Day 1: December 25th, it doesn't feel like Christmas Day. But it is, and it's going to be the longest Christmas Day we've ever shared. Got up at 6.30am, to the airport by 8.30am, plane took off at 11.30am, arrived in LAX at 6.15am and it's still Christmas morning! Flying out of Los Angeles gave the city an opportunity to show off the snow capped mountains to her east and the blue Pacific to her west.
After winging our way south for another 4 hours we caught sight of Mexico City and it's dome of pollution. 27 million people live here and it's reported to be the most polluted city on earth. More customs and baggage carousels and onto the metro to make our way to our apartment, which turned out to be really stylish with a super rooftop deck. Found a nice place for dinner, even though it was Christmas night, and headed for bed. It had been more than 30 hours since we'd had any real sleep.
Day 2: Breakfast, tamales and tacos, welcome to Mexico. On the road again, we took a bus to Tuxpan and the Airbnb from heaven. Owned by an elderly German woman, Ingrid's extended family was home for the holidays. We were asked to join them for lunch, which stretched on into the evening, with great conversation and far too much Tequila.
Day 3: There is magic in the world! Got up late, fuzzy head, got in a taxi and off to El Rosario for our first sight of the Monarchs. It's really high, the air is thin, the climb is steep, and then you see them. Magic. The air is full of butterflies. Everywhere. And on we climb, to where they cling to the pines like golden leaves in the sunlight. Around us, on us, above us. Everywhere. This is a dream 50 years in the making. My 10 year old self is standing here in the pine forests of Michoacan seeing the butterflies she was so fascinated with as a child. Magic. As beautiful and mystical as in my imagination. For dinner, tacos from a tiny vendor and ice cream, the flavour of which I could not tell.
Day 4: Another magical day, this time Sierra Chincua. We left early, there were very few people around as we climbed to the sanctuary. It's higher than yesterday, but the walk shorter and far less steep. We waited as the sun rose higher and the butterflies took flight. As the sun touched the branches they started to stir and gradually the sky filled with the flutter of their delicate wings. Once again they where all around us, everywhere. On our return to Casa Humbolt we sat in the sun in the back yard and watched as Great Kiskadees and Lored parrots argued for the rights to the nuts on an ancient almond tree. For dinner, quesadilla, a local beer and tequila. Well, we are in Mexico.
Day 5: The extended family we are staying with drove us to the thermal springs at Hidalgo, where we spent a couple of hours relaxing in the pools of warm water that seep from the mountains, lazing in the warmth of the winter sun and eating a fruit that has the shape of a tamarillo, pulp like a passion fruit and bright yellow skin. Then we had lunch at Truchas', a family run fish restaurant where they farm the trout in ponds on the grounds and cook them fresh, served with tortilla, lime and hot salsa. I discovered that they eat tortilla with lime juice and salt as a snack. Who'd have thought that was a thing. Yum. After lunch we drove to San Matias el Grande, a little town where many families mould and fire terracotta pots to make a living. During negotiations on size and price we got to see inside a local house, with the dogs and kids and life as it is in Mexico. All the things we did today we would never have experienced if we hadn't stayed with Ingrid and her generous family. Still too full from our late lunch, no dinner tonight. Just the beer and tequila.
Day 6: This morning Sabine, Ingrid's daughter, drove us, along with the extended family, to our 3rd butterfly experience. The other side of the same mountain at Sierra Chincua. We arrived after a few wrong turns and help from locals, at the tourist centre to find that it was a 40 minute 4 wheel drive along a dirt track to get to the walking track to climb to the butterflies. So for a small fee we all piled onto the tray of an old Ford F-150 pickup and bumped our way up the mountain in search of more Monarchs. Shaken, not deterred, we climbed the last few hundred metres to the butterflies, mostly motionless from the overcast skies and cool breeze. They clung like strange brown bunches of grapes from the pine branches. The occasional monarch venturing upwards to the open canopy or down to the forrest floor. As we began our walk back to the pick up and another white knuckle adventure ride, we turned to wave the butterflies farewell one last time. For dinner, tacos, beer and tequila. There is a definite pattern appearing. Spent the evening talking to Ingrid's family and swapping addresses and emails. Tomorrow we take the bus back to Mexico City to begin our Mexico Unplugged tour. It's always a best guess when you decide on a place to stay in a land far away and completely unknown. This guess was one of the best. We have been so welcomed and Ingrid's family have gone out of their way to make us comfortable and show us their part of Mexico. We have met people here we will keep in contact with and hopefully see again.
Day 7: After our breakfast and goodbyes we walked to the local bus stop and with the help of the ticket salesman sorted out tickets, luggage and the correct bus. The train ride from the bus terminal was crowed and a little intimidating, but we pushed our way through the crowds and made it to our hotel. After check-in we walked to the Socolo and watched the skaters on the outside ice rink (remember it's 23 degrees even in winter) and strolled the streets of central Mexico City. We meet our tour group at 6pm and after the formalities set out in search of dinner (tacos and beer, really would have liked a tequila) and to see the New Year's fireworks at The Angel Of Independence. There were large crowds of people, after all there is 27 million of them in Mexico City, so to feel less crushed and more safe we headed back towards our hotel and watched the fireworks from a quite but spectacular position on the Avenue of Independence.
Day 8: Up early, bad coffee then off on the metro to the museum of Anthropology where we spent a couple of hours researching the Mayan, Mixtec and Zapotec civilisations we would be visiting over the next 2 weeks. The best thing we saw was not ancient but a contemporary tapestry of the creation of civilisation seen through peyote goggles. After siesta we went to the top of the Telemex Tower for cocktails and a view of the city at sunset, then on to Plaza Garibaldi for dinner. The food was ok, the tequila good, the Mariachi bands plentiful and the electric shock treatment intriguing. All standing around in a circle whilst an electric current was sent through us. Because we looked sceptical, a group of locals at the next table bought us the 'entertainment' and told us "welcome to Mexico". Guess you have to try everything once.
Day 9: Up early for the Urban adventures tour to Teotihuacan to climb to the top of the Sun and the Moon pyramids. We left early enough so that there were few people and no wait. From the top of the Sun pyramid you can see the entire layout of the ancient town below. Then we all piled back onto the mini bus to head to Francisco to learn about the agave cactus and it's myriad of uses and to taste the local tequila and mescal. Here we also had the opportunity to buy some pieces of carved obsidian. A disc you can safely see the sun through, a mask that represents both the over and the underworlds and a sculpture of the sun god. Then on to San Martin de las Piramides to sample the products made from the prickly pear. Dried, candied, distilled and of course, hot sauce. This stop involved more tequila to try with the local liquoreur and a sombrero photo opportunity. For lunch, a family who does catering in Masapa cooked us tortilla soup and stewed chicken with a local beer, as if we needed any more alcohol. It was delicious. Once more into the van and we headed for Puebla with Therese on DJ duties and the guide and driver singing along. This was a great day, full of really interesting and fun things to do. At night we did a short walk around the Puebla, had Mexican schnitzel burgers for dinner and then went to the wrestling. The locals were very enthusiastic, but really it was just WWF with face masks, though not quite as polished.
Day 10: The hotel was a disappointment with many basics not working. Just the simple things like toilets flushing and hot water. Still, guess it’s to be expected in this part of the world. We spent the day walking around Puebla looking at the churches, the Socolo, the markets and sampling the local fair, quesadillas and churros. Meeting up with the rest of the tour group we headed out for an evening of drinking in rooftop bars. Mexican red wine, local beer, tequila and the hottest habanero salsa we ever eaten. Hot but delicious!
Day 11: Up early, we headed out for good coffee before catching the bus to Oaxaca. The landscape was mountainous and covered in agave, yukka and prickly pear interspersed with meagre corn fields and tiny towns. As the journey continued over the ranges the vegetation changed to small scrubs and tall slender cactus. Just like in a Wylie Coyote cartoon. After arriving in Oaxaca we walked to the town centre and markets where we ate grilled meats and accompaniments with fresh tortilla and ice cream with local flavours for dessert. On our way back to the hotel we stepped inside the main cathedrals and perused the craft market. Oaxaca is compact, clean and colourful. At night we went to a roof top bar with a floor I'm not sure I'd trust to support many people and had a really nice glass or two of Mexican wine with pork tacos. Then back to the hotel to grab some much needed sleep before the cooking class tomorrow.
Day 12: Casa Crespo, breakfast, the market, the cooking class and eating and drinking! From 9.30 in the morning until after 3pm we spent the day with Oscar at Casa Crespo cooking up a Mexican storm and eating our dishes and drinking beer and mescal. He sent us the recipes for the several dishes we made, though I'm doubtful we will have much luck finding the ingredients or successfully grinding the corn into tortilla dough when we get home. But I'm prepared to give it a red hot go. Pun intended. We walked the streets in search of street art in the early evening and bought a bottle of tequila on the way back to the motel. Didn't have the energy to go out again in the evening, so sat on the beautiful rooftop deck and drank tequila with sounds of Oaxaca in the background and a cool breeze blowing in from the surrounding desert.
Day 13: Today we did an all day tour with the whole group of the surrounds of Oaxaca. Starting at Monte Alban we explored the ancient ruins of a Zapotec city that was long abandoned because of earthquakes and lack of water, long before the Conquistadors arrived. With only 25% of the site excavated, it's pyramids, plazas and temples are impressive and give an indication of how sophisticated a civilisation the Zapotec nation must have been. From here we travelled further from Oaxaca to the calcified water falls of Teotitlan del Valle where we climbed down for a full view of their stagnant cascades. A swim in the pools of turquoise, heavily limed water was the perfect cure for the steep climb back from the falls. As we sat in the water at the edge of the pool, a vulture swooped in and landed only feet away from us. How can they appear so majestic in flight and so unattractive up close? After our swim we headed to San Pablo Villa de Mitla for an all you can eat buffet lunch, the food was average but the 3 musicians playing guitars, flutes and panpipes were excellent. We then stopped at the Casa of a husband and wife who spin, dye and weave the most beautiful rugs. All the colours are natural and exquisitely intense. We bought a rug in indigos and cochineal that took 4 months just to weave. On to the mescal distillery where we were given a tour of its production methods and tasted several of the styles made including those from wild grown agave plants. To finish the tour we were taken to see the oldest and largest tree in Mexico, at El Tule. We all thought this was probably a waste of time, but it was a really impressive tree, with an indescribable wide trunk and branches that cascaded to the ground. To get to our next stop, San Cristobal we took an overnight bus, which was a somewhat uncomfortable trip.
Day 14: We arrived in San Cristobal at 7.30am after 12 hours on the bus, unrested and in need of a stretch. After a walk to the hotel and a fast check in Ernesto took us to a great cafe for good coffee and breakfast, which helped to dust off the cobwebs and then on an orientation walk through the town. After this we showered, organised washing and went in search of gifts for family back home. The market was full of colour and interesting local textiles, clothing and leather goods. We had a lovely lunch at Cocoliche on Ernesto's advice and then caught up on some much needed rest. It rained heavily in the afternoon, making it difficult to do any more sight seeing. That night we went to a tapas bar and drank Argentinian wine and Mexican beer and ate tapas and quesadilla.
Day 15: After an uncertain start we managed to sort out our transport and guide for a tour of Chamula and Zinacantan, 2 Mayan, though very different indigenous villages close to San Christobal. Chamula was extremely protective of its Mayan heritage and though the Catholic Church had had it's influence on their religion, their original Mayan beliefs were still practiced. Here you could not change religion, healing involved candles, chickens and incense, and polygamy was practised. The Mexican government did not rule this indigenous region and they have there own form of government and appointed leaders. Zinacantan was much more influenced by the Spanish invasion, with church services conducted more like Catholicism and a greater acceptance of outside cultures. These were still autonomous indigenous peoples with their own rules and form of governance, and also descendent from the Mayans. In Zinacantan we visited a family home were they made us tortilla cooked over a wood fire and served us posh, a sugar cane spirit flavoured with either cinnamon or hibiscus. We bought a beautiful hand woven scarf from the family as well. It's important to keep in mind that these villages were only a few kilometres from each other, though very different in their philosophies. The maximum temperature on the day was 11 degrees, quite a shock after all the sun and warm weather we'd experienced so far. Those coats and scarves we thought we wouldn't need came in very handy. That evening we went to bed early as we were leaving for Palenque at 4am the next morning.
Day 16: Bad night. Ate something tainted, though managed to get on the bus at 4am. The threat of roadblocks at the small villages on the road only heralded one incident that cost us 100 pesos to transverse. And so, we made it to Palenque. A picturesque town close to the Mayan ruins after which it is named. Dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to the ruins to be guided through the temples, palaces and burial pyramids that have been excavated at the site. This is a truly impressive place to visit and you are allowed to wander through the palace and walk into the tomb of the Red Queen to see her actual sarcophagus with it's red painted interior intact. Only 3% of the site has been excavated and it's believed that as many as 200 thousand people lived in the city prior to its demise. Why it ceased to exist is unclear, though change of climate due to deforestation and the rise of the Aztecs seem to be the most obvious contributors. For dinner we went to an outdoor restaurant near the ruins for some less traditional fair and good Latin music.
Day 17: After breakfast and a quick walk around Palenque we headed off with Freddy 'the man' for a Mexican barbecue and swimming in the cascades at Valle de Bascan. What a magical day. A series of waterfalls cascaded down a hillside surrounded by jungle and we jumped and slid our way over them and through deep pools. We walked through torrents of water into a cave hidden from view to make our way out under yet another water fall. It was one of the most beautiful spots we've ever been. Words and pictures could never do it justice. The weather was perfect, the water just right, the company entertaining and to top it of Freddy cooked us chorizo, steak, guacamole, tortilla and salsa for lunch. To end the afternoon we sat in shallow pools at the base of a waterfall and drank beer in the sun. That night we wrote a song with a verse for every member of our group and then sat in the hotel foyer and had a great fun sing along with everyone.
Day 18: Another overnight bus ride further into the Yucatan to Merida. Arriving at Merida at around 7am we taxied to the hotel, checked in and went straight to breakfast. Then a shower and short rest and off to see the centre of town. Built in the typical grid pattern of a colonial town with the city square at it's centre, we visited the palace, the cathedral and the Casa Montejo Museum, then wandered down 60th street to take in the impressive colonial architecture. I took up the 2 for 1 lime margarita offer at the Negrita Cantina, though Tim had to drink the second, and ate sundried tortilla chips with guacamole for lunch. That night we went to a Mayan restaurant for dinner. My dish of papadzule was a little ordinary, though Tim's cochinita pibil, with slow cooked pork was a winner.
Day 19: Up early and off to the cenote to sink hole hop our way through the day. Taking a mini van to Humon and then tuk tuks to the cenote we visited 3 sink holes of different sizes and depths, one with a rope to swing out over the water. The largest of them were full of tiny fish that nibbled at you if you sat still long enough. Filtered through limestone the water was aquamarine, crystal clear and the perfect temperature for swimming. Between sink hole 2 & 3 we stopped at a restaurant with beautiful wooden tables and a thatched roof for local food and beer. We really didn't want to leave and could have cenote hopped into the night. Mexican nachos for dinner and cocktails with unpronounceable names.
Day 20: Breakfast at the hotel then a private minivan to Chichen Itza. This was the most touristy experience of our trip. Crowds of people from cruise ships and resorts on the coast come here as this is one of the seven wonders of the world. The site is impressive and the pyramid at its centre is a testament to how advanced the Mayan civilisation was. It represents their calendar, their religion and their understanding of the seasons and the solar system. The down side is the crowds and all the stalls that line every pathway with vendors trying to sell you sovereigns. We did see a striated woodpecker, black wings, white back, orange belly and a bright red head. The ruins are a must see sight, but we could only visit one ruin in Mexico then you should choose Palenque. Back in the bus and on to Playa del Carman. More tourists. The streets are full, the water is warm though the beach is tiny, it's more expensive and less inviting than anywhere we have been so far. We did manage to put our feet in the waters of the Golf of Mexico. This seems to be where people come to experience Mexico. They have no idea what they’re missing. Before dinner we sang our song to the rest of the group, and it went down a treat. They laughed and they cried. Then we went to a Thai restaurant for our last meal together. It was sad to say goodbye, but we have had an extraordinary experience with these people and seen and done things we will never forget. Mostly this has been possible because of our guide Ernesto who went above and beyond to ensure we were well looked after and entertained.
Day 21: We started this journey not knowing what to expect, having heard only the negative rumours from friends back home as a guide. They were all wrong. Mexico is beautiful, vibrant and exotic. Yes it's 3rd world and you could put yourself in danger if you tried hard enough, but it is truly a must is see part of the world. And so we started the long haul home.