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Why you need to see Mexico…now

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Surrealist painter Salvador Dali said he couldn’t live in Mexico because it was too surreal for him – a piece of information sure to stir up intrigue in anyone familiar with the artist’s work. But what made him say this? And why should you visit the very place this mind-bending artist couldn’t handle? Read on to find out why a holiday to Mexico could make you glad of the persistence of memory…

Mexico City Street ArtMexico’s weird and wonderful landscapes are one thing you are unlikely to forget once you’ve seen them, and the country’s views could well have inspired Dali’s ‘surreal’ label, with breath-taking mountain ranges, sprawling desserts and tropical rainforests all vying for attention. In fact, the second-largest remaining tropical rainforest in the Americas stretches through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and is home to equally enthralling creatures such as the white-lipped peccary, the tapir, the scarlet macaw, the harpy eagle and the howler monkey. Also, The Nature Conservancy reports that five large cat species live in the lush greenery there.

Tulum ruins But let’s take a step back and look at Mexico’s position on the map, and what this means for the holidaymaker. This stunning country is bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the US and Guatemala. While the majority of the Mexican northern and central territories are located at high altitudes, the yearly temperature average doesn’t normally fall below 20 °C, but does reach up to 28°C. In other words, Mexico is nestled in surroundings that make it a diverse and interesting landscape and it enjoys lovely weather that is not unbearably hot.

For those who want a holiday full of fantastic sights and activities, Mexico is perfect. Tourists can go diving to explore part of the world’s second largest coral reef at the Parque Marino Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel, or snorkel with whale sharks in Cancun. History buffs can enjoy the city’s rich selection of museums or visit the ancient empire of the pre-Hispanic Aztec capital – the ruins of which were found under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral – and see two religious temples, pyramids, serpent carvings, and shrines.

Palenque ruinsIf you want to laze around on a stunning sun-kissed beach, Mexico can deliver the perfect backdrop to your holiday snaps with its 450 different beaches.

Food in Mexico is a vibrant melting pot of different influences from South America, the Caribbean and Africa, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own clear identity too. Dishes based on corn and vibrant, spicy foods with tongue-tingling chilli flavours are available in abundance in Mexico, and a new and exciting food experience is always around the corner if you’re prepared to be adventurous!

Mexican Street FoodWithout wishing to argue with one the most famous artists of all time, thanks to it’s beautiful landscape, exciting and colourful food offerings and amazing history, perhaps there’s a better word to describe Mexico.

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Le Gite del Sol in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

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Welcome to our weekly series Hotel Tip Of The Week. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves.

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After a long and hectic night bus ride, all we wanted was to when we arrived at 7am in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico was to check in immediately at Le Gite del Sol, where we had made reservations. Based on previous budget hotel experience, we figured this wasn’t possible and pulled up a park bench to wait a few hours. Had we known how friendly and accommodating the French-Canadian/Mexican owners were, we would have made our way their immediately, as Le Gite del Sol is one of the few budget hotels in Mexico we came across that made us feel like a valued guest in the way a boutique hotel or B&B does.

Eventually we lugged our packs down the 5 hilly blocks to the hotel, whose location is just far enough out for the street to be relatively quiet. Le Gite del Sol, which means Bed & Breakfast of the Sun in a mix of French and Spanish – just like the couple who run it, is more of a split between a B&B in one building and a budget hotel in the second building just four houses up across the street. The main house offers big en-suite rooms, a shared kitchen and a sunny patio space where all guests eat breakfast. The second building, where our room was, has smaller, bare bones budget rooms with shared bathrooms.
San Cristobal street

While the difference in quality was palpable, both buildings were spotlessly clean (cleaning staff is on hand all day throughout both properties), and over on our side we had no issue at all with the shared bathrooms. The main house has the beautiful patio, and the single and double en-suite rooms (for $20 and $26 respectively) are certainly a step or two above the other house. The cheaper rooms in the second house are basic. Each room has a bed, a desk, a closet and a window which opens to the hallway. The rooms are small, lack good ventilation, but they are cleaned every day by the diligent staff. Doubles cost $16, singles $13. For that price, you get breakfast included (see below in Stand Out Features), a free wi-fi connection that always works, and the kitchen in the second house is big and invites you to cook a meal with fresh ingredients from the market, with 6 tables, a computer with free internet, plenty of space to work, read, cook and hang out. Water is free, as well, and if some sloppy guests don’t clean up, the kitchen is kept clean anyway by staff.
San Cristobal Market

The Mexican woman owner is a no-nonsense boss who is friendly and her attention to detail is spot on. She remembers how you like your coffee in the morning and conversations had in passing about where guests have just been and where they are off to next. Her French-Canadian husband and partner is the perfect ying to her yang. He genuinely wants you to enjoy your stay and you get the feeling that he was a long-term traveller himself and wants to make sure that you have the kind of experience at his hotel that is so often lacking on our travels.

Le Gite del Sol is also an authorized booking agent for tours and buses. The prices were exactly the same as in the offices in town, and they gave you honest answers to questions about quality of tours or buses, leaving you feeling well-informed.

Stand Out Feature: Breakfast

Breakfast is included in the price and served every morning on the patio in the main building. You get a choice of eggs and toast, just toast, or cereal. Although the breakfast doesn’t fill you up until dinner, it is good comfort food and it is great to have so many options, which is not the norm at many budget places in Mexico.

Stand Out Feature: The “above and beyond” factor

We had to catch a very early bus our last morning along with three other hotel guests, and would have missed breakfast, but the owners woke up and served us all breakfast at 6am so that we would leave with full stomachs. They could have easily left us hungry, but offered us this and it was greatly appreciated. This was something we have not had before or since that stay at Le Gite Del Sol. Throughout our stay at Le Gite del Sol we felt this above-and-beyond factor at work, the extra explanations, the ease of booking with them, the little extra tips on what to see and do in town made us feel like special guests.

Room for improvement: The Rooms

The cheaper rooms in the second house lack decoration and could have more heart to them. They are definitely small, though not cramped, and need a bit more effort to feel a bit fresher. However, in Mexico for $13 (single) or $16 a double, plus breakfast and that personal touch, it is hard to complain about the rooms.

Overall

Le Gite del Sol will make your time in San Cristolbal de las Casas an enjoyable one. Though it is no frills it is equally no frustrations, as this hostel is B&B-minded with their guests at heart.

Location: Francisco I Madero #82, Vicente Guerrero
Price: Private single with bath $20, private single shared bath $13, Private double no bath $16, Private double en suite $26.
LGBT Friendly: not un-friendly
Amenities: Kitchen, free wi-fi, tour agency on-site, breakfast included, hot showers
Website: www.legitedelsol.com

To book a hotel in Mexico, check Roomguide.co.uk for accommodation options throughout the country.

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Organized Mayan Village Trips: Tourism or Trespassing?

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Two shiny new Ford transporter vans stop along the side of a white cement road and nearly 30 passengers pile out and reformulate into the small groups everyone came with. Dani and I stand off to the side and observe with some shock the other tourists in the group. A group of Brazilians (both female and male) in tank-tops, short-shorts and movie-star sunglasses and several girls in short-ish skirts. Before you start thinking Dani and I to be very prude (standing there in our long pants, closed toe shoes and jackets), we should explain that our tour was taking place in traditional Mayan villages outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. The agency had mentioned that we should wear appropriate clothes out of respect to the villagers – advice apparently very few of us chose to heed.

The tour is one of the most common tours available in San Cristobal, offered by all major tour operators in town. You visit San Juan Chamula, the largest Tzotzil Maya community in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, and the nearby Tzotzil village Zinacantan. In addition to the (apparently optional) modest clothing request, the agency had also made clear that photographs of the Mayans were strictly prohibited without their permission. We strolled through the village at 8.30am, trying to soak up what life must be like in these Mayan villages. Others seemed to have less interest. A well-off Mexican family seemed utterly bored, and the father was attached to his cell phone – rudely working through the entire tour. Several very loud conversations were taking place in Spanish, English German, Portuguese and Dutch and few were engaging in any way with the tour.

Our discomfort with our disrespectful fellow tourists only worsened when it became clear just how much the people of the village, especially the elders, did not really want us there. San Juan Chamula, known locally as Chamula, is essentially a ‘showcase’ village, a designated ‘tourist friendly’ spot with busloads of tourists shuffling through its streets and magnificent church each day, their Canons and Nikons worth a local families’ annual wage dangling carelessly from their necks. We were constantly being Sshhhh-ed away from taking pictures if there was any chance of a family member being photographed.

Following the trail of the ancient Maya

Dani and I were trying to be anything but disrespectful, as we are fascinated with the Maya people and culture, an interest which has grown along the Mayan trail we have been following for some time.

Learning about the Maya, both past and present, has been one of the most interesting aspects of our travels so far. Some of the different groups of Maya people in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador today live a very simple, rural life. Others have adapted to city life while maintaining their culture and language. One method of survival for the hundreds of Mayan groups throughout what this large area known formerly as Mesoamerica is to manufacture and sell their traditional, brightly-colored woven goods to tourists – hand-made blankets, bracelets, shirts and pants, as well as new adaptations such as water bottle holders, wallets, and placemats.

This is often the only side of Mayan life we as visitors have the chance to see, and the conversation with Mayans in places like San Cristobal in Mexico or Antigua and Chichicastenango in Guatemala can easily be limited to the attempted sale and purchase of these goods. This is why we were so eager to take part in the tour in San Cristobal, to learn more and see the indigenous Maya in their ‘authentic’ home environment.

Despite the feeling that we were intruding on the village, we had an excellent guide, Alejandro, who was able to provide a strong introduction into the culture and traditions of the Tzotzil Maya. He especially covered the blending of Mayan and Spanish religions including the background of the Mayan cross and the adoption of Jesus as the main religious figure. He did this in Spanish, then in English, all while shouting out ‘Hellos’ and ‘Good Days’ to the villagers in their native language. A tall, handsome academic, Alejandro obviously commanded a level of respect in the village, the girls followed and giggled with him, the men shook his hands and he made everyone feel at ease.

The highlight of the tour for Dani and I was the trip into the church. A bouncer of sorts at a small wooden door in the front of the church was enforcing a one group in, one group out policy to keep numbers inside low, so we waited for a group of French tourists to exit with their guide before our group of 28 half-naked camera-toting Europeans were allowed inside.

Once inside, we tried to put the discomfort behind us and take in our surroundings. Pine needles were strewn about, completely covering the floor, and walking on them was more like hiking than any organized religious experience. A thick fog of incense smoke filled our noses as we carefully moved around spots where pine needles had been cleared to make way for dozens, even hundreds of thin white candles. Instead of rows of wooden benches, Mayan families sat cross-legged on the floor in front of these patches of candles, chanting, kneeling and praying. The sky outside dark gray and inside some of the windows were closed or covered, so that the church was dark inside, lit primarily by these hundreds of dancing flames on the floor. All the while, several tour guides struggled in raised whispers to explain the scene to the groups of tourists. It was difficult to reconcile the conflicting feelings of taking part of a private, religious Mayan experience and yet being terribly disrespectful intruders.

At the home of Tzotzil Mayas

Later, in Zinacantan, Alejandro took us to the home of Dona Antonia and her family, a ‘showcase house’, for a (manufactured) glimpse of daily Mayan family life: they demonstrate weaving, we watched the girls make tortillas, tasted a fresh tortilla filled with home-made cheese and beans, and peeked into a typical Maya house and bedroom. Then the typical bargaining began, as people bought several handicrafts items. Here we felt more comfortable as Dona Antonia really welcomed visitors into the home, pictures were encouraged and the concept of tourism was understood and welcomed. It was clear that this particular family was reaping the benefits of the tour groups. However, despite being friendly and welcome, it was hard not wonder how much they really like being snapped by hundreds of cameras on a daily basis and having noisy foreigners traipsing through the property seven days a week?

Another way of experiencing Maya culture

While in Mexico, the Maya experience was distanced and pre-packaged, but in Guatemala intermingling with the indigenous Maya groups is part of the everyday experience. Suddenly you are surrounded by hundreds of indigenous women, men and children, central parks and city streets bursting with the colors of their traditional clothes. Mayan villages are everywhere, and in areas well on the beaten path, around Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango for example, visitors are welcome any time. Contrary to the Mayans in Mexico, the Mayans in Guatemala seem much more accessible. That church in Chamula, Mexico was the only Mayan church we saw during our 12 weeks in Mexico, and yet in Guatemala we have passed through countless entrances and walked upon pine needles and around the candles on the floor, free of bouncers and tour groups.

As long as they are asked, Guatemala’s indigenous are much more open to having their picture taken, especially if you slip one or two quetzals ($0.10-0.15) in their hands after. Does this mean that the Mayans in Guatemala, with their tourist-friendly markets and openness to photography, are just more open to selling their culture for a profit?Not quite.  Profiting from tourism can hardly be looked down upon in Central America where tourism is a major part of what fuels the national economy. A visit to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a Maya village in the far northern part of Guatemala’s Western Highlands will quickly reassure you that the Mayan way of life is still in full swing far, far away from the tourist trail.  Because there are almost no tourists (save for the famous Day of the Dead horse race on 1 November) we were not surrounded by street vendors asking us to buy (“A table cloth for your mother, come, buy it!”). Instead, the two of us were examined with the same curiosity and interest that we had for them. We had chats with people, felt comfortable just sitting in the park and watching life go by. Walking through nearby villages, just the two of us, brought us to women weaving on their front porches and men harvesting corn. These were not showcase villages, and the moments of everyday life captured in our minds and on camera were as authentic as they come. The villagers didn’t expect us, but greeted us with a smile. If they didn’t want us to take their picture, they politely refused, rather than that embarrassing ‘Sshhing’ we were met with in the supposedly ‘tourist friendly’ village in Mexico.

To take the tour or not take the tour, that is the question. During our time in Todos Santos, we felt authentically immersed and very comfortable, but we realised at that time just how much we learned about the Mayans during our tour with Alejandro. Do we recommend taking an organized tour of Mayan villages? Would we do the tour again if we could do it all over again?

Now that we have been in Guatemala, we would not do the tours in Chiapas. In Guatemala the Maya communities are much more accessible and open, and you can visit with feeling like you are tresspassing on private property. While we did learn a lot from Alejandro on our tour, we would recommend looking for more authentic ways to learn about Mayan culture. The Mayans in Guatemala are very proud of their culture and happy to talk to visitors. For some real fun, have a chat with the child vendors. Though they may not have their facts straight (someone told us about how Hernan Cortes was only recently in Guatemala), these kids are happy to tell you about their culture and their daily lives, innocently and honestly giving you a better glimpse into Mayan life than some tour guides do.

Other ways to learn about the Maya culture:

  1. Go off the beaten path and visit predominantly Mayan villages/towns like Todos Santos in Guatemala.
  2. Take Spanish classes and find a teacher with knowledge of the Mayan community to ask questions and learn. Teachers are always relieved to get off topic, especially when they can justify the conversation as a learning experience. Around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, many of the teachers are Mayans themselves and can give you a great education on their culture.
  3. Homestay – Stay with a Mayan family. Even if you do not wish to sign up for Spanish classes, many schools will book you a homestay with a Mayan family for a very reasonable price (less than $100.00 per week for accommodation including three meals).
  4. Engage. It’s difficult to get many of the Mayan in the tourist centres to have a real conversation with you as selling tends to be their primary objective. But if and when possible, ask and try to learn fro them where you can.

Have you done village tours? How do you feel in these situations? Have you had more ‘authentic’ experiences with Mayans in Mexico? Would you recommend any tours or how about alternatives to a more ‘authentic’ experience? We would love to hear it in the comments below.

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Our journey through Mexico in pictures

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Mexico was  only the second country of our trip, but we (unexpectedly) fell in love with the country and extended our stay there again and again – in the end we spent 88 days there, and traveled more than 3600 kilometers (2370 miles) through the country.

Reminiscing (yes, again), we looked through our thousands of photos and decided to take you on a photographic tour of our journey through Mexico:

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33 things we love about Mexico

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After 11 wonderful weeks, we Globetrottergirls are finally moving on from Mexico. On the bus on our way to Belize, we were already reminiscing about our time here, and came up with 33 things we love about Mexico. Here we go, in no particular order:

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Sumidero Canyon: The Good, no bad, but some ugly

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Located right in the heart of the gringo trail is the beautiful city of San Cristobal, and while the city begs you to drop your bags and just hang out for a few days, make sure to spend a morning at Sumidero Canyon located about 30 miles east of the colonial city.

Much like the Grand Canyon though obviously smaller in scale, Sumidero can be seen from five viewpoints along the roads at the top if you rent a car. However, also like Grand Canyon, a much better way of experiencing the canyon is from the river that created it. This canyon in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, is much more accessible than its U.S. big brother, with a 35km boat ride and tour leading through to the Chicoasen Dam, which provides a large part of Mexico and neighboring Guatemala with energy.

We highly recommend the boat tour, as there is so much wildlife on the shores of the river that you just can’t see from the top, and the 1 kilometer high steep canyon walls feel much more impressive when you raise your head and look at the peaks of the mountain walls surrounding you.

Sumidero Canyon is dotted with waterfalls (many of which are not visible from the viewpoints along the road) but Christmas Tree (Arbol de Navidad) is a waterfall unlike any other. The water spills from a hole above into moss-layered, green rocks that are shaped like the branches of a Christmas tree. The picture with the boat shows how big the waterfall actually is.

For wildlife lovers there are a variety of birds such as herons and pelicans living in the canyon, but what draws the tourists are the four hundred crocodiles that inhabit the waters and the shores of the Grijalva River. These crocodiles are up to six meters long, so try to avoid running your hands along the water as the boats glides along the river or you’ll inadvertently be dangling ‘lunch’ into the water for these crocs!

Odds are you won’t want your hands anywhere near the water of the Grijalva River, unfortunately, as there is an ugly side to the Canyon. A few years ago, Sumidero Canyon received media attention for being polluted, especially during the rainy season when garbage from the surrounding villages washes into the Grijalva River. Most of the river has no trace of this, but there is one bottleneck where Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, drift wood, milk cartons, plastic bags and other non-biodegradable materials all pile up in the middle of the canyon. In fact, it is even hard for the boats to navigate through the scads of garbage.

The sight was honestly shocking, and makes the experience of appreciating the remarkable nature surrounding the river undeniably bittersweet. The amount of plastic bottles alone caused us to make a pact to everything we can to reduce the amount of drinks we buy in bottles, opting instead to mix drinks into re-used bottles as often as possible. If the amount of garbage isn’t enough, there was a time when the state capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, directed their sewage system into the Sabinal River which feeds right into the Grijalva River (apparently this has been changed). This doesn’t mean that you should avoid the trip, but it does mean that there are more lessons to be learned while on the tour about just how serious it is to appreciate the nature around you.

The canyon was hoping to become one of the ‘New 7 Wonders’, voted next year, and has initiated a massive clean-up program in order to accomplish this goal (unfortunately, it has not made it into the final 28). There are workers cleaning up the river constantly and according to our guide (who had a degree in biology and biodiversity), Chiapas is hoping to have a visibly cleaner river in the near future. This clean-up program can only bring good things to the wildlife in Sumidero Canyon.

The details:

The boat tours last two hours and come with a very knowledgeable Spanish-Speaking guide. Tours from dozens of tour operators based in San Cristobal de las Casas cost 250 Pesos (US$ 19.00) and include also a short stop in the charming town of Chiapa del Corzo.  If you happen to know someone with  a car or can rent one, the tour fee itself is only 25 Pesos, but make sure to stop off in Chiapa del Corzo for lunch too, as it’s relatively untouched by tourism compared to San Cristobal.

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Polaroid of the week: Mayan Ruins in the Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico

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Tucked deep in the jungle in Chiapas, southern Mexico, the Mayan ruins of Palenque are set in one of the most spectacular surroundings in Mexico. While walking in between the temples and through the dense humidity of this tropical environment, the sound of howler monkeys rings out from trees and you realize that you are in one of the most important pre-hispanic cities of Mesoamerica.  Climb to the top of several temples and the Palace in the site’s center where stunning views extend beyond the site and into the jungle.

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Polaroid of the Week: Sumidero Canyon, Mexico

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Sumidero Canyon is located directly between San Cristobal de las Casas and Tuxtla Gutierrez in the state of Chiapas. The Canyon was formed by the river Grijalva and is 35 kilometers long. Sumidero can be accessed in two ways: by taking a boat tour through the bottom or visiting one of the five viewpoints that overlook the canyon by car. We recommend the boat ride through the canyon which offers stunning views of the rock faces which are up to 1000 meters high.

In addition to the amazing canyon, you can see several waterfalls, caves and the wildlife is spectacular is well: Around 400 crocodiles live on the river banks and there are great numbers of pelicans and other birds.

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