Monday, 28 April 2014

Progresso, Rabies, and why you Should Ignore Doctors Advice

After another night spent in a nondescript town in rural Mexico, we got on the road early and headed north. We often change our plans around, adding places, and taking places away from our route depending on how we feel, or based on recommendations from people that we’ve met, but the decision to bypass Merida was particularly last minute. As we drove around the perifico, headed for a campsite in the north of the city, we decided that we’d prefer some time on the beach instead. We drove past the turn off and instead headed north for Progresso, a town signed as having a beach on the road signs. I’m sure Merida is nice, but it’s easy to get overloaded with cute colonial cities in Mexico, and by many accounts Merida is more touristy than most. I know that it’s ironic for us, as tourists, to discriminate against a place for having lots of people like us, but we’re in Mexico to see Mexico, we needn’t have left London if we wanted to see lots of international tourists with the cameras out taking photos of each other in overpriced cafes and bars.

Progresso is not somewhere that I’d recommend to fellow travellers strongly. It is based almost entirely around a cruise ship terminal and it feels as if the town was built, solely to give cruise ships another place to berth on the Yucatan Peninsula. It has a nice beach, but however far you walk down it, you can always see the 7km pier which allows ships to berth in an area of extremely shallow water. The town fills up with sunburnt Americans looking for an overpriced trinket and a cheesy photo when a cruise ship docks, and just as quickly turns into a ghost town when the busses take the passengers back on board. This was the first place we’d been in Mexico where the shops and restaurants accept dollars.

We took a walk around the town to get some groceries and get our laundry done, but there is little to do or see in the town except for spending time on the beach or at the adjacent bars or restaurants. The only bit of excitement was some dogs barking at us. The only thing which persuaded us to stay a couple of days was the fact that Progresso has an excellent free camping location, on the west side of the pier. For some reason 99% of the cruise ship passengers stick to the east side of the pier, and the beach on the west side is almost deserted day and night. There is a large area of compacted sand parking, on the beach, somewhere around the end of Calle 90. The area is undergoing very slow development but at the moment I’d take bets that you could spend months here before someone took notice.

The street dogs in Progresso were generally no different from anywhere else in Mexico. On the whole the street dogs in mexico are not feral, for sure they sleep out on the street but they are generally fed and watered by someone who wants a cheap alarms system to warn them if somebody approaches their property. Most of them bark incessantly, but in general they are not aggressive and they rarely form large intimidating packs. Walking around with Boris is a sure fire way of making sure that every dog within a few miles will come and bark at us, Progresso was no different. On our first day in Progresso we passed a pair of dogs who behaved in pretty much the same way as every other street dog we pass; however on the second day one of them did something no other dog we’ve met has done, and bit Naomi. It wasn’t a savage mauling, the dog just ran up behind Naomi and bit her on the back of the leg. In the UK the bite wouldn’t have warranted anything more than a plaster, but we knew from research we did before we left the UK that Mexico has rabies and so the potential consequences of not going to hospital are much worse.

Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc

Being nowhere near a town, Uxmal has more facilities onsite than you’d expect from an archaeological site, and for 131 pesos we were allowed to park overnight in a small grass field. This is not a great price considering there was little shade, and no access to water, electricity or bathrooms, but we compensated ourselves by stealing the extremely good Wi-Fi connection from the Uxmal Lodge hotel next door. Getting a free internet connection in Mexico which is strong enough to use Skype on is rare, but the signal at Uxmal is plenty good enough. If I hadn’t been so concerned about damaging the revenue income from the hardworking studios in Hollywood, I would undoubtedly have downloaded a number of films overnight.

The next morning we visited the ruins early, aiming to get into the site before the tour buses arrived and before the day got too hot. Despite arriving half an hour after opening, the site was already busy. It wasn’t until a week later that I discovered that Mexico had come out of daylight savings time and we had actually arrived an hour and a half after opening. It is one of the joys of unemployment that you can happily live for more than a week with your watch an hour slow, without it making the slightest difference to anything.

After seeing a number of Mayan sites, they start to lose the sense of magic that they give you when you first see them, nevertheless Uxmal was still worth the trip. The Puuc style carvings found at Uxmal and the surrounding sites are amazing, even when compared with European facades from centuries later, and make the sites stand out from other Mayan sites with more typical architectural styles.


The day that we chose to visit Uxmal was uncharacteristically hot, even against the backdrop of many days not dropping below 35°C until well into the evening. There are a number of other Puuc style Mayan archaeological sites within a short distance from Uxmal, but in the heat we couldn’t summon the energy to visit most of them.


After leaving Palenque, we headed north, out of Chiapas and into Campeche. The Yucatan peninsula is probably the flattest area of Mexico, this combined with the fact that it attracts so many tourists, means that the roads begin to improve as soon as you get onto the peninsula. The roads To Campeche were the straightest, flattest, and smoothest that we’d seen for some time, and a journey which might have taken us two days elsewhere in Mexico took us less than one in Campeche.  We drove to the outskirts of Campeche town and spent a night at the most luxurious campsite I’ve ever seen.

Club Nautico outside of Campeche would not seem out of place in the French Riviera; the facilities are amazing and the general quality of the place seems completely incongruous to anywhere else we’ve been in Mexico. The site has its own beach and boat launch, an infinity pool, tennis courts, snooker and pool tables, a number of bars, and everything else you’d expect from a top end members club. A rare treat for us was a 50a power supply, which enabled to get 240v from the two 120v live supplies, allowing us to run our air conditioner; a welcome relied with the temperature staying around 30°C all night. We spent a night in the bar with the manager and his friend, after all of the other guests had left, and were shown great hospitality and generosity. Of course nowhere is perfect and Club Nautico is no exception; it is more expensive than any other site we’ve stayed in Mexico (but is still good value) and has no bus or collectivo passing by, and so it is not a great place from which to visit Campeche town unless you have a tow car or motorbike.

After a day spent using Club Nautico’s great facilities and good wifi, we drove into Campeche and found a place to park near the town centre. The malecon (waterfront road) in Campeche has lots of parking, and there are free car parks near the town centre, so anyone who fancies some free camping will have no problem in Campeche, even in a vehicle a lot bigger than Jim. The centre of Campeche relies heavily on tourism for income and so it has all the tat shops and expensive restaurants that you’d expect. Nevertheless sit is a pretty town and it was lively on Saturday night; we spent a night listening to music in the main square, watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, eating ice cream and drinking beer. The next morning we took a walk along the pretty but beachless seafront, and got back on the road, headed for the ruins at Uxmal.

Palenque - Monkeys and Ruins

At Palenque we pulled into the Mayabell campsite near the ruins and stayed for a few days. Everyone has a different idea of what the perfect campsite is; for someone with a huge American RV they’d be looking for hard standing sites so that they can use their levelling jacks, pull-through sites that you don’t need to reverse into, a 50 amp power supply to run the two air-conditioners and the washing machine, a sewage connection, etc. Mayabell has none of these things, but for us, it is near perfect; they do a reduced rate (about £7 per night) if you don’t need water or electricity connection, they have some decent sized trees to keep the sun off the truck, they have a good restaurant and well stocked bar on-site, all the pitches are on grass, the site is surrounded by virgin rainforest, and they have an amazing array of wildlife wandering through the site. If the swimming pool had been working we would probably have never left.

Every area of rainforest in Mexico entices you with claims that you’ll hear the exotic call of howler monkeys. For someone who hasn’t heard them I guess this is a tempting proposition; lying in bed at night with the soothing sound of monkeys calling to each other through the forest. We heard them almost immediately on arriving at Mayabell and I knew straight away that there would be nothing romantic or exciting about them after a few hours. I suppose the name should give you a clue, but the sound made by howler monkeys is pretty hideous, kind of like the sound of a rusty plough being dragged across a concrete floor, but at extreme volume. The enormity of the noise that comes from these small animals is astonishing. The only other animal noise I’ve heard which comes close the awfulness of a howler monkey is the sound of a fox engaged in coitus.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Agua Azul and the Friendly Local Zapatistas

The next planned stop on our route was the waterfalls south of Palenque in Chiapas, about 320 miles from Catemaco. It’s rare that we cover a distance as large without their being something on the way which we want to visit, but nothing in any of our books suggested that there was much to do or see in the South of Veracruz or in Tabasco. 320 miles is not a huge distance to drive in a day, but in our slow, heavy truck, we rarely drive more than 250 miles in a day, and by the time we’d failed in our attempt to visit Poza Reina half the day was gone anyway. As night was drawing in we were on the outskirts of Villahermosa, and we decided to spend the night in another Pemex forecourt.

As we are heading towards the equator, and into the hottest part of the year, the temperature has climbed considerably. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were driving in snow in Texas, but now it’s well above 30°C every day (sometime closer to 40), and our enthusiasm for trudging around cities is waning. Villahermosa is a sizable city and would probably have had enough to entertain us for a while, but the lure of cold, clear waterfalls to cool down in was too strong, and so we didn’t venture further into the city than necessary.

We got up early and drove the remainder of the journey to Agua Azul. Both of our guide books to Mexico indicated that the road between Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas has been the location of armed hold-ups in the past, and so we were relieved to drive the road with no incidents.
Aga Azul is everything that were hoping it would be. Not even the endless stalls selling tourist tat, and the hawkers inviting you to pay to see their private part of the waterfalls, could detract from its magnificence. It is a long series of cascades through the rainforest, with huge volumes of water thundering over limestone plateaus into innumerate pools. Some of the pools are raging torrents of water, whilst others are shaded, tranquil havens with a small trickle of water in and out to keep the water cool and fresh. Even on a busy Sunday afternoon there were plenty of pools off of the main path where we could bath in with nobody else around. The only time I felt that this wasn’t perhaps the greatest place on earth, was when I saw a group of local men skinning a pig in one of the pools, thankfully downstream of where I was swimming. The huge length of the cascades and the massive volume of water, means that there are a huge variety of waterfalls and pools; we spent a long time in a section of the river near the top of the cascades, where the water is calm and there is a sandy beach on which to relax.

Overnight camping is include in the price of entry to Agua Azul, and so we spent the night in the shady grass parking lot. On Monday morning we all but had the place to ourselves and had a morning swim before getting on the road, back the way we had come towards the next waterfall of Misol Ha. We had driven most of the way to Misol Ha before we were stopped and could drive no further. The Zapatista rebels, which have a small following in this part of Chiapas, had set up a road block in the town of Santa Maria and were letting only locals and collectivos through. The block was simple, a pile of rocks blocking one side of the road and a long plank of wood with hundreds of nails sticking up through it on the other. When a local vehicle arrived, the Zapitistas would collect 20 pesos, give the driver a leaflet outlining their manifesto, and pull the spikey plank out of the way. When we got to the front of the queue of vehicles we were told with no uncertainty that we would not be allowed to pass. Not wishing to argue with the machete wielding, balaclava clad man in charge, nor the hundred or so local men there to add support, we had no choice but to wait or turn around. My Spanish is not good enough to have a lengthy political discussion with an armed revolutionary, but I asked whether we could pass in the morning, and was told that it would be fine.

Catemaco and Los Tuxtlas

Our next stop (not including a night spent in the shadow of Orizaba), was the town of Catemaco, in the mountainous, coastal, and jungle filled biosphere of Los Tuxtlas. Most people approach Catemaco from the north or south on Mex 180; it is a winding free road but is in good condition and is widely used as an alternative to the expensive toll road. As we were approaching from the west, we jumped between the 145d toll road and the 180 free road using a road marked on my map as the 179. With the possible exception of toll roads, it is very difficult to judge the size or condition of a road in Mexico based on its grading on a map, and the 179 was no exception. It appeared on the map to be just like any other local road, and so I had anticipated it be in reasonably poor condition, with lots of topes and lots of potholes. Some sections roughly fitted this description, but others were far worse. There was one section more than a mile long, where the tarmac had completely disappeared and had left rutted, corrugated mud, far worse than the graded gravel sections that covered other parts of the road. As is often the case, the last 50 miles of the journey took us longer than the first 150.

Catemaco itself was a little disappointing, and is not really the best place to explore the biosphere from. I could have done without the day that we spent there, but I did enjoy having a cold beer at La Panga bar, which is on stilts a fair way out into the beautiful Lake Catemaco, accessed by a boardwalk. I say I enjoyed a beer, but really I didn’t enjoy it at all. Certainly I enjoyed sitting in such beautiful surroundings, but I ordered what I thought would be another domestic beer form the beer menu, called Michelada. I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything that I’ve eaten and drunk in Mexico and so I enjoy ordering from the list of items on a menu which I don’t recognise. This usually means that I get to eat or drink something tasty and interesting which I’ve not had before, sadly this time it backfired. It turns out that a Michelda is not a brand of beer at all, but a Mexican beer based cocktail, no doubt a novice tourist mistake. I’m not sure exactly what was in but it seemed to be a mixture of beer, lime juice, tabasco sauce and lots of salt, poured over ice. Given that it is on most drinks menus I’m sure that it is popular, and that many people like it, but to me it was disgusting. What I wanted was a refreshing beer, and what I got was a watery, salty, spicy broth that tasted like the water left after washing a pan that you’ve made paella in.

The friendly and helpful owner at the Tepetepan campsite in Catemaco gave us a few suggestions of places to visit in the surrounding area, and a map showing where they all are. A lot of the villages and attractions are too small to feature on Streets and Trips, most of the roads didn’t feature either, no doubt as the driver of the car sent out to map the remote roads reached the end of his tether with the rough unpaved surfaces. There is a road leading from Catemaco, about 30km or so to the nearby stretch of the Gulf Coast. There are small fishing villages stretching for a long way north along the coast, but we were told that that they are all similar and all have nice beaches and plenty of places to park. Being naturally lazy, we chose the first of the villages, called Jicacal, which we had been told had a reasonable road accessing it.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Cantona Archaeological Site

On leaving Puebla we again headed east, in the general direction of the Yucatan. Our first stop was not far away, at a little visited archaeological site called Cantona. All of the literature I had read on Cantona had said that it was an impressive and significant site (true) in a remote and isolated location (bollocks). Cantona is about 60 miles from one of the largest cities in Mexico, and within 5 miles of a good condition toll road down a well maintained road. It may not be on a well-travelled tour route, but the site is easy enough to access to warrant it being significantly more popular than it is. Cantona was the largest single urban development in Mesoamerica, it has a huge area of astonishingly well preserved pyramids, streets and building platforms, and whilst we were at the site, there were only two other visitors there.

Cantona mesoamerican archaeological site

Cantona mesoamerican archaeological site

Cantona is built into a rugged mountainous area, which made it impossible for the inhabitants to lay the site out in a symmetrical way like their neighbours at Teotihuacan. In addition, the city was linked by a huge network of raised and walled alleyways and roads. These combine to make the site interesting to explore; there are few places where you can see any significant portion of the city, and so around every corner is a surprise. The city is unique in that none of the structures use mortar to hold the stone together, and is unusual in that no plaster, stucco or murals were used for decoration. Many of the walls are built like a traditional drystone wall in the UK, whilst the building platforms and pyramids are all built from square cut stone stacked on top of each other. The area has an abundance of different stone sources, and the builders at Cantona used different rocks depending on the use. The pyramids used different stones for sloping surfaces, horizontal surfaces and for the steps, with another type of stone used for ceremonial platforms.

Cantona mesoamerican archaeological site

Cantona mesoamerican archaeological site

Pico de Orizaba viewed from Cantona mesoamerican archaeological site

Even rushing around the small part of the city which has been excavated and restored, we spent more than four hours at Cantona. It is a beautiful site surrounded by cactuses and palm trees, with a great view of the huge Orizaba volcano; its lack of popularity makes it far more pleasant to visit and anyone who’s visited Teotihuacan or Chitzen Itza will appreciate the peace and quiet.


Puebla appears to have only one campsite and so choosing where to stay was easy. The campsite is nearer the adjacent town/suburb of Cholula, but is a short bus ride from central Puebla. The campsite is nice, with some lovely trees providing shade for some of the day, but despite its monopoly and reasonable facilities we were the only people there when we arrived. This may have been unusual, but nevertheless, Puebla is clearly not hugely popular with travellers. Having spent a little time there I certainly don’t understand why; it is Mexico’s fifth largest city and it has everything you want from a Mexican city. Naomi and I have both longing for some beaches, forests and general relaxing for a while, and when we were leaving La Malinche we were undecided about whether to bother going to Puebla. When we had made the decision to go, we agreed only to spend a couple of days there. I don’t regret this decision, but having spent a day in Puebla’s beautiful centre, I’m certain we could have spent a week there without getting bored.

 For a start Puebla is a great city to walk around; with some huge public parks and squares to relax in, some sizeable pedestrian zones, and the least traffic of any city we’ve been to so far in Mexico. Being laid out in an American style grid, it also pretty easy to navigate, despite being considerably bigger than any city we’d visited so far in Mexico. Wandering around for a day, we found an antiques market, a craft market, and a came across a parade of people dancing in obscure masks and costumes.

La Malinche Volcano

The day that we left Teotihuacan we headed east for La Malinche volcano. It is difficult to find any significant area of the interior of Mexico that is not mountainous, but the area south and east of Mexico City is different, in that the peaks are almost all volcanoes. There are several huge volcanoes in this area of Mexico, some are extinct, some dormant, and some active; La Malinche is dormant but has clearly been inactive for a long time. It is smaller than some of its surrounding cousins, and is the easiest of the big ones to climb, not needing any specialist equipment or a guide. There is a quaint vacation centre at the end of the road that leads a fair way up the side of La Malinche, and so the climb to the summit and the descent back down again can be done in a day. The centre is run as a low cost recreational facility by the Mexican Social Security Institute and is the closest thing we’d seen in Mexico to the state park campsites all over America. There are a number of well-equipped cabins to rent, some nicely screened camp sites, a small restaurant and shop, and a level parking area. The centre is happy for RVs to park in the parking area for a small fee and we were delighted to pay a small fee for parking, rather than the usual inflated cost that we pay at trailer parks for electrical, water, and sewage hook-ups which we don’t need.

Camping at La Malinche Volcano in Jim the overland motorhome

The extent of the facilities on the volcano should not mislead potential visitors into thinking that the climb to the summit is like a walk in the woods though; even at the vacation centre, 3,400m above sea level, I was feeling out of breath after a short walk and I should have known that the climb would be hard work. The vacation centre is a great place to relax above the smog trapped in the surrounding valleys, and if I lived in Mexico City or Puebla I’d be a frequent visitor here; the site has some nice walking trails around it, and we had a pleasant day relaxing before our climb the following morning.

We started the climb early, aiming to eat lunch at the summit and be back before the heat of the afternoon. Our guide book suggested that the ascent and descent could be completed in five hours, and I’d guess that if I’d been on my own and feeling uncharacteristically determined I might have been able to do it in this time. With a dog who insists on wearing his thick winter coat everywhere, this timeframe was impossible. The path starts relatively easily, you can either follow the (closed) road that continues upwards from the campsite, or take the steeper walking path that goes straight up the slope. Once the path to ‘la cima’ leaves the road, it immediately starts to get steeper and steeper, and before long were climbing an absurdly steep trail, wondering what the hell we had let ourselves in for.

The steep trail up La Malinche Volcano


After the difficult driving through the Sierra Gorda, the Teotihuacan Trailer Park was a pleasant relief. The trailer park is the first we’ve stayed at that has had grass parking that is in reasonable condition, and it was quiet enough that we could unwind our awning and relax in the shade. The trailer park has three dogs (and several Dalmatian puppies awaiting homes), one of which was adamant that Boris would be her best friend; this meant that every time we opened the truck door, Boris would run out and exercise himself with his new friend until he was tired out. Walking Boris forces us to get out and explore our surroundings, getting to know the places and people around us, but it made nice change for him to get all the stimulation he needed without me getting out of my chair.

The trailer park is in San Juan de Teotihuacan, which is well situated for visiting the famous pyramids nearby, and also for taking day trips into the behemoth which is Mexico City, and so it seems to be extremely popular. I’d hazard that almost everyone overlanding through Mexico will pass through it at some point.

After three months of living on the road, we hadn’t met a single European doing the same kind of trip as until we got to Teotihuacan. It seems that there are a fair number of Europeans driving through the Americas, but most seem to follow a similar route – arriving in Newfoundland, driving across Canada to Alaska, traveling down the US Pacific Coast into Baja, through Mexico and the rest of Central America and into South America, shipping home from Argentina. During our three nights at Teotihuacan Trailer Park we met four sets of European travellers, all doing pretty much the same route, and none of them knew of any who had started as far south as we had. Shipping roro to Halifax in Newfoundland is slightly cheaper than shipping further south (the bunkerage surcharge is reduced), but the weather in Canada means that anyone doing this route needs to start in spring or early summer to avoid the bad weather. Am I the only one who was too disorganised to organise a start date inside of the necessary three month window?