PLAYAS Y MARAS- EL SALVADOR

El Salvador, here I come!

Crossing the border, despite the many warnings online about long, long, long truck lines and wait time, was a breeze! I was 20 minutes away from the border when a man on a motorcycle harangued me “Welcome to the border! – Do you need help crossing?”  Shortly after meeting Jorge, another 3 guys on mopeds were also offering their services, so to be fair I hired Jorge. He was a gem! He basically did all the paperwork for me while I was having ceviche for lunch at one of the stands! He had lived in California for 15 years and worked in the orange groves until the industry went bust. He spoke perfect English.

Why hire a Tramitador do you ask? Sure I can do all this by myself but for the small fee involved I find that they help you navigate through the labyrinth of offices, and paperwork. Also, being locals and working at both borders, they can advise you on who gives the best rates for money exchange and I find that inspections seem to be easier when accompanied by a local helper. It saves me time and hassle.

View my border crossing YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVFlvn-vS-I

When I found out that Jorge was Salvadoran I asked him where I could safely camp near the border and he indicated that Cara Sucia, the first little town after crossing the border would be where I could get some money and supplies and from there go south to the little fishing village called Garita Palmera. I would be safe to boondock on the beach, or hook-up for $5.

When I arrived in Garita Palmera I met a woman who asked me if I was looking for a place to stay: “come to my house, I have electricity, water and swimming pool too, follow me! “ We followed the road along the beach and entered her gorgeous property.

Her name was Cora and she introduced me to her property manager, an older woman with a teenage son and daughter. I am sorry  to say that even after asking for their names at least 5 times I still can’t remember them – if I don’t write them down on a piece of paper right away, it’s no use. I do not know if my memory is getting worse or if the Spanish names make it harder to memorize, but it’s becoming a problem…

I learned from the keeper that Cora actually lives in the capital city, San Salvador. She has been a widow for 5 years now and inherited this property from her father. Later on she showed me that the property extended as far as the eye could see and was rented for coconut harvesting and pasture for milking cows.

I really enjoyed my stay there. I was parked under palm trees right by the beach so I had shade and breeze, which also meant no bugs.  The pets were free and safe to roam and after our week stay in the welder’s shop, this was a welcomed change.  I couldn’t help seeing the huge potential this property and its prime location near the border had. For the first time since leaving Calgary I could see myself live here. I had to reign in my entrepreneur mind and remind myself that I was here to be free from responsibilities for a while and to just enjoy the gift of freedom. I was the only one there, and I could see no one else on the long stretch of beach so when the keeper told me that the house had been rented by a family of 10 for the week-end I felt a bit annoyed that I had to share my piece of paradise with someone else.

The family in question was a sister and 2 brothers, their partners and children and turned out to be really nice people, no loud partiers as I had feared. At one point Sylvia came to me, introduced herself and started a conversation. Before long one by one every family member came to my site. They were very curious about me, my travels and of course my RV. However Sylvia warned me to trust no one in El Salvador and be on the lookout at all times.

This was the May long week-end and I decided not to drive since the roads would be traffic heavy. Before they left I asked the men in the group to help me move my truck out of the sand and unto the dirt path so that I could leave for Juayua early the next morning.

We had a terrible thunderstorm the night before and I don’t know if it is related, but there were a lot of people in the woods on the property picking crabs.

Even when dark fell, they stayed working with head lamps. I went to the house one last time to do my dishes and I could hear the keeper scream and yell and what I thought was an argument. Soon after I returned to the truck she came with her daughter of about 15 and begged me to close my door. I could tell she was quite upset. What is going on? I asked. Maras, she kept saying, my son, my son she repeated. I could tell something had happened but didn’t understand what. When I asked her: what is maras? She said men. That’s all I needed to hear. I locked my door even though my cat Patouffi was outside. He’ll sleep under the truck I thought.  “Maras” I thought, is that the term for “gangs”? I opened my guide book to where I knew I had read about gangs in El Salvador and sure enough it is. It confirmed that something bad was happening, so I left my lights on, closed all my windows and curtains, took my baseball bat out of its hiding place and started praying in earnest for the keeper’s family safety and mine. There was nothing else I could do. At one point I heard men’s voices just outside my door. It took a huge amount of willpower not to peak through the curtains and later not to open the door for Patouffi  when everything was quiet again (which I did much later anyway – not much willpower there after all but I didn’t want to leave them anything they could use to hurt me you know like, will kill the cat if you don’t open the door!).

I slept lightly with the lights on, my bat and phone near me.

The next morning at 6:00 am I heard a knock on the door and after checking through the window and saw it was the keeper, I opened the door. What happened last night? I asked her. Maras, 8 men and 1 woman – with tattoos. They wanted to rob you but my son intervened (a young boy of may be 18-19), they took a rock and hit him on the head! She mimicked how he was bleeding and how, when he was down they kicked him.

I was horrified but I couldn’t understand why they still didn’t rob me, after all we were just 2 older women, a young boy and a girl, hardly any threat to a gang of 9. Why didn’t they come and robbed me? I wanted to know. I had to take the shotgun out she said. The police was called but never showed up. Please, she pleaded, leave now before they come back, I don’t want any trouble.

I unhooked my electricity cable, got dressed in a hurry and left very shaken up, never knowing the full extent of her son’s injuries.

My guide in Juayua explained to me that despite Jorge’s claim that the border region was safe, it is the place of gang wars between Guatemala and El Salvador groups fighting for territory.

When I arrived in Sonsonate, I got lost in the town where I was to take the touristic route to Juayua, as per Central America’s custom, there were no signs anywhere. My GPS was useless. As soon as I knew I had made the wrong turn I stopped and asked for directions. This man came over and was obviously upset with me. Don’t you care about your family? He screamed at me looking at the van, I suppose assuming that I had children in there. He was looking at me as if I had lost my mind for traveling in El Salvador in such a fashion. His directions were very convoluted, out of the way with many warnings about my safety. I decided to ignore him. I knew the turn off was just around the corner and that this is probably the safest route in the country, but still this shook my confidence. I remembered that I had data on my phone and input the information on good old Google Map and I was out of there and on my way in 2 shakes of a lamb’s tail.

The moral of this story is that unfortunately, I am learning to trust my instinct and not depend on what people say. Either they genuinely think they are right, or they are in on the plot to come back later to rob you, I do not trust what people tell me anymore.

Another fine example is that yesterday, driving to Ataco I see signs for La Laguna Verde, which I had read was highly recommended. So I took the detour. Oh shit, I thought as the road turns into a wide and well paved dirt road, but very isolated and going on and on. I am advertising my coming here with my loud big truck and there is no place to turn around…. I could get ambushed on my way back… However when I get to the Laguna, it is a green peaceful heaven, just what I wanted.

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After asking two persons working there, I am told that this is very safe and I could camp for the night, I will not be bothered. The manager even told me if I could ask for police protection if I was still unsure. I asked him if he could do that for me. Oh sure he said,  but didn’t pick up the phone. I was relaxing in the sun but the thought about my safety kept niggling at me. I went with my phone to the manager and asked for the police telephone number. The first one he gave me didn’t work; the second one came through on the 3rd call. When I spoke with the officer, he explained that they only work during the day and couldn’t provide protection during the night, and that La Laguna was not a safe place to stay at night anyway! I thanked him, thanked my intuition for having me follow through, packed up and left. Was the manager genuine in his reassurance or was he going to come back at night with his buddies and rob the silly, gullible gringa? I do not know but I have to say that unfortunately, I am feeling more unsafe here than I’ve been so far on my trip.

There were parts of Mexico that were a bit dodgy, I felt a bit unsafe in Belize but it was unfounded, but here I’ve had so many warnings, people misguiding me and warning me and then the maras’ visit, all of it is deeply affecting me. What a shame, because the country is beautiful and the people friendly. I do not want this to affect my perception and enjoyment of this beautiful country nor force me to revisit my desire to continue on this trip.

I will do a blog on my visit to Juayua and Ataco, but to recap my visit in El Salvador here, I would say that the atmosphere of untrust is unbearable. When I arrived in San Salvador to request a tourist visa’s extension is was met with many difficulties that led me to choose to drive out of Nicaragua before May 15th, the deadline on my C4 Visa. You get 90 days to visit 4 countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. You can only renew once and only in San Salvador. The paperwork is so ridiculous, with the necessity of a sponsor as well as copy of your bank statements that’s  it’s better to just drive out of Nicaragrua, and re-enter a few days later from Costa Rica to be granted another 90 days. I drove 2 days to get out of El Salvador feeling very ambiguous about the country.

On the one hand it is beautiful and the people are charming, quick to smile and help. But for a single woman on the road, there was not a single place I camped that I was warned it was not safe, even though some where locked and guarded at night and all of them listed as safe on the IOverlander App. When you hear the same message over and over, you have to take head. So unfortunately I cut my stay short and was actually relieved to get out of the country.

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki

 

 

HOW TO USE A LATIN AMERICAN CONCRETE SINK?

Ok, I admit I’ve been traveling Central America for 6 months already and I just clued in on how to use the typical 3-sided  pre-cast concrete sink that one sees all over Latin America.

It always baffled me as to why the locals would fill the middle basin up to the rim where dead bugs and leaves would accumulate. I know that I am not the only traveler to have been puzzled and frankly annoyed with this custom. For example in Antigua, at the Touristic Police where I stayed, there was only one basin to do your dishes and it was full to the rim. The water was already dirty with someone else’s soap and food scrap. The only solution would be to dip your arm to the elbow and pull the plug. Even in well-established campgrounds I noticed the workers fill up the tanks to the rim. I figured there was a reason, a way of using it that I hadn’t understood yet.20170424_093555

Well, the answer came to me this week and frankly I feel a bit ashamed of my ignorance.

As a person used to unlimited running water, I could not have understood the utilitarian purpose of the 3 compartment sink. It took a stay at a garage in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa for me to learn the hard way the importance of a basin full of water!

In need of repairs and upgrades I found a garage to do the work. They allowed me to stay in the van while doing the work. Being in the sun, the heat, the dirt and the bugs – for a whole week, you need to shower and do the dishes at the very least. I had arrived with just a ¼ tank of water, never thinking that I would stay for that long.

The first day, I was able to fill my tank up to ½   using buckets as the water pressure was too low to use a hose.  This is heavy work and to protect my back, I thought I would add a few bucketful every day. Understandably, to preserve my own water,  I went to the basin to do my dishes. And there it was again: a full middle basin! I did my dishes in it and rinsed them with the tap on the side basin. Well! The next day my mechanic saw the dirty water in the sink and was furious! Who dirtied my water? Those guys, he said, blaming the other mechanics… (knowing full well that it had to be me). I watched, puzzled, as he emptied the main sink and proceeded to scrub it clean with a brush for this purpose. I got from this experience that the main sink is to be kept clean, but I still didn’t have a clue as to why and how to really use this. I almost wanted to ask Eduardo but that would have been admitting guilt, so I didn’t.

The answer soon came to me when both taps on the property ran dry – for 2 days. It’s only then that I noticed the buckets full of water everywhere. Eduardo had even brought me one by the door. That day, when I went to the stand-up sink to do my dishes, forced into thinking on how to preserve the integrity of this precious clean water, I found the solution.

You never contaminate the water of the middle sink! Using a small bucket you take some clean water and do your dishes, your laundry, or wash your hands, in one of the side tanks with a drain. That middle sink contains gold! You never know when you will have running water again, even in a good-sized town such as Santa Lucia.

Sure enough during my week stay here, there have been more days without running water than with. When the taps are dripping, the men fill up all the buckets and containers again.

Having now experienced a total lack of water in the blistering heat, I will take bugs and leaves infested water for my dishes and my sponge bath any time!

So please gringos, learn how to use a stand-up sink and never empty or contaminate the middle basin. Use the container (there is typically one around – it could be a cut-up jug, a plastic container, a bowl) to take some water and use it in one of the side basin where it will drain. That middle basin filled with, what to our standard we would describe as “dirty” water, is precious.

I know I am not the only one to have been puzzled by this and thought that I should pass the word around:)

And if you’re still not sure watch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op45rv2cOZ8

Happy travels and stay wet!

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Kiki

THE VISITOR UNDER MY BED

I realize, dear reader, that I am due for a cute little story – the kind I used to write when I started my journey and everything was so new that even a pee-pot made the news. After that novelty period, everything became more business-like. Describe my travels, my adventures may be, from a neutral point of view (verily, how can a single white female, first time traveler in the Americas, driving an old RV along the Pan American highway be neutral?).  I’ve been wondering of late: where did that woman go – the one that saw humor in everything? And may be, part of sharing is also about my everyday life in a camper along bumpy, dusty roads that might be lined with “bandidos” lying in wait.

So, if not for my own story telling pleasure here is the tale of the visitor under my bed. And since I do not have related pictures to post, I will relish you instead with photos of my stay at the Santa Lucia garage – I know you can’t wait!

I first noticed it Chez Pierre on Lake Atitlan. Every morning I would wake up with huge welts on my toes. They didn’t hurt, but when I scratched the itch, they would atypically swell and puce. On cool night I had put on mini socks to keep me warm and in the morning I found the bite just above the sock line! I knew then that I was being eaten by something hiding in or under my bed. From the bite marks we could see the outline of little fangs – definitively a spider!

My bed is a story in and of itself. It originally had a custom-made mattress to fit the cubicle, with a cut corner to allow room for the corridor to the bathroom. I am pretty sure it was the original mattress and so was 34 years old. It was quite comfortable despite its age, until I started to sleep on it nightly. The support caved in and the coils jutted out! As I was reorganizing the camper for my long trip, I decided to convert the cabin above the driver’s seat, which was set up as a sleeping cabin with a thick foamy, into a storage compartment where I would store all my heavy bins full of shoes  and purses (hey I’m French!– some had to make the trip with me! Believe me the cut was brutal), a pharmacy, extra bits and pieces for my engine should I need to repair it en route… you get the idea! I put the foamy on top of the mattress and that was comfortable for a few months until it became agony. Finally, in Belize, when I was decluttering the van one more time to make room for my daughter’s visit (I had already purged twice) – I gave my mattress away to the campsite owner, who was delighted to take it, despite my warning him of its bad condition. I guess when you sleep on the floor a bad mattress is definitively an upgrade!

The foamy was heaven for about…1 month until the center line where I sleep mostly, lost its bounce and I was basically lying on plywood. I put all my blankets and sleeping bags as underlay with a special focus on the middle line and so far so good. I however have no doubt that down the road I will have to purchase a proper mattress for it.

My sleeping platform sits on top of my external storage bins where I keep all my hoses and engine fluids. I also have a bit of storage for personal items. For the most part it is open to the dust of the road and unwelcomed visitors could easily climb in.

Upon realizing that I was feeding a spider every night, I searched, aired out, and vacuumed my bed and platform, knowing full well that it was futile. Short of fumigating the van, which is out of the question since I live there and because of the health hazards to my pets, I haven’t done anything else about it. I don’t know if I chose to ignore the signs or if I was in denial, but I swear that the bite marks disappeared for a while. I thought may be my rummaging about scared my blood sucker away.

And so, weeks later, here I am in this dusty, dirty, mosquito and fire ant infested garage yard (and I swear a huge rat which scared Patouffi so much he hasn’t ventured out from under the sofa!) to get my RV fixed and I am covered with bites. There were a few big ones on my legs that looked different than your usual mosquito or ant welt, but still I didn’t clue in that my visitor was back!

One morning I decide to add my wonderful wool blanket to my underlay and air out my bed in the process and what do I see? A h.u.g.e black spider! I am not afraid of spiders but this one was big. It was not moving, just chilling there, digesting its feast of the night. This gave me time to look around for a weapon to finally get rid of the beast. I wanted a rod-like object with a rounded end to poke it dead from a distance and settled on the fishing rod. Of course I missed and Dracula was on the run, until it fell near my feet and I dropped everything and screamed like a girl! It made its way back to the compartment under the bed. I looked and searched but the sucker was well hidden.

Soooo, plan numero uno: Go to the store and enquire about my options short of fumigating. Numero dos, which I will have to do anyway when my new undercarriage compartment is installed, take everything out from under the bed and vacuum the hell out of it… it might still hide in a crevice. I definitively will feel better if I see the culprit die. I do hope it doesn’t have a family waiting to take up the baton!

What eats spiders I wonder?

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I do not know if it’s because of the heat or the noise, but Marley has taken up residence in the cat’s litter box!

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki

 

 

 

TIKAL – NOT TO BE MISSED!

The reason for my daughter Tiffany to arrive in Belize City was simply so that we would go to Tikal. Tikal, the largest Mayan site in Central America, nestled in the northern jungle of Guatemala. I had been told, even before my departure for my long journey, that if I were to only visit one archeological site, it would have to be Tikal!

Crossing the border into Guatemala was a breeze other than the fact that we got completely ripped off by the money changers. It was my fault, I should have researched the exchange rates online ahead of time. Oh well ­-an expensive lesson learned!

By comparison, my friends Dub and Sheila crossed the border from Mexico in Tapachula and their experience was horrendous!  Trucks were being accosted by some 50 Guatemalans, hanging on to railings, side mirrors and climbing on the roof.  Their formalities were also very strenuous. A good thing that I didn’t experience any of this; I do not know how I would have handled a throng of people hanging on to my truck!

My concern with this itinerary was about the road conditions. There was nothing current online about the only road to and from Tikal. All I had were older accounts from books and blogs, describing the terrible dirt road. However, at various campsites I met people that had traveled to Tikal and were on their way back home reassuring me that the road was actually really good. It had been completely repaved a few years ago. Although a simple 2 lane road, it was free of danger and potholes. That’s all I wanted to hear!

We opted to stay at El Remate, the northern village on Petén Lake, the closest we could camp to Tikal since pets were not allowed in the park. We ended up finding this idyllic free spot right on the lake and every night we would swim in the deliciously warm water watching the sun set!

We were parked close to the French Hostel/Restaurant “Mon Ami” and decided to take advantage of their shuttle service to Tikal the next morning at 5:00 am in order to arrive at the park to see the wildlife at sunrise.

20170217_055808It was a wonderful drive in the wee hours of the morning, and already we could see women in little stands on the side of the road lighting the fire on their coal stoves getting ready for the morning crowd. It was misty and the vegetation got thicker and greener as we approached the gates. Once inside, we still had a good 30 minutes’ drive to get to the main visitor center.

Tiffany and I decided to hire a private guide for the tour. We figured this was a huge archeological site and after our wonderful experience with our previous guides in Belize, Russell – for our jungle walk and Luis – for the ATM caves, we knew that we would get more out of it. We also decided to do the tour in Spanish since we both needed the practice.

Our guide Kevin Reyes was a young student who had a trainee with him. The benefit of this being that while Kevin was showing us around, his apprentice was looking for wildlife. In this manner, we ended up seeing a wealth of animals that many others missed. We were rewarded right away with 2 troops of howler monkeys – one never gets enough of seeing them! Especially in the luscious jungle where ancient monuments would disappear under the thick vegetation, it was indeed magical. My favorite sighting of the day was 5 toucans on top of a tree. I hadn’t realized how big they actually are and their beaks are an absolute wonder!  We saw pretty much every animal we wanted to see and were rewarded by the extremely rare sight of the Crested Guan, a bird on the extinction list! Tiffany really wanted to see pizotes but so far nothing. After we parted ways with our guides we decided to stop for lunch and wander about.  It is then that we came across a whole herd of them, with babies in tow! They are the cutest things ever! At one point, one went to a shallow pool of water to drink and Tiffany joked that if he were to jump in for a bath she would die of cuteness overload!20170217_123332

Watch this video of our pizotes sighting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM4joIwTwzY

What was wonderful about our visit of Tikal was that in the grand scheme of things, very few visitors come in early. Those who do end up spreading out so that the whole time we were there, it felt that we had the site to ourselves, except in the main courtyard where everyone would pool in. The throngs of tourists didn’t start to come in until may be noon, when we were just about finished our visit. The early morning light also added to the magic of the place, with the monkeys howling from the canopy. A lot of the buildings are still covered by vegetation, some are just barely excavated out of their jungle tomb and the largest and most famous ones are erect in their full glory.

We were given free time to explore the main courtyard and climb the monuments.

A highlight for me, and I’m sure for every visitor, was the steep climb to the top of the pyramid named Temple VI.  From the top we had a breathtaking view of the jungle’s canopy with various pyramids and buildings jutting out. From there one could really see the extent of this archeological site, spreading as far as the horizon.  We had only visited but a tiny portion of it, most of it still undiscovered or unexcavated!

Watch this video of Tikal on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJNCUnTu1t0&feature=youtu.be

We got “home” just in time for a cooling dip in the lake and another breathtaking sunset – the following day we would take off again for a 2 days drive to Semuc Champey.  Another must see area of Guatemala!20170217_113207

Until next time my new road amigos!

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And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube! Kiki’sRvAdventures

Au plaisir de la route!

Kiki

GUATEMALA VIBRANT EASTER

Nothing can prepare you for the elaborate vibrancy of the Guatemalan Easter celebrations! I had read that Guatemala, Nicaragua and Columbia put on the most impressive processions in Latin America. With this in mind I had decided to stay at Lake Atitlan where I had been camping for the last 2 months. No need to be driving on congested roads during the holidays and run the chance of not finding a campsite when I was already in the best location possible. There were 3 villages and towns around the lake near me that had celebrations worth attending. And so on the advice of ex-pats and veteran visitors, four of us woke up early on Good Friday to catch the 9:00 am procession at the small village of T’sununa. When we arrived we were greeted with the main street covered with patterned designs in brightly colored saw dust, making a carpet to pave the way for the procession. This is called “alfombra”. We were wowed by the intricate designs and the sheer work it took to make it.

As the procession slowly made its way towards us we could make out one float preceded by young boys in religious gowns swinging incense holders. Villagers were walking alongside. At regular intervals, the procession would stop, they would lower the float and the crowd would kneel in prayers. It was beautiful to see an entire village commune together. We were so pleasantly surprised by the celebration’s richness of this isolated village in the hills of Sololà that we all decided to quickly go back to camp, pick up a few items and take the boat to San Pedro across the lake to see their noon procession. We knew it would be bigger and a bit more ostentatious than T’sununa, and were eager to see the difference. As we entered camp, everyone was a buzz and decided to join us.

Watch my YouTube video of the T’sununa procession here: https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=p8nlxggma5g

San Pedro is a small town, alive with hostels, restaurants, touristic shops and excursion agencies.  It is of a different size and feel than T’sununa.  Already we had noticed a new crowd of visitors from Guatemala City coming to spend Easter at the lake, as opposed to the usual crowd of international backpackers and overlanders.

As we climbed to the top of the hill we were greeted with the procession already under way. It was quite impressive by the sheer number of attendants lining the procession, the size of the floats and the number of people needed to carry them. They too would stop at interval for prayers but very few in the crowd would kneel and pray, even though it was a great majority of Guatemalans and Mayans, colorfully dressed in traditional wear or in their Sunday best.

We didn’t get to see the alfombras in their glory before they were destroyed by the procession, but it was quite fun to see the children running behind and collecting flowers and colored saw dust. We followed the festivities all the way to the church and watched each float slowly making its way up the steps and inside the church. There was a festive ambiance with street vendors selling ice-cream, sodas and such. Everyone was smiling and happy. It was beautiful in a completely different way than T’sununa.

Watch my YouTube video of the San Pedro procession here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiY8QtWHLUM

Our next stop was the highly recommended village of San Juan La Laguna where we could watch the villagers create the alfombras for their night’s procession. Even with all the descriptions in the world, nothing could have prepared us for the magic and the emotional intensity one feels in the presence of such a sight! The entire village was in the streets, working on decorating the walkway for the procession. Already many arches had been raised with a variety of fruit hanging from them.  When we arrived the preliminary carpet measurements and rough sketches with chalks were underway in some areas.

We noticed a variety of ways to make alfombras. Artists would reproduce a picture of their own original work, freehand – with dyed saw dust. Stencils were passed around and friends and families would gather to decorate one street section together. There were also sections carpeted with fresh pine needles and decorated with a variety of fresh blossoms, halved fruits and vegetables.  Some even used more modern supplies such as noodles, cotton, wrappers and plastic decorations. Regardless of the raw material used, the end product was absolutely stunning. We would walk around at regular intervals and watch works of art in various stages of completion. Even when we thought, by our standards, one piece was complete, more was added, such as bouquets of flowers, candles etc…

The young and the old worked together, Mayans and tourists kneeling side by side, laughing and celebrating together. One got a wonderful sense of accomplishment and of belonging upon seeing a completed work, knowing that you helped in its making.

Watch my YouTube video of the alfombras in progress here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3D-U0l7PVo&t=1s

It was moving, awe inspiring and I couldn’t help think that if every town and village in the world were to do this, but once a year, there wouldn’t be any more wars!

As the night fell and the art was mostly completed by now, throngs of people came to walk the streets and admire the work. It was festive and respectful all at once, with none of the drinking, swearing or rough housing that can sometimes be seen on such occasions.

Watch my YouTube video of the finished alfombras here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTRL56zXKPk

The San Juan La Laguna procession, by tradition, is a nocturnal event and starts at 10:00 pm. We gathered at the Church plaza where the floats were getting ready to start. It was wonderful to be able to walk up close and see the details of each float and feel the anticipation in the air heavy with incense. And then they lifted the floats up, one after the other and seeing this was quite impressive. The chanting started and the swaying march allowing the carriers to move forward in an orderly and safe fashion begun.  Seeing the start of the procession allowed me to really understand the sheer work that goes into the walking part. Because of the length and size of the floats, guys would be at the front either pushing back to slow them down, or sideways to help make a turn. For the women’s floats someone would be in charge of timing the lifting periods and men would relieve the women at regular intervals. In San Pedro in particular I noticed than when the floats were waiting their turn to enter the church, men would carry the women’s floats and watching their bent backs and facial expressions, I knew that they were each shouldering a great load.

Watch my video of the San Juan La Laguna procession here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6krcGB4kX2Y

After the procession left the church plaza, Dub, Sheila and I were ready for our tuk-tuk ride back home, but fate would have it that on its way out of town we were unable to cross the road because the procession was just coming around the corner. So it was a great pleasure for me to see it again, this time in the streets with the entire congregation, the lights and night’s atmosphere. This procession was very sweet with the women singing the most beautiful songs, one of which has been in my head ever since.

This was a most enchanting and magical full day, and looking back the enfoldment of it couldn’t have been more perfect. Had we seen San Juan first, T’sununa’s celebration would have paled in comparison and we might not have appreciated it to its full measure. Each procession was unique and special and I am so glad I got to see all three as they each represented a different demographic, a different tradition may be and occurred at a different time of day. I have to say though that the highlight of the day was definitively the making of the alfombras in San Juan La Laguna.

20170414_173857Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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YOU BETTER BELIZE IT!

This catchy little phrase is actually Belize’s national slogan.

Belize was a total surprise to me. Admittedly I knew nothing about it, other than the fact that it was a former British colony and that English remains the official language of this small country bordering Mexico to the North and Guatemala to the West.  And so it was quite a shock that upon crossing the border with Mexico, despite it being just a line in the sand, a completely new culture was awaiting. I came to quickly realize that I was now in the Caribbean, with its unique culture, its music and its cuisine! Even the landscape had transformed into brightly colored homes lining the streets, vast expanse of cane sugar crops and luxuriant jungle.20170211_163945

The principal reason for my visiting Belize was to pick up my daughter Tiffany at the international airport and drive to Tikal in Guatemala, barely stopping along the way. However, an overlander I had met in Oaxaca had mentioned that I should go to the ATM caves when in Belize. Upon Ingrid’s instructions I googled “ATM caves, Belize” and was astounded to discover what made the Actun Tunichil Munkal caves so special! I decided then and there that they were a must see, especially since Tiffany is doing her Master’s practicum in caving! I wanted it to be a surprise for her birthday, I only gave her a list of shoes and clothing that she needed to bring. She was hardly off the plane that she was jumping up and down like a kid at Christmas saying: “can I guess what’s your surprise? Is it the ATM caves?” My jaw just dropped. How did you guess? I asked. I only learned about them a few weeks ago. Well, she said, you forget that I now work with caving guides, these caves are famous in this small and specialized community. My  boss told me that the best cave in the world is in Belize and I figured you knew me well enough to have learned about it!” Well, that blew the surprise away but her enthusiasm was the best reward ever!

I had decided that we were going to spend the night at the “Baboon Sanctuary” in the hope to see howler monkeys, locally named baboons. We were rewarded by arriving just before dusk and being greeted by local guides. Russell asked us if we wanted to hear the monkeys and took us for a short walk into the jungle bordering the property. He started making noises, imitating them and all of a sudden the forest came to life! Way up in the trees we saw them. They were much bigger than I thought, all black. Only the males howler. It was quite the vocal display! There even was a mom and her baby! We thanked Russell for this and decided to hire him for a jungle walk first thing in the morning in the hope of seeing more monkeys, other jungle animals, such as Belize’s national animal the tapir, may be a jaguar or two, parrots – but definitively not snakes! At 7:00 am we met up with Russell, a tall black man with the most unusual eye color hard to describe: a pale milky, golden green. It is quite unique and on a dark person absolutely stunning!  We later found out that it is common in these parts.  He greeted us with a fly swatter made from the beaten fiber of the coconut tree, the part from which the fruits hang most particularly. It will last you 10 years, he said. Later on he showed us how to make a temporary swatter from  a bundle of long veiny leaves of a palm-looking bush. The leaves are shredded against the long spines of the “Bastard” tree, aptly named after the expletives of British soldiers upon putting their hands on its trunk for support!

Despite the fact that no land animals were to be seen that morning, we were rewarded with the sight of mealy parrots and the wealth of knowledge that Russell had on the local flora and shared with us upon hearing of our interest in this field. We ate termites, we were shown how the soldier fire ant can be used to stitch a wound and Russell even delighted us with sharing a trick to enhance one’s vision in the jungle.” I never walk in the jungle without it” he said, ‘it helps me see the animals and the plants better”. Well no wonder! He used the dew collected in a flower as eye drops and all of a sudden the jungle, usually a sea of green on green, became vivid with brilliant colors! Flowers would stand out, shades of green revealed themselves in subtle contrasts allowing us to see shapes and depth better. The effect was spectacular and without any side effects, just enhanced vision and at night too. We were still under its effect when we visited Tikal a few days later!

After our magical jungle tour we headed for San Ignacio, a pretty touristic town, close to the border with Guatemala, and departure point for the ATM explorations.

We were lucky to find a beautiful camping spot at the Mana Kai campground. The owner was extremely helpful in recommending a guide for the ATM caves, and later on his own veterinarian came to the campsite to treat Marley who had developed a skin rash. Now that’s service!20170215_074102

Our guide showed up in his personal vehicle at 8:00 am the next morning, with 2 passengers already onboard. Marjan and Wim, an elderly couple from the Netherlands were to be our adventure companions for the day.

The Actun Tunichil Munkal (ATM for short) caves were as impressive and memorable as described in the guide books. It was quite the physical challenge, but that was the fun of it. We had to swim cross 3 rivers even before arriving at the mouth of the caves! We then waded in the subterranean river for 3 hours, at times walking or swimming in the water, at other times climbing over rocks. Near the end of the tour we removed our shoes and climbed a ladder to an upper terrace where remnants of ceremonies could still be found. Pottery and even human remains were still intact, preserved in the floor of the cave! To me it is unbelievable to think that this archeological site is open to the public. I would not be surprised if it closes its doors with the next 10 years. Already damages incurred by tourists could be seen.  No one is allowed to take photos, not for secrecy or exclusivity, but to preserve the sight. We were shown pottery and a human skull that were crushed under the foot of a person stepping back to take a picture. The archeological site was simply delineated by a red ribbon on the ground! Easy to miss and offering not much protection to the articles it encircled. Another form of deterioration was the surface of the walls where many hands had touched, had lost its delicate micro-organic composition. One could definitively distinguish between the “live” and the “dead” surfaces.

Our guide was a wealth of knowledge, stories and historical facts and made our exploration all the more interesting. While we were taking our time, we could see the busloads of tourists come and go, doing the caves in one hour. I am grateful that we had a private tour, but by the end of 3 hours, we were exhausted and ready to go back to the parking lot for a well-deserved lunch and the compulsory commemorative pictures of course. What a blessing to have shared this experience with Tiffany. Being a caving guide in training she was also very helpful to Marjan and me. We were in good hands indeed. Wim decided to go back shortly after entering the caves. He had made a brave effort to try, but as Marjan explained, he suffers from claustrophobia. He was escorted back and was waiting for us when we came out, happy to have had the time the explore the area and see the throngs of tourists come out of the cave’s mouth.

The next day, after the veterinarian’s visit to treat Marley, we headed to Guatemala and were pleasantly surprised to find out that the border was a mere 45 minutes’ drive. The crossing was easy and without complications. I think it was an interesting experience for my daughter to cross a border by vehicle, it is completely different from crossing at an airport.

We had spent 3 days in Belize crossing it widthwise. Apparently, the further south one drives, the more Caribbean the culture becomes. We didn’t explore any of the beautiful cayes (pronounced “keys” = islands) famous for their marine reserves and scuba diving opportunities. I was told that Belize was THE place to learn scuba diving. The people were very warm and for the first time in months of traveling I noticed a strong immigrant population. Other than for the tourists in Mexico, there are virtually no other ethnic groups. In Belize, the Chinese population is very visible and it seems that they own all of the local supermarkets, big and small. The vegetation in Belize is absolutely stunning and the ocean, a light turquoise that clued me in that yes, I was indeed in the Caribbean!

I would definitively return to Belize, given the chance, and take the time to discover more of this wonderful country.

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki

 

 

 

 

 

MYSTICAL SAN JOSE DEL PACIFICO

San Jose del Pacifico was magnificent! It appealed to my soul with its high perched village, misty mountain tops and deep  lush valleys far off in the distance. There is a peace and a quiet there that is palpable, as if you were closer to God. My stay there will also be one of my most cherished memories because of the beautiful experiences Dub, Sheila and I shared together.

From Oaxaca to the Pacific Ocean, you have to drive up to drive down.  Mex. 175 leads straight to Puerto Angel but it is a long, convoluted mountain road, thankfully very well paved and with stunning panoramas. My friends Dudley and Sheila were ahead of me and had talked me into joining them in the little town of San Jose del Pacifico. I had no idea it actually was on the way and by the time I arrived I was ready to stop.img_4216

When you reach San Jose del Pacifico, at 2500 metres you are almost at the top of thick, green and misty mountain ranges that one would expect to find in Guatemala or Peru (Mexico keeps surprising me in its wide variety). The energy there was mystical with the mist descending from the mountain and settling in the little town every evening.

San Jose was made famous for its hallucinogenic mushrooms ceremonies when  In 1955, banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur connoisseur of mushrooms, was introduced by the Mazatec shaman María Sabina to the ancient teonanácatl — the Psilocybe mushroom, called ‘nti-ši-tho in Mazatec,  and wrote about it.

Everywhere you go in San Jose, there is a mushroom theme. Hand-knitted virgin wool ponchos with mushroom ties, mushrooms wall murals, mushroom sculptures… they sure have found their niche.

The shopping was lovely but sparse compared to Oaxaca and if you don’t like mushrooms – too bad!

We were told that the sought after mushrooms were not in season and that the dried ones they give tourists at this time of year give you cramps and no trips. After Maria Sabina shared her knowledge with gringos, the locals became upset that she betrayed the secrets of their ways. Although the whole town is benefitting from the fame that her actions brought and the boom in the economy of this otherwise sleepy little town, it is not looked upon favorably to ask for mushrooms to the locals.You will surely be approached at some point.

Dub, Sheila and I were getting out of the vehicle to go on a hike in the forest, when an elderly lady carrying a big garbage bag stopped up. She pulled out beautiful knitted articles and Sheila ended up buying a gorgeous wool sweater, we also bought a few knitted mushrooms keychain fobs for fun. She then dug deeper into her bag and lowering her voice significantly she pulled out a jar containing mushrooms preserved in honey, enough for 5 trips she told us. After much debating and bargaining we bought the jar. Perfect, we thought, we will meditate in the woods, take the mushrooms and hike up for a wonderful experience in the tree tops!

I was a bit nervous because I never take drugs or hallucigens and I am in fact quite against it. I had no idea how I was going to react and was afraid that I would have a bad reaction, forcing my friends to carry me down the mountain. The path was also a concern as it was poorly marked, dilapidated and dangerous in some areas. I was concerned about the timing too. The mist had started to fall, announcing pending darkness. How will we come down with impaired vision, in the dark and on a poor and dangerous path? This was no paranoia, just plain good sense. As fate would have it, none of us experienced much and we decided to turn back before we reached the top.  There was no trip, but no cramps either.

Our next objective was to find the best Temazcal in town.img_4282

We went for a lovely evening walk in the forest and decided to search for the best Temazcal in town.

Temazcal are sweat lodges. There were some that were more like “spas” for the tourists and there were others that were the original ceremonial lodges passed down from generation to generation. We wanted to find out which one was best for us. By asking the locals and tourists alike we got 3 names that were highly recommended. The first one was actually right across from our hotel and harangued us as we were walking by. Temazcal? He asked. “Si” we answered in unison. We climbed the steep path to his house perched on the side of the mountain with a splendid view of the valley below us. His lodge was inside his house. It was a small round clay structure. He had a shower and change room area in front of the door. In the adjacent room was the fire pit flush against the wall of the lodge. Jorge told us that he had been trained by his grandmother and this lodge was Aztec in tradition. He brought down his price from $200p to $150p per person. I liked his energy, but his eyes were not very clear.

On we went in our search and again by happenstance came upon contestant number 2 : Israeli.

He lived in the village itself, his home was humble, with a garden and chickens scurrying about. Behind the house was the typical round clay lodge. Israeli was a young man of twenty years I guessed. He had a keen and intelligent presence with bright and perfectly clear eyes that really appealed to me. However the setting was not to our liking. Even though Israeli would do the 4 traditional rounds and use the local sacred herbs, there would be no singing. We were not too enthusiastic about changing in the dirt with the chickens and under the watchful eyes of the neighbors either.

And so now you guessed it, our third visit was the winner. Actually Dub and Sheila had already tried to reach Paco the day before but turned around because the path leading to his house was so bad. A second time, with me in tow, they drove down the steep, convoluted, eroded path, that even their 4X4 was struggling to navigate. I thought to myself: The best things are often hard to get to, this is worth the effort. We finally arrived to a humble farm in the middle of nowhere. Paco’s lodge was a bare wood frame that would eventually be covered with tarps and blankets for the ceremony. It had a central fire pit to carry hot stones in. This was exactly like the setup of the Cree sweat lodges I am accustomed to in Alberta. I told him so and Paco asked if the lodges I had attended were Lakotas? I was not surprised, after all people migrate and so their traditions. Paco’s lodge was of Mexhica heritage. He himself is originally from the Hidalgo region in Mexico and he too was trained by his grandmother. This made me wonder, all these men doing sweat lodges, trained by their grandmothers – where are the lodges led by women? Are they still being held and only reserved to natives? I have yet to experience a ceremony led by a woman. May be this is something that I will experience in my travels. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to seek out local ceremonies wherever I go? After all, I know in my bones that this journey I am on is deeply sacramental; a pilgrimage of sorts and meeting Paco helped remind me it.

After talking to Paco, we decided to brave the path one more time the next morning to attend his lodge at 10 am.

We arrived before 10 am and were worried to find that the fire was not even started (it takes about 2 hours to heat up the rocks). Paco explained that the night had been too cold and the morning was still cool that he hadn’t come around making fire yet. That was true, the previous night’s temperatures had been close to freezing. We were not worried and actually I told my companions that participating in the preparations leading to the ceremony was part of the experience and that they would certainly enjoy it.

As fire was being made, a tall young man came down the mountain to join us. We found out that he was originally from Italy and has been searching for a connection all his life, having done all kinds of drugs, been with the Hare Krishna group for a while and travelled the world to find himself at Paco’s door.

Oh my God, I thought worried, what kind of scattered, negative and potentially dangerous energy is this man bringing in to the lodge? I also didn’t know Paco nor his lodge. Was he legitimate? Were we to experience a ceremony or a touristic spa? I decided to go off on my own and meditate a bit. I realized that my fears would negatively influence the lodge, that my journey has been so blessed, so divinely guided up to now, why should I question anything at this point? Didn’t I myself have much emotional baggage when I started doing ceremonies and was accepted with open arms and no judgment? Surely this would be so for this young man on his journey. Who am I to judge?

I rejoined the group feeling better. We helped Paco and his attendant (?) cover the lodge and Paco started to set up his altar. He prepared himself and told us to get ready. We then gathered around the altar and as soon as he started calling in the directions, I knew he was the real thing. I felt a wave of emotions come over me, as if I had come home after a long absence and the tears started to flow.

Three local young men joined us so that there were 9 of us in the lodge. Paco spoke in Spanish, his songs were mostly in Spanish and some in his native tongue. It got really hot in there and Paco would literally dowse us with “holly” water. We drank sweet chamomile tea between rounds. I particularly liked the way we were to each in turn come out of the womb of the lodge. In total darkness Paco would throw cold water at us, startling us back to reality while we would say something to the effect that we would now be reborn into the light. The flap would open to let each person emerge into the stark bright light, drenched and startled, just like a newborn! The flap would close behind each initiate until everyone was “reborn”. It was particularly powerful.

I think that my Cree elder, Alvin Manitopyes would have enjoyed this lodge and appreciated the similarities and the dissimilitude between the two traditions.

The young Italian man came out with bright sparkling eyes and a softer energy field– reborn into the light.

I am glad that my friends experienced a beautiful and sacred ceremony for their first lodge and that we shared it together. Our bond keeps getting stronger and stronger. This is no coincidence that our paths crossed weeks ago in San Miguel de Allende. Each day spent together reinforces the connection between us. Our paths might take us apart but we will always be together energetically and I am sure, we will meet again at some point along the road.20170128_184951

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki

 

 

COLOURFUL OAXACA

ANNOUNCEMENT:

I would like to advise that because of the lack on fast and reliable Wifi signals on the road, it is becoming more and more difficult for me to post my blogs, particularly uploading pictures which take forever. This post for example has been ready for over a week and I’ve tried 3 times already to upload pictures without success. I am now in Belize and have yet to post 2 more blogs on my stay in Mexico. For this reason I have decided to post my articles without pictures just to get them out as soon as possible. Should I have a fast signal allowing me to upload media, I might then go back and add the pictures I had originally selected for that blog.

I think that it is more important to stay current as much as possible than wait two weeks to post the “perfect” blog.  And so, an extremely visual person myself, and having received so many compliments on my pictures, I apologize in advance to my readers for the loss of the accompanying pictures.

I am going to try one more time to upload a few more pictures for Oaxaca but then that would be it dear reader.

COLOURFUL OAXACA:

Everywhere you go in Mexico you find beautiful handcrafts and artifacts from the States of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Oaxaca in particular is rich in cultural heritage and traditions. Potteries, exquisite hand woven rugs and embroidered garments can be found in market places and inevitably the answer to “where is this from?” will be “Oaxaca” so I knew I was in for a treat and possibly in great danger of breaking the piggy bank on a shopping spree! I also hoped that the prices would be more reasonable in the region itself as I would be buying from the local artists themselves and I was right.

First of all, I had a bit of an unsavory adventure on my way down from Puebla to Oaxaca and then, when I arrived into town I discovered that I couldn’t manoeuver the narrow streets up the hill to the campground I had selected. I had to turn around and search for the RV park downtown, only to find out, after 2 drive-bys, that it no longer existed! Google Map (did I already mention that I L.O.V.E. Google Map?) informed me of a new park just outside of town,  in the village of San Francisco Lachigolo  – but, as fate would have it, the boulevard heading out of town was blocked by a strike against the recent increase in gas prices. After driving around in the blistering heat for 4 hours, and still shaken up from my bad experience of the night before, I decided to park in the street as soon as I found a spot long enough for my rig and in the shade to boot!

The next morning I showed up at the Oaxaca Campground.  Where did you spend the night? They asked in surprise. On the Oaxaca streets, I couldn’t get past the bloqueo,  I answered. They just laughed. Apparently it is a common occurrence. I guess as a French person I shouldn’t criticize, I understand the power of a strike and it is for a good cause, after all the increase in the price of gas is affecting me greatly! May be I should strike too!

The owners, Dell and Kate, took me in immediately and made me feel at home. My neighbors were a wonderful couple from Quebec. Chantal and Gaël became instant friends! We had a spontaneous “apéritif” that night and decided to visit the town of Oaxaca together the next day.20170117_172443

The touristic center of Oaxaca is rich in beautiful churches, colourful squares with locals selling their handcrafts directly to the tourists. I bought a small naturally dyed hand-made wool rug from the weaver himself. (I’ve been eyeing them ever since San Miguel de Allende). He started his price at $1,000p and when I was about to leave, he told me he needed money right now and lowered his price to $600p. I was still unsure that he was the real deal, until he showed us a picture album of himself at his loom in his village. I was then sure that I was buying genuine quality (I had been warned about “fake” commercial and artificially dyed carpets). I ended up paying $500p for a rug that I saw selling for $1,200p in a store nearby!

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I bought the “fish” motif carpet behind me for my bathroom. Eventhough I love the bird motif, I thought it would get dirty too fast.

My visit of Oaxaca was mostly marked by the wonderful time Chantal, Gaël and I had together. We wandered the streets and sampled Tecate, the local Aztec cocoa drink, a well as fried plantain. For lunch we had a set menu on the main square, being interrupted every 2 minutes by people wanting to sell us something. It was wonderful! We even goofed around with a street sweeper’s broom – he looked at us smiling, thinking: “These gringos are doing my work for fun, this is great – may be I should charge for this!” LOL

The next day Chantal and Gaël left and I found myself strangely depressed – but only for a short while as my friends Dudley and Sheila arrived at the campground that very evening. We had met in San Miguel de Allende a few weeks earlier and had celebrated New Year’s Eve together. What a blessing! I needed the distraction and the company and their timing was perfect. Together we went on daily excursions to discover the amazing state of Oaxaca. From Monte Alban, the big archeological site in the region to lesser known sites such as Atzompa and the jewel of Yagul.

Check out my video of Monte Alban: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1w4PJ4Vy4QU

We hooked up with Lindsey who is riding her bike through Mexico. Together we went to the famous Sunday market in the nearby village of Tlacolula de Matemoros . All the natives from surrounding villages come down to sell the fruit of their labor, be it fresh fruit and vegetables, handcrafts, art. It was incredible to see the costumes and to sample many exotic fruits and dishes. I had a hard time not to buy everything in sight!

The next day we were off to see the Hierve del Agua, natural pools of water on a plateau way up in the mountain. It was magical. The water was a bit cold, but the view was incredible!20170124_133626.jpg

We then decided to visit Teotitlan del Valle, famous for its loom woven carpets and its natural wool dying process. We were in for a treat: our first stop in the village, we met Ernesto who showed us the beautiful work he does, the designs special to his region, to his Toltec heritage and the ones specific to his family, passed down from generation to generation. One rug proudly hung on the wall of his shop displayed an accolade for first prize  in a national award! When I asked if he did his own dying, he took us to his workshop, at the back of the house and amazed us with all the natural herbs, roots, minerals and such used for dying.

I will be posting videos about our visit with Ernesto on YouTube, so please watch for them.

We then strolled around town, enjoying the beautiful hand-knitted sweaters and ponchos from virgin wool, hand stitched garments and fun hats for tourists!

A true visit of Oaxaca could not have been complete without visiting the Mezcal producing region around Santiago Matatlan. Every house it seemed had a wheel to grind the roasted pinas and make their own artisanal mezcal. It is the same process as for Tequila, except that the blue agave has a protected designation for Tequila only. Every other type of agave will then produce Mezcal. We discovered the creamed, liquored and aged Mezcal – we sampled it all!

The next day we left for the pacific coast. We had just spent 10 beautiful days in Oaxaca!

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Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

 

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Kiki

 

 

PUEBLA, WORLD HERITAGE CITY

I loved my stay in Puebla!

First of all I was lucky to find a sweet parking spot, safe and free, within walking distance of the touristic centre. The pets were in the shade and I could meander the beautiful village-like streets of the Zocalo (the city centre) without worrying about them or the safety of my truck. This made a world of difference. I had loved Cholula, but because of the parking situation I was not able to stay the extra day to visit the town. Conversely, I decided to extend my stay in Puebla and enjoy the museum and the antiques market.20170114_111924

The first thing you notice is the impressive Cathedral occupying the entire block south of the Zócalo. Around it is a beautiful park, the most attractive one I’ve seen so far, with its lush mature trees, a pleasant fountain and other water displays. Surrounding the square are the terraces, restaurants and boutiques one would expect. The atmosphere is pleasant and relaxed. Tourists and locals alike taking the time to stop and enjoy an ice cream or other street snacks.

The cathedral is grandiose, inside and out, but a little too ornate for my taste. Its architecture is a blend of severe Herreresque-Renaissance and early baroque styles (and I am quoting “the Lonely Planet guide to Mexico” here). The interior is heavily and elaborately gilded and the centre is “cut” by an island (I don’t know how else to describe it) containing 3 beautiful organs, each from a different period. The effect creating a disconnection from the spaciousness and awe-inspiring sentiment that one would feel in such a grandiose environment. It felt cold, devoid of the hushed whispers generally accompanying devotional practices.20170113_113952

I followed the Calle 5 de Mayo, a wide pedestrian street in full market swing on which most of the recommended Churches seems to be. Every style of church was there, from extremely gilded and ornate to the quietly simple. The Santa Monica church was unmemorable in itself, if it were not for the shrine to the Lord of Marvels (“El Senor de la Maravillas”). A bloody rendition of the Christ carrying the cross under glass which is subject to one of the largest pilgrimage and devotion in Mexico.

I enjoyed my walk and regaled in the many food stalls and street vendors selling home-made baked goods and such. I stopped at a brazero fascinated by the cooking process to discover that what they were serving were tacos! Not the kind that I’ve seen in Canada that’s for sure.

I took a short video that you can view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k5Rp8tPRtQ

On my way back, I came across a street market and a fish market and I stocked up on beautiful fresh produce and the rare dark leafy greens. I also treated myself to a large steak from a white fish of some kind and couldn’t wait to have it for dinner. It tasted like butt! No matter what I did, even adding my Portuguese chili sauce it was still disgusting – a bottom dweller for sure.

The next morning I decided to visit the Museo Amparo, the largest private collection of Pre-Hispanic artifacts.  It was well worth it!

It also happened to be Sunday and the weekly antiques market was but a few blocks away. I found it in a colorful area of town, with pretty stores and cafes and opening into a small plaza. I was surprised to find it very undescript except for the occasional typical Mexican wares. I did however find 2 wonderful pieces of pottery for my collection.

I also had to sample one of the many traditional dishes that make Puebla’s cuisine famous, the Mole Poblano. The restaurant was very pretty and the dish divine!

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I just had to take a picture of this poster of the famous “mano a mano” wrestling typical of Mexico!

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki

 

 

CHOLULA: PYRAMIDS, TUNNELS AND VOLCANS

 

A church on top of a pyramid, that was the appeal to visit Cholula, a beautiful suburb of Puebla, the capital city of the State of Puebla.

After spending the afternoon at the bank and the Aurrera grocery store, a Costco-type store to restock on big essentials, I quickly found the only RV park in town and settled in.

The owner had told me that it was an 8 blocks walk to the pyramid, so off I went, early next morning armed with water bottle and sun hat. The closer I got, the prettier the streets, with brightly colored homes lined with Bougainvilleas still in bloom.

The church stood on top of a grassy hill with a wide winding pathway leading to it. Where is the pyramid?  I hope it is not a tourist trap, I thought.  The church itself was very interesting, celebrating the cult of Our Lady of the Remedies, a 12th century Spanish legend. I am not sure what started the worship of this young woman and her baby, but it grew in size until the catholics built this beautiful, delicately feminine church in the 16th century. Whether they knew at the time that the hill was indeed a pyramid or not is left for debate.

I couldn’t take pictures of the interior, nor did I find postcards.20170111_133657

From the top courtyard one has a panoramic view of Cholula and Puebla. But what I enjoyed the most was the sight of the two active volcanos overlooking the city.  I had followed Popocatepetl, the imposing and snow caped volcano on my drive to Cholula, but to finally see it unobstructed, majestically guarding the ruins from a distance, with a clearly defined wisp of smoke coming out of its peak was truly awe inspiring. Next to it sits Iztaccihuatl. I’ve never been near an active volcano before, so this was quite a beautiful experience. What a force of nature -you can feel it in the air and I couldn’t help wonder how living in the shadow of an active volcano would affect the population?

On my way down I followed a path that wound  around the back of the hill, revealing  a large archeological site at the base. From this site and looking up at the church it becomes then apparent that this is indeed a large pyramid. Indeed, Pirámide Tepanapa is the world’s largest pyramid by volume: bigger, in that sense, than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.20170111_140927

After the tour of the ruins I went in search of a Cocina Economica for lunch and happen to discover this amazing vegerarian, self-sustaining and organic restaurant on top of an old building! I decided to try the Chilaquiles a local dish consisting of a bed of blue corn taco chips covered in a red chili sauce, with beans and cheese and a fried egg on top! It was delicious.

I decided to skip the street snacs of Chapulin – grilled and spiced grasshoppers. I hear it is crunchy and you only taste the seasoning… I’ll take their word for it!

 

My ticket allowed me entrance to the small and humble museum and to the tunnels.

Archeologists discovered a labyrinth of tunnels running underneath the pyramid. So far 8 km of network has been uncovered, 800 meters of which is open to the public. I was surprised by the size and the shape, allowing a person to stand, as well as the extent of the system, with at least 3 levels that I could see.20170111_162809

The other great appeal of the city is the incredible shopping – a pre taste of Oaxaca, the State, along with Chiapas that is the richest in folk-art and craft. Indeed every time I asked the origin of an article I liked, the answer was inevitably “Oaxaca”.

I didn’t tour the many beautiful churche of Cholula. It is said that Hernán Cortés had vowed to build one church per day of the year in Cholula for his victory over the Aztecs. Cholula doesn’t have 365 churches but boasts about 45 of them which, for a town of its size, is quite impressive.

Because of its charm, culture, location and relaxed atmosphere Cholula is now number 2 (after San Miguel de Allende) on my list of places I could see myself settle down.

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Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki