6. San Cristobal de las Casas

Days: 17
Crocodile sightings: 4
Cathedrals climbed: 1

Sleepily we introduced ourselves to the other residents at Roscoe’s Backpackers meeting young people from America, Canada, Germany, Portugal and the UK amongst other nationalities and backgrounds and were soon told of ‘The Walking Tour’. After a simple breakfast included with our room, we set off to find the town square and join the free Walking Tour at 10am. IMAG1539A large group gathered and then two Mexicans asserted themselves as the guides, they themselves surprised at the large turnout. One guide explained we would split in two; one English speaking tour and one Spanish. Both would be very relaxed and offer a cultural insight to the city informing of us their recommendations of where to go, eat and drink, see and do as well as soft social and political commentary. Looking at his watch he confirmed it was 10am and therefore we would need to wait another five or so minutes to ensure we did not start on time in line with the Mexican way of life! The tour lasted over five hours including several tasting stops; coffee, soup (apparently 24°C is cold) and at the end Pox – pronounced posh – which is a strong spirit made from corn. We visited two cathedrals and paid MX$10 to climb to the top of one to capture panoramic views of the whole city. Whilst making several friends on the tour, we stretched our hamstrings and promised to reunite with the group later in the evening at a craft beer brewery.

Through chatting to several people, we realised that most travel from Mexico City to Cancun or elsewhere opposed to our reverse route, whilst this didn’t allow us to meet up with people further along our path, we gained several great recommendations for where we are going from those who have just been. Before re-joining our walking group in the evening, we stopped off on the main pedestrian street for a bite to eat and a beer. Peering at our neighbours drinking red wine, we discussed how our previous locations have been so hot, beer was often our first choice. IMAG1547Intrigued as to what Mexican wine tastes like we asked the two girls and boy next to us and they recommend the Merlot. Two glasses and an invitation to the craft brewery later we returned to our hostel briefly to change into jeans for the first time since England. It felt good! We headed over and one by one formulated some of the tour including our new Dutch friends from the wine bar and were quickly introduced to a rainbow of Mexican spirits. Undecided whether I would rather understand their Spanish descriptions of the shots or if I was blissfully ignorant, after one too many I called enough enough and insisted we eat some dinner. Five of us wandered to a nearby restaurant, recommended on the walking tour, and enjoyed a lovely meal with every intention to return to the bar. Inevitably a day of walking, an array of alcohol and a large meal sent us straight to bed seeking a pillow not pox!

Monday. Mezcal, Merlot and mushroom pasta swirled the perimeter of my stomach as I grasped the water on the bedside table. “Seb, it’s 8.15am!” he leapt put of bed and rushed to the reception to book a last minute place for a Canyon tour. We had heard good things but had to try again for 8.30am to see if there was space. Two of our new friends were coming too and it was set to be a fantastic day out on a boat. Ah, a boat – sudden fear of combining rough water with a hangover was soon alleviated with logic – it should be calm water and cool in the canyon. IMG-20170324-WA0011We packed our jumpers and discovered our friend was ill so we clambered into the mini van and made the hour journey, almost all downhill, to the Canyon. On boarding the bus (not in the ticket information / guide) they informed us the Canyon is around 45°C, we should wear hats and apply mosquito repellent. First thoughts; how helpful and timely. When we arrived there was of course a huge hat stand filled with sweating tourists, I joined them and bought the cheapest hat I could find for MX$50 (£2) and risked not buying more insect repellent. We lathered on suncream like milk on cereal, grabbed a life jacket and gingerly jumped into the boat with thirty or so other tourists ready for their day out. The open boat sped off at a good pace only slowing at points of interest, the first being vultures. Around six hunched and scuttled along the dry ground by the water reminding me of the latter scene in The Jungle Book; we marvelled, photographed and sped off again. The tall walls of the Canyon steeped over us, using grandeur to intimidate those who passed through. Then pointing and gasps filled the boat, there it was, stop number two – a crocodile. The prehistoric beast sprawled it’s full length on a bank surrounded by naive birds, it’s mouth ajar displaying bone-crunchable teeth whilst maintaining a deathly stillness. Tension consumed us as a bird neared close to the jaws – “WILL IT SNAP? WILL WE WITNESS IT SNAP?” – total stillness responded our eager questions and alas, the boat sped off. We saw several another crocodiles, birds with a wingspan as wide as a sofa soar above us and of course, more and more of the Canyon itself. Requiring windscreen wipers for the amount of sweat we perspired, we returned to the dock after a two hour tour and not one mosquito in sight.

After the boat tour we were then taken to a small, nearby town for an hour where we missed the breeze of the boat and melted like the mango ice cream we purchased in desperation. Not wanting to have a sit down lunch we slouched through the town and found a street food vendor. Having heard about the hygiene in the region being poorer than most and applying the logic of 45°C heat, chicken empanadas and no fridge, I declined their bargain offer – Seb ‘Stomach of Steel’ Elliott rolled his eyes and accepted. We boarded the bus and began the incline all the way to the heights of San Cristobal. IMAG1562After a shower and rest at the hostel, we headed out for a low key evening meal and an early night. We went to a fantastic restaurant and had one of the best meals in Mexico to date – competing with the culinary delights of Bacalar – I had flank steak tacos and Seb had something with every kind of meat you can imagine. Full and satisfied we headed to bed. The next morning, you guessed it, Seb became incredibly poorly. After a forceful request to leave, I explored the city solo whilst Seb continued to be ill for the entire day. We spent the evening in the hostel, Seb recovering and me on hand for anything needed. The next day was night bus day and after a slow, cautious morning we realised that several people in our hostel were also ill. In fact, since leaving the hostel we’ve heard about 12-15 cases of San Cristobal related illness all of whom had street food. Our last day consisted of walks to the market and a visit to the textile museum before boarding our 14 hour night bus to Puerto Escondido. The sharp winding roads tested both of our stomachs but by morning we made it and walked off the bus covered in relief and coastal sunshine.

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5. Palenque

Days: 13
Birthdays: 1
Mayan temples climbed: 7

After two awful nights sleep in Bacalar I was hopeful our delayed overnight bus to Palenque would provide an ideal slumber land, as comfortable as the buses were – we were even given water as we stepped on – I just couldn’t find the right position to allow me to sleep for what felt like the whole night. Arriving at 7am, we had a 4* hotel booked for £20 a night and we couldn’t wait until check-in at 3pm so when the receptionist told us our room was ready immediately, tears of happiness and relief streamed down my exhausted face. I hadn’t showered without feeling dirtier afterwards or with fresh towels or enough shampoo for about four days so I threw my rucksack on a side table, removed everything and had the best shower of the trip followed by an instant two hour nap.

IMAG1483Resembling a human woman again, we explored the town of Palenque with ambitions of seeing the waterfalls in the afternoon and the ruins the next day – Seb’s birthday – leaving for San Cristobal in the evening. Then, Seb’s researching skills came to fruition as he discovered a tour which takes us from the waterfalls to San Cristobal for an extra MX100 (£4) rather than coming back on ourselves, with further relief but more determination and energy to hold back tears of joy, we settled on having a ‘pool day’, ruins as planned on Seb’s birthday then a trip to the waterfalls on Tuesday with the end stop in San Cristobal. We booked a wonderful boutique hotel for Seb’s birthday night nearer to the ruins and leapt downstairs to be horizontal on a sun lounger and order afternoon cocktails. Bliss!

 

One Piná Colada and Tequila Sunrise later we were playing cards, eating guacamole (now a daily ritual) and enjoying the amenities of being in a hotel. Soon my winning streak was interrupted by an American gentleman in his sixties who introduced himself, shortly followed by his inquisitive wife. It wasn’t long before we received an abridged life story; missionaries from Utah who have been coming to Mexico for over 20 years holding trips for kids and adults and currently live in Villahermosa. IMAG1510A brief exchange of our story was told, although oddly when we mentioned #Brexit they were out of the loop completely. We gave a rapid overview evading the ‘details’ of Johnson and Farage, then the inevitable question arrived. “So what is the feeling of our new President back in London?” quizzed the man with a Utah drawl. Seb and I glanced at each other then back to the American, “um,” I started, “I think London is predominantly a Remain city which therefore doesn’t align with many of Trumps views…” Seb agreed adding to this notion before I concluded, “so I think it’s quite negative from what we’ve seen and heard…” Politely nodding, the American appreciated our diplomatic but honest approach and explained how Trump is a new breed of President, how he is offering America an escape route out of a winding spiral of destruction and how where he comes from, everyone is thankful he’s President. The American emphasised the importance of the coal industry and how Trump has offered to re-visit this and how he was particularly riled by Obamacare which had quadrupled medical bills for hard-working people like himself and those in his town. It became an interesting trade of different but respected opinions, perhaps a taster ahead of our month in America.

Back to Palenque and what we really came here for, the renowned Mayan ruins. On Seb’s 28th birthday, we enjoyed a large Mexican breakfast and discussed his mixed emotions of excitement for his birthday but slow acceptance of being firmly in the late twenties category, much to my amusement. We hopped into a taxi to deliver our bags to our new hotel, which was beautiful – a huge step up from any accommodation we had stayed in so far and still as much as a Travelodge in Rugby. Avoiding the inviting pull of the cascading infinity pool in amongst a setting of dense jungle trees and plants, we got a collectivo to the ruins and began our day of exploration.

As with most attractions in Mexico we waded through an ocean of hard-selling tactics and money-making ploys to reach the entrance of the ruins. We were instantly blown away by the temples in front of us. IMAG1487We climbed the Templo de las Inscripciones and peered inside it’s cold, damp interior; low, narrow corridors lead us to a tomb and small rooms which were netted off. The smell was prominent and cemented the notion that what we were standing in is thousands of years old. After a more cautious clamber down the fragmented steps we climbed six or seven more temples each a different structure with unique inscriptions of serpents, jaguars and Mayan life. The temples are set within the jungle which made for a more mystical exploration around the grounds, so many brightly coloured birds, vibrant flora and fauna and echos of howler monkey’s calls. After several hours of scrambling stairs in the scorching sunshine, we retreated back to our new sanctuary and cooled off at the poolside with a birthday cocktail to quench our thirst.

IMAG1515Tuesday morning awoke us gently after a restful sleep, we bargained with the hotel manager to reduce the waterfall tour price by MX200 each and set off in a mini bus to the first waterfall, Misol-ha. The 12 seater ploughed through corner after corner, ascent after descent; holding a tight grip on the handle in front of me we arrived after an hour with a strong appreciation for being flat and still. We explored the powerful waterfall for an hour including a torch-lit trip into a cave, ducking for bats. The waterfall was impressive but the tourist packed, narrow path distracted us from pure enjoyment. Reluctantly we returned to our seats in the mini van, took a deep breath and continued our journey to the second waterfall; Agua Azul.

En route, we maintained a fast speed, rapid ascent and continuous sharp cornering through the region of Chiapas. It became apparent Chiapas is a poor area in Mexico to the extent that as we neared to Agua Azul we were barricaded by a village who were peacefully protesting. They had not had teachers for three months and desperate for their children to return to school, they asked for money to be let through for this cause but also had signs and letters raising awareness to the Secretary of Education about their situation. After a 20-30 minute delay they removed the blockade and allowed us through. Many houses were unfinished and of poor structural quality, we were warned not to eat meat whilst there as hygiene is low and many children as young as 4/5 years old were constantly pleading with us to buy whatever they were selling.

IMAG1525Although difficult to put this aside, when we arrived at Agua Azul the waterfall offered such natural beauty we were helpless but to focus solely on the view. Almost completely unpolluted, the water was a vivid turquoise with white cascading water crashing down from several low falls. We stripped off and plunged in to the surprisingly cold (fresh!) water and used ropes to pull us through. The water is known to have strong currents so we cautiously swam around the corner and witnessed the vibrancy from a captivating perspective. We had three hours to explore the much bigger Agua Azul however we wished we could have stayed longer.

At around 5.30pm we once again set off in the mini van, this time to San Cristobal de las Casas, a large town apparently 2-3 hours away. To describe this part of the journey briefly I would say I have a new respect for being alive. Seated on the back row with the overflowing luggage tipping over us, not one passenger spoke for the entire (5 hour) journey, I believe this is due to everyone concentrating so much on not reacting to the vertical drop several inches away from the speeding van wheel as it took repeated corners. Not only was the darkening drop outside growing in intimidation but the road surfaces were so poor and bumpy there was not even an opportunity to try and be unconscious until we, remarkably, arrived. However, we did arrive, at 10.30pm and in one piece. We hailed a taxi and discovered our hostel, thankful for a hot shower in a now cold town, we washed the fear away and dived into a welcoming bed.