A Travellerspoint blog

San Pedro de Lago Atitlan

Notice that all my other entries include two or three places...San Pedro, and the people I met there, was so strange that it deserves its own entry

The first thing that really struck me about San Pedro was the town's blatant contradictions. The town, and the lake for that matter, are considered Mayan territory and are inhabited by the ancient people, but as soon as you enter the town, Jesus signs violently assault the senses. Massive signs like, "the only one who can change your life is Jesus," "Jesus is the king of San Pedro" and "Jesus, the only one worth waiting for," are all in sickening abundance. One that I thought was totally out of place in a town of such beauty was one that read, "Remember that Jesus loves you." A sign like this I feel should be reserved for a shithole of a pace in the middle of nowhere, like Siberia or Adelaide. Even a children's playground which I initially admired, was painted with biblical allusions such as a painting of Noah's arc, fit with the accompaning bible verse.

The thing I always crave the most after a long and bumby bus ride is peace and quiet, time to settle down and get to know the new surroundings. As soon as you step off the Chicken Bus colectivo (a name made up by me, since locals crowd into the minibus to a point where they are nearly sitting on your lap), young San Pedroans shout at the window forcefully "asking" you if you need accomodation. Even when you politely say no, they still follow you to wherever you are going, letting the owners of the Hostel/Hotel know that they led you there. I'm not sure how that works out, but I'm certain they would get a cut of it.

After discovering a "no vacancy" sign outside the door of a Hostel that had come highly recommended to me, this overly enthusiastic Canadian I had met in the minivan from Antigua and I checked into a "hostel" across the road. The place, Hostel Miguel, was a little bit weird, consisting of a long corridor with rooms on the right. The place was filled with kids staying with a creepy American women who I assume had adopted them. What they were all doing in Guatemala I'm not sure. The owner of the hostel, a friendly and fit Nigerian bloke, was a potent reminder of the power of globalisation. A Nigerian in Guatemala? Who wouldda funk it? I wanted to know his story, but didn't get round to asking him. Among the "freebies" the hostel offered were wifi, drinking water, and this is where it got weird; a kiddy blow up pool and an old barely functioning massage machine. There was also a terrace, where the owner said we could "smoke anything we want." The overly enthusiastic Canadian went on about how rad the terrace was, but in reality we were just chilling out around someone's private roof, kids clothes drying around us.

The second day came, and I had my eyes set on hiring a kayak and venturing across the lake to San Marcos, a tiny village filled with hippies equipped with a diving platform into the water. When I enquired about Kayaks at the tour agency, they asked me if I had experience, and forbid me from going across to San Marcos because it was windy. What soft cocks, I thought, convinced at my own invincibility and buff manliness. Clearly I forgot to stop and think that I had done shit all exercise in three months. After about five minutes, the waves started crashing into the kayak, soaking me and my belongings, even though they were inside a plastic bag. Halfway across the lake, the waves had become undefeatable, despite my rugged manly buffness. Defeated and demoralised, I headed back to town, soaked to the bone and watched Treme and read for the rest of the day. I saw the Canadian on the roof and he offered me some banana bread saying, "Ooh my gawd, they knoow how to cook eyy. This is sooohh good." Taking a bite, the thing was tasteless and supremely dry. Deciding I had had enough of this weird hostel, I made my decision to move to yo mamas the next day, availability of beds permitting.

It was a good choice...the place had a great social atmosphere and I bumped into two Kiwi couples I had met in Tulum, who had made themselves famous by attaching a fork on the end of a stick and calling it a spearknife, wondering off into the ocean and catching a huge fish they later threw on the BBQ. With my first attempt at reaching San Marcos ending in spectacular failure, I thought it wise to forget trying to get there by water and decided to hire a motobike to make the journey. I went to the closest travel agent to the hostel, there are tons in San Pedro, and hired a bike for 3 hours at about $12 an hour, which I thought was excessive. They took about twenty minutes to bring the bike around, took about ten minutes to start it, then realised that the light wasn't working, so they went to get another one. The other bike didn't have any petrol, so finally venturing off, I had to follow a Guatemalan to a station so he could fill it up. Common sense dictates that you check bikes are good to go, with sufficient petrol and functioning lights at the start of the business day, but that's just probably my narrow Western thinking. Finally I was on my way...until I was stopped at the highway, due to maintenance. The guy controlling the traffic told me that work had started five minutes earlier and would be finished in 45 minutes. Slightly pissed off, I turned around and went on a shorter one hour ride up into the mountains, stopping every so often to take self indulgent photos, once dropping the bike and burning my leg. Perhaps it was the universe telling me to stop acting like a wanker.

The following day a chillout session with a few other friends at the hostel was interrupted by a black jew by the name of Lidia Katz, an interesting gentleman who I had heard a few fascinating things about the day before. He starts shooting off at the mouth about spiritual enlightenment or some bullshit, acquiring an audience to laugh at his delusion, and being clearly too 'enlightened' to realise we were all taking the piss. All, except of course that lovely but gullible American you find in most hostels, who swollowed this dude's bullshit hole. Realising this story was too good to not document, I ran to fetch my notepad thinking, this is perfect for my blog. Well you can be the judge. I will recount the most memorable things he said in chronological order.
He started his rant with the reasonable prediction that within the next 8 years we will be entering a new course of humanity in which every human being will have the moral and ethical teaching skills of Jesus, and will be able to walk on water, turn water into wine and perform other miracles. He went on about it for a while until I couldn't help myself, diplomatically declaring, "dude, you have such a faith in the human race that it is delusional." Ignoring me, he went on to draw a picture of a 2 dimensional house, informing us with creepy, intense wide eyes, "ok, so these are the windows, these are the bedrooms and this is the kitchen. Some people (probably referring to me) see the world as this two dimensional house. I'm not one of those people." Reasonable metaphor.
As if aware that some people believe he should be sent to such an institution, he declares, "many people who are thrown into mental hospitals are not in fact crazy, but rather have entered a new dimension." Looking deep into the gullible American's eyes, he employs the credibility building oratical technique of repetedly saying, "scientific research shows that..." as if whatever he believes resembles science.
I am certain I know where he got his next belief, he must have poured over "The Secret," that book promoting the despicable belief that we are entitled to everything we want. To paraphrase the genius, he says that if you really want a burger, you will get a burger...a belief directly plucked from that despicable book. If you want to know why I hate the secret so much, it's this kind of mindset that is responsible for probably all the world's problems.
Without segway, he diverts to his previous topic of entering new dimensions. Telling the american that he will be leaving soon to eat some coco beans, he reveals that cacau is one of the most powerful vehicles for entering a new dimension. It was at this point I left, but I was told later that the reason he had left the US was that he was wanted by the police for indecent sexual conduct with his 14 year old girlfriend who he had taught at a synagogue where he was working at as a Rabbi. They may call him a Rabbi, but I call him batshit crazy. A simple google search of his name revealed that the story was true, complete with pictures and all. An article written by a psychologist who was an expert in sexual perversion mentioned that the way 25 year old Katz talked to children online and the dialogue in his youtube videos was exactly the same language used by sexual predators who groom for children on the net. He had even written an article entitled, "Leather, Chains and God: An Exploration of the Relationship Between BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Domination/Submission and Sadomasochism) and the Abrahamic Religion." A religious leader who abuses children? Who would have thought?

Later that night after arriving back from an anti-climatic 'party' acroos the river, I sat down in front of the fire at the hostel and took in the heat. He being the talk of the town, I mentioned that Lidia Katz had been around that day to give us his views on the world. One of the guys around me said, "yeah we know that guy, he's one of our good friends. He's really smart." Two others, a Jesus lookalike and a slightly hipster looking girl aimlessly nodded. Clearly they had also consumed the Kool Aid. To my left stood the lovely but slightly too gullible American, talking to another 60 year old American hippie I had seen the night before trying to feel up a drunk 20 something girl. He started talking about the planets aligning, leading to the melting of the icecaps. The other American dude, showing an ever so slight piece of skepticism, asked, "but isn't it global warming that's responsible for that?" The old hippe replied, "No man, that's just a distraction." There is only a certain amount of crazy I can take, and this crossed the line. I stood up and said, "Ok, well this is where I leave, that's more than enough crazy for me in one day." I had left them dumbfounded and speechless, as if no one had ever told them what they really think before. Clearly, they had never met a Dutchman (the Dutch always tell you what they think and never sugar coat).

A few days later I found myself in the airport in Guatemala city waiting for a flight when I start chatting with a fellow Aussie. She starts blabbering on about how this journey is a "spiritual journey," how she always carries pot through airports and that she's a Tarot reader who gets paid cash in hand and therefore doesn't pay taxes. She proceeded to whine about how the government, after recent changes, would only continue to pay welfare recipients while they are on holiday for six weeks, as opposed to three months as the rules stipulated previously. Now, I hate to go on an Alan Jones type rant, and I obviously don't know all about her situation, but get a fucking job. You can go on holidays and the government pays for it? Shouldn't someone on welfare who can afford a holiday not be on welfare? I hope she gets caught out, for carrying drugs and being a welfare cheat, when there are people out there actually suffering.

Posted by jeremyampt 10:28 Comments (0)

Antigua, Lanquin and the amazing Semuc Champey

Welcome to Antigua. The absolute mecca for tourists not wanting to leave their comfort zones. Actually, considering the amount of massage/beauty parlours here, many tourists fall deeper into their comfort zone. Every second shop is a tour agency, every other one is a bar playing NFL or live blues, a hotel, a cafe or restaurant serving every international cuisine possible, or a accomodation. Such is the scope of services in Antigua that there are little Guatemalans who offer you vouchers for tours or accomodation, say no and they offer you weed, say no to weed and they offer you coke..."Colombian quality." I thought I would test their inventory, so I asked if they could sell me crystal, while looking at him with crazy eyes. He told me, "I can call my friend and ask." I declined, telling him it was a joke. He gave me a forced smile in return.

A trip to Antigua, or for that matter Guatemala, is not complete without a volcano hike. So on my second day in Antigua, I got up at 5:30 to catch a 6 am shuttle to Volcano Pocaya. Volcano Pacaya, at an elevation of 2,552 metres above sea level, has been continually active since 1965. The last eruption spew an ash cloud into the sky fifteen hundred metres into the atmosphere, leaving Antigua and Guatemala city covered in Ash. Keep in mind that the Volcano lies 30 kilometres from Guatemala City. The shuttle journey took about 45 minutes, and we arrived to children trying to sell us sticks to climb the mountain, assuring us that "it's a necessity." The town at the bottom of the volcano was quite poor, a far cry from Antigua. Obviously the tourism brought by the Volcano had not been felt to a significant degree in the surrounding villages. The people looked like they have never had a bath and the children like they had rolled around in dirt the entirety of their lives. I aways feel angry when I see kids not in school, but never know where to direct the anger. It was quite sad.

The climb up the mountain, despite the local kid's assurance that a stick was a necessity, was really quite easy. We stopped at various points along the way, the guide explaining the scenery surrounding the volcano, including two other volcanoes, a volcanic lake, and a few towns. After the while, the almost jungle like vegetation of the mountain made way for post apocolyptic like dusty volcanic rock. It was really fascinating looking at the view from the top of the mountain at an adjacent one, observing the juxtaposition of one black mountain devoid of any life, and the other one, the scenery of greenery.

Unfortunately, we could climb all the way to the top, as the recent activity deemed it unsafe, but something tells me if there was an eruption we would have died anyway. Our guide lead us to two holes in the volcano which radiated heat from the ground below. The smell was sauna like, which I found relaxing. The guide took out some marshmellows from his bag and proceeded to toast them over the hole. It was pretty awesome.

I went straight to a cafe when I got home...the lack of caffeine that day had left me quite dizzy. I stumbled across this groovy Italian style place which served every type of coffee imaginable, even Vietnamese style. I searched the menu, and saw one option, "coffee meets mescal." I looked at the dude behind the counter and asked him if it was I thought it was. After telling me it was indeed Mescal mixed with coffee, I bought one, and it was actually quite good. For those who aren't familiar with Mescal, it's a strong spirit like Tequila, whch also originates from Mexico. It differs from Tequila however, it has a smokiness to it that gives your throat a slight burn. The weirdest combinations are often some of the best, I thought...take avocado and vegemite for example.

Having seen a brouchure at my hostel from the chocolate museum, which advertised workshops, I wandered down to check it out and possibly reserve a space. It sounded cool, so I booked, and it didn't disappoint. Our incredibly flambouyant teacher first took us through a history lesson of coco. The Mayans were the first to discover it, consuming it only as a luke warm drink, filled with spices and blood. Yes, blood. During the last stage of the preparation, they would cut their hands and allow a few drops of blood into the drink, apparently to appease the god of coco. Other highlights of the workshop include a bean crushing competition (which I won...hell yeah), making a surprisingly nice tea out of the skin of toasted beans, and making my own chocolate in seashell moulds.

Despite the supertouristy nature of Antigua, hearing 60 year old Americans talking Spanish far too loudly in thick Californian accents, I'm glad I came here. It's supremely gorgeous, has a great night life, cafes, food and coffee. But an authentic snapshot of the 'real' Guatemala it ain't.

"Oh my god, Semuc Champey is fucking amazing/sick/awesome/titties/insert over adjective." After hearing this from every man, woman, child, dwarf, cat, monkey and dog, I thought it would be foolish to miss it. Sure, I was almost paralysed by the 8 hour journey in a crammed minibus, but it was totally worth it to see what many saw is the most beautiful place in the country. I stayed in a party hostel in the nearby town of Lanquin, surrounded by jungle. The hostel, "Zephyr Lodge," was cool, but set up in every way to make sure you spent the most money as possible through their tab system. Having said this, it was a great time, and they served good food, for the most part, and the views of 360 degrees of amazing.

The following day I took the much anticipated tour to Semuc Champey. Wow...mother nature at its best. We started the tour by waddling through a rive inside a pitch black cave, paddling with one hand and holding candles above our heads in the other. I think the guide was born there, given he knew where every single sharp rock was, and pretty much ran through the river. Our next two activities were a stark reminder that we were not in a developed country, with all the crazy regulations that accompany it. Our guide took us to a massive seated swing that almost scraped the ground on the way down, and opened onto ten metres of rocks below before you could finally let go and plunge into the water. By even suggesting jumping off a 12ish metre high bridge into the water in Australia you may very well end up in jail, but in Guatemala it's no problem. As with most things dangerous, it was wicked fun. One person in our group shot a video of two dare devils in our group doing a synchronised back flip into the river. It was one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen.

Finally we got to Semuc Champey, and it was simply perfect. The water was perfectly clear, fresh, and the perfect temperature. The sun shined through the trees, illuminating the water. A great end to a great day. I connot describe Semuc Champey any better, you will just have to google it. Over and out.

Posted by jeremyampt 11:58 Comments (0)

Merida, the most boring city in the world and Flores

When I had asked fellow travellers what they thought of Merida, the answer was always the same..."it's great, the arts scene and the culture is great." Having received this advice, I decided I couldn't miss it.

I arrived from Valladolid and settled in possibly one of the coolest hostels in the world. This was a bit of a curse however, as planned days to visit Merida's sights effortlessly turned into lazy days lounging by the crystal clear pool and immacuate garden, reading, practicing Spanish and watching Vice documentaries (if you haven't seen "inside North Korea, watch it now). Probably the highlight of Merida was the cool people I met.

On my first day I went for a stroll with this Swedish chef I had just met, who just came from Cuba equipped with fascinating stories. We had heard good things about the Museum of Anthropology in the city, so we headed there. It turned out that the city just decided to be dead that week, and the museum, along with many others, was to be closed during my stay. With the visit to the museum out of the question, we had our heart set on another fascinating cultural activity...a visit to Wallmart. Neither of us had ever been to Wallmart, and ever since being obsessed with the website, The people of Wallmart, in which I indulged in one of my favourite past times, i.e. judging people, I had wanted to go. Yeah, not that interesting. Prices were inflated and the whole place was depressing, and I didn't see anyone that fit the profile of a 'person of wallmart.' On our way out, an African American woman asked us if we spoke English. After replying, she reached into her bag. I turned to Simon, the Swede, and said to him, 'I bet you 20 bucks she's gunna try and flogg Jesus and Christianity. About thirty seconds later, I felt like doing an I was right dance, as she handed us a pamphlet saying, "don't worry, I'm not a Jehovah's witness." It wasn't until later that I received a heavy case of doorstep wit (the definition of walking away from a situation and then later thinking of something witty to say), I should have told her I was a Jehovah's witness and got extremely offended.

According to Simon the Swedish chef, Cuba is a special place where life is extremely slow, and all there is to do is dance, drink, have sex and get educated. Absolutely everyone asks for money, even when simply meeting someone on the street. Most of the women aren't 'prostitutes,' but ask for money for sex after the fact. Sounds like pretty much the spot on definition of a prozzie to me, but apparently if you ask them that they get extremely offended. It can be more considered as a "selling of talents." There have been slight changes in Cuba, but it sounds like no one knows what's next. They no longer lock up homosexuals, and the government will soon allow people to leave. There is a catch, of course. First of all, to apply for permission to leave and get a passport costs hundreds of dollars, and as soon as you hand it over to Cuba's sprawling and inefficient bureaucracy, they ask you how you came across such a sum. Since the only real way for most people to make that kind of dough is through selling shit on the black market, it's an elaborate trap to fuck people over.

Nomadas hostel, the amazing hostel i alluded to before, offers free Salsa lessons every weeknight, and considering I can't do salsa without breaking girls' arms or crushing their feet, I thought a good way to prevent unintentional violence against women was to take up on the hostel's generous offer. I considered giving up during the first hour, frustrated at my lack of practice, dancing partners doing their best to hold back their frustration at the natural disasters that are my dance moves. I began to slowly pick it up however, and was thoroughly enjoying myself by the end.

Unfortunately, almost every American I've met on this trip, and that's not many...they don't seem to travel much, who knew two words of Spanish and had eaten a taco has thought they were all knowledgeable on the topic of Mexico and Mexicans, and translated Spanish into English, even though in many cases my Spanish was better than theirs (that's pretty hard to fathom). This dude at the hostel was no exception. Partnered up with a cool Australian girl, who may as well be punching a bag of feathers, he loved telling me that "Tulum was shit," and "Fuck Tulum," when I mentioned I was a fan. He said he hated ruins with heaps of people, which I empathise with to a degree, but his hatred of tourist filled ruins almost paralleled the hate Nazis have for Jews, or the Westboro Baptist Church's hate for gays. I stayed away from that douchebag from then on.

Although the city's museums and a lot of their bars seemed to be closed, there were plenty of free concerts in public squares, equipped with 70 odd year old MCs who made women squeal with his suave talking. Before he'd introduce a new song, or poetry reading, he would approach middle aged women in the crowd, usually with fake tits, and hit on them, telling them to bring their daughters...it was creepy but hilarious, creelarious. The music was ok...but there wasn't really any salsa which was a tad disappointing.

So i was getting cenote withdrawal and it was time to visit three in one day. I spent a day with the swede and an Italian who got really worked up when people added too many ingredients to pasta, travelling on collectivos, tuk tuks and a cart that run along a train track connecting all the cenotes which was pulled by a horse...quite a bizarre experience. We arrived at this village that clearly did not receive many visitors. Either that or they saw me and thought Jesus had returned. The cenotes were simply beautiful...as most of them are. Two of them were completely underground, the only way to reach them was by climbing down a slippery, wobbly ladder, and the other one was half hidden. At ground level, there were about five human size holes that lead to a drop into the water of about ten metres into a water depth of about one and a half metres. They were not closed off, and we were told to 'be careful.' If they had holes like that in Australia, they would be sealed off by fencing, and you wouldn't be able to get within ten metres of them. If this weren't the case, some spoilt kid from Double Bay would fall in, break a leg and his South African Jewish mother would sue the state of Mexico. After we got back to the little town, I was stared at like I'd just murdered ten poor Mayan children in cold blood...couldn't wait to get out.

I think it was the following day I met an interesting Mexican at the hostel from Guadalajara. He built big boys toys back in his home city, that is to say, custom made four wheel drives. When I told him I loved Guadalajara, he went on this rant on how it was really fucked up at the moment, getting so worked up that at times he approached yelling and covered me in spit. His reason for leaving his shop and wanting to set up shop in the Yucatan was the result of his run ins with NARCOs. First of all, he told us this story of when he was in a club in an upscale Guadalajara neighbourhood, ducking as NARCOs shot to death a man who had made the moves on the wrong girl. Later on, he recounted a story of when he was working away in his shop when this massive Suburban rocks up, and out jumps a NARCO, who I imagined having gold teeth, a cross and a tear tattoo. The gang banger said he would offer him an obscene amount of money to make a secret compartment in the car where, the mechanic assumed, they could stash drugs and money. He told him that if he did the job right, there would be another fifteen beasts to work on. That was the last straw, and he decided to look into opening a shop in the touristy region of Yucatan.

The last real thing I did in Merida, or rather in its surroundings, was to hire a car with the Mexican, the Italian and the Swede and take the Ruta Puuc, a dirt road linking six Mayan ruins. It was pretty cool and interesting, but by the end they were all just rocks to me. The most annoying thing about visiting ruins in Mexico, forgive me if I've already alluded to this in the past, is the lack of information on the history/significance of the specific sites. All information, free information anyway, explained the shape and age of each building, e.g. this building was built in 900 AD and is ten metres high. Yawn. Our drive home was perhaps the most interesting/terrifying/frustrating part of the day, being pulled over and searched for drugs by the Yucatan police. As soon as they saw our white faces, it was time for a search...I'm sure to us we were life sized dollar bills that spoke terrible Spanish. They went through everything with a fine tooth comb, and we pissed off that the Swede had not brought his passport and that I had some medication with no doctor's ceritificate explaining what it was. Something tells me that they wouldn't have believed it anyway, as the copy I have is written in English. After they had interrogated us, searched us and the car, they had a chat saying they were nice to let us go and if they were doing what their job description entailed and following Yucatan and Mexican law, they would keep me and Simon in a holding cell, until they contacted immigration to make sure Simon was documented, and discovered that what I was carrying was not in fact 50 odd pills of ecstacy. They would appreciate a token of "thanks," they said. I really did not want to give these c***s a bribe, but swallowing my pride, I reached into my pocket and gave them the equivalent of five dollars, realising that my life was in their hands and really not wanting to spend a night in one of Mexico's quality prisons.

I left Merida the next day for Chetumal, en route to Flores in Guatemala. I'm not even going to give Chetumal a blog entry, it's a shit boring city with absolutely nothing to do, a poluted "beach," and not so friendly locals.

After a solo 8 hour trip from Chetumal, through Belize and into Guatemala, I arrive in Flores. At first extremely confused and uncertain whether I will be picked up by the hostel I had booked for, I walked around the Island for at least half an hour looking for the meeting point where the owner was to take me to the hostel. It turns out his hostel was not actually in Flores, but an easy 2 minute boat ride to the town of San Miguel, up a steep hill, and on a big property with stunning views of the lake. The hostel was amazing, run by super friendly Neil and his wife, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten. They made great food and had the cutest 18 month old in the world. The town was humid and jungle like, with plenty of awesome paths to explore, while howler monkeys make their unique and disturbing calls overhead. The people here were super chilled, and despite the heavy influx of tourists, were genuinely interested in finding out about life back home and the details of each gringo's travel plans.

The day after I arrived, I hopped on a tour headed for Tikal, undisputably Guatemala's most well known ancient Mayan cities, set amidst a plethora of biodiversity, typical of a Central American jungle. Despite my cynism, as I was utterly sick of piles of ancient rock, Tikal was indeed impressive. Temples built for Kings towered above the jungle canopy as hippies pining for an alternative lifestyle conducted yoga sessions in front. I tried speaking to some of the people on the trip, but they, and in particular a group of Belgians, one of which was a splitting image of Jack Black, gave me that "I've already got enough friends already" attitude.

I think our guide was seriously on something. He would go from yelling as loud as he could to whispering intensely. It was certainly entertaining, and he had an extremely keen eye in spotting wildlife. He spotted a Toucan at least 100 metres away and brought out a turantula half the size of my hand...it was a tad ridiculous.

That brings me up to date...if anyone wants to know how I would some up Flores, on my second day there, a local man of about 50 years asked me, "friend, everything good?" To which I replied, "si, todo esta perfecto"

Posted by jeremyampt 14:57 Comments (0)

Tulum, Valladolid and Chichen Itza

Following on from my previous blog, such was my bond with two amazing girls I met in Oaxaca and ran into in Palenque, I changed my original route...even though it made it more complicated. You're welcome Claire and JJ. I jumped on a bus with them and a very intelligent German guy, Tim, en route to Tulum. I had been looking forward to Tulum for ages and it sure didn't disappoint, except the ruins.

The Yucatan Peninsula, where Tulum is located, is filled with about 2500 cenotes. Cenotes are natural sinkholes that form by rocks falling or some shit. Something to do with erosion (shut up, I have an Arts Degree). This was only recently discovered by yours truly, during a wikipedia search 30 seconds ago. Although I am more likely to believe the scientific explanation of how cenotes formed, the Mayan/Mexican explanation is much more interesting and easier for a Political Science major to undertand...or at least what a guy in my hostel in Valladolid told me. Apparently the Mayans believe, or maybe it's a story the Mexicans just plain made up, that a massive asteroid broke up in the atmosphere and smashed into the earth, creating the cenotes of Yucatan. Another cool fact is that most of the cenotes are linked by a network of underground caves. I've never wanted to dive, or want gills more in my life. The clarity of the water in the cenotes are simply mind blowing. Such is the water's transparency that the bottom of a cenote with a depth of 20 metres can be seen from above ground. The deepest cenote is about 70 metres, which is pretty amazing.

Having given you the most accurate of descriptions of the formation of a Yucatan cenote, I can now talk about Tulum and the state of Quintana Roo, in which there are more than 2500 cenotes. The Hostel we stayed in Tulum was a bit of a dump, probably the dirtiest ever, but it had redeeming qualities. One of which was one of the staff, a guy originally from Merida with Mayan heritage. The three of us had a long conversation with him of which I only caught a small part of. Claire was listening intently, as she was working on an audio documentary on the Maya. The one piece of information that really stuck with me was his explanation of why some cenotes contain sacred Mayan artifacts and statues. As with all probably all conquerers in History, the Spanish were intent on destroying the traditional indigenous way of life, including the destruction of sacred sites and statues. Some Mayan groups, aware of this, hid the statues in the bottom of the cenotes to prevent this happening.

All in all we visited three cenotes in Tulum, two that were connected about a twenty minute bike ride along a highway...cycling here was like tap dancing on a mind field (Bear Grylls voice). The cenotes here were pretty cool, although one felt slightly artificial, a platform having been built from where you can jump off. My judgement of this cenote is probably pretty harsh though, I loved it when I got there as it was my very first, but there certainly are better ones around with more authentic a feeling.

The following day we hired scooters to and drove to Playa Akumal, a beach full with snorkelers intent on marvelling at the protected turtle area. Following the turtles was pretty cool, although the place was incredibly touristy, fat American tourist like. Sort of a diet Cancun. I enjoyed having a sand fight with a little Mexican kid more though, after I while we finally got him to stop attacking us and he approached, wanting us to see something he wrote in the sand. It read, "you guys are my best friends." I could've adopted him right then and there. From there we went to this incredible river-like cenote that was connected underground to the beach. Casa cenote, it was called, is the clearest I have been to. Surrounded by a lush, mangrove like forest, it was filled with amazingly beautiful birds and cute possum like things.

The one disappointing thing about Tulum were the highly over-rated ruins. They were small and the most interesting parts were blocked off to the public. Probably one of the most annoying things about visiting ruins in Mexico is that there is next to no practical or interesting information about them at all. All the free information you recieve is from this stone signs at the foot of the pyramids and some statues. All information is as follows...this building is so and so years old, it's so and so metres wide and so and so metres high, and sometimes, it probably served as some sort of religious thing. It must be a deliberate tactic to get you to hire an overpriced guide, whose explanations you can not be sure are entirely correct. Mexicans, as I have aluded to in previous blogs, like their stories...and don't let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. The three of us, being over all unimpressed with the ruins, decided to enter a building that was blocked off to the public. We could tell that it had previously been open, as there was the usual information about the pyramid's size et cetera, and it being early in the morning, doubted we would get caught. The scenes that proceeded after we left the closed off section made me feel like we had committed some kind of crime against humanity. The guards ran after us, highly unimpressed, almost yelled, and led us to the office. We speculated that this must be the most exciting thing that had happened at their work for a while, and they would no doubt be telling their mates at the pub about taking town three white tourist intent on desecrating Mayan culture. The guy in the office was nice enough, but made us delete all our photos of the ruins, and told us we couldn't return for the rest of the day, it was no big loss.

One more very important piece of information I acquired in Tulum was a popular Mexican pick up line. These two girls from Merida told me and a few others that "a que hora vas por el pan," or "what time are you going out to buy bread," is the oldest and most popular way to chase tail here. Wierd.

Sadly, it was time to leave my friends and make my way to Valladolid, a city I had chosen to stay at mostly due to its proximity to the Chichen Itza ruins. I was pleasantly surprised at this relatively undiscovered city, especially at the amazing hostel I stayed at; La Candelaria. This hostel was impecably clean, thanks to quite an anal owner, with an incredible garden outside, relatively fast wifi and two kitchens, with one of them in the garden, as well as awesome, smart and knowledgable staff. Another great redeeming feature of Valladolid is Cenote Zaci. Located in the centre of town, it's probably the most impressive I've seen, with crystal clear waters and a jump off from the rocks above at about six metres...incrediballs. It was on this day that I met one of my favourite Mexicans so far. A craftsman of Mayan descent, I met him outside Cenote Zaci, where he was flogging his Mayan artifacts he had carved by hand. Although I can't be 100% sure of the authentification of his stories and descriptions of Mayan gods etc, I believed him. Even if they aren't true, I'll give him credit for going to such an effort. The symbols on his products were as follows, countless Jaguars who provide strength, snakes that provide good luck, depictions of the Mayan calendar, the Mayan god of the rain (which is EVERYWHERE), a Mayan priest and an eclipse, which symbolises the unity of family. I ended up buying three statues from him, and he gave me a cool necklace for free.

The next noteworthy thing has to be Chichen Itza. Empowered with the knowledge that millions of fat Americans visit the site every day, and thoroughly wanting to avoid them, I took off at 7ish to get to the ruins just as they opened. Worth it. The site is probably visited by so many tourists given it's proximity to an unofficial American colony, Cancun, where white people go to 'get away from it all.' The site is extremely impressive, and besides Teotihuacan, is my favourite so far...with the possible exception of Palenque. The site's incredibly diverse architectural styles was originally believed to be a product of a migration of the peoples from Central Mexico, but the currently the site's diverseness is said to be a product of cultural diffusion. It is known that it was one of the largest of Mayan cities and it is believed that its population may have been the most diverse in Mayan civilisation. The significance of Cenote Sagrado (the sacred cenote) begun to be investigated after an American who bought the site in 1904 dregged the cenote and discovered human remains, gold, and other items. It is now believed that the humans and children were sacrificed and tossed into the cenote and valuable objects found were forms of offerings to Chaac, the Mayan rain god.

Final thoughts? Tulum is majestic, Valladolid is underrated and Chichen Itza is simply awesome

Posted by jeremyampt 13:37 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

San Cristobal, its surroundings and Palenque

After reading Lonely Planet and the Footprint guide, both of which gave San Cristobal glowing reviews, I was well excited ya'll. I arrived in San Cristobal at about 7am, after an 11 hour overnight journey from Oaxaca...all I wanted was a massive, healthy breakfast. I had read about a cool cafe with good breakfast in the Lonely Planet, and was keen on sampling some famous Chiapas coffee. It seems as though I totally forgot, despite being reminded every day, that Mexico is lazy and wakes up later then the rest of the world; meaning the cafe was closed. So I settled for an expensive and wierd place with sour eggs and shit coffee.

Being challenged on the sense of direction front, almost retardedly so, it took me about an hour to find my hostel, even with the help of Google Maps. At first I was a bit put off by my accomodation in San Cris, it was small and therefore a bit ronery. But it really grew on me and by the end I loved it. Fucken great breakfast and an awesome Golden Labrador which made me miss my dogs at home heaps. Any place where I can talk Mexican politics in Spanish is a plus, which is what happened with a Swiss girl working at the hostel. After asking her why she thinks people voted for Pina Nieto, she let fly in a tirade of rapid Spanish. Apparently Nietos (apologies to grammar nazis reading this, I cant find the apostrophy on this Mexican keyboard) wife is a star in one of the most watched telenovelas in Mexico, which are extremely popular here, overacted and corny...like latinos like it, and this fact significantly helped Nieto get over the line in the election, plus the fact that he is a mad hottie. She talked of revolution as the only possible answer to the country's fucked political system, as Mexico's intitutions are filled with the corrupt, hell bent on maintaining power. Che would be proud, speaking of which...I also saw a dude wearing a Che t-shirt eating burger king. I dont know how the spelling of douchebag could be so wrong, but there it was.

San Cristobal itself wasnt that much of a highlight. There was awesome coffee and a pretty cool cafe scene, but besides that there isnt too much going on. I did stumble across a coffee museum however, which was pretty cool. To my amazement, the museum revealed that more than 90% of the coffee fincas in the state of Chiapas are locally owned by indigenous peoples, hugely important for their economic survival, especially considering that Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico. My time in San Cristobal also comprised meeting an Italian through couch surfing to talk Spanish and English and to observe the US Elections together, as well as eating a shitload of amazing churros.

Of great interest to me and many others in the state of Chiapas is the Zapatista movement, el Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, or the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a guerilla movement whose ideology is a fusion of Mayan beliefs with rural liberal socialism. Its name is derived from one of the rural heroes of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. His Plan of Ayala, distributed during the revolution, is the bedrock of his ideological legacy. Overall the plan advocated land reform, returning ownership of rural Mexico from large hacendados, or land owners, to the indigenous people who originally inhabited it. The movement, founded in 1994, sees itself as a part of the larger worldwide anti-globalisation and anti neoliberalism movements, with a belief in localisation of resources. From its inception, the movement cemented itself as a part of the above worldwide movements, its date of foundation being the same day NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect. On this date came their first Declaration, one of war against the mexican government, whom they see as out of touch with campesinos and hence illegitimate. Around 3000 Zapatistas, already armed, stormed various cities in Chiapas, setting fire to police buildings and army bases. An armed conflict endured for 12 days before a ceacefire was brokered by the Catholic diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, with some of the territory seized by the movement being retained untill a breach of the ceasefire by Mexican federal forces about a year later. Villages were abandoned, and the Zapatistas fled deeper into the jungle. Since then the Mexican government has advocated a policy of negotiation, but conflicts have endured, despite ex-President Vincente Foxs assurance that he could end the conflict in fifteen minutes...sounds like a Mexican Putin to me. Ironically, the movements anti-globalisation message has been spread by communicational globalisation, creating a worldwide awareness of the organisation, its aims and ideology.

By chance, I also ran into some Germans I had met in Oaxaca, and we started hanging out, doing tours together and travelling to Palenque. The first tour we took was to a cave near San Cris and a Pine forest surrounded by picturesque lakes, which felt more like Canada than Mexico. Our guide to the caves was a master bullshitter, Im sure far superior than camrades of his age; he was about 8. Just about every hole in the cave was the mouth of some animal, and apparently all of them were extremely hungry. Ive discovered that Mexicans love their stories (aka are bullshit artists) about the same as Italians. The lake was nice, but a bit boring...being verbally raped by Mexican women trying to flog food was a highlight. Whats that? You dont have change for 50 pesos when a coke costs 15? What a surprise, every one else in this country has change (sarcastic face). The tour to the Canyon the next day was pretty amazing. One event sticks out in particular...my German friend didnt recieve a wristband for entry into the National Park, meaning that a full of boat of about 30 gringos had to turn around so he could get one. Special thanks to the German chicks behind who said, "thanks a lot," in that characteristic German voice, you may be utter bitches, but you make for a good story.

At six a.m. the next day we departed for Palenque via Agua Azul and Misol Ha. After visiting Agua Azul, I wanted to change the word paradise to Agua Azul...but such is the beauty of this part of Mexico, I now know there are more beautiful swimming places, but still, Agua Azul was fucking incrediballs. Our time in the Palenque ruins was a bit rushed, but I took solace in the knowledge that I was staying there at least for one night and would return the next day.

We settled in our humble jungle lodgings and chilled out, trying to duplicate the sound of the howler monkeys. Luckily I bumped into some friends I had met in Oaxaca in Palenque, and we ended up travelling together. We settled in El Panchan, which is situated within a twenty minute walk to the ruins, rather than lodging in the seedy, sweaty, dusty town. Of course, the place was filled with hippies...which was cool, but I did want to slap some of them; when people adopt another culture as their own it kinda annoys me. Plus there is always the romanticism that comes when hippies describe indigenous cultures, conveniently sweeping any unkind or frankly fucked up practices under the rug, take child sacrifice for example.

But enough bitching...onto the ruins. The sights were visually spectacular, meticulously build pyramids amidst lush jungle, but it was only after I spoke to the Germans about it that I really began to appreciate its history. They had decided to hire a guide to explain the significance of the ruins and their history, something I shrugged off as really touristy, what I dick move that was. I thought I could just wikipedia the info later...but of course its not as detailed than at the site. The guide told the Germans that there was evidence of Chinese, Thai and Middle Eastern influence in some of the artifacts, but they have no idea why, how or when the Mayans came into contact with these other cultures.

The Mayan city of Palenque dates back to 226 BC and collapsed around 1100 AD, and was at its height in the 7th century. Such is the magnitude of the ancient city that the ruins open to the public, which require about three hours to explore, make up only 2% of the total area of the ancient city...most of it undiscovered by archaeologists.

For our last day in Palenque, I decided to go back to Agua Azul...the enticing clear blue water being too much to resist, but my journey encountered a few roadblocks. I jumped on a collectivo headed for the site, and took great lengths to tell the driver when we arrived; the collectivo was to drop us off at the highway, before the turn off. After a while, I started to panic, and turned to someone behind me, and asked, "wheres Agua Azul." After they pointed behind us, my heart sunk. The driver dropped me off, and said he was sorry he forgot to tell me we had arrived, thanks buddy. I was now walking along a winding road that hugged the mountains of the Chiapas jungle, aimlessly trying to hitch. After walking for an hour, I started asking why...why would no one pick me up? Why would anyone ever refuse a hitch hiker? I look like Jesus, not Ivan Milat...right? I finally flagged down a collectivo who dropped me off at the turn off, then jumped in a cab, only to have the cab driver kick me out, because after I got in a group of four approached and said they wanted a ride. I jumped out furious, slammed the door and said fuck your mother, and he laughed. A bit of an overexaggeration by me, but Id had enough. It all turned out ok though, and despite a trip that should have taken one hour taking four hours, I still had time to explore Agua Azul.

Such is the strength of my bond with my new friends, they talked me into going to Tulum with them, which means Im going to have to work backwards from here...

Posted by jeremyampt 18:40 Comments (0)

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