Back on the taco train, hello mezcal o´clock, ruins & jungle time!
04/04/2009 32 °C
OK, leaving Puerto Escondido, an uneasy feeling kicks in when we go to buy the bus tickets to travel to Oaxaca City. 1st class v 2nd class? Sunny v red eye run?? An hr later 1st class is the choice due to robbery apparently rife on 2nd class buses, which also takes a poorly paved scary mountain road to Oaxaca. The 1st class bus takes a longer route on well paved hwys.
The fun and games begin on Hwy 200 - the most notorious hwy in Mex for hwy robbery. The bus tears around the corners on the wrong side of the road every bend as we snake around the hills - Travelcalm o´clock for J. We meet a couple from Aus, Robbie was born in Chile and raised in Sydney and he spoke excellent Spainish. It was a good reminder of home as his accent and the way he spoke was exactly like Juan!
Out of the bends now the bus driver floors it. BANG, a loud noise comes from underneath the bus and the bus stops in the middle of the road. We ask the bus driver whats going on and he replys, I hit something and now the bus does not work. The bus driver turns the bus off, takes his bus company shirt off, tweaks around under the bus for 5 mins and without saying another word, starts walking along the road and disapears into the heat mirage with 2 men that were just walking by at the same time we broke down. WTF!?!?
Ok. Thats just great. We are in the middle of no where, surrounded by dessert on the most notorious HWY in Mexico. Slightly concerned would be an understatement! Robbie and his girl hail a cab to the next town which is a couple of hours away so they dont miss their connect bus. Damn there goes our interpreter. To make matters worse the Mexicans on the bus were nervous and bailing in taxis! If the locals are freaking out it usually isnt a good sign right? Just 3 others and us left in the heat with the broken bus, hmmmm, interesting situation. MIERDA!
YEAH BABY! Phew! After 15 mins of fretting a second class bus appears in the distant heat waves, stops, and gives us a lift to the next town. So glad we didnt catch the night bus, if that had occured during the night, yeah, who knows what could have happened. At the next town we catch a 1st class bus the rest of the way to Oaxaca. Its dusk when we arrive after 8 hours of travel. A short, crazy, cab ride and we arrive to the Hostel Santa Isabel.
Hostel Santa Isabel is a stones throw from the centre of town, we stayed in a private room that was nice and comfortable on the 2nd floor for 180 peso a night - the cheapest in town. The Hostel has dorms, kitchen facilities, shared bathrooms, two bright leafy courtyards and a bar in the front. The place has a friendly atmosphere and the best breakfast in the world for 20 peso - cafe, Huevos a la mexicana con frijoles, tortillas y grande plata fruta. Bargain!! We meet a couple, Oscar from Venezuela/Denmark and Ellen from Sweeden/Denmark, who had stayed in Oaxaca for a lil so they had all sorts of useful info to share.
Oaxaca is a mountain city, 1550m elevation with a population of 263,000. The heart of the city is colonial with narrow streets, liberally sprinkled with fine, old stone buildings. The main shady plaza, Zocalo, is lined with cafes and resturants and shadowed by many grand old buildings and an impressive church. Like all other Mexican towns we have visited, the locals love to hang out in the plaza under shadey enormous trees with their families.
Oaxaca has a thriving artesian community. Folk art handicrafts are for sale at the markets, specialties being loom woven blankets rugs and tapestries, hand embroidered traditional clothing, fine black pottery and hard carved brightly painted wooden fantasy animals called alebrijes. Incredible cheap shopping!
After a stroll around town we hired a couple of mountain bikes for the next day. The ride back from the bike shop was interesting, narrow one way streets, dark and heaps of traffic. Luckily the traffic in Oaxaca is pretty dense so the speed of the cars is pretty slow and the motorists are somewhat patient and curteous to bike riders. There was a few scarey moments though, extremely narrow streets, buses everywhere and cars drive side by side down a street really designed for one car, barely a bees dick between them.
Early rise and we are negotiating 7am peak hour traffic on our way to Monte Alban, a Zapotec Ruin first occupied around 500 BC located on a flattened hilltop 400m above the valley 10km from the hostel. Armed with a photocopied map with the route for a 45km ride marked in highlighter we ride out of the city with weaving traffic, lanes disappearing and reappearing. Dammit 10 mins in and Jess gets a flat! We change the tyre then begin the 400m accent up to the ruins on a windy mountain road with buses flying down it. Due to the flat we arrive a bit after opening time, sweaty and hot from the intense hill climb. Temps were high during the day about 30 degrees dry heat and cool at night. Felt amazing to conquer the hill on the bike although it did tear a new shpank in us....
Locked the bikes up and then climbed the stairs up into the ruins, ouch my legs. The ruins are amazing, the large site had a grande plaza, pyramid temples (damn more stairs, they didnt make life easy for themselves either, for little people they made really steep, big stairs) and tombas all with 360 degree views of the surrounding Valley Centrales.
After checking out the on site museum on the way out we jump on the bikes to continue the mystery tour. Damn. Another flat. #2! The glass wasn´t removed properly first time (GOOD ONE STEVE!) so we fix it again and repair the tube.
Back on the road - yay downhill! We head down a steep dirt road towards a little villiage that makes the alebrijes. Steve almost looses it round a bend at 30km on gravel but holds it together like a champ. Jess notices another flat. Trifector! Steve was so happy.....Steve´s repair job was dodgey (just like his surfboard repairs) so we change the tyre with the last spare tube in the kit with 35km to go. We follow the instructions on the map and manage to find the village even through there are dirt roads branching off everywhere and our highlighter marked instructions are a lil vague. Jess checks out the locals making the alebrijes and buys a lil red coyote. We continue riding through the country side along meandering dirt roads through rural areas, past crops, cemeteries and little villages.
A shop is spotted and we pull over for some tacos, tamales and coconut juice for lunch - yum! We gave em a tip, they were shell shocked! Back on the road and we complete the 45km track and land back in Oaxaca for the afternoon peak traffic. On the outskirts of town we crossed a six lane intersection that was just plain scarey, cars and buses flying in ever which direction horns honking. Somehow we just cruised across and fluked a path through the city straight to our hotel. How did we manage that?
Dinner time after a big day and Steve breaks the taco munching record - smashes 11 tacos with apparently room to spare?!!!
Whist on the topic of food Oaxaca had many different culinary delights to savour. Right out the front of the Hostel there a street vendor that sells the best empanadas ever. An empanada is a giant fresh pressed doughey tortilla filled with salsa, oaxacan string cheese and chicken, folded together and cooked on a coal heated hot plate.
Also available are many dishes that have a varitey of Mole sauces, a chilli based spiced chocolate sauce usually served with meat. Drinking chocolate is also a favorite and the best I have ever tasted. Delicous fresh ground cocoa beans with cinnamin spice. And did we mention Mezcal? Mezcal is made in the Valley Centrales from the maguey plant, its similar in taste to tequilla but not as harsh and a whole lot easier to drink. That and you can get 700mls of it for $6.00 AUD! Cheers to that! Aw and they also had donuts to Steves delight....
Oaxaca has an enormous labirynth of a mercado to check out. If you look long enough, you can find almost anything here. Each product has a section to itself and their overwhelming quantities of fruit, veges, baked goods, grains and spices.
Another sight not to miss is the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca which is housed in a magnificent monastry building adjoining the Iglesia de Santa Domingo (an amazingly ornate church). The museum empathsises the direct linage between Oaxacas pre hispanic and contemporary indiginous cultures, illustrating continuity in areas such as crafts, medicine, food, drink and music. A highlight is the treasures from tumba 7 Monte Alban. The tomb boasted a hoard of beautifully worked silverand gold, turquoise, coral, jade, amber, jet, pearls, crystal goblets and a skull covered in turquoise.
These two actually reminded us of Gaz and Pete!! Dergh.
On our last day in Oaxaca we decided to visit the town of El Tule to see the largest biomass in the world - a REALLY big old tree. We tried to find the 2nd class bus to El Tule but caught a collectivo cab to El Tule instead - right price at 8 peso por persona. It wasnt long before we knew what the word "collectivo" meant and why it was only 8 peso. We stopped at every bus stop until it was not humanly possible to cram any more humans into a 5 seat toyota Corrola. I think the final humano count was 9! AND the car was reaching 100km in a 60 zone WHAT SPEAD LIMIT!!!!! Once at El Tule we pile out of the car and are confronted with the giant tree that dwarfs the town and the church it grows next to. The tree is a ahuehuete (a type of cypress), measures 58m around, 42m high and is reckoned to be somewhere between 2000yrs and 3000yrs old.
Time to move on but where to next? We split on a night bus from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de la Casas. Mezcal and strawberry doughnuts 4 dinner, yep great combo, winding mountain roads, travelcalm is required and then sleep. As we disembark from the bus we are handed a card that stated "Welcome to San Cristobal, Do not talk to strangers and for your own saftey only accept authorised accommodation". Hmmmm maybe we should go straight to Palenque, that and it is freezing in San Cristobal! While we were waiting for the bus to Palenque we bump into a tourist from Norway who had had a rough night and a few bad Mexico experiences. The night before he had been punched up big time by a local in his hostel (apparently unprovoked, even though he smelt very rummy), he was then kicked out and slept on the street. He also mentioned that the accomodation he stayed in at Tulum was shot at in a drive by!!?? I guess everyone has a different experience in Mex, ours was great - 10/10, and generally you can avoid danger by a positive attitude and a lil common sense. The americans in california will tell you otherwise though........
12.00pm - wheres the bus? We talk to a local lady and the bus staition staff and the bus is running late due to a villiage protest that has blocked a road because the government is not providing electricity. The bus arrives and we leave at 12.40pm and are going on the long route to Palenque due to avoid the protest. As we decend from San Cristobal the bus winds through the mountains, the vegetation turns to jungle and irredecent green grass - this area recieves the highest rainfall in Mexico. High rainfall and mountains cleared of vegetation for impractical pasture land results in large sections of the road being washed away (a slow and bumpy ride). What seems like an eternity later (along the shankiest dirt roads in a coach!) we arrive in Palenque at dusk. We are in jungle country now, hot and steamy!
We stay in town for the night at the Posada Toucan, which had a pet toucan "Fichi"(crazy lil bird who was quite the character). The next morning we had out into the El Panchan jungle to stay a bit closer to the Palenque Ruins.
El Panchan is a chilled out community set in a patch of dense rainforest home to a bohemian bunch of hippies, wanderers, archeologists and anthropologists. El Panchan has a couple of resturants and a heap of jungle cabana style accomodation dotted throughout the property inbetween the meandering streams. Somehow we manage to score the best cabana ever, chatos cabana liebra, located near the bottom of the property in an intimate jungle cloaked setting. Whats going on here? Middle of jungle, cheap 200 peso accom thats so nice it could be a honeymoon pad! Immaculate bathroom, comfy bed, tiled floors, balcony, air con, clean crisp white towels, flower arrangement - this must be paradise!
Accross the path we meet John, a stone carving artist, who has been living in El Panchan on and off for years. John was minding the house of Alonzo Mendez, one of the artists for the archeologists who excavated the Palenque ruins. John explained a few things about the history of the Palenque ruins and let us know that we were staying in the original house built for the acheologists many years ago. After a wander around El Panchan we finally got our bearings in this maze of a place. A stroll though the jungle paths revealed our first encounter with howling monkeys (which really should be renamed roaring monkeys - the sound is like an elephant sized lion!!), humming birds, butterflies, toucans and a mass of jungle flora. A mini puma like cat was also spotted jumping through the canopy. Yep this is amazing. We saw two familar faces staring at an iguana in the bush - WHAT, we reunite with Oscar and Ellen we met in Oaxaca! The crazy cats that they are!
El Panchan is a lot of jungle paradise fun. Don Muchos restuarant serves up a delicous cheap meal and a mean cocktail - hence we pretty much ate lunch and dinner there most days, and partied most nights. At dinner time they have cracking live music everynight, lots of local acts - acoustic guitar with hand percussion and 8 piece band traditional South American influenced tunes. Steve took a vid of this bongo player going nuts but we are having trouble loading it, stay tuned.....
We rose early the next day and walked from El Panchan a few k´s to the Palenque ruins for opening time 8.00am. The road leads uphill to the ruins through national park jungle with the roar of the howling monkeys echoing through the valley. ¨Palenque was first occupied around 100BC, and flourished from around AD 630 to AD740. The city rose to prominence under the ruler Pakal (615-683AD). The ruins stand at the precise point where the first hills rise out of the Gulf Coast plain, and the dense jungle covering these hills forms an evocative backdrop of Palenque´s exquisite Maya architecture. Hundreds of buildings are spead accross 15 sq km and everything was built without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel¨.
Once up to the top entrance you walk up some stairs to be confronted with the sites most magnificent temples rising out of the jungle. The temple of the Skull, the Temple of the Red Queen and the Temple of Inscriptions all stand in añ intimidating mass of stone stepped pyramids, all having entrances at the top to the tombs and temple passage ways. We poke around in the passage ways of the Red Queens Tomb and frighten a few bats that flee their positions on the tombs ceiling closely missing our heads. Unfortunatley the Temple of Inscriptions (King Pakal´s Tomb) is now closed to visitors due to the damage from the humidity exuded by humano breath.
Wandering through the ruins we bump into Oscar and Ellen and we decide to explore together. In El Palacio, a large structure divide by a maze of corridors, passage ways and rooms, Steve spotted a poorly secured, unlocked trapdoor and couldnt help himself. The theme from Indiana Jones instantly sprang to mind (and remains the theme song/whistle for quite some time.....) as Steve strapped on the head light, glanced around to check no one was watching and disappeared down the stairs into the darkness. Jess followed down a winding stair case to a couple of rooms below. You could just imagine a big boulder hurling down one of the corridors or a statue coming to life and caseing us! No statue just some bats and we climb back out to see an angry guard blowing a whistle at us. Whoops, we pretend not to understand any spainish and run off like naughty kids.
Very hot and sweaty we explore more steep temples then wander up a path into the jungle, Steves idea, apparently there should be some temple...soon. 20mins incline later we have walked up the mountain behind Palenque and its kinda spooky, no longer can you hear the voices of the tourists in the ruins, ónly distant howler monkeys, some spooky whistles, and an eery silence. Scared we would meet a man with machete demanding our camera, valuables and/or our schvank we head back down the mountain to the ruins - so much more to explore. You can see the hill in the background of this photo.....it went for ever!
All the way up.......
And all the way down....
Back in Indiana Jones mode we explore the rest of the site, climbing pyramids and walking through dark passage ways to rooms within structures. That would have to be one of the most amazing things about Palenque, the fact that you are allowed to walk through the structures, passageways and hidden rooms.
6 hours later, exhausted we walk back to El Panchan. What time is it - Party time.
We all have dinner at Don Muchos and take advantage of the cheap yummy cocktails - they do a mean pina colada. After some live music the local hippies put on a fire show. Oscar being particularly brave lit his cigarete off a flaming fire stick when offered (got any eye brows left?). A good show, although sitting up the front wasnt the wisest idea, especially when one of the hippies looked rather out of it and dropped his fire stick quite frequently. Don Muchos about to shut we notice an ¨invitation¨ that has been left on our table. The spanglish was quite amusing ¨He/she invites you to party...We located 200m El Panchan.... music and drinks... set until down. Lets go...hmmm where is it? 200m N S E W? The Indiana Jones theme comes out again.
We ask a few people who tell us it is down the main road inside the National Park. We walk out onto the main road from El Panchan and stare down the road that disappears into pitch black darkness, jungle either side. Should we really walk down there? We were told that you shouldnt even drive down this road at night because of muggings so maybe walking isnt such a good idea, after all, theres only 4 of us. After a while standing at the entrance to El Panchan 2 blokes walk out who also want to go to the mystery party ¨set until down¨. Ok 6 people sounds safer, lets go! We walk into the darkness, alot further than 200m armed with little blue cups of rum and a flashlight following the sound of music until we find a bar with a few people, it seems friendly enough lets have a drink! Good fun and we then make it back safely giggling the whole way.
Time to leave El Panchan, if we stay here any longer we risk turning into tripped out jungle hippies. We get up early and catch a shuttle to cross the border into Guatamala with Oscar and Ellen (new travel buddies with bonus spanish translator WOOOHOOO!). And that wraps up Mexico folks. Which leads us to:
OUR REVELATIONS FROM MEXICO
Heres a few things we have learnt from Mexico, which may be of use back home...........
1). You really don´t need to use so much toilet paper!! As a result of living in fear of blocking the overloaded sewerage system/toilets, and also not wanting to contribute to the festering pile of poo stained paper in the bin next to the loo, we realised that you can get by with only using a square or two. REALLY!
2). Use your vehicle horn much more often. It is now clear that in Australia we do not utilse the humble car horn no where near enough! The horn can be used for a myriad of purposes, some examples are listed below:
-Saying hello to all your mates or anyone that drives a similar vehicle (a quick bimp)
-Thanking a driver for letting you over take (a few rapid quick bimps)
-Sticking it up the person in front who swerves and does not let you overtake (long bimp)
-A voice to vent your frustration with the traffic grid lock, and/or the world (several long bimps until a car moves)
-And most importantly, to notify other drivers that you are going to drive around a blind corner at 80km on the opposite side of the road (mix of rapid quick and long bimps for 5 seconds).
3). Cement should not just be limited for the use of building construction. The Mexicans have proven that cement is a very diverse material that can be utilized for a range of home decor projects including bed bases, tables and chairs, vainities, shelves and cupboards and my favorite - fake tiled floor by dropping a rope for the tile outline effect. Add a few coats of paint, any colour under the sun will do and voila you have furniture that will last forever, at a fraction of the price and you will never have to waste time re-arranging furniture as its now permanent!
4). Although you do have to be careful, Mexico is no where near as dangerous as most Americans will have you believe
PS: check out the photo gallery, loads of photos not included in the blog!