We continued on into San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas and it was completely different than any other part of Mexico. There are 21 different indigenous barrios living here so it was our first experience of the Mayan dress and culture. Each group has their own traditional costume that is worn all the time. It was really interesting walking around the town and seeing all the different types of clothes. We found a vet on our walk that was able to take Francieís stitches out so he has made a full recovery now. We still had to leave the lampshade on for another week though just to be sure that he wouldnít try lick the wound again.
We were told it would be dangerous to drive to the indigenous villages on our own. The locals are very sensitive to tourists and they resist photography as they believe that the camera is stealing their souls. Also, they speak their own Mam language and very few will understand Spanish.So instead of driving, we booked a guide to bring us to two of the villages. The first village was San Juan Chamula. Here all the men wear these long coats made from black sheep wool. The women wear skirts made from the same material with bright colored blouses and shawls. We went to the church first in the centre of the town.This church is the only one of its kind in Mexico. The people here never completely accepted the Catholic religion. Instead they mixed some of the Catholics beliefs and their own Mayan religion to form their one of a kind religion. We both got the shivers when we walked into the church. There are no pews so all the families were sitting and kneeling on the floor chanting with rows of candles lit in front of them. The candles are all different colors to represent the different sicknesses or problems they are praying for. They also scatter grass all over the floor as decoration. The sides of the church were lined with statues of different Catholic saints which they worship as individual Gods rather than saints. They hang mirrors around the statues necks to reflect away any evil. Our guide had told us on the way that they still sacrifice chickens here and we actually witnessed one. The Mayans believe that a black chicken will absorb all the evil and sickness from a person. It is very expensive for them to actual buy a chicken so it is seen as a big sacrifice to do this. We saw a man with his family kneeling in front of one of the saints with a row of candles in front of them. He was chanting and swaying the chicken over and back across the candles and then the woman next to him, not sure if it was his wife or mother. Then after doing this for several minutes he snapped the chickenís neck and put it in a bag. Our guide said they donít even eat the chicken after but bury it in their gardens. Another strange element was they all had bottles of Coca-Cola on the floor. Apparently they believe that when they drink coke and it makes them burp, that this is the way of the Gods to get rid of impurities in their bodies! This church has to up there with one of most unique places we have ever been in. Afterwards we wandered through the market stalls in front of the church. The locals mostly earn a living from selling hand-woven shawls and other handicrafts. We bought a couple and moved on to the next village called Zinacantan. Here the men wear pink or red jackets with embroidery and tassels and the women vivid pale blue shawls and blue skirts. Our guide brought us to one of the homes of the locals. We were brought into the kitchen where the woman made tortillas from scratch and cooked them on an open fire. Our guide said in this village they donít believe in the Coca-Cola myth, all the kids are made go to school and they are a little better educated. It was a really interesting day out and a great experience to see these villages.
So that was the end of our Mexican experience. We had intended to go by Cancun and down to Belize but it is a lot of driving plus we decided we can do a package holiday anytime down to Cancun from Chicago. We were delighted to have to travel through the heart of the country to places we will probably never see again.
October 21st 2008 Ė MEXICO
Well we have had an eventful time in Mexico to say the least. The first day we crossed the border into Nogales. There was no checkpoint or anything, nobody even stopped us, and so before we knew it we were in Mexico driving through Nogales looking for somewhere to buy insurance for the van. They donít recognize American insurance in Mexico. We were getting strange looks from everyone and at the first traffic light some guy started hurling abuse at us. He had wanted to clean our window and when we said no he started shouting and kicking the tires. Then about half a mile into Nogales in the middle of three lane traffic the van conked out. Not a good start at all. We managed to get it going long enough to get across the lanes and off the road. We had been driving all day from Phoenix in extreme heat and the engine just overheated. We popped the hood and sat for an hour to let it cool down. Some guys sold us mango on a stick rolled in red pepper and lime juice to snack on. They noticed the magnets with Francieís photo on the side of the van and thought he was a famous movie dog! By then it was 4pm and we were a little freaked out by the sudden culture change so we drove back into the US and got a campground nearby. We talked to the owner and found out we had taken the wrong turn across the border.
The next morning we were better prepared and got the correct directions. We bought our insurance at an office before crossing the border ($61 for 24 days). The border crossing was pretty simple. We had to get tourist permits, $22 each, and a permit for the van, $54. They didnít even want to see Francieís paperwork so hopefully it will be as easy at the other borders. So 2 days and $137 later we were finally in Mexico. We drove pretty much all day then. The countryside was very barren and desert like, similar to Arizona. The road was great but the tolls are very expensive. We finally figured out the difference between ďcuotaĒ meaning toll and ďlibreĒ meaning free after a couple of days. The free roads are just as good plus you get to see all the little towns and villages that the toll roads bypass. The northern part of Mexico along the coast is very westernized and americanized though. We found a campground in San Carlos the first night and didnít feel like we were in Mexico at all. It was just another resort for retired Americans. The price of things is the same too but thank God the gas is a lot cheaper.
We drove all day the next day as we wanted to get away from the coast and into the heart of Mexico. The heat was unbearable and we had to keep stopping to give the van a chance to cool down. We got lost plenty of times going through the big towns and cities. The highway dumps you right into the city center with no signs for the way out. Sometimes it could take us an hour to find our way back on the right road. The second night we couldnít find a campground and it was getting late. Just before Los Mochis we noticed another RV pulled in at the back of a gas station.We parked behind them and got talking to them. They were American and had just bought their RV. A friend of theirs told them you could park at Pemex stations no problem. Pemex have these 24 hour gas stations all over Mexico. They are free to stay at and nearly always have an armed guard on duty all night. Little did we know then that these gas stations would become our second home. In 3 weeks we only managed to find four campgrounds!
Mexico is a massive country so the first few days we basically drove non- stop to get away from the touristy parts. The third night we found a campground on the beach outside Mazatlan, the biggest port in Mexico and one of the more popular holiday resorts. There were only 4 other vans there and an American guy with his two dogs waved at us as we pulled in. As we had been driving all day we let Francie out for a run around to stretch his legs. There was plenty of space and the other 2 dogs were nowhere in sight so we figured it was safe. About 2 minutes later we heard dogs fighting and by the time Jimmy ran over, the other guyís dog already had Francie on his back and had bitten him in his side. At the time, it wasnít a bad bite, just a small tooth mark puncture. The owner called his dog off but never came near us after to apologize or see if Francie was OK. We cleaned up the cut with antiseptic wipes and put some antiseptic cream on it. Francie was a bit shook up but he was alright.
The next day we drove as far as Teacapan. We ate lunch in the village and tried to talk with some of the locals with the help of the dictionary. One guy sat at our table as we ate and wanted to bring us to rent his friendís apartment. He didnít get it that we were sleeping in the van. We both had fish and when we finished he ate our leftovers! We politely left and said we would come back but ended up finding a spot to camp right on our own private beach surrounded by massive palm trees. The next morning at 7am the same guy just happened to row up to the beach in his fishing boat. He was looking for beer! We drove through Tepic then which was a gorgeous little town. It was Sunday so some of the indigenous people were down from the mountains selling handmade crafts and jewelry. Their dress is really picturesque and they were very reserved and quiet.
At this stage Francieís cut was fine but he kept licking it. We tried to stop him by tying a t-shirt around his head but he managed to get if off. The following morning, 3 days after the incident, Jimmy woke me up in a panic. During the night Francie had actually bit into the cut and opened it up into a quarter size hole in his side. We drove immediately to the next town but the vet who could do stitches wasnít on duty. So we went to the next town called Tequila where Jose Cuervo tequila is made. We found a vet and he agreed to stitch him up. The clinic was just a tiny pet supplies store with a small room at the back for surgery. He was a young guy but seemed very careful in what he was doing. He slowly gave Francie tranquilizers to knock him out and even hooked him up to a drip. He asked us to leave when it was time to do the stitches. After an hour he called us in and Francie was starting to wake up. He had shaved all the hair off around the wound and then stitched it up. He gave us prescriptions for antibiotics and anti-inflammatory and told us to bring him to another vet in 7 days to have the stitches taking out. He had to put a lampshade on his head to stop Francie from licking it again. We had to carry Francie out to the van and the poor thing was really distressed and disoriented. We stayed that night at a Pemex in the town. It was an awful thing to happen but we were glad that we had found a vet to take care of him.
The next day we went to an internet cafť and I printed off a map and address to a campground in Guadalajara. We really needed a proper campground to stay at for a few days until Francie got better. He still seemed to be in a lot of pain. After 2 hours of driving around Guadalajara we finally found the right street and there was nothing there, not even a sign of where a campground could have been. Just at that moment when we were feeling completely down and out, Francie started scratching the wound with his back paw and burst open a few stitches. Not only was it bleeding but it was pussing out yellow stuff too. Nobody we asked knew of a campground. This was probably the first time we both felt like turning around and heading home. We were lost in a huge Mexican city with a sick dog. After sitting in silence for a few minutes feeing really sorry for ourselves, I got out our Lonely Planet book and the map. We decided to head to a town called Chapala just outside the city where the book said there was a campground. Again it was a wild goose chase, there was no campgrounds to be seen anywhere. We passed an office and noticed a white woman sitting there so I went in to ask her if she knew of one. She was an American called Michelle and said that all the campgrounds had closed down. She offered to let us park in front of her house and we could use her shower. I told her about Francie and she picked up the phone to call her good friend Pepe who is a vet. His clinic was just a few doors down and he said we could stay outside it for the night. He looked at Francieís cut and said it was badly infected. I showed him the antibiotics the other vet gave us and he said they were useless; they were only good for stomach infections. It was 8pm so he gave Francie an antibiotic shot and said he would take a closer look at it the following evening when he wasnít so busy. Even though it was the worst day so far, we were so happy to have found a vet who spoke English and genuinely cared about Francie.
The following evening Pepe gave Francie a tranquilizer to knock him out. He discovered that the other vet had put internal stitches with the wrong kind of stitch. So basically the infection was getting worse, Francieís body was rejecting the stitches and thatís why he was in so much pain. He had to take out all the stitches, cut away the infected skin and restitch the whole thing. Jimmy ended up been his assistant and watched the whole thing but I had to leave. We ended up staying outside of Pepeís clinic for three nights. Every day he checked the wound and gave him antibiotic shots. He was such a nice man and I donít know what we would have done if we hadnít met him. By the time we left Francie was back to himself and the wound looked ten times better. Pepe gave us the correct antibiotics and told us to get the stitches out in 2 weeks. He even noticed Jimmyís dry skin and gave him a tub of cream for free. He said he uses it all the time and it keeps his skin moisturized. As we drove up the road I looked up the cream description in my dictionary. Turns out itís a cream used on horses and cows for God knows what!!
There is a direct road from Guadalajara to Mexico City or you can drive up and over through the quaint colonial towns of central Mexico. We opted for the second route and it was well worth it. For centuries, the mines of Central Mexico churned out much of the worldís silver, gold and precious stones. Although the Spanish crown took most of the fortune, they did build amazing churches and cathedrals with Spanish style architecture. Also, nearly every town and village in this region played a part in the break with Spain so the history of each town was extremely interesting. This was definitely our favorite part of Mexico. The first town we stopped in was San Juan de Los Lagos which is a major pilgrimage center. The Mexicans are deeply religious so every town center has beautiful churches. While walking around this town, it was first time we felt we were in real Mexico. There were no other tourists so we were getting a lot of stares and especially that we were walking a dog around with a lampshade on his head. The kids were having a right laugh. We couldnít believe it when we saw another Old English sheepdog sitting outside a shop. We didnít venture near him though as we are a little wary now of the dogs down here. We drove on through Leon and loads of other little towns and ended up in Guanajuato for the weekend. We had another wild goose chase looking for a campground that Lonely Planet said was there. After finally giving up we found a 24hr parking lot in front of an old bull fighting ring 15 minute walk from the town center. There was a huge Arts and Music Festival going on so it was perfect timing. The town itself was gorgeous. Itís built in a valley and all the houses built along the mountain side were painted in bright colors. We had a great time there at the festival just wandering around the streets listening to music and eating at the local stalls. And itís true they do eat tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner! But we are not sick of them yet. There were loads of street performers, buskers and market stalls selling fabulous paintings and crafts. Before we left, Jimmy drew two bull horns on Francieís lampshade and we ran him around the bull fighting ring with a red t-shirt. I have to learn how to upload the video of it because it was hilarious. If he was getting funny looks before, he is getting funnier ones now.
We drove through Dolores Hidalgo then and stopped for a walk around. Father Hidalgo, the famous revolutionist was born here so went to see his house and church from where he gave the Cry of Independence. The next town was Queretaro which was really beautiful and interesting. It was here that the missions were founded by Fray Junipero de la Serra. In the seminary he established he is said to have planted a miraculous tree by thrusting his staff into the ground. The tree is apparently the only one of its kind in the world to have cruciform thorns.We did a tour of the seminary so we could see this tree. I wouldnít have believed it unless I had seen it. This tree is over 500 years old and the thorns all grow in the perfect shape of a crucifix! It was amazing to see.
We left Queretaro at around 4pm and were headed for a campground about 40km outside of Mexico City. 22 million people live there so we had decided there was no way we were driving into the city. Also, because of the huge population and high altitude there is a lot of pollution and smog. The city came up with a law that only allows people to drive their cars on certain days according to the last number of the license plate. So our last number been one meant we could only drive on a Thursday in the city and this was Tuesday. We got to where the campground should have been at 6pm and yet again the directions were arseways and we couldnít find it. We drove up and down the highway a few times and still no luck. It was getting dark and we didnít want to get any closer to the city so we decided to head back out the highway and find a Pemex for the night. Just as we were turning onto the ramp to head back a cop car drove up beside us and motioned us to pull in. A guy got out but he wasnít in uniform. He started spouting Spanish and we hadnít a clue what he was saying. We tried to explain using the dictionary that we were lost and could he help us find the campground. He then got his own personal phone out and called some-one who had really bad English. The guy on the phone said there was a special tax for the city and we had to pay $700 US dollars! In the meantime the cop car which was parked behind us disappeared. We knew it was a scam. We were outside the city still so the license plate rule didnít apply to us and we think that was what he was trying to get us for. We kept acting dumb and pretending we didnít understand. Then the guy on the phone said $200. I wanted to start looking up how to say ďfuck off ya bolloxĒ but it was dark and we didnít know if he was armed or not. He was getting a bit mad too and we guessed he kept saying how much would we pay for him to let us leave. We gave him 200 pesos which is about $20 and he said no, he wanted $200 US dollars. We said we didnít have anymore and he eventually took it and let us go. We would have preferred to drive off and give him nothing but for the sake of $20 it was better to just get out of the situation safe. In all of Mexico the people and the police have been nothing but nice and friendly but Mexico City is renowned for bribing cops. The next day I got the number for the Tourist Protection Police so we would have it ready to call if it happened again. We stayed at a Pemex that night and finally found the campground we had been looking for the following morning. A really nice man saw that we looked a bit lost and let us follow him right to the gates of the campground.
Parked safely at the campground we were able to pay for a guided tour of the city. We were picked up at 7am and it took until 9.30am to drive the 40km into the city. For that amount of people the traffic was mental but it didnít look as crazy and busy once we got downtown. We were put on a minibus then with 2 Norwegian guys, 1 Norwegian girl and a girl from Argentina. They all spoke perfect English and were dead sound so we had a good laugh with them for the rest of the day. We were brought first to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. There are ruins here of an ancient civilization dating back to 300 BC long before the Aztecs came on the scene. Where these people came from and where they disappeared to is still a mystery. The infrastructure and the way they lived were extremely advanced for that time. There are 2 pyramids, Pyramid of the Moon and Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. We are able to climb to the top of both and the view was magnificent.After the usual coincidental stops outside souvenir shops we were brought to the Basilica of Guadalupe. This is the most sacred shrine in Mexico. It was here, in December 1531, that Our Lady appeared three times to the Indian Juan Diego and imprinted her portrait on his cloak. The portrait is preserved, set in gold, over the altar in the Basilica. We had both read about this and were really looking forward to seeing the cloak. To be honest we both thought that it was just an outline of her face on the cloak. When we actually saw it, we couldnít believe it. It is a clear, colorful picture of Our Lady. Our guide said that scientists canít explain it. The material the cloak was made of came from fibers of the cactus plant which should have started to disintegrate after 30 years and yet this cloak is 500 years old. It really was remarkable to see. The people walk to here from all over Mexico as a pilgrimage. In the courtyard of the Basilica there were hundreds of people sleeping on the ground and with tents pitched. They were expecting 90,000 people to arrive that night who had walked for days to get there. They said that 20 million pilgrims visit the shrine every year.
It was 5pm before we got back into the city centre because of all the traffic. We had booked a city tour also but we knew there wasnít enough time. Our guide said he would walk us around for an hour and we just had to tip him instead of paying for the full tour. We agreed as it was really the Pyramids and the Basilica we were interested in seeing anyway. He gave us a quick tour of some of the churches and the cathedral. There are more Aztec ruins right in the city centre. The earthquake in 1985 did a lot of damage to the buildings though and some of them have been sinking ever since. We would have liked to see more of the city but we can easily fly back here anytime. It was great to see what we did without having to drive. It was 9pm by the time we got back to the campground and Francie was glad to see us. The ownerís son had been minding him all day and we realized when we left we hadnít told him Francieís name! I think the poor kid was afraid of him and was glad to see us back.
There is a new toll road around the city which we got directions for. We found the toll road no problem but at one point it goes back to the old road which is right on the edge of the city limits. Of course in the van we stuck out like a sore thumb and it probably looked like we were coming from the city. We got pulled over by the cops again. This time they were in uniform and looked legit and it was daylight. We couldnít understand again what they were looking for so we showed our licenses, tourist permit, insurance, and vehicle permit, anything to get rid of them. While Jimmy talked to them he told me to start taking down their names and details from their badges and the car details. I had the phone number ready to call if they started looking for money. Finally one of them wrote our license plate number down and circled the one so we knew they were talking about the license plate law. We got out the map and showed them that we hadnít driven through the city and luckily had all the toll road receipts to prove it. And just like that they let us go. Not more than 2 minutes later, we were pulled in again by a different set of cops. I shoved the page with the other guyís names on it at him and tried to explain we had just been stopped. He looked a bit alarmed at the names written down, went back to the car and made a call and then waved us on. Another 2 minutes later we were followed by an off duty cop in his car for a few miles but thankfully he didnít stop us. Our nerves were a bit shook at this stage and we just wanted to get the hell away from the city. We came to a fork in the road and of course there were no signs and of course we picked the turn that put us right back on the highway going into Mexico City!We couldnít believe it, we were one turn away from been nabbed again. We drove 5 miles before we got an exit off, saw a cop car in the distance so pulled in to hide until he drove off. Then we crossed to the other side of the highway and there was no ramp back on. We were driving parallel to the highway for about 4 miles before we could get back on and just for good measure passed a cop station on the way. We were so relieved to get away from the city and put the boot down for the rest of the day.
It took us 2 days to get to Oaxaca but the scenery was amazing. A lot greener down here and thousands of cacti everywhere. The people are a lot darker and more indigenous looking than up north. We saw the first signs of poverty also. Driving through the mountains we saw no houses just small shacks with every sort of farm animal tied up in the back. We went on another phantom campground hunt in Oaxaca and found nothing but a new apartment building. We always seem to land on our feet though; we found a 24 hour parking lot beside a Pemex. We gave Francie a break from his lampshade and went for nice long walk around the town. Really nice town with fabulous buildings and churches again. Back at the parking lot we indulged in some beer and tequila. The following morning we were a little hung-over and overslept. We had paid the owner until 9am and she same knocking on the door at 9.30am. We would have paid for an extra hour of parking, it wasnít like the lot was full, but she was so rude we just pulled out of there in a hurry and headed out the road. We had a quarter tank of gas and figured we would get a gas station in the next town. The towns came and went and there were no gas stations. We were going through the mountains as well so the gas was going quicker. Jimmy switched into neutral coming down the mountains to try save gas. We stopped and asked one lady and she said 14km ahead but there was nothing. Asked another person and they said 10km but still nothing. The light hadnít come on so we werenít that worried, we thought after nearly 200km we had to be getting close to one. Then without warning the van stopped in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of southern Mexico. We were standing on the side of the road only about 5 minutes waiting to flag someone down when the first car to come around the bend was the tourist police. They stopped and we told them we ran out of gas. They were trying to figure out a way to pull the van when the next car to come around the corner was the police! They pulled up with 8 armed cops with semi-automatics sitting in the back and lo and behold they just happened to have about 20 gallons of spare gas in the truck. Myself and Jimmy looked at each other and just burst out laughing. It could have been a nightmare trying to get gas and here we were with the two branches of authority that you would need, who just happened to drive by. They gave us $16 of gas and off they went. The tourist police followed us the whole way into the next town, 70km away, until we got to a gas station. That night we got directions to another phantom campground. We ended up in a village outside Tehuantepec and there was nothing there. One of the locals said we could park beside the soccer field for the night. There was a bunch of girls out playing so Jimmy went out to show them how to take penalties! Even with our little Spanish we were able to have a laugh with them.
At the moment we are in Tuxtla-Gutierrez and making our way to San Cristobal. We have to be in Guatemala by the weekend to start our Spanish classes on Monday. We have organized to stay with a family there for the week so it should be interesting. Until then, slanÖÖ