A Travellerspoint blog

Xalapa: hot peppers, cool mist

rain 20 °C

After almost a month in the Yucatan's sweltering heat and humidity, we were both craving cooler temperatures and believe it or not...rain. We chose to stay in Xalapa (prounounced - ha-la-pa) to break the drive on our way to San Miguel de Allende, our last city in Mexico. Xalapa is the state capital of Veracruz , and is well-known for its vibrant university, its magnificent Museum of Anthropology and for the jalapeno peppers that are grown in the area. Also... for its misty, cool weather.

The drive from Tlacotalpan took about three hours, and it was fun to watch the car's temperature gauge drop from 36 to 32 to 29 to 27, as we climbed up into the mountains. We arrived in time to park our car and bring our bags in to the hotel, and then the skies opened - a thunderstorm of epic proportions. After about an hour, the rain stopped, and we hit the streets, (with jeans and sweaters on). This was the view from Parque Juarez - looking out over the city. There are volcanoes surrounding Xalapa, and the city itself is quite hilly.

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Xalapa is not really on the tourist radar, but there are plenty of things to do and see here; the Museo de Antropologia being the premier attraction.

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This beautiful building and its stunning gardens are a fitting setting for Mexico's second-largest collection of artifacts from three pre-Hispanic civilizations from the Veracruz area - the Olmecs, the Totonacs and the Huastecs. Set on a hill, the museum unfolds with each era; its broad steps lead into a succession of rooms and gardens. We had the place almost to ourselves, and we whiled away about three or four hours here very happily.

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These big boys are the main attraction - there are seventeen colossal Olmecs heads; seven on display in this museum, and some of them weigh several tons. They all appear quite fierce - they definitely create an imposing presence.

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Another big attraction here is the 3000-year-old greenstone sculpture, El Senor de las Limas - depicting a youth holding a were-jaguar infant. It is considered to be a "Rosetta stone" of Olmec religion, with supernatural incisions on the legs of the youth.

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Ear stretching and piercings have been around forever - these are examples of indigenous facial adornments typical of this era.

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These small sculptures are called, appropriately enough, "baby faces". They measure between two - six inches.

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These "happy face" sculptures were meant to be tucked into coffins as an encouragement for a peaceful afterlife.

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These sculptures all had their own appeal and meaning - just a small sampling of what was on display.

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The Universidad de Veracruz brings a tremendous artistic and literary presence to the city. This statue marks one of the entrances to the university's campuses, set throughout the downtown. Students rule - skinny jeans, leather boots, black-rimmed glasses, and passionate café discussions look the same here as they do in Toronto or Barcelona.

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Coffee rules, too. Xalapa is a major coffee-growing area, and this city is spoiled for choice when it comes to excellent cafés. I loved this Seuss-like graphic, celebrating one of the area's main exports.

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Art, film and music fill the city. Xalapa has an excellent symphony, and posters all over the city announce art opening, concerts, readings, and theatre. We missed out on dance in the park, due to rainy weather, but we loved the fact that simply walking around the city brings is its own reward.

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Los Lagos is a park in the centre of the city, with a treed walkway around three lakes. Kids, dogs, cyclists, runners, and young couples all find refuge there.

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After our promenade, we came upon this group of high-school footballers from San Luis Potosi. They caught me taking a photo, and the next thing we knew, we were invited to be part of their group shot. We wished them' Buena Suerte" in their match against the Xalapa team.

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The San Jose barrio, just up a hill from the downtown core, was a delightful discovery - art galleries, cafes, narrow streets and an old church.

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Stephen outside our sweet hotel in Xalapa. A brief, and much-appreciated respite.

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Now, we're ready for sun and warmth, Mexican colour and fiesta and over-the-top pageantry.
Talk to you soon again - from San Miguel de Allende.

Posted by millerburr 20:41 Archived in Mexico Comments (9)

Tlacotalpan: The "unknown" UNESCO World Heritage site

semi-overcast 35 °C

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We read about this little town, and thought it sounded perfect. Situated on a river near the Gulf of Mexico, and just south of the bustle of steamy Veracruz, it seemed ideal to visit for a couple of days as we begin our drive north. As we turned off the highway and headed toward town, we were stuck behind endless convoys of trucks hauling basket-style carriers of sugar cane. Earlier we had passed big smokestacks - turns out they are sugar refineries.

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Tlacotalpan had been slated to be the premier trading port on the Gulf coast; by 1821 it had established trade routes with New Orleans, Havana and Bordeaux. Its position on the Papaloapan River was strategic: it was easy to defend from pirate attack, and was successfully defended from the French. It became prosperous, with fine homes, several public squares, three stately churches, and a theatre.

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Then, in 1905 the railway bypassed Tlacotalpan for Veracruz, and all commerce stopped. The town has withered economically, and after a number of hurricanes and floods, including a particularly disastrous one in 2010, the area is one of the poorest in Veracruz state. The main economic activity now is sugar cane, cattle ranching and the tourism brought on after UNESCO gave the entire town a World Heritage site designation in 1998.

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So where are the tourists? In Mexico, a UNESCO or Pueblo Magico designation is usually money in the bank. For some reason, this little town has not drawn in the throngs of tourists that would help bring it out of the doldrums. We can't figure it out - there is easy proximity to Veracruz, to Gulf beaches, and to a well-paved toll road leading to other major centres. There is not a lot going on here, but that is a chicken and egg conundrum - until the money starts rolling in, there will be little investment in making this a more interesting destination.

We think we are the only tourists here. We don't even know where the residents are - streets are empty, restaurants are empty, but for one or two tables, there are few cars. When we walk by, people stare. They must think we're lost. Even the sleeping dogs lifted their heads to have a look.

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The tourist police, on the other hand, were very happy to see us. There appears to be four of them, and they ride around town on bicycles. Two of them stopped us to talk, and then we spent the rest of the day waving at them as we wandered about.

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We booked our room at La Casa de la Luz, a two-storey guesthouse, owned by a gentleman from San Francisco, who has just sold this property, is retiring and moving to Oaxaca. Our suite is beautiful and spacious - Bill has figured out how to combine turquoise, purple, red, pink, green and yellow on one space and make it pop. I'm inspired for some painting projects once we're home again. This is Bill's guesthouse - reminds me of my dream home in New Orleans.

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The architectural designs of the homes are very tropical - they would be just as easily found in the Caribbean islands as in Mexico. Most of them are quite modest, one-storey homes, but what makes them distinctive are the bright colours, tile roofs, and broad colonnades that connect some of the homes to one another. It is possible to walk several blocks under the protective shade of these buildings. These three photos are a mix of stores, hotels and private homes, all located on the main street by the river.

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Yesterday, we headed out to explore the town. Tlacotalpan is not large and runs along the river in a grid pattern, with the main churches and plazas set back one street, and the river road lined with small restaurants. Houses run back from the river, east and west according to economic status.

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As soon as we found our way to the river, we were approached by Capitán Ricardo, who wanted the honour of taking us on a tour in his flat-bottomed boat with canopy. In spite of the fact that he spoke not one word of English, we managed to understand quite a bit, and he talked constantly.

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The Papaloapan River has a feel of the Mississippi to it - broad, deep, murky and spilling out to the Gulf. Ricardo encouraged us to taste the water - "dulce" - sweet, and it was. Not sure I'd want to drink a glass, but it was surprisingly tasty. He steered upriver first, and pointed out the fancy summer homes of various families by name, as though we'd know them.

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Fishermen catch blue crabs, sea bass, lake trout, mojarra, shrimp and grouper in the river, and there are a large number of birds in this habitat as well. We saw a couple of fantastic huge birds, called Saint-Martins, with vivid pink beaks and legs and blue feathers, but alas, no photos. We did catch this white heron, not as dramatic, but still beautiful.

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We crossed over to continue our tour downstream. This side of the river leads to the haciendas, but we had signed on for the shorter tour, so we saw just glimpses from the boat. This small house is part of a hacienda operation further back.

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Cattle ranching is very big business in this area. Today we saw a massive feedlot about half an hour out of town - it ran for a kilometre along the highway and as far back as the eye could see. I was mouth-breathing for the duration - imagine thousands of cattle (and their waste) in 35 degree heat. These happy cows have not met that fate yet.

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As we swung back toward shore, the houses changed again - from summer homes to shacks.

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This stark contrast in fortune is common throughout Mexico. But this area has a high percentage of residents in "dire poverty", and these homes bear that out.

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There are some very fine buildings as well - the Teatro Netzahualcoytl is a great example. After the flood of 2010, water rose in this theatre to the stage. It has since been restored to its full glory, and is back in operation as an active theatre.

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Today, we had planned to take a circle tour - drive over to a waterfall, then head up to the Gulf beaches, and back down again to town. Luckily for us, when we stopped at a small store to buy water, the woman asked us where we were going, and warned us to stay away from the road to the beaches, because there were roadblocks and the police were involved. She assured us the waterfall was fine. We were very grateful, because we would otherwise have driven a long way out of our way.

We already knew we would have to pay a "donation" to have our car watched at the waterfall parking lot, but we had no idea that we would be pounced upon at least four or five times on the highway. The strategy is simple - fasten a rope across the road where there is a tope ( the speed bumps that force drivers to stop). Pull up the rope and ask the driver for money. We paid out a couple of times - 10 pesos each time, and refused the other two times.

Parking lots are a different story. If you are interested in returning to find your car, tires and paint job intact, you treat it as a simple parking fee. Today we were approached by three young men and one older man, who asked Stephen for 20 pesos as he pulled up and parked. He negotiated to 10 pesos, which, surprisingly, they accepted with good humour. They joked with him, and he thanked them for taking good care of our car, and we headed down toward the waterfall. These men who have nothing and no power in the world, have the ability to make our lives very difficult. The strange thing is, we knew our car would be fine. Stephen has mastered the art of being calm and respectful and unruffled, and it always works out. They all waved at us as we returned to leave.

The waterfall is not half as wide, nor as high as Niagara, but still made a powerful impact. It is called El Salto de Eyipantla; reached by climbing down (and back up) 250 steps. Naturally, you hear it before you see it - and as we got closer, the cold spray was very welcome.

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The vegetation around this area is so tangled and voluptuous, with vines and flowers and glossy leaves, and dozens of butterflies flitting about.

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We leave tomorrow morning to go to our second-to-last destination in Mexico. We're heading to Xalapa , home of the jalapeno pepper, as well as a magnificent museum of anthropology, a huge eco-park, and a vibrant downtown scene, thanks to the university there. Also - cooler temperatures as we climb back into the mountains. We'll be there for three nights - talk again soon.

I'll leave you with a photo that sums up Tlacotalpan for me - pretty, sleepy, tied to the river.

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Posted by millerburr 14:57 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

Palenque: why you must go

sunny 33 °C

You'll get to do this. Like tourists propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, this is hardly an original pose, but Stephen made me do it. "Go stand in the middle of that plant."

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You'll get to climb hundreds of stairs in 30 degree heat, and you won't even notice it. Well, you will, but it is so worth it. While none of these buildings have the vertiginous pitch of the pyramid at Cobà, most of them allow visitors access, so not only was this a thrilling education, it was a four-hour workout. This is the Templo de la Cruz, the largest of three pyramid-shaped structures that we were allowed to climb on. Tough work climbing up those 12-15 inch steps - no idea how those little Mayans managed it.

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This is the view from the top. We looked out over the main area of templos - the biggest one in the middle is El Palacio. Palenque gets a fair bit of rain, so everything stays green and lush and overgrown. The ruins themselves are one part of the experience - the surroundings are almost as awe-inspiring. Several times we would find ourselves on paths leading from one area to another, and we'd be all alone. The jungle noises are incredible - so many bird calls, and branches snapping and unfamiliar shrieks, which turned out to be howler monkeys - more on them in a minute.

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We got there just as it opened at 8:00 am, and were one step ahead of the crowds the whole time. We were also a lot cooler than we expected to be, since there are so many shady paths, and even the open greens have huge shade trees and seating. I spent almost as much time admiring the foliage and monster trees, as I did the ruins.

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As you enter the first set of ruins, you see this. Even more impressive when you realize that every building here was made without metal tools or a wheel. Visitors are not allowed to climb on this building - The Templo de las Inscripciones is an important burial monument, and one of the most stately and well-preserved buildings in Palenque.

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The ruins are situated in three distinct areas and groups - the Templos, the Acropolis and The Grupo de las Cruces. Parts of them still have the look of having just been dug out of the jungle, and could disappear again if left unattended. Only a small percentage of Palenque has been excavated, as is the case with many archealogical sites. Wherever there are mounds of rock and moss, there are hidden treasures.

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A small creek runs through the whole site, and the area around the buildings is dug deep and constructed of stone. We were wondering if this was original, or had been built like this in more modern times.

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We spent a fair bit of time climbing around El Palacio, a huge maze-like structure with rooms, corridors, courtyards and open walkways. It was not a stretch to imagine how it must have looked intact. I think that is one of the features I enjoyed about Palenque - with very little imagination you could envision it as it once was.

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There are vendors allowed inside the site, but they are very respectful, for the most part. They have their wares laid out on blankets - largely the same products from one to the next. We stopped to watch this man, who was painting images on feathers, and selling the finished products mounted and framed. Even though we showed an interest, he was not pushy - just kept quietly painting.

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We stopped at some point to rest and found a spot in the shade beside a family who were having lunch. After we greeted them, the man started speaking to us in English, and was curious about our trip from Canada. He and his family were Mayan, so he tried to teach us how to say "mama" and "papa" in his language, and we bungled it so badly, we had them all giggling.

We seem to be regressing, not improving, with our Spanish. When we were in Chetumal, and walking along the boardwalk, we came upon a sign that said, "Larry, el cocodrilo". You know your Spanish is poor when you (Stephen) says,"Dondé Larry el cocodrilo" to the poor kid stting with his mother on a nearby bench. He replied, "no hablo ingles". He thought about it for a minute, ran over to the sign, then we could hear him saying, "lah-REE". (We just have to figure out the darn accents.) Sidetrack - back to Palenque.

We headed to the back end of the site - less excavation has gone on here, and it is much more overgrown.

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Before we got there, though, we witnessed this incredible sight - a snake swallowing a frog. Three or four other people were there taking photos when we walked by, or we would certainly have missed it. I looked it up online - it looked like a parrot snake, but no way to be sure. Every minute or so, it would open its mouth a little wider, and re-sink its fangs into the poor frog, who slowly disappeared into its mouth.

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While we were busy watching this spectacle, another National Geographic moment was going on just beyond us. We kept hearing the sounds of small children shrieking (although that is not precisely it, it is a very disturbing sound), and two tourists walked by, telling us they had just been watching the howler monkeys playing on the ruins, further back in the jungle. We dashed back, just in time to see a lone monkey in the canopy, and leaves tumbling to the jungle floor. We sat quietly for a long time, hoping for a replay, but the show was over.

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As we were just getting ready to leave the site, we stopped to watch a group of Mayan dancers performing in the square. Their costumes were quite elaborate, and while it was a day after the equinox, we were wondering if this was a spring ritual of giving gifts to the gods. One man held a square cross, and added flowers, corn, and other objects, and there was ceremonial lighting of small lamps, and drumming and chanting.

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In a trip filled with big moments and memorable experiences, Palenque was an experience that will stay with us for a very long time.

Next stop - Tlacotalpan, a UNESCO World Heritage town, just south of Veracruz on the Gulf coast. See you in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 17:11 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Road trip to Palenque, Mexican-style

sunny 34 °C

Things are heating up in Chiapas again. There were plenty of protests and roadblocks when we were in Chiapas three weeks ago, but they did not feel like a direct threat to us. We were unaware at the time of the issues affecting the area just south of Palenque. Robberies, roadblocks, "donations", and balaclava-clad toll-takers at popular tourist destinations like Agua Azul and Misol Ha have made travel in certain areas of this beautiful state a little riskier for tourists. We had planned to drive to those two sites today, but even the most photogenic waterfalls are not worth getting held up at gunpoint.

But back to the beginning - our drive from Chetumal (at the Belize border) to Palenque. We left on Friday morning, all excited at the prospect of a 5 1/2 hour drive on straight, flat roads. Short day, easy drive.

And then this happened.

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We were redirected from the highway to a detour - no idea why, for how long, or even where we were going to end up, but this guy in the truck was in front of us, and seeing our confusion, he waved us over to the convoy of cars that were heading down a sandy, dusty, rutted road. We kept saying to each other, "This can't be a proper road - why are we on this road?" It just didn't feel right, and our gut instincts have been fairly reliable travel companions. Anyway, with no other options, we followed along - our slight reassurance being the number of cars along with us (we were not being spirited away to be robbed and left stranded). Or if that was the case, we were all in it together.

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Then, after about 20 minutes, someone realized we had taken the wrong road, and we all had to turn around. Try and imagine this scenario. Now we're heading back from whence we came, reach the fork in the road, take the other road for about 20 minutes, and finally see signs of life - a ranch, some open spaces, and mercifully, the highway again. Same scene - many military trucks and personnel, and at least a kilometre of vehicles stopped.

Still no idea what the problem was, and why the intense military presence, but we kept driving, and were starting to relax again, when Stephen realized he had left the charger for his iPad in our hotel room in Chetumal. There would be no going back for it.

We started looking for a place to stop for lunch and switch drivers. We pulled into a little roadside place, and I wasn't hungry, but Stephen ordered a chicken sandwich, and we each ordered a drink. Drinks arrived, and after 20 minutes, we realized that "una sandwich de pollo, por favor" had somehow been lost in translation, and no food was coming.

None of these things were really big deals, but we just had one of those goofy days where nothing went smoothly. We arrived safely in Palenque about 2 1/2 hours later than we had anticipated - which is how it has gone for us all through Mexico - so I guess we could say we arrived on time.

Palenque town is not about the tourists - it is busy, noisy, sweaty and all Mexican. Tourists are here for one or two nights, and for one reason only - to take their money out of town to the ruins. So the town continues on with its business, and locals are neither friendly nor unfriendly. I took this photo of the main street, but was reluctant to take any more street scenes where there were lots of people, as we were being openly scrutinized. With no obvious tourist attractions, taking photos felt a bit rude and even unwise.

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Just two blocks away from the boisterous main drag is the tranquil neighbourhood called La Cañada - no relation - it means "glen" or "ravine" in Spanish. It is indeed a leafy, lovely, quiet forested glen, and this is where many of the hotels, including ours, the Hotel Xibalba, are located. We have a beautiful room at the back of the building. It is quiet, clean, has hot water, a good bed, and reliable wifi, and there are days when hitting all those notes makes you feel incredibly grateful.

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This is the exuberant entrance to our little neighbourhood - Mayan symbols and statues are everywhere in this area.

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And this is one of the peaceful sidewalks leading through La Cañada.

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So, back to the issue of safety in Chiapas. The road between Palenque and San Cristobal can be challenging, as we found out when we encountered the roadblock there over three weeks ago. That particular donation was for a protest over jailed comrades. Another issue that is causing a lot of grief with the locals is the building of the new highway between those two cities. It took us over six hours to navigate the switchbacks, topes, potholes, numerous pueblas (and our roadblock) on the current two-lane road. It is estimated the new road would take four hours. According to what we have heard, that road comes with a huge cost - expropriated land, "missing" landowners, and ongoing injustices tht have caused the Zapatistas to take up the cause in protest. Work blockades, "tolls" for park entrances and roadblocks are a few tactics. Since this road is being built to serve the vast number of tourists who visit a number of sites in that corridor, we represent the source of their hardship. The same scenario is being played out in Oaxaca state - a huge highway project between Oaxaca city and Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast is only partially completed - ongoing blockades and work shutdowns have slowed that project as well, for a whole host of money and land issues with the locals.

This is not the spot for an uninformed opinion on my part - just another example of how driving through Mexico requires flexibilty and an ear to the ground.

(note to parents, children and others who may now feel concern for us): We're on to Plan B, which is to abandon our plan to visit those sites, and will instead spend today here in town, by the pool at a nearby hotel, catching up on reading. It is disappointing, but when the hotel front desk manager (whose livelihood depends upon tourism) admits that Agua Azul is not safe, we listen.

On a lighter note, as VW owners we notice the huge number of 30-year-old VW vans and bugs (the originals) that are still driving around Mexico. Some are fairly pristine, but most are in various states of decrepitude, and it has been fun to see just how ragged a car can look and still be on the road. Yesterday, though, we saw a VW that even Fred MacDonald would not touch. It has become street sculpture; stripped of everything but the shell.

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Yesterday, we got what we came for - to visit the ruins of Palenque. It ranks up there with our most memorable days, and by far, is the best site we have seen. We got there for the opening at 8:00 am, to try and beat the crowds and the heat. We had been warned that it might be an idea to slip a kid 20 pesos to "watch" our car, but that revenue stream has been taken over by grown men, who also offer to wash your car, sell you bug spray and act as a guide. The cost of watching the car has gone up to 30 pesos, but for 100 pesos, he would both protect and clean the car. A number of men came over to confirm that our car was shockingly filthy - in fact, a couple were laughing at how dirty our car was. (It was a sight, after our dusty detour).

So we all had a good chuckle, especially since we agreed to have our car watched, washed and buy bug spray for 150 pesos - the joke was on us. Like market vendors everywhere, the first sale of the day sets the tone, so we made a lot of people happy. No matter - we came back hours later to an intact, spotlessly clean car, at no inconvenience to us.

I'm posting this now, with a teaser photo of our visit to the ruins. Too many photos and experiences to describe in this one - the rest will be posted later today.

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Posted by millerburr 06:28 Archived in Mexico Comments (7)

Swimming with sea turtles: just another day at the beach

sunny 33 °C

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I wanted to finish off our Tulum adventures, as we leave tomorrow for an overnight stop in Chetumal (right on the Belize border), on our way to Palenque. We have learned our lesson. When Google map tells us to expect a 8-hour drive, we know they are just playing with us. I want to tell you all about our snorkelling adventure, while it is still fresh in my mind, and I probably won't get another posting out for a few days.

The photos above are of Akumal Beach, about 25 minutes from Tulum. While Tulum has a reef, and some terrific snorkelling, Akumal's is even better. It has a beach with a reef and a lagoon, and draws bigger crowds because of the many fish, the manta rays and the big draw - giant sea turtles. Neither of us have ever snorkelled before, so we could have seen goldfish and been happy.

There are two or three big dive shops in Akumel, and they take out groups of 10-12 people. We spoke to a small independent operator, and went with him - for 500 pesos (about $45 CAD), we had a private guide, José, and all the equipment - life jacket, flippers, masks and snorkels. We really appreciated José's approach with us and his respectful consideration for the ocean. First, he took us out to about waist-deep water, and then helped us on with our flippers. Because we were absolute beginners, he had a life-preserver ring with him, and instructed us to hang on on that, and stay behind him at all times. He showed us how to walk in our flippers to avoid churning up the sand, to keep our flippers up when going through the coral beds, and under no circumstances, to touch the turtles (it is actually illegal). On went the masks, in went the snorkels, and we were off.

We headed over to the left side of the beach (top photo), where we saw a number of submerged Spanish cannons. (credit to a Tripadvisor pic).

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Up until now, the attraction of diving to see wrecks, and rusted paraphernalia (yawn) was incomprehensible to me. Not that I am ready to jump from a rental snorkel to full scuba gear, but, whoa - whole other world down there. (That's not the only cliché I mentally lapsed into - "mysterious", "unknowable" - I worked them all). We were out for an hour, and I did not want it to be over.

This is where the "epiphany" comes in. I have been known to describe exciting moments in my life as being "epiphanal", which often overstates the case, and has provided Alex with rich material to mock his mother. In this case, "epiphanal" is the exact right description of an experience which I feel was life-changing.

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I know it is a poor carpenter who blames her tools, but my little Coolpix (which is very limited at the best of times) simply balked at the idea of taking underwater photography, so I have swiped a number of Internet images to accompany this story. These teeny photos do not begin to do it justice, but they do show a few examples of the fish we saw. There were no great schools, but always something to look at - over there, a one-foot iridescent blue fish, a few little black fish with angel wings and emerging from behind a coral fan, a brilliant yellow, blue and white striped fish. Just as I had imagined it to be, swimming with tropical fish. There are barracudas out there as well, but José never pointed any out. Sharks reside safely beyond the reef.

After we left the cannons, we swam over to the reef, which is about 200-300 metres offshore. The water became a lot bouncier, as waves washed over us, and this was the point I was very grateful to have a guide -this is the point I may have bolted for shore. Soon again, the water calmed, and the impression was of being in an enormous, spectacularly stocked acquarium. José led us very slowly; our three faces just below the surface of the water, and our snorkels just above. Stephen and I kept pointing out various things to each other, and as soon as I got the hang of not talking with my snorkel in my mouth (impossible), we simply existed in a silent, stunning world. Crystal clear water, absolutely perfect visibility.

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Most of the reef area is from 12-20 feet deep - beyond that, the sea drops dramatically. In the reef, coral beds feature prominently, and again, my imagination was far out-stripped by reality. Huge cactus-like formations provide hiding places for fish and sit solidly alongside delicately waving coral fans. Stubby coral branches reach out in shades of whites, yellows and pinks. Depth perception is shot - I moved my hand down to touch a coral branch and it shimmered far, far below me.

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We moved out of this coral "room" into a more open area, and there they were: two gigantic sea turtles. They glided up toward us - their magnificent shells like mosaic, and piggybacking remora - the sucker fish that help to keep their shells clean. They almost looked like they were checking us out, and one of them surfaced for air - its curious turtle face out of the water for just seconds. I did not want to embarrass myself by tearing up in front of José, but...seeing these creatures is like seeing a whale close up - it feels like an immense privilege, and it is very moving. We watched them for a while, then swam on - saw more fish, and more turtles, including a young one.

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"Manta Ray!" The power and mystique of these strong, silent types is not to be underestimated. We saw two; each of them close to the ocean floor, with their sides folding in and out, feeling out their territory. They are magnificent.

Up until this point, we had not been overly aware of other snorkellers, but when we spotted the Manta Rays, the call went out. "Okay guys, this is your Nemo moment", shrieked one of the guides to his large group. I was so grateful to have José with us; his dignified presence and obvious pleasure at our enjoyment added so much to our experience.

As we left the water and walked back down the beach, I looked out over the bay, and felt amazed that it looks so benign and there is so much going on out there. I cannot wait until we have the chance to explore that world again. I can't stop thinking about it.

As we were gathering up our belongings, Stephen started to talk to this man, who was sitting in the shade, weaving palm leaves to make hats, bowls, little mats, flowers and grasshoppers.

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His name is Denys Toquetti, from Brazil, and he is travelling around the world for $1.00 - the cost of the knife he uses to create his art.
His blog is: http://fibraverde.blogspot.mx/, and if you happen to understand Portuguese, you can follow his journey so far. From what we were able to understand with our English/French/Spanish, Denys arrives in a place (presumably limited to countries with palm trees), and sets up shop - a beach or market - to create small objects that people want to buy - this funds his travel. We were charmed by the idea and bought this basket for $150 pesos ($12) that he made in front of us. He then whipped up a flower and a grasshopper, and added them as gifts. On the way back to our car, a woman from Kelowna stopped us to see the basket - she had bought a similar one in Hawaii years ago, and she was so excited to see ours.

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Back down to earth - today was our last day in Tulum - our last day at the beach and it felt quite bittersweet. Folks we had met on the beach a few days ago had told us about the many fantastic birds they had seen, including parrots, and we were keen to try and find them. They are staying in a condo compound halfway between town and the beach, and it has to be seen to be believed. Apparently it has been under construction for 10 years, with NO expenses spared. Tulum is expensive, but this is beyond. If it is ever finished, it will be its own destination. There are acres and acres and acres of jungle, with two condo complexes completed so far, and the beginnings of a pyramid built, as well as a mysterious courtyard. The plan seems to be to create a small village, and certainly the infrastructure would suggest that - so many paths and nowhere to go.

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You can walk or bike for miles, and in the early morning, the birds are out in full force. We set the alarm, arrived over there before 7:00, and set out to bag some birds. The chirping and the chattering and the squawking sounded very promising, and poco a poco, they began to reveal themselves. We saw orange birds, and yellow birds and pink birds and blue birds - tropical birds galore. More specifically, we saw orange orioles, yellow orioles, Yucatan jays, tropical kingbirds, chachalacas, vultures, owls and quail. No parrots, and no photos worth keeping - outlines of birds on branches.

Still, very exciting to see what we did, and to see them in this strange half-finished world in a Tulum that is moving so quickly from hippie to haute.

Posted by millerburr 18:39 Archived in Mexico Comments (4)

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