Hot Times in Mexico … The Final Edition

Here it is: the final edition of my travel emails…for now at least. I hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed experiencing them. Right now I’m back in NYC looking for something fun to do this summer while making money. If anyone knows of anyone who needs a Web page designed, please point them in my direction. Hope to see you all soon…and on with the show!

The Trip to San Cristobol

After our ordeal getting to Mexico, Carrie and I wanted to make sure we got on the nice bus with AC and TV for our 4.5 hour trip from Palenque to San Cristobol. Perhaps a bit too overzealous, we arrived at the bus terminal two hours before the departure time and decided to wander around and check out other options. We eventually found a microbus (the same kind that got us to Mexico) that was leaving immediately for less money and that could get us there in less time (3 hours). As this seemed too good to be true we triple confirmed with not only the driver but with other people nearby.

After the three hours, we arrived in some random town in the middle of Mexico and everyone got off the bus, including the driver who was taking our bags down off the roof. “What’s going on here? This isn’t San Cristobol,” I said to the driver in Spanish. “No, this is (whatever the town was called). To go to San Cristobol you have to transfer to that other microbus over there. It’s another two hours,” he replied. He continued to claim that he told us all along that he was only taking us to this town and that we knew that getting into the bus. At this point, after being hot and cramped all morning, I lost it and started yelling at the guy calling him a liar and telling him that he knew that what he was doing was not fair and that he shouldn’t think that just because we were white that he could take advantage of us.

Meanwhile, Carrie is getting involved in the conversation as well, while a nearby cab driver is taunting her saying things like “shutup and go back to the U.S.A. if you have a problem.” It’s at this point that she decided she had had enough and went across the street to the local police station, if for no other reason than to make a point that you can’t just take advantage of people like that. By the time the cops arrived, both the microbus driver who had ripped us off and the cabbie that was insulting Carrie had left, but there was still a whole scene as they tried to figure out who it was. After having no luck, the cop told the driver of our next bus that he was not allowed to charge us. While the money was not the issue and we felt bad that someone else was paying the price for our driver’s dishonesty, hopefully this at least taught a little lesson that what they were doing was wrong. Probably not, but who knows.

San Cristobol

Our main motivation for going to the colonial mountain town of San Cristobol was because it was always around 70 degrees, as opposed to the 95+ that we had been in for the previous two months. However, once we got there we found an amazing city with tons to do…once we found our hotel, that is, after going through three hotels in our first 24 hours. One day trip involved a boat ride through el Cañon de Sumidero, which was just like the Grand Canyon with walls nearly 3,000 feet high. The place was filled with cool birds, crocodiles, a rock structure/waterfall that looked like a Christmas tree and a sanctuary to a rock that looked like Jesus.

Another wild sight was the church in San Juan Chamula, which was a small town about 20 minutes from San Cristobol. Walking into it was like stepping into Bizarro World: there were no pews or seats, the ground was covered in pine needles, everyone had set up rows and rows of little candles and people were talking in tongue. Chickens were everywhere, as some of the rituals involved blessing children with eggs and sacrificing the chicken and pouring the blood on a child’s head (we did not see this). As if that wasn’t different enough, everyone brought in sodas to use as a part of their prayers and the adults were taking tequila shots. More than any other part of the trip, this was the craziest thing I saw…sadly, cameras were not allowed inside. (For more info on the rituals, see below)

As our main goal in San Cristobol was to relax, we were in the perfect frame of mind when we met our new friend Ricky. A world-renowned photographer from Guatemala, he was on assignment by Telefonica, a Central American phone book company, to take photos for a book they were giving to their customers. We went out with Ricky and his assistant a couple of nights, spent an afternoon wandering around town, checked out some of his amazing photos and devoured $30 worth of tacos (mostly between the two of us while Carrie and the assistant looked on in awe…or maybe it was disgust). The funniest part was every time he would put down money for anything he would say, “this meal (or drink, or whatever), sponsored by Telefonica!” Anyway, you should definitely check out his Web site,

Stopped By the Army at 1am

After a week in San Cristobol we headed on an 18 hour overnight bus ride to the beach town of Playa Carmen. It started humorously enough when the safety video showed us an animated clip of the bus hitting a cow in the road as the example of why we should buckle up…gotta love Central America. However, at around 1am our bus was pulled over by the army for a routine passport check/harassment stop.

After they checked everyone’s bags for lord knows what, they singled out one guy to continue checking. Everyone else got back on the bus while we waited over an hour for the army to check every article of clothing he had and read every single document he was carrying in his backpack. He eventually got back on the bus, but the army kept most of his documents and some of his clothes. Were they suspicious items? Was he traveling illegally? We’ll never know, but my bet is that he just refused to bribe them and paid the price in harassment.

Playa Carmen

After our 18 hour bus ride and nearly three hours wandering around in the blazing hot sun, Carrie and I finally found a great hotel with a kitchen in our room, a pool with a slide and the friendliest staff ever…all for $35 a night. The best part was that it was not a tourist-trap place and had locals living there for months at a time, which was far more appealing for us than staying on the tourist strip.

Thanks to this great find, our last week was spent relaxing, scuba diving and shopping for clothes at cheaper-than-the-USA prices while cooking our own dinners and wandering around. We also got to spend a few days with Christina (another Peace Corps volunteer) and her Nicaraguan husband, Russel, who were also heading back to the USA by bus. Finally, on our next-to-last day, we took a short bus ride to Tulum, the only Mayan costal fortress ruins in the world. While it was the smallest ruin we visited on the trip, it was also the most beautiful as the ocean was right there and there was a beach right next to it.

Planes Are My New Enemy

It wouldn’t be a trip home without a couple of more transportation woes. First, our flight from Cancun was delayed five hours, which made us miss our connecting flight to San Jose, California. So, we got a much later flight that, after three gate changes and one entire airplane switch for mechanical reasons, got into San Francisco at around 2am (instead of the original 8pm). Still, Carrie’s family was filled with troopers and they all met us at the airport and probably had to sleepwalking to work the next day. Well, after an awesome stint in Cali it was time to head back to NYC. Of course, delays were plentiful and after spending around 6 hours on the runway I finally made it home…14 hours from door to door instead of the 7 it should have been.

Playa Carmen This and That

  • There’s a WalMart in Playa Carmen.
  • Just like in Nicaragua, Carrie and I went clothing shopping in a supermarket and got some great deals on nice clothes.
  • We met another English couple, Darrin and Emma, while scuba diving and would up hanging out with them on Darrin’s birthday and dancing at a bar on the beach until the wee hours of the morning…we always seem to find fun people to hang out with on this trip.
  • Playa Carmen in a tourist trap with people hounding you at every step on the main street to take their tours, buy their goods or eat at their restaurant…it gets old very fast!
  • Here’s a tip someone once gave me … Because places in Mexico like Playa del Carmen are so commercialized, you’re guaranteed to get sucked into a tourist trap. However, if you head off the beaten path just a little, you might be able to avoid this experience. Cities like Puerto Peñasco (the tourist area closest to the US), are less likely to have this issue because they’re less known. That’s something worth considering when booking a trip to Mexico.
  • The prices here are getting pretty close to US prices.

The Church at San Juan Chamula: A History Lesson

Amid the rough dirt tracks that criss-cross the Mayan village of San Juan Chamula, a stark, grey building stands four stories over the others.

“The man who owns that house,” explains Caesar, an inhabitant of pure Mayan lineage, “is the distributor of Coca-Cola.”

The building is not a testament to corporate imperialism, as one might suspect. It is a testament to local religiosity.

In San Juan Chamula, an isolated settlement in the highlands of Chiapas, southern Mexico, Coca-Cola is imbibed almost continually because belching is believed to expel evil spirits. Traditionally, this task was fulfilled by a locally manufactured moonshine called posh – a beverage that is anything but high-toned. Harsh, fiery and thoroughly inebriating, that liquor of sugar cane is an evil spirit itself. Today, amid a climate rife with alcoholism, the local Maya have adopted Coke as an alternative liquid exorcist.

Chamula’s Catholic Church is adorned with billowing coloured flags. Market traders occupy the square before it with teeming and labyrinthine stalls of fruit, vegetables, textiles, machetes and household wares. Men stand in variously sized groups, smoking and talking, clad in black woolly ponchos called chuhs. Mimicking the brightly decorated exterior of the church; one particular group dons straw hats streaming with coloured ribbons.

“They are the elders of the village,” explains Caesar, “The Principales. The colour of ribbon on their hats symbolises which quarter of town they preside over.”

As we prepared to enter the church, Caesar warns me not to take any photographs. “We believe that it captures the soul,” he says. “And we are very strict about that too. A gringo was killed once for taking pictures in the church.”

The church’s interior is dim and candle-lit. Thick, sweet incense smoke rolls upward from burning cups. Pine needles blanket the floor; the walls are adorned with palms and bromeliad flowers. The room is filled with people. Some kneel before floral offerings. Some pray some sing. Some sway and swig on moonshine, strange tunes escaping harps and guitars. A crowd assembles around one of the village shamans, who holds a large, speckled chicken in his palms. As the bird makes concerned noises, the crowd begins to grin. Death comes from the shaman’s hands. And as the bird’s neck is fully wrung, its wings flap in a show of unspent, nervous energy.

The most evocative manifestations of Mayan heritage are shamanic medicine systems that involve chanting, dancing, dramatic rituals and animal sacrifice. Where the saints are worshipped in church, are merely where the old gods were made Catholic. Beyond this, ancient spirits dwell in the sacred rivers, forests and mountains surrounding Chamula. Even the symbol of the cross, so beloved to Christian theology, is merely a mask for Mayan concepts.

“In Mayan religion,” explains Caesar grinning, “the cross does not symbolise Christ. The cross is an old symbol that pre-dates the conquest. It symbolises the tree at the centre of the universe, the Ceiba tree. So you see, we did not have to accept the cross because it was already ours.”