Chiapas, Mexico July 8 - 26

Filed under: Mexico — Aaron and Amy at 5:00 pm on Sunday, July 8, 2007

July 8 to 26, 2007 Chiapas, Mexico

We drove forty-five minutes to the border and left Guatemala entering into Mexico at what Aaron described as a modern, clean and efficient border (La Mesilla). Once all the technicalities were taken care of we drove into Mexico playing James Taylor “Mexico”. We high-fived with glee, “We have returned to our beloved Mexico”! We are ALWAYS asked what our favorite country has been. I still hold true that I don’t have any favorites, but after having been south of Mexico for almost exactly one year, we were both really looking forward to returning to Mexico. We had already spent seven months in the country and there is still so much more to see and experience. It is an enormous country with a wide range of geography, culture, people, accents, food and attractions. We are happy to be back and look forward to another eight months in this welcoming neighbor of the United States.

At the Mexican border we asked where we could find propane and were directed towards the city of Comitan. It wasn’t that far off our route so we headed in that direction. We were originally turning at La Trinitaria towards the Lagunas de Montebello, Yaxchilan and Bonampak but Comitan was only a few kilometers beyond this intersection. After getting gas at the first propane place we saw, there were another four or five propane stations or distributors. We have always told people that propane is more readily available in Mexico than Central America but we forgot how much so! We spent all our pesos on propane and were heading out on the Carretera Fronteriza where there is little to no civilization for several days. We needed an ATM and the closest one was in Comitan. To make a long story short Aaron’s ATM card wasn’t working. After making several Skype phone calls he determined that the new card his bank issued was for the wrong account. We had several traveler’s checks so he proceeded to cash several of those at the grocery store. While he had taken a taxi into the town center to deal with the traveler’s checks he saw that it was a charming little colonial town. By then it was late afternoon and he thought I would enjoy seeing it so we decided to stay the night camped in the Bodega Aurerra grocery store parking lot.

I read that the archaeological museum had some misshapen pre-Hispanic skulls (intentionally “beautified” as babies) on display and wanted to see them as well as other archaeological artifacts from the region. The museum was closed so we continued to walk around the quaint little square. For many hours we were the only white people there! There were lots of Mexican tourists because many of them are on their summer vacation. It actually took about seven hours to come across another Caucasian tourist! When we first got to town in the afternoon there weren’t many people out but the town came alive after siesta was over. The town square was filled with locals hanging around for the evening. There were clowns taunting the crowds, bands performing music for those who chose to dance and mariachis waiting their turn to entertain. It was a cool evening as we enjoyed our first marvelous meal back in Mexico! We have so longed for the flavors of Mexico! Unfortunately the food in Central America is quite bland and usually lacking any spectacular flavor. Mexico is filled with flavorful food and several regional specialties.

We went back into town the next morning, had a wonderful breakfast and watched the weekly flag raising ceremony. Before the work week begins all the local government employees and policemen gather to raise the flag in the town square, wishing everyone a good work week. After the ceremony someone told us about the mural inside the government building above the stairs. We went in to have a look and I was reminded about the great murals Mexico has to offer. This one had an interesting scene representing the Maya belief that they originated from corn. It had a man coming out of a stalk of corn with the lower part of his body being the ear of corn. After the revolutionary heroes they have several Mexican military and government officials sitting on top of a pile of dead bodies. One of them is a Mexican military officer with an American flag (pin?) on his jacket and apparently a gringo standing behind him pointing at the US flag. Again, all of these people are sitting on top of a pile of dead Mexicans. Another interesting scene has several indigenous people being hung by different parts of their body. It is gruesome but Mexico does have a complicated past and it was very well portrayed in this beautiful mural. We wanted to know who the person was that was pointing to the US flag and we were directed to a kind of tourism office. They didn’t know exactly who it was but they copied a book about the mural that had many descriptions of people and descriptions of particular scenes. After reading the text there were no details of this potential gringo. There are many Mexicans that are very light skinned due to the mixing with European blood and it is possible this person is Mexican. Unfortunately we don’t know for sure but were very appreciative that the tourism office went to such great trouble to obtain the information.

After we stayed two nights in Comitan we were headed towards our original destination which was the Carretera Fronteriza in the state of Chiapas. It is the highway that circles the Lacandon forest as it parallels the Guatemalan border which is partially formed by the mighty Usumacinta River. Our first stop was the Chinkultic archaeological site. As we turned off the highway there were several men standing around with a chain across the road. They stopped us and demanded that we pay $5 to cross their land in order to get to the archaeological site; claiming they maintain the road. We argued with them telling them this was a Mexican highway and we had every right to pass without paying any extra fees. We almost turned around out of pure moral protest but he came down to $2 and I made the decision to pay it and go ahead. When we got to the archaeological site we told the man at the entrance that we almost didn’t come because of the men. He said it is illegal but there is nothing we can do to stop them and laughed when we told him we got him to come down on the fee. We had been having trouble with the gas (propane) engine system so Aaron decided to restart the computer while I explored the ruins. It was a small site and no one else was there. Aaron suggested I take Skylos with me to give him some exercise (Khorrah has been showing her age lately with a nagging limp from a hard day running on the beach and we decided it was best to leave her with Aaron). It was a great site especially since I had it all to myself. There was a small plaza with several buildings around it that weren’t completely excavated. Across the treetops you can see the acropolis which looks like quite a jaunt but it was a pleasant walk through the forest and then up a steep hill. This was Skylos’ first archaeological site and he loved it! He ran all the way through the forest and up and down the hill to check on me, making sure I was still coming. He ran all over the buildings with such curiosity! He ran right up to the edge of a wall and screeched to a halt as he realized another inch would have sent him flying into the depths of the cenote below! He was very cute and seemed to pose for me in several photos. When I got back I showed Aaron the lookout towards the acropolis so he could see where we had explored. From the top of the acropolis I could see the surrounding countryside, the beautiful cenote where they found many artifacts, and several lagunas were nearby. Aaron wished he had gone as he said it looked like an unusual site. I returned to the entrance and the man told me not to miss the other trail which leads to the grand plaza and several steles. I found a large plaza with a ball court and several very well preserved steles. The whole mound behind the plaza looked like it was an unexcavated building. We entered the National park of Lagunas Montebello and looked at all the colorful lagunas. Some appeared an ordinary blue color but others were turquoise and another was a dark shade of red. The cinco lagunas (five lagoons) was the prettiest of the lakes with a breathtaking lookout high above the water. We were looking for a place to camp and found the Laguna Tziscao to be the best option. The Carretera Fronteriza runs so close to Guatemala that the foothills on the south side of the lake are actually in Guatemala. We took the second entrance and drove through the town towards the water. It was a very cool afternoon in the pines where we napped and played chess before calling it a night.

The Carretera Fronteriza is a very windy road FULL of topes (large speed bumps). Topes are a brilliant invention and they do their job very well (slow down cars). The problem is when they aren’t painted or there aren’t any signs indicating their existence. This road was particularly bad for having unmarked topes just around a corner so that you are sure to hit it going full speed. After the road finally straightened out we had less trouble with the topes. This region is known for its Zapatista militants and supporters. (The Zapatistas are a “rebel” organization that fights for indigenous rights. Their most famous action was when they overtook the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and the nearby town of Ocosingo in January, 1994. The military quickly ran them out and they retreated into the mountainous jungle where they remain under a watchful military eye. Over the years there have been several incidences where the locals have harassed or kidnapped tourists or expatriates living in Mexico. Presumably these acts were done to damage tourism and keep the foreigners out.) We found a mix of responses to our waves and salutations. Most looked at us curiously and didn’t wave or smile but there were still those that were happy to see us and gave us a very warm welcome. This area is also well known for its problems with smuggling. Both drugs and illegal immigrants pour over the border from Guatemala into Mexico. For all of these reasons there is a very large Mexican military presence in the region. We were stopped at several military checkpoints but all they wanted to know were the usual questions of where we were coming from and where we were going. Some came inside the RV but others just checked our passports. We stopped for lunch in front of what turned out to be a military base. I made some sandwiches and a pair of military men came to the door to ask what we were doing there. We told them we were just stopping for a quick lunch and would be moving on soon. They were very nice in telling us to not take any video or photos and to move along quickly once we were finished.

First we were headed to the archaeological site of Yaxilan and were hoping to camp at the town of Frontera Corozal. The archaeological site is located on the Usumacinta River that forms a portion of the natural border between Mexico and Guatemala. In order to get to it you need to first get to the town of Frontera Corozal and then take a lancha (boat) 45 minutes down river to the site. When we got into town there was a fierce rain storm and we stopped at the first restaurant that had space for us. We parked there for free with the promise of eating their food. Unfortunately it turned out to be bad food and expensive. After the rain stopped we walked about 500 meters to the docks to set up the trip for the next morning. The more people you have in the boat the cheaper it is. We asked around and found a family that had just arrived and was also going to the ruins in the morning. They were traveling from Tijuana with several kids so we set our departure date at 8:00 a.m. We could have left earlier at 6:30 or 7:00, but it would have cost about $65 for just the two of us in the boat. Ever since I told Aaron about this site he was interested in going because it sounds like fun just getting to the ruins! When we set off on our adventure the river was engulfed in a thick morning fog. At first it was in the distance but then it was all around us like a damp blanket. We were taking photos at the beginning but then we couldn’t keep the water off our lenses because the fog was so dense! The ride was quite cool since it was still early in the morning. We hoped to get to the site with enough time in the cooler part of the day and with fewer people. We came across a building that had a labyrinth of passageways climbing to different levels in complete darkness. It was so dark you couldn’t se your hand in front of your face! We forgot to bring our headlamps that were recommended so we used my camera flash instead. Aaron followed me as the flash illuminated the stairs and vaulted stone ceilings around us. Once we emerged back into daylight there were several well preserved beautiful steles in the middle of the main plaza. One of which the archaeologists tried to transport down the river several times but were unsuccessful. As we climbed the long staircase to the most famous building at Yaxilan we could hear the howler monkeys in the distance. Aaron called to them which didn’t get any responses from the monkeys but greatly entertained other tourists. Hmmm, these were our first howlers after being back in Mexico. Maybe Aaron picked up a Central American accent from the howlers in the other countries! We climbed higher up the stairs to the building with its roof comb that is so well preserved. We could hear the monkeys grumbling in the distance so Aaron called to them again. This time they answered his call which the tourists were even more impressed with. They began to come towards us and we could soon see them clambering around in the trees above us. There were several adults and a couple of babies in the group. As we climbed higher up the stairs a large group of tourists gathered in the plaza below to see the monkeys. As they climbed up the stairs they didn’t realize but monkeys were peeing above them! The tourists were stopping to take photos not realizing what was falling on them. It was pretty entertaining since it wasn’t us. The problem with this archaeological site is that you are restricted with your time because you have to return on the same boat with the same people. We were there for about an hour and a half and even Aaron said it seemed like it was cut short. We ended up running by the last several building complexes in the jungle. If you talk with your group ahead of time you can negotiate with the boat driver and have him wait longer for you. Two hours would probably be sufficient. We left the site at about 11:00 and it had become a steamy kind of humid a while before that. As soon as we got on the river the breeze dried up the sticky sweat covering our bodies and immediately cooled us. It was like air conditioning! On the beautiful ride back we had a better view of the river-side jungle because it wasn’t covered in fog. On the Guatemalan side we saw a military post high on the riverbank. A boat passed us that was full of military men. We aren’t sure which country they were from but they were all smiles for the camera!

That afternoon we drove about 30 minutes to the archaeological site of Bonampak which is famous for its well preserved murals in several rooms. You can’t drive a private vehicle all the way to the ruins. The ruins are located in the indigenous Lacandon forest and they have it set up so that you have to park your car and take one of their vans the last 8 kilometers to the ruins. Unfortunately they charge $7 per person for this short van ride. We knew about this ahead of time but it didn’t mean that we liked it. We knew that it was the indigenous Lacandon’s way of getting some money out of the tourist attraction and that’s just the way it was. I was willing to pay it to see the murals but since Aaron hardly had any interest to go in the first place he stayed in the RV. I had mentioned to Aaron that I am fortunate to have seen some really incredible ancient wall murals in Egypt, Europe and now at Bonampak in Mexico. The murals were all in one building that was separated into three rooms. Each room was small with a vaulted ceiling making it impossible to see all parts of the mural at once. I was surprised at how bright the paintings were, especially after hearing about early explorers’ treatment of them (throwing kerosene on them to brighten the colors). I had always heard of the king clothed in a jaguar skin and there he was standing in front of me. You can’t use flash when taking photos because it accelerates the painting’s deterioration. Unfortunately you still see tourists sneaking in a flash photo when no employees are looking. I need to buy a book so that I have a collection of quality photos. There were some excellent steles at Bonampak as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if the one in the middle of the plaza is the largest one ever found! I went to the site with a large Mexican family that felt they needed to take me under their wing since I was alone at the site. While that was not necessary they were a jovial family that encouraged us to join them at a waterfall down the road. We were on our way to Palenque but thought we had enough time to spare that evening. We are slower driving so we weren’t staying together as we drove to the waterfall. We thought we had missed the waterfall when suddenly we came to a sign for Centro Ecoturistico Welib-Ja. It was only $1 to get in (our kind of attraction!) and we brought the dogs for a swim as well. There were about 30 people sitting around in the shade and swimming. They all got a big kick out of Khorrah swimming around in the cold water incapable of being coaxed out. She was in heaven! We met our friends, swam and snorkeled for a while which was a much needed treat after two steamy ruins! We were continuing on to Palenque but they said future RV’s would be permitted to camp in the parking lot at no extra charge.

Fortunately it gets dark late because we got to the Mayabell campground just after 7:00. We pulled into the same place we had camped the year before and were greeted by Candelario, the man in charge of collecting fees. He had remembered us and welcomed us back. His face is the spitting image of the famous Mayan iconography from Palenque; high forehead, a long pronounced nose and very high cheekbones. We hung out for a couple days enjoying the pool, working on the travelogue and meeting interesting travelers. Palenque is probably my favorite ruin (that’s saying a lot for someone who doesn’t have favorites!) and I was looking forward to going back. Aaron dropped me off at the ruins just before 8:00 so I could get an early start. This is always beneficial at the ruins because it is the coolest part of the day and there are fewer tourists. I went straight for my favorite set of buildings, the Group of the Crosses. I got to climb and sit at several of the temples enjoying breathtaking views before anyone else came into view. There was a nice low fog hanging around the temples that gave it a very picturesque look. It was already getting hot in the morning so when I went into the jungle to sit at the Temple of the Jaguar my wet hot skin immediately became cool in the shade of the jungle. I revisited most of the main temples and outlying buildings before heading to the museum. The famous Temple of the Inscriptions has been closed indefinitely to preserve what is left of the famous King Pakal’s tomb. Unfortunately a recreation of his tomb was also under construction in the museum. I believe there is a reconstruction and artifacts from his tomb in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, so hopefully I will be able to visit it on my way to the U.S. While staying at Mayabell we met a family from Guadalajara (the father was from Argentina). They had a precious three year old daughter named Sofia that enjoyed playing with us. She and Aaron danced several times to the live music at the restaurant and we played in the pool together. There was another young girl visiting from the U.S., Sophie, who celebrated her birthday with a piñata! It was great fun with all the kids in the campground taking turns swinging at the cat piñata that eventually was beaten to death and spilled lots of sweets for the kids to enjoy!

We were headed to the waterfalls of Agua Azul (blue water) just south of Palenque. We had met some guys from Australia (Mick & Grant) that were heading in the same direction so they came along with us in the RV. First we stopped at the Misol-Ha waterfall which had an interesting cave to explore. We went back with one of our headlamps until we came to a pool with a small waterfall oozing out of the rock wall. Without the light it was pitch black. While the light was on we could see the bats hanging on the ceiling and flying around inside the cave. The dogs came in with us and enjoyed swimming in the cool water . . . . even Skylos who doesn’t normally like to swim! Up next was Agua Azul. On the mountainous road to Agua Azul we looked over the valley and saw a brilliant blue river. I shouted with astonishment and we pulled over at a stand that had clothing for sale. Grant found a shirt to buy and we got some photos of the serpentine river that was an out of this world shade of blue. Unfortunately the photos of the river from above don’t do it any justice to its beauty. But we knew that was the river with the waterfalls we were looking for. We pulled into the parking lot and suddenly realized how big of a deal these waterfalls are. There must have been about fifty tour buses lined up baking in the sun while the tourists played in the cool water. It cost $1 per person to enter the waterfalls and we were immediately granted permission to camp at no extra charge. I can’t stress enough how excited we were when we heard the entrance fee. After going to some very nice but very expensive tourist places in countries like Costa Rica, we were ready to be back in good old Mexico where you can find excellent things to do at reasonable prices. If you are in the area you really should go to Agua Azul. It’s that beautiful. There have been several reports of armed robbery at Agua Azul but we had no problems whatsoever. We thoroughly enjoyed the pools of water that gather at the bottom of each waterfall and walked around the interesting rock formations in the river. The guys went exploring to the other side of the river and once I figured out where they were going I couldn’t get there by myself. After lunch we all went back up to the secluded waterfalls, swam in their milky blue pools and jumped into the pools below the small falls. Then they took me over to the big waterfall. They walked behind the wall of water and dove right through it, landing safely on the other side. The strength of the water was so fierce that as soon as they came into the path of the water it immediately forced them down into the pool. They jumped through the water several times and then we swung from a vine that was hanging over the waterfall. While holding onto the vine we were able to run and kick ourselves off the rock wall and drop into the pool of water. The next morning we got up really early so we could be there without any tourists and the boys wanted to jump the big waterfall. The first time they jumped I took photos with my canon. Then after breakfast they wanted to do it again (now that they had an audience) and record it with Grant’s video camera. It looks pretty amazing when they are climbing up the waterfall because it seems like the rocks should be slippery but they aren’t. They actually have a pretty good grip to them so the guys look like Spiderman easily scaling the face of the waterfall. Once they get to the place to jump they move with less hesitation than the first time. Now they have done it once before and the video camera battery was only charged enough to catch them jumping the waterfall! They didn’t want to have the battery run out before taping them jump the huge falls. Once the first guy went the tourists standing behind me realized what they were doing. After they all jumped and came back up by me, several old Mexican ladies said “Isn’t that prohibited?” We said “Yes, but this isn’t the United States”. She laughed urging them to “Do it again! Do it again!” We all swam a bit more and I packed everyone’s stuff in the RV before taking off at noon.

We were stopping at the archaeological ruins of Tonina (near Ocosingo) before continuing on to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. We got there late enough that we weren’t going to see the ruins and get to San Cristobal before dark so we planned on staying the night at Tonina. Grant’s camera was misplaced so we spent some time looking for it in the RV but decided to get to the ruins before they closed. Aaron was more than happy to take a nap in the hammock as Grant and Mick wanted to see the ruins with me. They have a great little museum at the site entrance. I wish I would have had more time to read the information at the museum because Tonina has a very interesting history I would like to learn more about. They were a rival of nearby ancient Palenque and on several occasions had royal prisoners of war from Palenque that were beheaded. Beheading seems to have been the favorite means by which to sacrifice their victims. It is displayed in sculpture, stucco bas relief and murals all over the site. The site description of Tonina sounded interesting and I was really surprised at what we saw. Certainly not all buildings are excavated, but there is a relatively small plaza with a few temples around it. Then what I will call the “temple mound” starts on one side and climbs seven stories to a height of 240 feet carved out of the side of the hill. At the top of each staircase is a level grassy area where there are several temples and offering sites. Then there is another steep set of stairs, grassy area with temples and so on. This terracing effect goes on for seven stories climbing higher and higher towards the sky. It was necessary to extend the hill in order to complete the last temple on the top. Standing on the tallest temple commands a magnificent view of the pastoral valley below. Grant and Mick get their kicks by doing something to get a reaction out of strangers. Therefore they thought it would be hilarious to bring a tape measure into the ruins and measure things in front of people, trying to make it look like they were doing something official. I didn’t see it happen but they were apparently measuring items in the museum (without touching them) and they were asked to please stop. When they asked why, the lady simply said they couldn’t measure things. They definitely got some interesting looks from people and one Mexican guide showed interest in what they were doing. After giving a measurement for the height of a step the guide asked “in inches”? Grant said, “No, centimeters.” The guide thought about that and gave an expression like “How interesting”! All I could do was laugh and keep exploring the site. I thought Aaron would have loved their company at this ruin! Fortunately Aaron won’t be at too many more archaeological sites because he would probably bring his measuring tape with him to join in the fun!

We arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas and checked out the RV Park. They wanted $20 a night for water and electricity. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to pay $20 a night when there was a perfectly suitable parking lot in front of the movie theater/grocery store across the street. We paid $1 to get some water from the nearby Pemex gas station and then parked in front of the Cinepolis (movie theater) where there were loads of taxis waiting to take us into town. We went in with the guys who checked into their hostel and we went about our afternoon getting money, checking internet and having dinner. The following day while I went into town Aaron went with the guys to help them look for a car to purchase. They didn’t find anything that day but spoke to a lawyer who explained what they would need to do in order to register the car.

I had a great day exploring two excellent museums. First I had the taxi take me to the Traditional Mayan Medicine museum. They had very interesting displays about the plants and animals that the indigenous people use for medicine and in their ceremonies. (They also have packets in English). What really stole the day was the indigenous ceremony that was taking place in the Medicinal Center’s working chapel when I arrived. As I walked up I could hear a kind of chant going on that sounded like it was a recording playing over speakers. I peaked into the chapel and saw a man performing the chant and was hitting several statues of saints with a large bunch of fragrant basil. The man was an official healer dressed in plain, modern clothing performing a traditional ceremony. He proceeded to hit an old woman on different parts of her body with the basil going back and forth between her and the saints chanting all the while in their indigenous Tzotzil language. There was a man and young girl sitting on a bench next to them and several lines of candles burning brightly on the floor beside the woman. The healer broke an egg into a glass, looked at it and said something to the woman. The woman had come to the healer to obtain information or a cure for some kind of illness and he was reading the results in the egg. It was amazing when the old woman spoke because she had the high pitched squeaky voice of a young child. She seemed to either be surprised at the information relayed to her or was questioning the information. They went back and forth in a beautiful song of their indigenous language for several minutes. Then it was the young girl’s turn. The man set up and lit new lines of candles for the girl’s ceremony. The healer proceeded to do the same thing for the girl; first hitting the saints with the fragrant basil and then the girl. When I first entered the room the family acknowledged my presence and I felt it was appropriate for me to stay since it was in fact a museum in addition to a Medicinal Center. After having watched one ceremony I wanted to give them some privacy in case they felt more comfortable with me gone. Unfortunately shortly after I left a gaggle of Mexican tourists came in and loudly watched the ceremony as if it were a skit being put on for their benefit. I felt sorry for the family and was appreciative to have witnessed the ceremony by myself.

The second museum was the Na Bolom which covers the work of a Danish archaeologist, Frans Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby-Blom, a Swiss Anthropologist and photographer. He explored, excavated and mapped several archaeological sites including Palenque, Tonina and Chinkultic. She photographed, studied and fought to preserve the Lacandon indigenous people that originate from the eastern part of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The museum is the beautiful former residence of the Bloms and has many of their personal items on display. It was full of artifacts as well as moving personal photos of the Lacandon, many of them from a time when not many people in the world knew the Lacandon even existed. It has been said that her world famous photos aren’t necessarily great quality but they convey the deeply personal relationship she held with the Lacandon people. I looked in several bookstores for a book that included the Blom’s history and a collection of Gertrude’s Lacandon photos. I finally found one at the Libreria Chilam Balam near the Santo Domingo church but the quality of the photos was extremely disappointing. After having seen the better quality photos in the museum and then having a strange negative experience with the bookstore manager, I chose not to purchase the poor quality book for $20. It is called Lacandon Images if you would like to see it. I can’t remember if it was in Spanish or English.

His afternoon downtown was all Aaron needed to see of San Cristobal. He is tired of colonial cities and was anxious to leave before we even got there. Our next destination was one of our favorite beaches in Mexico on San Agustine Bay (near Huatulco) and he just couldn’t wait any longer! In order to see all that I wanted to in the area I checked into a hotel while Aaron, Mick and Grant continued on to Huatulco. The day they left I got a few things taken care of. I knew I wanted to visit the indigenous Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula (North of San Cristobal) and the Sumidero Canyon (East of Tuxtla Gutierrez). There are several tour companies in town that can arrange these trips so I found one on the main square and purchased my tickets for the next two days. Aaron and I had found the Ticket Bus office before he had left so I just needed to decide how long I would be in town and buy my bus ticket to Huatulco, Oaxaca. It cost $32 for a 10 hour night bus to Huatulco. After all that business was taken care of I set out to see the Museum of Amber but it was closing from 2:00-4:00. I altered my plans and visited the church of San Cristobal high on the hilltop. The sweeping view of the city allowed me to view several churches in town I had not yet seen. I still had time before the museum was opening so I visited some nearby churches and the Arch of El Carmen that in colonial times used to mark the entrance to the city. Amber mined in Chiapas, Mexico is said to be the third best quality in the world for its clarity and variety of colors. I had looked in several stores and was hoping to buy something but wanted to visit the museum first. It quickly became clear that the amber containing insects and leaves was tremendously more expensive than amber that had no fossilized objects in it. Of course I wanted the insects. A medium sized pendant with many ants, mosquitoes or a single spider cost $500-600 (US). That’s not what I was expecting to spend so I had to pass on buying Chiapan amber. I could have purchased some little trinket but I didn’t want to buy it just to have a yellow or red piece of amber. I wanted the ancient insects! The museum was very informative and had several pieces of sculpted amber which were very impressive. I had not been sleeping well in the RV so that night I thoroughly enjoyed a good night’s sleep after watching some CNN and catching up on world news.

Sunday morning was my scheduled trip to the indigenous villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. San Juan Chamula is known for its unique church and the traditional indigenous ceremonies they hold inside. Here, Catholicism is merely a façade behind which the indigenous beliefs are the true core of these extremely indigenous communities. Those that actually choose to follow the way of the church are usually shunned and kicked out of the indigenous towns. After taking a tour of some traditional houses my group made our way to the church. Pictures are strictly prohibited inside the church and you are asked to put your cameras away lest you sneak a photo. As soon as you walk through the door you notice the first difference between this church and any other you have been in. There was a roar of chatter coming from all the indigenous people performing their individual ceremonies and speaking to their gods out loud with great passion. The floor was covered in pine needles which represented heaven so that when you are in the church you are actually walking on clouds; therefore making you closer to those that you are communicating with. There are families sitting on the floor with rows of lit candles in front of them whose color and number are an integral part of the specific issue they are praying about. They sweep away the pine needles so they don’t catch fire. There is a line of visitors walking down one side of the church and back along the other, weaving through the groups of people, their lit candles and the piles of pine needles. Some kids slip and fall as their mothers are dragging them along on the slippery pine covered floor. When you are in the front of the church there is the largest gathering of lit candles I have ever seen. As you approach this pile of flickering light the overwhelming heat from the candles instantly warms your bare skin, not allowing you to pass by without recognizing its power. The men of San Juan Chamula wear an outfit which consists of a shaggy wool garment worn over another shirt with a belt around the waist. A black wool frock is used for people with ceremonial duties and the white wool frock is an every day garment. Walking through the church it looks like you have come upon a black bear but it is just a ceremony being lead by a man in his fury black outfit hunched over in front of his candles. After taking my photos of the exterior of the church I had an interesting experience. There were two indigenous women and a small child in fancy clothing taking photos in front of the church. Clearly the young baby was going to be baptized and they were taking turns holding the child in photos. I offered to take a photo so they could have everyone in it. So here I was in an extremely traditional village taking a photo of indigenous people with their camera in front of a church that doesn’t allow photography inside. They were very appreciative I took a photo for them. After walking away I thought it was probably the best opportunity to take a picture of the indigenous people (after asking), but I was enjoying the moment and didn’t even think about it. We drove up to the cemetery which is located next to the ruined shell of an old church. There were sheep strewn about the cemetery and grazing among the crosses. The indigenous, Mexicans in general, actually, view death in a completely different manner than most people in the West. So the fact that the cemetery was full of sheep grazing among the crosses wasn’t nearly as interesting to them as it was to me. Some sheep were even tethered to the crosses themselves so that they don’t run off. We drove a few more kilometers up to the village of Zinacantan as it began to rain. We stopped at a local’s house where the women were working on back looms and had woven and embroidered items for sale. We had some blue corn tortillas that were made right in front of us accompanied by the traditional liquor drink poshe that is used in many ceremonies. I found an embroidered shirt that consisted of lovely blues, reds and whites with a floral theme and several tassels hanging from the sides. It is actually a garment worn by the men of the village. I took a photo with the artist who was the mother of the household. She said it took her a month to make. After some bargaining I paid $40 for it. It’s amazing because I probably could have paid less but it is so beautiful, took so much work and would get so much more money being re-sold anywhere else. I enjoyed purchasing it from the home and from the artist who actually made it. It’s hard to tell sometimes when you are at a market and there is a stall full of garments. You never know if that woman made it or if she is selling it for someone else. I also purchased two small bottles of the poshe which I carefully carried back to Huatulco on the bus.

Monday morning I boarded the bus for my trip to the Sumidero Canyon. The windy highway was choked with fog as we drove towards the town of Chiapa de Corzo. From there we took a lancha through the canyon. If you ever go on this trip you need to try and sit in the front of the boat or at least on the left or right side. I was smack dab in the middle of the boat which didn’t work too well for taking photos. There was always a man standing up in front of me with his camcorder recording every inch of the canyon. The canyon was pretty and the most impressive part was sitting in the river while being dwarfed by the gigantic stone walls soaring high above our heads. I have read stories about the indigenous people throwing themselves over the cliffs of the canyon refusing to be captured by the Spanish conquistadors. We got to see an alligator basking in the sun on the banks of the river. There was also a small shrine set back into a depression in the rock wall. There is one section of the rock wall that looks like a Christmas tree. It was formed by water dripping down the rocks and creating the unusual looking formations. After returning to San Cristobal I visited the Jade museum. Interestingly most of the objects in the museum were reproductions. It was disappointing to realize there were few original items in the museum but if you aren’t able to see museums in other areas then it provides a good overview of ancient jade pieces.

That night I was fortunate enough to be able to watch the U.S. Democratic debate on CNN. It was very interesting for me since we don’t get very much news on our travels therefore we have kind of been out of touch with the 2008 elections. Also, having traveled in Mexico and Central America for the last twenty months has exposed us to many questions and concerns regarding the United States of America’s government. We are frequently meeting other travelers as well as locals that have questions about the U.S. government and their actions. The debate experimented with a new format using Youtube video questions created by everyday American citizens. They received over 3,000 videos with a wide range of topics which they had to sort through and choose the ones to use in the debate. It seems the format was a great success and will revolutionize the way debates are conducted in the future. The questions coming from real American people personalized political issues and forced the candidates to respond with refreshing answers and usually with great passion. The televised discussion after the debate indicated the democratic candidates were a little nervous about the new format but in the end they were all satisfied and found it very refreshing. Even in debates (before Youtube) the delegates generally know what questions are going to be asked and already have their answers scripted. That wasn’t possible in this format and Anderson Cooper did an excellent job at keeping them on track and answering the questions that were asked. They had an overwhelming number of questions on U.S. healthcare, Darfur and Iraq (in that order). Other hot topics with a few questions were the environment and gay marriage. Unfortunately there were absolutely zero questions used in the debate regarding immigration reform. That was very surprising and I can’t believe there weren’t any questions submitted regarding this issue. Aaron and I have a greater interest in this subject since we have lived and traveled in Mexico and Central America for nearly the last two years of our lives. The Youtube debate was a great success and I feel like this new format makes the candidates respond in a manner which shows how they really feel about serious issues. Hopefully this format will engage the younger population and those that have become disillusioned by the U.S. political process. The republican Youtube debate will be aired on CNN on September 17th.

I had heard about some kind of festival that was supposed to take place on the 25th of July in San Cristobal. After speaking to several tourism officials I was unsure that it would be anything worth staying for but I decided to give it a go. I had some time on my hands before the 25th so I was able to get a lovely massage one day. I made a few purchases after looking at artesania (crafts) for several days and also did some research online. The festival was at the San Cristobal church up on the hill. They decorated the outside of the church with garlands and the inside was overflowing with fragrant flowers. The church was always full and there were lines of people waiting to get in. Not quite the festival I thought it would be but interesting nonetheless. The time finally came for me to board my night bus to Huatulco. We left at 10:00 p.m. and started the harrowing trek to Huatulco. It was only harrowing because of the horribly windy highway. I felt like I was on a swaying boat the entire trip and was quite car sick. Though I never actually got sick, after a night with little sleep I was very happy to get off the bus in Huatulco! Aaron was at the bus stop waiting for me in the pouring rain. Fortunately in lieu of the motorcycle, he had borrowed a friend’s taxi to pick me up and drive the hour back to where we are camped at San Agustine bay.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>