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.


RSM Richter Chamberland said...

Wow! What a world of wonderful experiences you are living through. Makes me ITCH to travel again. really does...

Jenny Wren said...

Wow - what amazing writing and what incredible experiences for you all. We have feet of snow here this morning, the skiers will be happy. We have to dig out of the doors to get out of the house! Happy New Year to you all and lots of love.

Maria Araujo said...

It's beautiful outside here in Mtl (lots of clean sparkling white fluffy stuff)but I think I'm going to go to bed dreaming of what you've written about in your last few days in Mexico. What an experience this will be for the kids.... big and small. Kisses, hugs and love to you all.

Peter C said...

Wow, what a blast, what a country ! So touristy and yet so easy to get away from the beaten path. Sounding better and better.
I'm reading a book (1491) about the Americas pre-Columbus and there's wonderful info about the Olmec, Maya, Mexica, etc. would be a great read for you during or after the trip.
loving the blog - its a bright ray of sunshine on back to work day here in the great white north ...
Big hugs and kisses to all the gang and all the best for 2010.

A Friend Indeed said...

Just back from 4 glorious days in the soft reflective snow at the lake. It's like walking into a different world to read your blog. I wish you could have visited our funky hotel in Mérida -- just a few short blocks from the zocalo.
Can`t wait for the next instalment!
Hope the year just gets better and better for you ...