JAN 7, 2016 – At lunch in Frontera Corozal I had met Adrian, who had been traveling for six years all around the world. We decided to get a boat to Yaxchilán together for the next morning, as there was no group transportation there. The negotiation ended up being a bit tricky, but in the end we had a cheaper and faster lancha than what the tour agencies would offer. The site is about a half-hour boat trip away and surrounded by dense jungle. Its most impressive element by far is el laberinto, a dark two-storey building with multiple entrances, exits, and stairwells. It is one of few Maya buildings I’ve seen where the roof is still completely intact. As always, the Mayas made good use of the existing hills, so the largest building overlooks the entire site and the river. I wouldn’t have made a trip to Yaxchilán and Bonampak for the ruins alone, but together with the flora, fauna and surrounding villages, the trip was definitely worthwhile.
The same afternoon I took another lancha to the Guatemalan village of La Técnica. From there, an old and shaky van took me to Flores, mostly along dirt roads and through small villages. I had spontaneously decided that I preferred to see Tikal and some of Guatemala’s north, rather than taking the southern route via Cobán to Quetzaltenango.
JAN 6, 2016 – Leaving Nahá was slightly more tricky than I had expected. The bus driver, restaurant staff, and local national park officer each had their own version of the timetable. I expected that of the bus driver to be the most accurate, but in the end the bus he had predicted did not exist. Clearly there was no bus going back the same way anytime soon, but 1 km from the village there was an intersection with another dirt road which I was told might have service towards Bonampak. On said road, I soon found a van back to Crucero Chancalá, but using a different, somewhat slower route. Once back on the border road, it was easy to get to Lacanjá Chansayab, where I spent the next night. From there it was just a few kilometers of taxi to the Bonampak archeological site. It turned out to be small and hardly worth the effort on its own, but one of its temples had very colorful and well-preserved Mayan murals. A further attraction was the forest around Lacanjá Chansayab with its nice flowers and birds. Even the gardens in the village were worth a visit. Around noon, I made my way to Frontera Corozal, where I again set up my tent at an “ecoturismo” bungalow site for the customary 50 pesos (about $3).
JAN 5, 2016 – I left Palenque in a van that I found by asking around, and that took me to Crucero Chancalá along the border road (Ruta Maya). My goal was to get to the village of Nahá, which I knew had a nice lake and an eco-lodge where I wanted to spend two nights. My host family had given me directions on where to change, but I didn’t have any detailed map of the area. After a while a man in a regular car offered to take me to Crucero Piñal. There I found a van that took me all the way to Nahá, some 60 kilometers mostly on dirt roads. At first there were no seats available, so I had to ride in the luggage compartment on the roof, together with another passenger. I was surprised how the vehicle made it up some pretty steep hills despite its overload.
Nahá was indeed a nice little village, mostly inhabited by Lacandón people, some of which were dressed in their traditional gowns. The eco-lodge provided me with a campsite and sanitary infrastructure, and the local restaurant had good food, although it was not very different from the usual Mexican cuisine. I booked a wilderness walk with a guide for the next morning. Botanically it was very interesting, as he knew many plants used in traditional Maya medicine. We didn’t see any animals, though, not even birds. Apparently the burning and agricultural use of areas nearby has taken its toll, even though the jungle around Nahá itself is protected – and for birdwatching we had gotten up too late. At least I saw some crocodiles on a boat trip that I took later that day, with a group of other travelers.
JAN 2, 2016 – In the afternoon of Dec 31, I visited the archeological site of Palenque. It is located in the middle of the jungle, and howler monkeys provide for a nice acoustic setting. The ruins are in somewhat better condition than the others I had visited so far, with some roof structures still intact and even an accessible tunnel into one of the temples. While the dimensions of the pyramids do not match Teotihuacán, I still think Palenque is one of the nicest sites in Mexico, given its surroundings and the complexity of some of the buildings.
I spent New Year’s Eve with a local family who had accepted my last-minute CouchSurfing request. We had a tasty dinner and watched a movie. Then, suddenly everyone went to bed, and by midnight only one of the children was awake. I felt slightly awkward opening my bottle of Prosecco all on my own, but didn’t really know where else to go, so I drank a glass and went to bed. The next day, my host Mireya prepared a very tasty Mole con camarones for the entire family: A cocoa-based sauce with shrimps in it, apparently only made on New Year’s Day. Most of my day was spent sorting photos and plotting my upcoming travels in the jungle of Chiapas.
DEC 31, 2015 – When I arrived in San Cristobal, I realized both how touristy and how full the city was. There were countless hotels and hostels, but all of them seemed to be fully booked. After about an hour I had found a hotel, in which I stayed until my departure towards Palenque. I met up with my friend Marisol, whom I had met in Monterrey, and who was visiting San Cristobal with her boyfriend. We visited the local microbrewery, which is rather a nanobrewery, but makes decent craft beers – a good Pumpkin Ale, among others. The city has a mediterranean feel to it, with architecture similar to San Miguel de Allende, but additionally a lot of Italian restaurants and coffee shops serving local-grown espresso.
The city is full of travel agencies offering fun activities, but I have a strong aversion against group tour packages, so I was reluctant to book any. The one I did end up doing was great, though: I rode a horse to the indigenous village of San Juan Chamula and back. When I signed up for this trip in a bookstore, I expected to find myself in a group of people and be picked up by a van. Instead, only one lady showed up, and she took me to a nearby village by colectivo (a van that follows a fixed route and stops whenever requested). After about five minutes, two men showed up with two horses, and one of them accompanied me along an adventurous path to San Juan Chamula. In the village’s church, I was able to observe several groups of people performing a traditional sacrifice ritual, which is part of the reason the Pope doesn’t recognize this church as Catholic. It involves a live chicken that is not killed, lots of small candles set up in rows on the floor, an alcoholic beverage that is spit onto the burning candles, and a bottle of Coca Cola. That’s all I know.
On what was going to be my last day in San Cristobal, I visited Cañon del Sumidero, using public transit rather than a tour group. The canyon was impressive, particularly the trickling waterfall called the “Christmas Tree”. I tried to capture some of the birds and other animals on photos. The next night, I had what was likely a flu, so I stayed in bed for a day before taking a bus to Palenque. The idea of spending New Year’s Eve in a crowded city does not really appeal to me, so I was glad to get out of San Cristobal in time.
DEC 26, 2015 (2) – Due to limited bus connections, I decided to spend an afternoon in Tehuantepec and take a night bus from there. The city was not touristy, but still pretty tidy and colorful. There was a tourist office, but it was a joke – they had only one brochure available and any person in the street could probably have told me more about the city than the office clerk. I left my bag at a hotel and strolled through the market and the little fairground that had been set up. There were also some nice churches, although the oldest one was closed. Apparently I could have gone hiking in the area, but I had already booked my onward journey. Later that night, I took a bus to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and then on to San Cristobal de las Casas, where I arrived around 6 am.
DEC 26, 2015 – Just before Christmas, I took a van from Oaxaca to Zipolite, a beach resort on the Pacific Coast and still within the state of Oaxaca. Zipolite is a very relaxed place, with a long beach full of budget accommodations, simple bars, restaurants and only a handful of fancier hotels. Most of the people staying there were either hippies of any age, or young backpackers, with a particular concentration of French speakers. There seems to be a solid community of expats, particularly Europeans, who live in Zipolite year-round. Even though I was there in the high season, the place didn’t feel crowded – no mazes of beach chairs and umbrellas, hardly any families with kids, just people relaxing under the palm leaf shades and occasionally taking a bath or going surfing. Compared to the rest of Mexico, even the rules are relaxed – Marijuana consumption is widespread and tolerated, and clothing is optional on the beach.
I spent the first night in a bungalow that I had booked online for an exorbitant price, fearing it might be the only place available. Then I camped on the beach for four more nights and paid about $3 per night to use toilets, showers and WiFi. One of the highlights of my stay was a dolphin watching and snorkeling tour on three nearby beaches. After Christmas, I stayed an extra day because I didn’t manage to buy a bus ticket online, and the night bus was always sold out in advance. In the end I just took a day bus to Tehuantepec instead of traveling directly to Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
DEC 21, 2015 – It was a bit later at night than I had expected when I arrived in Oaxaca. Luckily it was Saturday night, and my CouchSurfing host was still awake. The next day, he showed me around in the center, where a festival with a lot of street vendors and ad-hoc restaurants was going on. In the afternoon I visited Montealbán, the ancient city that was built on a hill overlooking Oaxaca. It is not as big as Teotihuacán, but impressive nevertheless. In the evening, Oaxaca’s main square was surprisingly crowded – it was the beginning of the holidays. I tasted my first Tlayuda, an extra large tortilla filled e. g. with cheese, mushrooms, refried beans, and lettuce.
DEC 19,2015 – On my last day in Mexico City, I went hiking with my host Francisco to a mountain called Ajusco, near the city. As an addendum to my previous post, here are some photos from the hike. Despite leading to almost 4000 meters above sea level, it is not very long – Mexico City is already at 2200 and the trailhead apparently at 3269, according to this report.
DEC 19, 2015 – From San Miguel, it was still half a day by bus to get to Mexico City, or “DF”, as most locals seem to call it. I stayed with a Couchsurfer there for four nights. With its 8.85 million inhabitants, Mexico is larger than New York City, and its metro area counting 21.2 million people is the largest in the western hemisphere. Getting around is surprisingly easy, unless you’re driving – traffic is bad most of the time. Even public transit is affected by this, as a subway will always get you into the right general area, but the bus or colectivo may take longer for the “last mile” to your destination than the time you spent on the subway. Mexico’s subway is heavily guarded by police and seems very safe to me, although for some reason the Swiss department of foreign affairs discourages its use. There isn’t really an alternative, either – with trains often running at three minute intervals, the efficiency is hard to beat. During rush hour, trains and stations get very crowded, but some lines have a reserved section for women and children to keep things civilized. Near the city, the ruins of Teotihuacán are interesting to visit, and I saw the Frida Kahlo museum and the anthropology museum. On the last day we went hiking to Ajusco mountain, which would have a nice view of the city if it wasn’t for the smog.