Friday, August 29, 2014

Yup.


So far so good, Guatemala.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thanks Mexico!

It was an amazing five weeks. We were delighted by your food. Amazed by your beauty. Challenged by your language barrier. Amused by your couples making out EVERYWHERE. Overwhelmed by your heat. In awe of your lightening storms. Charmed by your towns. Smitten by your beaches. And really excited to get to know your neighbor…

The moment we crossed the border into Guatemala, the landscape changed. Impossibly high hills swathed in a lush green jungle as far as the eye could see. A few hours in, we’d ascended the western highlands and were driving above the clouds.


From what we’ve seen so far, it’s a stunning country. And we can’t wait to see more!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Agua Azules

The other favorite thing to do in these parts, besides visiting ancient ruins and ruining ancient rituals, is swimming in the stunning Cascadas de Agua Azules. A series of crystal blue pools connected by waterfalls and surrounded by lush jungle, it’s an absolutely incredible and stunningly beautiful experience.

We’d booked the trip a day in advance, with one of the several tourist agencies that arrange these sorts of things. The guy we bought it from quoted a price higher than any others, but he explained it was because his shuttles were the nicest and the only ones in town with air conditioning. We liked the guy and his smile and frankly didn’t feel like shopping around, so we were happy to pay the few extra bucks.

The next morning, the cold that had been threatening me had advanced in full force, and I was feeling awful. Moment #1 in the day that we regretted booking this tour in advance. I was really anxious to visit Agua Azules though, so I sucked it up and we walked down to the main road where we were scheduled to be picked up.

We speculated at each passing vehicle which one might be ours. When a rusty old van slowed down I joked “hey maybe this is it!” And…it was. Moment #2 we regretted booking this tour. We climbed in the old clunker with torn upholstery, broken seat belts, and nothing even close to air conditioning. Every time I even tried the AC dial, it sounded like the car was going to explode. We’d been betrayed!

Our driver and I got off to a bad start, cause he insisted we pay him the national park entrance fees and I was certain he was ripping us off. We drove around town, sometimes picking up more people and other times making inexplicable u-turns without picking up anybody.  The third time we passed our hostel I had had it, and told the guy to just drop us off and give us a refund. He argued with me in Spanish I hardly understood while I sat in the middle seat sneezing and sweating. Moment #3 we regretted booking this tour.

After about two hours, including a stop at a less impressive waterfall, we’d finally made it to Aguas Azules. I was dying and Reece was cranky and we were anxious to finally take a dip and let the morning’s stresses melt away. BA-BOOM!!! Thunder clapped in the distance and the skies opened up, and the moment we parked it started POURING. Of course! Moment #4 we regretted booking this tour.

We sought shelter at one of the thatched roof comedores lined up along to the path towards the water and ate some empanadas. As the rain came down harder, thunder roared and lightening struck all around us. At one point I’m pretty sure a tree nearby was hit, as the unmistakable smell of burning drifted through the air. What a perfect day to swim in a waterfall! At this point, you couldn’t do anything but laugh. I tried to find a silver lining, “Hey, maybe now everybody will leave and then the rain will stop and we’ll have the place to ourselves!”

When the downpour lessened to a drizzle, and we ventured out to get a glimpse. Even in the gloom, it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And I was right! Most people had cleared out, so when the lightening cleared enough for a safe swim, we had much of the place to ourselves. And it was so, so worth it. Rather than say any more about it, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.





Moments #1, 2, 3 and 4 we no longer regretted booking this tour.

For the rest of my Palenque and Agua Azules pics, click HERE.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Howler Monkeys

The dense jungle surrounding Palenque is home to a variety of exotic animals, most notably a huge population of howler monkeys. You can watch them frolic curiously at the ruins and, if you opt to sleep in one of the many jungle accommodation options, you might catch one swinging from a tree outside your window. The Lonely Planet refers to “some magical spots where howler monkeys romp in the tree canopy and unseen animals chirp after dark,” selling it as a charming and desirable trait of the place you are going to sleep at night.


Have you ever heard the howl of a howler monkey?? It is the stuff of nightmares. A deep, guttural, LOUD roar that sounds nothing like the cute furry mammal it comes from. I kid you not, it sounds exactly like a dinosaur. From dusk until sunrise, these devil monkeys howl into the black night, like a T-Rex pummeling through the jungle to come eat you alive. It’s absolutely terrifying, and there is nothing magical about it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

El Temazcal

The small entrance was drawn to a close and blackness surrounded us. I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me how dark it would be. The stifling heat and imposing claustrophobia I had anticipated. But the pitch darkness caught me off guard. I reached for Reece’s arm blindly and gave it a squeeze, while the others began chanting in a language that wasn’t my own. I loosely gathered that I was supposed to be sending good intentions into the universe. Clearing my mind and healing my body and purifying my soul. But the only thought I could muster is “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

It began with a laugh several hours earlier. “You know, I heard there’s a Mayan steam bath somewhere in here!” “What??” Reece replied. “This whole place is a Mayan steam bath.” We’d left the cool mountain air of San Cristóbal seven hours behind and ventured deep into the jungle, and the damp heat had hit us both hard. Reece overcoming a cold and me coming down with one, we had visited the ruins that morning under the blistering sun in a sweaty haze.

We were staying at El Panchán, a sort of hippie-vagabond-backpacker village whose reputation precedes it. It’s a mish-mash of huts and cabanas strewn about the steamy rainforest, with precarious wooden bridges crossing the many small streams and candlelit restaurants serving the bohemian crowd. Each person there had more tattoos and longer dreads than the last, and each night the bongos beat a little louder to the fire dancer’s show.

We went for a wander through the twisting paths to see what we might discover, and found ourselves seemingly trespassing on the home of a shirtless young Mayan with long dark hair and stretched piercings and arms full of ink. He asked if we were looking for a traditional tattoo. No no sir, don’t mind us, just a couple of gringos wandering aimlessly in the Mayan jungle. We made pleasantries in extremely broken Spanish as we backed away, but before we could make our exit he pointed out the rudimentary bamboo dome he had built and asked if we wanted to take part in a temazcal later that evening. A who?? Ohhh. The Mayan sweat lodge! 

Now, I hate small spaces. And I can’t stand sweating. And the thought of sitting on the ground half naked in the middle of the jungle as night closes in is pretty much a nightmare. BUT… 

We’re traveling! We’re supposed to come from a place of YES! We’re out here to step out of our comfort zones and try new things and learn and grow from each experience! The guy explained to us how they’d be covering the dome with heavy blankets and sealing it with rope and filling the center with burning volcanic rocks, and that his Aztec spiritual guide would take us through the cleansing journey which would last about an hour and a half. Or so we gathered. Sure! See you then.

Now wait just a minute. When I say “Mayan sweat lodge”, you are probably picturing something like this:


No, my friend. It looked more like this:


You can see why I was apprehensive about crawling inside half naked to sweat with a dozen strangers.

Back in our room, we debated whether we should go back, but ultimately decided hey, why not. I mean, YOLO. Amiright?? (That stands for "You Only Live Once", for those of you over the age of 12.) 

We arrived promptly at 6pm and were met by a couple of hippies hanging in hammocks, a guy playing the conch shell, and a girl whose entire upper body was tattooed to look like a cheetah sweeping the space around the sacred campfire. These people were way too cool for us. Even their dog had a mohawk (besides which he was, oddly, completely hairless). Over an hour passed before any festivities began, during which we paced around idly and wondered if we should make a run for it. Nobody there spoke English, and we weren’t really clear how we could contribute to the preparations. At one point a girl went into the hut for a peak and ran out screaming. Apparently, she met a gigantic spider inside. The guys chuckled, and assured us the smoke would scare it away. The only thing I hate more than small spaces and sweating, is spiders. Perfect.

Finally, it was time. Amazingly, we were still present. The Aztec spiritual guide had arrived, and we formed a circle around the fire and disrobed, men to their underwear and women to their bathing suits. He led us through a short ceremony where we lifted our arms to the sky in every direction, conch shell horns and wooden flutes punctuating his chanting. Then he explained the temazcal etiquette and procedure and what everyone should expect. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t understand a word of it. I asked the guy who’d invited us if the heat became too intense, if I could get out. He told me essentially to employ mind over matter, and to “get low” if the heat became unbearable, while he mimicked the fetal position. As we began to file in he mentioned something about asking the guide if I needed to leave, but I was already being doused in sage smoke, kissing the dirt at the threshold as instructed, and crawling inside.

Once packed in like sardines, the conch shell player began shoveling large volcanic stones out of the fire, which the guide would lift and place in the center with actual deer antlers. I shit you not. Each time the group would welcome the stone in unison, and then a guy would use leaves to trace figures on it that would appear with a mystical sparkling glow. With every smoldering rock, the pile encroached further on my feet, and I prayed it was the last addition. “I think it’s hot enough now, folks!” At last the stone shoveler crawled inside, thankfully the only person between us and the door.

I knew at this point there was no turning back and my eyes started to brim with tears, the reaction I’ve come to know for the trapped, panicked feeling in the pit of my stomach. I took a deep calming breath as the door closed and the volcanic heat that hit my face was intense and instantaneous. The spiritual guide began pounding on his deerskin drum, and his voice filled the small dome with the song of a prayer I wish I understood. He splashed water onto the stones from a basin that had been heating up by the fire outside, and with a sharp hiss the scalding steam rose and quickly enveloped us all. My lungs burned as I inhaled it, my heart raced, and sweat rushed down my entire body.

I immediately shifted in the tiny space into the fetal position, my nose to the ground and sarong protecting the side of my face closest to the scalding rocks. I was relieved to find it was in fact easier to breather down there, and I tried my best to focus on the drum and slow my thoughts and let my breath find a rhythm. Just as I began to relax and think “Hey I can do this…” the rocks were doused again and a new rush of fiery vapor burned my back and shortened my breath and I heard Reece gasping for air which made me panic even more. I felt him get into the fetal position and find the same temporary relief that I had, and he asked if I was okay to which I replied “I think so”. Yes. I think so.

A few more rounds of fresh steam and prayers passed while I tried desperately to take shallow breaths in the unbearable swelter, relieve my knees from the rocks pressing into them, keep the constant stream of sweat out of my eyes, not think about the spider that may still be hiding in the bamboo that was pressed against my back. I finally determined that if this really was going to go on for an hour and a half, there was no way I could finish. And if I was going to have to interrupt the ceremony anyway, what was the point of staying any longer than I wanted to?

I’m guessing we’d been in there about 15 minutes, though time tends to warp in a dense black fog of stifling heat and deer skin percussion. I gave Reece “the” squeeze, which he passed on, and was told there would be just one more sequence. Phew, that hour and a half thing must have been a misunderstanding! I mean really, who could stand being in this thing for that long? What a relief. Before long I heard some words I actually knew “…abrir la puerta…” and with a collective sigh of relief the door was opened. Everyone began to chatter in Spanish, and attempt to instruct us on the proper way to exit, but we struggled to understand and pretty much rushed the door. “We did it! It’s over!” We were so proud.

We took a seat by the fire outside, and the spinning in our heads slowed while the sweat began to evaporate from our bodies in the evening air. That’s when we realized that nobody other than the guide was following us. Wait. Did they open the door just for us? But, how would the guy have known it would be “just one more” if this wasn’t the usual door-opening time? And, the shoveler is replenishing the volcanic rocks, this must be normal. But, the guide isn’t going back in. Wait, did we ruin the entire thing??

I looked towards the old wise man expectantly, hoping for some answers. Instead, he dropped the wrap from his waist and walked towards the rudimentary shower stark naked. Add “Aztec spiritual guide’s penis” to the list of things I never thought I’d gaze upon. When he was finished, he motioned for us to do the same, so I rinsed off dutifully (swimsuit ON) while avoiding eye contact.

We collected our things under a cloud of shame and embarrassment and tiptoed off into the dark jungle. We heard the guide’s voice as we passed him, now thankfully clothed. “I think he’s praying for our souls!!” whispered Reece. No, he was just on his cell phone. So back to our cabana we ran, making yet another escape before he could finish.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Palenque


It was a rough seven-hour ride into the jungle to visit the renowned Palenque ruins, in the opposite direction unfortunately from the Guatemalan border to which we were headed. I’ve always had a hard time with destinations that don’t fit neatly within our route. Blame it on my OCD, or my debilitating car-sickness, but I have to really want to see something to go out of my way for it. And maybe I’ve become a little travel-jaded, but after seeing a couple of really amazing ruins, I wasn’t sure the trip to these would feel worth it. That little place the Incas built in Peru… those things everybody talks about in Egypt… I felt kind of spoiled as far as ancient civilizations go.

However, the Palenque ruins are the reason many travelers visit this region of Mexico. The Lonely Planet refers to them as a “national treasure”. There must be something to all the hype. I reasoned that we would never look back and regret that we WENT, but we may regret that we DIDN’T. So, we packed our bags and boarded the bus.

My impressions of Palenque? It’s touristy. Really, really touristy. The first place we’ve been in Mexico where we were charged the “gringo price” for things and were pretty sure we were being swindled most of the time. And it’s hot. Really hot. But that’s nothing new. And the ruins? They were cool. Reece was way more into them then I was, and for that, I am super happy that we went. But he was also on a heavy dose of cold medicine.

I hate to sound unappreciative, they were certainly an impressive site. An absolutely worthwhile place to visit. And I’m glad that we went so I could judge for myself and not always wonder if I missed out. I just wasn’t completely blown away for some reason. I think because history isn’t really my thing, so I’m more excited by a GIANT pyramid, then one with incredibly well maintained carvings.

One intriguing fact however – After the ancient city’s decline, it was completely engulfed by the jungle. They estimate that less than 10% of the total area has been excavated, leaving potentially thousands of structures still concealed in the surrounding wilderness. Spooky!

Anyway, here are some of my favorite shots from our day at Palenque. Okay, maybe I was just having a bad day. They are pretty damn cool…















Friday, August 22, 2014

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

Our 3-night stay in San Cristóbal de las Casas quickly turned into a week. It was probably our favorite town that we visited in all of Mexico (though if we had to pick a place to live, Mexico City would still win). I tried to narrow down my photo album more, but I just loved every moment there too much.

To see my many San Cristóbal pics, click HERE.










Thursday, August 21, 2014

San Juan Chamula

My eyes grew wide when I noticed the chicken, and I motioned to Reece furiously to make sure he saw it. He did. “Are they going to kill it?” I mouthed to him, silent but urgent. He gave me a knowing nod. If an authentic cultural experience is what we wanted, we were about to get it.

We’d ventured into the highlands surrounding San Cristóbal de las Casas, where descendants of the ancient Maya still reside, to get a glimpse into their unique lifestyle and traditions. San Juan Chamula, the main village the Chamulan people, was just thirty minutes and yet a world away from the streets we’d been strolling for the past week.

Upon arriving in the small town we were immediately greeted by the Templo de San Juan, the grand church overlooking its main plaza. Stark white with bright blue and green accents, it’s a picturesque structure dating back nearly 500 years. But it really makes its impression once you walk through its imposing wooden doors.


It’s a large church, made to feel even more so by the complete lack of pews. Worshipers kneel on the ground, protected by the thick layer of pine needles that coat the entire interior. Literally thousands of candles burn on every surface, illuminating the darkened sanctuary in a flickering light. The wax and pine mingle to evoke the familiar scent of Christmas, punctuated by incense smoke hanging heavy in the air.

Tourists are welcome in the Templo de San Juan with a small donation, as long as no photos are taken of the sacred rituals taking place inside. We parked ourselves as inconspicuously as possible to observe a small slice of the daily life here. The family of four nearest to me was preparing for their prayer ritual, lining up no less than a hundred tall slim candles in rows in front of them, stuck to the ground with melted wax. They were just one of a few dozen families arranging a similar set-up, the overall effect (and incredible fire hazard) pretty astonishing.

Once the father had finished lighting all of the candles, he crouched to his knees and began a melodic chant that would go on for over an hour. His stout wife gathered a cushion of pine needles to rest on, her long adorned braids hanging nearly to the floor. Beside her, the daughter clutched a live chicken only halfway concealed by a black plastic bag, stroking its feathers absentmindedly. And the young son stood to the side, his job to re-light each candle that inadvertently blew out throughout the course of the ceremony.

The Chamulans believe that burping releases evil spirits from the soul, explaining the cans of soda ceremoniously lined up beside the rows of candles. The father would pause in his songs of devotion only long enough to sip from a bottle of mineral water, meanwhile the daughter would steal glances of her smartphone. Good to know the texting obsession knows no borders. A gust of wind would threaten the flames every time someone used the nearby side entrance, and I cringed along with the boy, hoping he wouldn’t have to re-light ALL of the candles again.

As the prayers came to a close, the father asked for the boy’s help in lighting the final row of candles, as mother and daughter untied the twine around the chicken's legs. Dad took the chicken expertly by the feet and wings, and waved it over the fire. Then I watched through a squinted grimace as he and his wife held it upside down together, and he snapped its neck. The wife took the chicken into her lap, and held it close as it took its last frantic kicks. The ceremony was over.

Now the boy cracked open the cans of soda, and the family relaxed together over some evil-spirit-releasing refreshment.  The mother’s large purse started jerking wildly and I realized there was a second chicken concealed in there. We left before learning what his fate would be. But I'm guessing he was more fortunate than his purse-mate that day.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

That time we almost got struck by lightening.

We absolutely adored our cozy little rooftop rental in San Cristóbal, a gem we found on airbnb and immediately never wanted to leave. It had beautiful views, a sun-drenched patio, a quaint wood-burning fireplace and soft paper lanterns hanging from the warm, exposed beam ceilings.


We couldn’t quite figure out the odd blue tarp covering what appeared to be attractive hardwood floors (to muffle our footsteps, perhaps?). And never mind the precarious entrance via a glorified ladder (trying to pass as stairs), pretty much on the owner’s roof. Once you were safely up there, it was heavenly. The wraparound deck offered views in every direction, which our hill-top location and roof-top position made all the more majestic.


The one time that maybe you don’t want to be perched so high above your neighbors and protected by nothing but windows? During an insane, torrential downpour, terrifying thunder and lightening storm.

It started off innocently enough. The afternoon clouds rolled in and we retired to our place to wait out the short rains that are common this season. I’ve grown accustomed to how hard it comes down, and the sound on the tin roofs all around was downright charming. This time, though, the skies opening up like nothing I’d ever seen before. Rain poured down on the roof so loudly, Reece and I had to yell to hear one another. Wind whipped menacingly at our 360-degree windows, and thunder roared across the sky all around us.

At first, we were giddy with the excitement of it. I tried to go outside to film the craziness, and a gust of wind immediately blew the door shut and me back inside with it.

video

A sudden leak sprung through the wood beams above our heads, and before Reece could put a pot under it, three more parts of the ceiling began to drip. In no time, every bowl in the house was in use, and the thunder and lightening was relentless. What was once funny was now a little scary, and I wondered out loud if there were hurricanes in this part of the world. We were sort of unsure precautionary measures to take (Stay away from the windows? Unplug the laptop?) so we just sat in the center of the room in awe. All of a sudden, SNAP! I experienced the loudest, brightest, most startling flash just outside our window. My heart lunged in my chest, and I turned to realize that some metal rods protruding from the roof a few yards away from me had just been STRUCK BY LIGHTENING!

I couldn't tell if it was an antenna or a weather vane or what. In any case, it was unsettlingly close to those tanks of propane you see outside of our door. Could those get struck by lightening? Did that really just happen?? It was surreal.

Eventually the storm eased up, it stopped raining inside and I could safely get back to writing a blog about that time we almost got struck by lightening. And we were pleased to finally understand what that weird blue tarp on the floor was for. 


Monday, August 18, 2014

Our arrival in San Cristóbal de las Casas was love at first sight. A charming town amidst pine forest in a cool elevated valley, it’s an easy place to while away a week or more. We rented a rustic rooftop cottage with 360-degree windows treating us to spectacular views across the hillside and amazing sunsets from our covered patio.

Dozens of hip cafés and cozy bars crowd the several cobblestone walk-streets. Two churches are perched atop high hills at opposite sides of the city, their punishing stairs leading to scenic serenity high above the buzz of the town below. Organic produce markets and French pastry shops tempt passerbys with their delicious offerings of the day. And puppies! Seriously, every other person here seems to be walking an adorable puppy down the street. Pretty much sounds like a dream, right?

The only thing disrupting the bliss that is each day in San Cristóbal are the touts selling their wares up and down each block. You can’t eat a meal or sip a cup of coffee without being asked a dozen times if you’d like to buy a scarf, a hammock, a ceramic animal or a woven bracelet. And while the incessant badgering is irritating, what’s absolutely heartbreaking is how young some of these hawkers are. Tiny little girls in messy pigtails and dirty sweaters, begging you to buy something. Boys who you wish were at school, lugging baskets of gum and cigarettes up and down the block, hoping to make a few bucks. At the very least it gives you a twinge of guilt as you slurp down your frappaccino. At most, well, it makes you really, really sad.

Reece pointed out how patient and generous the Mexican tourists appear to be with these kids. He watched them buy stuff when they clearly didn’t want to, and give their spare change to beggars more often than not. There seems to be a real belief in “societal debt” here in Mexico, with people rarely passing up an opportunity to help someone less fortunate.

One night, while enjoying a stone cooked pizza and bottle of local wine, a boy of about seven approached the table next to us with his usual sales pitch. The couple spoke to him in Spanish so I didn’t catch the entire exchange. But what I did see is them ask the waiter for a small plate, and have the kid sit down to share their pizza. They ordered him a soda, slowly perused all of the items he was selling, engaged him in what appeared to be a genuine conversation. Could you imagine this scene back home? A couple on the Santa Monica Promenade, inviting a needy stranger to join them for a meal and a chat? Not in a million years. It was such a heartwarming moment, and humbling gesture to witness.


We’d already polished off most of our meal by then, but Reece was determined to follow that couple’s lead. So we set aside the last slice for the next hungry kid that came by. We waited. We paid the bill. And I’m not going to lie, the greasy slice of pepperoni began to beckon to me as the chance to give it away neglected to present itself. Just before I shrugged it off and scarfed it down, sure enough a small boy walked by and sheepishly pointed to the lonely piece on the giant plate. And it came as no surprise that giving it to him was more satisfying than any meal we’ve had yet.