Thursday, November 29, 2007

Guatemala/Honduras Sampler

(Volcan Pacaya, an easy afternoon/evening trip from Antigua. Bring old shoes for sharp rocks (they do get a bit cut up if any part other than the sole catches the edge of the rocks) and a flashlight. Numerous tour companies in Antigua advertise this, so it's easy to find. Ask about the number of passengers on the bus or with the guide. Otherwise, you end up in a huge group that has to drive all around town to pick up people and leave an hour late. Then on the trail, you'll be stuck with a huge group.)

(Most buses/minivans leave Antigua around 3 or 4 pm, drive 30-45 mins to get here, and then it's a 1-2 hr hike up to the volcano, mostly through a bit of forest. Not the most strenuous hike in the world, but it's certainly not easy, and it's obviously mostly uphill to get to the volcano. There are numerous opportunities to hire a horse from a local kid, if you want. Also, you will have an armed guard with you on this trail. In the past, there have been a few bandits up there, but when I was there, I hadn't heard of it happening recently. Not to worry you, but just to let you know that it has happened at some point in the past. I went up two different nights and didn't feel unsafe at all.)

(You get incredibly close to the lava, and since it is flowing fairly slowly and smoothly, it's not THAT dangerous. As safe as you can feel when you're close enough to feel the heat from the lava emanating from the ground. If you happen to have them, pants and even gloves might be a good idea, as many of the other walkers slipped once or twice, which will draw a little bit of blood on these super sharp rocks.)

(Although it's easier to hike when you can see the rocks to step on, it's amazing once the sky gets dark, and you can see the lava glowing red. This volcano was definitely an incredible experience, and one of my favorite things while there in Guatemala.)

(The iconic view of Tikal, looking from the platform of one temple to the courtyard below. This place is amazing, and there are also coatis that hang out in the forest just behind this temple, and they've obviously been fed, so they're not afraid to come out and show themselves on the little jungle trails.)

(Another of the amazing temples. Flores is the closest real place to stay, other than a few isolated spots along the road from Flores to Tikal. In Flores, most travelers are there to see Tikal, so you won't have a problem finding a trip out to the ruins. Most trips leave about 3 or 4 am, so that you get into the park the second the gate opens, then you walk out to one of the temples, climb to the top and just listen to the monkeys and birds as you watch the sun come up. It's a beautiful spot, but it may or may not be as serene as it sounds, depending on the courtesy of the other groups that will be sitting there next to you all around. Still, definitely worth doing. I can't remember how much time we had there, but I feel like I was able to stay until 1 or 2 in the afternoon, which is nice once the big groups from the morning leave, but I don't know if I had to take my own bus or the shuttle was still waiting.)

(This is the view from atop one of the peripheral temples. It has a very steep wooden staircase up there, and a few people didn't want to climb it, but it's definitely worth it for the views of the lush rainforest and temples poking through. It seem like it was only 10 minutes or less to climb it, so do it if you have the chance.)

(Wake up early and watch the sunrise over Lake Atitlan. Not sure if you're going here, but I highly, highly recommend it. There are no real roads around the large lake, so you get around by taking the local boat taxis. As a foreigner, you WILL get overcharged, it's just a matter of by how much. Ask around with some locals and other travelers who have been hanging out there for a while. You'll arrive in Panajachel, which is ok, but I wouldn't recommend staying there. I stayed in San Marcos, which was really peaceful, quiet and beautiful (and where this dock is located). There's not a ton to do there - it's viewed as more of a hippie/yoga/new age retreat, so there are just a few restaurants and hotels, but it was perfect for me to just relax and take in the views and local culture. Getting off the boat, just head inland on the main dirt path, and you'll pass a few different guesthouses, so you can just inquire about prices and see the rooms there. There will probably also be a little kid or two trying to show you places to get a bit of commission for themselves.)

(View from the boat of Lake Atitlan, going from San Marcos to San Pedro. If you're looking for a little more action but better character than Panajachel, check out San Pedro. It has a bit of a reputation for drugs (just weed, I think), but it's popular with backpackers, and it will have a good amount of choices for hotels, restaurants, etc. Also, as you walk up the steep road from the dock to the main town, there are quite a few little old ladies there on the side of the road offering you licuados (fruit shakes/smoothies). These are amazing, and you just tell them the ingredients you want right there, they pop it in the blender, then you can sit down on the curb underneath their umbrella and enjoy it....and super cheap, too.)

(The old dock of San Marcos, viewed from the new one, just after sunrise. I really loved San Marcos and Lake Atitlan. In Jaibalito, there is an incredible place to stay called La Casa Del Mundo. They do not have much flat land on the water's level, but it's this amazing hotel perched up on a rocky cliff, with some rooms having beautiful views over the lake below. I didn't stay there, but I heard rave reviews from everyone that did. As it's not much of a village, you'd need to mostly rely on their restaurant I think, and you have to explicitly tell the taxi boat to stop there, otherwise it will just pass over it on its more common route. )

(Waiting for the taxi boat/ferry at San Marcos. The lake is a beautiful color, surrounded by hillsides covered in corn and grasses, along with three massive volcanoes. To get to the lake/Panajachel, I believe I took a minibus from Antigua.)

(The infamous chicken buses of Central America. They take old US school buses that have usually been retired, and they paint them nicely, though the inside isn't always as good. This is the authentic way to go, but it will be very slow, crowded and hard to maneuver with your bags/backpacks. It's fun, but these don't have the greatest safety records, so I probably wouldn't recommend using them too much, especially if you have very limited time. There are also some higher end buses that run the main tourist routes, sort of like Greyhound style buses. I took an overnight bus from Flores down to Guatemala City, and then I transferred over to Antigua, which was probably only an hour or two from there but much, much better. Guate (Guatemala City) does not have much to see and didn't feel all that safe, so I'd avoid hanging out there with your timeframe. They say it's not the best idea to take overnight buses in Guatemala, but I feel like the more expensive ones are a little safer, and I didn't hear about any problems with it. I did hear of a few pickpockets in Antigua. It doesn't feel dangerous, but just be aware because they are around, given the potential with all the travelers there. Around Antigua, Atitlan and Guate, there are small tourist buses (the size of church buses) that seem to go every day for a few different companies, making safe, easy connections between these places for only $5-10. These are much easier to use than the slow, local buses, and they're quite easy to find in Antigua and Atitlan (Panajachel).

(Walking around downtown Antigua is beautiful with the colonial architecture and volcanoes surrounding the city. Most people, including myself, really like this place.)

(The beach at the end of Roatan, just before a storm came in. I didn't get a chance to go to Utila, and I mostly heard about it being a great place for diving, but I only made it to Roatan. I was in Honduras for a little while, and I took the ferry from La Ceiba. The water was a bit rough, but it wasn't terrible. I'm not sure about local transport on the islands, but there are a good number of expats around there, so you might try to find one on the ferry and ask them. I ended up hitchhiking with a girl I met on the boat, and this American doctor/her friend gave me a ride to the end of the island. I'm sure Dr. Adkins mentioned this, but these islands are notorious for malaria, so make sure you're using good bug spray and trying to cover up at dusk when they really come out. Being dry season (I think), it might not be too bad, but you never know. He recommended this 3M Ultrathon cream from REI for insect repellent, and I seem to think it works pretty well; I've used it for all of my trips.)

(Getting around Roatan to the other beaches is easier using boat taxis, as they're usually cheaper and faster than the locals trying to overcharge you for giving you a ride down the bumpy road.)

(A stela in Copan. This site isn't far from the Guatemalan border, though I did have to make a few bus connections to get there from El Salvador, not sure about getting there from Guatemala. It's another very good site, but if you have limited time, I definitely recommend Tikal over this one. The key attraction here are the stellae, pictured above. There are a lot of these totems around the site, along with a few other stairs and ruins, but I still prefer Tikal. Going to both would be great, if that's a possibility.)

(Another part of the backside of Copan. Again, these are amazing ruins, but my favorites were still Palenque in Mexico and Tikal.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tuxtla Gutierrez

After my long, eventful bus ride, I was in Tuxtla Gutierrez, hoping to walk into the town center and find a hotel to drop off the burden of my heavy bags. It was only supposed to be five or ten blocks, so I thought I'd save a bit of money by walking. After a while, though, a taxi driver convinced me that I wasn't all that close, and it turns out that he was right. My map showed the bus station as being right in town, but apparently a nice bus station has sprouted up on the outskirts of town. In addition to that, the street names all branch off from the town square, resulting in streets like 9th St North West, 9th St North East, 9th St South West and 9th Street South East, which is a good thing for finding your way around town, but only once you realize how the system works. Soon I got a cheap hotel room, and I walked into town, hoping to find a tour to the main attraction of the area and one of the best natural sights in Mexico, the Cañon del Sumidero.

The somewhat hot city of Tuxtla sits in another mountain valley, with a large range running along the North side of town. Within these large mountains, a crevasse can be seen, which is the opening to the canyon. As I searched around town for tours of the canyon, a few locals notified me that I'd need to go to the nearby town of Chiapa de Corzo. Eventually I found a minibus for the thirty minute journey, and I arrived to find a small, easy going town with large dock on the adjacent river, which happened to be the Rio Grijalva (the name of the street in Mexico City that I didn't know). Initially I tried to join a tour with a company in the town square, but I had just missed the boat, and there were no other tourists in the area, so it looked like the tour wasn't going to go for another few hours, if at all. Fortunately, the operator was very nice and gave me my money back, suggesting that I go down to the water and try to hook up with one of those tours. Soon, a few others joined in, and I was able to take the boat tour along with about ten other people. We jumped in the small boat with an outboard motor and four or five bench seats, heading down the river, under the bridge and into the first walls of the huge canyon. Spotting birds such as herons, vultures and egrets along the way, the walls of the limestone canyon began to grow. Moving through the thick green vegetation and the brown river, our guide also pointed out a few of the numerous crocodiles along the secluded banks. Next, we came upon what looked like a wall in the river. As we came closer, we saw that it was a massive deposit of trash and logs, jammed together, blocking the river for about 50 yards. The mass is a result of the runoff from the canyon walls above and the nearby city, creating an unsightly spot in this otherwise pristine area. Birds walked around on the trash, feeding on whatever they could find. Our guide told us that this is a year-round occurrence and is often cleaned, though the rains bring in so much trash that it would be impossible to keep it clear. Instead, the boats just slowly plow through the mess, one after another, leading the tourists back into the picturesque parts of the canyon.

Soon, the limestone walls, half exposed rock and half green vegetation were towering above us at over 3,000 feet high. The sheer walls were spectacular, and at its highest point, we were around 3,600 feet below the canyon rim above. At points, the water below us dropped down to a depth of 720 feet. The size and grandeur of the place was unbelievable. With the green and white walls, it did have a look of Copper Canyon, which I had visited early on in this Mexico trip, though it was thicker, slightly more tropical vegetation, and it was certainly a different vantage point to be able to see the canyon from the ground level. Also, the powerful Rio Grijalva that carved out this place is the same one that flows towards the state of Tabasco and the city of Villa Hermosa, just days before causing large scale flooding and leaving somewhere around 1.6 million people without homes or food. Anyway, after an hour and a half of riding down the river, we came to a huge dam and lagoon that contains an electrical powerplant said to supply much of the power to Mexico and neighboring nations, even some of it going up to the US. In the lagoon, we stopped at one of the small restaurants on the water, giving us a chance at some overpriced food and a little break. Opting not to waste my money, I talked with a nice woman from Mexico City and two Belgian women (mother and daughter) that were on the tour with me.

On the way back, I got a better seat all the way in the back with the Belgians, allowing us to sit up higher on the seat backs and enjoy the view and the wind passing by. At the same time, the guide was also showing some interest in the Belgian girl, allowing her to drive the boat for a few as we sped back towards Chiapa. Strangely, he didn't make the same offer to me or anyone else on the tour, but I guess blonde European women sometimes have that pull over the local guides. The tour was soon over, but it had been absolutely incredible, leaving me wanting to see more of the massive canyon. Allegedly there are some tours of the overlooks in a small truck, but there were no signs of it all over town, so I continued to search.

(Rio Grijalva and the beginnings of Cañon del Sumidero.)

(The start of the wall of trash...not so appealing.)

(Our little guide and the canyon passing by.)

(One of the massive waterfalls of the canyon, named Arbol de Navidad, as the moss growing around the water looks like a Christmas tree from far away.)

(The glassy lagoon and our restaurant and boat dock.)

(One more of the beautiful canyon.)

Monte Albán

Just a quick twenty or thirty minute ride outside of Oaxaca stands the ancient bastion of Monte Albán, so my affinity for Central American ruins and ancient cultures drew me to this place. As luck would have it, a few rather uncool, loud Americans (well, not uncool in their minds, but only in mine) were along on the bus ride. They were California guys in their 20s, basically coming down to Mexico to party for a week or two, maybe have a few tacos, a bunch of tequilas and then head back...basically the kind of traveller I often despise. I had the misfortune of being able to listen to them the whole time while waiting for the bus, and I actually was assigned the seat next to one of the three on the way up the windy road into the surrounding mountains of Oaxaca. He wasn't bad as an individual, though he was lamenting about having to get up early and how the curvy road wasn't ideal for his hangover, so I didn't have too much sympathy. Anyway, we soon arrived at the site, opening first with a series of sunken square courtyards surrounded by five or ten foot stone walls upon which a few broken down mini temples stood. Nearby was the omnipresent ball court, a small, well restored one with the traditional I-shape, pitting three players against each other in a match with a small rubber ball and the objective to hit it to the other side with your hips, elbows and knees, much like other games at these sites. In contrast, it is said that there is no evidence of sacrificing the lives of the players here, neither the winners or the losers. However, they did say that it was played during ceremonies, for leisure, and to settle disputes over things such as land, so, in theory, a talented player could begin to move up in society by taking things and winning the dispute on the ball court.

After the first two sunken courtyards, the sprawling main plaza came into view. From our high vantage point, I could see the huge grassy area in all its glory. Along the sides of the field, approximately the size of three or four football fields, are remnants of old temples and majestic tombs, originally carved with hieroglyphics, many of which have faded away. Running through the center is an astrological building shaped from above as an arrow pointing North, and one or two other buildings surely serving as the burial grounds for some of the more important rulers of the city. Once again in awe of the towering structures and the remains of the civilization that once ruled the area, I began to walk amongst the ruins, taking in and cherishing the sights of the stone temples. This city is set on the top of one of the highest hills in the valley which was rounded off to provide enough flat land for the people, giving it a beautiful and strategic position with 360 degree views of the valley lying below. According to the historians, the city was originally started by the Zapotec people around 500 BC, flourishing in between 200 BC and 300 AD, the time in which most of the impressive structures were created. At its peak, it is estimated that 25,000 people occupied this magnificent city-state. As I moved through the temples, one exhibit showed a series of carved stones, nearly life sized, depicting the rulers of conquered neighboring states that were taken into the city and killed, celebrating the strength and triumph of Monte Albán during its prime. At the Southern end of the huge field stands the South Temple, a huge, wide pyramid with the familiar large stone steps leading up about 70 feet to the next wide platform of grass, where another small mound of unexcavated ruins stands.

Hoping for another superb moment of solitude, contemplation and awe, I found a shady spot to sit on the top stair of the South Temple, taking in all that lay out before me. Again, I imagined the rulers of the town speaking down to the villagers below, admiring the magnificent temples that lined the fields all around. I sat in silence for a while, sometimes accompanied by some relaxing music courtesy of my iPod and Coldplay, sometimes just listening to the sounds of the site itself. Eventually I had to move on, but this had been another great stop in my tour of the ancient cities of Mesoamerica. Not long after, I had to catch the bus back to town, staying in Oaxaca for one more afternoon. On the night of November 1, Todos Santos, I took the late night bus onwards to Tuxtla Gutierrez, a long ride and one to which I was not looking forward. It would be a 9 or 10 hour bus ride, and it would also bring me into a region that is (or was) known for its rebels and buses being stopped and robbed (more than other parts of Mexico). While in the bus station, waiting for the 10:30 pm departure, I met a nice local man and his small child, and they even treated me to a taste of some local chocolate that they had with them, a bittersweet dark chocolate that is very popular in the area.

I had hoped that at least my bus ride would be comfortable, so I was a little dismayed to see the bus was packed, and I had a local man sitting next to me, not allowing me to stretch out my legs, which is usually what I've been able to do. He also fell asleep quickly and happened to be a loud snorer, so I didn't have the best seat in the place, but I figured that I'd have to manage. Fortunately for me, he did get off about halfway through, so I eventually had a bit of room about four hours into the trip. As I said, this place wasn't dangerous, but it's not particularly safe either, so I would stir from my half-sleep every time the bus stopped, hoping it was a voluntary one and not a roadblock ahead. Well, just a few hours later, the same thing happened, and it was indeed a roadblock. I sat up straight and tried to assess the situation in the complete darkness of the mountain road, a few hours before the sun would even come up.

Ahead was a group of men and a huge tractor-trailer blocking the road. We definitely couldn't pass, but they didn't have the look of bad-intentioned vigilantes. The driver got out to see what was going on, and soon I found out the situation. Apparently one tractor-trailer had come up with a flat tire on the road, and another one slightly hit it from behind, leaving both of them stuck in the middle of the narrow road, not allowing any room for anyone to pass. Minutes passed with no sign of movement as every stood around, trying to figure out what to do. Minutes turned to hours, and the first light of the day illuminated the situation. Eventually, after about two hours, the other drivers managed to get a replacement tire, good enough to move the truck out of the road and let us pass. Relieved, I sat back in the seat and tried to get a bit more sleep, but our driver had other ideas. Being behind schedule, he took the opportunity to use this windy mountain roads as a race course, sending bags sliding with each sharp turn. Unlike almost every other bus trip that I've taken, the locals and tourists both strapped on their seatbelts and hoped the driver knew the road well. Just another hour down the road, the situation looked bad again - another roadblock ahead, though this looked different. Locals and children were running up and down the line of stopped cars, and I could tell that something was wrong. After another thirty minute wait, we were finally allowed to pass, and I saw the aftermath of a head-on collision that looked horrible. Both cars were crunched, and the bloody driver of one car was still in his seat, not moving, most likely not living, given the look of the crash and his body. To my disgust, a few of the Mexican teenagers on the bus were taking pictures of the scene as we passed by. As it turns out, I saw in the paper later that the driver did die, a tragic start for his family on the morning of the Day of the Dead. Fortunately for me, our bus arrived safely after a long 12 or 13 hour trip, and I was in Tuxtla Gutierrez, safe and sound, though very sleepy.

(One of the smaller temples lining the grassy main plaza.)

(The main plaza from the high steps of the South Temple.)

(The I-shaped ball court, where no sacrifices were said to have occurred.)

(Another perspective on the North end of the main plaza.)

(Nice clouds, trees, grass and temples...everything I like.)

(Temples, grass, mini people, etc.)

(An archway leading to nowhere....or is it...)

Culinary Delights of Oaxaca

It is pronounced wah-HA-ka.

Alleged to be a pleasant, exciting, authentic Southern highland town, Oaxaca stands as one of the few large cities in the area, and it was my next stop. The bus ride was immediately a clue that this place wouldn't be as relaxed and nice as I thought. A group of girls in their mid 20s decided to talk loudly the entire trip, annoying me for both the volume and quantity and also for the fact that they effortlessly switched back between French and Spanish, with a bit of English thrown in, making me jealous. Fortunately, we had an interesting movie showing called Bienvenido Paisano, a comedy about a Mexican-American family returning to the problems of their native country. The scenery along the way was also impressive, more like what I had expected from Mexico before this trip. Dry canyons and rock formations covered in tall cacti lined the roads, giving way to some lowlands covered in low scrubs before finally rising back into the highlands around Oaxaca. Along with too many other tourists, I got off and bus and headed for the city center. My hostel was basic and cheap, just providing an uncomfortable bunk bed for the night in a large room shared with about ten others, including some Mexican workers that had come down to do a week's worth of worth before heading back North to their homes. They didn't seem to mind that people were trying to sleep as they continued talking into the night, and I remembered why I've been trying to stay in cheap, single rooms instead of hostels. For my second night, I found a quieter place just down the road, and they had a private room for just a bit more, so I was happy to make the change.

In the middle of Oaxaca, two main plazas connected to each other and fronted by a church and rows of restaurants and museums form the social center of the city, so that's where most of my time was spent. People hung out under trees and on the shady benches, walking around and feeling the excitement grow for the upcoming Day of the Dead celebrations. In Mexico, November 1 is All Saint's Day and the 2nd is the Day of the Dead, both days used as a celebrations and remembrance of passed relatives and loved ones. Altars appear in homes and shops, varying from simple to incredibly elaborate. They typically include some typical or beloved foods and drinks as an offering to the dead, along with candles, beautiful orange and purple flowers and anything else characteristic of their family. In the town square, the altars were going up the day I arrived, mostly made by local villages in the area, representing and serving as a point of pride for those villagers. During the afternoons, small parades of children dressed in costume and other revellers made their way into the plazas, playing music, dancing and just having a good time. Not as much a time to mourn the dead as a time to celebrate life, the Mexicans in this area and many throughout the country take great pride and joy in this holiday. Most of the children were dressed up as devils, skeletons, angels or La Catrina, a sort of skeletal woman with a black dress and hat with a veil that represents death to the people.

In addition to the Day of the Dead celebrations, I also decided to explore some of the indigenous markets in town, offering some interesting varieties of food. My first stop took me to the food market where I once again found the local specialty called tlayudas. Tlayudas are large, slightly hard flour tortillas covered in black bean paste, melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and some type of meat, steak in my case. This one was more of a tostada than a quesadilla like before, meaning that it was served with an open face, instead of being folded over. Just as great, this filled me up for about $4, and I moved into the adjacent market for a bit of ''dessert.'' Hearing about this local delicacy, I had to try the chapulines...grasshoppers. There were stands and stands of them, little red pyramids of the insects, divided by size into large, medium or small bugs. When prepared, they are cooked, purged of digestive matter (if that's even possible on such a small insect), and lime juice and chili powder are added. Not really sounding all that bad, other than the potential for legs and antennae being stuck in my teeth, I decided to go for it. I bought the smallest bag that I could of the medium sized ones...big enough to tell what they are, yet small enough to not have to take bites out of each one, I paid my dollar and took the bag to a bench in the plaza for this authentic experience. Taking a handful, I was excited, yet hesitant, to try the little guys. Luckily they all appeared dead and dried, so I slowly moved the handful towards my mouth, wincing a bit at the prospect. I tossed in the ten or so grasshoppers and tried to discern the taste. As expected, they had a tiny bit of crunch and bits and pieces of who knows what roamed around my mouth. The lime taste was actually the strongest flavor, though it was a bitter, sort of bad lime taste, as I was hoping for better. Chewing the remaining pieces of deceased insect, I swallowed it all and went for a bit more. Another handful or two was all that I could take, though I was happy to be able to say that I tried them. I don't think I'd recommend them, but I've eaten a lot worse things.

Later on that night, I returned to the town square for dinner, finding a good taco place that was much better looking than the expensive tourist options next door. Wanting to try another, more appetizing specialty, I went for the tacos de nopales (cactus tacos). I'd seen these in various places around Mexico, and I finally had a chance to eat them. They seemed to be prepared by removing the spines and boiling them, creating a sort of green vegetable not too different from types of squash. Cut into small pieces and mixed with some tomato and onion chunks, the veggie tacos were quite good, and I would recommend them to anyone in the future, especially vegetarian sisters and girlfriends with a love for similar vegetables. In addition, the green plant is said to be full of fiber and nutrients, excellent for the body. Besides these adventures, my other main attraction of Oaxaca would be my upcoming day trip to another set of well-known ruins, Monte Albán.

(The stone cathedral along the two main plazas, connected by pedestrian malls.)

(Back beloved tlayuda. This was so good.)

(The scary food stalls of the chapulines...grasshoppers with chili and lime.)

(Chocolate skulls to celebrate the Day of the Dead. I definitely had a few of the small ones at just a few pesos a piece.)

(A beautiful altar celebrating the lives of those who have passed away, located in the town square.)

(Crazy, huge, dancing lady turned out to be two guys with a big costume. The town square was full of people and kids in costume.)

(The procession of children, most dressed as skeletons, devils, etc.)

(A nice mouthful of tasty grasshoppers.)

(Another Day of the Dead altar with the traditional yellow/orange flowers.)

(A huge altar dedicated to the unibrow...and Frida Kahlo.)

(The altars traditionally contain offerings of food and drinks, along with burning candles during the vigil.)

(The other old church in town. I tried to go to the ethnobotanic garden within the walls of the compound, but you can't enter without an expensive guide. Oh well.)

(My plate of cactus tacos, along with the usual condiments of onion and cilantro, red salsa, green salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo and limes. The cactus is chopped and mixed with other vegetables.)


A few great days in Papantla and El Tajín were now just behind me, and I decided to head down further into Central/Southern Mexico to Puebla, another authentic colonial town, though rather large. I wandered through the rain unfruitfully looking for breakfast before buying some powdered mini donuts and making it to the bus station in time to get one of the last seats to Puebla. My seatmate was a very nice young man from the area who had spent time in the US and was anxious to learn what I was doing in his town and on the rest of the trip. Unfortunately for me, he also proved to be a bit of a smelly neighbor on all too many occasions during the trip, but I managed to survive his onslaught. Other than the smells emanating from my buddy, the ride was really nice. We passed over more green mountains with small canyons and rivers below, crossing through small, untouched towns, eventually coming over the high mountain pass, after which point the clouds and rain finally cleared. The landscape that was revealed was amazing. The huge valley in front of us glowed with the yellow light of the late afternoon, lighting up corn fields, oak trees and pastures in every direction. Of in the distance, the beautiful town of Tlaxcala could be seen sitting prettily at the base of the mountain, with its pastel yellow cathedral standing tall amongst the rest of the small buildings. As we neared Puebla, we hit a big traffic jam, so the trip lasted an hour or two longer than normal, but I had some wonderful, relaxing rhythms of Bob Marley playing on my iPod, so I really didn't mind.

I found a cheap hotel in town recommended by the guide book, and the room turned out to be not much more than a closet with a bed. Just big enough to fit the bed, a tiny dresser with an even smaller tv, and a miniature attached bathroom, the place was a bit tight, but it was fine. Just two blocks from the main plaza, it allowed me to get into town and check out what was going on. A city of 2 million, Puebla is known for its historic buildings and tiles that make up many of the walls of the nice looking structures. In town, the feel of fall or even winter was in the air. It was around 45 degrees, but people were walking the streets, talking, hanging out, and the young children were running around in their Halloween costumes, getting an early start on the holiday that was still a few days away. I saw a few great costumes, but the children were all just asking everyone for money instead of candy. Looking for some dinner, I found an amazing taco stand in a small building which has apparently been there since the owner came over from Baghdad around 1930. With the ethnic influence, the owner created tacos árabes (Arabic tacos), which are basically a mix of tacos and gyros, using smoked taco meat with a spicy salsa and thick, flat bread sort of tortillas. A wonderful creation, I had four for dinner and returned for seven more over the course of the next day. For dessert, I couldn't resist the smell of the fried, sugary churros along the street corner, a bit of a donut with a hole in the middle that I chose to have filled with chocolate sauce. I brought the tasty dessert back to my room just in time to catch most of the most anticipated soccer match in the Mexican league, the Super Clásico, between Club América and Chivas. Unfortunately, Chivas lost, but it was a good match to watch, and I retired for the night after that.

The next morning, with a chill in the air, I found a great local place for breakfast, apparently an institution since 1903. After a bit of confusion, I finally enjoyed some pancakes, eggs and beans, along with freshly squeezed orange juice. Next, I made my way around town, enjoying the old buildings and numerous markets. Although most cities tend to sell the same things, I still enjoy looking at all of the booths of t-shirts, dolls, hats, etc. I also found a hectic, colorful market selling every sort of fruit and vegetable, though the hygiene of those places could be a bit questionable. The large city had a nice character, though not as memorable as places like Guanajuato or Morelia, so I decided that one more night would be enough for the place. I found a larger hotel room just across the street for the final night, happy to have room to walk around and fit my bags. Again, I wandered the streets in the cold evenings, delighted to see the happy locals all around. I also couldn't pass up another churro, deciding that I should even get Marcelle one. Once I got back to my room, I decided that she probably wouldn't want a two month old chocolate filled donut, so I treated myself to mine and hers...which may have been my plan all along. For breakfast, I returned to the same old restaurant as before, happy to have found some cheap, quality pancakes for a taste of home. On the way out of town, I also had a friendly taxi driver who was eager to talk about the US and my travels. Having spent much time in the US, he lamented about the impressions of Mexicans there, saying that many of the worst Mexicans are the ones that live there, leaving a bad impression of Mexicans on those who haven't had the chance to visit the country and experience the warmth of the people firsthand. I don't know about the people I've met in the US, but I've been very impressed with the friendliness of the people here, nothing less than I'd expect from a Latin American place.

(I think this is a large hotel along the main square. It's a large something.)

(Some of the colorful restaurants on the same block as the aforementioned hotel.)

(A view of the tiles for which the Poblanos, citizens of Puebla, are known.)

(Chaotic, colorful, interesting fruit market.)

(The white church stands in stark contrast to the ominous storm clouds. The rain never came, though.)

(The main church from around the 1540s, another of the oldest in Mexico.)

Perfect Day at El Tajín

I awoke the next morning in Papantla, truly excited about the day ahead of me. I got up, showered, quickly got ready and walked down the road to the bus station, anxious to get to the site, particularly to get there early before many others were there. After a bit of a run-around trying to truly find the place to catch the bus, I got a cheap, indirect bus to the site, only about 10 miles outside of town. My heart raced as I prepared for what are said to be one of the more picturesque, impressive ruins in Mexico. Also, after having a peaceful, easy-going day in town the day before, I was hoping for more of the same, and it turned out that I'd get that and more. Walking from the bus stop, I passed a group of vendors, selling the same sort of t-shirts, bracelets, rings, keychains, etc that I'd seen in many other places, though many of them were still opening up shop, since I had arrived around 9:30, not long after the archaeological site had opened for the day. I quickly paid the $4.50 entrance fee, and then I was in, ready to be amazed. Sprawling before me was a quiet, green pasture of grass with stone pyramids and temples dotting the landscape, some restored, some being overtaken by the green grass all around. At first glance, the site seemed to be what I was hoping for, and I was anxious to begin exploring.

The site was home to an ancient city of the classic Veracruz civilizations, not those of the Aztecs or Mayas, though it contains somewhat similar stone pyramids and temples. The people here began the city sometime around 600 AD, living here for around 600 years until the site was mostly abandoned around 1200 AD. At the entrance to the site also stands a monument to the voladores of the area, and there are some locals that put on a show for the visitors here, but after having seen two of those last night, I just wanted to move on to some temple hopping. I passed a few lovely pyramids upon which the sun was just beginning to shine, making its way over the surrounding hills, slowly burning off the slight haze and melting away the dew from the grass below. Soon, I saw the centerpiece of the whole site, the Pyramid of the Niches. This nicely shaped temple is made up of seven terraced levels and a small throne probably once stood atop the impressive structure. The name comes from the fact that the pyramid is full of small, square holes (or niches), actually making a total of 365 of them, obviously serving a sort of calendar function/reference. Some historians believe that they were used to help the agricultural society with planting and keeping track of the seasons. At the time of the civilization, the temple was also painted in a brilliant red and black, instead of the drab gray that we all are used to today. Almost pagoda-like in appearance with its terraces, I passed more than a few minutes staring in awe, wondering what it would have been like to be here in its prime. Knowing that I'd come back, I moved on to explore the rest of the site, stretching for kilometers in the area, though only 2 or 3 kilometers have been excavated at the present time. My next stop was one of the large ball courts that are a well-known part of many of these Mesoamerican sites. Almost always shaped like the letter I, with a long center and two perpendicular swaths at the end, the center is defined by two diagonally sloped walls facing each other, perhaps as a place for spectators to sit or, in other cases, just serving to deflect the ball back down into the field of play. High above the court and a few other temples stood another set of buildings, presumably for the leaders. From this perch, they could observe the game and town below without the burden of having to mingle with the local plebeians. I made my way up to the top, overlooking the other ruins below, enjoying a nice snack of donuts from the local supermarket and meeting a nice Mexican family along with a friendly German couple that I had noticed on my bus ride over from Mexico City. After talking for a little while, the Germans had to hurry to their next destination, wishing they had more time, as they claimed this was their favorite of the many ancient sites that they'd seen in the region. Luckily for me, I wasn't in such a hurry, so I made my way back down to the main temples, watching a few more people pour in, following along in some small groups led by local guides or school teachers. One group of well dressed high schoolers were even posing for their class picture, lined up nicely in front of the classic pyramid, kindly forcing other onlookers such as myself out of their memorable shot.

Wandering more around the site, the day progressed, and the bright blue sky began to fill with huge, puffy white clouds, making for an idyllic setting with a fairly nice climate in a place that is supposed to be rather hot. I passed by the Pyramid of the Niches over and over again, simply enjoying the temple from every possible angle and finding new carvings and structures with each passing. At a few points, I was able to mingle in with some of the mini-tour groups, picking up on the Spanish commentary to learn a bit more about the facts and legends of each of the spots. Watching a bit of a demonstration, I also learned more about the Veracruzian form of the ball game. With only three players on each team, they would essentially play a game a bit like soccer, advancing a small wooden ball forward with their shoulders, hips and knees, scoring a goal upon entering the opponents side. There would also be penalty points awarded to the other team for using your feet. At the end of the match, there would indeed be a human sacrifice, but this explanation was different. In this civilization, it would be the captain of the winning team that would be sacrificed. With their strong beliefs, they thought that they were rewarding the winner by bringing them to the world of their gods, which may or may not be true. The sacrifice was also carried out in a way such that the victim would be sitting up, on his knees, leaning back at about 45 degrees. The two teammates would hold him there and one would slice the neck open, and with the angle of the body, blood would spurt from the neck forwards. Gruesome, yes, but the spurting blood was said to take the form of a snake, which was one of their gods, so I believe that they viewed this as them leaving the world and going to that of the gods above. Of course, this creates an interesting situation in which weak believers may not be trying all that hard to win the match and get sacrificed, but who knows...

After another lap or two around the site, I felt like I had seen everything, but the day was just too perfect to leave. The clouds were passing through the clear skies, the sun shone down, the green grass beckoned...I couldn't resist. So, I found a nice clear spot of bright green grass with just a bit of shade from one of the trees high overhead, and I sprawled out on the ground, simply enjoying a wonderful, relaxing day in an ideal setting for me. Laying there flat out with my legs crossed at the ankle, arms behind my head, I couldn't imagine a better setting at the time. Behind me was a nice wooded forest with a small creek, to my side was a huge green field of grass leading to a nice looking stone temple, and just in front of me was another beautiful pyramid, slightly overgrown with bits of grass up the side. In the shade, the temperature was perfect, perhaps around 75 degrees, tiny gusts of wind here and there. Finding a lovely, mostly uncrowded, yet impressive site and a place to simply relax and not worry about where I'd go next or how I'd get there or what I'd do. I did nothing more than watch the clouds go by for a while, embracing the absolute tranquility of the area. I also was able to use my iPod again for the first time in more than a few weeks, and this made the experience even better. Enjoying the incredible offering of the breakthrough album,"So", by Peter Gabriel and his highly-anticipated follow-up six years later, "Us", I remembered what an incredible, lushly-layered style he has, incorporating influences from all around the world and bringing them into the mainstream like no one else (except perhaps Paul Simon on Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints). With bits of Middle Eastern and African flair, both albums provided the perfect background music for my day. I followed up with a bit of Bob Marley, who, in his song "Trenchtown Rock", so insightfully states that "The one good thing about music is when it hits, you feel alright." Just as he said, I had my music back , and I was feeling more than alright. This was truly the perfect day. It was temples, culture, friendly people, good food, bits of (perceived) solitude...everything that I could want in this small part of Mexico. Contentedly, I lay there with a true smile on my face, loving every moment of this.

As the day was wrapping up, laying there with my eyes closed, I heard the nervous laughter of a few people nearby and sensed that they were coming closer. As I opened my eyes, I looked up to find a group of high schoolers literally surrounding me, not far from my face. Apparently they had been amused or intrigued by me laying there in the middle of the grass, so they came up for a closer look. The group of six girls and one guy, all about 16 or 17 years old, began to speak to me, asking my name, where I was from, etc. Then, nervously, giggling, they asked if I'd mind if they took a picture with me. Not happening often, I welcomed the opportunity to have a few admirers and was about to stand up for the shot when they said that they actually wanted it of me laying there as I was, so they gathered around for the pictures, leaving the one guy to take pictures with each of the cameras. Not wanting to miss the chance, I gave him my camera as well to record the event. I guess without too many tourists in the area, I was something different for the girls, and, although it's a bit vain, an ego boost like that never hurts. So, they took their pictures, asked a few more questions and moved along, though they didn't go far. Hearing them still talking about me, they soon returned to bravely ask for my email address, which I gave them, so we'll see if any of them actually venture to send anything further.

Leaving the site, I stopped for a few good tacos at one of the local stands, apparently making me miss the last bus from the site. With a bit of extra time on my hands, I visited a few of the vendors, deciding that a souvenir was in order to commemorate the great day, so I bought a small pyramid keychain from a lady who didn't seem to mind the fact that while she was walking around showing me the merchandise, she was also breastfeeding her small child. I figured that if she was ok with it, I was too, so I kept my eyes closely on the merchandise and moved on. I walked the short road back to the main highway, waited another half an hour with some locals and finally got another bus heading into town, putting me back just in time for another local dinner and night hanging out in the park, accompanied by a great little strawberry ice cream cone for only about $1. Back in town, there was something else going on, though. The stage was being set, and chairs were all around. First, a musical group of about 20 teenagers (and a few a bit younger), all with guitars in hand began to play. They strummed along, singing a few romantic ballads and a few more upbeat, traditional songs which all sounded quite good. A hint of rain came and went, and the seats began to fill up. Next to me, an nice older woman began talking to me, welcoming me to town, wanting to know what I thought of the place, where I'd go next, etc. She even offered me a free place to stay in some surrounding towns with her or her family, but I had to decline, since I'd be going in the opposite direction. Finally, after the musicians finished, the main event began. It was a sort of beauty contest/homecoming queen kind of thing with six young women walking the stage, the announcer telling us a bit about each one and where we could vote for our favorite. The town square was crowded with the seats all full and many more standing behind, cheering for their friends and family to be crowned the queen. Unfortunately, the voting had yet to take place, so I had to leave in suspense, perhaps never knowing who would be this year's winner.

(One of the first temples of the site, with the thick forest in the background.)

(A side view of the big daddy - The Pyramid of the Niches. Note the squares/niches.)

(Me and my beloved pyramid.)

(More of the many temples with bright green grass finding its way in between.)

(Another of my favorite temples...grassy on one side, rocky and temply on the other.)

(The backside of Mr. Niches...I love this thing.)

(The green temple that sat just in front of me as I spent my time in the grass. This was taken from almost the exact spot where I enjoyed most of the afternoon.)

(Me and my new lady friends, hanging out in the grass. Good times.)

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