Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Palenque - Again Let the Pictures do the Talking

Palenque - Another Indiana Jones Moment!!!

Unfortunately for Steve, old "Montezuma's revenge" snuck in overnight and he was not at all well.  Leaving him with lollies to suck and dry biscuits for lunch, we said good bye and headed off on our next Indiana Jones Adventure.  It was such a shame that Steve was going to miss this part of our adventure.
Inside the underground ruins
trekking through the jungle
 After a short taxi ride we arrived at a clearing in the jungle and our guide was waiting for us, we were joined by another small group of travellers and the journey started.  The trek was for about an hour and a half making our way through the jungle, over streams and along muddy paths.  Our guide informed us that we were actually walking over Mayan ruins that had been covered by the jungle.  We were able to climb through a small hole down inside one of the buildings to see how well preserved they were.

Hot, damp and muddy, we finally came out at the main ruins.  Wow!!! Of all the ruins that I have visited in Guatamala and Mexico I think these were one of my favorites.  It was such a shame that Steve was unable to be there with us.  Duty bound I set out to take as many photos as I could so he would be able to see it when I got back to the hotel.  (as if I needed an excuse to take more pictures!!!).

Actually, again there were large numbers of tourists, due to it being holiday break in Mexico. Our guide warned us to climb carefully as a tourist had fallen the previous day and broken their arm.  Noted!! I thought, given my previous record I was extra careful as I climed the three main temples. 

A wet Boxing Day as we journey to Palenque

We had spend christmas eve having a few quiet drinks in a very nice bar/restaurant in a trendy area not far from our hotel.We couldn't get over how busy the centre of town was.  There were lots of families out eating in restaurants or just enjoying the "fresh" night air.  As we were quite weary from our long day and lack of sleep the previous night, we called it an early night.

Boxing Day greeted us with grey skies and as we started our trip to Palenque, the rain began to fall.  As we passed through the small pueblos (villages) we noticed many of them had signs and graffiti supporting the Zapatista Movement.  Our van driver who lived locally pointed out the Zapatista strongholds as we passed through.

It was very noticable that these were very poor villages, with small wooden house, basic school buildings etc.  After a couple of hours of driving down the mountain side, and passing some spectacular scenery we stopped at the popular tourist spot of Agua Azul.  It was interesting to find that we not only had to pay entry to the park, but we were stopped at another roadblock where we had to pay money to the Zapatista Group.

Even though the weather was very miserable, the place was packed with Mexican Tourists on their annual holidays.  It was such a shame that it was wet because the waterfall and blue-green pools were really beautiful and on a good day it would have been great to have a swim there.  After having lunch here we continued onto the town of Palenque.  Certainly a contrast to San Cristobal, there wasn't a lot to see here.  However, we were excited at the prospect of visiting the nearby Mayan Ruins tomorrow.


Christmas Lunch and Zapatistas

Once back in San Cristobal, we did a walking tour of the local markets, back streets, as well as visiting the Zapatista Centre.  This was a cafe, museum and small shop that sold craft and art work from the local indigenous people.  Unfortunately the Museum was closed.  I was particularly interested in this as in my previous subject at Uni (Social Change) I had written an essay on the Zapatistas.

Sub Commander Marcos
San Cristobal was the town where the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) or Zapatistas for short, commenced their campaign of fighting for the rights of the local indigenous peoples.  Their leader was and still is Sub-Commander Marcos.

  The Zapatistas briefly took control of the town in 1994, they were arguing against the free-trade agreement with the US, which made it difficult for local indigenous corn growers to sustain their well-being. Though the Zapatista's methods were controversial to say the least, they definitely brought the plight of the indigenous people to the world's attention, and to this day they are still a very active political group.They were the first group of revolutionaries that used the Internet to spread the word of their fight, and through this campaign they received support from all corners of the world. They were also one of the first groups in Mexico that gave equal rights to women and highlighted the position of women in Mexico society.  They are still very active in Chiapas.  There was a lot of their merchandise available and many incidences of political slogans painted on walls. We were going to witness more evidence of this in our next days travel.

After our walking tour, we had worked up quite an appetite and it was time for "Christmas Lunch".  Johanna took us to a local restaurant that served traditional food and we all enjoyed huge bowls of soup accompanied by fresh avocado, chopped up chillies, onions and tortillas.  So different to what we were used to eating for Christmas lunch.  Tasty all the same!

After lunch it was time for the traditional Christmas afternoon sleep!!  and back in our rooms there was some good news!!  HOT WATER in our showers!!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Zinacatan, Chiapas

After a very squashy 10 minute drive our taxi arrived near the church and main square of the village of Zinacatan.  Again the villages here have their unique traditional costume, made from local wools with the brilliant and dominate colours of purple, pink and blue. Everyone in the village was dressed up in their best gear for the Christmas celebrations.  Amazing!!
As soon as we crossed the square we were met by one of the beautifully dressed women asking if we would like to see one of the local women weaving the fabric for the costumes.  She directed a small girl who was around 12 years old to take us down to one of the local homes.  There was quite a fuss when we arrived, the woman who did the weaving was inside having a meal.  There was a mad rush, and scurry as everyone raced around getting the show room ready for us, within 5 minutes the lady was out, wiping the food from her mouth and setting up her weaving.   She was very sweet and very happy for us to take her picture.

On of the young girls delighted in dressing us up in the local costumes.  A very good tactic, how could you refuse to buy something when they went to so much trouble. After our fashion parade and a couple of purchases we headed back up to the main plaza in front of the church, where many of the villages were celebrating with pantomines and fireworks.

Men making firecrackers
In the centre of the plaza there was a group of men sitting on small stools stuffing gunpowder and explosives into home made crackers, and then as soon as they had made enough to make a good bang!! they would let them off without any warning.

What a morning!!! complete sensory overload, the smells of the pine needles and incense in the churches, the brilliant colours of the local costumes and the sounds of the local music and dancing and of course the fireworks!!!  A little after mid day, we crammed into another taxi and headed back to San Cristobal for Christmas lunch.

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

The driver of the "Titanic" dropped us off close to the town square of San Juan Chamula. We were warned that  the Chamulas also are very private peopleand that they did not tolerate people taking pictures of them or their temples. (So putting our cameras away) we set of to explore the centre of town. (The photos on this blog are from

The town centre was a buzz with different groups of people celebrating christmas.  Markets were opening up in the square. All the men from the district (dressed in their unique costume of fluffy white or black coats) were listening intently to the local govenor addressing the crown from the balcony of the municipal hall on the achievements that they had made over the past year.

The costumes of the local people were really interesting, men with their coats and women with black shaggy skirts and colourfully embroided blouses.All the clothes they wear are hand made locally. The wool on the sheep, cleaning, dyes and knitting are all obtained "in-house": nothing is purchased externally. Sheep are sacred here: they are treated, protected and mourned on passing as any other member of the family.

A highlight of our visit to San Juan was the local temple where people from all over the nearby villages arrive to conduct rituals, pray and seek healing. Inside the church it was dark, and smoky with the smell of incense and the pine needle carpet. Small family groups were kneeling around candles placed in specific arrangements, and chanting.

I saw on man with his wife and two small children, chanting and waving eggs and herbs over the candles.  The smell of incense was quite overpowering. One of the most unusual churches I have ever seen, and it was made even more interesting because it was Christmas day.  A special privilege and experience! Outside the church there were different groups of people from the villages, chanting, dancing and singing, waiting for their turn to enter the temple.

Unfortunately, it was soon time for us to venture on to the next village of Zinacatan.  Johanna bargained with one of the local taxi drives and soon the five of us were crammed, or jammed into a taxi.  Very cosy.

Feliz Navidad, Christmas in Chiapas

Guess what Santy found me!!!  He left me a nice silver bracelet featuring  symbols from the Mayan Calender.  How did he know.  Well it was a long night!!  unfortunately our hotel is very close to one of the Mayan Churches and the night was filled with the echoes of drums, dancing, church bells and fireworks as locals celebrated Christmas Mayan style.

To make matters worse, for some reason the hotel had not turned on the hot water for the wing of the hotel we were in.  Now cold showers are OK when your in the tropics, but when your freezing your butt off in Chiapas in winter, it just isn't funny!!!!

After a very invigorating dash under the shower, (dash, as in there was no way I was staying in that icy water for too long), we headed to the dining room for huevos ranchos and some nice strong black coffee.

After our breakfast, we met up with the rest of the group and Johanna, ready to do some exploring of a couple of the villages outside of San Christobal.    We took the scenic route through town to find a local transport company that would provide part of our transport.  The reason for the scenic trip was that Johanna wasn't all that sure where the bus depot was, however, after asking a few locals we finally found the buses.

Well, I am using the word buses very literally, the small parking lot had around 5 very old and well worn combie type buses.  We clambered aboard a little blue one which was ominously names "The Titanic".   We were soon on our way to our first destination, San Juan Chamula which is about 10 kms from San Christobal.  In spite of its name our little bus successfully made it's way up the steep mountain roads, through the pine forests to the quaint village of San Juan Chamula.

Monday, February 14, 2011

San Christobal de las Casas and Goodbye Paulina, hello Johana

Plaza San Cristobal de las Casas
After a very long day's travel we finally arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas.  Our hotel was very close to the centre of town, so after finding our rooms, digging out all the warm gear we could find we headed out to explore the charming streets.    It was freezing outside!!!!! (and for that fact, in our hotel as well).

The downtown area was ablaze with Christmas lights and the streets were bustling with tourist and locals taking in the sights and doing their last minute shopping. We spent some time checking out the markets in front of the main church and listening to a band who were braving the cold to entertain the Christmas eve crowds.  

That evening we met with Paulina and our new tour guide Johanna for dinner.  It was sad to say goodbye to Paulina as she had looked after us really well, with patience and humour.  Johanna seemed very pleasant and keen to show us around. We all headed to our beds early, tired and seeking warmth.  It seemed strange that tomorrow was Christmas Day.  As I nodded off to sleep, I wondered what our families back in Australia were doing. I wonder if Santa will find me this year!!

And Then There Were Five

Christmas Eve, Border crossings, Southern Mexico, San Cristobal de las Casas

Today was our last day in Guadalajara and our last day with Paulina.  It was very strange to only have the five of us waiting in the foyer of the hotel for our bus. The rest of the group would be on their way to Honduras today.

It was an early start, and the hotel had kindly arranged a breakfast to go (sandwich, juice and some fruit).  We were soon cramped into a small bus with a couple of other backpackers and winding our way up from Lake Atitlan to the highlands.  The Misty Volcanoes soon disappeared from our view.  After about three hours of hair raising driving we arrived at the border crossing into Mexico.  This was a much busier crossing than our previous ones. 

Backpacks in tow, we quickly clambered out of our transportation and lined up at the Guatemalan side of the crossing, armed with passports and the appropriate amount of "corruption money".  As this process was to take considerable time, we had time to observe the scene around us.  A large bustling conglomeration of stalls and stands selling anything you could think of, catering for the mobile crowd making the border crossing.  Stray dogs, beggars, cars loaded with locals filled the muddy streets.

Then we were witness to a very interesting group making the crossing in the opposite direction.  If I didn't know better I could have thought I had been caught in a time warp from the 60-70s.  A large brightly painted bus, pulling a very large and over load trailer pulled up out the front guards office. Tied to the top of the bus was a collection of artifacts, ranging from stoves, chickens, tables.  As we stood with our mouths open, a group of about 30 clambered out of the bus, and lined up behind us.  Woodstock, revisited, cheesecloth, dreadlocks, peace man!!  The group consisted of men, women and children within the age groups of late 50's to 1-2 years old.  Oh, boy, I am so glad we were in front of this line, otherwise it would have been ages before we were processed.

After a very entertaining hour waiting in the line, we finally had our passports checked, stamped and signed. Time to pick up the backpacks and make the 200 metre walk across the border to our next bus.  Much to our delight this bus was much newer and we had it all to ourselves.  We were soon making our way through to the Mexican Border office about 2kms away.  Yes another line, more stamps and more money!!! Finally we were through and on our way to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

Goodbye Guatemala -some pictorial memories

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chichicastenango - shopping at the markets and goodbyes

Today is the last day that all our group will be together and what better place to spend our last day with our new travelling buddies than bustling markets of Chichicastenango. This colourful highland town is a central hub for all the villages in the area, and its famous market is where all the villagers meet to sell their wares.  This market is the largest market in Guatemala and many tourists flock here to buy authentic Guatemalan artifacts.

Steve and I literally extended our elbows, and pushed our way through the milling crowd.  The fact that it was two days before Christmas must have added to the density of the stalls and crowd.  An area of about 6 blocks was packed with stalls selling just about anything you could think of.  Beautiful rugs, hand embroidered clothing, hand woven shawls, jewelry, wraps, flowers, fruit, veg, meat and of course fireworks!!! One area of the market we walked through was dedicated to fireworks for the upcoming Christmas celebrations.  There were crackers, sparklers and some the biggest double bungers (or crackers) I have ever seen.
We managed to make our way through to the plaza and the main Mayan Church.  The steps of the church were awash with colour as groups of women sat selling flowers of all colours.  Taking care to pay respect to the locals, we entered the church which practiced the traditional form of Mayan religion.  (a mix of their traditional gods and Christianity).  It was very interesting inside.  The furnishings were very sparse, and many family groups in groups on the floor, lighting candles and making offerings.

The markets were actually a little overwhelming, so much colour, noise, and the constant haggling of the stall owners wanting you to buy their goods.  After, spending a couple of hours mingling with the crowds, we decided to seek a little refuge at a restaurant on the first floor of a building in the main street.  We sat on a small balcony, sipping a cold beer, watching the crowd go about its business.  Fascinating!!

Noon, was soon upon us, and it was time for the last supper (lunch anyway) with all the group.  After, lunch we all walked back to the bus stop where the majority of the group caught a bus back to Antigua.  From here they were going to continue their trip down to Costa Rica.  The remaining five, Paulina, Steve and I and two others caught a small bus back to our hotel in Panajachel for our last night in Guatemala.  Tomorrow, it would be time to head back to Mexico and more adventures.

A Day on Lake Atitlan

After a chilly night, and a not so hot shower, we made our way down to the edge of the lake and clambered on board the two boats that would take us to visit three communities on the edge of the lake.

Worker bring coffee beans
As we raced across the glassy clear water, the view of the three misty volcanoes towering over the lakes was stunning.  Our two boats made their way, neck and neck, skimming across the lake to the first village that we were to visit.

  Some of the group did a tour of the village and its small galleries while a small group of us did a short tour of a coffee cooperative with a local guide.  Unfortunately for our group our guide advised us that he only spoke spanish so I some how was elected as the official translator.

  Quite a challenge!! especially as even though our guide said he couldn't speak english, he certainly understood english and listened to everything I said.  He was quick to give the nod of approval if I managed to convey the correct translation. If I missed something, he would repeat the spanish for me to have another try.  The tour was very interesting, and the guide was so proud of their achievements and took his job so seriously. The tour was finished off with a delicious  and very strong cup of their coffee.

We then joined the rest of the group and made our way to the next island.  Here we had morning tea (more coffee) and wandered (our should I say climbed) up the very steep streets to their local market.

All the women were dressed in traditional costumes.  The colours and hand woven fabrics were so pretty, especially when you saw a group of women all together going about their daily routine.

Soon Paulina was gathering us all up, and heading us down the hill to the boats for the next village where we were to have lunch.  Some of the group did a tour after lunch in the local tuktuks, but we chose to wander the streets, checking out the local plaza, church and shops selling the local products. Then we made our way down to the jetty and watched the locals paddling around in the lake, fishing while we waited for the rest of the group to join us.  Around mid afternoon we headed back across the lake to the village of Panajachel, and our hotel.