Saturday, 11th September - San Cristobal, Mexico
4.20am shower, 5am bus to Pelanque, Mexico. Today is going to be a big day of travel, but not quite as big a day as I had imagined. Bus, boat and then bus to Pelanque takes approx 8 hours. The first leg is a very bumpy minibus ride to the border, where we get stamped out of Guatemala. I hand over some spare change to some kids who are playing around the customs office, which is a tiny little shack, next to a cafe and a house. I am guessing the kids parents live in the house, or they work at the customs office. The boat trip is literally just a 5 minute crossing of a river, which is painless. We join another minibus on the other side, leave our luggage onboard and walk to the Mexican immigration office, 300 yards along a dirt path. The paperwork takes a bit of time, but there are 20 of so Gringos to get through, so it will take time. A local shopowner does good business on biscuits and juices as we all starving. Another four hours in the minibus and we arrive at Pelanque. I need to find a bus that goes to San Cristobal, so I walk 15 minutes to the bus statoin and book a bus for 5pm. It is 1.30pm, well actually 2.30pm because they are one hour ahead of Guatemala. I check in my large rucksack in left luggage and go in search of a restaurant. I find a cute little cafe all decked out in balloons and banners in preparation for 15th September, the Bi-Centennial of Mexico's independence from Spain. It is gonna be some party. I hadn't realised it was such an important anniversary...........200 years, cool !!
I board the bus at 5pm. There are 3 young Israelis taking the bus, they were also on the Tikal tour yesterday. We say hello and take our seats for the 5 hour trip to San Cristobal. The 5 hour journey turns into a 7 hour journey. We stop after 2 1/2 hours for a coffee stop, but get delayed there because the army have blocked the road, demonstrating against the government.
After an hour, we continue our trip, but stop within 20 minutes at a garage, because the driver has received a call saying he has left a passenger behind at the last stop. We wait there for 20 minutes, but no passenger shows up. The bus continues to it's depot in the next town, 20 minutes down the road. It is now 9pm, dark and raining. We get off the bus to stretch our legs, but it transpires that the driver hadn't left anyone behind, he had been in an accident and hit someone or something at the side of the road. We had felt nothing, but the police were now photographing scratches on the bus and the position of the driver's wing mirror. We hung around for an hour before they unloaded our luggage and put us on another bus with another driver. I eventually arrived in San Cristobal at midnight, nothing booked and having no clue as to where I am. I have no guide book for Mexico, so no maps of the town or info on hostels. I jump in a taxi and asked to be taken to a nice hotel less than $30/night.
Hotel Villa Real II is spotless and clientless. There is no one else staying there, but I check out one of the rooms and it is lovely, large, clean and has TV and ensuite. More to the point, I am exhausted and just want to fall into bed. I take the room and thank my taxi man and fall straight into bed.
Sunday, 12th September
I have only 6 days in Mexico and had planned on spending 2 nights in San Cristobal, 2 in Oaxaca and 2 in Mexico City, but I decide to stay here for 3 nights, take a night bus to Mexico City and spend my last 2 nights there as planned. My first stop today is the bus station where I book the 6pm night bus to Mexico City for Tuesday, arriving there at 8am on 15th Sep, Independence Day, so in time for all the celebrations, hopefully.
San Cristobal is a small colonial town with lots of churches, beautiful buildings and tonnes of tourists shops and cafes. It is lovely, if a little bit touristy. The local woman and children wear colourful traditional dress and carry bundles of scarves, belts, bags and textiles for selling to tourists. They hassle quite a bit, especially the kids, but a 'No Gracias' usually does the trick and they leave you alone. I hop on a trolley bus tour, which takes 50 minutes to travel round some of the major sights of the city. This is a good and quick way to get my bearings. I note down some places I want to visit and plan to go back to them later, after brunch. I haven't eaten properly in 24 hours, so I am now starving. I visit a smart traditional restaurant, full of locals with two old men playing a xylophone. It is cute and the staff are lovely. I ask them to recommend some traditional dishes and hope for the best. 30 minutes later the food arrives in little banana leaf parcels, each tied with slimmer leaves. It tastes good, I wouldn't have ordered it myself, but it is fun to try some legitimate Mexican food although granola and fruit might have been more appropriate for brunch !!
There is a large market in front of Santo Domingo, the church across the way. I wander thru the market politely ignoring the calls from stall holders. The main products are white or cream cotton blouses with colourful hand sown embroidery, patchwork bed throws and cheap jewellery for sale. By 5pm I am totally shattered, the past few days of early rises and long bus journeys are taking their toll. I return to my hotel via the supermarket where I buy a couple of beers, some crackers and tuna. Shower and tucked up in bed by 7pm...bliss! I reckon I am asleep by 9pm. zzzzzz
Monday, 13th September
I spend the morning sorting things out at home in London. I am getting my house decorated, professionally cleaned and the garden done, so lots to co-ordinate to make sure it all is well for my return on Saturday. I also have to sort out insurance, car and house and my car. After several phone calls and a dozen emails, I am in control. I am already feeling stressed and I am not even home yet. It is amazing the things I need to consider when moving back into my house. Utility bills, phone installation, house insurance, car insurance, car tax and unpacking all my gear....that is gonna take a while, but it will be lovely to have all my own possessions around me and CLOTHES..nice clothes, oh I so cannot wait to wear something different than leggings, cheap t-shirs and flip flops !!!
After a lovely breakfast in the town, I tackle the tourist sights on my city map. I walk to Temple de Gaudelupe, a stunning church at the top of a white stairway with fantastic views over the town. The churches here are incredible. Some have ornate stone works, spectacular carvings in colourful stone. I mix the day with culture and shopping and have a blast. I bump into the Israelis having lunch, they are unhappy with their hostel and are waiting to get into another hostel. I am thrilled I found a nice hotel, in a great part of town. The Israelis travel lots, they tell me they tend to travel after they have completed their national service, 3 years for boys and 2 years for the girls. No wonder they all look the same age.
I return to the market at Santo Domingo in search of some jewellery. Lots of travellers work at the markets selling handmade jewellery, which funds their travels. I tend not to encourage them because I feel I want to buy from locals but I stop at one staff and the guy starts chatting to me about the various pieces. It takes me a few seconds to realise he looks familiar, turns out I spoke with him in Panajachel, Guatemala, 2 weeks ago. How funny. He is from El Salvador and is travelling for 6 mths making and selling jewellery. I buy a lovely piece made with a local stone indigenous to San Cris. I carry on and speak with an Argentinian guy, who also makes jewellery, him, his wife and wee baby are travelling the Americas selling their pieces. We get chatting about Argentina and their trip. I get hooked by their story and relent and buy a piece from them too. Oh well, they are beautiful pieces, not sure if they are gonna be gifts for others yet, or a gift for me!!!
The town was gearing up for Independence Day and already there were bands and processions in the streets. I soaked up the atmosphere for a bit then headed for dinner in a rather flash restaurant/hotel. I have a fajita stuffed with steak, peppers and cheese, it is huge and I have to ask for a doggie bag, because there is no way I can finish it all. I return to my hotel after a great day just hanging around the town. San Cris reminds me a little of Cusco in Peru, but much smaller and less touristy. The people here are friendly, despite being told that Mexicans are not the friendliest people, I have to disagree.
Tuesday, 14th September
Had to sort out a few issues at home re the house, but after a few hours of phone calls and emails, I wasted no more time and headed out to spend my last few hours in San Cris. I packed and check out my room at midday and leave my luggage at the front desk. After a delicious breakfast, I take in more sights and a little bit of shopping, but gits for others, not for me !! I take a taxi via my hotel to the bus station. The traffic is very heavy and my driver explains it is people getting ready for tomorrow...'grande fiesta, mucha tequila' ...he laughs !! Big party and lots of tequila, sounds like fun ! Perhaps I should have stayed here for Independence Day, but I fly out on 17th and couldn't risk the buses not running on the holiday. Anyway, I am sure as the capital city, Mexico City will be having a party too.
The bus trip from San Cris to Mexico City takes 14 hours. The bus isn't too bad, not 'cama beds' like they advertised, but I manage to grab a few hours sleep, before arriving into the capital at 8am on Wednesday.
Wednesday, 15th September - Mexico City, Mexico's capital
I have booked an apart/hotel for my stay here. I have been warned that it is a dangerous city, so I want to be staying somewhere comfortable and secure, just in case I am holed up for 3 days in my hotel room. My taxi man struggles to get thru' all the police road blocks, but finally gets me to my hotel. My room is lovely, it's huge. I have an office area, a kitchen, bathroom, dressing area and a huge bed and TV. This will do nicely !
I ask at reception what is going on in the city for Independence day. The concierge gives me a map and details where to go to watch the parade and tells me it starts around 4pm and finishes 6pm tomorrow !! blimey !! That's what I call a party. I wander down pedestrianised streets being patrolled by heavily armed police. I get searched and screened with the little hand sensors they use at airports, several times. It seems at every street corner there is a barrage of police in heavy bullet proof vests, carrying huge riot screens. It is a bit unsettling, but I don't plan to hang around when it is dark. It is only 2pm, so I have 4/5 hours to soak up some atmosphere before it starts getting dark. I have lunch in a traditional restaurant, which is all decked with green, white and red banners and balloons. Most of the tables are reserved for large groups, but bookings are for 8pm, 9pm or later. It is only early, but there are a few families having late lunches. The food is good, but the manic staff are a little offputting. I have a table right by the front desk and the waiters are flapping around when there are only 5 or 6 tables, god help them later, when they have 100 or 150 covers!
I head to Paseo de la Reforma which is the main thoroughfare where all the processions will pass along. Already people are lining the streets, squashed up against barriers for a front seat view. I walk up and down the street for an hour or so, just soaking up the atmosphere. The place is quickly filling up, even thought it is only 4pm or so. Everyone wears their national colours, sombreros painted green, white and red, spikey mohican wigs, Mexican footballs strips, scarves, ponchos, painted faces and carry flags and banners announcing the country's independence...Viva Mexico !!
Police helicopters fly overhead, lines of armed police stand 3 or 4 people deep, resting their riot shields again the crash barriers. They seem relaxed, integrating with the crowds, posing for photos and letting kids hold their shields. I am tempted to ask to pose for a photo, but resist, as I don't want to push my luck.
The parade starts at 6pm. Huge effigies of various Mexican revolutionaries and heroes. Amazing displays of historical scenes with colourful masks and costumes being carried along on motorised floats or trucks. Traditional dancers and more contemporary dances got cheers and screams from the thronging crowds. It was magical, but really busy. I couldn't get near the barriers to see the processions. People had brought chairs, stools, even ladders to climb upon to get a better view of the extravaganza. Kids and adults climbed trees and rested precariously on branches to get a piece of the action. Kids sat on the roofs of portaloos and squealed and shouted as water and confetti was sprayed from various floats in the parade. It was brilliant. What a fanstatic finale to my trip. I hadn't realised it was Mexico's Independence day and to think I was gonna miss this out altogether, as I tried to change my flight to leave from Guatemala City.
After not watching the parade but more accurately watching the locals for a few hours, I headed back to my hotel. It has been a great day, but a long one.
Thursday, 16th September - Last full day in Mexico City, last day of my round the world tour, fittingly I end on a high. Kathy has invited me to breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel. She has worked for them for over 13 years and is staying for free at their 5 star hotel at the end of La Reforma. She meets me at the entrance at 9am. The place is gorgoeus, an oasis of calm in the centre of all the chaos. The celebrations are still continuing outside. Today is the turn of the armed forces to put on a display. If anyone wants to attack Mexico, today is the day to do it, the armed forces are out in full regalia, marching the route from Plaza de la Constitution to Paseo de la Reforma, the same route as yesterday.
The management at Four Seasons fuss like hens over Kathy. They give her and me top service. It has been so long since I have been in such a flash establisment, I honestly feel a little bit awkward. Can you believe it? The breakfast was lovely and the setting in beautiful gardens just exquisite. We topped off our breakfast with a glass of champagne, as you do when you are backpacking around the world!!
Kathy is heading home to Sydney for a month's holiday later today. We say our goodbyes and I throw myself back into the throng of people who have gathered for today's parade. As we emerged from the hotel, it was quite funny because the Mexican airforce were performing a 'fly past'....I wonder if the manager's at Four Seasons had arranged that specifically for Kathy? It was such a laugh, and a brilliant spectacle. I walked for hours the whole length of the parade route. It took me two hours to get from one end to Plaza de la Constitution. This was home to an amazing concert and fireworks display last night, which I had missed, but I saw some of the fantastic firework display from my hotel room last night.
There are even more people around today than yesterday. The square is thronging with families, decked out in all their colours of Mexico! There are a dozen army tanks and the soldiers are letting kids and adults alike, clamber onboard for photos. Two army helicoptors parked in the square, start their rotablades and take off into the late afternoon sky. Everyone screams and cheers, waving goodbye to whoever is inside.
There are some magnificent buildings surrounding the square, all covered in lights and banners declaring, 'Viva Mexico, 1810-2010' ! I had walked down Calle de 15th Septiembre to get to the square, seemed like a fitting route to take. I took another route back to Angel de Indepencia passing the remnants of the 'grande fiesta' that was Mexico's bi-centennial celebrations. Kids and adults chased candy floss that flew from the candy seller's drums, bubbles blew past me from kids bubble cups. Food vendors shouted to anyone who was hungry, all the delights they had for sale, fruit, juice, nougat and even tacos. A sea of green, white and red streamed down the avenue, which hours earlier had paraded soldiers in full arsenal, trucks, tanks and even marines with divers in full diving gear on back of their boats, being pulled along on trucks. What a great end to my tour. By tomorrow the 2 days of festivities will be over and so will my tour.
I have met some amazing people, from many walks of life, from many different countries. People with very little have shown me great generosity and warmth, from India to Mexico, this has been a trip of a lifetime, that I will never forget.
I have made great friendly travelling who I will forever be indebted to for their friendship, their company, their support and their tips on where to go and where not to go. I have great support from all my friends and family back home, and without their encouragement I could never have completed this tour.
28 countries, 23 flights, 3 sailing trips, 1 awful Indian train trip, countless bus, boat, taxi, motorbike, tuktuk and even dingy trips, I have survived them all, stayed healthy and had the time of my life.
Tomorrow I head for my 24th flight, my final flight home to London. I feel blessed to have lived and experienced my life long dream of travelling round the world. It has been amazing !!