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Travel Story by Ian Reynolds

  Sombreros, tequila and cenotes in Mexico
Mexico
 


Chichen Itza

A report of my 3-week trip to Mexico follows to give other travellers a flavour of what to expect. (US$10 = 10 pesos or M$100)

Mexico City is just another big city but the Museum of Anthropology was well worth visiting. There was a heavy police presence around the city and it is relatively safe. There has been a concerted effort to improve the city’s image and to deter crime. Travelling on the underground metro only costs 2 pesos and does not pose any problems.

Hostel Catedral is conveniently located in the centre of the city and it puts on an excellent breakfast. With a YHA card it’s $10 a night.

While in Mexico City I went to watch a game of football, a local derby between Club America and Atlante. The stadium was a cacophony of noise with a constant beating of drums and blaring of horns, and firecrackers going off every now and again. The game was a drab affair with the usual theatricals and ended in a 0-0 draw.

The Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, a two-hour festive blur of costumes, music, and dance, was far more entertaining! Even the cheapest seats are rather pricey but if you are only there once then what the heck. The internationally acclaimed troupe performs on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. Tickets cost M$220-M$375. Performances are in Teatro Bellas Artes in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, at the corner of Juarez and Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico City.

After 2 nights in the capital I travelled by bus to Guanajuato 4-5 hours away. Primera Plus were easily the best buses I travelled on in Mexico and they do provide a packed lunch. There is a small backpackers hostel in Guanajuato, which is a bit basic but clean and is $10 a night.

Guanajuato with its narrow cobbled streets is situated on the steep slopes of a ravine. I visited the famous Museum of the Mummies on the outskirts of the town, which is rather macabre. It is a typical example of Mexico's obsession with death and visitors come from far and wide to see the numerous corpses on display.

After 2 nights in Guanajuato I took the first bus back to the capital and spent another night there. The following morning I went to Xochimilio. Apparently it is better to visit in midweek and take a canal trip when it is quieter. I didn’t bother – I found the place quite disappointing and didn’t hang around for long. A bit of a wasted trip really.

Then I took an afternoon bus to Puebla just 2 hours away. The youth hostel is in the back of beyond and not easy to find. But it was late by the time I got there and there wasn’t time to look for anywhere else to stay.

A half-day was spent in Puebla. Although it is a nice place it is another place that can be missed if short for time. The Amparo museum is pretty good though.

At 2pm I caught the bus to Oaxaca and got there just after 6pm. Oaxaca is a really nice and relaxing place.

The Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca next to Santa Domingo church really is a magnificent museum. But the one drawback is that there is no English translation for the various exhibits.

I enjoyed myself in Oaxaca, another cosmopolitan city with attractive colonial architecture. You could easily spend all day wandering around the numerous arts and crafts shops.
I visited the ruins at Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec capital, which stands on top of a hill and has superb views.

For accommodation I stayed for 2 nights at Hostel Paulina. It is nice and clean and costs $7 a night.

There is a great restaurant – Escapado across from the Carmen Alto church, up a small staircase. The stuffed chicken in mango sauce is recommended.

Next stop was San Cristobal. Getting there involved taking the night bus from Oaxaca arriving just after 6am in the morning. The early part of the bus journey had a lot of switchbacks and you can feel a bit queasy but it soon passes.

After a lazy day walking the streets of San Cristobal the next day was spent with a guide used by Mercedes Hernandez Gomez. You can’t miss her by the kiosk in zocalo at 9am as she twirls a multicoloured umbrella.

It was good fun going horse riding for a morning and exploring the indigenous villages in the area. I booked this through the Hotel Santa Monica at M$65. This is the cheapest option as other agencies charge M$80-100 for the same trip.

We visited San Juan Chamula and I should warn people that taking photos is frowned upon here. You can take photos of the market area and the church from the back (act on the advice of a guide). Unfortunately a young lady was taking a photo of the church and was accosted by two village roughnecks who marched her to the tourist office. They demanded that she remove the film because they believed she had impinged on their privacy. Nothing could have been further from the truth as I saw the whole incident with my eyes from a short distance. The guy at the tourist office counter wasn’t much help and did nothing to placate the situation. After much argument and tears she had to remove the film in the end. It was either that or face a lynch mob who had gathered in the office. Basically I thought it was appalling behaviour by the two guys who just wanted to be ‘macho’ and picked on a woman who was alone.

Two nights were spent at Hotel Santiago with a double bedroom and ensuite bathroom at M$70 a night. The accommodation wasn’t wonderful but it was better than all the other places I looked at.

The best place I ate at in Mexico was at ‘Madre Tierra’ on 19 Insurgentes. Next door to the restaurant is a bakery. The homemade bread is very nourishing. I had a three course evening meal for just M$55 and they give generous portions unlike other restaurants in Mexico that have 3 course meals at discounted prices. The dessert at one place in Oaxaca (El Taco) was a joke where the slice of gateau was just a slither, paper thin.

For vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, Madre Tierra is a good place for a cappuccino and pastry or an entire meal. The comida corrida is very filling, or try the chicken curry, lasagna, and fresh salads. The bakery specializes in whole-wheat breads, pastries, pizza by the slice, quiche, grains, granola, and dried fruit. The restaurant is in an old mansion with wood-plank floors, long windows looking onto the street, and tables covered in colorful Guatemalan jaspe. Madre Tierra is three and a half blocks south of the plaza.

After I had spent the day horse riding I caught the afternoon bus to Palenque, 6 hours away.

At Palenque I met up with a good crowd of travellers and we stayed at the ‘Jungle Lodge’ at the El Panchan jungle complex. The food there is pretty good although the staff are a bit full of themselves. In the evenings the Mexican version of Bob Marley kept us entertained! The highlight was Palenque, reputed to be the most beautiful of all the ancient Mayan sites. Agua Azul, which is among Mexico's most spectacular waterfalls, is not far away.

While at Palenque I took a day trip to the ruins at Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Yaxchilan is deep in the jungle and is inaccessible by road. It is an hour away by motorboat and we saw toucans and monkeys en route. It did cost M$550 for the day but I had scrapped my original plans to visit Tikal as I didn’t believe I could fit it into 3 weeks of travel. It was possible but it would just have been a flying visit and I felt that it was better to visit Guatemala another time and give it the attention it deserves.

From Palenque it was a 9-hour overnight bus trip to Merida.

The final week of my holiday was spent in the Yucatan peninsula. Merida, the capital, is a charming city with colonial buildings and shady parks. The murals of Fernando Castro Pacheco, located in the Palacio de Gobierno, are definitely worth a visit. The most impressive Mayan ruins are found in this region - Chichen Itza and Uxmal.

Not far from the bus station is a new hostel that has recently opened called the Nest Hostel on Calle 67, No 547B. www.nesthostel.com

One day was spent visiting the Mayan ruins in this area. There is a bus at 8am (M$105) which travels to 4 Ruta Puuc sites from the CAME bus terminal (local bus terminal across the road from the national bus terminal).

The sites on the Ruta Puuc route are Labna, Sayil, Kabah and Uxmal. The entry fee was M$20 to the first three sites and M$87 to Uxmal. As there was a large number of people a couple of guys managed to gain access to all sites without paying although I wouldn’t recommend it. Kabah (with its wall of masks) and Uxmal were the best sites.

I wanted to avoid the busloads of tourists that arrive at Chichen Itza around 11am so caught the 0630am bus there. There is a luggage store so I stored my rucksack there while I looked round the ruins. The place was empty when I arrived at 08.15 and I had a nice leisurely stroll around the ruins before all and sundry arrived. By then the temperatures were scorching and the next couple of hours were spent relaxing in the shade while waiting for my bus.

Chichen Itza is supposed to be the jewel but I found it rather disappointing. Uxmal with its iguanas was much nicer and was not inundated with tourists.

Then it was on to the coast to the beaches and a spot of diving. There is a bus to Playa del Carmen at 14.30 (from Chichen Itza) but I did not realise that it stopped at Tulum en route. If I had known it would have saved me backtracking but it wasn’t a problem.

In Playa Del Carmen I stayed at the Hostel Playa, which was probably the nicest and most comfortable place I stayed at on my travels in Mexico. It had hammocks, mosquito nets and plenty of fans to keep you cool.

I avoided Cancun as I knew it would be like Benidorm and am glad I missed it! Playa Del Carmen is less touristy and with it being the low season it wasn't very crowded.

Cozumel is just an hour away by ferry. It is one of the most popular dive destinations in the world and I took the opportunity to do a couple of dives. The coral reefs and the marine life did not really live up to expectations but I suppose I have been spoilt diving in Australia!

However the Yutacan peninsula is home to the longest underwater cave (cenote) system in the world. Dos Ojos and Bat Cave are two of the best sites for cavern diving. I did this with Hidden Worlds. The crystal clear water and the spectacular stalactite gardens make for a unique diving experience and I really enjoyed it.

A collectivo to Tulum is M$20 and to Cancun it is M$30.

I spent one night at Tulum, visited the ruins there, and stayed at the Weary Traveller. They provide a free shuttle service to the beach – leaves at 10am & returns at 5.30pm.

The beach at Tulum, with white sand fringed with palm trees and the turquoise Carribean Sea, was almost deserted. The sea was absolutely gorgeous and I spent the best part of an afternoon snorkelling and bathing. It is like a warm bath.

From Playa Del Carmen I took a collectivo to Cancun (The city centre) where I stayed one night in order to catch an early morning internal flight back to Mexico City. The hostel, Mexico Hostels, is based in city centre several miles away from the strip with all the tourist hotels and nightspots. However I got a brief glimpse and it’s just a tourist trap which I was glad to avoid.

After putting my rucksack in a locker at the airport I took the metro to Terminal Norte and got the bus to Teotihuacan. The Atzec site of Teotihuacan, once Mexico's largest ancient city, is not as picturesque as other sites around Mexico but you cannot help but be impressed by the sheer size of it. It is the site of the huge pyramids of the sun and the moon.

Then it was time to return to the airport for my evening flight home to the UK.

In comparison to most of Asia and South America Mexico is quite expensive. Having said that I enjoyed my trip there and if I had another couple of days I would have crossed the border to Guatemala and visited Tikal.

Average daily expenditure was approx M$300-400.

The exchange rates for travellers cheques or currency from the UK are rather poor. I was quoted approx 16 pesos to the pound. On the Thorn Tree it is generally recommended that you use ATMs to withdraw cash but when I enquired at the various British banks at home they said that you would get the tourist rate of 16 pesos to the pound and pay an administration fee of approx 1% or £3 minimum

However, on using my credit card where I don’t pay commission I made several purchases and got a rate of 18.5-19.0 pesos to the pound and this was better than the Mexican banks’ rates, which were 18.0 pesos to the pound. Unfortunately I was not able to use my visa as often as I would have liked simply because credit cards are not accepted in most establishments.

So using your debit card to withdraw money from ATMs is the best option as you will get a better rate overseas than you would at home. The best debit and credit cards on the UK market are with Nationwide as there are no withdrawal charges and they do not charge commission.


Click on photo to enlarge


Show in Oaxaca  Dressed in Mexican attire  The ancient Mayan site at Palenque


Date Submitted: 19 Aug 2006


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