Brrr and rawr

In case all of my positive stories are giving people travel envy, let me switch gears and say how SICK AND TIRED I AM OF COLD SHOWERS!! I have had the worst shower luck recently and it sucks. Not every shower has been cold, but enough have been and always the ones that are most important. Up in the mountains after a hard day’s trek, all a girl–currently covered in volcano ash–wants is a freakin’ hot shower. But no. Instead the water is freezing AGAIN and I’m out here in the hallway, still dirty, praying that in a few minutes enough hot water will be generated to let me wash my hair.

Where to stay (or not) in Mexico

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I stayed in a bunch of backpacker hostels while in Mexico. All were on the beaten path and came to me through some sort of recommendation but prices, culture, and amenities varied, as you will hear more about below. I started the trip with two pretty awesome places that I would recommend to just about anyone. Your experience may differ, especially regarding social scene as that is highly dependent on chance and timing, so please take my notes on this with a grain of salt.

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Nomadas, Merida 
Strongly recommended!
An absolutely wonderful hostel with great staff who helped with everything I needed and more, clean and well taken care of facilities, plenty of amenities, social activities, and a friendly atmosphere that made it easy to meet fellow travelers. It is *the* place for backpackers to stay in Merida, but I would recommend it to people who don’t usually stay in hostels also. A wonderful spot!

p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } PRICE: $135 pesos ($11USD)/night for female dorm bed
AMENITIES: Free potable water, free breakfast, free classes almost every day (cooking, salsa dancing, yoga), free wifi, 3 communal computers, TV area, communal kitchen, central courtyard, yoga/dance studio, pool, book exchange, local guide books to borrow, locker lock
BREAKFAST: Half a grapefruit, 1 banana, 2 oranges, coffee (that got oddly cold very quickly), cereal (3 choices), toast with butter and jam
ROOM: The large, airy female dorm is just off the central patio with plenty of bathrooms and showers. Most bottom bunks are full sized, with twins on top. Mattresses are ok, but not great. Blankets available on request. Large lockers, reading lights, and fans for each bed. Quiet hours kick in at 11pm. Private rooms as well.
SOCIAL SCENE: Good laid back social vibe. This hostel has a large capacity and is popular and there are many lovely common spaces so people don’t spend much time in their rooms. Add in plentiful group activities, communal kitchen, and breakfast, and you can see there are lots of opportunities to meet people. The guests are mostly young, but mixed ages overall.
STAFF: Super helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly.
CLEANLINESS: Very clean throughout.
LOCATION: In the city center, but a longish-feeling 5-10 minute walk north of the Grand Plaza.
UNIQUE ASPECT: Pool and general overall goodness. A beautiful pool is out in back with hammocks dangling out over the water; the perfect place for a rest and a read or a dip to cool off. Awesome for hot days. Also, the variety of free classes/activities: every weekday there is yoga in the morning and live guitar music in the evening. Twice a week there are free cooking classes, three times a week salsa dancing lessons.

Hostel La Candelaria, Valladolid
Strongly recommended!
p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } Cute hostel with comfy beds, friendly people, and beautiful gardens. Smaller hang out spaces and welcoming kitchen make it feel like a home. A wonderful base for exploring Valladolid. Another great place, I would recommended to backpackers and beyond.
price: $120 pesos ($10USD)/night for female dorm bed
amenities: Free potable water, free breakfast, free wifi, 1 communal computer, TV room loaded with action movies, two communal kitchens (one inside, one outside), hammock lounge, extensive outdoor gardens, book exchange, local guide books to borrow, bikes to rent, locker lock
breakfast: Watermelon, papaya, apple+yogurt+granola salad, toast with butter and jam, coffee or tea. Breakfast is served in the kitchen and it is easy to whip up a little something extra if you have groceries.
room: The ladies dorm is next to the front door, so you do hear people coming/going or outside taking a smoke break. Small dorm with six twin bunks and one en suite bathroom/shower. Comfy firm mattresses! Large lockers, reading lights on most bunks, and ceiling fans. Gets quiet at night quickly as most people stay up late in the gardens far away from the dorm. Private rooms as well.
social scene:Smaller in size than Nomadas and more off the beaten track, travelers here were friendly and mellow. I found it easy to link up with day trip partners. The common spaces are quite good, tending towards many smaller enclaves. The kitchen and movie room were my best places to meet people. Someone is always cooking, eating, or chatting in the common spaces so it’s easy to strike up conversation; you can’t go wrong hanging out here.
staff: Nice and interesting people, very chill.
cleanliness: Quite clean throughout. They are committed to upkeep of the entire property and take care to not only clean surfaces but also great upkeep of the garden.
location: Quiet and central, the hostel is directly off Calendaria park and an easy walk to the main plaza.
unique aspect: Outdoor kitchen and gorgeous gardens out back with so many places to hang, eat, read, whatever. These pictures don’t do it justice. This is a place to cook a large chunk of your meals just so you can spend more time hanging in the kitchen. Other travelers take advantage too and it is usually a very social experience. Eager cats know the drill and prowl the gardens for food scraps!

Hostel Che, Playa del Carmen
Not recommended.
p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } Lax hostel rules/culture let the guests behave sloppily and this hostel get trashed daily. The women’s dorm smelled like a mix of mold and vomit, the common areas are lousy (one couch out front and a lame “bar” space on the roof), and I found it difficult to meet people as guests are either out or passed out.

price: $145 pesos ($13USD)/night for female dorm
amenities: Free spotty wifi, free breakfast, guidebooks to borrow, communal quasi-kitchen (burner, microwave, utensils) with a particularly disgusting communal fridge, locker lock
breakfast: Toast, coffee, raw eggs for you to self cook. The stove was broken when I was there; rather than go without, I cooked mine McDonald’s style in the microwave.
room: 6 twin bunks and one en suite bathroom/shower. For such a new hostel (opened in 2010?), I don’t know how they have such old and crappy mattresses. The dorm lockers are tiny–the majority are repurposed 1’x1′ cubbies with plywood doors bolted to the front, but the back is open so if you just move it away from the wall… I suggest using one of the four actually fully enclosed metal lockers instead.  People’s crap is scattered everywhere, things get moved around/stepped on/broken, and wet clothes hang on every possible surface (even a pair of panties on the bathroom doorknob). The dorm smelled like FUNK. The a odor (perhaps from everyone using the big upholstered chair as a drying rack?) seeps into your stuff; do laundry after you leave!
social scene:Everyone said Playa was a social party town, but was just not my kind of place. I met one girl that I got on with; not the slightest connection with anyone else. The common areas were lame, and even when hanging out it was very difficult to strike up a conversation with anyone. Just not the same friendly spirit as virtually anywhere else. People seemed to already exist in very insular social cliques. I think guests simply had their priorities about they were going to do: go out and party then sleep it off in bed or at the beach. Very young guests in general; made me feel like an old lady.
staff: Somewhat friendly but more aloof and not super helpful. More like hungover doormen/bar hosts than anything else. When I arrived, I wasn’t given any kind of orientation whatsoever like other hostels, and I’m pretty sure the dude who checked me in was the owner. They did not inspire confidence.
cleanliness: Not good. The main problem here is how the guests treat the space; it quickly gets trashed day after day. Once the cleaning crew comes through during the morning, the floors and other surfaces were technically clean I guess but this is quickly undone. Upholstered furniture was ratty; the cleanest couch I could find was peppered with cigarette burns.
location: The best part about this place, the location was great. Close to the bus station, main tourist drag, cheap local eats, and colectivo stand. Easy to get away!
unique aspect: Rooftop bar where music pumps from 10pm until late; no quiet hours here. I heard mixed reviews on the scene there, some people enjoyed it but other nights there wasn’t much happening. Lax front desk security means there are more random people than most inside the hostel, often en route to the bar. While the door to the dorm did lock, most of my roommates didn’t bother to use it. Cram as much stuff into that tiny locker as you can!

The Weary Traveler, Tulum
Recommended, to the social backpacker only.
p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } I have mixed feelings about this hostel. I ended up staying for over a week, had a wonderful time in Tulum, and met some awesome people here. However, I didn’t feel my positive experience was a direct result of the hostel, like I did in Merida or Villadolid. There are many areas for improvement and it is expensive. However, it is where all the backpackers go, so if you want to meet other travelers not staying in the resorts, this is the place to be.

price: $150 pesos ($13.50USD)/night for women’s dorm bunk. Many items to easily add to your tab though: 25-30 peso beer and cocktails from the bar, 90 peso bbq dinner, 5-12 peso additions to breakfast, 25 peso ice cream, just for starters. A bottle of beer at the hostel bar is more expensive that at a sit down restaurant. But they don’t allow outside alcohol and most people hang out in the hostel courtyard at night drinking beer, so it’s hard to not knock a few back anyways. They know their business; definitely a mark up in price in exchange for convenience and culture.
amenities: Free purified water, free pasta/lentils/spices, communal kitchen, free shuttle to the beach twice a day (seriously wish this left at 10am instead of 9am!), hammock area, free salsa lessons every few nights, music every night (live on Sunday).
breakfast: Coffee or tea plus your choice of either french toast, toast and eggs, pancakes, or cereal. For a little extra you can add on fruit, juice, or more food. Or another beer I guess, if that’s your thing.
room: Five twin bunks, one en suite bathroom/shower, and is located on the second floor just above the stage/sound system. So anytime there was music (aka every night) it was blaring very loudly right outside our window. The sheet situation was also weird here—each bed has a mattress pad already on it, then you get a sheet sleeping bag with an attached pillow. Mattresses here felt pretty good to me; I slept like a baby. Only one electrical socket in the whole room, so we had to take turns plugging in.
social scene:A big hostel, this is the place where backpackers come in Tulum. It always seemed full. I met a number of awesome people here who I really enjoyed hanging out with for multiple days. A large part of the population I didn’t feel I quite jived with, especially at the beginning, but the people I did find were fabulous and I hung out with them happily again and again. There is essentially one common space, separated into two areas—the quieter hammock space and the eating/drinking/socializing long tables. If you sit yourself down at the long tables, you will start talking with someone. A footnote to that is there are power strips along the main table, so during the day people use it as an electronics bar and focusing on their cell phones or laptops instead of meeting people. Mostly younger guests. The bar culture is strong here: a hefty group fills the center tables nightly, drinking and smoking heavily until late into the night.
staff: Mixed bag. For a place that bills itself so loudly outside as an “information center”, the staff at the front desk was able to provide me shockingly little information. No city maps or orientation when I arrived. They are quite interested in selling tours though. Other staff members (or just really friendly regulars?) who hang out in the courtyard are very willing to give advice or help with random questions.
cleanliness: Medium. Surfaces in the dorm were cleaned regularly, but the common areas could be improved. The kitchen suffered sometimes, with everyone using the griddles in the morning they got dirty fast, and often people didn’t clean up after themselves as much as they should. Late nights socializing also mean lots of beer bottle, cigarette butts, and general debris. Cleaning staff works hard to keep up, but every morning you can tell it was another busy night of cavorting. There was also significant construction being done while I was there: multiple room renovations, tearing out plants, building a structure in the back corner, and mural painting. While it is great they are into continuously improving the place, it did also make the courtyard feel haphazard.
location: In Tulum Pueblo (main town, a little ways from the beach and resorts) on the main strip right across from the taxi and colectivo stand. Easy for transport. But you do need to take transport if you want to do anything during the day; the beach is about 8km away, as are the ruins and nearest cenotes. For better and cheaper Mexican food, strike out from main Tulum road; you don’t have to go far at all, just turn left one block and you’ll usually hit something good and a third the price as the main strip!
unique aspect: Loud music and a computer system. First, there are no quiet hours, drunk people socialize loudly and music blasts every night until late. This can be fun or bothersome depending on your perspective and room location. The recorded music played was varied and quite good stuff! Second, everything is tracked by a computer system; each guest receives their own key fob which serves as their computer ID tag. To receive anything, complementary (breakfast, bus ticket) or paid (beer, food, etc), you need to use your fob to log your purchase/request in the computer and get a printed receipt. You turn this receipt then into the bartender, bus driver, etc.

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Jungle Palace, Palenque
Recommended, but only to the rustic traveler.
A jungle refuge and a peaceful escape. Rather like camping in a permanent structure, the private cabanas are very rustic. With few amenities, you’re on your own to enjoy the sights and sounds of the jungle all around you. Located within a small village of hotels and restaurants, there are a handful of options for food, tours, and socializing just a moment away.

price:$100 pesos ($8USD)/night for single occupancy river-side cabana, with shared bathroom and shower.
amenities:Virtually none. Breakfast NOT included. Wifi isn’t either so expect to be mostly out of touch; it is available for purchase at 25 pesos/hour and is slow. The booth that sells wifi chits is open only sporadically, but you can also get them from the bartender at Chely’s in the evening. Water is available for purchase at a reasonable rate (10 pesos for 1.5L).
breakfast: Not included. Most of the bars in the village are closed in the morning. I ate all my meals at Don Mucho’s, which serves the best food in the village (Italian/Mexican) in the nicest ambiance. Breakfast options vary from toast for 20 pesos to pancakes with fruit or huevos rancheros with beans or fruit/yogurt/granola for 40 pesos. A little pricey, but the heuvos were hefty and it was a nice break from the white bread toast and eggs at other hostels.
room: I was pleased with my accommodations but be aware, they are very rustic: patched mosquito screens, an old mattress sans springs on wood planks (felt wonderfully firm to me), a beat up plastic chair, a wooden desk, and sheets with a few holes (these could use replacing, but that tends to be my feeling throughout the hostels I have visited). I had a little balcony overlooking the creek. There is electricity, light, and a fan. If you are ok paying a budget price for a place a little rough around the edges (it is only $8USD in the middle of the Mexican jungle after all), this could be the spot for you.
social scene:Private cabanas means every here is on their own. Small private tables at Don Mucho’s means the same for meal time. Dorms do exist at other hostels in the complex and the cheaper restaurants/bars do have atmospheres where backpackers could connect, but I didn’t partake, instead taking a hiatus from socializing. It was easy to withdraw here and have some time alone. As this is a collection of hotels, hostels, and restaurants, each has its own flavor and attracts a different type of guest. In my opinion, Don Mucho’s restaurant is the place to be after dark. There is really good live music every night from 8:00-10:30pm, and waiters let you hang out at a table blogging or reading by candlelight to your heart’s desire. After a long day of sight seeing, I recommend the hefty plates of pasta that come with salad and bread, followed by chocolate cake and cold milk.
staff: Kind and welcoming, they answered all my questions and helped whenever I needed.
cleanliness:Just fine. The sheets had seen better days (thin with holes) but they were clean. On my first night I attempted to read in my cabana at night. Bad idea—the light attracted a bunch of bugs. They freaked me out a little at first because I wasn’t sure what type they were crawling all over my bed. But it is the jungle, right? Can’t get too squeamish. (I did some research online to be sure; not bedbugs.) When I was ready to go to bed, I shook out the sheets outside and went to bed. No noticeable bites or new visitors in my sheets in the morning! The following nights I didn’t use the light at night and had no trouble with bugs whatsoever. The grounds are well-kept, path raked frequently, while maintaining a wild jungle feel.
location: Out of Palenque’s city center, it is a 3 minute taxi or colectivo ride away towards the ruins. This means a more remote setting, but you will dine in the complex and must make an effort to leave if you need anything from town.
unique aspect:Jungle setting. Howler monkeys screach in the trees above you, frogs hop ahead of in the dark on your way to bed, cats chase lizards into the stream, bugs come out at nighttime (I got shockingly few mosquito bites though), and giant plant leaves smack you in the face on the way to the bathroom. I enjoyed the atmosphere and how it blended indoors and outdoors. No locker in the room; there are some outdoor lockers elsewhere, but I preferred to simply keep my valuables (not much) on my person.

Posada Mexico Hostel, San Crisobal
Not recommended.
This hostel was not actually bad to stay at, but it did miss the mark on virtually any “extra” so I think you can do better when staying in San Cristobal. The grounds were lovely, the view stunning, the dorms comfortable and well appointed, the location good, everything was clean and for the right price. But it was also quiet, cold, and things that were supposed to work (kitchen, hot water…) didn’t.

price: $100 pesos ($8USD)/night women’s dorm. Fourth night free!
amenities: Free breakfast, free wifi, poorly equipped kitchen (no fridge or cutting knives–really?), three communal computers. There was a bar too but it never seemed open. Mysterious.
breakfast: Unfortunately I felt most of what they offered for breakfast was inedible: teeth-crackingly sweet rice pudding or smoothie or hard sweet rolls. Tea and coffee, and also one changing hot option; I saw pancakes, cheese quesadillas, and scrambled eggs.
room: 14 twin bunks and one en suite bathroom/shower. Mattresses were excellent! Two wool blankets per bed, but with the cold snap I experienced I ended up with four on top of me! Many private rooms.
social scene: Very quiet. There weren’t many people here, plus it was cold and the only common areas were outdoors so most guests spent their nights in their own rooms. I spent some time with a few fun gals, but other than us the place seemed quite empty. There were older couples staying here as well who I met at breakfast.
staff: Not particularly great. The front desk staff didn’t seem very organized. An example, one guy on the night shift left the front desk to take a shower before the hot water ran was shut off at 11pm and padlocked the front door behind him, locking out a few panicked guests until he came back.
cleanliness: Quite clean.
location: Good. 5 minute walk from the city center, just two blocks from Real de Guadalupe.
unique aspect: Odd ambling nature of building and no heat. This hostel is perhaps 7 houses linked together by pathways and secret staircases. It’s a labyrinth and easy to not see people who are staying in a different area. I never did find the pool table… Hot water is available only for a few hours in the morning and evening, but runs out quickly. I had one particularly very sad and very cold shower here. Buildings aren’t heated at night, with many indoor common spaces are open to the air so also very cold at night. I also heard poor reviews about the tours that were arranged through the front desk.

Let’s do the numbers: how cheap is Mexico anyway?

Not as cheap as you might think, but not bad. To track exactly how much I was spending, I kept a simple ledger of my expenses broken down by category. I’ve included it below for the detail-inclined, especially when it comes to finances (cough cough, Mom! :-)).

First, a quick note on money in general. ATMs and money changers were ubiquitous. When I was there, I saw exchange rates vary from $12.5-11.2 pesos to $1 USD. At touristy places in Playa, and occasionally Tulum, prices were doubly quoted in pesos and USD. Credit cards were seldom accepted at the places I frequented, but I was able to purchase ADO bus tickets, >$50 USD purchases at shops with higher-end clientele, and once a hostel bill on credit.

One thing I was surprised with was the obsession with exact change. Everyone always wanted exact change down to the peso; I can understand this for small items on the street but this was the case in more formal shops and restaurants across the board. It was the rare place that would change a $500 peso note (what most ATMs dispense) at all, let alone without a dirty look!

Over 22 days in Mexico, I spent a total of $1,053 USD for an average of $47.85 USD per day. This is right under what I budgeted; I expected I could make it in Mexico on about $50/day. I heard the minimum for Mexico was $25-30 for a painfully cheap lifestyle and Lonely Planet said budget travelers should plan on $40USD/day for basics and $60-80 for more attractions and incidentals.

My most expensive day: $121 on the last day in Tulum where I bought two expensive things–a pricey first class overnight bus ticket to Palenque and a beautiful mermaid shadowbox. My cheapest days were those without travel and minimal ticketed activities: $19.50 soaking up San Cristobal and $20.50 beach day in Tulum. Notably, my cheaper days were often my favorites.

I was conscious of my money but didn’t scrimp painfully. I slept in dorms, usually ate cheaply/moderately or ate set menus at nicer restaurants but did have one fancy dinner out, went to attractions but did not get private tours, mostly took first class buses and public colectivos instead of taxis, didn’t buy many souvenirs but did make a few “major” purchases (my shadowbox and a dress that will look kickass in the fall with a pair of boots) when I found something I really liked.

Without further ado, here’s the nitty gritty:

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Good eats: la comida de Mexico

Source: Google Images

I had a lot of good food and drink in Mexico. I ate at all sorts of places: street carts, roadside taquerias, tourist restaurants, cafes, beach huts, and one high end treat. I cooked a few meals myself, shopping at small produce stands for fruits/vegetables and supermarkets for non-perishables. My favorite snack? Spicy sunflower seeds and peanuts. My favorite dessert? Dark chocolate coconut truffles. My beer of choice? Bohemia.

Here are some tasty highlights:

Orange braised pork, Merida
Carne asada tacos, Villadolid
Tropical fruit ceviche, Tulum
Bananas foster, Tulum
Pollo panuchos, an empanada, and watermelon juice, Tulum
Chile relleno and horchata, Tulum
Fish and shrimp ceviche and guacamole, Tulum
Tarte manzana and cappuccino, San Cristobal
Pollo and al pastor tacos, San Cristobal

And so many other bites in between where I either didn’t have my camera or was too hungry to care about taking pictures. Yum…

Side note: I had no issues with my stomach at all and never got sick. I’ve had similar experiences traveling elsewhere where this is an issue for other travelers; unsure if this is a result of my stomach being particularly strong or my habits/judgment. Probably a little of both. Whatever it is, I’m going to keep going with it.

Hasta luego Mexico

Overall, my time in Mexico has been super super chill, with no real challenges at any point, like being on holiday. There is so much natural beauty, things to do for all tastes, good food, friendly hosts, and wonderful fellow travelers. It’s a great place to visit. I have no terrible stories, which is good for me but bad for blog content. (Sorry everyone!)

I visited seven cities in three states (Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Chiapas) with all sorts of different attractions and weather. Some days were 90+ and on the beach and others were spent huddled under woolen blankets. I spent 20 hours on buses, 10 of which were the overnight Tulum to Palenque. Buses were fairly on time and clean, but absolutely frigid!

I spent my days and my nights with some amazing fellow travelers: 3 Americans, 4 Canadians, 4 Australians, 3 Germans, 1 Dutch, and 1 Brit. I stayed in a number of hostels, some I loved, others were ok, and one I would not stay at again if they paid me (hostel reviews soon!). I arrived with a stuffy nose, got an ear infection and a cough–everyone in the hostels seems to have one–but no stomach issues whatsoever.

Travel logistics have been easy, no jet lag meant no disorientation, there was minimal culture shock, and I quickly adjusted to the pace of travel life (perhaps helped by my unemployment rhythm beforehand?). The tourist trail is well trod and figuring out what/how to do something next is a piece of cake. At no point have I been robbed, outrageously swindled, felt unsafe or even bothered. I never felt uncomfortable traveling as a single woman.

I stayed longer than I planned, and I wish I had even more time. It’s been a great three weeks here. I can’t wait for another trip to visit other parts of Mexico; it is a great place to travel and I would recommend it! 

Charmed by San Cristobal de las Casas

Some backpackers told me there is “nothing to see” in San Cristobal de las Casas. True, there may not be a famous ruin or beach nearby, but I must heartily disagree. The city itself is worth a visit. It is simultaneously unassuming and cosmopolitan. As if plucked from an Italian mountainside, it is a beautiful ambling town with a European vibe (complete with dog poop on the sidewalks; ah, Paris…) filled with the easy pleasures of life. Oh, and did I mention the food? Stick with me, especially if you have a sweet tooth.

The cathedral plaza.
Canary yellow cathedral.

The ambiance is a simple kind of breathtaking. Colorful churches preside over the city on sloping hills, with two dominating from the east and west and the cathedral in the center. Views of the surrounding green mountains can be enjoyed wherever you are in the city. Yet the grade of the city streets is flat and easy. The narrow cobblestone lanes, especially pedestrian Real de Guadalupe, beg to be strolled. Taking a paseo at dusk around the main square (called by many names: March 31 Plaza, Vicente Espinoza Park, or the Zocalo), I listened to a cheerful xylophone band play in the gazebo and watched the palm trees be lit by green, red, and purple spotlights.

Zocalo gazebo at night. Source: Google Images
Fluttering in the wind.
Steps leading to Templo del Cerrito de San Cristobal, the western city guardian.

It is a place to wander and look at beautiful things. Amber, obsidian, and turquoise jewelry are signatures of the region and joyerias are every third storefront. I picked up a pretty pink and amber necklace at a handicraft market where baubles and colorful textiles fill over three square blocks. In the shopping district, small boutiques sell unique and stylish clothes I would actually wear! Expect me to rock one particular new dress this fall… And I finally found myself a watch–it’s purple with animations of a bunny, a centaur, and a fairy and makes me laugh–as I will need it to wake me up for the 6:30am bus to Guatemala tomorrow.

These reminded me of my Grandma who passed away last year. She gave me and my sisters each one of these dolls; mine lives atop my jewelry box at home and makes me think of her every day.
At the local market I got fresh peas for my dinner, but think this woman’s chickens win!

The air smells sweet. I don’t just mean fresh mountain air. French pastries and Mexican sweets are everywhere in this town, and the smell of baking wafts through town. It is also in the land of two most delicious beans: coffee and chocolate. Chocolate shops sell dainty bon bons, coffee roasters grind their beans, and cafe culture spills onto the sidewalks. So many beautiful places to sit and chat and read! My favorite cafe, Oh-la-la, is just off the Zocalo and tempts me with pastries every time I pass through the town center. All the food of the world is available, and it’s tasty too: one day I had tacos al pastor for lunch, chausson aux pomme and cappuccino in the afternoon, a Lebanese mezze plate with mint tea for dinner, and Mexican chocolate truffles for dessert.

Ooh-la-la indeed.
Pedestrian culture, going for a stroll.

I’ve been here four days and haven’t technically “done” anything yet from the perspective of checkbox tourism. There are museums to see and tours to take if I had wanted them. But instead I have gone where the gentle mountain breeze blows me in this alluring town and been glad for it.

A little fun on an outdoor gym behind Cerrito de San Cristobal.

What is the real cost of a few extra pesos a day?

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At first when traveling, the days of the week stop mattering to me and I forget that not everyone is on holiday. Then I start to realize: it is a Wednesday at 11am and there are a lot of kids helping in restaurants or selling fruit, pastries, or trinkets on the street. I saw this somewhat in the Yucatan, but in the mountain villages of Chiapas it is quite prevalent.

The Agua Azul waterfall is an hour away from Palenque up in the mountains and the local community lives off tourism. Young girls, maybe 5-8 years old, thrust bags of fried plantains at the windows of our van every few miles as we drive up the mountain. At the falls, kids are all over, minding shops or carrying baskets of small items for sale. We met a 24-year-old working in a restaurant. He said he had spent every day of his life there at the base of the falls and had minimal schooling; our day trip was his life. With tourists coming directly to them every day, why bother with any other way?
Public school does exist and is supposedly mandatory, but apparently attendance is infrequently enforced. I hear that private schools are available for those who can afford it (I see kids in uniform actually on their way to and from school) and that is it truly a tiered education system here.
I have heard from other travelers about their experiences teaching English in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Mostly they are tales of frustration. How in a class of 60 kids only 5 regularly attend every day. How international volunteers come for short stints and then leave, creating inconsistency for the kids and low lasting impact. (IMHO, this sort of volunteerism is more to make the traveler feel warm and fuzzy about themselves that do real good.) How volunteers did stay in one place for a relatively extended period of time–two months–did not feel they had made a lick of difference because most kids plain weren’t there.
Who knows how much hidden talent could be revealed in the huge population of children that end up running trinket shops by default? By taking the small money now, how much are families sacrificing in the future? It is one of the everlasting question for a tourist: is my presence and money doing more harm than good?

Of mist and rain: the ruins of Palenque

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The Temple of Inscriptions

The major attraction in the jungle city of Palenque are the ruins just a few kilometers from the modern city center. The day of my visit was WET. It had rained all night and morning, but stopped at 2pm. With just enough of the afternoon remaining, I decided to take a break from cuddling with Tolkien and chance it at the ruins despite a still overcast sky.

Just my luck, shortly after I entered the park the rain began again. At first only a light Seattle April drizzle, it soon escalated to November. Tour groups huddled under trees and temple edifices, but not me. Ready for days just like this, I had an orange emergency poncho all set to go in my pack. It didn’t fully alleviate but did keep me from being soggy and miserable as I explored. Always be prepared! Besides, I am doubly a Seattle baby and a water bearer (never really understood why Aquarius was an air sign…) so am well fortified for a rainy day.

Me being tough! (…or about to punch myself in the head.)

The Palenque ruins were the most interesting Mayan ruins I have yet to visit. The complex is large with a great variety of religious, political, and domestic buildings. Unlike Chichen Itza or Tulum, virtually every building invites guests to scramble up and take a peek inside. If you’re lucky, you will be treated to beautiful hieroglyphics and interesting relief imagery of stylized people, animals (especially jaguars, birds, and snakes), and gods. The mist and rain suits the jungle kingdom, lending mystery to the rise and fall of the buildings. In the center palace stands a rare tower in Mayan architecture; no one quite knows why it is there. The place has soul.

I won’t go into too much detail here about the history because I know you are all smart enough to use wikipedia, but I will say that this is a fascinating site and one of the richest in telling us about early American life. (And there’s still lots more to be excavated; new discoveries continue to be made here.) Plus it is in a lovely setting–the Mayans sure know how to pick ’em.

View of the Palace from the Temple of the Cross.
God L, the old smoker god. One of the many personality-filled images here. Source: Google Images
Recommendation to the traveler: Visit the small yet excellent museum FIRST. Especially if you do not opt for a tour guide. It is located 1.5km from the main entrance, is easy to miss, and has far more historical and anthropological information than you will find at the ruins themselves (the labeling on buildings is stale, archaeological, and lacks depth). Also inside the museum are beautiful and remarkably preserved relief carvings and artifacts from the site that you can see up close in good lighting. Here I learned about Mayan hieroglyphics, which are used all over the city, and look really cool! See all this first and you will be better prepped to get the most out of a walk through the ruins.
Annie, can you read these? 😉 Source: Google Images

Masa: a versatile pantry staple

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Source: Google Images

Making corn tortillas is remarkably easy. Consider this recipe:

  1. Combine equal parts masa flour and water. The consistency should be that of play-doh.
  2. Shape into ping pong sized balls.
  3. Flatten. Cast iron tortilla presses are used here, but other squishing mechanisms can be improvised.
  4. Grill for two minutes each side over medium-hi heat, no oil.
  5. Eat!
I shall have to stock my cupboard with masa flour (a finely ground corn flour, most often Maseca brand here, also the base for tamales and used in many other Mexican recipes) when I get home and add this to my cooking repertoire. Once I return and get settled again, I invite you each over for dinner to cook tortillas with me. Remind me of this promise in advance and we shall make ourselves a taco feast.
Serious brand loyalty posted on most tortillas shops. All the signage in Maseca yellow and green.