals along the way. Being hard to reach there were very few other visitors. The tallest 82 metre high building towers over the trees that surround ancient temples. The city flourished from 250 AD to 695 AD and some of the structures still have wooden beams from those times. We tried to picture the city as it once stood, brightly painted stucco covering huge pyramids which surrounded large paved plazas.
|Mens and Ladies baños (toilets)|
21st June 2011
The ruins at Tulum  may be modest but the setting on a cliff above the ocean, grand. It was occupied between 1200 AD and 1521 AD, at the end of the Mayan civilization. On borrowed bikes from the hotel we peddled out early to avoid the heat and the hordes.
Around Tulum there are many cenotes, sections of caves that have collapsed leaving behind round sinkholes filled with clear, cool water. No need for a mask and snorkel, the water is crystal clear and the underwater wonderland of stalactites and stalagmites is clearly visible. The Maya believed cenotes to be entrances to the underworld.
Bypassing the “planned paradise” resorts of Cancún, we took the fast ferry out to Isla Mujeres (Island of Women)  on a rainy, windy day. After 2 days the weather improved and we were able to head northeast into the open sea, an hour in a small boat doing 20 knots, to snorkel with the whale sharks. Scarcely able to believe it, a school of about 200, average length 10 meters, circled around our boat. Into the deep ocean we went, nervous as the gentle giants approached within a meter of us, mouths wide open, cleaner fish attached to their gills. It was an incredible experience. Back on board the sea was getting rougher with a choppy meter high swell – everyone threw up.
24th June 2011
Unpretentious, colonial Valladolid , was established in 1543 by the Spanish who built on top of a Mayan settlement. Pastel coloured buildings line wide streets, and the huge, shady square is always full of locals. It made a good base to see the nearby attractions. Valladolid is well known for its cuisine; we liked the Queso Relleno Estilo Valladolid, stuffed cheese with turkey, pork, Dutch cheese, olives, capers, almonds, raisins, and spices.
The closest Maya ruins are at Ek Balam, Mayan for “Black Jaguar”, dating from 300 BC. Unusually, the central religious area where the elite resided was surrounded by a double set of walls. The Mayans buried the Acropolis (160 metres by 70 metres at the base and 31 metres high), preserving the stucco sculptures and many painted hieroglyphic inscriptions. We arrived at the opening time of 0800 and had the entire place to ourselves.
The most famous of the Maya ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula is Chichén Itzá, listed in the New Seven Wonders of the World. Occupied until the 800´s when it was abandoned, it was re settled 100 years later by the warlike Toltecs. Thus a mixture of styles is evident. It is the best preserved and restored of all the Mayan sites and most impressive.
On the way back to Valladolid we stopped at Cenote Xkekén, a large underground cavern with a hole in the ceiling, for a refreshing swim in its cool clear waters. Then a taxi took us to the town of Uyama with its beautiful red, white and blue church built in 1642 from the stones of Mayan pyramids.
Two buses north brought us to Rio Largartos (Lizard River)  a small fishing village nestled in the mangroves near the coast. There are colonies of flame red flamingos and 387 other bird species have been sighted nearby. We went by boat to see the flamingos and weren´t disappointed; there were hundreds feeding in flocks. On the way we spotted a couple of crocs, eagles, herons and dozens of other birds.
|Details of head masks at Ek-Balam|
29th June 2011
In the quaint colonial town of Izamal , one of México´s Pueblos Mágicos, all the central buildings are painted in egg yolk yellow. Towering above everything else is the Franciscan church and convent, built on top and out of a Mayan pyramid. The Spanish monk Fray Diego de Landa who founded the Monastery later burnt all the Maya writings – lost forever (only 4 books remain). There are various Maya pyramids scattered about town, even the remains of one in our hotel´s garden.
When Francisco de Montejo and his Conquistadores arrived at the Maya city of T’ho in 1542, the white limestone covered buildings reminded them of the Roman city of Mérida  back in Spain. They renamed the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas and then proceeded to dismantle it, using the stone for the construction of churches and public buildings. We got there on a wet and windy day. Thoroughly soaked, we set out to explore the colonial architecture. The rain had eased the next day as we bussed and hour and a half out to Uxmal, one of the best restored Mayan sites with magnificent examples of Puuc construction – buildings beautifully decorated with carefully cut stones, often featuring the God of Rain, Chac.
|Two of the stones taken from a Mayan temple used in the Monastery|
06th July 2011
Inside the old city walls of Campeche  are neat rows of pastel coloured historical buildings and handsome colonial churches. Over 1000 colonial buildings have been restored. The city was once the Maya settlement of Can Pech before the arrival of the Spanish in 1540. The main square comes alive in the evenings with the cathedral all lit up and bands play while people stroll.
The richness and variety of the food amazes us, nothing like the Mexican food we know. The specialty here is Pan de Cazón, grilled shredded baby shark on tortillas covered in a tomato sauce. We opted for Pollo Pibil instead, chicken marinated in tomato, sour oranges and spices and cooked in banana leaves. A special seed, annotte, is used to give it the rich brick colour. For lunch we tried Papadzueles, hard-boiled egg filled tortillas covered in a sauce made from summer squash seeds.
We followed the Gulf of Mexico south and then turned inland passing extensive wetlands to reach Villahermosa  where relics from the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta are displayed in an outstanding jungle setting. La Venta is 100 kilometres from Villahermosa, but the artefacts were moved here in the 1950´s for preservation. The Olmec civilization, the earliest in Mexico, thrived between 800 BC and 400 BC and left behind colossal carved stone heads displaying African characteristics.
Next stop was Palenque , located in the north western Maya lowlands, one of the most important archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. From about 100 BC it grew steadily until by 750 AD it had great splendour, some of the most outstanding Mayan buildings and a population of about 8000. The city was abandoned 150 years later (click here for the Maya Exploration Center). We stayed in the nearby town where we liked the Sopa Azteca (soup with a tomato base, smoky chillies, avocado, grilled tortillas and cheese) so much that we had it three times!
|Two jade funeral masks in the Olmec Museum|
|Heads realistically depict important people|
13th July 2011
Founded by the Spanish in 1528 in the cool south eastern highlands of México and surrounded by hills covered with pine forests, San Cristóbal is one of our favourite colonial towns. Having an apartment in La Casa Morada for a week, we wasted no time going to the colourful, bustling indigenous market to pick up fresh veggies for dinner. Mayan women from outlying villages in eye-catching traditional dress sell produce and crafts. In the Museum of Amber we saw beautiful pieces of the fossilized pine resin, some embedded with insects millions of years ago. Our second favourite bar in the world is La Viña de Bacco where we tasted some excellent Mexican wines with great tapas.
The best way to appreciate the stunning Sumidero Canyon to the west of San Cristobal is by boat. The sheer walls disappear up into the clouds and 250 metres below the water. On the return trip we stopped in Chiapa de Corzo to see the huge cathedral and a brick fountain built by the Spanish, completed in 1562 in the Mudeja Gothic style to resemble a Spanish crown.
The village of San Juan Chamula, 10 kilometres away, holds a large market in front of the pretty white church with blue and green Maya motifs (Templo de San Juan) on Sundays. Inside is like no other catholic church. It is the strangest place. There are no pews, the floor is covered in pine needles and burning candles; the air thick with incense. Here Maya customs mix with catholic beliefs. We witnessed a mass baptism by the visiting Catholic priest while at the same time dozens of traditional healers were attending to their clients, rubbing them with candles which were then lit, or sacrificing chickens. Meanwhile others were praying to their saints whose statues line the walls. Yet others played a flute to call up the spirits of their birth animals (Jeff´s is the Falcon, Pam´s is the Bat). The statue of Christ takes second place to that of John the Baptist. The people of this village believe only in baptism -no confirmation, no confession, no communion, no marriage (they are polygamous). Pictures are not allowed in the church and rightfully so.
A smaller market is held in San Lorenzo Zinacantán, a village of flower growers. Here is a “normal” Catholic church – what a contrast! We visited both villages with Raul, an outstanding local guide, (Alex y Raul Tours) who took us to a village house where we ate tortillas fresh from the hot comal and watched a woman weave on a backstrap loom. A few days later we visited 3 more interesting Mayan villages with Raul. In Aguacatenango there is a church built by and for the indigenous, simple in style still beautiful centuries later. Amatenango is the centre for pottery – all hand built by women and fired in an open wood fire. We just had to by a few small pieces. On the way back to San Cristóbal we stopped at the cemetery of Romerillo. Here huge crosses dominate the skyline. Each grave has boards resting on top, representing a door to the heavens. It was another great day for us.
20th July 2011
Three valleys radiating out from Oaxaca  are populated by small villages. The best time to visit is on market days when they come alive with bustle and colour.
To the south, San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its shiny black burnished pottery, barro negro, the techniques developed by the late Doña Rosa many years ago. In Cuilapam, the stone ex Dominican monastery of Santiago Apostal dominates the skyline. The Dominicans were converting the indigenous in the area and did so quite quickly, but to reinforce the new faith they built a huge convent with murals depicting Christian beliefs with an indigenous influence. It became so expensive that it was never completed with construction halted in 1570.
In the valley east of Oaxaca, the village of Tlacloula holds a large market on Sundays with vendors selling anything from tiny edible insects to yokes for oxen and anything in between. Further away in Mitla, the colonial church was built on the ruins of an ancient Zapotec ceremonial centre. Mitla is unique in the elaborate and intricate mosaic geometric designs that cover its walls. These mosaics are made with small, stone pieces which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. We arrived in town just as their Guelaguetza festivities of dance and music was about to begin. Invited in, we thoroughly enjoyed the show and the pueblo atmosphere helped along as Mezcal was handed out freely and the performers threw gifts to the crowd. There were 2 tourists (us). Teotitlán del Valle is a famous weaving village where brightly coloured blankets and rugs hang in the streets. Traditionally natural dyes such as cochineal and indigo are used.
On a hill (Monte Albán or White Mountain) to the south west of Oaxaca City are the ruins of an ancient Zapotec capital. Sitting on a ridge 400 meters above the valley floor, it was the most important Zapotec centre for over 1,000 years from 200 BC. The buildings were once covered in stucco and painted red.
25th July 2011
8 Zapotec villages, called the Pueblos Mancomunados, lie between 2000 and 3000 meters in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca (mountains to the north of Oaxaca). The villagers are known as “the cloud people”. They offer experienced local guides along the lovely trails connecting the pueblos. Guests stay in comfortable cabañas with fireplaces and meals are provided by the village women in a successful joint eco tourism venture. It is the best managed and coordinated tourism project we have seen anywhere.
Every little detail for us was organised by Expediciones Sierra Norte in Oaxaca beforehand, right down to what colour public bus to take to reach Cuajimoloyas  at 3200 metres to begin a 6 hour hike to Latuvi at 2400 metres. 1000 meters down, followed by 200 meters steeply up – our going down muscles and our going up muscles were sore for days!
We walked on a path of soft pine needles in a forest of moss and lichen covered trees. Bromeliads clinging to the branches thrive in the humid air. Many types of wild mushrooms had sprung up in the undergrowth. Our guide picked 2 large bright red ones to take to Latuvi to be cooked for dinner. They were delicious with onion and forest herbs.
We spent the next 2 day´s walking to the villages of La Nevería at 2800 metres and Benito Juárez at 3000 metres. Each community was welcoming and friendly. The scenery changed daily. Near the pueblos corn grew up steep slopes and wildflowers in every colour grew on grassy hills. The weather though cold, stayed fine and we enjoyed a fire in our own little cabaña.
We walked back to Cuajimoloyas on day 4 along the most beautiful forest paths. On August 6 and 7 there is a wild mushroom fair which includes gathering and cooking mushrooms from the surrounding woods. We are sorry we are going to miss it.
|His and hers baños|
25th July 2011
Here is a short movie of Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.
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