Back on the road again

We are counting down the days. This time for our trip to New Zealand. I guess you could call it our baby moon. It will make a nice change not being cramped on a bus or train with other travellers in the searing heat. This time we’re after a cool change and we’ll be doing it in style.  The campervan is booked!

Isla Mujeres & Cancun

Before heading to Cancun for our journey home we spent a few days on Isla Mujeres, a short ferry ride from Cancun, for some rest and relaxation. Although we were a bit disappointed by the ugly construction on the island, we were extremely impressed by the beach. Clean, fine white sand and crystal clear waters, just gorgeous.

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We had time for one last adventure activity, snorkelling with the whale sharks. We were lucky to be in Mexico whilst hundreds of whale sharks congregate off the coast to feed on plankton. Thankfully we took sea sickness tablets before leaving as it was a 45 minute speed boat ride to the feeding grounds and literally half of the passengers on our boat were ill along the way.

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Jumping into open ocean with shark fins poking through the surface was always going to be an intimidating experience but we both enjoyed it thoroughly. They might be the largest fish in the world, and yes they are sharks, but they are completely harmless towards humans (plankton are not so lucky). We had the opportunity to get right up close to these calm and majestic creatures, some of which were close to the 20 metre mark. Seeing them front on opening up their enormous mouths to filter out tiny plankton from the water was amazing.

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So that pretty much wraps everything up! Six weeks of lobster and tacos, mojitos and cervecas, latin drum rhythms and mariachi music, mountains, beaches and revolutionary history lessons. Cuba and Mexico are wonderful places to visit and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend getting over there to experience it yourself.

Thanks for reading!

The Cenotes

When travelling through the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico there’s no better way to cool down than with a swim in a cenote. A cenote is a natural sinkhole formed by the dissolution of limestone.

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There is a particularly high density of cenotes on the Yucatan peninsula, several thousand in fact. It is thought that this is a result of extensive fracturing of the limestone basin following an asteroid impact. Not just any asteroid impact though. It is the extra-terrestrial impact 65 million years ago that was thought to be the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs.

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Some of these sinkholes are fully open to the elements (top photo), partially covered by caves (middle photos) or completely underground (below). We accessed the underground cenote down a stair case through a narrow cave and the stalactites and tree roots hanging from the ceiling made it a very surreal experience.

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Chichen Itza

From Merida we travelled to Valladolid, which was to be our base for visiting Chichen Itza. The site may be a bit of a tourist trap but we couldn’t resist seeing one of the seven “new wonders of the world”. Based on our experience getting a guide when you arrive is essential as there is much to learn about this amazing ancient city.

The image below (left) is of the so called “Great ball court”. The aim of the game was for the players to get the ball to the captain who to score points needed to get the ball through the ring (below right). Sounds easy…not quite. All this needed to be achieved only using the elbows, hips and knees! According to archaeologists the Mayans didn’t see this as a sport but rather an offering to the gods. To finish the game there is evidence that a player was sacrificed by decapitation, their body cremated and their head spiked on a stick for all to see.

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Archaeologists propose that the heads were placed on this wall (below left) while the scavengers did their job. A professional sculptor would then be employed to chisel a likeness of the skull into the wall (below right) as a memorial to the sacrifice. The cremated body and the skull were then given to the family.

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Using Valladolid as a base, leaving our hotel early and travelling in low season all paid dividends. As you can see below we managed to get a photo of the famous El Castillo pyramid without any people in front of it. Now this structure is more than just a pyramid, it is a calendar in stone. For example, on each side of the pyramid there are 91 steps, which when combined with the platform at the top makes 365, the number of days in a solar year. Also, on either side of the stairways there are 18 terraces, the number of months in the Mayan religious calendar. We could go on and on with the amount of information that was put into the design of the structure.

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Across Chichen Itza there are many carvings of a snake god (shown below). These carvings generally have a body attached to them but if you look above, on the left staircase of the pyramid, there are head carvings at the base of the pyramid but no body ascending the stairs.

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Here’s where things get really interesting. Most of the buildings at Chichen Itza are aligned perfectly with east and west co-ordinates but the main pyramid above is at a slight angle. Initially you might just assume that this slight angle is irrelevant but it was done for a reason. It is aligned such that at spring or autumn equinoxes as the sun sets the adjacent corner of the pyramid casts a wavy shadow on the side of the staircase creating a pattern that corresponds to the snakes body! We didn’t happen to be here at this specific time but an image from the internet showing this phenomenon is below.

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It really is fascinating to think that mathematical and astronomical knowledge at that time rivals that of the modern man.

Merida and Uxmal

From Oaxaca state we travelled by plane down to Merida, the capital of Yucatan. It was our base for exploring some of the western part of the state. We could immediately see signs of Merida’s wealthy past. In fact due to the manufacture and export of natural handmade ropes, prior to the invention of synthetic products, the city was one of the richest in the world during the early 1900’s.

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One of our favourite spots was the Monumento a la Patria, which represents Mayan and modern national history. It was quite impressive at forty metres wide and situated in the middle of a busy avenue.

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The Yucatan food is distinctly different to standard Mexican fare. Turkey, slow cooked pulled pork and fish are plentiful on the menu. These are combined with achiote (a local plant used to provide flavour and colouring), pumpkin seed and the local spinach, chaya. In the vegetable makes a refreshing green drink (below right). Overall the food was quite healthy and balanced, making for a nice change.

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One of the great tips we received was to check out a cantina in town called “La Negrita”. It had a great atmosphere with good music and delicious food. Kind of reminded us of our time in Cuba.

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We took a day trip out to Uxmal, one of the lesser known but undoubtedly impressive Mayan archaeological sites. Surprisingly there were hardly any other tourists. The local people flourished during the peak of Uxmal’s civilisation due to innovate water capturing techniques, which were enough to survive the dry season.

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Due to the scarcity of water the sky serpent or rain god known as “Chac” was worshipped by the inhabitants. The face of Chac is prominently displayed in the various carvings across the site (below right).

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The shape of the main temple, the Casa del Adivino, is an oval shape, something that is unusual for Mayan temple construction at that time.

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We had to tread carefully across the site as the place is literally crawling with iguanas. Although not dangerous we preferred to keep our distance with these spiky critters.

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Pueblos Mancomunados

The Pueblos Mancomunados is a collection of villages in the highlands of Oaxaca state connected by a series of scenic trails. Some of the villages have pooled their resources not only in traditional economic enterprises but have also now expanded into ecotourism. We spent three days hiking from village to village with local guides. Having a guide was worthwhile  as they pointed out interesting flora and fauna along the way. For example, the plant shown below (right) is used to make an alcoholic beverage, similar to the way tequila is made.

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On our first day we walked from Amatlan to Latuvi through a gorgeous canyon filled with hanging mosses or “ghost trees” as our guide called them (below left). Even in these remote areas the strong Catholic faith of the people is still evident.

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The trails were free of people other than the odd local moving cattle or fishing. We received a bit of a fright when this bull came charging out of the bushes. Thankfully his feet were tied together so he couldn’t move too fast. The streams have plentiful rainbow trout in them and the people have also developed farming techniques to become more economically self sufficient.

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Shortly after we arrived at our cabin in Latuvi we came across a birthday party for a one year old boy. It was hilarious watching the kids try to bash open the pinata and scramble to pick up its contents once opened.

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As you can see the views from our cabin across the valley were pretty spectacular. We’d be happy waking up to this every day.

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The colours of the flowers and butterflies along the way were stunning. We unfortunately missed the famous “March of the monarchs” which occurs in a national park near Mexico city from November to March. Millions of butterflies fly from the US and Canada to this area for their winter hibernation. That’s on the bucket list for next time in Mexico.

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Our second night was in La Neveria, which is at a significantly higher altitude than Latuvi giving it a cooler temperature. The open fire was a relaxing way to finish the day.

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On our final morning we were completely clouded in but it didn’t take long for the skies to clear and the sun to shine.

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Thank goodness it did as the views towards the gulf of Mexico were the best we had seen so far. Overall we were very impressed by how clean the trails were. Over the three days we only saw two pieces of rubbish on the ground (which we of course picked up and disposed of responsibly).

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Our final destination was Benito Juarez, making our hike in total around 35 km over three days. We were very satisfied with our off the beaten experience and would highly recommend it. It was a great opportunity for us to stretch our legs and fill our lungs with fresh air.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca immediately had a more rural vibe compared to our previous travels in Mexico.  From the airport our driver took us along a dirt road past parks occupied by soccer games, plant nurseries and fields of corn. Not your typical airport to city journey that’s for sure. Oaxaca was to be our home for the next four days and we were welcomed by the warm smiles of the people. 

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Oaxacan cuisine is up there with the best in Mexico and we couldn’t resist joining a cooking class to learn more. Our class started with a walk through the market (there’s those crickets again!) to pick up all our necessary ingredients.

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The course ended up being around five hours and was quite involved. We did everything from starters and mains to making our own tortillas.

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Oaxaca’s most famous dish is the “mole”, pronounced “mole-ley”. There are several different types but the most recognisable would be the “negro” or black mole which has a nutty chocolate flavour. As you can see from the photo below (left) there are many ingredients to make the sauce. In some cases over thirty different ingredients are added to achieve the unique flavour.

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Our real highlight for the day was spending time with these guys. Mix some Australian, a king kong pinch of New Zealand and a dash of American and you have the recipe for a fantastic afternoon. Oh and don’t forget delicious food and a few (too many) beers and mezcal. Thanks Nina, Owen, Brooke, Vinnie and Gerry for making our time in Oaxaca so memorable (well the parts we remember anyway!).

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After recovering from our shenanigans some history lessons were in order. The former monastery in the city now houses the Museum of Oaxacan cultures and takes an interesting look at artefacts from prehispanic to current times in Oaxaca state. The most impressive display was the treasure discovered from a nearby ancient king’s tomb.

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Whilst visiting the museum we heard what sounded like gun fire. Poking our heads out the window we saw a rowdy celebration involving fire crackers, music and giant effigies for the newly married couple which weaved and danced through the streets after leaving the square.

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Surrounding areas of Oaxaca are mountainous and picturesque. What appears to be a waterfall on the right of the photo below is actually Hierve El Aqua, a “frozen” mineralised formation which has been created over many thousands of years.

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Next stop, the mountains for some fresh air!

Puerto Vallarta

Pulling the “it’s our honeymoon” card worked yet again but this time we hit the jackpot! We booked a room in a cute boutique hotel but were kindly upgraded to the penthouse suite. Quite amazing waking up to the waves every morning and looking out at this view.

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Add what was essentially a private beach and you have the perfect getaway. We spent our days swimming, reading books and hitting the stop button for some time out.

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Walking the Malecon in the centre of town was interesting for people watching but also admiring the various clever and quirky sculptures.

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Our number one tip for Puerto Vallarta would be to stay near the Conchas Chinas area. Further north the centre of town or so called “Romantic zone” looked to us more like a big, ugly concrete jungle. Great for restaurants and shopping but if you want some seclusion head south. Can’t beat an unimpeded view like this one. 

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One final thing. Time to show you what a REAL taco looks like, not the rubbish that’s served back home in Australia. Introducing the “taco al pastor”.  After being marinated with spices, chillies and pineapple the pork is cooked over a flame, thinly sliced and placed on a small, soft, thin tortilla. It is then topped with coriander, onion, pineapple, a squeeze of lime and chilli sauce. Once you’ve tasted one of these you won’t settle for those boring crunchy taco’s at home.

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Guadalajara

Guadalajara was initially intended as a jumping off point for the town of Tequila, yes you guessed it the birthplace of Mexico’s iconic drink. After researching various tour options we decided a full day of “all you can drink Tequila” followed by a full week hangover wasn’t ideal and we gave it a miss. We figured Mexico’s second largest (and rather unpronounceable) city deserved a chance and there was enough here for a couple of days.

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Much of our time was spent in the plazas of the historic centre watching every day citizens go about their daily lives. We enjoyed our first evening in the Plaza de Armas and were lucky enough to see a free orchestral concert.

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It’s always refreshing to avoid the tourist trail and see the “real” parts of a country. The people here were particularly genuine, warm and welcoming. A memorable experience for us was on a local bus out to Tlaquepaque, an artisan shopping district. During the trip it became apparent we were on the wrong bus. The local people talked amongst themselves and a plan was made for us to get to our preferred destination. We were given a piece of paper with a bus number, written instructions for the driver and were escorted off the bus by a local and taken to our required bus stop 4 blocks away. Can’t get much friendlier than that! Guadalajara is also the birthplace of traditional Mexican “Mariachi” music and the Mexican hat dance.

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A highlight for us were the murals of famous Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozo within the buildings of the historical centre.  The mural below left painted in 1937 is of Miguel Hidalgo, a Priest who began Mexico’s War for Independence, it depicts struggles of communism and fascism at the time. The other image below is of a section of the Cabanas Museum. The roof and walls are covered by dark scenes of war, violence and human sacrifice. His work is by no means beautiful but very impressive. It took him around 18 months to complete the 57 murals and interestingly he only had one hand following an accident with a firecracker as a child.

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Our taste buds were served very well in Guadalajara! Our very basic Spanish was coming in handy with the ordering of food as most of the names on the menu were foreign to us when we arrived into Mexico city. The only negative about Mexican food is the servimgs are so large that it’s hard to eat more than two meals a day.

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Guanajuato

After our time in Mexico City we headed slightly off the typical tourist trail towards the university city of Guanajuato.  We were instantly impressed by the pretty, diversely coloured buildings dotted over the landscape. 

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Guanajuato is built on hilly terrain within a narrow valley resulting in an irregular layout of steep staircases and thin alleyways. Many passageways are impassable by cars and some of the balconies are so close they almost touch. The name of the alley below (right), translated to “Alley of the kiss”, stems from a legend about two long lovers who lead a forbidden romance across their balconies. As with most stories of forbidden romance this one ended in tragedy. 

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To add to the atypical layout there is an unusual road tunnel system which weaves its way below the city. Part of it was actually constructed from where previous and rivers and streams once ran.

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The photo below shows the impressive Teatro Juarez. Unfortunately there were no performances on during our stay so we were unable to see the inside.

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We were however lucky enough to see some traditional dance groups performing out the front. It’s always lovely to see spontaneous music and dance in a public setting.

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The town has many beautiful plazas, one of our favourites was the Plaza de la Paz, which is dominated by the colourful Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato. It’s a great little spot to sit and watch the world go by.

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In Guanajuato there are famous parties known as “callajoneadas”, lead by university students and musicians dressed in traditional costumes.  They start in a central meeting place and wind their way through the streets singing at the top of their voices.  We were lucky enough to catch this procession through the alley below our guesthouse. It was hard to miss as the singing was quite loud as it approached!

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