I looked up the definition of the word savage. It means cruel, crippled, regressed back to a primal state of being. One day, maybe, we’ll be back. For now, we live like savages… beautiful, savages. –Ophelia from the movie Savages
The state of Chiapas has undoubtedly the most luxuriant natural beauty in Mexico. It is home to a large population of Mayans and nearly became a part of Guatemala before being wrested away by Mexico. Riding through the windy (as in twisty, not blustery… though both are apt) mountain roads enveloped by the misty jungle has been a highlight of this trip. The forest canopies are like no other I have seen. From a distance, the forests take on an ethereal look. There is an undeniable mysticism at play here, as if the mists carry ancient secrets shared amongst the trees. I’ve been thinking a lot about days lately. About the occurrence of good days and bad days, why they fluctuate and what control I have over this. I remember lessons learnt from past trips that if I start my day positively and continue in this fashion; with no stress, concentrating on my breathing, smiling at people, being patient and generally cheerful, I am much more likely to have a good day. Of course this is not always the case. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you get bogged down with frustrations, concerns or mishaps and everything quickly turns to shit. I’ve been having multiple problems with my motorcycle since arriving in this region. I blew out the rear tire of my bike running over a nail in the middle of a main road of Pochutla, the main town where the bus stops outside Zipolite. Aldous Huxley described Pochutla in 1933 as “…dismal a village as I had ever seen. It lay there, ankle-deep in dust under the blazing sun, irrevocably lost. No, not even lost: for there had obviously never been anything to lose. Just hopelessly not there – the half-dead, pre-natal ghost of a place.” A bit harsh, I suppose, but not altogether inaccurate. Still, an unlucky place to blow a tire. Luckily I was only three blocks from a Yamaha dealership and the pleasant 17-year old meccanico put in my spare tube in half an hour for just 70 pesos. But not four days later, coasting down the mountain from San Fernando on the way to see the Sima de las Cotorras, I ran over another nail punching two holes in the rear tube. What are the odds? No mechanical problems for four months and then two blow outs within four days. A bit spooky, right? Well that was three weeks ago and since then I’ve popped the seal on the rear mono-shock and shredded the teeth on the final drive sprocket. Pretty serious issues, especially in Mexico. I feel like this isn’t just wear and tear. The bike only has 20K kilometers on it. I’m convinced that fate is somehow playing a hand here. It’s times like this when you realize how little control you have over the fates and resign yourself to just settling in for the ride. Mind you I feel that remaining positive and keeping your sense of humour when things keep going bad is extremely character building. This is one of the greatest lessons that travelling in the third world has taught me. I’m definitely prone to melt downs, and having pretty serious control issues, I guess it takes a harder toll on me when things go sideways. On a bright note, I am learning quite a lot about motorcycle repair.
We spent a couple days in a busy town called Jucitan de Zaragosa. The manager of our hotel told us no one ever stays two nights. This is merely a stopover city; a place to spend the night and rest during a long bus journey. The reason we stayed an extra day certainly wasn’t to take in the sights, but because I was suffering from my second bout of sunstroke. Not a couple days before, Tanya had fallen prey to the same affliction. We might just have to consider decreasing our tequila consumption and drinking more water. Predictably, I had fallen ill in probably the grimiest of cities we had come across and certainly the dingiest hotel room so far. The fan and shower barely worked, the water had a rusty tinge, the walls were streaked with dirt and whatever else – forget about a TV. Of course Tanya decided to get sunstroke in the luxury of our handsomely decorated beachfront hotel in Zipolite with a swimming pool right outside our door for her to lily dip and cool down before resuming her sleep nestled within the clean, comfortable lemon-scented bedspread. Fijase! The most noteworthy thing about Juchitan de Zaragosa was its zócalo. Like every town in Mexico, Juchitan was not without its main plaza complete with a traditional gazebo smack dab in the center. What makes the zócalo in Juchitan unique are the thousands of blackbirds that live in the trees throughout the square. When we first approached at dusk, we thought we were looking at a harried swarm of bats hovering above the tree line. But upon closer inspection we saw that they were in fact birds; a dizzying, noisy assemblage of rather large blackbirds. Apparently they are here day and night and so, of course, they shit over everything. All the food stall ladies, the craft sellers and the shoe shiners have tarps over their areas and every inch of the tarps are liberally coated with bird shit. It is a disgusting yet thoroughly intriguing scene as the zócalo operates like any other. All the townspeople were out in force, as I’m sure they are every night; families consuming their tomales and tortillas, lovers strolling hand in hand, old men sitting on the edges of the fountain having a chat. We couldn’t stop giggling with amazement and revulsion. We certainly did not dine here under the cover of the filthy tarpaulins stretched like a patchwork around a good percentage of the parque. Huxley also discusses the value of the zócalo in his book Beyond the Mexique Bay. His observations are so comical and spot-on that I would be remiss if I did not include the passage. I was even forced to type out the quote as the book is so obscure, I couldn’t find any part of a transcript online.
“Every Central American village has its bandstand – would consider itself disgraced if it hadn’t. Does the band ever play? Except in the largest towns, I’ve never heard one. Those bandstands, it is obvious, have a mainly symbolic value. They somehow stand for public spirit – are in some sort of equivalents, psychologically, of the absent hospital, the non-existent drainage system. The bandstand once built, a citizen feels, I suppose, that enough has been done pro bono publico, and that he may return with a good conscience to his own affairs. The poor may die miserably, like dogs in a ditch, the municipal water supply may be crawling with typhoid, the streets may be full of holes, and unlighted at night. But, if there were a band and if it did happen to know some music, it would be able to play to the assembled population from a handsome Moorish kiosk in the center of the plaza.”
After finally leaving the distasteful Juchitan de Zaragosa and its unhygienic zócalo behind, we traveled to the large capital city of Chiapas, Tuxtla-Gutierrez. As usual, Tanya left by bus while I rode on my motorcycle. It is not lost on us that this is an unusual way for a couple to travel, but as this trip was in the making long before I met Tanya and as we cannot apparently bear to be apart, this is how it is. All in all, it has been working out fairly well. Tanya is gaining invaluable travel experience under fire while I get the immense freedom of the open road. As she is so independent, Tanya seems to enjoy the logistics and trials of sorting out travel plans on her own. It’s a bit like school. She gets geography class navigating around the different towns and cities to locate bus stations. Then she has her economics lesson ensuring that she doesn’t pay ‘impuesto blanco’ or more than the appropriate fare. And, more often than not, she makes friends on the buses to either practice her Spanish with or to share stories and learn more about the culture. The novelty of riding buses while travelling has long worn off for me. That is one of the main reasons why I wanted to make this trip by motorcycle. I love the freedom of going at my own speed, stopping to take pictures when I want, taking side roads to find a swimming place or a rarely-visited temple. I like to stop and eat at roadside food stalls and interact with the locals who probably aren’t accustomed to meeting tourists, least of all those who want to have a conversation with them. Barring breakdowns, I almost always arrive at our destination first. I will then sort out our accommodation. Sometimes we agree to meet at a certain hotel in advance or sometimes just meet by chance in the town center or along the main street. We both seem to enjoy letting providence govern and get a kick out of our coincidental meetings. There have, of course been a few times when either I or Tanya has been several hours late and the one left waiting freaks out a bit, but it is a good example of the trust we have in one another. We do always turn up eventually with some harrowing story or, in one case, Tans just fell asleep on the bus and missed her stop.
Monica’s house is in San Fernando up a steep hill overlooking Tuxtla-Guiterrez. It is a quiet community with some nice houses hidden amongst the trees. Monica is an architect and has a big white concrete house where she lives with her son Alex, her brother, mother and father. She designed the house herself and has been working on the construction for 12 years now. This is sort of the way it goes in Mexico. When you have some money, you build a little bit more. It looked like they were getting close to finishing, although there was still an exposed beam running right along the living room ceiling with rebar dowels poking out. The whole family was great to us; Mama made us lots of yummy food, we had fun playing with Alex and showing him funny Youtube videos and Monica invited some of her colleagues over for drinks one night, to chat construction with me. (It seems the trend in Mexico is that the Architect oversees the construction in addition to the design.) The one thing that really stood out about Monica’s, however, was the noise. There is no doubt that this is the loudest house I have ever been in in my life. We were sleeping on a mattress on the second floor mezzanine so there were no walls or doors to shield us from the blaring onslaught. At 6:00am every morning, the construction crews would start. They were knocking out a concrete wall directly below us with a sledge hammer. Shortly afterwards the household would wake and the clattering and clanging of breakfast noise was so loud it would compete with the racket from the demolition work. Then there were the regular daily noises; telephone calls, loud conversations, Mexican cowboy music, child screaming, mother screaming. It was intense. Of course we would be out for most of the day, but when we would return for bed, there was more loud conversation until quite late and every night the unemployed brother would stay up until about 4:00am watching a movie at full blast with surround sound. They were lovely people but just didn’t seem to be at all concerned about their house guests need for sleep in the open upstairs loft. We had a nice stay but were grateful to be on our way so we could catch up on three nights of missed sleep.
The domed ceiling over Monica’s living room
Our first outing in Tuxtla was quickly interrupted by a nail piercing my rear tire. I knew what happened instantaneously as the same thing had just happened four days earlier. The difference being, that this time I had Tanya on the back and we were careening down a steep hill from Monica’s neighbourhood in the clouds. I managed to keep the bike steady but had to pull over on the left side of the road on the meridian because the traffic was too heavy to get over on the shoulder. As soon as we stopped and had dismounted a guy pulled over next to us to find out what the problem was. He kindly told us that there was a vulcanizadora not even a block further up the street. We thanked the man cheerfully and looked at one another not believing our good luck. Blowing a tire is shitty but its way better when you can wheel the bike to a repair shop without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be all roses, as we were about to discover that this particular shop only worked on big rigs. I wheeled the bike through an auspiciously placed gap in the median with Tanya flagging the unending flow of cars encouraging them to slow the fuck down! The men from the shop saw us coming and immediately ran down to the end of their driveway to greet us and give a hand. They had been working on trying to get a 4 ft diameter wheel off the inside axle of a huge trailer. I spoke to them for a few minutes and explained the problem, which was sort of obvious, but in Mexico you can never assume anything is obvious. The three men, none of whom spoke a word of English, then began telling me that yes, no problem, I could leave the bike and they would fix it. I went into the tiny, filthy hut at the top of their lot which contained a sundry of grease covered tools laying all over the floor and small bench and asked to see the seal material they would use to fix the puncture. Yes, lo and behold, they did indeed have a patch kit! Okay, I thought, I’d give them a chance and see what they could do. They were delighted and all three of them, abandoning the job on the trailer, started running about preparing for this decidedly more exotic task. When one of the guys ran up with a big rock to jack up the rear wheel and another arrived with a pair of pliers to loosen the wheel lock, I was like, “There’s no way these guys are touching my bike.” I started waving my arms and telling them thanks so much but I would try to find a place that deals with motorcycles. When I was sure they understood and weren’t too put out, I grabbed Tanya’s hand and we walked down a few blocks to a petrol station.
I started asking all the gas jockeys if there was a taller de moto nearby or even a vulcanizadora that works on vehicles under 25 ft long. The pump guys are usually great sources of information especially regarding meccanicos, but they all admitted there wasn’t anything around and pointed me back to the big rig guys. It seems that we were in a dead zone and just thinking about the cost and logistics of getting a flatbed to tow by bike was giving me a migraine. We went back to the first shop and dejectedly I said, “Okay guys… let’s give this a shot.” We found a wheel rim to use as a jack instead of the rock and one of the guys started trying out different sprocket heads. Between the four of us we got the wheel off without too much struggle. Of course, that’s the easy part. We all went back into the hut, where Tanya had been hiding from the sun laughing and taking photos the whole time. One of the guys pried the tire off with a crowbar and the older, heavy set man, who appeared to be the jefe, prepared the patch. We discovered that the nail had actually punched two holes in the tube; an entrance and exit wound. The jefe was still confident and indicated that it was no problem – he could fix it. While we were waiting for the patch to set, a fourth man showed up and greeted us jauntily. He pulled out some strange looking fruits which we found out later were chirimoyas, an oval fruit with a tough green skin you can cut open to reveal the sweet white flesh. He then offered us each a glass of Coke which we gratefully accepted as we were baking inside the tin encased workshop. As we were finishing our fruit snack and chatting with the workers, the jefe came up with the sealed and re-inflated tube for my inspection. He gave me the same look which he had been giving me each time they passed a milestone. A proud expression suggesting, “See? No problem. We got this.” I looked at the tube and was happy with the workmanship. I still wasn’t going to trust a patched rear tire especially with my girl on the back, but it looked like it would at least get us to a proper repair shop. With the tube and tire back on the rim, we went outside once again braving the scorching midday sun. (Yes, we had left early in the morning and, yes, everything in Mexico takes an incredibly long time.) I watched as the guys jimmied the wheel into place and fiddled with the brake caliper. I could see that there was a potentially overwhelming amount of confusion at this stage, so I bent down to give a hand. I hadn’t wanted to be impolite as the group had seemed incredibly proud of their efforts up ‘til now, but as I knelt beside them and grabbed the tools they seemed grateful to be off the hook. I got the wheel back on and adjusted the slack on the chain. As long as the patch didn’t let go we should be alright. I surely didn’t want to risk carrying on with our day trip out to the Siem Catorra which was 60 km out of town and accepted that the rest of the day would be spent trying to find a proper sized tube and a shop to change it over. We paid the jefe and thanked the guys who were all still beaming from a job well done.
On the main road leading into the city, we stopped at a stoplight and a big expensive-looking Yamaha motorcycle pulled up beside us. On a whim I raised my facemask and yelled over to the rider to ask if he knew the meccanico mejor in town. The rider lifted his facemask and to our surprise responded in perfect English. To our further disbelief he said that his friend ran the best shop in town and it was just 6 blocks further up the street. He offered to take us there and we accepted with gratitude. In less than 5 minutes we pulled up to the most well equipped, professional-looking motorcycle shop that I had seen anywhere in Mexico. There were also more than a dozen other bikes in the shop awaiting service. This was definitely a good sign. The jefe was a kindly looking man with eye glasses and a thick moustache. I held my breath as I asked after a tube for my rear tire which was an extremely rare size in Mexico. I couldn’t believe it when the guy pulled out an entire box of 130mm tubes. Yippee! They pulled my bike onto a hydraulic lift and knew exactly what they were doing. They even told me that the brake plates were worn a bit and had a replacement for those too. As I wandered around the shop, I noticed pictures on the walls of the jefe, in his younger days, with large groups of riders all decked out in expensive racing gear standing next to their bikes. Apparently the owner belongs to the Chiapas Motorcycle Club and has been a member for many years. This guy was the real deal. While there, I bought a spare rear tube and thankfully paid the 200 peso charge, about $15. Tuxtla is a gigantic city and the fact that we had found this place was completely dumb luck. The fates at work once again like mischievous angels keeping balance in the world.
We eventually made it to the Sima de Catorras which means Sinkhole of Parrots. Monica had shown us a coffee table book of this magical place at her house and recommended we take a trip to see it. Within the El Ocote Biosphere Reserve, it is a giant 160ft diameter, 140ft deep cavity in the karst limestone. The crater is noted for the thousands of green parrots which live in the trees at its base and visitors can watch hundreds soar across the massive canyon together in unison. In the afternoon of the same day, we rode out to El aquacero, an incredibly beautiful waterfall running into a steep river canyon. The climb into the canyon took about twenty minutes down a lingering wooden staircase – there are 1200 steps in all. Once at the river, we waded through the shallow warm water until we came upon the cascada. Called Cloudburst in English, it lives up to its name as the water plunges from high above, splintering as it falls upon a series of uneven rock sills. The base of the waterfall is limestone and not slippery at all. On the contrary, the light brown stone provide a good grip to walk along without fear of losing your footing. We had a fairly sensational afternoon bathing underneath the crashing water and floating along the meandering river. Infrequently visited by tourists, this out of the way natural attraction was one of our favourite spots in Mexico.
T: The change in temperature from the pacific coast to the heart of Chiapas was intense. I usually wear a tank-top on the bus and keep a scarf or light sweater in my small carry-on bag, but neither would suffice for the 15 degree dip in Celsius. In only a couple hours, the sun disappeared completely unable to compete with the mountains, clouds and fire smoke. San Cristobal de las Casas is the most popular spot in Chiapas and it is easy to see why, as soon as you arrive. Despite the cold weather, the city itself keeps its charm. Ridiculously stunning, reminiscent still of the Spanish rule; grand colonial style buildings and churches run alongside shops and houses painted with vibrant teals, pinks, reds, yellows. Adorable cafes, restaurants and bars lining the main street, each one complete with welcoming happy hour specials and smiling doormen. Starving after a long journey, Erik and I happened upon the best restaurant in town, which we would come to visit many times over. La Casa del Pan is a vegetarian place using all local, fresh produce from both the high elevation farms nearby or its own roof-top garden. In the early evening they employ a lovely local woman who sets up at the front door with a huge traditional grill, frying up veggie quesadillas with her handmade tortillas. In the back, they have set up a small movie theatre where they play weekly, educational films and documentaries. We caught one about the Zapatistas. Quite the space and to top it off, the staff were the most efficient we would find in all of Mexico. Even considering the temperature can drop to freezing in the evenings, the party scene in San Cris seems not to halt for anything.
First night trying out my new toupée. Not sure how much longer I’m going to let Tanya cut my hair for.
Our first few nights we stayed in a cozy little hostel with a diverse group of other travelers. We spent time exchanging stories with our fellow travelers, but as Friday night happened upon us, rather than take turns at the tiny fire again, we layered up and hit the bar scene – Erik and I leading the parade. San Cris is known for its young artist community as much as its beauty and we broke the ice with a live stage performance by a pair of wacky actors and plenty of booze to get the laughs going. Erik and I left our team at a table and went to work on the locals, meeting Javier, a Mexican who lived briefly in Canada and therefore spoke English fluently. Javier knew everyone in town, had a hot French girlfriend in tow and most importantly, gave us insight on the best parties that night. The evening took us to several small incognito bars, all with one main drink: Mezcal. Rough crowds parted as we filled these little joints, Erik or I B-lining for the bar and ordering up ten shots before anyone could decline. For those who don’t know, Mezcal is fucking strong in both flavour and proof, helping us rapidly orchestrate a full-blown travelling fiesta. After about three shots, my throat started to ache as they slid down. At the next bar, I decided I needed to have a chaser for my shot so I asked the bartender. Of course, he breaks into laughter, giving me the “stupid Gringa” glare, as do all the hard-looking Mexicans around the bar and tries to tell me he’s flat out. Of all pop, juice, lime slices? I think he’s a liar and certainly will not acquiesce to these drunken goons. So I reach over, poking and prodding behind the bar, nearly jumping right over and discover there really is nothing back there – not so much as a splash of coke. I finally accept that he may actually be telling the truth and turn to leave. I turn around and there’s this leathery, pock-marked dude who hands me a bowl of little, um, things. Its dark and I can’t quite tell what it is but I’m thinking bar nuts?? Eat this, he says, it’s what Mexicans snack on after a shot of mezcal. All eyes are on me. I pretend to know exactly what is in the bowl and toss a hefty pinch into my mouth, thanking the man and smiling as I chew and swallow it down. Hiding my disgust, I walk away with my head high, to the chuckles and looks of shock. Despite the revolting taste in my mouth, I was happy that I stood my ground. I suddenly have a feeling I knew what I had just eaten and Javier’s wide grin confirmed it: ‘grasshoppers‘. Dried and spiced; a common snack found in the dingiest of bars. A couple more shots of mezcal would wash it away, I hoped, and I signaled Erik to round up the troops.
Sometime restaurant bathrooms in Mexico have Jacuzzis !!!
For our next destination we were advised to stop at Revolution Bar, a live music bar somewhere in this neighbourhood. Lost, cold and getting a little frustrated we needed to figure it out quickly before we lost our gang. I jumped ahead of the group spotting a threesome of fun-looking drunks, singing as they skipped down the cobble stone street. Instinctively, I linked arms with one and joined their circus, asking “A donde vas?” Sure enough they were en route to the very bar we were looking for so I yelled out to my comrades to catch up quick; I‘d found our next drink! The Revolution was a happenin’ place with a live band pumping out the perfect dance tunes. There was barely a spot to stand, let alone ten, but we managed to squeeze in and join the pandemonium. After numerous dances, jokes and even more shots, my three new friends pulled us back out into the street leading us to another few Mezcal haunts before the final stop: an underground dirty dancing club which was hardly visible from the street. By this time we had lost most of the people we’d started out with but had made a whack more friends with whom we began to bump and grind the night away. I was getting down on the dance floor with Erik keeping six nearby. When the fun bouncy tunes turned into some hardcore metal and a rowdy mosh-pit took over, we took it as our queue to leave. We escaped into the freezing night and headed home, all our hostel peeps had vanished and the sun would be up soon anyhow.
After our stint in the hostel, we were finally accepted by a couch surfing host, Oscar. Oscar was a riot from the get-go and very much entertained us during our stay. Without a job, Oscar pretty much dedicated his days to bicycling around, watching soccer and hosting couch surfers. He had this routine down to a science. Not unusual in couch surfing, he had not added a description of the available sleeping quarters on his profile and it seemed we would be crashing on a couple of thin mattresses on his kitchen/living room/bedroom floor. His place was small. One room with an adjoining bathroom to be exact. Clearly, we needed to get drunk to withstand these new sleeping conditions – it wouldn’t exactly be comfortable (or private). Oscar had a bottle of tequila and a trivia game already waiting for us, so we got after it right away. Turns out this is Oscar’s shtick. We had planned to crash here a couple nights but the next evening, three young Belarussian girls knocked on the door. Oscar, looking a touch red, confessed to having accepted these ladies and realized he was now in a predicament. It was already dark and five of us certainly would not fit on the floor of this tiny apartment. Lucky for Oscar, his landlord had an empty suite which he paid to house the now very angry Belorussians for one night, out of his own pocket. This was a theme for Oscar, we learned, as we got to know him over the next week. We were forced to stay in San Cris for longer than expected due to some much needed motorcycle repairs, so we rented the suite across from Oscars place. Every night, he had a new couch surfer with whom he played the trivia game over a bottle of tequila and escorted them to the very same night club. And if they were female, he’d put his moves on them, screwing in his red light bulb for an extra romantic vibe.
While Oscar was doing his best to swoon the ladies, Erik and I took to the many luxurious cafes, indulging in mochas and decadent little pastry treats. San Cris is also home to the most incredible market I found in Mexico. One of my favourite places to visit, I frequented the diverse stalls, searching and bargaining for the best fruits, vegetables and souvenirs they had to offer. Much of the art you find is mass-produced in Mexico City (or perhaps China), so you really have to pay attention to what is being sold and be careful not to make snap purchases if you want for something truly original. Every vendor in Mexico will answer “si, si” when you ask if they’ve made the crafts themselves, but then you look over a the souvenirs a couple stalls away and they are identical. One visit we found a young guy who handmade amazing snake skin cuffs. I had to buy one for Erik. Considering his deep-seeded fear of snakes, I reasoned that perhaps wearing a swath of their skin would act as a talisman and keep them away. The vendor was actually working on one when we stumbled upon his stand and he was clearly an exceptional artist – we’d seen nothing like it. We are always careful to give each person’s goods a look and buy only from friendly, hard-working locals who are happy to make a sale, rather than those only see us as dollar signs and scowl or curse at us if we don’t buy anything. I hunted up and down many isles to find the best herbs, tomatoes, mangoes and raw chicken. Hopeful I’d made the right choice, I listened in on vendors selling to indigenous people to ensure I got a fair price. Most of the time, as long as I was alone (Erik looks rich to everyone so they always try to charge more if he is around) I get a good deal and avoid paying gringo tax, or impuesto blanco, as Erik calls it. Speaking a little Spanish and knowing the price to pay sure helps. I’d just hand them the money I knew it was worth, smile, thank them and walk away. I often bought so much food here it was a struggle to walk home, arms completely full, I once lost a dozen eggs to the pavement only a block from our place. Everything is so fresh it’s irresistible to someone who loves to cook! We felt it was important to support the local farmers; something the Zapatistas have always fought hard for which is a prevalent topic and source of pride throughout Chiapas. Even Erik loved the market, spending a lot of his time searching for pirated DVDs for a buck apiece, testing each one out for English, before purchasing.
Leaving the market one afternoon, Erik spotted a modest hair salon and I jumped at the idea of getting my hair done. Claudia, my estilista, was absolutely adorable and looked like she ran a fairly clean, professional salon, but she didn’t speak a lick of English and I was struggling to recall the word for “hair”. I negotiated the price to a fair $20, settled in and waded through a pile of magazines to demonstrate the colour/cut I was aiming for. After nearly three hours in the chair, I was a brilliant rubio and Claudia was delighted with her efforts. I’m pretty certain I was the first fair-skinned girl who’s hair she has dyed. She was so damn thrilled that she threw in a free makeup job to finish off my ‘look,’ before phoning her husband to come and check out her masterpiece. It took a few days for the dye to completely wash out (the bucket over my head tactic fell a little short on a complete rinse) but the joy and pride Claudia experienced was well worth it. That, and the delighted look on Erik’s face, ecstatic to have his blond babe girlfriend back. Overall, we loved our stay in San Cristobal but I should probably mention its one unapologetic, glaring trait: the street vendors. Blanket ladies, shoe shine kids, old women with pens, children as young as four and five trying to peddle candies or small clay animal figures (which we got suckered into buying a couple of). Sadly, the job of many people in this area is to climb up and down the streets, day and night, looking to sell their wares or skills. San Cris is littered with these poor folk and, admittedly, it can be a pain in the ass. You can barely walk a minute or take a bite of your meal without being harassed by someone trying to sell you something and although it presents the massive problem of poverty in this area, it can be very frustrating. We fell for the trap once while downing beers on a patio, two little boys filled our table with their trinkets before we could blink and we just couldn’t say no. And well… my cowboy boots did really need a good polishing and it was only 15 pesos. For the most part, a “no gracias” will remove them from your side, but some seem bored and try to annoy you as best they can. It can be tough to keep your wits but is always advisable to be polite.
E: While staying in San Cris, Oscar, our CS host, showed us some incredible tourist videos of an area in the very south of Chiapas called Lagos de Montebello. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ror3hepR4HQ Although this lake district was in the opposite direction to where we were going, we felt compelled to take a few days out to visit them. The trip was great. With no gear, except Tanya’s backpack strapped to the back of the bike, it felt like we were on a little mini-vacation. On the way, we hooked down a dirt road west to see La Casacas de El Chiflon or the Big Whistle Waterfalls. El Chiflon is made up of 5 falls with the most turquoise water, I’ve ever seen. The waterfall at the very top falls from a height of over 70ft. After about three hours climbing the waterfalls and swimming in the pools and rivers below, we retrieved our motorcycle helmets and backpack from the nice parking attendant, and carried on to the lagos.
There is not much in this area of Mexico, just 10-15 km north of the Guatemalan border. As we approached the National Park, we began to see a smattering of cabins and a couple hotels. As there were still a few hours of daylight left we decided to cruise right in to see if we could find accommodations within the park. We came across some very simple cabanas, a brand new block just at the entrance and some very old, rustic cabins on the edge of one of the lakes. Both places were asking 200 ($15) pesos a night for these extremely sparten lodgings. I decided to ride back out onto the main highway to check out some of the nicer hotels there. There was one place that looked rather luxurious with a collection of ornamental, Bavarian style cottages hemmed in by a white, cattle guard fence. It was the type of place that we usually wouldn’t even consider because it would be prohibitively expensive – but being in an seldom-visited, desolate corner of Chiapas, I figured I’d have a run at it. The resort was completely uninhabited and while speaking to the kindly manager about a cabana, I managed to get the price down from the posted price of 700 pesos to 300 pesos. The cabana was lovely and clean and there was a cool bar and restaurant in the main house. Oscar had been nice enough to offer us his tent in case we wanted to save some money and camp in the park, but campsites being 100 pesos, I reasoned we might as well stay in the lap of luxury for just another 200 pesos more. There was a covered carport right next to the cabana to park the bike. We unpacked our one bag and wandered into the mainhouse in search of some grub. Dinner was fabulous with very attentive and friendly servers. We felt extremely spoiled especially considering we had the entire restaurant and all the employees to ourselves. After dinner, we decided that we couldn’t waste the opportunity to have a few drinks at the well-appointed bar, so we nestled into the stools for a few drinks. The young bar tender, Moises, who is born and raised just a few kilometers from the hotel was great company and a couple drinks turned into a few. At one point Tanya found herself behind the bar teaching young Moises how to make a proper Margarita, which of course is the national drink of Mexico. Moises was thrilled to learn some tips from a ‘professional bartender.’ Owing to their severe sugar dependency, Margaritas in Mexico are waaaay too sugary so Tanya is taking it upon herself to revise the recipe nationwide to suit her own tastes. Seriously though, this was just the first of many occasions that I was to watch Tans slyly get herself invited behind the bar to lead a Margarita tutorial.
Eventually we retired to our cozy cabin eager to be accosted by the subconscious parody of our tequila-induced dreams We’d been in bed for less than half an hour when we heard a bunch of car engines coming down the long driveway. Our beautiful, peaceful vacation spot was ours no longer. Three cars and two van loads of Mexicans had descended upon us and were appropriating all the cabanas surrounding us. Despite it being after 11pm, in typical Mexican fashion, the new arrivals didn’t make much of an effort to limit their noise. Their entrance reminded me of an urban holiday procession: load vehicle noises and doors slamming, children screaming excitedly, adults laughing and shouting to one another across the grounds, heavy footfalls on the pavement outside our door. Of course none of the cabanas are insulated so the sound wasn’t muffled even an iota. Then we started hearing the heavy wooden bedframes being dragged across the floors of the cabanas and any chance of drifting off to sleep was gone. I threw on shorts, t-shirt and my sandals and went off to find the manager. Some of the new arrivals were already in the bar having drinks. I walked past them and right into the kitchen where I found the manager directing the kitchen staff who had inevitably returned to their posts in haste and were busily making late night tortillas for the new guests. Using Spanish and with the help of some charades I described to the manager the intense noise which had fiercely pervaded our tranquil evening. He understood and I could gather from his demeanour that neither he nor the staff were particularly enthused by this inconsiderate and demanding group of rich Mexican tourists showing up at this hour. Without further discussion, the manager dutifully upgraded us to one of the gorgeous suites on the other side of the property, with a sitting room and a fireplace. It is not often that I have witnessed customer service to this degree in Mexico. Needless to say we were very happy with our stay in this hotel!
On our way back to San Cris to return Oscar’s tent and reacquire the rest of our gear, we stopped at a small archaeological site called Chinkultic. An ancient Maya city, Chinkultic would have flourished between 200 and 800AD. There was an incredible stepped pyramid which climbed up a hill and, from the top, it looked down onto a steep river gorge and the surrounding countryside beyond. We got in a bit of trouble from the security guard for jumping a rope so we could get right to the very top of the temple. We quickly eased the tension by explaining to the frazzled guard, “Mi Gusta Mayans!” This seemed to eradicate any memory of our wrongdoing, the guard asking us, “De donde eres?” and wished us, “Buen viaje” on the rest of our trip. When we emerged back onto the highway, we saw a small indigenous community across the road so we decided to explore. This neighborhood was a perfect grid of equal size blocks spanning maybe 20 in either direction with dirt roads running in between. Very few cars or trucks were on the streets or even parked outside the houses. Most of the yards around the houses had been cultivated to contain crops and many of the enclosed areas were home to small livestock or poultry. It was an absolutely charming community and the thing that really caught our attention was the fact that every single person we rode passed acknowledged us with either a beaming smile, excited wave or a “buenas tardes.” It was amazing. There was no sensed animosity for our invasion. There was no jealously for our nationality. None of the people even looked grumpy. We determined this is probably the barrio where our sweet bartender, Moises, is from. Our quick little detour turned into a complete exploration as we rode down street after street taking it all in, not wanting to tear ourselves away from this fascinatingly cheerful hamlet. We have no idea what the name of this tiny enclave is, but from the surface it has to be one of the happiest places I’ve ever visited. I imagine its location in the middle of nowhere and the lack of gringos and gringo influence might have something to do with this.
Tanya being Mayan
This boy was diligently doing his homework on a dining room chair
Of course, Chiapas is home also to the infamous Zapatistas, a rebel movement fighting for the rights of the indigenous people of Mexico. The Zapatistas were originally created in 1910 to take part in the Mexican Revolution. The original Zapatistas quickly disbanded after their leader, Emil Zapata’s assassination in 1919. But on January 1st, 1994, a new movement identified as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN declared war on the government of Mexico. This date also marks the launch of the North American Free Trade Agreement. On this day an army of Mayan farmers invaded and captured a half dozen towns in Eastern Chiapas and freed all prisoners from the San Cristobal jail. The Zapatistas are led by Subcomandante Marcos, a Mestizo philosophy major from Mexico City who served with the Sandanistas in Nicaragua during the 1980’s. The movement is extremely popular throughout Chiapas with posters of Marcos in his black balaclava and signs everywhere showing support for the EZLN. Marcos has written more than 21 books expressing his political and philosophical views.
Naomi Klein writes of Marcos, “[He is the] quintessential anti-leader, insists that his black mask is a mirror, so that ‘Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains’. In other words, he is simply us: we are the leader we’ve been looking for.”
The ideology of the Zapatista movement includes elements of libertarian socialism, anarchism, Marxism and indigenous Mayan values. The EZLN are strongly against globalization arguing that it “severely and negatively affects the peasant way of life and oppresses people worldwide.” They reference NAFTA as an example saying the trade agreement opens the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced agricultural products from the US and reduces the peasants reliance on their own crops. This has reduced farm subsidies, income and living standard of Mexican farmers who cannot compete with subsidized, artificially fertilized, mechanically harvested and genetically modified crops from the US. The Zapatistas also state that politics should be conducted from the bottom-up. They judge the current political system as ineffective and corrupt because the representatives are disconnected from the people and their needs. The EZLN feels that responsible governance should constantly refer to the people for major decisions and that the terms of public servants should be limited to brief periods in office. A Zapatista slogan is in harmony with the concept of mutual aid: “Para todos todo. Para nosotros nada” (For everyone, everything. For us, nothing). As Marcos has reiterated, “my real commander is the people”.
About halfway between San Cristobal and Palenque, we stopped in the small, dirty, impoverished town of Ocosingo. As well as being home to Tonina, a Classic period Maya city, Ocosingo was one of the towns occupied during the Zapatista revolt. Most of the fighters retreated from the towns they were occupying when the Mexican government sent in the armed forces. The rebels attempted to make a stand in Ocosingo, but suffered heavy casualties after days of intense fighting. Many rebels, soldiers and civilians were killed in this battle. Now Ocosingo is home to an absolutely gigantic army barracks which we passed for several minutes on route to see the ruins. There are 3 mid-size apartment towers to accommodate the mass of soldiers that the government has moved into the area to dissuade further rebel action. The people in Ocosingo were lovely and we were treated to one of the nicest and cheapest hotel rooms we had found in Mexico. A spotless room with clean sheets, a plastic shower stall (with actual hot water) and a television with movie channels. We were both surprised to find such an exemplary hotel in such an unlikely place. The room ran us 100 pesos a night and to be honest, the condition of the hotel alone prompted us to stay another night. We enjoyed walking up and down the ‘calle del ropas,’ the high street in town which seemed to have just clothing and shoe stores. We also were treated to a few musical numbers by an noticeably uncomfortable guitar player in an empty pizza restaurant. We tried to make the performer feel more comfortable by having a dance on the balcony in support of his off-key and stuttered cumbia concerto.
The ancient city of Palenque certainly lived up to its billing. Most of the temples and palaces were constructed during the 7th century under ruler Palak I. Archeologists believe Palenque fell around 1123 AD and like most Mayan site they are not sure why it was abandoned. It is estimated that less than 10% of the city has been excavated and there are still thousands of structures covered by the jungle. In 2010, researchers from Penn State located and identified an aqueduct fed form a well down an incline towards a restricted opening. This is believed to be the first pressurized plumbing system. Our visited to Palenque occurred on a particularly rainy day which didn’t faze us being from Vancouver, but the other visitors would scurry away for cover, meaning we had the whole city to ourselves.