Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Oaxaca - Stuck in a River and Reversing into a Pickup

After leaving the tyre shop in Oaxaca, we got on Mex 175 heading south. The road from Oaxaca city to the coast, is only 160 miles long, but everyone we’d spoken to who’d driven it had said that the steep grades and winding route would take at least 6 hours to drive. It was already 2pm by the time we’d got the new tyre fitted, and not wishing to drive in the dark, particularly in the mountains, after 90 miles we were looking for somewhere to park. The Mex 175 is a narrow, winding road through steep mountains, and laybys and parking lots are few and far between. With a limited choice, we pulled off the highway in San Jose del Pacifico, and parked on a rare stretch of flat road next to the police station and town square.

The town is in a truly beautiful area, and a stroll in any direction will give you magnificent views, but almost immediately we noticed that San Jose is not like other remote mountain villages in Mexico. For a start there was a steady stream of tourists walking through the streets. Oaxaca is a popular state with tourists, but in most villages of a similar size I wouldn’t expect to see any tourists; in San Jose there were as many tourists as locals. The second thing which caught my attention was the overt psychedelic message. Mexican often like to paint their properties in bright colours, but almost every bar and restaurant had a psychedelic painting on the wall, and within 30 seconds of walking into the town, we’d been offered hallucinogens of various kinds. After speaking to an Australian tourist, and then a Russian tourist, it became apparent that San Jose has become famous for the kinds of magic mushrooms which grow in the area, and the town has become a mecca for people who like that kind of thing and want to get high in beautiful surroundings. Whilst in San Jose we met a pair of British travellers who’d stopped in the town to break up the journey from the coast, and were as bemused as us about what they found. We spent a peaceful night in the quiet town centre, and after a morning walk in the surrounding forest, we got back on the 175 heading south, navigating our flying carpet and communicating with the ether telepathically.

We could have driven the remainder of the road, and been on the coast by lunchtime, but following a recommendation from some travellers we’d met, we stopped at the Finca el Pacifico coffee plantation.

Oaxaca and El Tule

Oaxaca city has a central campsite/RV park, but a couple that we’d met during our second stay at the Mayabell campground in Palenque had recommended us the Overland Oasis campsite east of the city in the town of El Tule. It is run by Calvin and Leanne, a Canadian couple who have settled in Oaxaca after travelling Mexico for some time, and they were certainly the friendliest hosts we’ve had since arriving in Mexico. We were made to feel more like guests in their home, than paying customers and I can see why Aten, another guy staying at the site, had been there for more than a month. The plot that we were parked in was in complete shade, under beautiful trees in Calvin and Leanne’s well planted garden; this combined with the super-fast internet connection was enough to make me think of planting roots again.

El Tule itself has most things you’d need, a few shops, a nice park, a lavanderia, etc, and the largest (widest) tree in the world.

The giant Cypress tree in El Tule, Oaxaca

The tree is awesome, but looses it's magnificence after walking past it several times a day. One of the main reasons that we decided to stay for nearly week at Overland Oasis is how well connected El Tule is to Oaxaca. On most days we cycled into town, down what must be the longest cycle lane in Mexico. For almost the entire 10km journey into town there is a cycle lane, entirely separated from the highway, running on the route of an old railway line. The weather is cool in the highlands of Oaxaca, and it was a pleasure to get a bit of exercise each day without risking death by heatstroke or by Mexican driving. On the day that we chose not to cycle into town, we paid 6.5 pesos for a bus into town, and 10 pesos for a collectivo back, a total fair of less than 75p.

Oaxaca itself is a fantastic city, with a splendid central square, arguably the best food in Mexico, some huge markets and a long list of great museums and places to visit. Oaxaca is well known for its culinary delights, particularly the mole and tlayudas, but we were delighted by how mixed the offering was. It is just as easy to get contemporary Mexican cooking in Oaxaca as it is to get traditional food, and if you want modern European fare, there are plenty of places for that too. We ate well in the markets and at restaurants, drank some good mezcals in local bars, visited some good museums, and spent a long time walking and cycling around the city. To me Oaxaca city had all the cultural and architectural merit of the grand colonial towns further north (Zacatecas, Puebla, etc), with the artisanal and cosmopolitan sense that we’ve only felt in Oaxaca and Chiapas.

The Cathedral in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca market

Mex 190 - El Aguacero and Benito Juarez Lake

The Mex 190 heading west from San Cristobal takes you near a lot of areas of amazing beauty and we knew before we hit the road that we wouldn’t be able to see all of them. Our plan was to spend a few days, driving in the morning and spending the afternoons visiting some of the places we’d listed as worth a visit, before finally reaching Oaxaca. We had originally intended to visit Sumidero Canyon as our first stop, but having spoken to other travellers who had driven past it, we decided to skip the visit and head further east. We had wanted to spend the night at a scenic mirador on the road heading into the canyon, but one traveller we spoke to was turned away as no dogs were allowed into the site, and another said that the site closes in the evening and evicts any vagabonds looking for a free place to park. Instead we chose to spend the night at El Aguacero, a beautiful canyon and waterfall located a long way from anywhere in the Chiapas countryside.

The road down to El Aguacero starts as a smooth gravel road, but deteriorates towards the end. The final few hundred meters of the road are very steep and have been concreted in two narrow wheel paths to give sufficient traction; the channels are clearly designed for something the size of a pickup truck, as Jim’s wheels were hanging over either edge, and keeping us on the path around the tight final corner was challenging. The 190 is fairly well travelled, but I guess that the 3km dirt road down to El Aguacero puts most visitors off as we spent an afternoon and a night there and saw no other visitors, despite it being one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen.

The site consists of a deep canyon with vertical rock walls, a river running through the bottom, and a beautiful waterfall running down one side of the canyon. The car park is at the top of the canyon, and unless you want your experience of the site to consist of a 50m walk to a viewpoint, you have to descend a long series of steps, somewhere around 750, to get to the flat canyon bottom. Despite the view from the bottom being no better than from the top, the strenuous descent and ascent is worth it for the chance to walk under the waterfall and along the river. The river water is shallow and the bottom is of soft sand; we spent a few hours walking through the warm river water and relaxing under the cold spring water rushing off of the canyon wall. It’s an amazingly peaceful and beautiful place and I’d urge anyone else passing by to take a visit.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Mex 199 and San Cristobal

On the way towards Palenque, Noami and I had been talking about whether the  Mayabell campground would have repaired and refilled the swimming pool, and if they had, whether we’d ever actually leave. After arriving, we established that the swimming pool was full, and began discussing how we’d break the news to our families that we’d decided to plant roots in Chiapas. Sadly the elation didn’t last long, a quick dip in the pool showed us that far from providing refreshment, the pool was heated by the sun to the kind of temperature that you’d run your bath if you’d spent the day naked, rolling around in snow, and we got out of the pool hotter and sweatier than we were when we got in. In addition, we are in a country where using the bathroom often costs 5 pesos, dramatically increasing the possibility of swimming in someone’s urine. Consequently we only stayed a night, and in the morning we got back on the road, hoping that being a Sunday, the Zapatistas would be busy relaxing and spending their riches, appropriated from passing motorists.

Mercifully we passed through Santa Maria with no trouble; the town had returned to being just another sleepy, rural town in the Chiapas highlands, albeit with several newly painted houses, a few newly refurbished shop fronts, and a couple of shiny satellite dishes.

The section of the 199 that we had travelled previously between Palenque and Agua Azul is a mixture of gentle hills interspaced with steeper sections; beyond Agua Azul, the road gets considerably more mountainous. The road is constantly climbing and falling, and I spent most of the day in third gear, and the 130 miles that we drove on the 199 took us more than 6 hours. I generally enjoy mountain driving, although perhaps not for six hours straight, but once again, the enjoyment was all but ruined by the copious numbers of topes on the 199. I would estimate that there are somewhere in the region of 300 topes on the road, and if their mere existence wasn’t irritating enough, many of them are located on steep uphill sections of the road. In a car, climbing back up from 10mph to 30 or 40 after slowing for a tope is no trouble, but on a steep incline in a heavy truck it takes a long time and many gear changes. It’s like a game of snakes and ladder’s except that you’re guaranteed to land on every bloody snake.

Once off the 199, we had a few minutes of pleasant relief driving down the straighter and gentler 190 before we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, which, like many other colonial cities in Mexico, has a dense network of small narrow streets. Unfortunately San Cristobal had no perifico road marked on our map, and so we were forced to drive straight into the congested, narrow Centro. As with the Moril Trailer Park in Guanajuato, the Church and Church book is clear that the Ranch San Nicolas Campsite is only accessible by vehicles up to 24 foot in length due to the problems with access through the town centre. Given our difficulties in Guanajuato I knew that access with Jim’s wide and tall 24 feet of length would be tight, and once again we squeezed through with millimetres to spare. Access would be straightforward if we could have driven all the way to Francisco Leon on Avenida de los Insurgentes, but with heavy traffic banned from the very centre, we were forced to navigate the maze of narrow streets. The backroads in themselves are narrow, but often there are also cars parked in awkward places, compounding the problems and making the road too narrow for a big truck like Jim. Consequently we had to take a tortuous route through the town to get onto the road out to the campsite, mounting the curb in several places, doing forward and back manoeuvres to get around tight corners, and squeezing past parked cars without a rizlas width between us.

Once out of the town centre, the short drive out to the campsite was straightforward, and we easily found the beautiful campsite at Ranch San Nicolas. At 2,000m San Cristobal is much cooler than the oppressive humidity and heat at Palenque, and the San Nicolas campground is surrounded by steep pinewood forest, and often drenched in thick cloud. It was a pleasant novelty spending our first evening at the site sitting in front of a roaring fireplace in the communal living room, after having spent a month in the non-stop sun and heat of the Yucatan Peninsula. San Cristobal is popular with travellers, and we met some great people at the campsite, in particular we enjoyed spending time with Brian, who has spent four years travelling from Alaska on a big BMW motorbike.

Jim the truck relacing in the shade at Camping Rancho San Nicolas in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Brian's BMW 1200 GS at Camping Rancho San Nicolas in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Tulum to Palenque and Everything Inbetween

We had little that we wanted to see between Tulum, Quintana Roo and San Cristobal, Chiapas, 600 miles away, but not having the inclination or vehicle for doing it in a single day, we spent five days covering the distance. Our first stop was at Laguna Bacalar near to Chetumal. The lake is a shallow freshwater lake, with an astonishing colour, ranging from bright turquoise in the deeper areas, to almost white in the shallower area. We stayed at the Cocalitos campsite for a couple of days, swimming in the lake and visiting the nearby town.

The town of Bacalar is a Pueblos Magico (magic town), an accolade awarded to a small number of Mexican towns with unique natural beauty, or cultural and historical significance. I’m willing to believe that it deserved this accolade at one time, but in its current state I would find it hard to describe it as magical. It clearly suffered massive damage in the 2007 hurricane, and as it lies now, the town has no more charm or character than hundreds of others nearby. Nevertheless it remains popular with tourists and during an evening spent in the town square we met a number of interesting travellers from Europe and America. We spent a fun hour or so chatting to Randy and Dave who are travelling the Americas in their awesome Westfalia VW.


Whilst Semana Santa is nominally a week long, the weeks before and after are also busy, as many Mexicans choose to take holiday from work to extend their vacation. I’m not sure if this played a factor, as most of the visitors seemed to be foreign, but Tulum was still extremely busy when we arrived after our stay at Paa Mul.

Tulum town is pretty much just a tourist town, set up to serve visitors to the area, I'm sure the town was there before the ruins were restored and opened to the public but nowadays the town is little more than a collection of hotels, restaurants and internet cafes. Tulum town is a couple of miles back from the waterfront; this seems slightly perverse to me as most visitors are there either for the ruins or the beach.

Not wanting to spend our time an hours walk from the beach, we took a drive down to the beach road to find a place to camp. The road is flanked for a long way either side by various accommodations, but none of the campsites were big enough for Jim, which probably did us a favour as Tulum shares the high prices found everywhere on the Caribbean coast. As the majority of the town is so far away, the road along the beach has no small roads running back from the waterfront, and so as we hunted for a place to free camp, we realised that we’d have to park on the main road. We had no trouble finding a spot, but any chance of peace and quiet was ruined by the constant stream of traffic a meter form our door.

Inexplicably, the hotels and resorts south of Tulum have no electric or water supply, and so on top of the convoys of Jeeps headed to and from the Sian Kaan Biosphere and the taxis ferrying people to and from the hotels, there is a stream of heavy trucks delivering drinking water to the area. The lack of services to the hotels and cabanas along the coast have limited the scale of development, and thankfully the backdrop to the beach is of palapa huts and hammocks rather than concrete hotels. Despite the noisy road, the beach a few hundred meters from our parking spot was a picture of tranquillity, and we spent a couple of days on the beach, enjoying the last time we’d see the sea until we reached the Pacific coast in Oaxaca in more than a thousand miles time.

Most accounts of the archaeological site at Tulum say that it is only worth visiting for its unusual location on the beach, the structures being less impressive and significant than other Mayan sites nearby. With this in mind we decided against going to see ruins, and on leaving the beach we headed straight out of town and got on the road to Chetumal. This was a physical and metaphorical turning point in our trip; this was as far as we’d go in Central America on our trip, from this point we will be heading back towards America.

Semana Santa on the Caribbean Coast

With another needle jabbed into Naomi’s the arm, we left Valladolid for the last time, headed south east to the town of Tulum. Tulum is always popular, evidenced by the huge number of hotels, hostels, cabanas and campsites. Its proximity to a good beach and a decent archaeological site put it on most people itinerary when travelling Mexico, however with Semana Santa in full swing it was busier than normal. I should have known what was to come by the number of cars on the road, but it was still a shock when we got to the coast and started looking for somewhere to park.

In Mexico, no section beach can be privately owned, even the beaches in front of waterfront hotels must be open to the public, and anyone can walk along them, or choose to drop the towel and spend the day wherever they choose. It was this which we were relying on when it came to finding somewhere to park on the coast north of Tulum. Our intention had been to park on a quiet road near the beach, and spend our days walking along the beach until we found an isolated patch to relax. Sadly, on this section of coast this is completely impossible.

The section of Caribbean coastline between Tulum in Playa del Carmen is undoubtedly beautiful, but the only way to see it is via one of the private resort which dot the coastline. The coast has not been ruined by the high rise resorts found further north, but what is there cannot be enjoyed without paying for the privilege. There are no public roads between the 307 and the sea, the only way to get access to the beaches is by driving down one of the roads which lead to the resorts. The only exception to this is at the town of Akumal, and so naturally this is where we first headed. What we found was a full car-park, with a queue of people waiting to turn around and head back to the highway; sadly this experience was repeated again further up the coast, until finally we landed at Paa Mul.

As with most things in the area, Paa Mul is twice as expensive as almost every other campsite in Mexico, but with the cheaper campsites further south all full, we had little alternative but to shell out. For 400 pesos/night a campsite in Mexico should have free beer and a tuxedo clad butler for each guest, neither of which were provided by Paa Mul. Thankfully what it lacked in amenities, it made up for in location, and for three days we enjoyed our own slice of tropical paradise. Paa Mul is centred around a nice beach, backed by a restaurant, dive shop, swimming pool, and small hotel. As was to be expected it was full of people enjoying their holiday with the rest of the country as company, and what would normally have been a relaxing backdrop, felt more like a cross between a kindergarten and a Butlins resort.

Thankfully Paa Mul has another beach, which is far enough away from the main part of the resort to put-off almost every other guest from visiting.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Rio Lagartos

With another four days to burn before Naomi’s final rabies shot, we drove out to Rio Lagartos, 70km north of Valladolid. The town is small and isolated, a long way from any other settlements. Nevertheless it has a well paved road all the way from Tizimin, 50km to the south, no doubt due to the high number of visitors when compared to the other fishing villages along the Gulf coast. What attracts visitors to make the journey from Valladolid, is not the town itself but the residents that live east, along the coast and lagoon. For most of the year, thousands of Flamingos live in the area, and Rio Lagartos makes a decent income from providing boat tours, taking tourists to visit the nesting sites. The launchas that take people to see the flamingos are priced to take six people out, unfortunately with just Naomi and me the cost was more than our budget allowed and so we had to pass on the opportunity.

Thankfully our journey was not wasted. Rio Lagartos has an excellent free camping site east of town on the waterfront. The site is a huge area of compacted sand, with direct access to the lagoon, a freshwater swimming pool, a bar and a restaurant. The area has a strong breeze that provides relief from the heat and we spent three days there, relaxing, swimming, and hanging out with a couple we’d met in Palenque and bumped into again in Chichen Itza a few days previously.

Our stay at Rio Lagartos coincided with the start of the week long Mexican national holiday of Semana Santa, and due to its relative remoteness we enjoyed a respite from the hordes of Mexicans that descend on all attractions all over the country. Sadly we could not see out this week of screaming children and inflated prices in the tranquillity of Rio Lagartos as we had to return to Valladolid for Naomi’s final rabies shot. Whilst Valladolid itself was acceptable, our next stop, the Caribbean coast was possibly the worst choice of destination we could have made in respect to avoiding the throng.


Knowing that hospital in Valladolid had almost immediate access to the rabies vaccinations that Naomi would need in the next week, we decided to stay in the surrounding area, so that we could easily drive back to the hospital for the next two shots. Valladolid is a reasonably nice town, the central square is pretty and busy and there are some nice green spaces, but its popularity with tourists seems excessive given the limited attractions. There are regularly busloads of tourists being dropped off in the main square, which I can only assume has more to do with its location than its appeal. Valladolid is well positioned as a place to stay for tourists visiting Chichen Itza from Cancun or Merida, which I guess makes it an easy tick on itinerary sheet for fly-in tourists on a short vacation. After an afternoon spent in the town we felt that we had exhausted its potential; thankfully there is plenty to do and see in the surrounding area.

Mexico is an astoundingly beautiful country; whether you like volcanos, mountains, rain forests, temperate forests, deserts, or beaches, there are places that will make you happy. However none of these features are unique to Mexico. If you want to see something rarely seen anywhere else, the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are a good start. Many parts of the world have caves and sinkholes, but the cenote is something unique to this part of Mexico. They vary a lot, but in essence they are deep holes in the limestone with an opening to the sky and a pool of water in the bottom. Most are not connected to an underground river or cave system, and so in many cases the water in them has filtered slowly through the limestone, often leaving it cool and crystal clear.

 In an area of endless, flat, swamp and shrubland, the cenotes make great places to swim, and the deeper ones can be much cooler than the surroundings. There are hundreds, if not thousands, dotting the whole peninsula, and you are never far from one. Some are hugely commercialised, more like a water park than an oasis, some are off the main roads, little publicised and rarely used, and some are undoubtedly hidden in the forest, with no road access and no way pf getting down into them.
Near to Valladolid we stayed at a small lodge/campground at Cenote Suytun; this one is unusual because of the tiny opening. The only entrances to the cenote are a 3m hole in the roof, and set of stair dug down to allow access. There is too little light for any plants or trees to grow around the pool and so Suytun feels more like a cave than a cenote. Cenote Suytun is nowhere near as busy as some of the bigger cenotes closer to large towns, but it still has its fair share of visitors; staying on-site meant that we got a chance to take a morning swim, with the place to ourselves. I always enjoy swimming outdoors, but having an underground pool to ourselves, with nothing but a few fish for company was magical.

We visited another local cenote more by mistake than by design. We had intended to visit the Ek Balam ruins but after being told that we couldn’t stay overnight in the car park, we decided to take our money elsewhere. On the way out of the access road we spotted a handwritten sign for a cenote 16km away, and decided to see where it led us. We followed the signs into a small isolated community where the signs ended at a small local tourist office/tortillaria. A lady jumped in our truck and directed us the remaining 6km to the cenote. The remainder of the journey was a little complicated and the area was remote enough that on our map the roads finished at Ek Balam and so it would have been difficult for us to have found it on our own. This cenote was deeper than Suytun, somewhere around 30m below ground, but completely open to the sky. The bottom of the cenote had an island of lush trees and plants surrounded by a ring of clear water. Access was via an astonishingly rickety set of stairs, built solely out of broom handles, toilet roll tubes and celotape. The cenote is difficult to find, and consequently we had the place to ourselves for most of the time that we were there.

We spent another day at a nearby hacienda cum restaurant, before returning to Valladolid and the hospital for Naomi’s second rabies shot.