Saturday, 31 January 2009

Tikal and Wantage: Lost civilisations

Tikal. The fabled Maya ruins of a lost city, buried deep in the jungle, just waiting to be explored.

Such a risky adventure out into the unknown required stolid, dependable companions and who better, as the locals keep reminding us, to accompany me than someone called Lara.

And for good measure we recruited a third, an idiosyncratic potter from North Wales called Rik, a former climatologist and devoted ‘raw fooder’.

I was anticipating great things. We’d visited jungles before on this trip, discovering their hidden splendours both natural (Khao Yai national park, Thailand) and manmade (the temples of Angkor, Cambodia.

Tikal however, offers both, combining to make it surely one of the most enticing destinations on the planet.

Once a huge Mayan city, Tikal was a highly complex society, rivalling and, in some cases, outstripping its European contemporaries, both in size and sophistication.

Its inhabitants made impressive advances in a whole range of fields, including science, mathematics and - perhaps most importantly to the Maya - astronomy.

In its own environs, Tikal was a was a regional superpower; more often than not gaining the upper hand in the many regional wars fought between cities vying for power, managing to dominate the Peten region for 500 years.

However, it still shared with them a common fate when, around 900 AD, like the rest of the entire Maya civilisation Tikal suddenly and mysteriously collapsed.

For reasons unknown its inhabitants abruptly upped and left. Gone. The whole city abandoned and left for the jungle to reclaim.

Soon the great temples and mighty plazas become overgrown, and the whole city began to disappear under a tide of the organic matter from which it had once sprang.

Today the ruins can be visited, spread over an enormous site where the visitor can turn Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, seeking out ruins where falling walls are covered in moss and crumpled masonry sprouts trees.

We had a go ourselves, attempting to decipher glyphs and stelae etched with fearsome-looking squat fellows decked out in feathered headresses, and scaling the great temples, mighty pyramids of limestone which rise up to poke their gnarled heads up through the forest canopy.

Ascending Temple V I discovered a new-found fear of heights, my knees a-knocking, my stomach churning.

As I gripped the rails of the near-vertical wooden staircase I tried not to think about the several tourists who have tumbled to their deaths over the years; as I inched along the narrow ledges at the top I marvelled at quite how the Maya could have climbed up the single, sheer flight of steps, which lay crumbling away below us.

Back down on the ground fear soon turned to wonder as we entered the Acropolis; an involuntary ’wow’ spilling from my lips as I gazed upon the Grand Plaza.

Ahead lay Temple I, resting place of the splendidly-titled King Moon Double Comb AKA Lord Chocolate.

It was the only temple to have been fully clawed back from the jungle, so much of this huge site remains to be discovered, with wonders both manmade and natural.

In the fragile balance between the two worlds, since the fall of the city the natural world has been back in the ascendancy and all around you cannot fail to be amazed.

The ruins themselves sit in the middle of a national park, an oasis of biodiversity, with hundreds of species of trees, plants, birds and animals.

The trees were extraordinary, coming in all shapes and sizes, from delicate little palms to massive soaring monsters.

Strange flossy-like fronds hung off slender trucks, whilst neighbouring titans stretched out their enormous buttress roots across the jungle floor like some kind of monstrous arboreal callisthenics.

Some of them, like the Ceiba tree, rivalled the very temples in both scale and splendour. This tree was revered by the ancient Maya as the ‘holy tree of life’; growing up to 70 metres in height, with a trunk up to two metres thick I could see how they considered it to be ‘the axle of the world’.

Monkeys danced through the treetops, hightailing it through the branches, Agile spider monkeys leapt from tree to tree, bellicose howler monkeys hollered testily at a group of pastel-suited French tourists below.

We gave the latter a wide berth, the lessons learned from an encounter with a troupe of howlers the day before. That group, infuriated at our encroachment into their territory, subjected to a dual assault of terrifying cacophony and aerial bombardment, defecating upon us and going - quite literally - ‘apeshit.’

Other creatures awaited us: coatimundi, strange long-nosed creatures with prehensile tails investigating the contents of rubbish bins; tubby coatis, patrolling the small clearings; and even the odd crocodile, poking its sharp snout out of a pond.

Away from the human visitors, well off the jungle paths, dwelt a rich range of other exotic creatures: jaguars, armadillos, tapirs and snakes.

In the dawn light the forest canopy vibrated to the song of a thousand bird calls, and as the day entered we spotted some of these mysterious menagerie.

High up hawks and eagles patrolled the blue sky and vultures wheeled around on the lookout for carrion. Below them keel-billed toucans called and parakeets screeched as they passed over the forest canopy.

Beneath the treetops lineated woodpeckers hammered out a steady drum while, lower down, tiny hummingbirds flitted incessantly from flower to flower.

Down on the jungle floor, a great currasow scurried out of the bushes behind us while up ahead a gaggle of oscillated turkeys strutted along, scurrying to the edges as we passed through them on the narrow path.

Great armies of leafcutter ants strode across the forest floor, highly-organised creatures who leave a clearly defined path in their wake, a miniature M40 corridor along which they transport freshly-cut leaves.

It was extraordinary to watch these dogged little insects, overcoming all manner of hazards and determinedly shouldering their load, many times their own size, all the way back to base.

Other insects proved less enamouring, tarantulas for example, to which I came rather too close to for comfort.

In the dim dawn light I left the john, sauntering across a stretch of ground, blithely whistling ‘Sheila take a bow’, completing oblivious to the enormous hairy arachnid which I’d come within an inch of stepping on.

The beast must have been at least the size of my hand and surely capable of devouring it.

With such creatures in abundance it hard to concentrate on the manmade wonders. That was of course, until we came across the Tower IV. Bland name, incredible place.

From 64 metres up, on top of this crumbling edifice we looked out across the forest canopy, stretching as far as the eye can see. A spellbinding sight.

It must have been hundreds of miles, our perch a mere pinprick in an ocean of green. The only sign of human existence was a few crumbling towers in the near distance, knocking on for 2000 years old.

The remains of a lost civilisation, mankind trumped by nature.

It was a moment when you realise the insignificance of man in the face of the unstoppable power of the natural world.

It was hard not to draw parallels between the lost world of the ancient Maya and our own. Population crisis, competition over scant resources, climate change.

Rik proved particularly knowledgeable on the latter. He pulled out another enormous carrot and, as he gnawed on it, he pointed out that all mankind was doing was merely speeding up the process, the planet all set, as before, for a major change in climate in a few thousand years.

Adroit scientists and astronomers the Maya believed the earth ‘lived’ in cycles of some 5,128 years. Theirs, and ours is the third ‘earth’, a world that is due to end in 2012 ( just in time for the London Olympics).

Baloney or not it set me thinking about the future. My mind turned to home and I imagined some future tourist seeking out the ruins of our lost civilisation, pulling the creepers back from the remains of the Weatherspoons down our road, stubbing their toe on the collapsed lintel of Finsbury Park tube station.

Wantage in a deep freeze (would it make any difference?); the dreaming spires of Oxford under water. The world come full circle.

2012's not long off: better get that stadium finished sharpish.


Thursday, 29 January 2009

Out of the clouds

Guatemala offers an astonishing diversity of spectacular landscapes. In two weeks we‘d visited high mountains and colonial cities, lush cloud forest and active volcanoes, deep lakes and limestone valleys.

Packed into a relatively small country the views change all the time, giving the impression that you are a member of a theatre audience enraptured by a fantastical play in which the range of possible scenery hanging in the wings is limited only the by creative power of the human imagination.

Now, amongst the coffee plantations of Coban, it was time to change the scenery again.

We headed north, down out of the cool mountain air of the Alta Verapaces onto the sticky plains of the Peten.

We left the highland Maya for their cousins in these lowlands, a vast area of thick tropical forests, stretching down from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula into the most northerly department of Guatemala.

Our bus followed a lonely road, winding through wild lands where the scenery changed by the hour, from high mist-clad cloud forests into gently undulating hills before flattening out inside a landscape of swamp, savannah and, of course, jungle.

The change of climate was reflected in the local produce on display and growing all around us. Gone was the green palette of the coffee plant and avocado tree; usurped by tropical tones of yellow, the coconut palm and the banana plant.

The fresh air and clear skies of Coban gave way to brooding clouds followed by heavy rain; the air grew thick and humid, an uncomfortable gloop into which the gringos swam, visibly perspiring.

Even the locals have had to adapt, the local Maya woman here eschewing the heavy, intricately embroidered blouses and shawls of the highlands for lighter blouses in shades of yellow, blue and pink.

They worked under the blazing sun in scruffy little villages comprised of modest dwellings, many with roofs thatched with palms, all with rough wooden planks for walls.

Their kids ran around barefoot in the dirt, wrestling with each other in the road, apparently unconcerned about the odd vehicle which plied its way in their direction.

We crossed the a large river at Sayaxche, wobbling across on a rickety little pontoon as minibus drivers watched us from the shore, washing their charges in the muddy waters. Roads felt less permanent here, their existence dependent on the whims of nature.

Flores greeted us like a gated community for tourists, the small island on which it stands linked to the more raffish town of Santa Elena, where locals preyed on new arrivals with promises of jaguar safaris and sunrises over Maya temples.

A newer temple stood guard at the entrance to the Western enclave: Burger King, bright, plastic and shiny. RIP tortillas and salsa.

We left and fled to the village of El Remate, some thirty clicks out on the road to Tikal. A string of flimsy buildings lined the road, chickens pecked in the dirt, goats played chicken with the traffic.

No aggressive touts here - only gentle locals who merrily greeted us as they rode slowly past on old bicycles. They were all Mayan except for one storekeeper - the first Creole we’d met, a reminder that Belize was only a couple of hours further down the road.

We holed up at a rundown old guesthouse, its hippyfied glory days long past, garish murals fading, fantastical plasterwork cracking, boho furniture broken.

Geckos clucked away from the walls of our room as rats fought in the ceiling above.
We retreated to the old sun terrace and perched on a couple of cracked plastic chairs as the sun bid us a spectacular goodnight over the still waters of Lago de Peten Itza.

Geese called up to us from the shoreline, frogs sang out and somewhere - perhaps - the fabled crocodiles of the lake gulped down another unfortunate fish.

Bats swept down amongst us, silhouetted in the orange glow, and all around the forests hummed with insects and echoed to the calls of a thousand exotic birds.

The jungle.
On with the next Act…


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Votes for WISM!

The Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009 have just been launched!

These awards seek to recognise and reward the best travel blogs, bestowing on the winners the prestigous honour of being recognised as the best travel blog on the intermeweb.

We are aiming to reach as many people as possible through our blog; winning an award would raise our blog's profile and give these efforts a tremendous boost. Plus we'd get a nice gong for the mantlepiece.

Whether you're a regular reader of our adventures or a first-time browser who stumbled across us out there in the ether we hope you have enjoyed reading this blog.

We try to make it interesting for everyone and also provide useful information to fellow surface travellers. So please do give us your nomination!

How to nominate

All you need to do is visit the Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009 website, enter your name and email address, and nominate us by inputting our full web address (URL) "http://www.worldinslowmotion" in the Travelogue category. That's all!

Nominations close mid-February.

Many thanks for your support!

Lara and Tom


Friday, 23 January 2009

How to…volunteer in Guatemala

Let’s face it, travellers are masters of time; no alarm calls, no deadlines, no chores. When the biggest task of the day is deciding which restaurant to eat in perhaps it’s time to seek out something else to do instead.

After seven months of travelling I was feeling the urge to get off my bus-sore bum and do something useful; to get a deeper understanding of the country I was visiting and, hopefully, be of some help as part of the deal. Guatemala is full of opportunities to get involved with the local community, not in the ´pay three thousand pounds and you can help’ way, but where there are minimal, or no, admin overheads and you just have to give your time.

There are a number of websites that list some of these volunteer opportunities in Guatemala and most spanish language schools have links with local projects:

I was fortunate to get hooked up with Los Patojos ( through my language school.

“This is my revolution," declared Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, the Director of Los Patojos, as he proudly gazed over the brightly painted yard full of children running, laughing and generally creating havoc.

This young revolutionary has transformed his house in Jocotenango, on the outskirts of Antigua, into a school for los patojos (meaning ´the little ones´) from less privileged households.

Starting with just three pupils the school is now bursting at the seams with over one hundred children. Many of the pupils found their own way to this school, its reputation spreading through the children’s gossip. They come because they want to learn and because their parents lack the will or the money to send them to public school. Although school is free in Guatemala, many children don’t attend because their families cannot afford the books and pens or because their family needs them to work. The streets of Guatemala are full of children selling chewing gum, fruit and offering shoe shines. I even met an eight year old running an Internet cafe. To give children the opportunity to go to school as well as work, some of the public schools run in the afternoon. Los Patojos is also open for education in the afternoons only. The children stream in from 2pm and run around for half an hour before being served a nutritious lunch followed by a tooth brushing session. Lessons follow and when the work is done there is more play time.

There is as much, if not more, emphasis on social interaction and fun as there is on lessons. The school aims to build the self-esteem and abilities of the children, teaching them to believe in themselves and make the most of their lives. If there’s a lack of love in the home, it is given in double doses in the school. It’s a wonderful project. I am not qualified to teach but I could make the lives of the teachers easier. For a couple of afternoons I helped make musical instruments out of drinks cans and beans for the children to decorate, and prepared exercise books. Easy stuff, but it frees up the teacher’s time to concentrate on more important things. And everyone gets involved in the rough and tumble of playtime at the end of the day.

The Patojos website proclaims, "We are powerful because we are children,” and witnessing the energy in this school, I believe it. So if you ever find yourself in a dilemma unable to decide between going to a cafe to read or mooching around a museum and fancy doing something different, get in touch with Juan Pedro (, or one of the many other volunteer organisations listed above, and go and help out.


Thursday, 22 January 2009

Back to school

“How did you get by without speaking the language?”. People frequently asked us this as we’ve travelled around the world.

It has certainly been challenge to navigate our way through many strange and often impenetrable languages; our eyes bewildered by strange square Cyrillic lettering, beautiful abstract kanji and psychedelic, swirly Thai, our ears twisted by harsh, gutteral Mandarin, soft, whispered Japanese and the long drawl of the American South West.

Yet somehow we managed. Though eating out in a Chinese restaurant often felt like Russian roulette, and coaxing answers in English out of a shy Japanese guesthouse owner, anxious not to loose face by ‘embarrassing themselves’ was like trying to avoid wearing slippers, we managed.

Once we left Asia behind and reached the shores of the Americas I thought it would get easier. It didn’t.

Indeed, for me at least, it was when we reached the new linguistic realm of Latin America that the language barrier, and the associated frustrations of not speaking or understanding the local language, has been at its greatest.

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the language more than anywhere else that we’d been, rather it was that, for the first time, I was far behind, in linguistic terms, my fair travelling companion.

With a year in Ecuador under her belt, Lara speaks good Spanish, or rather Latin American. She can hold a conversation, decipher a bus timetable, read a menu.

I, on the other hand cannot. Rather I mumble away in dreadful Spanglish, gleaned from films, television and a fortnight’s glance at my little Spanish phrasebook during our trip across the Pacific.

I couldn’t stand it. I was reduced to the role of a mute bystander on the edge of every conversation, grinning sheepishly in this most machismo of worlds as Lara would happily rabbit on with waiters and bus drivers, hostel owners and even friends.

I’m sure she didn’t appreciate it either, having to shoulder the burden of full-time spokesperson, constantly having to translate for me.

After a month of this, verbally stumbling across Mexico I’d had enough. I decided was time to take things into my own hands. I had to take the plunge into a pool of new vocab, pronouns and verbs.

It was time to go back to school.

Antigua, the grand old former capital of colonial-era Guatemala, is the perfect place to learn Spanish.

It’s a beautiful location, where old cobbled streets are lined with low houses painted sky blue, peach and mustard yellow, their hues faded by the scorching sunshine.

There’s a grand old square bordered by a ruined old Cathedral (a victim of the many earthquakes that have struck the city), decaying old monasteries, and crumbling old churches dedicated to a whole host of saints.

Above the city loomed three massive volcanoes, brooding and very much active, which we could walk up, padding through paths of volcanic dust and gingerly stepping across the sharp fields of recently solidified lava.

Volcanoes and ruins aside the town also offers a huge range of language schools where, for a rock bottom price, gringos can cram in a week or two’s intensive Spanish lessons.

Many choose to do this before pressing further south, heading for other Latin American countries where they can put their newly-learned lingo to use, from San Salvador to Santiago.

We’re both studying at one of these language schools. Lara is ‘just brushing up on’ the pretorect and other difficult and impressive-sounding advanced things; I’m just hoping I can order a bus ticket by the end of the week.

I reckon I stand a fighting chance. After all, we couldn’t be studying in an environment more conducive to learning.

Our school is set in a pleasant courtyard, around which pupils and teachers sit in the open air.

It’s fresh and invigorating, albeit at this this altitude we face the stark choice of either shivering in the shade or sweltering in the sun.

Lessons are one-on-one teaching, four hours a day, which makes for intensive but highly productive learning.

Despite this the atmosphere remains highly relaxed and the courtyard echoes to peals of laughter amongst the strangled words.

Learning a new language can be very rewarding and it’s made all the more enjoyable when you get to mix with so many people, old and young, from across the world, all here to learn themselves and somehow, in the process find out about other countries and cultures.

And alongside the international pleasantries there’s some serious business to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in, taking a nosedive straight into a new language.

My teacher is a lovely chap called Raphael, a charming retired farmer with a gentle manner and an infectious laugh. He’s no Mr Bronson, Grange Hill’s tyrannical French teacher, that's for sure. Rather he’s an immensely laid-back fellow, encouraging and - most crucially for me - patient.

On the first day we sat down to work and he spread out his teaching materials, tattered old books, held together with yellowing sellotape.

Straight away he was off, gabbling away in Spanish and scribbling indecipherable words on scraps of paper.

I was bemused at first and, as an absolute beginner, terribly lost, clumsy and awkward like a baby bird.

It was a shock to be back at school. After ten years lying somewhat dormant my part of the brain which is meant to absorb and learn things like new languages is rather dusty and unused. It took quite some effort to shake it back to life and coax it into absorbing a rather daunting-looking foreign language.

It was also intense; and after four hours of hard study I’m left reeling, my brain frying, my memory overloaded with verbs and definite articles.

I’m confused by conjugations and assaulted with adjectives, irked by infinitives and perplexed by pronouns.

Then there’s the pronounciation - all that seems to come out of my cakehole is a bizarre form of mangled Spanglish.

I have to relearn how to speak. I’m trying desperately to reprogramme my Anglo-Saxon genes so that I can replace my long English vowels and sharp BBC pronunciation with the ability to speak in one long, fast rolling sentences and to roll my ‘r’s like a rattling motorbike exhaust.

Raphael gave me a couple of tonguetwisters to get this process going - fiendishly difficult ones that reduced me to slathering, jibbering fool.

Try this one for instance:

Rapido corren los carros cargados de ferrocarril


At first it seemed hopeless. How on earth, I thought, I am going to pick this up in five days? Is it really worth putting myself through this linguistic pain?

Lara can speak the lingo, and besides is it really worth it in a country where a sizeable proportion of people don’t even speak Spanish (the various indigenous peoples, descendents of the Maya, speaking 28 different languages and dialects of their own)? Surely I should be delving into the mysteries of K’iche, Kaqchikel or Mam.

Gradually things improved. A surprising amount of the words were familiar (thanks to everything from the Roman conquest of Britain to the films of Quentin Tarantino) and besides this was conversational Spanish I was after, not Don Quixote.

Now we jibber jabber along quite happily. It helped that, like many Guatemalans, Raphael speaks far slower and clearer then a Spaniard.

He’s a great one for gossip and greatly enjoys the tales I have to tale him of our homestay in a crumbling old casa in one of the nearby streets. It’s owned by an old lady with small darting eyes which nervously follow you round the room.

Raphael grinned when he recognised her name, and laughed out loud when I recounted to him our experiences of her food, or rather the extra ingredients she unwittingly added to each meal.

We seemed to take it in turns to be served a bug of some sort: spiders in our orange juice, flies on our pasta, even a couple of maggots in a chicken fillet (or was it fish?), our hostess provided them all.

Lara and I bravely ploughed on through the courses, determined to stay the course. Our fellow housemate, a game young Aussie fellow, did his best but, after numerous occasions it got too much - our hostess simply couldn’t understand why he eschewed her sena and started to eat out.

Back at school, as we sit under the avocado tree, learning verb endings, a large boom rolled out across the town.

Everyone looked up to see smoke rising from one of the 3000m beasties. A common occurrence, apparently, and one that doesn't seem to concern the locals at all.

It was enough to distract me though and my mind started wandering away from verb stems and pondering the fate of Pompeii.

Maybe I needed Mr Bronson after all.

You boy! Fewins! Pay attention in class!


Sunday, 18 January 2009

Dazed and confused in Chichicastenango

Why do I love markets? It must be the combination of energy and soul. The meeting of basic needs and the basic meeting of people. The energy from people rubbing up against each other and interacting over brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables. Dressing up in their finest, even if the high heeled sandals that are en vogue in San Cristobal are totally inappropriate for tramping through mud and food scraps on cobbled streets.

People come to see people and be seen. To be part of something bigger than life at home. To make the connection between the labour of their hands and the stomachs of strangers. To gossip. To eat. To feed on the presence of others. I delight in watching couples shopping together - small weathered men and walnut-faced women together choosing which fat papaya they want to salve their salivary juices. Markets are the food of life. Full of life and there to fill you with food.

This energy just can’t be generated in the refrigerated aisles and neatly stacked shelves of a supermarket. There is no market research-derived layout to a market, you are not psychologically tricked into buying what you don’t need. Instead you have to search and seek out the best product, and the reward is often sweeter as a result. People are not automatons pushing trolleys for support, but take support from the energy around, the air filled with scents of fruit, herbs and blood, the noise of music, sellers shouting out their wares and the rhubarb of the crowd.

I could go on. Markets excite me. Especially the Sunday market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, which even Tom, fed up of being dragged around markets, had reason to enjoy.

On arrival in Chichicastenango our finely-tuned fiesta firecracker ears rushed us down a street lined with florescent stripy material, bags and hippy trousers smack bang into Saint Sebastian. On a regular Sunday Chichicastenango’s market would be an assault on the senses, but on a fiesta day it positively takes it out of you.

Effigies of San Sebastian were being carried passed us on pedestals at shoulder height, engulfed in clouds of incense and firecracker smoke. In front and behind the people of Chichicastenango dressed in brightly- coloured, flower-embroidered tunics with stripy scarves wrapped around their heads and shoulders, accompanied the saints holding candles, silver amulets and drums. The procession stopped to launch an eardrum-bursting rocket in front of us and disappeared into the layers of rainbow scarves and hammocks hanging from the stalls, leaving us deafened and dazed.

The motion of the crowd moved us on vacantly until we escaped up the nearest flight of stairs to gather our bearings and draw breath. The sight we beheld only served to bewilder us further. Below lay a sea of green, red, yellow and orange - a mesmerising blur of colours and faces. We had stumbled upon Chichi’s famous fruit and vegetable market. Here, amongst piles of tomatoes, carrots, radishes, potatoes, bananas and onions sat vendors in cowboy hats and patterned skirts. They chatted and bargained as women stuffed cucumbers and cauliflowers into florescent blankets, tied them up and put them on their heads to leave. Looking down from above we caught strong wafts of plum tomatoes and fresh green onions. It was as enchanting as watching a whirling dervish and as reminiscent as an English harvest festival.

Down on the ground we were bumped and pushed along in a multicoloured throng of five-foot women, baby bundles and vegetables wrapped in bright, stripy cloths. Amidst the crush kids put their heads down and squeezed through, bashing our knees. We were ejected into the central plaza where our ears were soothed by the gentle patting of tortillas as young girl flattened balls of dough in their palms and our nostrils comforted by their earthy, maize smell as they cooked on the hot plate. Next to them men sold freshly quarried rocks of limestone that is used to make the tortilla dough and gives the tortillas their cave-like scent and slightly gritty texture. On the steps of the church women beamed with gold rimmed teeth over bundles of fresh flowers. The whole town was aglow and abuzz.

The market was both energising and exhausting. We were full. Filled with aromas, images, colours, whistles and whispers we quickly fell into a deep sleep on the onward bus to Antigua. All our energy had rubbed off on those brightly coloured clothes, left behind to whirl around the tomatoes until the next person picks it up and puts it in a shopping bag.


Saturday, 17 January 2009

Guatemala: casa de Del Boy

6.45am. Church bells and firecrackers to wake the faithful, cockerels to stir the heathens.

Bundled up against the cold we boarded a van to our next country, Guatemala.

The only other traffic seemed to be the gas van, dragging heavy chains to behind it to make a loud clanking sound on the tarmac and advertise its presence into the neighbourhood.

The Carretera Interamericana - the Pan-America Highway which runs all the way from Alaska to the far south of Argentina and Chile.

Though a grand name, this was no sweeping expressway, instead another small single road, winding through lonely pine-clad mountains and tinder-dry fields of tall, thin maize, past kennel-sized roadside shrines and bright bougainvilleas.

Our little van plunged through endless chicanes, our progress slowed by crawling lorries, many of them heaving Coke, Pepsi and other American-derived sugary pop - an endless conveyor belt of sugared water to slate the thirst of the masses, enslave their taste buds and expand their waistlines.

More soldiers and check points, ‘military zones’ to encircle the Zapatistas and guard Mexico’s borders against her unpredictable neighbours to the south.

Beyond Comitan, the Guatemalan flag appeared alongside the Mexican tricolore, a resplendent Quetzal jammed between two slices of light blue. A nation which puts a bird on its flag - I was beginning to get a good feeling about what lay ahead.

Huge purple mountains loomed up head, their peaks in the clouds. In front of them turkey vultures circled, airborne dustmen. Others congregated in roadside trees and chewed at the roadkill.

Further up the road, we checked out of Mexico, a gaggle of gringo vans crowded round a small office, where a miserable little bloke processed Israeli hippies and a sensibly-clad older German couple, a party of young blonde Americans in Converse and leggings and a Spanish motorbiker all equipped for the drive to Cape Horn.

The van soon entered a small settlement, clinging onto the side of a steep mountain. and parked up on a muddy slope, the driver wedging it between overloaded vans and gaggles of equally overburdened men, stooping under the weight of the sacks they were heaving uphill.

Quickly decanted, the gringos were shepherded after them.

Scruffy souvenir stalls closed in our us either side as we puffed up the hill; from the shadows I could feel many pairs of beady little eyes sizing us up.

We pushed on, squeezing between muddy vans and scrawny men wheeling teetering sack trucks, and crossed under a rusting hoarding - the border itself.

The Guatemalan flag hung limply outside a small office. We entered, ready for the notorious officials with their fondness for charging an ‘entrance fee’. On the other side of the counter a young lad in an old t-shirt ignored us, his head buried in the paper.

An older man lounged behind him at a desk, methodically chomping through a bag of sweets. No-one seemed in the slightest hurry to process the long queue at their doorway; no-one seemed in the slightest bit official.

Finally a small woman in a dirty old coat shuffled up and took my passport, wandering into a back room where, through a crack in the door, I saw an equally sanguine fellow lazily stamp it.

He hardly need bother with this stamp of official entry; it lay half-imprinted on the page of my passport, its words unintelligible. I made better stamps with rubbers and inkpots as a ten-year old.

While the officials didn’t seem interested in who was entering their country, the unofficials certainly did.

Latino Arthur Daleys cruised amongst the hubbub, seeking out the tourist dollar - the money changers.

These fine fellows stood around fingering large wads like Guatemalan Frank Butchers, lovingly flicking three inches of Quetzales and Pesos between their fingers, stroking their dollars and their other day’s takings.

They struck relaxed, rather louche poses, reclined against pillars in the shade, drawing on cigarettes which dangled from loose lips buried deep beneath bushy moustaches.

Their tight shirts bulged over their jeans, the shirt buttons undone to allow forests of chest hair to spill out like cress on a paper towel, the thick dark hairs intertwined with innumerable gold chains.

Other Terry Tibbs took a more proactive approach, sauntering in cowboy boots amongst the backpacks, touting for business from under cream plastic cowboy hats or hawking fake gold watches hanging from a board like notices in a school staff room.

As we stood in the sun, waiting for our ride, our senses were assaulted by the tumult of the border, where music blasted out from rickety shacks and skinny kids hawked fruit and sweets, a straggly tide of humanity constantly drifted past and trucks and cars, carts and tuk tuks vied for space on the pitted tarmac.

Tuk tuks in Guatemala; they seemed out of place at first, but soon blended in to the scene, coated in Jesus bling and American football stickers.

An hour and a half of confused chaos later and our transport finally arrived, another gleaming modern minibus to transport the tourist from A to B, safely cosseted against the vagaries of independent travel in a developing nation and the hazards of mixing with locals.

The chicken buses - old US school buses which have been plucked from the scrap yard and repainted in the most incredibly gaudy livery - will have to wait for another day.

Echoes of tourist soap again.

Incessant noise and frenzy, Del Boys and the entrepreneurial spirit, tuk tuks and tourist buses. It was like being back in Vietnam again…


Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Coke - it’s the real-igious thing!

There in front of the altar stood a collection of candles and Coca Cola bottles. In a country that consumes more soft drinks than any other in the world (aside from the United States), where Pepsi is running a childhood obesity programme and the former president was chief executive of Coca Cola, perhaps it isn’t any wonder that Coca Cola has become a religion in parts of Mexico.

Or so is the case in San Juan de Chamula. This small, muddy Tzotzil village near San Cristobal de las Casas, has taken the politicians gifts from the 1970s and turned them into part of their religious ceremonies.

Escaping gaggles of girls in sandals and pom-pom shawls selling friendship bracelets, the door of the church opened onto a sea of pine needles and a lake of candles. Candles stuck on the floor and covering every conceivable surface in front of the many gaudy painted models of saints lined up against the walls in glass cases. White candles to give thanks, red candles to safeguard health, black candles to prevent jealousy and debt and green candles for life. The colours correspond to the different colours of maize that they farm locally, images of which adorn the ceiling of the church. Although this is a Catholic church, and the church goers consider themselves traditional Catholics, what goes on inside the church is bewitching and bewildering and far from the Catholicism that I witnessed during my convent primary school days.

Families knelt in devotion, decked out in their best hairy woollen clothes (black skirts for women, white tunics for men) and colourful scarves, with cowboy hats respectfully laid to one side. In front of them the candles, a chicken, a bottle of homebrewed spirit and several litres of Coca Cola. In this church there are no services, apart from the blessing of baptism, as the locals choose to worship in their own way.

The Chamulans come to church for healing. We witnessed a healer rubbing eggs over the body of a baby and another chanting and rocking with a live chicken in his lap. If we’d stuck around longer we would have then seen the healer wave the chicken over the body of the ill person, wring its neck and bury it under a green cross, burying with it the evil causing the illness. At the end of the healing service, the family would then have uncapped the Coca Cola to drink together and give thanks. Cheers to tooth decay!

We walked away in wonder. However, others were clearly not so amused. As we were walking back from the church an enraged Spaniard approached us and loudly condemned the Chamulan practice as fetishism and blasphemy. Indeed to any devout Catholic it must look just like that. But in the Chamulan church anything goes, and usually does. You can spit, drink, eat, dance and wander freely as a tourist. People repent and petition loudly, like the man kneeling at the back of the church, arms spread wide, tears rolling down his cheeks as he wailed and conversed loudly with God. Then there are the eggs, the chickens and the Coca Cola. Yes, it is a little odd. But then, some would say, so is imposing your religion on others, as the conquistadors did so many years ago. I think a little compromise is only to be expected.

Quirky as the Chamulan worshipping and divine healing practices sound, maybe there’s something in it, as life expectancy is the same as in other areas of Mexico. I was almost tempted to give it a go myself, to transfer my troubling stomach amoebas to an unsuspecting chicken. But then I remembered the stern words and wagging finger of my headmistress Sister Celestine - “Wo betide you” - and decided to stick to the drugs instead. Although I hear that Coca Cola is good for a sore stomach…


Sunday, 11 January 2009

Chiapas: hairy skirts, pipe-toting terrorists and dogs in bandanas

It is all too easy when describing a country to fall into that old cliché ‘a country of great contrasts’ but, when it comes to Mexico, it surely is impossible to avoid.

We’ve been in this huge country for a month now and yet we are still frequently surprised at the variety it has to offer.

Most noticeable has been the constantly changing kaleidoscope of landscapes we have passed through - from sparse deserts to huge mountain ranges, thick forests to sprawling cities - and their associated different climates.

We’ve taken it all, sweating in the parched north, shivering in thin mountain air, baking on the beaches.

All that is, except rain. It never seems to rain in this dry, dry, country.

Our backpacks are groaning with the sizeable wardrobes required to suit these varying conditions, our hat collection expands inexorably as we delve into the local millinery delights.

And still it continues to change, as we head further and further south, leaving the beaches of Oaxaca for the mountains of Chiapas.

Twelve hours on a tarmac ribbon separates them yet, once more, we stepped from one world into another.

Yesterday afternoon we finally tore ourselves away from our beachside idyll, swinging out of Mazunte in a rattling old camionera heading for the inland town of Pochutla, and our bus on to Chiapas.

These converted pick-ups bomb along the dusty roads, a hail-and-ride service ferrying villagers and tourists alike between tiny coastal communities for the price of a few pesos.

Hopping into the back you park yourself on a narrow wooden bench, sat between hawkers heading home and sacks of oranges bound for the market.

The flimsy canvas roof flaps wildly in the breeze as the road weaves up and down little hills, the camionera frequently stopping for passengers or veering wildly off onto a bumpy little dirt track, where neatly-pressed children are dropped off at a church and plump chickens peck in the dust beneath stubby banana trees.

As the road bent north for Pochutla and the camionera lurched over a hilltop we said goodbye to the sunkissed sands upon which we had lounged, the patrolling pelicans and the slow pattering of flip flops, the pounding surf and the strange goose which paid a daily visit to the sands, honking indignantly at the sunbathers as if they were invading conquistadors.

We bade farewell, too, to the Pacific Ocean, the last time we will see this sporadic companion of the last two months.

We have swum in its waters in the east and the west, and indeed have taken a dip right in the middle, albeit in the Hugo’s pool, which drew its waters from the briny aqua through which it passed.

The next sea will be the Caribbean, when we visit Belize; perhaps it’s just the beach but it felt to me like we’ve had a taster of what is to come: bougainvilleas, ‘coco loco’ (’crazy coconut’) cocktails, the laid back pace of life and reggae booming out of palm-thatched shacks.

We won’t find out for sure for a few weeks yet, I reminded myself as we pulled into Pochutla and boarded a night bus for Chiapas, for we were now heading for the mountains.

It was a long night, an arduous journey, as the road rose and rose and chubby fellow passengers serenaded us with nocturnal calls blasting out through their cavernous nasal passages.

In the dark outside we could see little of the famed beauty of the mountain scenery through which we were weaving, only the odd provincial bus station or lonesome army checkpoint, where jeeps idled and jumpy-looking recruits fingered large automatic weapons.

We recalled the advice of our guidebook: try and avoid night buses in Mexico, particularly in this part of the world, for Chiapas is the home of the Zapatistas.

As dawn broke and I scrapped the crud of a disturbed night’s sleep from corner of my eyes, our destination hove into view: San Cristobal de Las Casas.

Soon we were zipping along the narrow empty streets, through inextricably-wound down windows our taxi blasting out salsa and sucking in fresh mountain air.

Too fresh for us - the thermometer now barely creeping up to single figures having merrily hovered in the mid 30s back down on the coast.

The Chiapas highlands peered through the mist, mountain peeks soaring above the undulating streets. Low grey clouds blocked out the sun and seemed to press down on the low buildings, squashing them into the ground, resentful of their bright liveries.

Only the blinged-up churches dared to rise above a single storey, their exteriors coated in pastel blues and yellows, a wigwam of plastic flags fluttering over their yards.

Boiling on the beach to freezing in the mountains. Sea level to 6500 feet. All within half a day’s travel.

We feel we’re entering new lands, new zones of influence where the US is far over the horizon and Guatemala - and central America - is hoving into view.

We can see this in the changing ethnic makeup of the people amongst whom we walk.

The inhabitants here are markedly difficult from those farther north; smaller and slighter, their faces darker, their appearances wilder and stranger.

These ‘Indigenous people’, descendents of the Maya, are now greater in number, comprising some 40% of Chiapas’ population, their numbers almost equal to those of the majority mestizo (mixed European / Indian ancestry).

They come in a bewildering range of ethnic groups; many don’t even speak Spanish, even more still wear their traditional costumes.

Tzotzil women scuttle about in black, hairy, woollen skirts and multicoloured shawls, heaving children and wares on their backs in brightly-coloured bundles as they hawk heavy strings of beads to the multitude of Goretexed westerners.

Their menfolk trot alongside them, sporting cream, sleeveless jackets made of wool and dusty black cowboy hats. Some seem to dispense with trousers altogether, preferring instead a rather short type of woollen tunic tied at the waist and hanging several airy inches above the knees.

I tower above these strange people, shivering under four layers of Karrimor and nylon, trying to avoid our icebox of a room, a chilly wendy house set amongst the gardens of a hostel, where hummingbirds hover as bundled-up staff tinker with malfunctioning gas heaters.

In an effort to warm ourselves up we go for a hot chocolate in the town’s traditional Spanish plaza, taking in the ornate iron bandstand and the neatly kept gardens, admiring the dirty yellow walls of the Cathedral and the smart wide colonial-era municipal buildings.

It was hard to imagine what the scene must have been like here on 1st January 1994, the day the Zapatistas came to town.

As Mexico celebrated the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, these guerrillas shook the nation, a rag-tag army of balaclavas and bandoliers army which emerged out of the Lacandon jungle and temporarily assuming control of San Cristobal and other towns.

Also known by the catchy acronym of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), they draw their inspiration from famous 18th century revolutionary Emiliano Zapatista and his rallying cry ¡Tierra y Libertad! - Land and Liberty!.

As the state with the largest proportion of indigenous people, is also the poorest and life many seems to have improved little for them, in comparison with their mestizo compatriots, ever since the first conquistadore showed his pointy beard in these parts over 500 years ago.

It’s hardly surprisingly, then, that after all this time, some of the impoverished and disenfranchised indigenous peoples of Chiapas might turn to more drastic measures in order to improve their lot.

Whilst the violence might have abated somewhat the sentiments remain.

The signs of this are everywhere: graffiti on walls; impressive EZLN murals in cafes and Zapatista merchandise on sale in shops and markets.

Revolucion is, as ever, a nice little earner and you can leave San Cristobal with a mountain of Zapatista memorabilia, from balaclava-clad dolls and Zapatista t-shirts on sale to postcards and hand-woven cushion covers.

With the latter, the revolutionary pin-up of choice is, of course, the enigmatic figure of ‘Subcommandante Marcos’, one of the leaders of the EZLN and very much the modern revolutionary.

The secret of his success surely lies not in his deeds so much as his image.

In the battle for hearts and minds Marcos would have the Pentagon drooling, a savvy spin-doctor who has carefully crafted his image so that he has gained an almost mystical status, attracting a level of adoration amongst some which is almost as intense in its adoration as that of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Marcos’s image is striking and enticing: a romantic revolutionary, a rebel with a cause. Like Batman, another hero of the people, his identity is unknown, hidden behind his ever-present balaclava. Clad in olive combat fatigues he tops this off with the ultimate in revolutionary accessories: a pipe.

Forget Che and his beret, Fidel and his cigar, Marcos has a pipe . And not only this but he sports it through his balaclava.

I make a mental note to refer his balaclava and briar antics to The Chap magazine. whilst ascending the slippery cobbles back to our hostel.

Another dog siddles by with a bandana tied round its neck and again I ponder whether the townspeople do this to their pooches out of fashion or to distinguish their pet from the many wandering strays.

My thoughts are cut short though when a strange liquid hits my cheek. Then another. And another.

What is this strange watery thing falling from the sky.

It cannot be, it is…rain!


Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Oaxaca coast: Great-tailed grackles, magnetic sand and fat-fighting trees

It might sound spoilt but we were beached out. Lara has absorbed more sunrays than Brighton beach did in a year; I’d ingested enough saltwater than the Gray Whales cruising off the coast.

It was time to get away from the bracelet-braiding hippies and the bongos of Mazunte, the nudists and the rudists of Zipolite and see some birds of an altogether different plumage.

And where better a place to spot them than Ventanilla lagoon, a murky tract of water and dense mangrove swamps tucked away off a beach just a short Camionera ride away.

Half an hour later we found ourselves gingerly crossing Ventinilla beach in flip flops, the sand too hot for bare feet.

The dark patches streaking the sand denoted the high iron content of the sand, something proven to us by our young guide who whipped out a magnet which, quite extraordinarily, instantly sprouted a Ken Dodd-style hairdo when passed near the sand.

Perhaps the unusual geology also helped explain the wreck of an old aeroplane, lying in the surf up ahead like a prop from Lost.
According to local hearsay it was running drug smugglers, who then cut and run (excuse the pun) - the locals must have had a big party.

More unusual sights awaited us as we clumsily clambered on board a small rowing boat and headed out into the lagoon.

It was like entering the Lost World, a multitude of strange birds call ascending our ears, calling and cackling, whooping and whistling.

Our eagle-eyed guide, armed with a well-honed knowledge of the lagoon and the creatures that dwelt within it was soon picking out a veritable menagerie from the shadows that this short-sighted Englishman would have glided right by.

The birds came in all shapes and sizes - from tall, elegant fish-eating egrets to tiny, flitting seed-eaters - and were painted in the most fantastical palate, a range of surrealist colours which might have come from the mind of Syd Barrett.

They had suitably bizarre names too, to match their strange appearance, reading like a list of characters from a Roald Dahl book: boat-billed heron; yellow-rumped cacique; pelagic cormorant; tropical kingbird; green kingfisher; pileated woodpecker; great-tailed grackle.
But no Norwegian blue.

The waters beneath held no less impressive an array of creatures.
It being the tropical south we encountered crocodiles, passive yet disturbing in only the way a crocodile can be, their eyes and the scales of their backs just breaking the water, lying still, all brooding malice.

Turtles poked long, thin necks up out of the water into the brilliant, seemingly unconcerned by the deadly killing machines eyeing them from the banks.

Back in Mazunte’s turtle centre we had seen these creatures up close, staring out at us from behind plastic windows, their expressions strangely human. When a staff member told us that turtles could cry, I believed him.

Mexico boats seven of the world’s eight species of these incredible creatures yet, strangely enough, it wasn’t until 1990 that the government banned their hunting.

Old, faded posters, dating from this time, are displayed in the centre, seeking to puncture the popular myth that turtle eggs were an aphrodisiac.
Two feature different people which appeal to Mexican machismo: one a scantily-dressed woman posing below the caption ‘My man doesn’t need turtle eggs’; the other featuring a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) legend, Santo ' vs. those who eat turtle eggs’.

Back in Ventanilla, we edged further in, out of the green waters of the lagoon into the dark recesses of the mangrove swamps.

The trees closed in, the water grew shallower. Here dwelt the red mangroves, bizarrely-shaped arboreal wonders, upside-down organisms reflected the right way up in the water.

These trees are crucial to the local environment, serving as natural barriers against the encroaching sea, filtering out pollution and in the process turning the water a dark, brackish colour, their odour eggy and pungent.

Dead bodies of their larger brethren scattered the narrow waterways, victims of 1998’s Hurricane Paulina, which laid waste top large tracts of the Oaxaca coast.

Green iguanas scuttled amongst the trees, crazy patterns down their backs descending into a long, thin whip of a tail. Prehistoric-looking creatures in an primeval-looking habitat.

The forebears of this lagoon’s inhabitants dwelt on this planet long before Adam started eyeing up Eve, long before the happy couple’s descendents discovered the potential of burning carbon, and certainly long before billions of these buggers swarmed all over the planet, heating up their home and threatening to turn it into an uninhabitable place once more.

Back to the ancient gloopy stuff out of which they once crawled? Certainly tearing up the mangroves won’t help avert this.

These extraordinary habitats are the most threatened in the world, with only 1% of the planet’s mangroves protected.

In Mexico they are destroyed to make way for shrimp farms and new hotels, their durable wood harvested for western markets.

This is tragic: the world needs mangroves. These vital ecosystems support a huge diversity of wildlife, preserving endangered species, providing local communities with the essentials of life, protecting coastlines from erosion by the sea and even absorbing the impact of tsunamis.

And Mexico needs them too. Even if you are the most landlocked citizen, even if you don’t care for the environment think of the fatties, for here the mangrove’s bark has been used to treat diabetes.

Given the obesity crisis facing the country - now the second ‘fattest’ in the world and the accompanying diabetes crisis (this disease is now the number one cause of death amongst Mexicans, threatening to financially cripple the country‘s health care system) it looks as if these trees might be required to strip a little bit more.

That’s unless Pepsi’s new computer game, designed to help kids live healthy lifestyles can reduce waistlines instead.

Obesity-fighting computer games? Perhaps it was time to head back to the beach.

You can help preserve mangrove forests by buying environmentally-sustainable products. When buying shrimps or wood products check the label to ensure that the product you consume is not contributing to the destruction of mangroves. Visit for more information


How to…travel around Mexico

Mexico is all about buses. There are no trains - apart from the Copper Canyon Railway from the desert mountains of Chihuahua to the Pacific coast at Los Mochis and something called the Tequila Express, a tourist special that we are yet to find - but the buses are good and many.

The roads in Mexico have tarmac and bus journeys are pleasant. There are various classes of bus and hundreds of bus companies to choose from, often departing from different stations across town. The list below is based on experience, of first class buses, minibuses and collectivos, and hear-say, about second class buses. Not that we usually travel first class, but we were advised by many that travelling first class greatly reduced the risk of thievery and highway robbery because these buses use the toll roads. So far we have been lucky, but apparently it does happen.
First class buses are more direct, stopping less and using the faster toll roads. There is no lunch or toilet stop unless there is a major town on route. The buses are hideously over air-conditioned, so even in the hottest of climes take a jumper or two. Luggage is checked into the hold and you are given a receipt. First class buses vary:
*Luxury - the crème de la crème. With only eighteen seats these buses are more like a lounge than a bus. The seats are like plush arm chairs, there is a non-stop showing of recent films with personal headphones, a packed lunch is provided, tea and coffee are available throughout the journey and the toilets on board are clean and usable.
*Executive - more seats than the luxury bus but they are still large and soft. The film selection is good and drinks are sometimes provided. The quality of the toilets is more variable.
*Primera - more like your standard National Express with comfy, reclining seats but not as much leg room as luxury or executive buses and the film selection is much more dubious. The toilets are okay.

Second class buses are, apparently, reminiscent of an old National Express or Greyhound bus. Less comfortable, less direct (not using toll roads) and stopping more often, therefore making for a longer, less predictable journey.

Minibuses - some routes simply aren’t suitable for large coaches, such as Highway 175 between Oaxaca - Pochutla, so smaller minibuses take the direct route leaving the larger buses to take a detour on the larger roads. It’s a minibus, so fellow passengers are few and leg room is limited. There are no films, no toilets and no frills. But the driver will stop whenever you want/need to get out for the loo, to eat etc.

Collectivos - are large shared taxis. In cities they are normally minibuses, on the coast they are open back vans. They pootle along picking up and dropping people off where they want. You just have to flag one down and clamber on the back. They’re cheap and usually connect to larger transport hubs for onwards travel.

Buying a bus ticket can be an ordeal. Buses do book up in advance, especially around holidays when we were travelling, so it’s best to book ahead. The easiest place to do so is at a bus station. Here you can compare timetables and prices between the different companies ploughing the same route. Some companies, such as Autoexpres Atlantida between Oaxaca-Pochutla (951 514 70 77) and ADO/OCC in Pochutla (958 584 0274), allow you to make a reservation over the telephone and then pick up and pay for your tickets an hour before departure. Some companies also have provision for booking tickets on line including, ETN and ADO.

If you cannot book in advance, you can just turn up at the bus station and hope for the best. As we did at 2am in Los Mochis. The bus station staff couldn’t tell us when the next bus to our destination would turn up, nor if we would be able to get a seat on it. You just have to wait and hope. Luckily at 4.30am we got some returns and took the last two seats on a bus to Mazatlan.

Having taken the advice to travel first class to stay safe we have, so far, had no problems. Naturally don’t leave bags open or unattended in the bus station or onboard. We were also advised against travelling at night, as bandits are more likely to work at night (either posing as passengers, boarding on route or in the worst instance forcing the bus to stop). However, based on our one night bus experience it was comfortable and trouble free. We’re taking another one tomorrow (for 11 hours) and fingers crossed we’ll be ok on that one too…


Saturday, 3 January 2009

From the highlands to the lowlands

From the American flavoured cowboy desert states in the north, to the sprawling colonial Mexico City built on Aztec ruins in the mountain heartland, to the nudist wave machine beaches on the Pacific coast. In travelling through Mexico we have experienced the highs and lows both in attitude and altitude.

The most extreme journey, to date, was from Oaxaca city to Zipolite beach. This journey took us from a height of 1,455 metres up to 2,750m and back down to sea level. It is one of the windiest journeys I have ever taken and I now understand why the large coaches take a six hour detour to avoid the route we took. But we opted for the ‘direct‘ route in a minibus along Highway 175.

Highway 175 is a spectacular 245 kilometre stretch of road that takes your stomach and breath away as it chicanes its way up and down forested mountains. The road up from Oaxaca is dry, dusty and flanked by cacti. At the highest settlement, San Jose Del Pacifico, the sun sharply cuts through the cool, crisp, pine scented air to illuminate magnificent valley views. It gets cold up here, or so we surmised, given the number of local women selling thick hand-knittted woolly jumpers, ponchos, hats and socks. As well as being naturally high (2,750m) this village is also known for its natural highs in the form of magic mushrooms.

On the winding descent - more stomach lurching and leg rolling - the slopes became greener, still pine forests but more lush and with undergrowth. Then signs started appearing advertising coconuts for sale and banana plants started to pop up amongst the trees. The further we went down the more tropical it looked. Four hours into our five and a half hour journey the minibus driver turned on the air conditioning.

Down and down we wound until we were dumped in Pochutla. An unremarkable transport hub of a town that links travellers to the beaches. Relieved to be out of the roller coaster minibus, our taxi driver gave us a fairly similar experience. His style was, however, more Grand Prix. He chose not to see corners and bends and speed bumps were considered prime overtaking ground. After ten more minutes of being thrown around in a moving vehicle we spotted our first glimpse of the Pacific since we disembarked from MV Hugo in Long Beach.

We were left on the hot, sweaty, windy (not windy) Playa del Amor in Zipolite. Sea level at last. With cowboy boots and jackets packed away we wandered about dazed for the afternoon. The beach was lined with palm trees, hammocks and thatched cabanas and there were scores of naked people (mainly men), try-hard hippies and Mexican families playing and strolling on the sand. Our hostel was filthy in a seaside manner - sand blasted floors and barnacle encrusted bathroom taps that looked like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. All very laid back. A far cry from the grid patterned streets, pillars and plazas of Oaxaca with its high society dinner and theatre scene. It all felt very odd indeed.