Tag Archives: San Cristobal de las Casas

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

8 Jan

PD, Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

Hello country number two.

We finished off three months in Mexico with a few days of spectacular stuff in Chiapas. Spectacular mountain scenery, lakes and waterfalls, some spectacularly bad weather (and some good) and a spectacular near-miss involving a falling tree.

After new year we set off from San Cristobal to check out a few of the more rural parts of the region, starting with the “turquoise lakes” of the Lago de Montebello area. We drove through torrential rain and misty mountains – it felt like the sky was almost touching the van at times – and pulled in to a place on the edge of Lago de Tziscao in the late afternoon. The camping area was by the lake, which – judging by the fact that some of the waterside cabins were half-submerged – looked like it had risen rather a lot in recent weeks.

We pulled up and dithered for a while about stopping nearish to the edge of the water. But it was raining hard and we were worried about getting stranded in mud, or ending up in the lake, by the next morning. We pulled back about 20ft and settled in to hide from the weather for a while. A nice wee cuppa and a relax for a bit, ahh. Our peace was interrupted when about 45 minutes later a 40ft tree crashed to the ground right across the spot we’d originally parked in. We stared, looked at eachother, looked back at the tree, looked at eachother again and laughed nervously. “That’s where we were parked wasn’t it?” I said. “Yes”.

Tree falls in front of van, Lago Tziscao

Crash! Jeremy ponders what might have been

We turned around and drove back up to a concrete parking area, away from the trees. Good decision, because the next morning two more came loose in the soggy ground, creaked, groaned and slammed to the ground. Oh!

The lakes were beautiful, not really turquoise in that weather, but more like moody Scottish lochs in the winter. After visiting them we drove on the next day to a gorgeous little community eco-tourism place, Las Nubes, built around a gushing river and dramatic waterfalls. Jeremy swallowed his vertigo and bravely crossed the very wobbly bridge traversing the most dramatic canyon and falls.

The skies cleared, sunshine again! It was so lovely we stayed an extra night, walked, and dried out. The friendly night guards were fascinated by our van and came for a long hard look inside. Some people seem to find it hard to believe we live in there. When we ask for a space to “camp” for the night in our “casa movil” (mobile home) they often look around as if to say “ok, but where is it?”.

We have been through many routine and military checkpoints on our trip so far, and when the vehicle is searched there is usually more interest in our little “casa” than a serious quest for contraband. We are always careful to be polite and sensible though, as you never know if the conversation is going to take a turn.

One of the more thorough military checks was while we were in Chiapas, an area known for political tensions, so we wanted to give a good impression. Jeremy got out and answered the officer’s questions, showed our paperwork and whatnot. After it was over we pulled away. Jeremy looked down at his feet and realised he was wearing two different shoes – a Converse boot on the right foot, a walking shoe on the left. Those kooky Brits! I’m not going to explain why, you can make up your own theories.

Our last night in Mexico was perfect, pretty much summing up the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the country. We were cutting it a bit fine again, trying to find a camping spot before dark. We followed a sign off the road, near the Guatemalan border, to a laguna we hadn’t heard of. As we pondered over whether to park in a public car park area, an old woman appeared from behind a little shop and beckoned us to drive in behind their gates. At the back of the shop was a little lakeside area, with basic rooms plus palapas, tables and BBQs for daytrippers. For £1.50 we camped there, safe and sound, birds tweeting and bats swooping, with the laguna right in front of us, shining in the moonlight.

P has a rinse at Lagunas de Colon

Quick head rinse in the Laguna before we leave for Guatemala

Next morning we said goodbye to Mexico. The old lady said: “Can’t you stay another day?”. But we couldn’t, we had to get to Guatemala, we had school on Monday!

The border crossing was mildly chaotic and confusing, but we were prepared for it and survived the hoopla of paperwork, getting through in a couple of hours. As we pulled off, having completed everything, we were directed towards a detour around the village which took us down, around and then back up, one of the most terrifyingly steep and narrow streets we have yet encountered. Could this really be an international border? For the umpteenth time we thanked our lucky stars that we had chosen a small vehicle with a bit of oomph to it.

So here we are in Quetzaltenango, more commonly known as Xela. We have booked one month of Spanish classes, and have opted to live with a local family. We will register and be taken to the house later today, and then start classes at 8am tomorrow.

The school is an non-profit organisation which uses its surplus to work with human rights groups and social projects. As well as learning Spanish, students are also taught about the economic and social problems in Guatemala.

It might be a tough four weeks for our ageing brains, but we’re really looking forward to it and are determined to make the most of the experience.

We’ll let you know how it goes. Hasta luego.

Days: 97
Miles: 5597.4
Things we now know to be true: Just because we’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean the trees aren’t all out to get us.

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Even bees wear balaclavas in Chiapas

2 Jan

PD, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

We’re not used to big nights out any more. These days it’s usually a couple of beers as darkness falls at 6ish, dinner and early to bed. But for new year we made an exception, of course. We started off as usual at 6pm, to toast the UK new year, and carried on right through to the Mexican one.

The latter part of the evening was spent watching a fantastically energetic Chiapan band at the Cafe Bar Revolucion in San Cristobal – we’re nothing if not predictable. The night finished off with a spectacularly ill-advised tequila when we got back to the van. Ouch. What I would have given for a greasy sausage sandwich with HP sauce on new year’s day morning.

Wedding ceremony, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

A Mayan wedding ceremony was taking place in front of the cathedral on New Year's Eve, San Cristobal de las Casas

Here we are at the centre of Zapatista territory, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. We loved the sprit of the place when we came 10 years ago and it hasn’t disappointed this time. New Year is the anniversary of a 1994 uprising that grabbed the attention of the world, so what better place to see in 2012? 

This town has everything – the revolutionary vibe, a thriving music scene, great locally-grown coffee, and an amazing mountain setting with colourful buildings that glow in the evening sun. And it’s gone all trendy since we last visited, with oh-so-cool wine bars, cafes and restaurants and shops selling EZLN paraphernalia to people like us. We’ve even bought some honey made by a Zapatista co-operative. The bee on the label is wearing a tiny balaclava.

All-in-all it’s been not a bad little haven for a few days after several weeks of being on the move. Even the chilly evenings and mornings haven’t been enough to drive us away, although getting into the erratic hot-cold shower has required something of a superhuman effort.

And after a few quiet weeks we have been glad to meet some fantastic like-minded people here. First we had a night out with some UK friends who coincided with us for one day on their way home from a three-month trip in Guatemala. And on our lovely wooded campsite we’ve had great chats with two other road-tripping couples from Arkansas and British Columbia, and spent New Year’s day evening chewing the fat around a fire, accompanied by hair of the dog.

To add to all that San Cristobal has, there are also some fascinating indigenous villages in the surrounding hills. We returned to one, San Juan Chamula, this week. It’s known for its central church, at which people of the indigenous Tzotzil group practice a curious blend of Catholicism and traditional pre-Hispanic ceremonies. Inside, small groups of worshippers were huddled on the floor, which is carpeted with fresh pine branches and lined with hundreds of little candles, creating a heady aroma.

In one group a man chanted and rubbed eggs and herbs over a little girl’s head. They each swigged from a bottle of Coke, to induce burping which they believe cleanses their bodies. As they rose to leave we heard a cluck-cluck-squawk and noticed the grandmother was carrying a live chicken, which had stayed inexplicably quiet during the whole ritual.
But, for us, the most bizarre part of the ceremonies at this church is the relationship between the group’s religion and Coca Cola. Crate upon crate of the stuff is drunk every day in the church, truck loads of it are present around the town square and people sit around the little cafes supping on it. It’s hard not to let the cynic in us wonder if some marketing man at Coke really has done the unthinkable and convinced this population the drink has health-giving and spiritual properties.

Band playing at Cafe Bar Revolucion, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

The band played out 2011 at Cafe Bar Revolucion

New year is traditionally a time for both reflection and looking forward. We’ve been three months on the road in Mexico now, and are preparing to cross into Guatemala next week to start a month of Spanish school in the highland city of Quetzaltenango. More of that later.

What a three months it has been. We’ve had so much to learn about living in the van and all that entails – keeping the vehicle happy, mastering the quirks of the ‘house’ appliances and working out how to fix the things that have broken – or, to be more specific, that Jeremy has broken! As well as all the sight-seeing and galavanting most days involve waking up somewhere unfamiliar and having to find one or all of the following – food, water to drink, water to wash in, toilets, petrol, propane, and – most importantly – a safe place to bed down for the night and the right road to get there.

Those accommodations have ranged from the blissful sunny beaches of Baja and Yucatan, to gorgeous mountain towns with freezing mornings that make it hard to part with the duvet, to sleeping at a noisy petrol station/truck stop in the pissing rain and wondering where that leak is coming from… and many things in between.

Do we feel unbelievably lucky to be able to do this trip? Yes. There have been so many amazing highs, incredible sights and lots of laughs, and we’ve barely really begun. By the end of 2012 we should have reached the northern part of South America, and it’s hard to imagine all the adventures ahead.
Are there frustrations, little tantrums and scary bits? Sometimes. Is loud swearing sometimes heard in the van? Yes. Do we miss our lovely families and friends, and cat? Absolutely.

Do we have any regrets about taking this leap? Nope.

Happy new year everyone

And here are some more pics for your perusal:

Flickr: Patzcuaro to Mexico City

Days: 91
Miles: 5,152.2
Things we now know to be true: Socialist honey tastes much sweeter.