There is something deeply liberating to hit the road and know you might never turn back.
Every day is different, unexpected and full of surprises.
The simplicity, spontaneity and freedom of this lifestyle resonate with me to my very core. After all, with a last name like Fernandes, I might have genuine gypsy blood in me!
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.
It 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!
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!
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!
Until next time my new road amigos!
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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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
check out the jar of worms on the counter. You eat them with lime dipped in chile!
The next day we left for the pacific coast. We had just spent 10 beautiful days in Oaxaca!
Until next time my new road amigos!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Until next time my new road amigos!
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The fact that I didn’t do any research on my next destination certainly added to the WOW factor. All I knew about Teotihuacan was that it is the largest archeological site in Mexico.
I arrived late afternoon in the only RV park in the area, in the little town of San Juan Teotihuacan. The park is nestled right in the center of town, which was great for browsing and shopping. The owner Mina, an elderly woman who spoke excellent English was an absolute sweetheart and went out of her way to make everyone comfortable and welcomed. You can tell that she absolutely loves this part of Mexico and wants to share it with her visitors. Although she is not a native of these parts, her passion for the pyramids and their ancient history is evident.
Mina offered to drive me to the gates, a mere 2 kilometers by foot, but since I am still recuperating from my back injury and knew I was going to do a lot of walking in the archeological park, I gladly accepted.
We took off early in the morning and I was there by 8:30 am before the sun was high in the sky and the tourists thronged the gates. As it happens, there were not that many tourists – a recurrent observation throughout Mexico right now it seems.
I entered through the uppermost gate, the one closest to the Moon Pyramid, so that as I meandered my way down, I would finish my visit at the gate the closest to the campground.
The first buildings that I visited were called the Temple of the Jaguars, aptly named for the exquisite and brightly colored murals of jaguars. It consisted of living quarters, around an inner courtyard. Main buildings still had murals of birds and carvings of the typical 4-petaled flower that is found on many of the artwork unearthed in the area.
I tagged along a French couple who had hired a guide and listened at a distance, but decided I didn’t like his preachy tone. I then came across a larger group of English speaking tourists with an elderly guide and immediately liked his enthusiastic and theatrical personality and so I started following them, at first at a distance, and then completely merging with the group. I never got the guide’s name but I found out he is the most senior guide of the Teotihuacan pyramids at age 90.
We then entered the Pyramid of the Moon’s Courtyard. What a grandiose sight, with the pyramid flanked by 12 platforms, 6 on each side, sitting at the northernmost end of the Calzada de Los Muertos, the Avenue of the Dead – the length of which only becomes evident once you have climbed the top of the pyramid.
As you can see the climb up was quite steep, but coming down was even more daunting, as you are now facing the void, and your legs are a bit weaker from the recent climb. Hang on tight!
But the view from the top was breathtaking. From there you really grasp for the first time the sheer size of this archeological site. It spans kilometers of buildings, structures, plazas and of course pyramids, as far as the eye could see!
Our guide then led us to a platform where it is believed they performed Sun gazing rituals, and so in his theatrical flare, he dropped his cane and led us through a short meditation of feeling the sun’s energy coming down and filling up every part of our bodies. I liked this guy more and more!
We slowly made our way down the avenue to the Pyramid of the Sun. Even though it is much higher than the pyramid of the moon, since the latter sits on higher ground, they actually have the same height. But the climb is a different story! At the foot of the pyramid, our guide blessed us in Latin for the safety of our climb, we all burst into laughter!
The world’s third largest pyramid, only surpassed in size by Egypt’s Cheops and the pyramid of Cholula (my next blog!), you climb it through a series of tiers, with thankfully leveled terraces in between allowing increasingly weary tourists to take a break. This gave me the opportunity to chat with one of my new companions, Steve. Steve and his wife had been visiting friends who now reside in San Miguel de Allende and decided, along with some American friends to charter a bus and a guide to visit the area.
I was glad for the lack of tourists when I saw the switchback cordons designed to line up people for the climb. Imagine having to wait 2 hours in the blistering sun before climbing to the top, side by side with hundreds of other people – Yikes!
From the top, you have a clear view of the valley, the villages surrounding the area and – is that another pyramid in the distance? with the avenue that continues on until it fades! I also noticed where the museum was and made a note of it.
notice the Temple of Quetzalcaotl on the left in the distance
Vendors were gathering in great numbers now, selling their wares. I had already bought a circular piece of local obsidian that the Aztecs used to look directly at the sun. There were so many things for sale, sun hats being number one! Then came the jewelry, some cheap, some exquisite. Local arts and crafts. It was beautiful. I am curious by nature, so I would stop and look at their wares and was polite and patient when some of them would aggressively follow you and put their articles right under your nose. But they also had ceramic jaguar heads, beautifully decorated, with blow holes that would mimic the jaguar’s roar. It was actually quite awesome to be sitting at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, trying to imagine how this site would have looked like thousands of years ago, brightly coloured, busy with people coming and going, with an open market may be somewhere… and to hear the sound of jaguars roaring in the distance – it added to the illusion!
The descent got tedious for me, by now my bum leg was giving out so I had to climb down facing the other way awkwardly clutching the rope railing from behind, but there was no other way. A tumble would have met sure death and I am sure even our friend’s blessing could not have saved me. When I finally touched terra firma, I knelt and kissed the ground! I too have a theatrical streak! I should have asked one of the chuckling tourists to take a picture as I am sure they felt the same way I did and would have enjoyed participating in the play acting.
I meandered my way through the peddlers, buying beautiful turquoise jewelry for the price of bread and finally arrived at the museum.
Funny side note: reading the entrance sign, this is what I learned:
Teachers are called Maestros in Spanish – Love it! Pets are called mascottas – how appropriate, but the best one is for retired citizens : Jubilados! Isn’t that the best descriptive term for retirees? It gives the impression of people jumping up in the air, jubilantly celebrating their freedom from work! (The truth might be different, but I love the image of what it should be like don’t you?)
I was also very puzzled by the sign indicating that bows and arrows were not allowed inside the museum – very curious indeed.
The museum was exquisite, with a large collection of artifacts found on site, an interesting history of the area and its evolution in time and best of all: skeletons! Who doesn’t like mummies and skeletons, right?
These were sacrificial victims buried at the foot of that last lone pyramid I had seen in the distance, the Templo de Quetzalcoatl – a definite must see I thought to myself.
The group of 4 young women was particularly touching. I was evident that they had been laid to rest with great care, almost love and tenderness. They were adorned with heavy pendants, ear discs and obsidian arrowheads were found all over the site. The 8 gentlemen ranged in age and in social status, indicating that they volunteered for the honor of the sacrifice. The necklaces they wore were made out of bones and ceramic to look like human jaws.
By the end of my visit to the museum, I was tired and famished. I had noticed on the map of the site that a restaurant La Gruta (The Cave) was just outside the gate. My walk there quickly made it clear that this was going to be quite out of my price range, but I decided to continue to investigate and I was not disappointed!
Back to the gates I asked the guard if he knew of any “cocina economica” in the area and he pointed me to the group of men handing out pamphlets at the gate. Each one was harranging tourists with the menu of their restaurants nearby. I picked one, having been promised an economical menu. A car came to pick me up and delivered me to the restaurant I had selected.
And here’s something I’ve learned about Mexicans: they always say yes and promise you whatever it is you are asking for. Once in, you discover too late that it was not so.
My cute mechanic had told me he had a blow torch to fix my truck, but when it was time to cover the patched up hole with a metallic plaque, he seemed surprised. What blow torch? I don’t have one! So sitting down at my restaurant I found out this was no cocina economica and ended up having the only thing I could afford, a delicious Aztec soup and my now favourite beverage, a Michelada (a beer with clamato juice and spice).It was however wonderful to enjoy my meal being serenaded by 2 musicians playing traditional music. I learned, watching my neighbours, that you can purchase a song at your request.
The staff dropped me off at the southernmost gate, right in front of the famous Templo de Quatzalcoatl.
To get to it, you enter a courtyard flanked on each side by 4 plateforms. You can tell that more structures are to be uncoved. An unassuming pyramid stands directly in front of you. But the jewel of Teotihuacan, in my humble opinion, lies just behind it! Upon climbing the first small pyramid, the temple comes into view, right behind it, so close in fact that when you descend the first pyramid on the other side, but 5 meters away stands the other one.
Why did I like this pyramid so much you ask? For several reasons: First of all it is the only one that still has the snake or dragon-like figures standing out of the rocks. On each side of the staircase detailed carvings are wonderfully preserved. One can still notice where shells were inlaid in the jaws of the animals. But most of all it was the atmosphere of the place that took you in. Being sheltered by the pyramid in the front, it created a cocoon of stillness in the welcomed shade and one couldn’t help but sit and meditate.
I noticed the handful of tourists that discovered this site at the same time I did couldn’t resist closing their eyes and take in the specialness of this place. I could have stayed there for hours – but it was closing time and had to find a taxi back to the campsite.
Did any of you readers visit Teotihuacan and what were your impressions? Please do share – I would love to hear from you:)
I stayed a few days in San Juan Teotihuacan. I liked the fact that I could walk a few minutes and treat myself to dinner in the street. One night, I was walking Marley, the sky was stormy and the evening air was full of bird songs. For a moment I thought I was back at the pyramids with the peddlers blowing into their musical pipes. But no, it was hundreds of blackbirds typical of the region, swarming and dancing in the sky, creating this musical concert. I realized then that bird songs are a particularity I truly enjoy in Mexico!
I didn’t know if I was going to enjoy visiting ruins or not, but now I am hooked and I was off to the next stop on my itinerary, the beautiful town of Puebla, capital city of the State of the same name and home of the famous church on top of a pyramid – who can resist that?
Until next time my new road amigos!
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