A Travellerspoint blog

Guatemalan Highlands

Mexico photos

A common theme of Globo Trips seems to be that people question the logicality of my planned itineraries. Indeed, few could comprehend the rationale of the following travel sequence in 2013: Morocco – Italy – Middle East – Denmark – UK – Central Europe – Turkey – the Balkans. Yet to me this route made perfect sense strategically, after countless hours of research. Since most of my acquaintances would be fully aware of my slightly obsessive penchant for travel planning, I am always quite befuddled by their befuddlement when I outline my schedule. Why can’t they just recognise that if it makes sense to Liam, its probably a sound plan (for potentially complex reasons, like beating the Schengen Area restrictions!). After spending one month in Mexico, I travelled to Guatemala for three weeks… and then returned to Mexico for another fortnight. Check out my travel map to understand why I chose this perhaps unconventional order!

Transiting from Mexico to Guatemala was probably the most pleasant international border crossing I have experienced outside of Europe. Usually I loathe “border crossing days”, because of the potpourri of bothersome issues that can transpire. The interminably long queues at the immigration offices; the outrageously expensive visa-fees corruptly overcharged by greedy border officials; the plethora of bribes required, sometimes for the stupidest reasons (i.e. to obtain a medical card “proving” you’ve had the requisite vaccinations); the derelict and dodgy nature of border towns; and, most concerning, the uncertainty of pre-arranged transport on the other side of the border actually materialising. But aside from one small bribe, I can’t complain about the rather seamless process of crossing from Mexico to Guatemala. It was insanely easy: I just walked straight into Guatemala, without any guards to check my documents or delegate me to a queue. I had to search for the tiny and unassuming immigration office, staffed by unenthused officials, to obtain an entry stamp; although I’m sure I could have continued into the Guatemalan interior without anyone batting an eyelid. It was a tremendously unusual border crossing zone, with market stalls, taco stands, crowds and music on both the Mexican and Guatemalan sides. It had a party-like atmosphere, proving that the Mexican proclivity for incessant fiesta is true right up until the country’s boundaries.

One might be forgiven for expecting environmental and cultural continuation when transiting from Mexico to Guatemala, both Spanish-speaking countries with Mayan and colonial heritages. But the economic disparity between the two countries and the consequent lack of modern infrastructure, order and fancy forms of transportation in Guatemala became quickly apparent. The difference between the two countries is perhaps most explicitly demonstrated by the typical vehicles used for bus services in each country. In Mexico, buses are either classed as “first-class”, which are nicer than coaches in Australia, or “second-class”, slightly more dilapidated than coaches in Australia. Meanwhile the Guatemalans use ancient school buses that have reached their use-by-date in North America. After 10 years of operation, school buses are shipped from North America to Guatemala and then refitted and painted in a myriad of colours. Intriguingly, the school buses exhibit whimsical designs and colour combinations in their subsequent years of service to children. The buses are absolutely crammed with people and their cargo, including chickens, so they are aptly referred to as “chicken buses”. Fortunately I didn’t have to suffer through 4 hours stuck on a chicken bus from the border to Quetzaltenango (some travellers consider it a cultural experience, but a 6-footer only thinks of the potential and excruciating lack of leg room), as I travelled by tourist shuttle (for the record, shuttles in Guatemala always lack sufficient leg room too).

"Chicken bus"

"Chicken bus"

The magnificently named city of Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second largest (after the to-be-avoided Guatemala City) and located in the verdant highlands of the country’s south-west. Quetzaltenango is often abbreviated to Xela (pronounced Shea-la (I think)), so I shall abide by this practice. Within a nanosecond of arriving at my hostel (is it unlucky to stay somewhere named “the Black Cat”?) I met American Allen, a maths teacher from California. Allen promptly became my tour guide for the day and informed me that he would also be partaking in the three day hike I intended to enlist in from Xela to Lake Atitlan. Allen and I strode off toward the central square as I determinedly attempted to withdraw enough Quetzales for said tour. After a frustrating but eventually successful ordeal of visiting every bank on the square, I was able to view its splendid architecture and absorb its serene atmosphere. Since its founding, Xela has suffered a host of earthquakes that have destroyed the city’s original colonial buildings. The historic core is therefore quite distinctive for a Central American city because the architecture is dominated by 19th century neoclassical styles. I found the austere colours and dilapidation of Xela strangely attractive and refreshing after visiting a series of brightly coloured colonial towns in Mexico. Allen and I whiled away the afternoon by people-watching in the central square. Most notably, we observed the national flag being taken down and several shoe polishers plying their trade. Within short time I concluded that Xela is exactly the type of destination I enjoy visiting: sufficiently off of the beaten trail to be absent of package tour groups and fake hippies, but still “known” to draw a pleasant stream of foreigners (too many foreigners and no foreigners are equally undesirable situations). Xela attracts numerous travellers, usually with either the intention of learning Spanish or trekking in the surrounding countryside.

Cool bridge in Xela

Cool bridge in Xela

Upon returning to the Black Cat, Allen introduced me to British-Australian Helen and American Karly and we quickly became a travel group for the subsequent days. Some of the more astute readers have perhaps recognised the repeated appearance of British-Australian Helen thus far in Globo Trip. In the “Oaxaca” entry, I noted how a Sydney resident of British nationality had written in Latuvi’s guestbook recently and puzzled over the unusualness of her identity. At the hostel in Oaxaca City, I correctly identified who this mysterious “Helen” was, although I never actually spoke to her. I immediately recognised Helen in Xela and confronted her with my hypothesis. While Helen had no recollection of sighting my face in Oaxaca (she feigned recognition of Danish Nadia when I showed pictures) she did confirm the accuracy of my suspicions and my extraordinary detective skills. A resident/citizen of Australia for 13 years now, Helen’s only regret about relocating is that she did not originally settle in Melbourne. Another who struggles with the standard traveller question, “where are you from”, is American Karly, a native Texan and passionate advocate of that superb phrase “y’all” but resident New Yorker. Meeting Karly was a rather timely encounter with my imminent trip to New York City. I now feel satisfied that my culinary plan for New York (so, my only plan) is entirely acceptable.

Karly, The Emperor, random old guy, Allen and Helen

Karly, The Emperor, random old guy, Allen and Helen

With two days spare until the commencement of our epic hike, we decided to visit the famous Thursday market of Chichicastengo. Confronted with a five hour round trip, we hired a driver for the day and negotiated a 50% reduction on his initial offer. He was quite an amiable and punctual chap, but I can never really trust someone who attempts to charge me at least double the regular price. We departed at the spritely hour of 6:00am in the morning coolness of the highlands. Thankfully, Helen decided audaciously to smuggle her bedding into the car, so we had a rather snug journey to Chichi and discussed life stories, food, travel experiences, food, the glory of Melbourne and food. Or at least I was crapping on about all such topics while others attempted sleep. After arriving in Chichi, we began to amble through the market as an orderly group, though I soon lost interest with such a dynamic. Never one to patiently wait while others indulge in their shopping practices, I chose to “accidently” lose the group and explore independently, convinced that we would eventually meet again. I bumped into Mexican Leon, a most intriguing 55+ year old Nactus and I met in San Cristobal. Leon is a highly enthusiastic, characterful and comedic gentleman who socialises with everyone and travels regularly. He makes his travel decisions on a day-to-day basis… several days of which I happened to influence! In San Cristobal, I recommended he visit the Mayan ruins of Tonina, mainly because I wanted someone to scout the site for me! Unfortunately, Leon drove in the opposite direction to Tonina and eventually arrived after darkness. I then suggested destinations he could visit in Guatemala, including the Thursday market of Chichicastengo, so I kind of destined our reunion.

Chichicastenango market

Chichicastenango market

On every Thursday and Sunday, the centre of Chichi is converted into a huge open-air market, one of Guatemala’s largest. Since Chichi is a predominately indigenous community (descendants of the Maya), attending the bustling market is an ideal opportunity to observe indigenous culture. The market attracts thousands of villagers from the surrounding valleys, who journey to Chichi to buy or sell their wares. The market is consequently brimming with indigenous people that wear the traditional garb of the town or village they’re from. The stalls cram the main plaza and the surrounding streets and alleys with food, traditional clothing, ceramics and flowers. The market is largely absent of mass-produced, generic rubbish; the products are generally handcrafted or locally grown. The market of Chichicastenango feels truly authentic because while some vendors specialise in selling tourist-oriented paraphernalia, most of the products are targeted at locals. Chichi’s primary drawcard is the serene white church that rises above the clutter, colour and chaos of the market. The steep church steps are wreathed with flowers that vendors attempt to sell to worshippers before entering the complex. Hunched old ladies dawdle around the doorway chanting and swinging tin cans that emit smoke, a ritual that honours their ancestors and harkens back to ancient Mayan beliefs.

Chichicastenango market

Chichicastenango market

The driver cashed in twice with us, as we employed his services to visit the hot springs near Xela the next day. En route, we were again subjected to his diatribes about the financial difficulties he faces as the Black Cat charges him 30% commission. While he was probably playing us for a tip (a tough challenge with two Australians and a maths teacher in the group), his discussion certainly highlighted the difficulties independent operators face when a town’s backpacker scene is dominated by one hostel. The road to the hot springs afforded us spectacular views of the sublime highlands scenery, as we past patchworks of agriculture established on outrageously steep slopes. We stopped in the village of Zunil, which is famous for its artisanal products. While the other members of my party snuck photographs deviously of the elderly ladies in traditional clothing, I opted to retain my morality and not partake in such brazenly insensitive activities. Fuentes Georginas is a natural spa established by Guatemala’s “benevolent dictator” Jorge Ubico. A series of pools are fed by hot sulphur springs and are surrounded by steep walls and intensely green tropical vegetation. While the main pools are rather crowded, the driver led us to a secluded pool in the jungle. The water was a tad hot for my liking... but I suppose you’re thinking I manage to find a complaint for everything.

Ok, maybe I did sneak one photo

Ok, maybe I did sneak one photo

Entering a new country afforded me the opportunity to sample a new cuisine. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that traditional Guatemalan dishes are quite distinct to Mexican fare, although I found tortillas, tacos and corn cobs to be as ubiquitous as ever. Allen and I enjoyed a sumptuous rendition of the national dish, pepian de pollo, at a restaurant owned by a characterful 80 year old lady. She directed us to order specific dishes, though with banter somewhat unseen by elderly ladies thus far on this trip. Pepian de pollo is essentially Guatemala’s response to Mexico’s mole. The sauce is made by dry-roasting and grounding seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), a variety of chillies and other spices, before cooking it with tomatoes and tomatillos. The thick sauce is then served over chicken with rice and corn tortillas. Allen and I also enjoyed delicious tostadas (crisp tortillas) with a mix of traditional pickled vegetables on top. Allen and I also sampled traditional local tamales (every region in Mexico and Central America boast their own variation) that were served with a creamy white sauce. Aguas frescas are cold drinks available throughout Mexico and Guatemala. They are freshly blended drinks with water used as the base. Strangely, aguas frescas taste better than fresh juice in this region, probably due to the suspected addition of loads of sugar. The two most common aguas frescas are hibiscus (delicious, tastes like berries) and horchata (absolutely foul). Horchata is made from rice, with the addition of vanilla and cinnamon.

DSC02001

DSC02001

Well that was an unexpected epic, I was supposed to cover the hike in this entry too! Its probably indicative of how much I enjoyed the highlands of Guatemala.

That’s all for now,

Liam

PS: Goodness me I can’t stand party hostels on the mass tourist trail… as I write this on an island near Cancun, I’m watching a wannabe Jimmy Hendrix pretending to be “in the zone” as he strikes out those tunes… with absolutely no audience despite staying in a hostel accommodating thousands of like-minded fake backpackers.

Mexico photos

Posted by Liamps 20:38 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Chiapas

Mexico photos

In many ways, Chiapas feels more like an independent Central American nation rather than a small state within the Federal Republic of Mexico. Indeed, Chiapas was governed from Antigua, Guatemala rather than Mexico City during the Spanish colonial era. When independence from Spain was achieved throughout the region, the citizens of Chiapas voted to join Mexico and not its natural suitor, the United Provinces of Central America. The cacti and dry shrubbery that dominate landscapes in Mexico are almost entirely absent from Chiapas, which is instead draped in verdant rainforest. Chiapas is one of Mexico’s most indigenous states, with nearly a third of the population speaking indigenous languages. Most of the indigenous peoples are descendants of the Ancient Maya, who migrated from their great cities in the lowlands of Yucatan and Guatemala to the highlands of Chiapas after their civilisation’s mysterious collapse. Indigenous culture is more pervasive in Chiapas than other Mexican states, including even Oaxaca. Chiapas’ culture and touristic attractiveness is defined much more by its indigenous peoples than its colonial heritage. And yet, like elsewhere in Latin America, the indigenous population is disempowered politically and economically in Chiapas. Their marginalisation initiated the Zapatista’s movement in the 1990’s, which sought to secure indigenous rights and autonomy. The Zapatistas occupied key towns in Chiapas, but were eventually subdued by the Mexican military. They remain politically active, although their once widespread support has waned. Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and the socio-economic disparity of Chiapas with other areas in Mexico (especially Mexico City) is very apparent.

While San Cristobal de las Casas is neither the capital nor largest city in Chiapas, it is certainly the state’s cultural and touristic centre. This has created the rather unusual circumstance where tourists totally skip the region’s constituent population base, most likely ignorant even of its name (Tuxtla Gutierrez). Since I am not an aficionado of dusty and monotonous concrete jungles, I opted to follow the masses and travel straight to San Cristobal. I stayed in San Cristobal for five nights (Nactus just four nights) and used the town as a base to explore the Chiapan hinterland. San Cristobal is a highly atmospheric colonial-era town situated within a cool highland valley in central Chiapas. Valley walls rise above San Cristobal and are covered in pine forests, providing naturalistic views from anywhere in town (unique for an urban area). The historic core is excellently preserved, with cobblestone streets, lively plazas and pastel-coloured buildings with terracotta roofs. Perhaps this description sounds familiar? What differentiates San Cristobal aesthetically from other Mexican towns is the lack of pretentious architecture and “Spanishness”, which is reflective of its ethnic composition. Buildings are instead humble and quaint, rather than bombastically colourful or decorative. Gargantuan Mexican flags, mariachi bands and other idiosyncratic Mexican elements are also noticeably absent. Instead, there is a strong indigenous presence in San Cristobal, since the town is surrounded by Mayan villages. The indigenous people congregate particularly at the central market and they are easily distinguished by the traditional clothing they wear. Unfortunately, many indigenous people live in abject poverty on the periphery of San Cristobal, displaced from their villages after converting to Evangelical Christian religions. This has occurred because of the interventionist practices of Westerners, determined to interfere with traditional customs.

main pedestrian thoroughfare

main pedestrian thoroughfare

San Cristobal de las Casas boasts easily the strangest Catholic church I have ever entered. Nactus and I began to jokingly identify all the peculiarities the church contained, like naughty children sitting in the pews. The external colouration of the church is blue and white, reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Strangely though, this colour scheme continues just as vividly into the interior of the building. When we were there, scaffolding was randomly positioned and completely unoccupied, blocking the central aisle. The church is lit by chandeliers with an eclectic mix of designs, as though they have been progressively acquired from garage sales over the years. Mexican churches are often decorated with a litany of flower bouquets, and this church is no exception. Although on closer inspection, Nactus and I realised the supposed “flowers” were actually just plastic mimicries! In front of the bouquets were rude signs ordering us not to cut the (plastic) flowers. The church’s crucifix is dark green, though that is because of indigenous Mayan influence. The church is festooned with baby dolls dressed in religious garb and sitting in glass boxes, rather than the more typical decorative motives of stone sculpture and paintings. After giggling about the church’s oddities, Nactus and I strolled over to a nearby doll box. We were immediately stricken with horror, totally crept out by box’s content. Inside was a baby doll with its eyes ripped out and blood droplets painted onto its cheeks. Its eyes were placed carefully on a silver dish by its feet. After sighting the doll, Nactus and I immediately sprinted for the exit.

Freaky dolls

Freaky dolls

Nactus and I joined a tour of two nearby Tzotzil Mayan villages, San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacatan (which I’m not bothered to write about!). Chumala is hardly the pretty, little mountain village one might envisage, but rather a sprawling and bustling town. The people of Chamula are fiercely protective of their culture and have virtual autonomy from the Mexican state. Crimes committed within their jurisdiction are subject to local judgment rather than state or federal laws. Our guide showed us Chamula’s “prison”, where convicted criminals are locked into cells completely exposed to the street. This is designed to shame the criminals and therefore discourage criminal acts in the first place. Recent to our visit, a group of young men raped a woman in the nearby forest. The response of the villagers was to lynch the three men, which is apparently accepted practice for such crimes! While the men usually where Western clothing, the women wear embroidered white tops and black woollen skirts that look inappropriately thick for the tropics. Chamula is governed by 120 religious leaders that serve voluntary terms of one year. The religion of the village is a mixture between Catholic and Maya traditions. The church is the village’s most important structure and certainly the highlight of any visit to Chamula. The relatively nondescript exterior of the church hides its wonderfully unique interior. The church is completely absent of pews, sculptures, confessional boxes, altars, priests or masses. The darkened sanctuary is lit by thousands of flickering candles amid a sea of pine needles that cover the floor. Paintings of dozens of saints align the walls and St John the Baptist’s depiction occupies a more important position than Christ’s. The saints are effectively hybrids of ancient Mayan deities and Catholic patrons. Worshippers pray to different saints based on what they’re seeking. They pray not to their face, but rather mirrors planted above the saints’ hearts. Practices such as the drinking of coca-cola and the sacrifice of chickens are common inside the church. Since many of their traditional customs contradict Catholic doctrine, there is little connection between Chamula and the Vatican. The only official involvement is for baptisms, when a priest from San Cristobal arrives to conduct the sacrament. Chamulans do not like photographs being taken of them because they believe their souls are being captured. Polygamy is practised.

Chiapas is blessed with a plethora of natural wonders, including the easily accessible Sumidero Canyon near San Cristobal. Nactus and I joined a tour boat for a three hour excursion on the Ro Grijalva to see the canyon in all its glory. After disembarking from the relative flatness of the colonial-era town of Chiapa de Corzo, we were soon shaded by cliff walls towering up to 800m above us. Each bend in the river revealed sublime views of the aqua blue river and the dramatic canyon swathed in thick, emerald green jungle. Even my extreme desire to attend the lavatory failed to deter my enthusiasm for us to keep travelling upriver to see further spectacular vistas. We spotted a couple of large crocodiles baking on the riverbanks and with orange butterflies swarming around their heads. We also spotted a group of baby crocodiles crammed onto one rock in the river, one monkey, pelicans and eagles.

Canon del Sumidero

Canon del Sumidero

The Maya were probably Mesoamerica’s most advanced civilisation and occupied a relatively large area corresponding to Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Although this domain is often retrospectively referred to as the Mayan Empire, Mayan civilisation was instead divided into numerous quarrelling city-state kingdoms. The Maya are the only known pre-Hispanic civilisation in the Americas to have employed writing, developing a highly complex hieroglyphic system. The literate elites recorded their history and ritual practices in books, but unfortunately the Spanish conquistadors destroyed nearly all such texts. The Maya studied astronomy fastidiously, although for prophetic, rather than scientific, purposes. The Maya believed that astronomical events such as eclipses would herald particular (usually negative) conditions on Earth, based on linking past conditions with observations. The Maya began to construct monumental architecture in the 5th century BC, mainly to perform ceremonies to placate the gods. The Classic period of Maya civilisation spanned from 250 AD to 900 AD and saw the rise of great city-states in the southern Mayan Lowlands (Chiapas, Southern Yucatan, Belize and northern Guatemala). Calakumul and Tikal were the two most powerful Mayan kingdoms and warred repeatedly for centuries. After the widespread and mysterious ninth-century collapse of city-states in the southern lowlands, many Mayan people migrated to the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala. During the Postclassic period, powerful city-states such as Chichen Itza emerged in the northern Yucatan Peninsula. By the sixteenth century when the Spanish arrived, most of the Maya world’s great cities had been completely abandoned. The region is now festooned with the ruins of ancient Mayan cities, of which I have now visited 7.

I visited two Mayan ruins in Chiapas: Tonina on a day trip from San Cristobal and Palenque after spending 3 weeks in Guatemala. Tonina is relatively difficult to reach, or at least inconvenient, and as such it is rarely visited by foreign tourists. I’m still debating whether my excursion to Tonina was worth the requisite effort to get there. Tonina is located 13km from the large market town of Ocosingo (awesome name, but not really an awesome place), within a picturesque agricultural landscape of verdant rolling hills. The ruins of Tonina essentially consist of an overgrown ball-court, several mounds and one towering acropolis. From ground level, the acropolis appears to be one humungous pyramid, but it is actually a hillside terraced into a series of platforms. Each platform features the remains of temples and residences. Intuitively, the highest platforms were the abodes of the city’s elites. Tonina developed into the most powerful kingdom in the west of the Maya world through aggressive warfare. The brutal manner in which Tonina’a enemies were dealt with is evident in the city’s surviving vestiges, with the decapitated heads of vanquished victims being a regularly employed decorative motif.

Acropolis of Tonina

Acropolis of Tonina

The ruins of Palenque are among the most beautiful in the former Mayan world; and it is therefore among the most visited sites in Mexico. Palenque is situated in the Chiapan lowlands amid lush rainforest, which has effectively reclaimed the site since the city’s abandonment. Consequently, tree roots sprout from the remains of temple walls, creating imagery similar to Angkor Wat. Palenque consists of numerous pyramidal temples, most of which are still covered in earth and vegetation. The pyramids were topped with roofcombs, some of which survive. The constituent attractions are the El Palacio, which features a tower (unusual for a Mayan structure), and the spectacularly proportioned burial monument of the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Tree growing in ruins of Palenque

Tree growing in ruins of Palenque

The cuisine of Chiapas lacks the complexity and range of culinary delights as neighbouring Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula. The only distinctly Chiapaneco dish I remember sampling was cooked plantains (very large bananas, often used in savoury dishes) stuffed with spiced minced beef; pleasant but not outrageously delicious. Fortunately though, Nactus and I did enjoy outrageously delicious quesadillas at a mysterious small restaurant near our hostel. The restaurant lacks a name and signage, opens only after 8:00pm, is made discernible only by a green lamp at the front and lacks a regular menu. Diners are instead progressively invited to the front counter to see what dishes have been prepared and are required to select a combination of offerings to fill their quesadillas with. The owners presumably run the restaurant more for enjoyment than financial return, because the quesadillas are extremely cheap considering the quality of ingredients used and the late opening hours suggests they work regular jobs during the day. Most days of the week are vegetarian, but on the first of three visitations to the restaurant (unthinkable for me) we were able to fill our blue-tortilla quesadillas with flesh. After filling the tortillas, the quesadillas were subsequently grilled on a hot plate. We selected combinations of: roast duck, pineapple, fried plantain and blue cheese (one of the highlight dishes of the entire trip); fried fish with a strong type of cheese (you can’t have a quesadilla without the queso (cheese)!) and green chorizo (different colouration derived from the chillies used) and pineapple. On our return to the restaurant, we decided it was necessary to sample four quesadillas. We selected combinations of: stewed eggplant with fried plantain and cheese; fried potatoes with grilled pineapple and cheese; sautéed local mushrooms with grilled pineapple and cheese; and a guayaba (guava) and pumpkin flower mixture with cheese. Atole is a popular hot maize-based drink that is obviously very thick. While they’re often quite grainy and foul, at the quesadilla restaurant I had a peanut atole that tasted like liquefied peanut butter and is definitely one of the best drinks I have ever had. Tascalate is another popular maize-based beverage made from a heated mixture of roasted maize, chocolate, ground pine nuts, spice, vanilla and sugar. The drink tastes predominately of chocolate and burnt corn. Strangely in San Cristobal I developed a passion for tortas, which are essentially large Mexican sandwiches. Tortas are commonly filled with a protein such as steak, chicken or chorizo, jalapeno chillies, tomatoes, lettuce and (disgustingly) avocado.

Quesadilla

Quesadilla

Chiapas is essentially a transitional region between Mexico and Central America. Its Mayan heritage, indigenous culture and environment are more reminiscent of Guatemala than neighbouring states in Mexico. Yet the cuisine, dynamism of its urban cores and highly organised tourism sector are distinctively Mexican. In San Cristobal, Nactus and I parted ways for three weeks as I travelled to Guatemala and Nactus ventured to Belize. I returned to Chiapas to visit Palenque.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Mexico photos

Posted by Liamps 15:33 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Oaxacan coast

Mexico photos

Dotted along Mexico’s extensive Pacific coastline are some of the world’s best surf beaches. Backpacker surfing havens, featuring all the vegan dishes, yoga classes, hallucinogenic substances and paraphernalia required to keep any fake hippy satisfied, are particularly concentrated in the state of Oaxaca. After a hectic month of travel through central Mexico, I was certainly ready to unwind in Oaxaca’s pristine surf waters. After descending from the relatively temperate highlands of Mexico, we were confronted with oppressively humid conditions at sea level. Nactus and I spent a largely uneventful week on the coast hopping between three surfer communities. While I enjoyed swimming in probably the best surf beaches I’ve been to outside of Australia, my time was partially blighted by a violent bout of food poisoning (please read on for all the gory details!).

Puerto Escondido is Oaxaca’s original surfing mecca and remains the premier backpacker destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast. However, the town is thankfully absent of mass tourism, exclusive resorts and high-rise complexes. Puerto Escondido is a large town of 40,000 that spreads out along the coast, contrasting it with other Mexican towns which are typically very compact. The locals congregate in the town’s centre on a highpoint above a calm bay. Playa Zicatela, the epic surf beach that attracts travellers to Puerto Escondido, stretches east of the bay for kilometres. The legendary Mexican Pipeline, one of the world’s best coastal waves for surfing, pummels into Playa Zicatela. The waters are consequently quite rough and unsuitable for average swimmers. Since Mexican society generally seems to lack a swimming culture, and most foreign visitors are hardly the models of fitness, the few lifeguards on Playa Zicatela assume that no board-less swimmer can handle the intoxicatingly inviting surf and strongly discourage anyone from entering the water. They patrol the expansive beach and order people out of the water in areas they consider to be particularly treacherous. Stupidly, they have failed to solve this issue by simply establishing a designated swimming area (i.e. between yellow flags) where their lifesaving resources can be concentrated. I found their restrictions and lack of alternative options incredibly frustrating because the water was no more precarious than at beaches on the Great Ocean Road. While the surf at Playa Zicatela was fantastic, the sprawling nature of Puerto Escondido denies the town of communal intimacy and vibrancy.

Puerto Escondido was swarming with Aussies. Perhaps this contributes to the subtle Byron Bay atmosphere the town permeates. In everywhere I have been to since (Chiapas state, Guatemala, Yucatan state) I have encountered more Australians than any other nationality except Americans. This further emphasises my theory that there are actually 100 million Australian citizens, but only 25% are in the country at any one moment.

Mazunte was easily my favourite town on the Oaxacan coast, but unfortunately its corresponding beach was easily my least favourite! Mazunte is a small backpacker hamlet surrounded by thick forest and is accessed via a dirt road from the main highway. It is therefore hidden from heavy traffic, congestion and (due to its relative remoteness) mass tourism. Mazunte is basically just a collection of hostels, low-key restaurants, yoga and art studios, convenience stores and local dwellings, clustered around rocky headland and the town’s two small beaches. Oaxaca’s most southerly tip is an easy walk from Mazunte, with dramatic scenery reminiscent of Cape Byron on the opposite side of the Ocean. Although Mazunte is a magnet for fake hippies, it is thankfully absent of the filth that usually plagues the hovels they fester in (I suspect this situation usually manifests because of their laziness, rather than their claimed rejection of Western sanitisation). Nactus and I stayed in a hostel with a deck literally above the sand; the perfect location to star-gaze and hear the sound of crashing waves. Unfortunately the waves are quite insipid in Mazunte and the water is not suitably clear for snorkelling (although it does radiate a magnificent blue colour), so it was not a particularly enthralling place to swim.

Zipolite is only 20 minutes away from Mazunte along the aforementioned dirt road. The towns are quite similar in most respects, although Zipolite was far more desolate during our time there than vibrant Mazunte. Nactus and I were the only guests in the expansive beach-side hotel we stayed at. The surf beach at Zipolite is properly treacherous, with numerous reports of Westerners drowning in the water. I encountered no issues swimming in Zipolite, although I did notice a rather strong undertow current. The agony synonymous with food poisoning hit me in the middle of the first night in Zipolite. I quickly scampered out of the cabana to an outdoor bathroom, but waited a distressingly long time until any action proceeded. Eventually, the putrid smell from the bore-water used in the bathroom initiated the desired regurgitation. A sequel to this episode followed in the morning. I spent the day totally lying around the hotel totally zonked and struggled to even climb a flight of stairs. It always amazes though how quickly the human body recovers from food poisoning. By the evening, I was scaling walls to unlock the hotel owner’s bedroom door; although he was probably unaware that six hours earlier I felt as though walking from the bed to the bathroom would cause me to faint.

Oaxaca’s remarkable gastronomic tradition seems to be exclusively concentrated to its capital in the Valles Centrales. Renditions of classic Oaxaqueno fare are feeble and generally uninspiring on the coast. Nevertheless, Nactus and I did enjoy a handful of culinary delights. In the market area of Puerto Escondido, we stumbled across a hidden restaurant brimming with locals. The bustling venue featured hot plates at the front where a fleet of ladies were preparing the breakfasts for the morning horde. Since busyness is always indicative of quality, Nactus and I slipped into the restaurant; thoroughly satisfied that we had reneged to order at an overpriced meal at the hostel. I ordered a serve of sopes and another tortilla-based dish that I’ve forgotten the name of. Mexican cuisine features literally hundreds of supposedly different tortilla dishes. Identifying the differences is quite an arduous task in most cases, because they all essentially feature the same ingredients: tortillas, tomato-based sauce, cheese and some sort of meat. It seems that if the tortilla is cooked or even just folded in a different way, the dish requires a totally new name. To make sopes, maize dough is soaked in lime juice and subsequently fried in small disks. The sopes I ate were spread with refried beans and topped with crumbly cheese and chorizo. The other dish was similar to a small Mexican-style pizza, with tomato, cheese and cactus paddle. In Mazunte, I was treated to probably the best tacos of my trip in Mexico. Flour tortillas (a welcome relief from corn) were wrapped around large fillets of lightly battered fried fish and filled with coleslaw, freshly diced tomatoes and a delectable chilli aioli. Unfortunately my seafood experience in Zipolite was substantially less appetizing. I was presented with an impressively large meal of grilled fish, chips and salad, but I soon discovered the fish was raw. Since I was already feeling quite queasy, I suspect this merely enhanced, rather than initiated, my vomiting ordeal! Aguas frescas are refreshing drinks especially popular in the southern regions of Mexico and Guatemala. Blended fruit is mixed with water and presumably sugar and served on ice, creating a concoction which is surprisingly nicer than fresh juices in Mexico. Tamarind (sour) and hibiscus (sweet and tangy, very similar to berry flavours) are also ubiquitous flavours.

Our week on Oaxaca’s coast was essentially our “vacation” from travelling. We intentionally were not exploring historic towns, immersing ourselves in local cultures or hiking through fantastic scenery. When backpacking long-term, I certainly think it is necessary to have “rest” periods to recharge.

That’s all for now,

Liam

PS: For those who neglected to read my “Mexico City” entry, Nactus is my Mexican-themed nickname for recurring Globo Trip character, Danish Nadia.

Mexico photos

Posted by Liamps 21:26 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Oaxaca

Mexico photos

The state of Oaxaca proudly boasts a distinctive culture, ethnic composition, history and cuisine to the rest of Mexico. Consequently, it is one of the country’s premium tourist destinations. Oaxaca features one of the largest concentrations of indigenous peoples in Mexico, with a third of the population speaking a traditional language rather than Spanish. The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs dominated the region before the arrival of the conquistadors and remain the two largest ethnic groups. The preservation of regional identity is partly due to the geographical isolation and ruggedness of the state. The constituent population bastion is Valles Centrales, where the capital Oaxaca City is located. The Spanish founded the city in 1529 after substantial difficulties in conquering Oaxaca and pacifying the indigenous population. While the colonial-era historic core is not outrageously beautiful or unique, the city serves as an excellent base to explore the surrounding valleys and to sample Oaxaca’s internationally famous cuisine. Nactus and I stayed in the Valles Centrales for 6 nights, including one night in a remote Zapotec village in the mountains.

I was aware that numerous Mexican cities, including the capital, are at significant altitude, but I was quite unprepared for how incredibly mountainous the country is throughout. Inter-regional bus journeys almost always require transiting through mountain ranges, which explains why seemingly short distances “as far as the crow flies” can take entire days to traverse. These routes obviously provide spectacular vistas for passengers, but they are also the fundamental reason why I am so far behind in blog writing (laziness is certainly not an explanation). The highway through the north-west of Oaxaca provided some the best road-trip scenery I have ever seen. We were afforded panoramic views of valleys with sheer slopes. The slopes were totally covered in 6-24 feet high cacti, which basically resembled gargantuan green match sticks; a most unusual sight.

I was hardly awestruck by the old town of Oaxaca City. For a World Heritage listed site often touted as one of Mexico “must-see” destinations, I was expecting more than a blander version of the “silver cities” we visited to the north of Mexico City. Oaxaca is famed for its rich indigenous heritage and artisanal products, but both elements were difficult to detect and uninspiring. The historic core is similar to other colonial towns in Mexico, with its cobblestone streets, low-rise colourful buildings and numerous plazas. But it lacked the vibrancy of San Miguel de Allende, the liveliness of Guanajuato or the regal grandeur of Morelia. Instead, Oaxaca City has a rather dilapidated and sombre appearance. Oaxaca City’s Zocalo was easily the least impressive central square we visited in Mexico, although the presence of hundreds of tents camped in the space certainly created some intrigue. The protestors were campaigning for the release of political prisoners and had occupied the Zocalo for more than a year. Although the historic core is rather unremarkable, it does at least boast Mexico’s most spectacular church. Templo de Santo Domingo is the magnum opus of the Baroque architectural style is Mexico. The church’s imposing and relatively unadorned exterior contrasts with the extraordinarily elaborate ornamentation of the interior. The internal surfaces are almost entirely golden, so the church radiates when sunlight penetrates into the building. The decorative features are typically extravagant but not disproportionate to the overall structure. Harmony and tranquillity is therefore achieved architecturally in Templo de Santo Domingo, which in my opinion is rare for a Baroque church. The other redeeming aspect of Oaxaca City is the expansive and virtually unnavigable market located outside the historic core. The market essentially functions as a maze of vendors, with some aisles exclusively devoted to specific items like flowers or empanadas with mole amarillo (see food paragraph).

The archaeological site of Monte Alban is among Mexico’s most outstanding pre-Hispanic ruins. Monte Alban is unique because it developed into one of region’s greatest cities outside the two primary centres of Mesoamerican civilisation: the Valley of Mexico and the Maya world (although it was influenced by the former). Monte Alban was founded by the ancient Zapotecs in around 500 BC. The city reached its apogee between 350 AD and 700 AD when the priest-dominated society controlled the Valles Centrales and the population exceeded 25,000. Monte Alban is spectacularly situated on an artificially levelled hilltop that provides 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys. Its commanding position is evocative of the hegemonic power Monte Alban possessed over the nearby villages and agricultural lands (Game of Thrones fans, think of the Eyrie). Bordering the Gran Plaza in the centre of Monte Alban are most of the surviving structures, which include palaces, temples and an observatory (indicative of the importance of astronomy in pre-Hispanic societies). The structures are pyramidal with 3-4 terraces and varying degrees in height. Monte Alban also features the ruins of a ball-court. Regardless of region or civilisation in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, virtually every settlement had at least one ball-court. The I-shaped courts consisted of two sloping sides, each with one stone hoop above it. The intention of the ball-game was to send through the hoops using hips and forearms. The ball-game was often played to settle disputes or celebrate religious ceremonies. The losers of the game would occasionally be sacrificed. Monte Alban was abandoned by 950, although it was briefly reoccupied by the Mixtecs. Modern-day Monte Alban is exceptionally picturesque with its decaying ruins, vivid green invasive grass, overgrown vegetation and panoramic views.

The mountains north of Oaxaca City, known as the Sierra Norte, consist of small Zapotec villages scattered throughout pristine forests. The indigenous population takes great pride in protecting the natural environment of the mountains and utilises the native plants for food, fuel and medicinal purposes. Nactus and I arranged to do a two day hike through an eco-tourism cooperative, which was established by six of the villages to encourage foreigners to visit their homeland. Early on the first day, we caught a public bus from Oaxaca City to the largest village of Cuajimoloyas and immediately commenced our hike. We found ourselves traversing through alpine scenery, with an abundance of pine trees and small paddocks for livestock. We also ambled past rows of cacti, which seemed rather unusual to use considering the context. The cacti effectively formed living fences around the paddocks of local farmers. After a couple hours, some spectacular vistas and a change of guide, we began to descend through thick cloud forest. Many of the trees featured vivid green-and-red plants growing within their crevices.

Unfortunately in the mid-afternoon, it started to rain profusely. Since we were at altitude and brought a shortage of clothes, we were facing a wet and rather freezing evening. Compounding the arduousness of the situation was the fact that Nactus and I had opted to carry all of our valuables (i.e. passports, cameras, computers and phones) rather than leave them at the hostel. Nactus had cleverly packed a rain-cover for her bag, so we shoved everything electronic item in there. Nevertheless, we were quite concerned about the fate of our belongings as even under the forest canopy, all of our clothes were totally saturated within a few minutes of the storm hitting. The storm dissipated after about 45 minutes and we spent the remaining hour squelching to the remote village of Latuvi. Upon arrival, we were gobsmacked by the luxuriousness of our accommodation: a log cabin with ensuite, hot water and… a fireplace! Thankfully all our possessions survived the ordeal and our clothes dried quickly from the blazing heat of the fire. Stupidly, I almost blew up the lovely accommodation precinct the villagers had thoughtfully created (a dozen cabins perched on a slope with panoramic views) by placing a highly flammable bottle of DEET, hidden in a side pocket of my drenched backpack, directly beside the heat for hours. Although the canister was piping hot, the potential crisis was averted (thanks to the presence of mosquitos!).

Latuvi is a splendid little village situated on a high ridge overlooking several cloud-shrouded valleys. Latuvi is one of the most remote villages in the Sierra Norte, so there is no internet, few products in the local stores and very few vehicles. It is completely surrounded by forest and some small orchards and paddocks. The villagers were incredibly friendly to us as everyone made an effort to greet us when passing by. I haven’t always experienced this level of hospitality in remote villages, as often I’ve felt unsure about whether my presence is wanted. We dined in the local restaurant, where basically the hot family cooks one dish and serves it to everyone. The chilli rellenos (large chilli stuffed with cheese), black beans and squash in boiled water were particularly delicious.

We departed Latuvi early the next morning and continuously descended and ascended slopes throughout the day. We walked along clear streams and noted significant differences in the landscape to the previous day. For much of the day’s hike we passed under trees with white “beards” dangling from their branches. The forest in this area reminded me somewhat of Avatar with its otherworldly flora. We concluded our hike in Amatlan and returned to Oaxaca City that evening. Nactus and I expected that hiking through the Sierra Norte would be one of the constituent activities for travellers to partake in while visiting Oaxaca. Yet only one other couple were staying in Latuvi during our visit and no one had written an entry in the guestbook in four days since British Helen from Sydney did (remember that name for future entries… and note my skilful detective work!).

Nactus and I visited two natural wonders in the Valle de Tlacolula east of Oaxaca City on a day-trip: Agua de Hierve and the world’s largest tree in Tule. At Agua de Hierve, mineral waters dripping over sheer cliffs for millennia have created formations that look similar to frozen waterfalls. Lounging in the naturally created cold water pools provide panoramic views of the deep surrounding valley. Agua de Hierve is evocative of Pamukkale in Turkey, though substantially less impressive. We also stopped in the tiny hamlet of Santa Maria de Tule to see its famed Montezuma Cypress. The Arbol del Tule has the stoutest trunk of any known tree in the world, with a smoothed out diameter of 9.38m. The tree is believed to be about 1,600 years old, although it is slowly dying because its root system is severely strained by the town’s water consumption. The tree completely dwarfs the comparatively petite church to its side. The tree is majestic and awe-inspiring, and its impressiveness is heightened by its isolation. The tree is located in a dry and barren part of Oaxaca with few other trees of any proportions around (aside from another gargantuan Montezuma Cypress on the other side of the church)!

As the epicentre of Oaxaca’s famous regional cuisine, Oaxaca City is one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Oaxaqueno cuisine is renowned for its 7 different varieties of mole (pronounced MO-LAY), considered to be the best in Mexico (see my “Valley of Mexico” entry for discussion about moles and how the Mexicans venerate sauces). Identifying exactly what the 7 moles are and finding all of them in the markets and restaurants proved to be rather difficult. There seems to be consensus that mole verde (green), mole amarillo (yellow), mole negro (black), mole rojo (red) and mancha manteles (the tablecloth stainer) are holy moles, but there was some conjecture about the legitimacy of mole colorado, chichilo negro (both of which we could never find) and mole estafado. Nevertheless, mole negro is the absolute “must try” mole. Whereas most of the other moles are quite subtle (or dare I say, considering the huge amount of time poured into creating a mole… bland), mole negro is a boldly rich concoction bursting with the flavours of savoury chillies, dried fruits, burnt tortillas and chocolate. Although mole negro is similar to mole poblano, it tastes better and is darker because of the regional chillies used. Mole rojo is thick, smoky and tomato-based and is quite similar to the stereotypical “Mexican” sauces you can purchase in supermarkets. Mole estafado is a creamy sauce with a distinct nutty flavour. We sampled mole negro, mole rojo and mole estafado with chicken legs. Mole verde is made from tomatillos, herbs and nuts and consequently it is vibrantly green and tangy. Mole verde is often served over enchiladas, which is a typical Mexican dish consisting of shredded chicken or cheese (or both) wrapped in tortillas and cooked. Mole amarillo features tomatillos, herbs and numerous spices and is the most “curry-like” mole. We sampled mole amarillo in an empanada (Oaxaca-style – thin dough cooked over hot plate with topping, then wrapped up like a pasty to serve) with pumpkin flowers and Oaxaqueno cheese (white, stringy and subtle) prepared at a lively street-stall. Another regional specialty is the tlayuda, another type of antojitos (“snack”) only found in Oaxaca.

Tlayudas are usually cooked street-side over open-flames. Thin, pizza-like dough is smothered in pureed black beans and topped with onions, cheese and either chorizo, steak or sliced pork. The dough is folded over the mixture to create a giant pasty-like shape and then cooked until crisp and charring on the grill. Our waiter at the family-run local tlayuda restaurant we dined at was a very sociable English-speaking chap (rare for a Mexican- Nactus has been my perennial translator) who had just married a Japanese girl in Tokyo 4 days prior. The story seemed quite true, if entirely incomprehensible, because he showed us wedding photographs of Japanese people, our waiter and a Mexican friend in traditional ceremonial garb. He intended to move to Japan permanently when his visa is arranged. A most unexpected encounter.

Since chocolate originates from Mexico, the local population are suitably obsessed by the ingredient. Oaxaca is especially famous for its hot chocolate culture. Hot chocolate is usually served without milk (although I recommend requesting milk! The water-based hot chocolates lack creaminess obviously) in large bowls and a sweet bread roll to dunk (rather than biscuits). Oaxaqueno ice-creams are among the tastiest renditions of the ever popular treat I have sampled. They are more similar to gelato than typical ice-cream. Nactus and I tried a range of regional flavours, including tamarind (sour and delicious), prickly pear (bright purple, tangy and delicious) and burnt milk (or something like that… not my favourite).

Writing this entry has reaffirmed to me that Oaxaca was one of the highlight destinations of my trip. Although I found the historic core comparatively underwhelming, Oaxaca City ultimately served as a pleasant to explore the wonders of the Valles Centrales and indulge in Oaxaca’s brilliant cuisine.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Mexico photos

Posted by Liamps 03:39 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Michoacán

Mexico photos

Nactus and I methodically planned our route through Mexico to avoid the country’s most dangerous regions plagued with drug violence. Unbeknownst to us however, the northern states of Mexico are not considered to be the most precarious areas (although unsavoury places nonetheless). Our Airbnb host in San Miguel de Allende informed us that Michoacán and Guerrero, both located within the heartland of Mexico and less than four hours from the capital, are where the “narco” gangs are strongest. Reprehensible crimes, like the kidnapping and murder of 42 students in Guerrero in 2013, and intense battles between gangs and with police forces have become endemic in Michoacán and Guerreo in the past four years. Unfortunately for us, the next destinations we intended to travel to after Guanajuato happened to be situated in these two states! Perhaps our initial research and strategizing was not so meticulous after all. The travel advisories of several Western countries recommended avoiding Guerrero and Michoacán states, with a few exceptions. We opted to ditch Guerrero altogether, but retain Michoacán as the cities of Morelia and Patzcuaro were cited as safe for travel. However, governmental reassurance failed to deter our frenzied paranoia on the bus trip into Michoacán and our first night in Morelia. Our unease dissipated in subsequent days as the large police presence (unusually high even for Mexico) in Morelia and Patzcuaro created perhaps an artificial aura of security. Tourists are not targeted by the narcos anyway; the constituent danger is stumbling into the firing line or observing something you shouldn’t be witnessing.

Morelia is another World Heritage listed “silver city”, yet it is very different to its counterparts further north and east. Morelia is almost completely flat, so it lacks the dramatic vistas that characterise San Miguel and Guanajuato. The topography has however enabled the development of a highly navigable and coherent urban layout, with a grid-like formation and wide linear avenues. The historic core is composed mostly of Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles and possesses a regal atmosphere, harkening back to the Spanish colonial era. Stone is the primary construction material used in the historic core. It has generally been left exposed, which gives Morelia a monolithic and old appearance; far more reminiscent of Southern Europe than the uber colourful towns of San Miguel and Guanajuato. Archways are ubiquitous in structures throughout the historic core, which is a notable difference with other Mexican cities. This design element is most impressively exhibited in the Morelia’s 3km long aqueduct, a domineering relic of pre-industrialisation. The city’s central plaza exudes the spaciousness of Mexico City’s Zocalo, the greenery of Puebla’s Zocalo and the liveliness of San Miguel’s Plaza Principal. The plaza complements the gargantuan stone cathedral on its right side. The cathedral was completed over the course of one hundred years and consequently several architectural styles are evident in the design. The cathedral hosted a rather unusual wedding ceremony during our visit, as any person was free to just wander inside and approach the altar. It was like the wedding participants were eager to be an exhibit for tourists to view, like animals in a zoo. Speaking of which, where were all the tourists in Morelia? Nactus and I seemed to be the only foreigners, as other travellers have probably been turned off by Michoacán’s reputation. An awful shame, because Morelia is a really beautiful city with a unique character for Mexico. Overall, the urban streetscapes of Morelia are refined, elegant and more sophisticated than other bombastically colourful Mexican cities.

Patzcuaro has a totally different ambiance to Morelia, despite being only one hour away by bus. Indigenous culture is very strong in Patzcuaro because it is the major town in Purepecha country surrounding Lake Patzcuaro. Patzcuaro’s open-air market was probably my favourite that we visited in Mexico because it was dominated by indigenous people. It was quite a thrill to see tiny old ladies from the nearby villages dawdle by in their traditional purple garb. The fruit and vegetable sections were vast and we spotted numerous varieties of chillies, including habaneros. The old town is characterised by a uniform architectural style, with all buildings painted in dark red (lower half) and white (upper half). This creates the impression that blocks consist of connected and continuous structures. The town’s myriad of Baroque churches features that pleasant decaying appearance that is commonly evident in colonial-era structures in the tropics. Patzcuaro’s primary civic space is Plaza Grande, which is more like a park surrounded with important buildings than a typically grandiose and manicured Mexican plaza. The plaza is aligned with pine trees, grassed and defined by a monumental fountain at its core dedicated to Vasco de Quiroga. Bishop Vasco de Quiroga governed Purepecha country in the mid-sixteenth century after the brutal regime of the initial conquistadors. Quiroga zealously protected the indigenous people from exploitation, encouraged education and fostered economic growth in Purepecha villages through specialised artisanal industries. Quiroga is consequently venerated in this region, hence the huge statue. The cobblestone streets of Patzcuaro are overgrown with grass, which gives the town an intriguing rural vibe.

Mexicans are obsessed with public gatherings, either in the form of protests or fiestas. Complaining and cheering are probably outlets for Mexicans to indulge in their passion and extraverted nature. Protests and fiestas are seemingly so pervasive in Mexico that whenever the sound of a brass band approached, Nactus and I joked about whether it signified a protest or fiesta. At least one was encountered each day. Mexicans will spontaneously manifest fiestas based on the most random of themes to satiate their natural predilection for celebrating, which was epitomised by the fiesta we witnessed in Patzcuaro. Immediately after departing a fine dining establishment on Plaza Grande, thousands of people paraded past and were led by a brass band playing euphoric music. The crowd congregated in front of a hotel on Plaza Grande. Suddenly, dozens of people appeared on the hotel’s balcony and began throwing plastic containers, lids and plates to the adoring crowd. Thus was the Tupperware Festival born. The assembled masses went absolutely bonkers for the tupperware, leaping in joy to catch their prized possessions. Some greedy members of the crowd savagely grabbed for multiple containers or fought fervently for particular items. All the while the brass band continued to stimulate the elation by playing obscenely positive tunes. When all the tupperware reserves were exhausted after 15 minutes, the people on the balcony started throwing shitty unadorned hats to the thrill of the audience. When all the hats were gone too, the crowd sprinted (and I mean, totally bolted) to somewhere else in the town, probably to horde some more cheap rubbish.

Michoacán is one of Mexico’s great culinary destinations, and its regional cuisine can be eaten at specialised restaurants all over the country. Morelia is particularly famed for producing a litany of sweets unique to the city, which can easily be sampled at a market devoted to confectionary. Indeed, most of the products sold there I had never seen before. Nactus and I indulged our sweet tooth by treating ourselves to: candied limes (including the rinds) stuffed with sweeten shredded coconut (my personal favourite); crunchy balls of caramelised coconut; fudge-like milk sweets flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon; and a gooey guava and almond roll (similar form to a Swiss roll). Morelia is also famed for a delicious fruity concoction called gaspacho (distinct to gazpacho). Mango, pineapple and jicama (a crunchy relative of the yam) are finely chopped, drowned in citrus juices and served with chilli sauce, salt and crumbled cheese. In Morelia we consumed a hearty traditional breakfast of aporreadillo, a spicy tomato-based stew of dried beef, eggs and chilli. In Patzcuaro, I ate a massive tamale (masa dough steamed in banana leaves and usually stuffed with meat or vegetables- typical morning street-food) that was smothered in cheese, chilli sauce and mayonnaise. We dined on a massive knuckle of roasted pork that was served with an earthy adobo sauce; one of the culinary highlights of the trip. We also tried Tarasca soup, which is a rich tomato soup with cream, chilli and crisp pieces of tortilla. On our final night in Morelia we decided our bravery in visiting Michoacán should be rewarded by attending the city’s top restaurant. For entrée, we shared a plate of quesadillas consisting of blue corn tortillas folded over a cheese similar to haloumi. Each tortilla featured an additional ingredient, either: caramelised hibiscus flowers, cactus paddle, mushrooms or capsicums. For the main dish, I had grilled chicken wrapped in hoja santa, a fragrant Mesoamerican herb, stuffed with dried fruits and served with xanducata sauce, which was kind of similar to a curry sauce.

Despite the initial apprehension we had about visiting Michoacan, we departed chuffed in our decision to visit the state. Since we restricted our travels to the central core of the state’s two most prominent cities, we were always highly unlikely to encounter trouble. Visiting Morelia and Patzcuaro provided us with new experiences of historic Mexican cities unadulterated by mass (or any) tourism. Patzcuaro also offered us our first opportunities to interact with a predominately indigenous population in Mexico.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Mexico photos

Posted by Liamps 07:34 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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