Making it up in Mexico

December 11, 2011 - Oaxaca, Mexico

 

1. Where the devil have I been?The Great Pyramid, Chichen Itza

On Monday 21st November the water taxi from Caye Caulker, Belize docked at the port of Chetumal and I made my first steps on Mexican soil. I took a bus to Tulum the same day and spent the next few days enjoying the sun, sea, sand...and seafood. Not to mention the beautiful Mayan ruins on the beach and an amazing cave Patriotic flags in San Cristobalsnorkelling trip. After Tulum it was time to tick off another of the 7 manmade wonders of the world with a visit to more Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Then it was onwards and westwards to Merida, an important colonial city and the location of a huge feria (fair) celebrating the culture and traditions of the Mexican state of Yucatan. After another long and bumpy bus ride I then found myself in the state of Chiapas, in the small and totally charming city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Whilst there I shopped for more things which won’t fit in my bag, learnt how to cook a traditional Mexican meal and cursed the high altitudeCacti landscape for making it so cold at night. A new entry on my blog wouldn’t be complete without a rant about a horrible bus journey, and this one doesn’t disappoint. After a collapsed road (not whilst I was on it), a slight delay of 7 hours and an uncomfortable ride in a pick up truck, I arrived in Oaxaca, my final stop before the bright lights of Mexico City. The area around Oaxaca boasts some spectacular scenery, including the incredible rock formations at Hierve el The weirdest tacos in MexicoAgua, whilst the city itself had enough galleries, markets and great food to keep me amused for a few days. Having sampled all the local delicacies, including mole (a sauce to go with meat which is made using chocolate) and the never-ending cheesestring that is queso de Oaxaca, I climbed aboard my final long distance bus of 2011 and headed for the capital city...

 

2. Most memorable meal

I know no-one likes a brag, but my most memorable meal of this fortnight was in fact created by yours truly...with a little bit of help from Soph (the expert onion chopper) and our cookery teacher, whose name was too difficult to remember so I’m going to refer to her as Julie. Our cookery masterclass took place at Julie’s house, where she taught us how to make chiles relleno, a popular family dish and the Mexican version of a Sunday roast. A ridiculous number of ingredients and a couple of hours of hard graft later, we produced what was essentially stuffed peppers in tempura batter and tomato sauce. They were delicious, if I may say so myself.

3. Photo of the fortnightThe bull flip!

The Feria de X’Matquil (don’t even attempt to pronounce that one!) is a huge festival of local culture and traditions for the people of the state of Yucatan. The fair hosted a strange mixture of events and stalls, including a dog show, more fried food than you could possibly imagine & a fairground game which gave you the chance of winning a live rabbit (yes I had a go, no I didn’t win)! But the highlight for me was the display of horsemanship skills known as Charreria. The lassooing was impressive, the Strictly Cme Horsedancing display was delightful, but my favourite event was the bull flip – a technique for rounding up unco-operative bulls. It basically involves chasing the animal, grabbing its tail, wrapping it around your leg and flipping the bull over – all whilst riding a horse at high speed obviously! Amazing.

4. Best bargain

After resisting the urge to buy a leather bag in Tulum because none of them were quite perfect, I finally found the satchel of my dreams (common phrase?) at the market in San Cristobal de las Casas. Soft, dark leather, not too big and manly and a snip at 200 pesos (about a tenner). Hoorah!

5. Immature moment of the fortnight

Soph joins the band!Whilst wandering through the main square in Oaxaca one evening, we paused to enjoy the live music provided by a traditional folk band. When the singer left his position in the line up to collect donations, I dared Soph to go up behind the spare microphone to take his place. Unfortunately she didn’t sing along (mainly because they weren’t playing “I am the music man”) but the photo was enough for me.Cactus crossing?

6. Favourite sign

I spotted this sign nailed to a tree whilst out for a leisurely stroll in a village called Benito Juarez near Oaxaca. I’m not sure what it is supposed to mean – cactus crossing? Cactus school ahead? Cacti only? But I like it anyway.

7. Biggest fashion crime

What a moustache!For everyone who has never visited Mexico, it is a country of many stereotypes...the oversized sombrero, the constant tequila swigging, the spicy food, the ponchos...the list goes on. Well I am pleased to announce that, unlike in France where people don’t actually cycle around in stripey t-shirts with a baguette under their arm and a string of garlic around their neck, in Mexico they take their clichés very seriously and all those things are true. And nothing symbolises the Mexican stereotype better than the big, thick moustache, as modelled by about 80% of the male (and 20% of the female) population.

8. Crappest souvenir

I can’t think of anything much worse to have as a cuddly toy prize at a fairground stall than an oversized cigarette! Insane. Unfortunately the photo wouldn't upload.

9. Best view

Beachy ruins at TulumThis fortnight I can’t possibly choose between two very spectacular, but veryIncredible Hierve el Agua different views. The first is of the ruins at Tulum, framed by a perfect white sand beach, an incredibly blue sea and tropical trees. If I was a Mayan, that’s totally where I would’ve built my temple! And the second vire is of the beautifully bizarre Hierve el Agua near Oaxaca. A collection of strange rock formations caused by the high mineral content of the numerous natural springs in the area. And the hillside setting isn’t bad either!

10. Div of the fortnight

Having survived a close encounter with the sharks and rays in Belize, I decided it was time to test my snorkelling skills further by exploring one of the many cenotes (underwater cave networks) near Tulum. After letting us loose to practise in a small cave, our guide Pedro (real name!) was confident enough in our snorkelling ability to suggest taking an alternative route into the second cave which involved diving down into the water to swim under a rock formation and hopefully come up on the other side, about 5 seconds later. We accepted the challenge, defogged our snorkelling masks, turned on our torches (did I mention it was pitch black in there?) and prepared ourselves for the dive. Pedro went first and made it look very easy. Soph followed closely behind as I watched by torchlight, taking careful note of the fact that I needed to turn LEFT after I’d made it under the big lump of rock ahead of me. So I took a deep breath and went for it. Unfortunately, being a div, I failed to allow quite enough space between me and the rock for the snorkelling pipe which was protruding from the top of my head. So the pipe hit the rock and the shock made me jolt upwards and hit my head on the limestone ceiling above me. Underwater, in the dark, slightly in pain and disorientated, I just about managed to regain my composure in time to follow Pedro’s torch and get myself somewhere I was able to take a breath before it was too late.

11. Dodgy moment of the fortnight

The cattle truck back from Benito JuarezWhen our new friends Jenna (see no.17) and Alex kindly invited us to join them on a day trip to a village called Benito Juarez, near Oaxaca, we couldn’t refuse. And being the adventurous types that we are, we decided not to bother going with a tout company as it seemed fairly easy to make our own way there instead. And easy it was…until we made our way back along the 4km track to the main road ready to catch the 2 o’clock bus back to Oaxaca. That bus never came. So we waited. And when the 4 o’clock bus didn’t materialise either, we realised that, if we didn’t want to sit on the side of the road in the dark waiting for a bus that would probably never come, our only other option was to attempt to hitch a ride with someone who was heading back to the city. On a busy road this would probably have been fairly easy…but unfortunately for us the road on which we were waiting averaged about 10 vehicles per hour, and most of these were going in the wrong direction. Just when we were about to lose all hope and hike the 4km back to Benito Juarez, a kind man with a truck pulled over and offered us all a ride. As there were four of us, we had to make do with travelling in the back, a space usually reserved for livestock and chickens! The road was bumpy and the floor of the truck was conveniently constructed out of splintered wooden boards, but in spite of the resulting buttock trauma, we made it back to Oaxaca safely before dark, thanked our driver, and celebrated with a taco dinner.

12. Motto of the fortnight

“Guidebook? What guidebook?”

Having spent about 4 months putting our trust in guidebooks to recommend activities, accommodation and places to eat or drink, we arrived in Mexico with nothing to guide us except the wrongly spelt names of a few places we had heard good things about. Always on the look out for an adventure, and never wanting to fork out 20 quid on a book, we made the decision to attempt to make our way across Mexico using only our instincts and recommendations from people we encountered along the way. And it was a success! We ate some amazing food, stayed in some great hostels and saw the best that southern Mexico has to offer.

14. Average Bristol Stool Chart score

There isn’t much abnormal poo activity to report from my end (literally) this fortnight…apart from a day of stomach rumbles following a dodgy buffet dinner in Oaxaca. What was intended to be quite a lengthy internet café session had to be cut short in favour of a very quick dash back to the hotel room! And I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

15. Soundtrack to the fortnight

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Marvin Gaye & Diana Ross) – Probably the best song for playing the “Name that tune – Dance edition” game (see no.18).

Red Hot Chilli Peppers – for the super spicy salsas that Mexicans can’t eat without.

Chocolate (Snow Patrol) – For the weirdly nice mole sauce. Chocolate and chicken shouldn’t work, but it does.

The End of the Road (Boys II Men) – For the road collapse bus adventure from San Cristobal to Oaxaca (see no.20).

16. Favourite snack of the fortnightEnjoying a paleta with santa!

Feeling pretty devastated following the realisation that this would be the first year of my life without an advent calendar, I decided that alternative arrangements would have to be made in order for me to celebrate the run up to Christmas. So instead of a festively shaped chocolate, I pledged to eat a paleta (homemade ice lolly) every day throughout December. In Mexico these lollies are so popular, pretty mush every street has a shop of two dedicated to selling them. And the range of flavours available is nothing short of incredible. Most are made from fresh fruit and water, but some use yogurt or even cream (if they’re feeling naughty). So after sampling quite a few, my favourite flavours so far are oreo cookie (for the creamy/crunchy combo), strawberry (a timeless classic), and lime (the ultimate refreshment on a hot December day).

Jenna tries to hitch a ride17. Favourite person

Although we didn’t meet in ideal circumstances, Jenna, our fellow passenger on the bus to Oaxaca (see no.20) didn’t hold our apparent bus journey curse against us and became our new favourite person to hang around with. She introduced us to some new Mexican food, kept us amused on our trip to Benito Juarez, and she has interesting tattoos. And anyone who shares my passion for avocados and hunt the head can’t be a bad person!

18. Best game invention

Name That Tune – Dance Edition

Whilst sitting on the side of the road near Benito Juarez, listening to my ipod and waiting for the bus that would never come, I invented this special new game. The rules are as follows…firstly choose an appropriate song on your ipod. Then, whilst listening to the song, attempt to portray the lyrics to the other players using only the medium of dance. Once the song has been correctly guessed, repeat the process until a) you feel stupid, b) you’re too tired, or c) you run out of songs including the words mountain/river/running/sunshine/dancing somewhere within the lyrics.Cenote snorkelling

19. High point of the fortnight

In spite of my little head banging panic moment, my favourite experience of the fortnight was the snorkelling trip around the Dos Ojos cenote near Tulum. The underwater limestone landscape was eerily beautiful and exploring by torchlight made it all the more magical.

20. Low point of the fortnight

Piling into the pick up!Yes, I know, it’s yet another bus journey story, but I’ll keep this one short I promise (unlike the actual journey!). So in a nutshell what happened was this…we set off on the overnight bus from San Cristobal de las Casas to Oaxaca, expecting to arrive at around 10am the following day. At 3am we stopped for a toilet break and were then informed by our driver that the road ahead was blocked and we couldn’t pass. As experts in bus related annoyances, we made the most of the fact that the vehicle was stationary and caught up on some sleep. At 6am I woke again to find that we still hadn’t moved and it didn’t look like we were going to for a while as the early morning light revealed a long queue of traffic as far as the eye could see. With our limited knowledge of transport related Spanish vocabulary we still weren’t completely sure what the problem was, but Jenna, an American girl on our bus managed to uncover a little more information. By this point it was almost 9am and it emerged that the bus was not going to be able to continue towards Oaxaca until at least the evening. Understandably, our driver didn’t want to sit around on his bus all day so instead he wanted to drive back to a city we had passed at about 11pm the previous night. The idea of going all that way back the way we had just come made us feel physically sick so we were forced to seek out alternative transport. Through asking more people about the problem and trying to interpret their hand signals it appeared that there was an alternative route, which would take us on to the next big town, and from there we could use our ticket to catch the next bus to Oaxaca. But the road was only suitable for small vehicles. With taxis charging an absolute fortune, we got together a group of about 10 people and bargained with a pick up truck driver until he agreed to take us to the next town for 70 pesos each. So 10 people, lots of big bags and 3 surfboards somehow squeezed into the back of the truck, we made our way to the next bus station, used our new Spanish speaking companions to explain the situation and eventually made it Oaxaca at about 5pm.

 


Pictures

Cenote snorkelling
Lovely Mexican beer!
The Great Pyramid, Chichen Itza
Owling at Chichen Itza
 
 

3 Comments

Mum:
January 18, 2012
Now feel really bad that I didn't manage to send you an Advent calendar. Lets hope you won't be permanently traumatised and that the lollies compensated!! Ben was upset too as I suggested he shared his with Emma! How old are you?! Looking forward tothe Goa blog - will we feature?!
Love you lots
Mum
Love you lots
Jen:
January 19, 2012
I miss the 8 ball. If you've lost it or completely broken it I shall be getting you a big can of whupass for your birthday. Just saying...
Dad:
January 27, 2012
Hope all is well and waiting for the Goa blog.We now have skype sorted so will speak to Sophie about contacting you.
All well here and nowhere near as exciting as your experiences - the car journey to and from Northampton has the occasional slow moving car.
Speak soon - love dad x
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