Mexico and Central America - 1986-1987


We were planning to go to West Africa; booked the tickets and sent our passports off to the French Embassy (approximately 4000 kilometres away, in Sydney), to get appropriate visas. Time went by, the passports never came back, and we began to panic. Two weeks to go, and I phoned the French Embassy in desperation, to be told that they had never yet succeeded in getting ANY visas issued for the countries we wanted to visit. What to do? We demanded the passports back, cancelled the tickets, and had a minor panic. Lesley, a Mexican-American friend who was staying with us and who was to be one of our housesitters, said "Mexico's a great place to travel" so that was it. A quick trip to the US embassy got the necessary US visas - we would sort out the rest as we went. I'd learned Spanish before going to South America a few years earlier and figured it would be fine, so two weeks later we were off to Mexico!

"Where should we go?", we'd asked Lesley. The list was endless, and stretched from Baja to the Yukatan, so we resolved to travel from one side of Mexico to the other, and take in as much of the adjacent countries as we could.

However, before any of that could happen we needed visas. We had flown into Los Angeles, and stayed in a run-down flop-house of a hotel downtown, near the Grand Central Markets and within walking distance of the Greyhound station. Sleazy place, LA. There was a man laying in the middle of the street either asleep or dead - we weren't checking, and nor was anyone else. The common language in the area was Spanish, and people only switched to English when they heard us speak. You could count the number of WASPs on one hand. This was culture-shock country, and very different from the other bits of the USA we had visited. Perhaps the thing that most told us that this wasn't Australia was the state of the public buildings. The Post Office looked post-Armaghedon, filthy and wrecked. The Court House, which we passed on the way to the Mexican Consulate, was more of the same. There was no pride in being a public servant!

The area around the Consulate was a "cute" and folksy market, and provided us with somewhere to wander around on our trips up to sort out the visas. Once that was done we were off, taking the Greyhound south to San Diego. We only stayed overnight, then took a bus to the border. Crossing into Mexico was easy - so easy, that we had to dig out the US officials and insist that they stamped us out of the country. They didn't believe that two people walking across the border didn't plan to come back, and kept insisting that we didn't need any formalities.

A quick look around Tijuana confirmed that it didn't appeal to us, so we headed out immediately, to Ensenada. The sea lions in the harbour were a delightful surprise, but the town still had strong overtones of being a "Mexican experience" for visiting US youths. It is full of cantinas and tourist markets. As it turned out, all of Baja is a mecca for people from the USA - streams of retirees in their RVs pour down from Alaska (where they spent the summer) to Baja, where they will spend the winter. Indeed, so established is this migration that the Mexican officials don't do immigration checks until you leave by boat to go to the mainland; you can drive the full length of Baja without showing your passport.

The one place we wanted to visit was Santa Ignacio, an oasis town in the middle of the peninsula. We arrived by bus after midnight, dropped off on the main road, a mile or so from the town, and walked down the track in the bright moonlight flooding the countryside. Everything was pitch dark in the small town, but two guards patrolling the square directed us to a hotel, where we knocked, at first gently, then loudly, until a sleepy voice told us to go the nearest room and let ourselves in - we would sort it out in the morning.

Santa Ignacio was lovely - a palm-filled centre of coolness amid the burning cactus-studded desert. It was off the main road, and the RVs passed it by; we were the only tourists there. We spent a couple of days exploring the area, then continued on. We were heading for La Paz, where we could get a ferry to the mainland. The trip down Baja wasn't desperately memorable. We stopped in a lovely hostel in Mulegé and enjoyed the drive down the ocean, then the road took a dog-leg inland, through more stark desert landscapes before coming back to the ocean at La Paz.

We had a bit organizing to do - tickets to buy for the ferry and Mexican immigration to sort out - then we were off to Mazatlán. It wasn't too bad for a port town. Some nice old buildings, and there was a festival at the local church, with kids all dressed up in their finery. We spent a couple of days there, deciding where to go next. We had wanted to go to Chihuahua, but the timing didn't work out, so we finally settled on taking the bus through the mountains to Durango. We met a very pleasant man from Durango on the bus, and spent much of the time persuading him that Australia, and Perth in particular, wasn't the murder-capital of the world - we had some idea that we came from a very dangerous part of the world indeed.

After a rainy day in Durango, we bused to Zacatecas, a city packed full of colonial buildings and crooked paved streets; lots of things to see. We made a day trip out to the ruins at La Quemada. This large site is relatively undamaged, and is well worth visiting. Heading further south, we spent a couple of days in Guadalajara, a really great city with a fantastic market. This was the market where we had the best fresh pineapple juice ever; none of the standard water/ice/fruit-pulp/sugar mix in the blender - this was squeezed from the pineapple in the same way you might squeeze an orange, taking lots of time to prepare but wonderful to drink.

The place we really wanted to visit was Pátzcuaro, a lakeside town on the way to Mexico City. It is quite a picturesque place, and we made the obligatory trip out to the island of Janitzio. Actually, my lasting memory of the boat trip was the conversation we had with a man from the USA. He was paranoid about the Russians invading the States by using Mexico as a stepping stone, and spent the entire trip preaching his own special brand of fear to us - that man could see reds everywhere!

Mexico City turned out to be a great place. We had a fine introduction as our taxi driver set out from the bus station the wrong way down a one-way street, taking short-cut, he explained. Once settled into a hotel we set out to look at the city in the early evening. Our first sight of la Reforma was a bit worrying. Fourteen lanes of traffic thundered through the city, offering an effective barrier to pedestrians wanting to get anywhere. Within minutes we saw a pedestrian hit by a taxi. We watched in horror as the driver jumped out and dragged the badly-injured man off the road, trying to get him up on his feet. A crowd of people soon gathered and started to block off the traffic flow, and it all dissolved into chaos. Yeah, great place.

However, once we got the hang of the local transport system we got to appreciate the way the city was set out. We spent a week in Mexico, and gave up trying to walk along la Reforma - it was hopeless - but we took local minibuses everywhere. We were probably lucky. The air was relatively clear for Mexico (we could see the mountains).

Why a week? It was Christmas, and the city was buzzing. The Alameda was like a big street party every night, and during the day there was so much to see. The Museum of Anthropology was simply wonderful. We visited it on two different days, and could have spent more time there. The Z&0acute;colo and its associated buildings, and the pre-Cortés excavations are worth a day. We also went out to the floating gardens, but didn't find them as impressive as their publicity suggested. However, the day spent out at Teotihuacan was absolutely the best, as the site is so accessible and you can see how layer upon layer of city grew up on the same place.

Some comments about the social situation in Mexico City. We had never before seen such a graphic picture of the "haves" and the "have-nots". I felt more guilt about my social and cultural position in Mexico City than anywhere else I have ever travelled. This was because the beggars in the city have nothing - not even recognition that they exist. Everyone walks past them without looking, without giving. The contrast with India, regarded with horror by some of our friends for its "squalour and beggars", was very marked. In India beggars are part of the social system; people give to them. In Mexico beggars are in desperate trouble. We shared a bit of our Christmas dinner with a little girl who wandered around the tables scuttering away from the waiters; she might have been 8 or 9 years old. In other places she might have fared better, but in Mexico she was a pariah.

We had bought lots of things in the markets along the way, and used this stop in the city to post them back to Perth. However, it takes a long time to post a parcel in Mexico, and this was Christmas eve, so there we were with most of the paperwork finished and the post office was shutting, early. One of the officials pushed us around the back, took the parcel and some money, and assured us that he would sort it out. Sure enough, it turned up months later in Australia, a testimony to the Mexican public service.

Our last chore in Mexico was a visit to the Guatamalan Embassy. This proved to be rather difficult to find, then difficult to get anyone to see us, since it was a family home. We finally dug an official out of his sick-bed, it transpired, and he reluctantly stamped our passports, muttering under his breath all the time.

From Mexico City we were heading south, but first went east to Puebla and Cholula. The former city was still celebrating Christmas, with parades in the street and the city decorated. Cholula is a small town, renowned for having a church for every day of the year. This may be an exageration, but the place was certainly over-supplied with churches.

We wanted to spend New Year in Oaxaca, and managed to arrive a day early, giving us time to look around the city before it became too crowded and boisterous. Another good place to visit. The city centre is a very pleasant plaza with lots of coffee shops and eating places around the edges. My Spanish had improved enough to get into a religious discussion, arguing the existance of God, something I would never have attempted at the start of the trip. The New Year celebrations centred on the square - it was a mad cocophany, with fireworks pouring showers of sparks down the front of the cathedral, a mariachi band at one end of the square facing off with a brass band across the way, and a small orchestra being drowned out more-or-less between them. In the middle thronged the crowd, pushing, dancing, eating and having a great time. We stayed in Oaxaca a few days, partly because it is an interesting city in its own right and partly to visit Monte Albán, which could have justified several days of visits on its own.

With no firm plans on how to get to Chiapas from Oaxaca, we took a bus south. Along the way we ran into a north American guy who suggested we might like Puerto Angel, so we ended up sharing a taxi with him back to this small beach town. It turned out to be a hippy hangout for north Americans - sleeping in hammocks on the beach, nude beaches, all very laid back. Not a bad place to spend a couple of nights, particularly since we were in a lovely little hostel, but no place to spend the rest of our holiday, so we set off optimistically for San Cristóbal las Casas, taking a bus to some little town on the junction of the road to San Cristóbal, assuming we sould be able to get another bus straight out again. No such luck. We spent a memorable two and a half days there, laying around in our hotel room, watching our underware wiz around on the fan that stirred the dry, sweltering air, waiting to get a seat on a bus. Any bus. To anywhere. When we weren't walking back and forth to the bus station we were back in the room, driven inside by the endless dust that swirled up and down the streets. We should have spent the rest of our holiday in Puerto Angel after all.

Eventually we managed to get on the bus to San Cristóbal, and it was with some relief that we arrived in what is a beautiful little town with a good market, nice hostel, colourfully-costumed people and clean mountain air. We stayed several days before moving on to Palenque, our favourite of all the Mayan ruins we were to see. They aren't the biggest, or the best, but the setting, the designs and buildings and the quiet uncrowded site made them one of the most memorable places for us.

Our route towards the Yucatán took us to Campeche and on to Mérida. We spent quite a few days in Mérida, using it as a base to visit Progreso and Uxmal. I loved Uxmal, with its impossibly steep pyramid and its compact, easily-walked site. Mérida itself was a pleasant city, and we still use the hammocks we bought there. From Mérida we took the bus to Piste, staying overnight in order to visit Chichén-Itzá.My memories are a confused mixture: running the gauntlet of sellers outside the site; hours of wandering - ball courts, carvings, pyramids, artifacts. Then, in the twilight, our first wild armadillo crashing through the jungle on the edge of the cleared land.

Cancún and Cozumel had no appeal at all but we wanted to go to the coast, so we headed for Isla Mujeres (the island of women). Its down-market, relaxed atmosphere was just what we wanted. We hired motor scooters and travelled out to the island's beaches. Its a good thing that the man we met in Pátzcuaro wasn't there, since we ended up spending time with the only genuine U.S.A. communists we have ever met, having met by chance in a coffee shop on the beach. Strangly enough, we met another odd lot of people from the USA on the boat to the island - perhaps they are attracted to boats in Mexico. This lot were parents with two children. The mother looked like Dolly Parton - not just the boobs, but the full bimbo. She sat reading a bible all the way over. Her husband regaled us with his theory of travel in Mexico - the family were carrying all their own food and water; boxes of it! They never ate anything local - amazing.

Our last place to see in Mexico was to be Tulum. We really wanted to stop at Xel-Ha, a fantastic sink-hole on the edge of the ocean, and a wonderful place to skin-dive, but it was just impossible - there were no cheap hostels in the area and no small town to use as a base. Sadly we passed it by and carried on to Tulum, which was another great archeological site. However, luck was on our side. There were a number of other travelers at the hostel, including a girl from the USA who had a hired car and who was happy to take all of us stray indigents up to Xel-Ha for the day. It was a great way to end our travel in Mexico, swimming in the bizarre mixture of salt and fresh water amid the fish.

Over the border and into Belize. After months of Spanish-only, Geoff could at last join in the conversations. The countryside was lush and green, but Belize City was a major turn-off. Open drains sat stinking in the hot humid air, smelling like nothing else on earth. Actually, I lie. Years ago we had come across some Tibetans butchering a goat. They punctured the stomach, and a smell emerged that just about had us puncturing our stomachs from throwing up. Same smell.

Belize City is a city of chicken shacks. Everything is thrown up with bits of wood and chicken wire, patched over with sheets of tin. We wandered into town and were immediately picked up by a tall rasta man, who insisted on showing us to a hotel. It was difficult to refuse. Totally impossible to refuse. We hadn't a hope, so there we were, booked into a tin shed, in a room that shimmered heat, and that was on the inside. The city had very little visual appeal, but we did find a few more photogenic chicken shacks down by the water, and at least it was cooler and more inviting than our "hotel". Come evening, the city had one more black mark against it. This was one place that didn't feel safe at night - that is a very rare thing for us, but Belize City had us very wary - the hair standing up on your neck; you get the feeling that you shouldn't be there. OK - its only one night - we'll leave in the morning. But to cap it off we had a night to remember. There is nothing less romantic than the sound of someone else fucking their brains out over and over again in the room next door. The boy next door had a prostitute in for the night; he was making the most of it and we certainly knew all about it! The walls were just a sheet of tin, and our sleep was punctuated by the groans and the banging of the bed. We were banging on the wall; other people were banging on the wall - a night to remember indeed.

Belize? Stuff it! We agree we didn't give it a fair go, but we decided to go to Guatamala the next day and not even try to enjoy Belize; it just didn't seem worth the effort. Partly this was caused by our lack of money; if we had been on a larger budget we could have gone out to the islands and I'm sure we would have enjoyed the skin-diving there, but Belize City was a very unrewarding place for us.

So, a bus to the border, with a stop just before the border post to let the smugglers get off and make their way across through the jungle, avoiding the search. We were going to Flores, our base to visit Tikal. The bus was stopped soon after the border and searched once by what looked like the army. They made the men and women separate into groups, but I was busy talking to another traveler and stood with him on the edge of the men's group. The army roughly patted down the men, doing a body search - it was all a bit grim and official until the soldier got to me, standing with the men. He mimed a body search to his superior and started to grin. Everyone laughted and relaxed, and the search of the bus was carried out in a better atmosphere. Once we got going, out of sight of the army, we stopped and waited for the smugglers to re-join us for the trip to Flores.

Nice place, Flores, despite the unrelenting breakfasts of re-fried beans. We stayed in a lovely hotel, and did the trip out to Tikal, which is the quintessential ruin in the jungle. We sat on the top of tall pyramids, watching the toucans in the trees down below. Geoff climbed an un-excavated mound and just about killed himself coming down. A misty rain came in late in the afternoon, but we ignored it and explored the site until the last minute, sorry that we couldn't spend days more there - it is the most impressive ruin we visited.

The bus trip to Guatamala City was rumoured to be terrible, so we flew down, and found a hotel in the centre of the city. I was sick during our stay in the city, so I can't tell you much about it, except that it didn't have any of the negative feeling we had in Belize. Once I was OK to travel, we caught a bus out to Antigua and spent a week or so there, going back into Guatamala city to get a new Mexican visa, and to do some shopping, but spending most of the time around Antigua itself, a lovely town dominated by a snow-clad volcano, with lots of places to walk in the mountains around the outskirts of town. We also made a couple of side trips - one was to the Biotopo at Salama, looking for Quetzal birds (no luck, but we did have an exciting time getting there and back) and another to visit a volcano down south that had just erupted. We were unable to get to the volcano (strangly enough they didn't seem to be running buses to the base) but we did get to visit a tiny little village centred around the biggest tree we have ever seen.

We were doing a circle through Guatamala back to Mexico. Any idea we had of traveling further south was long gone, swallowed up by other choices we had made to stay longer in places that attracted us. We went to the village of Ixtapa and then to Panajachel Santiago on Lake Atitlan. This was the site of a massacre of local people by the Guatamalan army - such a beautiful place with such a terrible history. The last place we spent any time in Guatamala was Chichicastenango, where the churches reflected an astounding mix of pagan and catholic rituals.

Back over the border, along the coast, and we stopped in Puerto Escondito, with long sandy beaches and a fishing fleet - this wasn't far from Puerto Angel, where we had stayed on our way east. Our final stop was Acapulco. Time to stock up on last minute gifts in the markets, take in the famous beaches and the high-diving rocks, then fly back to L.A.

Our trip didn't actually stop there. Years before we had visited Hawaii and enjoyed staying on the big island - we planned a 10-day stopover to revisit the islands. Once in L.A. we had an 11-hour wait for our flight to Honolulu, spent at the airport, since L.A. had no attraction for us in the teeming rain. We arrived in Hawaii in the early hours of the morning and set out to find a hotel. We phoned over 20 hotels, starting on Oahu and then progressively moving out to the other islands. We phoned hotels with 1200 rooms. We phoned expensive and cheap hotels. Nothing. Not a room - anywhere. Here we were with 10 days to spend, living out of a locker in the airport. It was some special long weekend, with a golf tournament and some other convention, and everything was booked. We weren't alone - the airport was full of exhausted people like us using the courtesy showers and the lockers, sleeping on the floor.

Desperation lends an edge to the decisions you have to make - we decided to do something about our plight, and cajoled Qantas into finding us a flight sooner than 10 days. In the end they allocated us two seats to Sydney in two days time. Not our original destination, but who cares - these were the closest beds we could find! We lived in the airport, with forays out to shop and wander around Honolulu, then flew to Sydney, found a hotel and crashed!


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