Thursday, 9 January 2014

'The elephant eats an apple' (...or more of Mexico and on to Belize)

It seems unreal now that Christmas was only a couple of weeks ago. It seems impossible that we've seen and done so much in such a short space of time. This is the first time I've really had time to sit and write, in that twilight period between arriving after a 14 hour bus ride and it being too early to sleep...something that seems to have become commonplace recently.

After spending most of Christmas in what seemed like a continuous cycle of alternate eating and sleeping with the occasional trip into the city and surrounding area, we decided to venture a bit further outside with a visit to Teotihuacan, a Mayan temple site about 3 hours bus ride away. We'd seen pictures and it looked impressive, but nothing compared to what it's like to actually be standing in front of those giant pyramids. This place was mind blowing, awe inspiring. It was everything that Chichen Itza wasn't. For a start it's a much bigger site with only a fraction of the number of visitors. No tour buses, no hard sell from vendors and easy to get to by bus for a fraction of the price of an organised tour. We walked, we sat, we took about 3 million photos, we sat some more and just took in the atmosphere of the place. Unlike Chichen Itza, here you can still climb the pyramids and you really need to, because a site like this needs to be viewed from a height. Truly a breathtaking place.

On leaving Teotihuacan, we had yet another weird encounter, only comparable in terms of its randomness to being given an egg on a streetcar in Sarajevo. We were waiting for the bus when a friendly cop invited us to sit on the benches in the first aid shelter near the pick up point. He then invited us to sit in his car, at which point he disappeared and returned with a generously poured glass of tequila which he gave to us. Slightly bemused, the bus then arrived leaving us wondering what the hell had just happened. Mexico has been full of weird and wonderful encounters though, so little surprises me now.

After a wonderful stay with Maria and her lovely family, we finally said our goodbyes and headed northwest to a little town called Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Guanajuato. Luck was shining on us again as we were able to not only catch a lift with Maria's brother most of the way, but also stay with the uncle of one of her friends, Uncle Pedro. When we arrived in Dolores Hidalgo we realised straight away we weren't in a tourist area anymore and without Spanish we were going to struggle a bit. However, as with everywhere else we've been so far in Mexico, people have proved to be extremely warm and welcoming and with a little perseverance (and google translate!) we got along just fine. The driver of the taxi we took from the bus station to Uncle Pedro's house even got out to look for the address, knock on the door and make sure we were definitely in the right place before he left us. People here, without exception, go above and beyond.

We didn't see much of Dolores Hidalgo as our main purpose for going there was to be near San Miguel de Allende, a place that a couple of people had insisted we should be for the New Year celebrations. San Miguel de Allende is a medium sized town with beautiful old buildings and a multitude of churches. The first thing that struck me when we arrived there was that it was surprisingly quiet. Having gone there expecting huge crowds and a large city square we soon realised that this wasn't on the scale we were expecting. However, new year doesn't really interest me and usually I'd be staying in, so I was actually pleased in a way that we didn't have to deal with massive crowds.

So we walked around the town through the winding streets waiting for the entertainment to start...and it didn't. 7pm, 8pm, 9pm...nothing, just people milling around, not even a sense of expectation. Earlier in the afternoon we'd seen a band sound checking and they were very good, so we presumed they'd be playing later on, but there was no information so it was anybody's guess. By 9pm we were extremely cold, to the point where we considered just getting the next bus home and forgetting all about new year, but instead we did something I haven't done since I was a kid...we went to church. I'm not religious in the slightest and I don't like what the church stands for, but I have to admit there was something nice about about being warm, having a seat and listening to a mass in a language I don't understand. It gave me an hour alone with my thoughts, interrupted only by occasionally having to stand up for parts and shake hands with people around me at the relevant point in the service. The music, played by live musicians, was good too.

Eventually though we had to head back out into the cold and at 10.30pm, finally, there was some sign of life in the square. There were three bands playing that night, but for some reason whoever organised the event got their running schedule very wrong. It seems they decided to put the best band on first - two guys who played a mix of covers and originals, followed by the band we'd seen earlier in the afternoon, followed by a Lionel Richie lookalike who we later discovered was a famous 80's popstar, but who failed miserably to enthuse the majority of the crowd. Think Eurovision and you're not far off. The whole thing had a charm to it though that just got funnier and funnier as the night went on, culminating in the organisers announcing new year at least 5 mins late, the singer not realising the countdown had even started and then someone clearly forgetting to let off the fireworks, which took another few mins to start. Damn new year, sneaking up on those poor organisers like that and catching them unawares! All in all well worth the entertainment value and a fun night.

On returning to the bus station we found that there was no 2.30am bus back to Dolores Hidalgo, despite it being clearly advertised on the board at the ticket desk, so a taxi it was. Before I came to Mexico I read somewhere that 'buses in Mexico run to a schedule only they seem to know' and they're not kidding. More about that later as it deserves a post in its own right! It wasn't too bad though, taxis aren't expensive by UK standards and 350 pesos and 45 mins later we were home.

The following day we decided it was time to move on and so after a breakfast that included raw bacon soaked in vinegar and a glass of wine (yes, really) we caught a bus to Celaya with the intention of heading on from there to Morelia in Michican state. Having consulted google maps, which told us that to drive by car would take us around 3 hours, we expected that we'd be there in around 4.5 hours. 8 hours later we arrived in Morelia, tired and hungry and more than a little irritable.

Having stayed at The Only backpackers in Toronto, I remembered that Juan Pablo there had told me there was an Only backpackers in Morelia so it seemed like an obvious choice and we weren't disappointed. Owned and run by a lovely Mexican/German couple, we couldnt have been made to feel more welcome. Beautiful dorms, comfy beds and a wealth of knowledge and ideas on where we should head next and how best to get there. They also served the most wonderful breakfast - fresh fruit, yoghurt and granola - the healthiest thing we'd eaten for weeks and I felt so much better for it!

One of my main reasons for coming to Mexico was to see the overwintering monarch butterflies, hence the trip to Morelia. On asking around about the best way to reach the sanctuary at El Rosario we realised that an organised tour was probably the most convenient way to get there rather than public buses and taxis and so we arranged for a minibus trip to the site. I've been reading a fair bit about the situation with the monarch butterflies recently and I was shocked when I found out that numbers this year are at an all time low. The average number of butterflies arriving in Mexico from Canada and the USA ten years ago was 340 million. Largely due to deforestation in the butterflies overwintering grounds and a lack of milkweed for them to feed on, last year there were only 60 million, this year only 3 million. With such a steep decline it's doubtful whether these beautiful creatures will be around much longer so I wanted to see them while I still can. We actually ended up going to Sierra Cincua instead of El Rosario, which was a shame as I'd read that El Rosario was the better site this year. However, with numbers so low I knew it would be hit and miss as to how spectacular the sight would be wherever we went.

After a 4 hour drive along mostly rural roads with the Beatles and the Doors as a soundtrack, we reached the site and began the 45 minute climb up to where the butterflies were roosting. With the altitude burning my lungs a bit we reached the clearing and I have to say the sight was particularly underwhelming. There were two or three trees, each about half covered with butterflies, all sleeping as it was a little cloudy. You had to squint to really see them. The sun broke through briefly a couple of times which sent clouds of butterflies up until the air, fluttering around, but it was almost momentary, lasting a minute each time at most. I tried to imagine what more than 100 times the number of butterflies would look like, but I couldn't...the numbers there were just too small to allow my mind to multiply by that factor. As we drove away from the site to the sound of 'Let it Be' all I really felt was an overwhelming sadness.

We also resolved that day not to use organised tours for trips like this again unless there really is no other option. Fifty percent of the day at least is always spent in overpriced gift shops or waiting for the slow members of the group to catch up or waiting for people to finish their overpriced lunch at a leisurely pace.

Our plan when we left Morelia was to travel to Oaxaca via Mexico City and so we booked a late bus back to MEX leaving at 11pm. This gave us a whole day free and so on the advice of the hostel owners we settled on a day trip to Patzcuaron and a ferry over to Isla de Janitzio.

A beautiful little colonial town and heritage site, all the buildings are painted in uniform red and white with hand painted signs above each door in the same style. With limited time unfortunately, because I could happily have spent a lot more time there, we headed straight to the island, a short collectivo ride away and then 45 mins by boat. I've missed being by and on the water so this satisfied my need to be near the water. A largely touristy area full of little gift shops and trinket sellers, the main focal point of the island is a large modern version of what could be likened to the Statue of Liberty, made of tiles and with a spiral staircase inside allowing you to climb to the top and experience the view. The combination of ramshackle boats, cheap ice cream and brilliant sunshine make this one of my favourite places in Mexico so far. I have no idea how these boats actually run though...the copious amounts of weed in the harbour (god only knows how the props cope with it!), the lack of fendering meaning boats just use each other to stop and engines that sound like a jet plane taking off set the odds against them.

On leaving Patzcuaron we both agreed that going to Oaxaca didn't feel right, so a quick change of plan and a rapidly booked flight has brought us back to the warmth and comforts of tourist town aka Cancun. The trip east through Mexico was getting expensive and our schedule for Central America was already tight so we decided that coming back to Cancun and then travelling south to Belize and Guatemala was a better idea. We had three days in Cancun, had a chance to warm up (Mexico City and beyond was unbelievably cold!) and meet up with friends we made here. Every now and then I think a break is needed from being on the move the whole time, but a couple of days was enough and after that we left feeling refreshed and ready for another adventure, headed for Belize. Now we're here in Belize and tomorrow we'll head across the border to Guatemala for a few days before heading back here, suffice to say that this is a very different country to Mexico. More about that to come...!

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