Welcome to Oaxaca! (that’s Wha-ha-ka if you’re reading aloud)

Have I mentioned Mexico’s magico pueblos?
They’re towns around the country that the tourism board promises will give visitors a magical experience through their natural beauty, cultural riches or/and historical relevance.
Mexico boasts 83 so there are a lot of cobbled streets, old churches and taco stands to cover.

So you’ll forgive me if I’ve become a little fussy as to the town or city where I’m spending any of my precious 16 days in Mexico.

Historical and beautiful churches, quaint cobbling and architecture reminiscent of past centuries are obviously a given. Bustling markets with original local crafts sold by traditionally dressed old ladies is a basic. I quite like a bit of edge – usually in the form of some recent political movement not scared to throw around the word revolution – chucked in for good measure. And I’m not sure I could do without the entertaining guide book blurbs of old hero’s and tales to keep me entertained while wandering the easily-walkable streets.

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A zocalo, or main town square, just isn’t a zocalo without an imposing cathedral, trees for shade and a statue or central kiosk of some kind. I prefer a high ratio of old people sitting and judging from the benches, surrounding coffee shops, shoe shining stations and newspaper stands. And there should always be some sort of live music floating through the air, maybe some soothing guitar strumming in the afternoon heat before becoming more up tempo for evening. If I could choose.

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Seriously though, it’s impossible not to be swept away in one of Mexico’s traditional towns or city’s. I know Oaxaca is a bit of a cultural hub so this probably isn’t typical throughout the country, but it’s almost impossible to walk down the street without hearing someone play a musical instrument. Even something as simple as the candles left under the Oaxaca Cathedral Saints are touchingly, brightly decorated and fiercely Mexican.

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So imagine my surprise to discover Oaxaca isn’t even on the list (I think it might be too big).
But it’s certainly has met the criteria and then some. And I guess there are 83 pretty good reasons to visit Mexico.

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Busing back on Track: The Scenic Route

It was going to be a long hard slog to get back north.
But Mexico, more specifically the Chiapas, has a lot to offer a long the way. While I was quite proud of myself for finding a collectivo (really a taxi-style bus) that would stop off at the sights I’d missed on my way west, I’d also continued my run of Spanish-only drivers /guides. Truth be told I’ve started to think I can get by without English and I’d like to think it saves money … Except when you’re convinced you’ve been abandoned for all eternity at an ancient Mayan ruin site because you can’t find the bus (with all your luggage) at the time you thought it was meant to meet you.

We started early at the Palenque ruins.

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They’ve only excavated 5 percent of these Mayan ruins but they’ve certainly uncovered some amazing detail of an ancient world. It’s also pretty cool wandering a site where excavation is ongoing.

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Next up a short stop at Miso-Ha, a waterfall … Or in Spanish a cascada. A much more descriptive word, right?

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But the last stop was my favorite.
Aqua Azul, which means blue waters, is a set of cascada’s hidden in the Chiapas. Apparently the Mayan warriors used to believe its water had special powers and came to swim here before battles. Now it’s pretty entertaining to watch both local families and hippie tourists give it a go. But it is a really refreshing and peaceful little swimming hole!

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With some other sneaky refreshments on the shore.

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Cancun, baby!

North, always north. This is how I regularly describe my travel plans to all who ask.
So what would make me change path, I hear you ask?
Turns out the answer would be Cancun, baby!

It represents the very evils of all-inclusive-resort, inauthentic tourism to most hippie / backpacker / hipster types. But I was game for something a little different, keen to hit a beach again and maybe check out a club or two (I have been remarkably well behaved on these travels, for the record). So I prepared to temporarily part with culture, taste and those know-it-all hippie / backpacker / hipster types and head back West to the Caribbean.

I admit to heading out for the night as soon as I got there.
Unfortunately / fortunately I don’t have any photos because I was advised against taking my camera out. So you’ll have to take my word on the neon-lit Lady Gaga’s, giant prawn-like alien figures and starship troopers running around and entertaining the packed dance floor. At this point I should also mention Cancun has some of the most dangerous, all-inclusive drinks specials I’ve ever come across. When you order a tequila, they bring you a bottle. In general, though, I found Cancun hell bent on insuring you have a good time with people falling over themselves to make sure you have everything you want, including and especially alcohol.

Luckily you’re in Mexico with the best hang over food in the world …
And these completely un-photoshopped but naturally unreal beaches to recover on.

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So I only lasted a night in Cancun (and just at that!!). It’s definitely won’t be kind to your liver or wallet and it’s not the place to meet actual Mexicans.
But in its defense there is actually loads to see in the area, the service is excellent and it is one helluva lot of fun!

Merida

I’ve spent my weekend abusing Mexico’s easy-to-use bus system.
It’s a big country but comfortable buses, coupled with some good reading material and a trusty neck pillow, certainly go a long way in more ways than one.
Nice views don’t hurt either. And you know they’re good when you’re trying to snap some photos as you go!

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I left the Chiapas, heading to the Yutacan province, world famous for its beaches.
But first stop: Merida. It’s known as the white city thanks to its use of light colored Mayan stone in the construction of several of its central, important buildings and churches.

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But mostly after spending a while in idyllic, tourist towns, it was good to be in a typically busy, bustling Mexican town in all it’s crowded and chaotically cabled glory.

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It’s also where I decided I would make the effort to get to Cancun after all, despite the cheese factor, gringo crowds and long distances. But more on that tommorrow.

Mexico’s Chiapas featuring San Christobal del la Casis and the Sumidero Canyon (I think)

I’m in Mexico. San Christobal de las Casis to be precise.
It’s another picturesque, cobble-streeted, historic town, this time in the Chiapas region of Mexico.
I’m not sure whether it’s the mountain air, autumn tones, quality of light or hippie/hipster vibe, but everything in this place seems to just be real-life instagrammed.

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One of San Christobal’s unique features are the two cathedrals lording over the town from both the East and West lookout points. Climbing up each gives remarkable views of a bustling town, surrounding mountains and, of course, more churches (the Catholics were if nothing else persistent).

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Yes, those are local boxers taking to the stairs down there. Cue Eye of the Tiger.

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But the town is arguably better known for its revolutionary past. San Christobal was after all the city the Zapatista’s took over for a short while in 1994. They’re still around today just hidden up in the hills advocating non-violent resistance against the Mexican government and workers and indigenous rights. Apparently you can visit one of their beleclava’ed camps up in the hills after passing rigorous security tests and under strict instruction not to photograph members so that they can be identified. Guide books warn against exploring the mountains by yourself in case you hit upon signs threatening gringo’s and Mexicans.
Meanwhile in San Christobal, coffee shops and t-shirt retailers are only too happy to market their particular brand of revolutionary chic without any irony that this is attached to a movement against poverty and long time marginalization of the downtrodden local community.

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In stead of the Zapa visit (which in stead I spent a long time reading about), I headed to check out some of the scenery the Chiapas is known for. Even though I somehow managed to book myself on an all Spanish tour, boating through the Sumidero Canyon was one of the most awe inspiring things I have done. Needless to say details are sketchy, but it was really good to get lost in the massive scale of some river and some cliff faces, somewhere in the south of Mexico

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Antigua is also for Eating

Guatemala isn’t just pretty buildings, awe-inspiring ruins and breathtaking scenery.
Let’s not lie, those are amazing things to do and see … Between meals.
Food anywhere is a journey in itself and Guatemala is no exception.
So just what does a country that can claim an important role in creating chocolate and grows some of the the best coffee in the world ear?

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It was going to be a supreme sacrifice to find out, but a challenge I was willing to accept relying obviously on only the deepest and detailed research I could for something so very important.

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I even took to class learning to cook one of the traditional dishes called Chiles Rellenos.
Guatemala’s food is similar to the rest of Central America with dishes mainly built around rice, corn and beans but I found more vegetables present in traditional dishes, probably because they are able to grow more than in the Tropics.

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Chiles Rellenos uses those veggies with minced chicken to create stuffing for the often locally used peppers of chiles … But with a twist.
All those veggies required a lot of chopping and completely showed up my reliance on a food processor back home.

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The twist shows both the Spanish and Mayan influence often found in traditional dishes here. The chiles are dipped and coated in a mixture of stiff egg whites mixed with yolks and then

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A kind of taco, if you like. Obviously best served with salsa and rice. Get the recipe on the el frijoles Felix Cooking School website hereNAND definitely add them to your to-do list when in Antigua.

One of the best things about traveling is seeing the unique elements and uniting threads running through cultures around the world and none more so than around a table.
So imagine my surprise in discovering that Guatemalans are also fond of cooking meat on an open fire. But then who isn’t?

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It’s the same structure as what we would call back home (in South Africa) a shisa nyama i.e.basically a giant barbecue where you can get a plate of meat with various sides to eat usually in a tent or backyard on plastic chairs. Here on the other side of the world the table clothes were noticeably colorful and salsa and rice replaced atcha and pap but the vibe was unmistakable.

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And here there is a new boss of the braai.
It’s the tortilla lady, taking the heat over this giant griddle and literally slapping out millions throughout the afternoon.

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Now who could mess with her!

Tikal. Tick.

I always get a little nervous that a country’s most marketed tourist attraction might not live up to all the hype especially if it takes quite a bit of effort to get there. Getting to Tikal and back meant not one but two overnight buses so I was concerned. But these are scared ruins of the people pretty much responsible for chocolate, right …

You hear Tikal before you see it. Or rather you hear the jungle sounds of the amazing setting the Mayans built this particular ancient city in (Ancient civilizations had a knack for picking prime real estate, didn’t they? I’m thinking of you, Inca’s of Machu Picchu and Great Zimbabwe closer to home).
And while they might not be so great at predicting the end of the world – all though they conveniently claim it was always just they end of an era according to their famous ca – they could certainly build.

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I don’t think the photos do Tikal justice because the ruins are actually set out over 16 square kilometers. The structures were also far bigger then I was expecting. Another big plus was how uncrowded and peaceful the site was really enabling you to step back in time while learning about the ancient culture. We could also climb and explore the ruins relatively freely without anyone blowing whistles if you stepped out of bounds (for some of us who might have annoyed the Machu Picchu guards a little bit).

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If you are heading to Tikal be sure to spend at least a night or two in Flores, the town near the Tikal National park. This sunset deserves a beer or two!

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PS With those commanding step designs for “ceremonies” and funky head dresses, does anyone else think those Mayans might have been able to put on a particularly mean Caberet? Nope, just me then. Either way those thanksgiving ceremonies for sunrises and sunsets must have been magnificent.