Monday, December 10, 2007

Mexico to Guatemala, Nov 20th to Nov 30th, 2007

I took a night bus to Tuxtla Gutierrez on the 20th, and arrived on the 21st to meet Rodolfo. I was now in Chiapas state, which used to be part of Guatemala, and for many, the most beautiful state of Mexico. We went to all the different lookouts of the Canon del Sumidero, Tuxtla Gutierrez’s claim to fame. We had some regional cuisine of Cochito Horneado and Pepita con Tasajo (Baked pork, in a very flavorful dark brown juice, and beef cooked in a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds). We wandered around Chiapa de Corzo and then I took a 2 hour boat ride through the canyon. That night, we went to the Parque de la Marimba. The Marimba is an instrument similar to a xylophone that is native to Chiapas, and this park is a remarkable achievement. Everyday, from 6pm to 9pm, different music groups come to play marimba and crowds of people gather to dance, or just sit and enjoy the music. Food is sold, but no alcohol. It’s a safe, entertaining public space and it was great to see that this existed in Mexico. Rudy and Carlos brought me to the minibus to San Cristobal de las Casas. I arrived late that night to Tania’s house.

San Cristobal de las Casas is the favorite town for many people who have visited it, both Mexicans and foreigners. It’s easy to understand why. Beautiful colonial architecture in a perfect mountain climate, with steep green mountains on all sides, a small town center, and seemingly endless cultural activities and a great gastronomic scene. It’s one of those places where you have to be careful about your money, because everything isn’t expensive, but you might find yourself going to 3 cafes, 2 restaurants, and 3 bars in a day. My first day there I visited San Juan Chamula, a Mayan village just 15 minutes away. San Juan Chamula draws scores of tourists for its church, in which a very peculiar rite takes place. The Mayans in the village come to make offerings in a ritual meant to cleanse their souls. Both men and women in traditional dress come into the church which has thousands of burning candles all around the perimeter as well as on the floor itself. The floor is covered with pine needles, which are cleared by each person to make space for their candles. Chanting, singing, praying, often tearful. Animals, usually chickens, are rubbed all over the people’s bodies, meant to remove the bad spirits from the human and passed onto the chicken, which is then killed. I have never seen a ritual like this.

San Cristobal de las Casas is interesting because it has such a mix of people; indigenous Maya populations wander the streets, wearing the same things they would have 500 years ago, ladinos, the mixed-descent Mexicans walk alongside them in their latest fashions, and a more than generous portion of Europeans and tourists from all over the world intertwine the mosaic. It’s a really unique place.

On the 22nd, Agusto took me on a hike outside of Zinacantan. It was the first time I’ve really been on a mountain trail since I’ve been in Mexico, and although it was a bit difficult, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was great to climb high into the mountains where we couldn’t hear any cars or electronic sounds at all.

That night, I took a bus to Palenque. What I didn’t realize was that the roads were unbelievably windy, and I was barely able to sleep. I made my way to El Panchan, the backpacker’s paradise in a reforested jungle outside of Palenque town, and slept. In the afternoon I visited Agua Azul and Misol-ha, the famed waterfalls near Palenque. The 24th was a day at the ruins; Palenque’s ruins are situated in the jungle, so you hear the sounds of the jungle as you wander around the ancient stones.

On the 25th we had a 6am start to get our transport to Flores, in Guatemala. It was really smooth, a van to the border town of Frontera Corozal, a boat to cross the river Usumacinta, which separates Mexico and Guatemala, then a bus to Flores. On the bus I started chatting with a British guy who was really short on time and he wanted to get to Tikal that day rather than spend the night in Flores. It somehow worked out that I was going to go with him because he didn’t want any contribution to the taxi etc. I was, for the first time in Central America, placed in a situation of the high-class tourist which I am certainly not accustomed to. Tikal itself only has 3 places to stay and a few places to eat, all gougingly overpriced.

We decided we wanted to be inside the ruins by the time sunrise came. This meant we left the hotel at 4:30am, bribed the guard to let us in early since the entrance officially opens at 6am, and we walked in the dark. We emerged on the Gran Plaza and the mist, the moonlight, and the clouds all converged to reveal the spectacular Templo I and II. It’s a sight I’ll never forget. We made it to Templo IV, the famed sunrise spot, and climbed to find dozens of other tourists who had all come in tour groups from Flores. Unfortunately, it was very cloudy and there was no sunrise to be seen.

We split ways, and I went to Mundo Perdido alone. Toucans and parrots flitted about the arrangement of pyramids and other ruins. I spent the next several hours wandering about the gigantic temple grounds, and saw spider monkeys, howler monkeys, coatis (small relatives of raccoons), and many many birds. At about 9am it started raining heavily, and I took shelter under a small hut. I left the ruins at about 11am, and after a short nap, went back in to see the northern area of the grounds. In the afternoon Oliver, the British guy, and I went to Aguada Tikal and saw a crocodile, and then I felt ready to go. I took a 4pm bus back to Flores and got a place in a hostel.

On the 28th I took a 6:30am bus to Coban, and arrived in rainy Coban at about 1pm. Dropped off my stuff and went on the half hour to Vivero Verapaz, famous for its orchids. Unfortunately, not many flowers were in bloom when I went. It stopped raining later in the afternoon but there really wasn’t much to see or do in Coban so I spent some time chatting with a really sweet girl in a cafĂ© on the main plaza. I went to bed early because I knew the 29th would be a busy day.

And it was. I took an early bus to Semuc Champey, which many people consider is the most beautiful place in Guatemala. There is a naturally formed 300m limestone bridge with various pools eroded away, with water of different shades of blue and green. It was worth the bumpy 2.5 hours each away. I rushed back to Coban, checked out the International Orchid Exposition, and jumped on a bus to Guatemala City. I arrived at about 9pm, talked with the friendly bus staff as I waited for Chrissy to come get me, and that was that.

Today has been a lovely, lazy day. I am enjoying Guatemala, although it is glaringly apparent the double price system, for locals and tourists. However, I recognize that the poverty is much more prevalent, as the 36 year civil war left this country in tatters. All over the place there are children working, trying to sell things; much more than in Mexico. It breaks my heart that they are doing this rather than going to school, yet it is reassuring to see that they are still children, smiling, laughing, and playing.

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