A Travellerspoint blog

Mexico City: Taxi Driver from Hell (1 Bad)

Mexico City, Mexico: WEEK 10 NOVEMBER, overcast with sunny intervals, 11 - 21 degrees

sunny
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Our stay in Mexico City didn't go according to plan. The tone was set when we boarded the bus in Oaxaca, having our day packs searched and our bodies patted down for weapons. An official then boarded and video taped all of the passengers. I've never been searched for weapons before taking a bus in all the years I've been backpacking.

Then there were all the warnings about self preservation in Mexico City, the most populous city in Mexico with 21.2 million inhabitants:

  • don't hail a taxi in the street, people have been robbed and abducted in stolen taxis
  • never take taxis from the airport or bus terminals unless they are authorised prepaid taxis
  • always double check a taxi driver's identification including their photo
  • don't go to bario Doctores or Lagunilla market at night which are centres for the drug trade
  • do not keep debit or credit cards on your person as muggers have been known to hold you hostage until they have extracted enough cash from the ATM with your card

We took all the relevant precautions as like any big city including London, you need to be vigilant at all times and we were constantly drilling Thomas about his bags and possessions. We arrived at the most enormous bus station I've ever been to, TAPO north terminal, in daylight. Mexico has four major bus terminals for the four points of the compass. We couldn't travel into the centre on the metro as backpacks are not allowed. We successfully found the authorised taxi desk, bought our ticket to the Zocalo (historical centre) and waited patiently for our authorised taxi in the queue.

Our taxi driver resembled Michael Douglas from the film "Falling Down" - he was definitely a man on the edge of imploding or on the brink of a nervous breakdown, attired in a white crumpled shirt with fraying cuffs, a loosely fitting tie and greying hair at the temples. When we handed him our prepaid ticket, he threw his hands up in disgust, slammed the driver's door shut with such force that whole taxi shook, threw our backpacks into the boot and stormed off like a toddler in tantrum meltdown.

We weren't sure what to do at this point as we had already paid and he had now taken our ticket. We got into the taxi, completely bemused, while I checked his identification and photo plastered on the window. We surmised that the historical centre was an unpopular fare and hoped that he would return to the taxi in a better mood. "Can we get a different taxi as he's a scary man?" requested Thomas. We were thinking about what we should do next when he returned, got into the driver's seat without a word, started the engine and agitatedly ran his hand through his hair. He slammed his foot onto the accelerator, the tires screaming in protest as we lurched forward over a speed bump to join gridlocked traffic. This was when I realised that yet again there were no seatbelts in the front or rear.

It was 2.4 miles to the Zocalo, most of it spent bumper to bumper, apart from odd bursts of speed which normally followed a dangerous manoeuvre that Fast and Furious Vin Diesel might have attempted. Our kamikazi driver decided to turn into onward traffic, edge through junctions with red traffic lights while other vehicles ploughed into us and overtake into lanes that didn't exist and relied on other traffic giving way. "I'm frightened', admitted Thomas, "why don't we get out of the taxi?" Good question, but when I glanced at the street we were stuck in, it was lined with shoe shine stands intersperced with coloured umbrellas under which were ladies in mini lycra skirts, stockings, suspenders and teetering on high heel platform shoes. "I don't think this is the best neighbourhood" was my reply and I couldn't have told you where we were either as I'd lost track of street names.

After enduring over one and half hours of erratic driving and horrendous traffic jams to cover 2.4 miles, we finally made it to the third largest city square in the world 'Plaza de la Constitution', where we screeched to a halt and our backpacks were unceremoniously dumped in the road without a road and our taxi driver roared away. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Our broom cupboard room in the hotel had bunk beds - a double on the lower level and single on the top. No one slept well as the bed springs were so noisy that whenever anyone moved in any of the beds, it woke everyone up (and that was with ear plugs jammed into my ears). All the hotels and hostels we tried were full so we made a decision to leave Mexico City behind early in the morning and head out to Zitacuaro, high up in the pine forests.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Monte Alban and the Zapotecs (1 Good)

Oaxaca, MEXICO: WEEK 9 NOVEMBER, SUNNY, 12 - 24 DEGREES

sunny 23 °C
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The city of Monte Alban, about 9km above the valley where Oaxaca lies, is apparently one of the world's great archeological treasures. I'd never heard of it or the Zapotecs, so had quite low expectations of what awaited us and as Thomas observed, "it's another set of ruins, can't be that big as no one has ever heard of them."

Monte Alban Ruins 1

Monte Alban Ruins 1

The ruins, atop a mountain, are the legacy of the Zapotec culture from over 1000 years ago founded in 500BC. The Zapotecs themselves appealed to Thomas, as they must have been slightly bonkers to have built a city without a natural water supply, relying on villagers to bring water up the mountain, and remote from the livelihood of the valleys. Yet the Zapotecs seemed to be making a point to demonstrate their mastery of nature. Without the aid of the wheel or beasts of burden, they managed to shift millions of tonnes of earth to build a vast, flat terrace on which colossal pyramids, astronomical observatories and palaces were constructed. The site is also one of the world's earliest examples of state government however it is believed the Zapotecs disappeared due to their top heavy society.

Monte Alban Ruins 6

Monte Alban Ruins 6

I was pleasantly surprised by how huge the site was - it was great for wandering around, scaling pyramids and plataformas to admire the views of the valley. It's also not that popular, so there were few tourists, no artesanas stalls and any tour groups were swallowed up by the vastness of the site. Thomas was so impressed, that he wrote a report on the Zapotecs when we returned to Oaxaca.

Monte Alban Ruins 4

Monte Alban Ruins 4


Monte Alban Ruins 9

Monte Alban Ruins 9

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Levels of Smeginess (1 Bad)

Oaxaca, Mexico: WEEK 9 NOVEMBER, sunny 14 - 24 degrees

sunny 21 °C
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Where does the word smeg originate from - was it "Red Dwarf" (now I'm showing my age again)? Anyway, after nine weeks on the road it became clear that decisive action was required to stop the encroaching odour, so we found an efficient and cheap laundry service in Oaxaca (15 pesos a kilo). Clothes never felt so soft or smelt so good when we opened up the laundry bag.

How long is too long before washing clothes? Back home I would wash items of clothing after one day's wear, the few exceptions would be jeans. Is two to three days, a week, a fortnight too long? When the clothes change colour or emit an unpleasant odour? In San Christobel de las Casas, it was no longer possible to hand wash clothes due to the lower temperatures up in the highlands; it would drop to 11 degress at night and the miniscule sink didn't help much either. Neither did the position of the toilet where my face ended up five millimetres away from the sink basin, but I digress. Finally it was time to part with socks that had a blackish hue, a bra that had a nasty grey tinge and t-shirts with various food stains and sweat marks. Nine weeks was the limit as was two weeks wearing the same bra.

Unfortunately, it wasn't possible to pop my trekking shoes into the laundry; the odour had reached new levels of stinkiness after I'd worn damp socks in them - not a wise move. Poor Thomas couldn't bear to go anywhere near them or my socks as the smell was so overwhelming that our hostel room almost became a 'no go' area.

Drastic measures were called for, so I scoured the shelves in the supermercado trying to decipher the Spanish small print on various products. I ended up with some form of foot powder and left the shoes in a corner filled with powder for four days. I'll let you know whether the experiment was successful.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

San Juan Chamula: An Intense Experience (1 Good)

San Juan Chamula, Mexico: WEEK 9 NOVEMBER, overcast with sunny intervals, 11 - 20 degrees

overcast
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Having visited some fascinating and interesting churches over the years including the Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Vatican; the two hundred year old Inglesia de San Juan Bautista would seem like an odd choice to add to the list. This Catholic church in the small village of Chamula close to San Christobel de las Casas is architectually nothing to write home about.

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

Chamula is a Tzotzil Maya indigenous village, set in the highlands of Chiapas, 1600m above sea level. The indigenous community have their own language, are self governing, staunchly Catholic and their faith is centred around the church which is open 24 hours a day. The distinctly ordinary exterior hides an unorthodox interior; this is the first church I have ever been in that does not have pews or seating of any kind.

Epicentre of Tzotzil Mayan religion, Chamula

Epicentre of Tzotzil Mayan religion, Chamula

Statues of different saints are displayed in glass cases set on tables lining the church walls. The saints themselves are adorned with ribboned necklaces from which small mirrors are hung. The only light in the church comes from thousands of lighted candles casting an eerie glow - the candles on the floor beneath the saints are requests for help and those on the table are to say 'thank you'. The floor is covered with a thick layer of pine needles, so it is important not to slip over while walking round. The pine needles signify bringing the mountain into the church which originates from Mayan beliefs.

The religion practised in the church is a mixture of Catholicism, ancient Mayan beliefs and Hispanic traditions. If a villager has a problem or illness, then it's time to visit your chosen saint and practise a set of rituals which include lighting different coloured candles on the floor; the more colours used, the more complicated the illness or problem. Rituals inside the church can involve eggs, bones, live chickens and an array of fizzy drinks, as burping helps to release evil spirits.

Maybe it was the flickering candle light, but the atmosphere is all enveloping due to witnessing the fervant requests for help all around by families with their children sitting on beds of pine needles and starring up at their chosen saint.

Thomas commented that it was the best religious studies lesson he had ever had thanks to our guide who was engaging and incredibly knowledgeable.

We also asked our guide about the impact of the tax on fizzy drinks in Mexico and whether it had made any difference to their communities. He explained that the tax had done little to curb consumption. A certain huge fizzy drink company have a massive manufacturing plant in San Christobel de las Casas, which he believed had diverted the water supply, essentially cutting highland villages off which left them little choice, as they had limited access to clean water. Obesity and diabetes are huge problems here - there are health advisories on the sides of many of buildings in the village about diabetes. However, our guide himself admitted that they have 3 litres of cola for breakfast, the same at lunchtime and then for dinner. He believed Mexico was the only country in the world that produces 3 litre bottles for sale and that the cola in Mexico has far higher sugar content than in other countries round the world.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged san juan chamula Comments (0)

Campeche: A Colonial Gem (1 Good)

Campeche, Mexico: WEEK 8 NOVEMBER, SUNNY 30 degrees

sunny 30 °C
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Since starting this journey, I had been disappointed by various UNESCO world heritage sites such as Trinidad in Cuba and other towns or cities, which claim to be the finest examples of colonial architecture. Finally, Campeche is the colonial gem that I have been searching for. It is a port town enclosed by hefty defensive walls and fortress which was originally built to keep the pirates at bay. Within the walls are stone paved streets lined with pristine, pastel coloured 18th and 18th century town houses, all neatly restored.

Fortress Wall of the Colonial Centre, Campeche

Fortress Wall of the Colonial Centre, Campeche

Campeche Colonial City

Campeche Colonial City

It was lovely to stroll down the clean streets without a tourist in sight and not worry about treading in anything or warning Thomas every ten seconds to avoid the various hazards of dog's mess, broken glass, sewage, gaping holes, sunken drains and metal obstacles.

Campeche, Malecon

Campeche, Malecon

Campeche is definitely off the tourist trail and is all the better for it. Wandering along the Malecon by the sea, the only other people we came across were Mexicans on the cycle path. A walk along the top of the fortress walls coupled with the pirate history of the town was a nice diversion.

We were lucky enough to be in the central plaza one evening for a highly professional animation that was projected onto the impressive El Palacio building. The show was a celebration of the Campeche region including references to Day of the Dead, accompanied by evocative music, which Thomas bopped along to providing the locals alternative entertainment.

El Palacio Central Culturo, Campeche

El Palacio Central Culturo, Campeche

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged campeche Comments (0)

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