Capital – Mexico City Currency – Mexican pesos Language – Spanish and Maya languages
10th March – We are through the Guatemala border town of La Mesilla very quickly and a short drive brings us to the Mexican border town of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc There is a complete absence of any queues or lines of vehicles and the tranquility is unreal after what we have heard about Mexican borders. The passport office is empty and the girl behind the desk, although very helpful, is more interested in getting back to manicuring her nails. Our vehicle is opened up twice for a check inside and then it’s the fumigation. I always ask for the inside not to be done, the guy looks a little puzzled and then only sprays our wheels and that’s 65 pesos. For our vehicle papers and permit, we are directed to the aduana car park and office which is also empty. The guy here takes time to explain everything to us and we pay 51.04 US$ for the permit and tax, 306 pesos for the vehicle owner and a deposit of 200 US$ which is refundable when we leave Mexico. We are also given a permit sticker to put on our windscreen. Finally, the sniffer dogs are led around our vehicle and we are ready to go….all very straightforward and hassle free!
We are looking forward to this country but not without some apprehension. We have heard of two, recent and unpleasant car hi-jackings involving overland tourists, that many Americans consider Mexico too unsafe to drive through anymore, problems with drug trafficking, border crossings and police and military checkpoints and that certain areas are best to be avoided. On the other hand we have heard many, very positive reports where travellers have enjoyed the relaxed feel of this country and the friendliness of its people so much, that they have decided to stay for months.
Our border crossing has gone well, we will listen to advice but most of all will take our own hopefully, careful precautions and do what we feel is right.
And so we take the Pan-American Highway 190 for Comitan and from here, our destination for the night will be San Cristobal de Las Casas. We are now in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, which has the second largest, indigenous population in the country.
The difference in this country is very noticeable. Dwellings no longer line the road, we pass enormous fields in this farming valley that we are driving through and we have long stretches of open, lonely roads. Just before Teopisca however, the main highway is lined with colourful pottery stalls. I love the simple lines of some doves and the painted, speckled hens are also great but I can’t be tempted, as unfortunately, we have no more room for pots. Our two Lenca pots packed in a cardboard box from Honduras, still take up room on one of our seats.
San Cristobal is set in a highland valley surrounded by pine forests at just under 2000m. It was founded in 1528 by Diego de Mazariegos and in ancient times it was thought of as ‘The Royal City’. In contrast however to the Spanish citizens who became wealthy through growing wheat, the indigenous people were abused, had their land taken from them and consequently suffered, until the arrival of Dominican monks. One monk in particular, became a prominent Spanish defender of the indigenous people and the town was given his name – Bartolome de Las Casas.
Today, San Cristobal is a lovely, old colonial city with cobbled streets, painted churches and some interesting architecture.
A stroll down Real de Guadalupe late Sunday afternoon and we discover that this is the place to be, with its art and photographic galleries, shops selling beautiful amber jewellery, handicrafts and clothes and many popular bars, cafes and restaurants. The end of the road has a square with crowded market stalls and colourful dancing…….a great atmosphere!
We have rain most days that we are here but mainly at night, when the temperature also drops. The campsite is quiet and relaxing however, with clean restrooms and hot showers, it’s only a 10 – 15 minute walk into town and we also find insurance here for our Land Rover at Qualitas Compania de Seguros on Avenida Diego Dugelay.
11th March – We head for Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state Chiapas. It’s a busy city, hot and full of traffic, not particularly attractive but it appears to have plenty of amenities according to the many billboards decorating the roadsides. It’s easy to find La Hacienda Hotel and Trailer Park, which provides shady parking areas, electricity and water, clean bathrooms and wifi.
Chiapas is said to have one of the highest concentrations of animal species amongst its enormous range of natural environments and these include several big cats. However, many of these along with other creatures, are being forced to live in isolated pockets due to their habitats disappearing and are sadly in danger themselves of disappearing also.
Seeing wildlife in their natural habitats is always a very special part of any of our journeys and so far in South and Central America, we have been very lucky in seeing many different mammals, reptiles, insects and birds. The vast wetlands of the north and south Pantanal in Brasil hold very special memories, as do the majestic Condors in Peru, the whales and huge turtles in the sea off the coast of Ecuador, walking amongst Blue Footed Boobies on the Isla de la Plata and the many humming birds and other bird species in the cloud forests at Bella Vista Lodge, also in Ecuador. The coast of Costa Rica had wonderful scarlet macaws, sightings of our first sloths and its very special Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Area in the north, also provided us with many wildlife sightings. How lucky we have been. However there are some mammals, particularly the elusive, big cats, that we have not been fortunate in seeing and probably won’t either unless we are incredibly lucky.
A short taxi ride from the city in Tuxtla, takes us to a very special Reserve in memory of Miguel Alvarez del Toro, born in 1917 in the Mexican state of Colima. In 1942 Miguel settled in Chiapas, of which he developed a profound love, devoting his whole life to the study and protection of its wildlife. When he died in 1996, his ashes were scattered over the grounds of the reserve. It is here that we hope in particular to see some of those elusive big cats and we are not disappointed. The Jaguar are stunning with beautiful colouring and markings……more handsome than we ever imagined……….
….whilst the Black Jaguar has an abundance of the pigment melanin in his skin, which helps him adapt to his environment in dense jungle. However, when there is bright sunlight shining on his coat, it is possible to detect the spots .
Cougars, also known as Puma or Mountain Lion. are gradually disappearing from their favourite haunts amongst hills or rocky mountains because of loss of habitat.
The Bobcats are easily recognisable by their short tails and pointed, tufted ears…….
…..whilst Ocelots have fallen victim to hunting and the illegal trade of their beautiful skins and are sadly now in danger of extinction.
Some more of the strange and wonderful creatures that we saw at this carefully maintained reserve.
A very worthwhile outing and such beautiful and handsome creatures, but how sad to think that their natural lives are in such danger. Too many people and too much greed.
12th March – Leaving behind the traffic and fumes of Tuxtla, it’s a hot and parched landscape. Whilst most trees have lost their leaves, there are still splashes of bright green from those that keep them. As we head further south however, the hills become forested and we have views of the Pacific.
Entering the State of Oaxaca, we have a check point with a very pleasant military guy who, like many others in the past, finds our right hand drive vehicle very amusing. We chat about where we are going and he confirms that Oaxaca City is still a 6 hour drive and so it seems like a good idea to follow his suggestion of stopping at Tehuantepec for the night. Not long after passing through Arriaga however, our journey comes to an abrupt halt behind a long queue of traffic. A lorry driver tries to explain the problem. Teachers are having a demonstration up ahead and have blocked the road, the police are not able to do anything it seems and it could go on for hours. We decide to do what many other people are doing and turn around, stay the night in Arriaga and hopefully continue in the morning.
For some time now we have been passing fields full of mango trees laden with fruit . A lady is waving us down from one of the roadside stalls and when we stop, she cuts one of the yellow mangoes in half for us to taste…….so sweet and juicy! We buy some from her and I ask if I can take her picture and she loves it, waving the fruit in the air and shouting……..mangoes! What a delightful lady and with such a great sense of humour! As we are leaving, a pick-up passes us full of police officers standing in the back…….maybe they are going to sort out the demonstration after all.
At Arriaga we park in the grounds of the El Parador Hotel. The owner can’t be more helpful in making sure that we have everything we need…a large tree to park under for shade and the use of a room to have a very welcome cold shower! We learn from him that these hold-ups are very common in Mexico and can disrupt traffic for many hours.
13th – 19th March – The wind is blasting across the mountains this morning as we make a second attempt to reach Oaxaca. We arrive back at the military check point and the same guy comes out to greet us and tells us that the road ahead is clear. He reminds us of his family that live in a small pueblo near to Monte Alban and shows us photos on his mobile of the wooden, painted animals that his family make……maybe we can find his village and his family. What a sociable guy and that can’t have been a more pleasant and friendly check point!
The mountains of the Sierra Altravesada to our right and ahead of us, continue in rugged folds into the distance, topped by a thick band of cloud. The mango trees also continue and even though it is early, the mango sellers are already by their stalls. Near Santo Domingo on the way towards Juchitan, there are rows and rows of wind turbines relentlessly turning in this hot, dry wind that sweeps clouds of dust along its path. Since Tehuantepec, the landscape has been a parched, drab, grey/brown with lifeless trees and tall cacti.
It’s a slow journey to Oaxaca winding up and down and round the mountains and the Campground at San Felipe is not easy to find amongst the narrow backstreets. It’s just getting dark as we finally arrive but the American and Canadian owners are very welcoming and present us with a jug of their homemade lemonade using lemons from their tree. We have electricity, water and wifi at our site amongst the purple-flowering Jacaranda trees and as we are set up high, we have a lovely breeze which is going to be very welcome. The camping spaces are set around the edge of a field growing the agave plant that is used for making mescal – a spirit distilled from this plant and which is similar to tequila.
We celebrate Bill’s birthday here in San Felipe by having an excellent meal at an old, German-owned hacienda which has been converted into a hotel and restaurant. A beautiful place with lots of character and set amongst lovely gardens.
Oaxaca is situated where 3 valleys converge – the Valle de Tlacolula to the east, Valle Zimatlan to the south and Valle de Etla to the north of the city, which is mostly inhabited by indigenous Zapotec people, famous for their weaving and pottery. Mountains surround the city, which is considered to be one of Mexico’s most beautiful and vibrant.
When we visit on a Friday evening, residents are preparing for a long weekend holiday and so the traffic free central square (or Zocalo) with its big cathedral, is crowded and lined with colourful stalls, balloon sellers, handicrafts spread on the ground, and food stalls. Pavement restaurants and cafes are busy, providing an excellent place to people watch, be serenaded by musicians or be tempted by the many trinkets on offer from the street vendors, many of them children. The three musicians in the centre of the park playing panpipes, are a big draw.
The village of El Tule is approximately 10km east of Oaxaca and it’s a popular place to visit to see El Arbol del Tule (The Tree of Tule), which is claimed to be the largest tree in the world. This enormous Montezuma Cypress can be found in the churchyard, towering over the attractive little 17th century church there. It is questionable as to whether it is the largest tree in the world but its trunk is certainly impressive, about 11m in diameter and so according to its trunk thickness, this record could possibly be true. The age of this tree is also very impressive as it is said to be at least 1500 years old, possibly more. The fenced churchyard also has a pretty garden and the attractive main square is surrounded by interesting shops and stalls selling local crafts, clothes and jewellery.
There are two more places definitely worth a visit whilst in Oaxaca – the ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Alban and the mineral springs at Hierve El Agua with its dramatic cliff top location and fantastic mountain scenery. These places both deserve to be covered separately in my next two posts.