Saturday, October 16, 2010

Exploring ancient civilizations in Mexico

It was with more than a little trepidation that I flew in to Mexico City. Many travellers had warned me of the dangers of this massive city, and to be careful as a girl on my own. But, as usual, the travellers cautions were overzealous and my experience of this city was a great one. My hostel had told me not to pay more than 127 pesos for a cab from the airport (about ten bucks), so I approached a registered taxi and asked the price: 200 pesos. I don't think so. I persuaded him down to 120, being the savvy and stingy backpacker I was and we were off. The driver was a happy little man who spoke no English and whose mouth looked like someone had grabbed a handful of teeth and just stuck them in his mouth wherever they wanted. My hostel was amazing and new, not the dive that I had been anticipating and the people really friendly. I was sharing a room with a Mexican lady who gave me her email when I left so that I could stay with her next time I was in Mexico. So where were all these lowly bag snatchers, kidnappers and drug dealers I had been led to believe were waiting to get me on every corner?

I went for a walk and went past what I thought was a church. I took a few photos before the security guard let me in to see it was a library. A really cool library. Every inch of the place was painted with brightly coloured murals and a spiral staircase led up to a cool view. I was getting a bit uncomfortable being alone in a deserted library with an old security guard who spoke no English so I thanked him and he tried to kiss me as I left. I sort of backed away and said "No." and he said "No?" "No." I'm pretty sure that translates in any language. Nice try buddy. I got outta there quick sticks and walked down to the main plaza where it must have been family day, because everyone was out with their kids flying these inflatable crayon shaped balloons and there were some guys playing mariachi music on guitars and a cute little market. There were guys with feather headresses burning incense and calling themselves shamans and one guy with dreads stopped me to talk about surfing in Australia. I was loving Mexico City. My first day certainly put my mind at ease.

So I wandered around the city the next day, taking in the sights. I caught the metro which is obviously not the done thing with tourists (well, the little tourists that are there... they must have been scaremongered off) as people were staring openly at me. Every now and then someone would hop onto the train to sell anything from CDs to chocolate to leather wallets. The CD guys were the funniest because they walk around with a big speaker on their backs. I went to the Anthropological Museum which is probably one of the best museums I have been to on my whole trip, as it went through human civilization from monkeys through to the Mayans and the Aztecs. Then I hit a few artisan markets which were in the dodgy areas, but found some pretty cool stuff. All in all, I found Mexico City to be very friendly and efficient; people were always ready to help me with translating Spanish or to find where I was going. Although, every day on the front page of the newspapers these guys were selling at the metro stations, there would be an extremely graphic picture of a dead bloody body lying in some street. So I guess there are dangerous things going on somewhere in that big city.

My last night I went to Garibaldi Plaza where all these old guys dress up in their mariachi costumes complete with boots and hat and play music for anyone who gives them a bit of money. You can request whatever song you want... a lot of couples would go here to be serenaded. It's kinda cute... these guys all walk around like celebrities with their greased back hair and cowboy-like outfits with big double basses or mini guitars strapped to their backs.. "Mariachi?" they ask you with a big grin. It was a great way to finish my time in the city. I then caught the bus to Palenque in the south, for what I thought would be a 13 hour journey. It ended up taking 22 hours because of all the flooding happening around the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, we were all pretty relieved to get off the bus at 2pm the next day and me and a couple from Australia and NZ booked into a beautiful hostel in a shady jungle area. I had a much needed shower, then we had a few beers, some ping pong and ended up hanging out with the owner of the hostel all night in the terrace restaurant.

The next day we explored the ancient Mayan ruins down the road, which were amazing. Being the off season we almost had the whole place to ourselves and we were able to wander through the temples and pyramids at our leisure. Amazing to think all these stone buildings had been there since about 100 AD. The place was so peaceful and tranquil with butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around our heads, until the silence was broken by some howler monkeys. I don't know if you've ever heard these things, but they are LOUD... they sound like dinosaurs, I felt like I had stepped into Jurassic Park. So we walked through the jungle to some nice waterfalls and had some sandwiches for lunch before hailing a bus back to town.

The busride from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas was really cool, although windy. We drove past a lot of cute little villages that didn't even look like they had electricity as we climbed higher and higher in the mountains and ladies with plaited hair walked around in traditional shirts and skirts. When we got to San Cristobal I suddenly found where all the tourists were. This place was crawling with gringoes and pushy ladies trying to sell blankets, shirts, necklaces, anything. They were also wearing traditional clothes. It was a cute little town though, with really brightly coloured buildings, but temperatures were freezing at night.

On the 18 hour bus back to Mexico City where I would be getting my flight to Peru we got stopped so many times by officials looking for anything from drugs to passports; one even woke me up at about 1am to check my passport, but didn't check anyone else on the bus. And one time we all had to actually get off the bus as they took out our bags and got a sniffer dog to go through them all. There were three nuns on our bus who looked slightly bemused by the whole situation. The guys in army gear tried their hardest to find something, but they didn't. And so we were off again through cactus studded landscapes with a snow capped mountain in the distance. I had my first successful conversation in Spanish (well, close enough to a conversation) with the taxi driver who took me to the airport. So I said adios to Mexico, one week wasn't long enough, but I had to catch my plane to Peru.

Hasta luego, amigos,

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