Thursday, January 28, 2010

Punto Maldonada to Taxco

The drive to Acapulco looked a little long so we decided to pick a half-way point for an overnight stop. Punto Maldonada got the vote, a seaside town off the 200. We pulled into the village. We were aliens again. We drove down to the water and asked about a place to camp. There was a little track that led down to a point and we bumped and rolled along til we got to the end of the road. We found a little restaurant on a rocky beach. I jumped out to ask if we could camp. Sure. How much? Nothing if you buy something at the restaurant. That's dinner sorted. We pulled under a pretty little tree fifteen feet away from the water. The kids played in the water and we set up camp.

By the time supper came along, the kids had quite a collection of crabs in their pails which they 'put to sleep' under the van. When we discussed dinner with the owner her husband was cutting the spines off some nopales, we asked if it was on the menu. "It could be" was the answer, yes please, we said. What time would you like supper? she asked. "Around 6", we said. "Seven it is", she replied. Okay then, seven. We went back to the van to set up the beds. A few minutes later, the husband came toward the van and then walked on past toward the cactus tree beside the pigpen and broke off a few new shoots. Shortly thereafter Henri appeared with a couple of totopos piled high with a yummy nopale salsa.

When we ambled over to the palapa, the husband was building a fire on a special fire table, the legs were what looked like bamboo, the top was a hardened clay-mud concoction. Atop the flat surface were three horseshoes of the same substance, all different sizes and depths, with grills lying atop them. The hubby set about lighting a fire under one of them and put a huge flat round dish on the grill. Dinner was great. Hubby deep-fried the fish, which was perfect, the pescadillas were delectable. The kids had a blast making tortillas with the lady and we had a great time watching her cook them in the clay pan.

We woke up early and hit the road. On our way back up the dead end road to the 200 we passed dozens of kids in uniforms on the their way to school. The looks we got said it all: "Where did those people come from and how did they get past us on their way in?" We also encountered a pick-up on the side of the road with the hood open. We stopped to see if we could help. We ended up driving one of the passengers to the next town so she could buy some oil. She barely said a word in the car and what she did say was mostly unintelligible to me. Her obvious discomfort made the usually very chatty kids shy and awkward. It was very clear she didn't know what to make of us and I think she was pretty happy when the ride was over.

We continued on our way to Acapulco. A drive that should have taken no time at all was unending because of the blasted topes. Happily, the scenery was beautiful and the roads fairly straight. More distant mountains and arid land with drying river beds. The span of the bridges over what were often mere trickles of water made us want to see Mexico in the rainy season when everything is alive with rushing water. The fields are parched and faded. The one persistent element of colour has been this incredible tree we've been seeing since we entered the state of Oaxaca, a tree that looks absolutely barren except for the flowers -- these little explosions of pure yellow pigment which emerge from these round brown pods. I finally found out what the tree is called and whoever named it obviously doesn't admire it as I do. It's called Cojones de Caballo -- "Horse Testicles".

We stopped for lunch at a little shack on a pueblo corner. The sign said "Gorditas Mary" and when we realized that gorditas (chubbies) were one of the few variations on the tortilla theme that we hadn't yet sampled, we did a u-turn and pulled up. They were maybe the best yet. These ones were made of ground corn, not Maseca, mixed with water into a paste and shaped in a ball around a filling of spiced chicken and chorizo. Then it's squished in a tortilladora and cooked. The filling makes the inside puff up like a pita which collapses when it cools. She had cut them open and put some doble crema cheese inside. The salsa on the table was delish. Mmmm

Acapulco was not at all what we expected. First of all, it is massive -- over three million and growing fast. The city, now subdivided in three, sits around a lovely bay with a small opening on the Pacific. Just beyond the beach, the buildings climb up the sides of a ring of very abrupt mountains. Not exactly ideal for roadmaking, the city is congested beyond belief. Having said that, we got a really nice feeling from the place. Walking along the Malecon, the city, in all its kitsch, oozes fifties cool. The beaches are full of Mexican familes swimming and picnicking and dancing. Because there were no cruiseships in town, the place was remarkably empty of tourists. We were on a quest for cheesy American food, looking for a chain that befit the mood of the place, but we never found one. We ended up buying hotdogs on the street (mexican hotdogs wrapped in thin bacon, served with minced tomato, onion, jalapeno, mayo, catsup and mostaza) Then we hopped a cab to the Quebrada to see the famous clavadistas do their thing. What a spectacle. The cliff is 35 metres high. The clavadistas begin by jogging down the stairs in their tight little black speedos carrying flaming torches past the throngs of onlookers. When they reach the bottom of the long string of steps they jump in the water, swim across the narrow inlet and then take turns climbing the cliff on the other side. One by one, sometimes two at a time, they await the moment when a wave deepens the narrow to 6 metres, then take turns launching themselves into the air executing back flips or perfect swan dives into the churning water below. Seriously cool. When it was all over, the divers came back up the stairs to a round of applause and then awaited us at the top, with a collection bag. We asked our taxi driver how one gets to be a clavadista and he told us later that they traditionally come from one family. The oldest is almost 40, the youngest is 10 and seniority determines what height you jump from. You start at 10 metres (!) and work your way up. Thank god I wasn't born into that family.

We left Acapulco to head to Taxco. Getting on the right road was, as usual, an adventure. Thankfullly Wil drives like a Mexican now, pulling u-turns across three lanes of traffic without hesitation. The bus drivers were the new revelation for us in Acapulco. Each bus, a cross between a school bus and a Mack truck, is personalized with incredible paint jobs. The windshield is a canvas for expressing the individuality of the driver. Beside the driver is a man who hops off everytime the bus stops, who scans the street and tells any prospective passengers that THIS bus is going where THEY want to go. I had been wondering about this system since we first got to Mexico. If the busses are run by a company, I thought in my very Canadian mind, do the drivers always get to drive their bus? I was going about it all wrong. The driver IS the bus company. Bus drivers are not passive unionized employees here. They are the most aggressive drivers on the road. The personalized paint jobs are so the passengers recognize the driver and if he got them to work faster than the other bus driver yesterday, they pick his bus if they see it again.

The drive was on a toll road which means little traffic and quick moving. It still took us an eternity because of the elevation, fom sea level to 1700 metres. Our little van that could. The vistas beautiful, the land pale scrub, wild burros wandering everywhere, the theme song from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly kept going through my head. We'd drive forever and suddenly a tiny pueblo would appear in a little valley. How the Spanish even found half the towns, never mind took them over is a real mystery to me.

We pulled into Taxco mid-afternoon. The approach to the town is incredible, you come around a turn and the city, which is really a mountainside, is laid out before you in all its colours and layers, top to bottom framed by cliffs and more mountains. The streets were obviously not conceived for motorized vehicles but that doesn't stop the hundreds of white Beetles and VW vans that fill the streets. The only flat section of the city is the little Zocalo. The cabs are fitted with a strap that connects the passenger door to the dashboard which the driver clings to whenever a passenger gets in & out to keep the front door from swinging open too violently. The vans are combis, busses that have been retrofitted with a bench for three in the back and another two-sided bench in the middle so the van fits 11, including the driver. The sliding side door never closes. We had breakfast at a place on a corner that no car could make. We spent the whole time watching three-point turns, sometimes two simultaneously as cars coming from both directions pulled around the corner.

We pulled into the "parking" (a dead end full of cars) of the hotel where we wanted to stay. The front door of the hotel was confusingly around the corner, an unremarkable door in a line of unremarkable doors. I ran around to ask if there was room. There was, but only for one night and I was sure that Taxco was a two-night town. After running back to the car, I stood by the van conferring with Wil. Meanwhile the parking attendant kept asking us to move, a policeman was looking on, and we started feeling uneasy. Then a woman suddenly appeared from inside her store. "What's the problem? she asked. When we explained, she waved the policeman over "Poli, poli! she called. She talked to him for less than a minute, telling him how nice it would be for him to let us park in one of the spots he was meant to be guarding in front of the big jewelry store. It felt a lot like Obi Wan waving his hand "These are not the droids you're looking for." The policeman sheepishly agreed. She whispered to us afterward, slip him 20 pesos and everything will be fine." That's one problem sorted. Now as for the room, I know of a place just up the road with two double beds and a roof terrace for 300 pesos a night. She didn't mention it was her place but we followed what turned out to be her daughter up through a maze of narrow streets to their guesthouse. It wasn't perfect (I so wanted a hot bath) but it was cheap and we were so grateful to not have to drive around looking for another place that we agreed.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the narrow cobble streets, trying desperately to keep the kids close to the walls. Every dog I saw was only walking on three legs. We were accosted by a man with a menu on the street who urged us to come up to his rooftop terrace for a drink. We followed him up one, two, five steep staircases to a rooftop with room for three little tables. We sat looking out over the cathedral while Wil got me drunk on Don Julio and we were serenaded by two guys on guitars who sang lovely mexican tunes in perfect harmony.

We wandered through the market, even more labyrinthine than a normal Mexican market with its narrow alleys and steep steps. A couple of ladies tried to sell us little plastic bags of live beetles which, apparently, are delicious for salting a sauce. We had tasted the grasshoppers (chapulines) in Oaxaca, but the beetles of Taxco were just too much for us. We couldn't resist a woman selling shrimp ceviche on the street. She handed over a perfect little plastic cupful which we shared on the narrow sidewalk. She very apologetically said that she didn't have any totopos to go with it so she offered us a fish quesadilla instead. Yum. We slipped off the street into a little restaurant for dinner and then headed back to the guesthouse. We spent the next morning shopping for silver. An amazing variety from teeny tiny stud earrings to leather saddles trimmed in nothing but polished silver. The craftsmanship was astonishing. Sadly all the silver is now imported from Zacatecas, in a distant part of the country. It made me realize that the beauty of Mexico's tradition of very local artisanal crafts is a bit of a double-edged sword; skills handed down from generation to generation leave the population vulnerable if the natural resources used to make them dry up.
When our morning of shopping and dodging taxis was done we decided that for a family with youngish kids, Taxco is actually a one night town. We returned the key and hit the road before lunch.

Zipolite and Mazunte

We opted to spend another night in Oaxaca, a city that I'm sure will remain a highlight of our trip. We had asked a bunch of people about how long the drive was from Oaxaca to Puerto Angel. The answer was always about the same -- in the six to seven hour range. The road was mostly new and lovely, through hills and small tan mountains, very desert-like and deserted (for Mexico). After about an hour and a half, we'd done well over half the mileage and thought, not the for the first time, that we'd probably be pulling into Puerto Angel a couple of hours earlier than anticipated. Then came the real mountains. Can you say "switchback"? The road was the only remotely flattish thing on the landscape and it appeared to have been affixed to the side of the mountain. Again we found ourselves huddled in the front of the car desperately trying to keep our eyes on the yellow line. We had to pull over several times just to catch our breath and change the air. It was a brutal drive. Inadvertent glimpses of the sudden drop-off on the side of the road only exacerbated the nausea. Every so often a chunk of asphalt had just disappeared over the edge. Someone had very kindly painted a new white line to indicate the new and reduced dimensions of the lane. I was pretty happy to be on the inside of the road. Sure enough it took 6 1/2 hours. We stopped in Pochutla for supplies and then went on into Puerto Angel and then Zipolite Beach. The campsite was well off the beach so we decided to see if someplace closer would let us pitch our "tent". Bingo! Found a lovely spot that we liked for 200 pesos a night. We set up and went to the playa.

As advertised, Zipolite is stunning. Bookended by ragged rock outcroppings, the beach gently curves in and out to the sea. It was quite steep and the waves not at all gentle, pushing and pulling and crashing with impressive force. We didn't see anyone go in any deeper than their belly button. We went out for a great dinner, mezcal, margaritas, shrimp ceviche, fish tacos and an enormous salad while we watched the sunset. The café's owner's boyfriend was the lifeguard/surf expert of the beach. After a chat, we signed the kids up for lessons. The next morning we were out bright and early, not early enough for Henri who just couldn't wait. What a blast to watch him try to get up and lovin' every minute of it. He got up on one knee and one foot. A very proud moment.

The only thing that marred the beauty of the beach was the quantity of old penises on display. Topless beaches I get, but nude beaches are not my thing. I had this image before getting there of all these gorgeous young things baring themselves but the reality was altogether different. The average beachgoer was a man in his fifties or sixties, waxed to within an inch of his life, lying spread eagle in the sun. I was positively pining for a large German in a Speedo. Anyone under sixty was either stoned beyond all repair or on the make. This population combined with the other end of the spectrum, the rather flakey yoga students. Don't get me wrong, I think yoga is great, and probably even greater to do on the beach. But the pairs we encountered at sunset, taking turns doing sun salutations, etc. as the other stood behind documenting the pose before the setting sun did us in. Two nights were enough.

We spent a lovely morning on a little beach called Estacahuite, just a couple of hundred metres long and quite sheltered. We all got on our snorkelling gear and went to explore. Getting in and out was interesting with the big swells but it was well worth it. The colours under the sea trump what you find above it any day. Blue fish with fluorescent blue spots, a school of fish that looked a lot like see-through pencils a centimetre below the surface, spotted eels slithering between the rocks on the sea floor, another school of hundreds moving in perfect, silent synchronicity. A beautiful secluded spot.

After our snorkelling, we drove on to Mazunte. Although only a few minutes' drive from Zipolite, the energy of this place couldn't be more different. It's like someone rounded up the regulars of the Mount Royal tamtams and dropped them in Mazunte. Full range of piercings and tattoos on a lot of very attractive young people, lots of drums and conch blowing. We drove down the short road to the beach to look for a place to stay. Unlike Zipolite, there is no road that runs parallel to the beach which means serious congestion on the ones that do. As we pulled up to a café to ask about places to stay, our friend Céline came running out to greet us. She very kindly helped us sort out a place to park behind a posoda on the beach, even got us a great rate.

In the afternoon, we walked up past the cemetery to her amazing place in the hills for pizza cooked in her homemade pizza oven. René, in his usual role, played the half-naked pyromaniac and got the oven up to a scorching heat. Céline pulled out precious jars of homemade tomato sauce imported from Sutton and whipped up a million toppings, Ira grated blocks of cheese, Marie-Soleil entertained the girls and we all feasted. The house she conceived, with all its whimsical, fantastic details, is so perfectly suited to its seaside hilltop location. After the sun set over the treetops and into the ocean, we drank wine and ate THE best pizza we've ever had.

Despite the fact that the most striking landmark at Zipolite beach's westernmost point, Roca Blanca, is also the easternmost landmark of Mazunte's, the rock may well be the only thing they have in common. Once you get in past the waves, which can be a challenge, the swimming is divine. The surf is very unforgiving however. If you miss the timing by a few seconds, you get slammed on to the shore with all your bits mercilessly grated on the steep pebbly sand. Wil perfected the "throw-Alice" technique — launching her heavenward over the crest of the wave while he pulls himself through to the other side. Henri couldn't be happier, having found a friend who, like him, is content to spend seven hours in the surf.

It doesn't feel much like Mexico to us. The few locals we've encountered are by a long shot the unfriendliest. I can't help thinking how, if the beach clientèle is their only exposure to the outside world, Mexicans from Zipolite and Mazunte could only have unkind ideas about foreigners. The background noise is not the crashing waves but a selection of drums & bass. The majority of tourists appear to be of the self-obsessed variety, either waxed nudists or recently post-teen partiers.

Ceci dit, the second half of our stay in Mazunte was perfect. We spent the morning out with Alvaro and his friend on a "tour". We rode into a big pod of dolphins, watching in wonder as they swam effortlessly alongside and under the lancha, disappearing and reappearing in the most magical way. All of us, our group of nine plus a nice young UK couple scanned the sea and cried out in delight when we spotted them jump. It felt like a performance it was so perfect. After visiting with the dolphins we looked, in vain, for whales. The Punta Cometa in Mazunte is the southernmost point of Mexico, the place where all whales take a left turn to follow the coast southward. Sightings are fairly regular, especially from Céline's, but they didn't appear for us. We did get to see a huge sea turtle however. Alvaro dove out of the boat and got a hold of him so the rest of us could jump in and have a visit.

Later on we found a zone with beach chairs in the shade with a really nice guy who kept bringing Wil beers and me large pitchers of agua de limón. We had a fun afternoon watching skimboarders take on the waves. Later we headed back up to Céline's for cocktails at her neighbour's, to see the Cob house she made. A million-dollar view and the house was inspirational. A round structure with enormous windows framing a spectacular 180 degree view of the sea. The livingroom was a round bench dug out of the ground surrounded by bookshelves nested in the walls, the groundfloor bedroom had a cave for a bed, the stairs looked like Maywests stacked atop each other. The second floor was a vast palapa-style room with a porch for watching the sun rise. We had a few drinks while the kids played on the net-free trampoline perched perilously close to the edge of a hill with a bunch of other kids. Later we went back for Camarones al ajo, pasta salad and Wally-style potato salad. After dinner the kids lay on an outdoor mattress under a mosquito net and told Marie-Soleil stories. They got quiet after a while and when we finally went to investigate they were all fast asleep. Céline and René very kindly offered to set up another bed for us outside. We jumped at the chance to avoid the breezeless van with the barking dogs and drums&bass we suffered through the night before. What a way to finish a perfect evening — crawling into our mosquito net to watch the stars overhead and drift off. We woke up early, expecting to make a getaway before waking everyone, but before we knew it there was coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice and crêpes doused in maple syrup and jungle honey. We said our goodbyes, went to pack up the van and set off north on the coast road toward Puerto Escondido.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Puerto Arista

We left San Cristobal and headed west, aiming for Chiapa de Corzo to have a look at the Cañon del Sumidero, a stunning part of the Grijalva river that wends its way from Guatemala to the Gulf of Mexico. We sat around for a couple of hours by the embarcadero waiting for a group of fifteen to form and then hopped in a lancha and went for a bumpy ride downriver. We were downright gobsmacked. The cliffs that squeeze in on either side of the river are a kilometre high, a photo op at every turn. We saw crocodiles sunning themselves, hundreds of herons and cormorants and vultures and a grotto with the ever-present Virgin of the Guadelupe.

We'd done a little research in San Cristobal and were heading to Tuxtla Gutierrez's Liverpool, a Mexican mall chain, to see if we could pick up a new Macbook and maybe a camera to replace mine which died in San Cristobal (lenses and sand do not mix well.) We decided to try the Macbook one more time before shopping and, o miracle of miracles, it worked! After a frustrating half hour of talking tech in Spanish, we picked up a new SLR. After our shopping experience (heavenly for the kids, hellish for us), we opted not to stay in Tuxtla. The Pacific was just too tantalizingly close.

The drive on a brand new road was, yet again, spectacular but in a totally different way. If you think you've seen beautiful landscapes, come to Chiapas and prepare to be wowed. Entering Chiapas from the east you find pancake-flat plains full of grazing cattle with attendant herons, then the jungle sets in and thickens, you climb and climb and climb into the clouds and the cold, where every square foot of available hillside is planted in corn, then you drop down the other side, pale brown and dry, a world diametrically opposed to its eastern face into an arid valley ringed with stunning peaks. Then you climb into a new range, red-soiled with golden grasses rippling in the wind and come down again, this time to the sunny, breezy, hot Pacific.

We pulled into Puerto Arista around 5:30 and found a place to camp a couple of blocks from the beach. Pacific sunsets — especially ones that feature a pod of frolicking dolphins, cannot be beat. In the morning, we walked down to the beach before breakfast, in time to see the fishermen bring in their catch. The kids begged to be able to throw the small fry to the pelicans and we chatted with the fishermen about the catch. We talked about Chiapas and how great we thought it was. Before we said goodbye the owner of the boat handed us five fish for supper. We offered to pay but he refused. "Un regalo ... de mi corazon." (a gift from my heart). They made for a delicious supper.

Later on, we drove the twenty minutes into Tonalá for provisions. The town was small so we weren't expecting much but the market knocked our socks off. Markets have become my favourite thing about Mexico, and the way they are broken down into sections, the central part which usually holds the fish and meat sections, the vegetable aisle, the totopo aisle, sweet bread, fresh cheeses, dried peppers, fireworks, penny candy, aprons & shopping bags, with competing music blaring from each one. Competing stalls sit side by side, the stallkeepers chatting amiably as they fan flies off their goods. The kids get lots of attention. Henri's hair is patted regularly and the girls get "Are you twins?" and "as beautiful as porcelain dolls." It's easy to see why when you see how poorly Mexicans are represented on television or billboards. The average woman here seems to stand under 5 foot tall with proportions nearer those of a barrel than an hourglass while the women on television are invariably tall, scrawny and very pale. It's no wonder the girls' looks are commented on so positively — they look like Mexican TV stars.

We had a quick drink at a beachside restaurant to watch the sunset and the owner asked us where we were staying. When we replied that we were camping at José's he invited us to park the van by his new palapa on the beach for 100 pesos. We asked about whether it was safe and he said, "It's my home. It's safe." We didn't have to think about it for very long. After breakfast, we pulled up beside the palapa and set up our hammocks in the shade. Morning playing in the waves, sandwiches and school in the shade, long walk in the late afternoon sun, supper and sunset, ceviche and cocktails. In short, a perfect day on the beach.

Michel (our host) is a 26-year-old part-time fisherman, father of three. He lives here in three rooms with his wife and kids, his mother and father, his brother & his wife, his wife's sister and two kids, his wife's mother, his wife's brother & other sister, the waiter. There are a few other people who's relationships we haven't quite worked out. The fact that everyone handles (and nurses) each others' children like their own makes it all the more complicated. One of the rooms is the kitchen, half of the space devoted to two double beds pushed against the wall, the other half to where they prepare the food for the restaurant they run in the other palapas on the beach. The morning is busy, the rooster gets cockadoodledooing, the men strut around raking, filling the barrel that holds the shower water and the one we scoop water out of to flush the toilets, watering the sand and trees, burning things, while the women occupy the kitchen and handle all the food prep and cleanup. Breakfast, for everyone -- even the three-year-old, starts with a big cup of sweet coffee and galletas for dipping. After breakfast, it's a lot of sitting around and chewing the fat, hanging out in hammocks, waiting for clients that don't come. The kids have found playmates in Michel's kids and in the teenagers, who don't rank high enough to get a bed and sleep on the slab outside. Our kids are getting by in Spanish and are seeing a part of Mexico that we never even hoped to be able to show them.

Our second trip to the Tonalá market, Michel came along to go pay some bills. Once we got to the market, he walked along beside us. I think he was worried about us finding what we needed but when he saw that we were getting along just fine he dashed off to the bank and said he'd catch up with us later. Our trip included a stop at one of the market's many taco stands, about four by four with a counter running along two sides with long wooden benches underneath. The owner, invariably an aproned woman, stands in the middle before a huge chopping block, usually a cross-section of a tree, and the cooking surface (I will find out what it's called). It looks like an upside down wok about two feet across with a four inch vertical lip that encloses it. The lower, outer edges hold piles of different sorts of meat, pork, chicken, beef, chorizo in their own sauces and rings of fried onion, the middle convex part is used to heat up the little taquitos. You choose your fillings and tell her how many you'd like and she fills a plate for you. On the counter sit wedges of lime and a variety of hot and hotter sauces. In a country where the staples of day-to-day eating are fairly limited, the fact that every single taco stand/comedor/loncheria has its own varieties of salsa picante and pickled hot peppers means that every single bite can be altered to one's taste.

We searched high and low for Michel before heading back to the car and then drove around the streets surrounding the market looking for him before we finally decided to head back in the hopes that he'd find his way home. When we got back, I went over to guiltily tell his mother that we'd lost her son at the market. She pointed to the hammock across from the one she lay in and there he was, mid-siesta.

We had considered heading down the peninsula to a little town called Boca del Cielo. The pueblo sits opposite a narrow island which creates a calm and very shallow laguna where it is safe to swim, unlike the beach at Puerto Arista where a wicked undertow shifts with the tides. We'd talked to Michel the other day about whether it was worth the trip, this morning he walked into the palapa and asked whether we would like to go there with him and some family members for an outing/fishing expedition.

We packed up the van and twelve of us got in to head down the road. We parked and got into a lancha to cross over to the other side. Docking the boat was interesting as Michel and his brother Henry, their wives and the boatman argued about where to put in. The boatman wanted to put us in front of his relative's palapa, Michel and Henry wanted a good spot for fishing and Marisol, Michel's wife, wanted us to be at Michel's relative's palapa. We floated around about ten feet offshore in the noonday sun for fifteen minutes as they bickered in what I can only guess is the Mexican way; one proposes something very politely, the rest stare off into space without answering for a few minutes, another proposes something else as everyone else takes their turn looking disinterested. Very confusing and indirect for the onlooker. Marisol finally won out and we pulled into one of the forty or so palapas which stood cheek by jowl along the shore. The adults all took a seat in the very welcome shade while the kids splashed around in the water. We were greeted warmly by the lovely owner of the palapa, the daughter of Michel's father's uncle. We took a dip in the still water and then went out a little further and had fun swimming against the current while staying in the same place.

Michel proposed that we walk upstream along the shore to get some fishing in. He led the way, the rest of us followed so as not to disturb the fish. He carried a round net with him that was about twenty feet across, the outer edges of the circle threaded in three-inch long cylinders of lead. He wound it carefully over his arm, watched the water and then launched it in a swing. The whole thing neatly unfolded and landed in a perfect circle atop the water to then drop and trap the school he'd spotted. Once he pulled the net in he'd drag it to shore and shake the fish out for us to catch and drop in the pail. A few crabs also made it into the net. Henry would throw sand at them to cover their eyes and then neatly pick them up before they could get their pinchers out. The kids found hermit crab shells and Henry taught us how to grind down the sides to make medallions for necklaces.

We made it out to where the waves entered the laguna by mid-afternoon and our stomachs started complaining so we headed back to the palapa. Some of us walked, some of us floated back in the current. When we got back there was more quiet talk between Marisol and Michel, hard to decipher in rapid-fire Spanish, but I gathered it was about asking the owner to prepare some of the food we'd brought with us, these perfect little cooked shrimp that we'd found at the Tonalá market. I could sense that Marisol was uneasy but once we reassured her that we would be happy to order lunch in addition to the food we'd brought, she walked off to the kitchen relieved. Wil followed to order some platefuls. Marisol prepared the shrimp with diced tomato and onion, cilantro, tons of lime juice and a few spoonsful of mayo and brought it to the table with totopos, a cross between a tortilla and a papadum. It was perfectly delicious. We devoured it along with a fried sea bass, a shrimp ceviche and a platter of crab halves cooked in a tomato-chile sauce. The Mexican half of the party, with very little help from our kids, went through an astounding amount of "refrescos" (coke, fanta, sprite) while we were there, downing what amounted to about a litre each, while the two water bottles sat untouched.

I don't know if it is the same with all Mexican families but this one, understandably, has very different ideas about personal space. In short, they don't seem to expect nor do they get any. Our kids were in and out of their rooms all the time and when I asked the adults if they were bothering anyone all I got was blank looks that made me realize my worries were unfounded. Often, as we'd sit down to an intimate family supper, the kids from next door would come stand literally over the table, not to beg, tho' I think they were very curious about our Canadian take on their fare and were more than happy to sample. Sometimes I would ask them for a little privacy as we got into bed or were changing and they'd look at me like they'd never heard the word before... and they probably hadn't.

This morning we watched one of the men of the compound lay the gutted, salted fish we caught at Boca del Cielo out on the bottom of a lancha on the beach. After the daily sunset game of futból with Henri and all the men of the family, the perfectly dry silver capotes were carefully collected and put away.

We are going to leave here on Monday for the city of Oaxaca. Luckily it is a destination long-anticipated by Wil and me and will probably involve a hotel stay which thrills the kids to bits. It's easy to see how we could slip into a rhythm here that could take us well into February but there is too much of Mexico that we haven't yet seen. We've learned a lot from our time in Puerto Arista. Namely 1) that we are much happier living side by side with a Mexican family than in a campground full of other foreigners 2) that these family-run beachside homes/restaurants undoubtedly exist in every town up the Pacific coast and our guidebooks are certainly not the place to find them, and 3) anytime we've ever asked anyone for help in Mexico we've gotten excellent advice so it will probably be how we find accommodation from now on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Puerto Arista to Oaxaca

There IS a blog for our internet-free week in Puerto Arista, Chiapas. Unfortunately, it is on a computer that doesn't like the altitudes of Oaxaca and now that we finally have an internet connection we have no blog to post. I am hoping against hope that once we get seaside again it will wake from its slumber and I won't have to rewrite it.

After a perfect week beachside in Puerto Arista, Chiapas we felt it was time to head on. The drive was crazy. Our drive began in the windiest part of Mexico. Dwarfed by hundreds of massive wind turbines, we got buffeted around the road. More military checkpoints on the way out of Chiapas. Apparently many foreigners sympathetic to the Zapatista cause are found carrying money or guns. The military (all very young men doing their one-year stint) are invariably courteous and polite, just a bunch of kids with guns. After looking through the car, they hold the door open for you and offer their hand to help you back in.

When we finally got out of the wind the road started to climb into yet another string of Sierra Madres, these ones dry as a bone. The monochrome mountains were dotted with cactus fifteen feet tall. When we got up high enough, green valleys appeared below. It looked like all the colour had drained out of the hills and puddled in bands of deep green along the dried-up river beds. The crosses at every "curva peligroso" in the road (and there were many) marking the demise of a fellow traveller were very sobering reminders to take it easy. Any time there was any kind of widening of the road there was someone hanging in a hammock in the shade beside a "comedor", a little home/food shack. We kept wondering just what it would be like to live in such an isolated, inhospitable place. The vistas were unreal. Tiny little mule tracks wound their way across the mountains, leading in and out of the most remote patches of scrub planted in agave, a shade of green trying very hard to be blue and which, in plantation, looks a lot like a bad hair-implant job. The engine didn't like the drive much — the higher we got, the higher the temperature climbed. The steering wheel and Wil both got a real workout.

The drive took most of the day. Just outside of the city, we stopped in to have a look at a traditional Mezcal factory. Inside the wide front door were two men with pitchforks, loading and unloading the hearts of the agave onto a huge flat disk. A very bony horse strapped to the heavy millstone pulled it around and around. The crushed fibers were then loaded into giant barrels where they ferment. I'm not sure how it works but I think the liquid is then piped into two copper distilling vats set in cement over an open flame. Wil tasted some and picked up a couple of bottles, opting to pass on the one flavoured with chicken breast.

We had a quick peek at the famous Arból de Tule, a tree that is too big to be believed — something like 58 metres around — and more than 2000 years old. It was here before the Olmecs and the Zapotecs and the Mayans.

Not unlike the setting of San Cristobal, the city of Oaxaca sits in a high valley surrounded by peaks only they don't crowd into the city here. We drove around looking for a place to stay. The campsites were way out of the centro and, seeing as it was Wil's birthday, we decided to splash out on some swish accommodations. Frances complained that the city smelled of champagne and then we realized that sadly, one of the mezcal bottles' lids had broken. After trying to get around the traffic nightmare caused by a student demonstration (a weekly event according to one of our taxi drivers), we ended up in a lovely little hotel a half-block from the Zócalo. It wasn't easy parting with the van — seeing our home for the next month and a half in someone else's hands — but the long-awaited hot bath definitely helped. This city is fantastic. A Montreal-in-the-summer kinda vibe, small enough to be walkable and easy enough to navigate as to make one feel at home in a very short time. The people are friendly, the parks and churches glorious and the markets, oh the markets!

It's 28 but there isn't even a hint of humidity so it's comfortable. The nights are pleasantly cool. We had our hearts set on a fancy dinner out for Wil's birthday so we spent our first night scouting around for a location. We ended up on a rooftop terrace with a great margarita and some very mediocre food. There's no two ways about it — street food is where it's at — a tenth the cost and without exception much more satisfying. It's been very interesting seeing the trepidation we felt about eating certain foods melt away the longer we're in Mexico. The salads and vegetables we once steered clear of are now just a part of the dish. That low-level anxiety (and now its very marked absence) over foodstuff has, along with the easing of the language barrier, stripped a layer of apprehension away from our daily experience.

Some of the food we ate yesterday:

- Freshly deep-fried potato chips in a little plastic bag doused in homemade tomato-chile sauce.
- An amazing quesadilla that an Indian woman pulled out of her giant basket at the door of the market, filled with chicken, cilantro and what tasted a lot like tamale filling.
- Fresh churros, this time dipped in chocolate.

One section of the market nearest us is devoted to carnes asados. Barbeque land, a long tiled corridor about 100 by 30 feet with meat stalls on either side. Between each stall is a barbecue pit with tasajo (a very thin cut of beef), chorizo and chuletas (chops) cooking away. The air is thick with fragrant smoke. Toward the end of the hall, near the door that leads into the main market, are a series of two-sided red metal benches squeezed around long tables. Each section of table belongs to one of the meat stalls. You set yourself down and a woman from the stall comes up to ask what kind of meat you'd like, which is all sold by weight. You tell her what you want and off she goes to cook it. In the meantime you are approached by the vegetable man who offers you bunches of small sweet onions and fresh jalapeños. When you tell him how much you want he walks them over to the barbecue lady who places them under the grill in the coals. The veg man's assistant then shows you a series of plates full of things like minced tomato, onion and jalapeño, pickled whole chiles, cucumber slices, lime wedges, cilantro, guacamole. You order up. Then comes the drinks lady and, of course, Miss Tortilla. It all miraculously and deliciously appears before you at the same time. And they all seem to sense when you're done because, in a way that seems very natural, one by one they come over to settle up.

Our evening ended in the Zócalo, doing what I like best, people-watching. What a feast for the senses, teen lovers tied in horizontal knots proclaiming their love for all to see, abuelos taking pleasure from their grandkids' giggles, a big brass band filling the gazebo to bursting, tony couples in their seventies doing dance steps they've done a million times before, a couple locked in an embrace surrounded by a ten-person mariachi band in one of the most romantic moments I've ever witnessed.

We've done some shopping in this town. The whole family (except for me) have mastered the fine art of haggling. We've picked up a couple of hammocks and a little carpet, some tin milagros and a nicho. We've looked and looked for a Guayabera for Wil but his size, however reduced, is obviously not the standard in this country of very small men. After some very discouraging efforts to get the other macbook to wake up, we went to Sears and found ourselves a new one. We'll try the old one again when we get to sea level tomorrow to confirm if and/or what we've lost. I very prematurely deleted the series of photos from Puerto Arista after dumping them onto the machine. Please keep your fingers crossed for me.

We've walked and walked and walked. Next we head back to the beach, to see how much Puerto Escondido has changed since we were last there almost fifteen years ago.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

san cristobal de las casas

What a day. So full of colour and smells and flavours. We started off the day with a trip up the steep hill to the Templo de la Guadalupe, a church perched above the city with broad steps and a cross that are lit up at night. In the place of Christ behind the altar was the Virgin of Guadalupe, an image that is everywhere. After the service, we followed a small procession down the road toward the Centro. A group of twenty or so people, some teeny people in the front dressed as angels or dolls, regular folk, a priest holding some sort of religious object, a group of musicians playing very loudly and two men who followed up the rear with fireworks that they lit and launched into the sky every few minutes. We veered off toward the market. The place was packed full of people -- kinds of people that we´ve never seen before -- people who seem to have emerged from an earlier time. The women wear long black braids interwoven with fuschia ribbons, deep blue dresses with a wide band of colourful stripes around the midsection, or full skirts of black sheepskin (not the inside mind, the outside) pulled up underneath the bosom and bound around the waist with colourful bands. All of them bundled up in the most intensely-coloured wraps which pop against their glossy black hair. The men wear the sheepskin as jackets or full-length coats, cut very roughly and detailed with dozens of rows of tiny little white stitches around the neck. Perfect clothing for the weather which is positively freezing. We are wearing all our clothes and pining for a hot bath. We hopped on a Colectivo to Chamula, a Tzotzile village about twenty minutes away. We stepped off the bus into another world. Everyone in sheepskin, which we gather is the traditional dress of the Tzotzile. Their language couldn't be more different from Spanish. We walked through the main square and approached the church we'd heard so much about. We stepped in to a hazy cloud of woodsmoke and the smell of pine. The tile floors were covered with what looked like white pine needles. All the walls were lined with half-size images of the saints in glass cases lit up with strings of lights and before each case was a table covered with candles. There were no pews, no altar, only piles of needles and clusters of people sitting or lying or kneeling on the ground. People in ones or twos kneeled before lines of burning candles stuck directly to the tiles (apparently each candle represents a member of the family). Larger clusters of people sat on the floor repeating what I suppose were prayers over and over while a man walked around offering them a drink of clear liquid that was obviously bringing them closer to god. Some people who had perhaps gotten a little too close sat snoozing against the wall or lying flat out on the needles. When we stepped outside, I asked the ¨doorman¨ what the liquid was made of, he answered that it was a soul cleanser.

The colectivo deposited us back near the San Cristobal market where we had lunch. The central covered portion of the market is filled with food stalls, usually a small space behind a counter with a rough bench on the outside where you park yourself for food. We were beckoned by a woman in Tzotzile costume to her very full stand. She shuffled a dozen people down the bench to fit four of us on. We had a couple of orders of the tastiest chicken mole and one of chicken in a sauce with vegetables and tomatoes and black beans. We used tortillas to clean our faces and fingers and plates. A little shopping after lunch then we walked back to the rancho. Our walk back into town later was amazing. Although we´d eaten, Wil couldn´t resist a woman selling quesadillas filled with carne al pastor, squash flowers, epazote and salsa which she cooked on a grill outside her living room door. We watched her make the tortillas from blue corn in a homemade wooden tortilladora. Walking in the evening, a whole new world is revealed -- when the doors in the walls that line the streets open to show what is inside. We got to see an impromptu church service being held in someone´s courtyard. All we could see from the road was an altar lit up like a christmas tree, the backs of many peoples´ heads and the back of one of the band members playing perfect mariachi music. Now for a little postre and bedtime.
Next we head off to Tuxtla Gutierrez and then the Pacific.

Paa Mul to Palenque

Pulled out of Paa Mul early and we headed down the coast toward Tulum — still chasing down the sunshine. We'd hoped to go to Cozumel for some more snorkelling but the weather didn't agree with us. We stopped in at Tulum to see the ruins. The setting is really spectacular, cliffs and perfect beach, lovely landscaping and a lot more people than we were used to. Another great mecanico experience, he tightened up the filter, let us clean the air filter and when we asked how much he smiled and said ¨put something in the pot for softdrinks.¨

We stopped in Felipe Carrillo Puerto for lunch and to pick up some supplies. Spent a perfect hour at the market. We couldn't resist the man waving us into his loncheria. Five long tables covered in plastic, with little stools tucked underneath. On the tables are different-shaped tupperwares, all brimming with yummy food. One held flautas, a tortilla rolled up like cannelloni, but flattened and fried, topped with shredded chicken, crema and avocado, another held salbutes, little tortillas fried and covered with a smear of refritos, shredded chicken or chopped barbecued pork, chopped tomatoes, avocado and pickled red onion, another held empanadas stuffed with spiced minced pork. Down the middle of the table, a big bowl of hot sauce and another of minced cabbage in lime juice. The music is blasting out of massive speakers on the drinks fridge. The food was amazing. Ran across the street to pick up our Rosca de Reyes to celebrate the 6th like Mexicans.
We drove on to Chetumal, a pretty charmless town that is so very close to Belize (and feels so much like Belize). We ran around looking for a new cooking set up to replace our Coleman stove and lantern (which leak everytime we go over a tope). We found our way through the maze of the old market and then got redirected to the new market which was a dozen blocks away. We finally found the man we were looking for on the last little back street of the market and picked up a new two-burner with a little 2 kg gas tank. We couldn't resist the fish market and picked up these gorgeous fish steaks for supper. Filling up the tank was another adventure in directions. By the time we were pulling out it was lunchtime so we stopped for a pollo asado by the side of the road — a line of women standing in front of dozens of spiced chickens on an open barbecue. We had half a chicken with half a kilo of tortillas, a little bowl of yummy black beans, cole slaw, a couple of hot sauces, the sweetest onion, barbecued then sliced up and put in a bowl with lime juice and minced jalapeno peppers. Perfect.

We drove on to Bacalar, a very pretty little town on shore of the the Laguna de Siete Colores (Seven Colours) because it changes shade depending on the weather. The lake provides access to the Caribbean and was therefore a favourite target of pirate attacks. It has a beautifully preserved fort just off the Zocalo with gorgeous scale models of famous pirate vessels and ancient navigational instruments. We tried out our snorkelling gear in the very shallow and very warm laguna.

The next morning we headed off to Calakmul, a set of ruins very near the Guatemalan border. We made it into the bioreserve at 3:30, not enough time to do the one hour drive down the road to the ruins, so we stopped in at Yax-che, an eco-camp in the jungle. The place is a few lowslung, screened buildings with no electricity and no running water — one kitchen/diningroom with a display of dried up scorpions, a dry latrine and a rainwater shower. Scattered along a path hacked out of the jungle were tents erected on little wooden platforms, only one occupied. We had a hike around the two paths around the camp, one led to a tower, four bouncy wooden platforms with five rickety ladders that climbed up above the treetops. Crazy amount of green — every leaf and bug and tree and bird bigger and more colourful than anything from home - made me realize just how much happier I am when I have names for the things that surround me.

Our new friend, Andreas, a German transplanted to Tokyo, joined us for a glass of Mexican wine and some supper. We were served by people wearing headlamps. We found a good home for the Coleman gear. We were woken bright and early by the very eerie and incredibly loud call of howler monkeys. Andreas told us it is second only to whalesong in terms of volume in the animal world. We stood underneath the monkeys and watched them have breakfast in the trees above us. After that the hairy drive to Calakmul, a road that could not have been windier and more full of creatures, agoutis, boars, wild turkeys, toucans... Calakmul was simply magical. You make your way along paths in the dense jungle and suddenly these massive structures appear before you. The scale of the buildings dwarf Chitchen Itza, Palenque, anything else we've seen. Climbing the steps slick with rain and moss is scary but rewarded by the most spectacular views — of an endless sea of green, of the tips of other pyramids poking through the treetops, of Guatemala. Calakmul is the site mentioned most often in inscriptions at all other Mayan sites and it's easy to see why. Add to this the howler & spider monkeys swinging overhead. A day we won't soon forget.
After Calakmul we drove to Palenque with a quick stop in at Ocosingo for a very forgettable lunch. We stayed at what felt like a hippy commune near Palenque, one German man kept offering the kids his homemade goodies, all very healthy and all tasting faintly of chalk, politely bitten and then spit up when he was out of sight.

Palenque was cool. Very different look than all the other ruins and very interesting to go into a pyramid and see a tomb. We got rained out however.

The road from Palenque to San Cristobal was crazy. Up and up and up, it seemed without end, to 7500 feet on the most switchback, barfy road ever. We were all huddled in the front of van with eyes glued on the road. We drove through some desperately poor villages that left us feeling very gloomy. If the barefoot, dirty kids hauling piles of firewood don't do the job, the Zapatista banners by every pueblo underscore the fact that Chiapas has gotten the shaft.

San Cristobal is all they say, a beautiful colonial town with an undercurrent of college hip -- like San Miguel for the under 30 set. It's cold. Our computer woke up this morning flashing the question mark sign so it looks like it's going to be internet cafes from here on in.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Paa mul
The van started making a funny noise when we left Chichen itza. We were on the road to Cancun and it started getting louder. Wil was visibly worried and his thinking was that if we were going to need a new bearing that it would be good to be set up somewhere where we'd be happy to be for a few days while we ran around looking for the part and we knew Cancun was not that place. Paa Mul, near Playa del Carmen, and even nearer our friends Mike & Véro, seemed like the obvious choice so, rather than head further east we headed south to Tulum and then up the coastal road. Paa Mul is a campground/trailerpark where Mike & Véro and their daughter, Soline, spend most of every winter. The place was teeming. It was a bit of a culture shock to be in such close proximity to so many white people and to hear so much English and Québécois spoken around us. The setting, however, was idyllic. The Caribbean is so very clear and manages to cover every shade of blue and every shade of green and every possible variation in between. Our friends have included us in their very busy social schedule. We've been to dinners and birthday parties and volleyball tournaments, each one at a new and better beach. The sand here is like Maseca, off-white, fluffy, the water is warm, the waves mild.

The day before yesterday we went to a beach a half-hour south of here. It is a protected sea turtle reserve where people are permitted to come enjoy the beach for the day. The sun was hot. The girls bobbed happily in the waves with Soline while Henri tackled the bigger surf with a whole pile of boys. After a few hours, we wandered down the beach and cut inland through a narrow, vine-covered trail which opened up onto a gorgeous freshwater cenote. This coast is riddled with cenotes. The unstable ground and the presence of the turtles are perhaps the only thing that have, to date, kept this stretch of beaches from the likes of Club Med.

Yesterday, we walked along a quiet beachside track northward, the plants and trees so lush and full of life that it felt like they were straining to cover the track behind you. We found a group, the extended family of Véro & Mike's friend, who had a birthday party for 7-year-old Castor, set up on another perfect stretch of beach. The food was lovely, the company interesting and the setting ideal. The kids are in heaven, especially Henri who has boys dropping by to ask if he wants to kick the ball around or go swimming all day.

Wil spent much of his time here trying to figure out what is wrong with the wheel. Fortunately, Mike is conversant in mecánico. Even more fortunately, one of our camping neighbours, the charming Salvador, turned out to be a mechanic from Mexico City. After consulting with Wil, and going for a test drive, it appears we don't have a problem except for two very large nuts that need tightening. We spent the cloudy day today going from garage to garage in Playa del Carmen hunting down a 44mm socket. Finally found a man on a back road who had one and also changed the oil (for 5$).

The highlight of our time here was our family snorkelling outing straight off the Paa Mul beach. Watching the girls' eyes light up as they found themselves in a school of rather large yellow fish was absolutely magical. Instead of the hysterics I half expected from both of them, there was wonder and fascination. I so remember that moment — when the unknown and impenetrable world beneath the surface of the ocean became as colourful and surging with life as the world above. Seeing that awe overcome the girls for the very first time was simply amazing.

One more night and then we go south to Tulum, Mahahual and then inland to Chiapas and beyond.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Catemaco to Chichen Itza

A little side trip to the Salto de Eyipantla, the Veracruzan Niagara Falls, a very impressive waterfall that is only 5 feet short of our version. The place was crawling with tourists, but of the Mexican variety. Lots of extended families helping each other down the few hundred steps and then slowly back up. Our trip to the falls provided more opportunities to witness the Mexican gift for finding interesting ways to make a living. On the little road to and from the highway, we would occasionally cross a "roadworks team". One man with a shovel halfheartedly tossing dirt into the potholes, another standing on the shoulder holding a wire connected to a bush on the other side which he lifts as you approach. While number one tries to look very busy with the shovel, number three convinces you that the road work they are doing to improve your experience of the falls is worth something. Later, when approaching the entrance to the falls, men and boys stood with bits of red cloth, madly waving you into a parking space in their "zone" where they will watch your car for a small fee. We found a spot on our own and but were very happy to have a man offer to wash the van while we were at the falls for 40 pesos.

We spent the next morning in Catemaco in mechanicland. Wil spent an hour on his back in the middle of calle Cinco de Mayo with a soldadera that we'd seen on our walk the day before. With a lot of pointing and hand movements, we explained the problem — that when we'd had the frame for the bike rack (which we decided not to bring) on the car, we neglected to notice that it now blocked access to the spare tire. Wil and our new friend did some welding, some bending and a lot of banging and finally got the tire out. We then went off to the garage and got the front wheels realigned. Our morning of mecanico set us back a whopping 25$. We were sad to leave Catemaco, but we were after the sun.

It took us the morning to get to Villahermosa where we went to the Parque de la Venta where most of the collection of Olmec heads live since they were moved from their original location. The Olmecs were the first -- we're talking hundreds of years BC. They carved these massive basalt sculptures and moved them 90 kilometres downriver, floating them on rafts. They had, among other things, the 365 day calendar sorted. All of it based on observation of the planets and stars. The park is a jungle-like zoo, complete with wandering coatis, with a walking trail that goes past dozens of Olmec sculptures and burial structures.

The place we decided to camp was the Mexican version of a water park. The kids were in heaven on the slides. The campsite itself was the parking lot. Not very romantic but we swam until the last possible minute, had empanadas from the little stand by the pool and crashed. The next morning we headed off to Isla Aguada, a sleepy little fishing village across a 4km bridge from Ciudad del Carmen. The campground was beachside on the Laguna side of the bridge. We watched dolphins swim around in the evening, took a long walk along the beach and then through town. We still get the most unabashed stares but the kids have learned to defuse the tension that comes from being ogled by shouting out Hola. They still can't quite get over the way Mexican dogs are treated -- in complete contrast to the minuscule lapdogs that jump out of palatial motorhomes, primped little Chihuahua-like creatures with names like Pasha that eat off the same table as their owners.

The kids were happy in Isla Aguada. The girls befriended Ermina, the granddaughter of the owner, a lovely little girl with two long black braids who came to our table after supper holding a basket of colourful little bundles. The kids all took one. They were masapan. Little golden pucks of crumbly, nutty, yummy goodness wrapped in tissue paper. When I spoke to the Ermina's mother she said they are a traditional sweet made for the Dia de los Muertos. I finally asked her, in the most roundabout, polite way I could manage if she would be willing to share her recipe with a Canadian who would like to import the tradition. Ten minutes later she appeared with a piece of looseleaf, and went over it with me, line by line, to make sure I understood. The girls spent the morning playing with Ermina. Henri worked up the nerve to ask another boy "Quieres jugar al futbôl?". He spent the morning kicking the ball back and forth and then collecting shells with Daniel and his brother Emilio. He would come back periodically to ask about a word in Spanish and then go back to the game.

Quick stop in Champotón, famous for its cockteles de camarón. We stopped at at a roadside stand, the kids ate leftover pizza by the van while Wil & I sat and scarfed back a big sundae glass full of shrimp and octopus cocktail. Tasty little chunks of meat in lime & tomato juice with minced onion, garlic and cilantro, served with a little bowl of diced habañero peppers in lime juice and crunchy tortilla triangles. So fresh and delicious and perfect.

On to Campeche, a very pretty city with a walled colonial centro. We visited the Fort of San Miguel, strolled around town for a while and visited a cultural centre (mostly for the servicios) which was a colonial-era house decorated in the style of the time. The little details I loved were the teardrop-shaped coves in the walls about 7 feet off the ground with embedded hooks for hanging hammocks. We have decided that cities aren't really our thing. We took some back roads between Campeche and here, opting to get off the 180, the gulf coast road that has followed us everywhere. We ended up on a road that wasn't on the map and by far the longest stretch we've been on in Mexico with no pueblos of any kind. The landscape was mogul-like, little verdant bumps in the distance, with corn fields on either side of the road that went on and on. There was one tiny pueblo in the middle of it all, many of the buildings were Mayan huts, vertical branches woven together or mud walls with thatch roofs. We pulled in to the overnight parking at Uxmal just before the sun set. We just had time for dinner and a drink before the light & sound show that started at seven. The buildings at Uxmal (considered one of the top four mayan ruins in the country) are astounding. The moon was close to full and there was a lot of energy as we sat on the steps of one of the four palaces that formed a sort of ampitheatre. The show was a bit tedious but we were all looking forward to seeing it all in the light of day. We were ready at 8 for the doors to open and basically had the place to ourselves until we left. The details in the carvings are unreal, the scale of the buildings spectacular.

Our next stop was the Grutas de Loltûn, a 18km-long series of 80 metre deep caves that were believed to be the underworld by the Maya. The stalactites were breathtaking. There were little shards of Mayan pottery scattered everywhere, remnants of broken pots which contained the remains of the dead. The Maya would bring the pots into the cave and smash them on the ground to release their spirit into the underworld. The paintings of hands on the wall, none any bigger than Henri's hand, witness to the diminutive size of the Maya. It was long a sacred place and then became a refuge when the evil Spanish came to town. It got Henri's vote for the best thing we've seen yet. The kids ran around the whole time going "wow!

We pulled into Mérida mid-afternoon and found our site on the north end of the city. We took a shower, set up the beds and hopped a bus into town. We took a stroll around the Plaza, everyone was bustling around getting ready for the Nochevieja. The kids snacked on a marquesita, a paper-thin patterned sweet crepe which is cooked in what looks like a heavy tortilladora over an open flame, then stuffed with grated cheese or honey or nutella and rolled up. Muy sabroso. Stopped for a sip of tequila at a little bar and then some supper. We tried to get the bus back but after waiting 45 minutes, we negotiated a decent fare with a taxista and rode home. He told us all about what he would be eating at midnight when he and his family celebrated at midnight. Stuffed turkey, salads, sweets for the kids.

We woke up early and decided to try to make it to Chichen Itza for as close to opening hours as possible. We made it by 8:15 and, again, had the place to ourselves. Unfortunately, the kids and I seem to be ruined for ruins.The pyramid, a crazy reflection of the Mayan knowledge of the calendar year was stunning as were the very fine carvings of warriors and quetzals and jaguars on every visible surface. We then went on to X-keken, a cenote, a deep well at the end of a claustrophic tunnel, where you can jump in for a dip. A small hole above lets in a bit of sunlight and a whole slew of nesting swallows. The water was crystal clear, little catfish swam around on the creamy stalagmite formations in the cool water. It was surreal to be treading water surrounded by massive stalactites and roots of trees reaching for the water from 15 metres above.

We are bracing ourselves for Cancun. Wil and I realize that we're much happier being seen and treated as friendly aliens than being lumped in with every other tourist sporting a pink bracelet.