35 Mexico

MEXICO May 2007

A bumpy drive.

Tortillas from the frenetic mercado or from the supermarket that has a machine churning out the fresh maize meal “pancakes” by the hundreds; we had the choice. Both displayed green to fiery red varieties of chillies we had never seen.

We had arrived in the southern city of Chetumal. After visiting the excellent Maya museum we were delighted to find a real campsite with a pool and ocean on two sides.

It was mothers’ day. At the resort next to our campground some Chippendale-types were giving the mammas of Mexico some salsa lessons.

Swimming. Along the coast of the Yucatan peninsula we stopped at seaside places. The colour of the Caribbean Sea is an unbelievable turquoise. The white beaches with palm trees are like picture post cards. There are always “palapas”, made of palm leaves as shelters from the fierce sun; however, Dipli’s solar panels had to catch the rays so there was no cover for us! The reefs bathed in crystal-clear water provide a profusion of diving and snorkelling sites like: Paa Mul, Punto Soliman, Xpu Ha, PuertoMorelos, and Acamaya.

We stayed on the shady shore of the unspoilt narrow clear lake “Lago Azul”. (Blue lake). Another spot travellers had recommended was “Agua Azul” where dazzling white waterfalls cascade into blue-green pools in verdant jungle. Deep sink holes – “Cenotes” in Spanish – is one more popular alternative for swimming in fresh water. Our on-board filtration system provided us with unlimited quantities of fresh water, and did we need it!

After many jungle and beach nights, Playa del Carmen’s long pedestrian streets lined with restaurants and craft shops were a welcome diversion. Mariachi’s in black or all white outfits, wandered around playing music on guitar, violin and trumpet. Our meal of spicy dishes included a rich “mole” sauce which has cacao as one of the many ingredients. The mango-margaritas were delectable. Tequila was on offer too.

Droves of North Americans holiday on this warm coast at palatial resorts. The development along the Riviera Maya is spreading at an alarming pace. Beaches shown on our map had become monumental construction sites.

Cancún has a hotel zone on a spit of an island 21 km long. Millions of visitors come each year to occupy 30 000 hotel rooms and to play on one of 6 golf courses.

We left the coastal province of Quintana Roo for the ruins…

Ruined out?

We tried to guard ourselves from further impression overload and visited only the best archaeological sites on our route.

Chichén Itzá. We sat in the evening where the “El Castillo” pyramid rises in all its grandeur. The evening sound-and-light show in Spanish (which we could follow) dramatised that the high structure is actually the Mayan calendar in stone.

We will remember the stone-carved snakes, jaguars, sacrificial victims (with hearts torn out), a forest of columns and an ancient observatory.

Uxmal. As usual we were at the entrance at opening time when it was still cool and could catch the best light on the pink-hued limestone patterned and lace-like buildings with the long-nosed faces of the rain god Chac Mool.

Palenque. At the campsite we were overjoyed to meet two young South Africans travelling in a van with an American chap. (We had met only 3 other sets of SA travellers in over 4 years.)

In the adjacent dense jungle, only a few structures have been excavated from the forest. The grey stone temples with fine bas reliefs depicting gods of the underworld would have been painted blood-red with blue and yellow embellishment.

Other archaeological sites included the colossal stone Olmec heads at La Venta, Mitla with its buildings adorned with mosaics of 14 different geometric designs and Monte Alban’s terraced hills where grand plazas and temples served a large ancient city. Gold masks, 2000 pearls, turquoise and silver jewellery and goblets from jade and amber have been excavated from one tomb.

Hazardous humps.

Driving in Mexico is truly trying! Small villages have up to 13 severe speed bumps across major routes. Many are unmarked and can be disastrous. There are some expensive toll roads without speed bumps – definitely worth the fee.

Colourful crafts.

Nowhere else have we seen such a variety and profusion of crafts. Mexican’s skill with their hands and love of colour, bring into being woven articles, embroidered clothing, painted boxes, carved masks and “animalitos”, ceramics, sculpted stone, jewellery, metalwork, basketry and articles from all possible materials like wool, leather, paper or bark.

At the “artesania”-markets, bargaining for everything is the rule.

Cobbled streets and spires.

When we reached a city we always followed the sign directing us to the “Centro” because we knew there we would find the leafy central square surrounded by fine-looking Colonial buildings like the cathedral and town hall. Although it was very noisy we often parked for the night on the central “plaza” close to the action. Some of the finest Spanish-built cities we saw were Oaxaca, San Cristobal and Saltillo.

Megalopolis of Mexico City.

The snow covered active Popocatépetl volcano rises above the polluted valley where about 20 million people live. We defied the traffic and the bothersome police to see the spectacular pyramids at Teotihuacan and to visit the supreme Anthropological museum.

After 14 months in Latin America, we reached the Rio Grande, which here forms the United States border at Laredo.

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