Palenque

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the whole Mayan calendar/end of the world thing, Palenque is the site where the calendar indicating December 21, 2012 as the date of the end of the world was discovered. Thus, although it is not the largest of the Mayan ruins, it was the prime pilgrimage target for people of all sorts to converge in anticipation of the big event. We considered ourselves lucky to NOT be at Palenque in the days running up to D-Day. Rumor had it that upwards of 50,000 people would be thronging the site, including a large group of folks who call themselves the Rainbow Gathering (google it and check out some of the photos). Comments on other blogs suggested that this was true and that conditions in and around the ruins were pretty scary – rain combined with too many people and inadequate sanitation was leading to a lot of illness.

Having said all that, however, we still felt that Palenque itself was something we couldn’t miss seeing. Hoping that 6 days post-end-of-the-world would be enough for most of the disappointed revelers to have cleared out, we left San Cristobal on the morning of the 27th. Although it is only 190 km from San Cristobal to Palenque, it is a serious mountain crossing with very windey roads and many, many topes – it took about 7 hours of driving to make the trip. We camped at Maya Belle, inside the park limits and only about a 2 km walk to the park entrance. Our gamble paid off – everything was still a mud bog but there was plenty of space available for all the vehicles, still lots of people around but not too crowded, and relatively clean bathrooms that smelled of bleach (such a great smell – makes me feel like things are cleaner even if they’re not :) ).

Early morning Palenque

Early morning Palenque

Bryan and I got up early the next morning to be at the gate when the park opened since I wanted to be able to get some photos of the ruins before a ton of people started swarming all over them. That plan worked out well and we actually had a nice quiet walk around without a lot of company. I was able to get some good pics of what are truly some awesome ancient structures.

Palenque

Palenque

Once we had seen our fill, there was little left to keep us hanging out in the mud bog so the  STT crew and Tranquilos packed up and headed out together for the Yucatan peninsula and Campeche where I now sit. We’ve been here 2 days at a strangely deserted health club/resort called Club Nautico that also allows RV parking. We are almost the only people here besides the staff and have the beautiful infinity pool overlooking the ocean all to ourselves!

Infinity pool in Campeche. Cost= $30 US, view=priceless

Infinity pool in Campeche. Cost= $30 US, view=priceless

San Cristobal de las Casas / Christmas

12/26/12 – be warned, this post is a long one :)

Christmas has come and gone during the 6 days we’ve been in San Cristobal de las Casas – we celebrated in true overlander style with Christmas lights, festive pinata bashing, and potluck dinner by the open air fireplace here at Rancho San Nicolas (no joke, good old Saint Nick). Team STT, Tranquilos, and our new German friends Claudia and Alex enjoyed a stellar evening of good food and good company in front of the fire, listening to more flavors of Christmas music than you can shake a stick at (Justin Bieber Xmas CD – who knew?).

The Burls grooving to some curiously good Justin Bieber Christmas tunes :)

The Burls grooving to some curiously good Justin Bieber Christmas tunes :)

Nothing like a good old traditional Christmas pinata bashing

Nothing like a good old traditional Christmas pinata bashing

Pinata aftermath

Pinata aftermath

Chestnuts roasting by an open fire - OK that's actually the pollo asada staying warm, but roll with me here...

Chestnuts roasting by an open fire – OK that’s actually the pollo asada staying warm, but roll with me here…

After a rainy start, San Cristobal has turned out to be an amazing spot. The weather has been crisp, clear, bluebird skies – warm in the sun and pleasantly chilly at night. We really scored on our choice of camping spot at Rancho San Nicolas – it is located on the eastern outskirts of town, far enough on the periphery to be forested and quiet but still within a 15-20 minute walk to the town center/pedestrian district. Only 80 pesos per person per night gets you water and electric hookups, nice gated grassy area free of sand, ants and mosquitos, clean bathrooms with hot water showers (if you keep it brief), wifi, and one very friendly little yellow camp dog who will steal your flipflops and your chicken if given the opportunity. A word of advice on getting to the Rancho – if you follow your GPS it will lead you across the center of the city through a tight maze of narrow cobblestone streets barely large enough to accommodate the Sprinter, let alone any larger vehicle. Instead, look at Google maps and find the Periferico, the ring road that surrounds San Cristobal. On the eastern edge of the ring, zoom in to find where the Periferico intersects with San Nicolas street – this way is about 100 meters of rutted dirt road but will get you essentially to the doorstep of the Rancho without having to traverse the entire width of San Cristobal.

Good news! We finally got a chance to bust out the mountain bikes for some real riding here. Bryan and Doug paid Joel from outfitter Los Pinguiinos for a guided ride on local trails. Bryan brought his GPS which allowed him to repeat the ride with me the next day, and then a third time again with Doug on Christmas day. The trail passes through a traditional Maya village, past a beautiful 18th century church, through the “cloud forest” above San Cristobal, and then finishes with a sweet downhill reminiscent of Bend, OR. The ride is about 24 km, and maxes out at about 8,000 ft elevation – having just come from sea level my lungs and legs were on fire, but it was totally worth it :)

San Cristobal was one of the centers of the Zapatista (EZLN) rebellion in 1994. Since that armed rebellion was quelled by the Mexican army, the Zapatista movement (focused on autonomy and equal rights for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas) has continued, but primarily as a peaceful effort to raise awareness of the plight of the people. San Cristobal remains a hotbed of Zapatista activity, as evidenced by the many shops selling EZLN propaganda, tee shirts, etc.. The vast majority of Zapatistas are members of the many Mayan tribes, so it was not unexpected when they chose 12/21/12 as the day for a San Cristobal protest. My photos do not do justice to the sheer mass of humanity slowly marching around the center of town, primarily because the photos cannot convey the silence of the people. 20,000 protesters in matching black balaclavas, uttering not a word – no conversation amongst themselves, no yelled slogans. It was eery and moving at the same time.

Zapatistas, 20,000 strong, men, women, grandmothers and children staging a silent protest by slowly marching around the San Cristobal central square in the pouring rain on December 21, 2012 - the end of the Mayan era of Baktun.

Zapatistas, 20,000 strong, men, women, grandmothers and children staging a silent protest by slowly marching around the San Cristobal central square in the pouring rain on December 21, 2012 – the end of the Mayan era of Baktun.

Another highlight of town was my visit to the Centro de la Medicina Maya. The museum itself is a pretty low budget affair, but worth a visit for the English language video they have of an interview with a Mayan midwife and the rituals and “cleansing” processes surrounding a live Mayan birth. The demonstration herb garden and the onsite herbal pharmacy were pretty cool too.

Mayan women purchasing herbal remedies at the pharmacy on the premises of the Museo de la Medicina Maya - a working clinic, herbarium, and educational center in San Cristobal

Mayan women purchasing herbal remedies at the pharmacy on the premises of the Museo de la Medicina Maya – a working clinic, herbarium, and educational center in San Cristobal

This post would not be complete without mention of our day trip to San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil village about 14 km outside of San Cristobal. Chamula is known for many things – it’s status as the birthplace of the EZLN movement, it’s huge Sunday market where one can find amazing textiles from surrounding village weavers, and for it’s church. Man that is one funky church. Although it is technically a Catholic church, it has no altar, no pews, and there has been no mass held there in over thirty years. Instead, it is place where the native villagers blend their own unique version of religion – combining prayers to the many saints whose altars line the walls of the church with chicken sacrifice (yes we saw that happening) and various pagan cleansing rituals. It’s impossible to adequately describe and you’d have to see it for yourself to believe it because although outsiders are allowed into the church to observe the worshippers, there is absolutely, positively, 100% no photography allowed.

Church of San Juan in San Juan Chamula - nominally Catholic, truly Tzotzil

Church of San Juan in San Juan Chamula – nominally Catholic, truly Tzotzil

Leaving San Cristobal today, headed toward Palenque, the site of the December 21st non-end of the world :)

Barra de la Cruz

So, the idea was to decamp from Zipolite, make a brief one night stop in Huatulco, then make the big 8-9 hour push to San Cristobal. It should be no surprise that things did not pan out quite that way. The STT vans (plus Tranquilos in The Burro) all left Rancho Los Mangos at different times, with the intent of a rendevouz at a specific RV park in Huatulco. Vanna was first out, followed about a half hour later by Bryan and I. By the time we hit Huatulco, Tranquilos  had caught up to our van and we navigated to the RV park together. No sign of Vanna there, and a brief inspection of the place quickly revealed that it would NOT work for us – mosquito infested bog nearby, difficult beach access, and worst of all the banos were locked! Unable to raise Vanna on the 2-way radios (their CB has been dead for a couple of weeks now), we proceeded to continue south through the 3 remaining bay/beaches of Huatulco figuring we would stumble upon them at some point. None of those bays turned up a van of any color, nor did they have a good place to park Smokey for the night. Lonely Planet had some good things to say about a place to stay in Barra de la Cruz, the next town south, so we headed there thinking we would just hole up for the night, shoot the team an email telling them where we were, and then press on when they met up with us in the morning.

Pepe's place

Pepe’s place

It just so happens that Barra de la Cruz is a little slice of heaven. This little village displays the most pride of place that I’ve seen since entering Mexico – noticeably clean and well kept, without the piles of trash and other discarded debris that seem to drift up everywhere else. It is not a tourist spot, there are no storefronts with cheap clothes and plastic trinkets displayed. It is, however, getting to be more well known as a good surf spot – enter Pepe Castillo, the owner of Pepe’s Cabanas. After Smokey and the Burro had pulled into the cabana compound, paid our 50 pesos per person, set up camp, and rustled up some cocktails, Pepe wandered over to chat with us. His English is excellent, and he spent about 45 minutes telling us about the community and the growth of the surfing presence here. In the summer season when the waves are large, as many as 60 surfers will shack up at Pepe’s place for months at a time (at this time we were the only folks here). Barra consists of about 9 large extended families with a few smaller families. Pepe describes the community as “closed” – the community as a whole owns the land in the valley where it sits. When a young family member marries, a community committee deeds a plot of land to them. Barra has decided not to allow outsiders (i.e. developers, expats, or non-likeminded Mexicans) to own land, so they have retained tight control of how things work. There is a single road to the beach from town – at the end of the road sits a single large palapa housing a small restaurant that is run and staffed by a community committee. All proceeds from the restaurant are used to fund needs of the village.

Barra de la Cruz palapa and mangrove lagoon at the mouth of the Copalita river - very pristine!

Barra de la Cruz palapa and mangrove lagoon at the mouth of the Copalita river – very pristine!

The rest of the vans arrived the next morning and joined us down at the beach. Other than the one palapa, the beach is pristine, free of other structures and clutter, and essentially devoid of people. Just to the north of the palapa is a point break that, although relatively small at this time of year, turned out to be perfect for the more proficient surfers of our crew. It also produced some waves good for us beginners – I caught my first paddle board wave ride here! Unfortunately, Bryan had a little incident in the surf with Dougs paddle board and we are now frantically surfing the net to try to figure out how to replace his broken Nalu in time for him to have something to paddle when we reach the Yucatan peninsula.

Bryan on the beach at Copalita lagoon

Bryan on the beach at Copalita lagoon

Our single overnight in Barra de La Cruz turned into two, then three when an early morning attempt to head to San Cristobal was foiled by yet another day of protests blocking the road. Bryan and I along with Micki and Erik finally tore ourselves away yesterday and made it to San Cristobal in just under 7 hours. Greg, Doug and Marsha are still soaking up the sun in Barra – unfortunately we woke in San Cristobal to cold pouring down rain this morning. Perfect day for catching up on photo editing and posts though…

Zipolite

We are now on our third day settled in at Rancho Los Mangos in Zipolite (about 45 minutes south of Puerto Escondido, just a few km from Puerto Angel). I have to say, Puerto Escondido/Zicoleta was a bit of a flop – very difficult to find a spot for the Sprinters, populated almost entirely by gringos, and with a shore break that keeps all but the more experienced surfers out of the water. On the up side, the food choices were fantastic. My and Bryans favorite was a place called Cayuca that specializes in Oaxacan food. Jose, the owner, spent about a half an hour giving Bryan and I a tutorial on the different types of mezcal. The food was so good we convinced the rest of the group to return the next night to celebrate Jamies birthday. He and Kelly are otherwise known as The Tranquillos, an overlanding couple that Bryan and the rest of the STT crew got to know very well during the 3 weeks they spent at Sayulita before I got there. Happily, when we decamped from Zicoleta and headed for Zipolite they came along – good company :)

We are really enjoying Zipolite and the amenities of Rancho Los Mangos – after 3 days of hunkering down in “The Alley” in Zicoleta it’s nice to have access to shade, pool, etc. The town of Zipolite is really nice and has a surprisingly active night life. The beach is great for running – flat and firm packed – but also famous for a set of dangerous rip currents that can make swimming dicey. So far while we’ve been here the currents have actually been pretty tame and Jamie proved today that there is actually some good surfing to be had at the north end of the beach.

Jamie tears it up

Jamie tears it up

Nude beach at north end of Zipolite - sorry, no closeups :)

Nude beach at north end of Zipolite – sorry, no closeups :)

The main drag in Zipolite

The main drag in Zipolite

Christmas is coming fast and we’ve decided that we’re going to head inland to Chiapas  to post up in San Cristobal for the holiday and a break from the hot weather. Hard to break away from Zipolite though…

Parking Lot on Hwy 200 – Detour to Playa Ventura

After electing to stay an extra day in Pie de la Cuestra, Bryan, Doug, Marcia and I got up SUPER early this morning (6AM :) ) with the intent of pushing to Puerto Escondido in one shot. Vanna and Bruiser left yesterday – they reported a travel time of about 9 hours, which included a 20 minute police shakedown, a half hour stop for lunch, and one Pemex fillup. We figured that a 7 AM departure would get us through Acapulco before the really bad traffic revved up and give us a 2 hour buffer to get to PE before sunset at 6 (we do NOT drive after dark here). The Mexican time-space continuum, which does not follow the normal rules of physics, had other plans for us…

The trip through Acapulco, although not as swift as we had hoped, was reasonably pain free – about 1 1/2 hours after leaving Pie de la Cuesta we had made it to about 7 km on the far side of Acapulco city limits, safely pointed south on Hwy 200.  By 10:30 we were about 125 km south of Acapulco nearing the town of Marquelia, and patting ourselves on the back for making such good time. About 1 km outside of town we were stopped short by a long line of stationary vehicles – all progress halted by a group of about 30 students, parents and teachers completely blocking the only road south in a protest on the main drag in Marquelia. We sat in the lineup in the baking sun with no AC for about 2 hours. It certainly looked like this was nothing new for most folks – everyone was out of their cars, lounging on the pavement, trying to keep cool and buying snacks from the local vendors who miraculously appeared hauling baskets of goodies and coolers of ice cream pops. Around 1 PM we learned from the local police that the protest was expected to continue until 4PM – there was no way we could make it to Puerto Escondido by dark. There are no really choice places to stop between here and PE, and after Marquelia Hwy 200 turns inland away from the ocean. We decided discretion was the better part of valor, pulled a couple 4 point turns with the vans and backtracked about 20 minutes to a small oceanside village called Playa Ventura. This is the beauty of traveling like a turtle with your home on your back – wherever the van is, there you are. Turns out that Playa Ventura definitely does not suck :). We settled in at the Hotel Tomy for 60 pesos per person for the night (about $5 US), shade for the vans, pet friendly for Maddie and Merle, right on the beach, complete with hammocks, free internet, palapa, and restaurant. Beats camping on the highway with a couple hundred Mexicans and their stranded vehicles.

Can you pick out the two sad vans?

Can you pick out the two sad vans?

MIght as well make a peso or two off the captive audience

MIght as well make a peso or two off the captive audience

Now that we are safely installed at Ventura, I’ve had a little time to learn about what was going on with the protest. From what I can glean, December 12th is the one year anniversary of a violent protest in Ayotzinapa, Chilpancingo (the capitol of Guerrero State), during which 2 teachers were killed, reportedly shot by Federal police trying to control the crowd. Ayotzinapa is about 2-3 hours outside of Acapulco, as far north as we are southwest. The teachers and students were protesting conditions, pay, and English language requirements in the “Normal” schools that serve the rural, poor communities of Mexico (the equivalent of public school in the US, but much much more underfunded and underserved). Although it sounds on the surface like it should have been a pretty innocuous protest, apparently there is a lot of socialist/activist ideology associated with this issue, and things got heated. Many protests around Guerrero state are expected in the few days leading up to the December 12th anniversary, as many still feel that justice has not been served for the killing of the 2 teachers. The protest that stopped us in our tracks today however, seemed to be fueled by a somewhat different impetus. The students and teachers were all members of a couple of private Academies, not “Normal” schools. One of the parents was holding a sign that simply stated that parents can no longer afford to pay to send their kids to school, but still want them to get a good education. It’s unclear to me whether this was a solidarity protest or a protest held for a related but different reason.

Students choking the only route south

Students choking the only route south

"We are no longer able to pay for our children's education..."

“We are no longer able to pay for our children’s education…”

Snorkeling – Islas Marietas and Isla Ixtapa

Bryan and I have had a couple of really cool snorkeling opportunities thus far on the trip. The first was at the Islas Marietas, about a 1 hour panga ride from Sayulita, off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. The Marietas are one of the few nesting spots for blue footed boobies outside of the Galapagos – we were fortunate enough to see several of them, but I wasn’t able to get any stellar booby photos. I wasn’t willing to risk my Nikon to the possibility of salt water exposure (PTSD flashbacks to our sailing trip with Patrick and Colleen where my camera took a very expensive dip in a puddle in the bottom of the dinghy I was piloting), so all we had was our little Olympus underwater camera. It takes great photos but doesn’t have much zoom. The islands are a protected wildlife sanctuary, but the sandy beaches are permitted for walking and there are several cool caves to explore on foot and underwater. Of the two, this was my favorite spot.

Bryan and I at Islas Marietas

Bryan and I at Islas Marietas

Isla Ixtapa lies very close to the shores of Ixtapa and Zihautenejo and is much more of a touristy spot – there are a couple of restaurants and bungalows there with places to rent snorkeling and other watersport equipment. We paddled our SUPs over (probably about 2-3 km one way) and paid 100 pesos per person for masks and fins. The island is thin, just a couple hundred yards wide at the spot we beached, so crossing from the shore side to the ocean side is quick. The ocean side of the island has a very nice coral reef to explore with very friendly fish :)

I think the goggles are particularly attractive

I think the goggles are particularly attractive

Bryan

Bryan

Bryan's getting good with the underwater camera

Bryan’s getting good with the underwater camera

Zihuatenejo Cooking Class

Yesterday was a blast! Doug, Micki and I spent the day with Monica Perez at her Patio Mexica cooking school in Zihuatenejo. Monica was fantastic – a very engaging excellent cook and teacher who speaks fluent English. Monica was born in Mexico city, studied social anthropology at university there, then moved with her husband to the mountains outside of Zihuatenejo to start a coffee plantation. As she describes it, life in the mountains was a big change from her urban lifestyle – no electricity, everything had to be done by hand, including grinding the corn for her tortillas. The three years she spent there was a great time for perfecting the traditional cooking methods she learned from her grandmother. As it happens, the coffee growing business was not as profitable as she and her husband had hoped, so they relocated to Zihuatenejo proper where her husband now runs a bamboo furniture building enterprise and Monica runs the Patio Mexica restaurant and cooking school.

Doug, Micki, Sande and Monica

Doug, Micki, Sande and Monica

Our day started with a trip to the 3 layers of the local market. First, a quick stop at the tourist market, filled with colorful pinatas in all stages of construction in preparation for the upcoming holidays. Next, the small bodega section where produce and more basic shopping items are available but at somewhat elevated prices. Finally we arrived at the local farmers market, which supplies all of the small restaurants and local residents. Fresh produce and fish is brought in daily and the prices are significantly lower than elsewhere. Monica spent time explaining the names and uses for many of the local vegetables, the differences between various types of queso, and how to pick the freshest fish. Along the way we picked up items for the meal she was going to teach us to prepare. We visited the stalls of several shopkeepers and sampled some foods that I probably would never have dared to approach on my own (and 24 hours later I’m not sick, so big thumbs up there :) )

Monica explains the several types of bananas and their preparation

Monica explains the several types of bananas and their preparation

We then returned to Patio Mexica and started with a lesson in salsa making. The traditional method of creating salsa uses the “molcajete” (moka-hay-tay), essentially a mortar bowl made of volcanic basalt. The stone pestle is called a “tejolote” (tay-ho-lo-tay). The four basic ingredients required for salsa are salt, garlic, a chili of your choice and onion. To that base you can then add anything you like, including tomatoes, cilantro, etc. We each made a small batch in our own molcajete using simply a single roasted chili, clove of roasted garlic, chunk of roasted onion, and a half a roasted tomato with sprinkle of salt. Those simple ingredients created the most amazing bit of salsa I’ve ever tasted, if I do say myself.

Molcajete

Molcajete

Squash blossom rellenos

Squash blossom rellenos

Monica then taught us how to make stuffed squash blossoms, “nopales” (cactus salad), and some incredible frijoles (including detailed instructions on how to soak the beans overnight). Finally, fresh corn tortilla making. Monica explained that most Mexican housewives now use premilled corn flour to make their tortillas because the traditional process of grinding their own corn is too laborious, however today we got to see the real deal. She had soaked the dry kernels overnight in a water and lyme solution. The alkali solution removes the husk from the maize grain resulting in a product called “nixtamal”, which is more nutritious and tastes better than plain corn. Her young assistant kindly ground the moist nixtamal for us in a hand cranked mill and Monica kneaded the result into a dough for tortillas with only the addition of a small amount of water, nothing else. We each got a lacrosse ball sized wad of dough and hand patted our tortillas. A brief stint for the tortillas on the griddle and then we were ready to eat!

Enrique mans the corn mill

Enrique mans the corn mill

Micki's perfect tortilla

Micki’s perfect tortilla

Class cost was 350 pesos per person and included the cost of the meal we enjoyed – well worth the money! For more information…

Tel: +52 755 5543949

Website: http://www.patiomexica.com

Email: cooking school@patiomexica.com

Troncones

Monday December 3rd – our third day in Troncones.

First thing to know: There are 2 ways to get to Troncones and we picked the wrong one. Heading south on Hwy 200, in the town of Lagunillas, we took the marked turnoff for Majahua/Troncones. This quickly turns into a dirt road that is driveable but very slow and challenging for the Sprinter vans. A couple of km into the drive there is a turnoff marked by a large billboard sized sign for Majahua Resort that looks completely rusted and abandoned – this leads over a couple of ridges to Majahua/Troncones an the ocean. A look at Google maps shows that this rutted dirt road is probably only about 5-6 km in length, but man it felt longer, and it took us about 30 minutes to make the drive. The better way to go is to continue on Hwy 200 past Lagunillas about 5-6km to the “real” turnoff for Troncones – this is a paved 2 lane road, about 3km to Troncones.

Majahua and Troncones are two separate villages, linked by a short strip of road lined with  a few resorts, several restaurants and many expensive gringo casas. On arrival, we stopped at the Inn at Manzanilla Bay in Majahua for lunch. This place was absolutely beautiful, immaculate grounds, sparkling blue pool, 6-8 small personal cabanas, immediate beach access to one of the most beautiful bays I’ve seen in Mexico, and a restaurant with world class food – Erik said the seared ahi was the best he’s had anywhere, including Maui. Here’s where the second thing to know comes in…

Second thing to know: Inn at Manzanilla Bay makes their own house tequila. It is NOT normal tequila and should be handled with care. It tastes very distinctive and makes a fantastically irresistible margarita, but it’s effects are much more potent and immediate than regular tequila. Suffice it to say that we had some hurting campers that afternoon.

We are currently parked in Troncones RV park/Casa Canela, which is near the south end of the Majahua/Troncones strip, close to where the road dead ends, across from Robertos restaurant. Nice enough place although pretty heavy on the mosquitos in the evening, and I found my first scorpion in the bathroom last night.

Zihuatenejo in the morning….