Tabasco



GENERAL INFORMATION
Tabasco offers visitors a great ecosystems variety, from rainy tropical jungle to swamps, beaches and tropical savanna, where an important diversity of fauna can be found, as well as archaeological zones . All these attractions make Tabasco an excellent destination for those who enjoy nature contact and like archaeological treasures from prehispanic cultures.
Tabasco offers something for everyone. Visitors with spirit of adventure can go caving at Coconá and Cuesta Chica or ride the white-water rapids of the Usumacinta, the nation’s longest river. Nature buffs will find a visit to reserves such as Centla, a vast wetland area teeming with waterfall. Our jungles are also rich in wildlife. Palm-lined beaches stretch for miles along the coast and clouds of birds rise from the mangroves.
For those with an eye on the past, Tabasco boast important archaeological sites such as La Venta, city of the Olmecas and one of the oldest urban areas in the Americas, and the Mayan ceremonial centers of Comalcalco, Pomoná and Reforma, both of which are in Tenosique, not far from the Guatemala border.
Countless natural and cultural attractions await discovery in every district of Tabasco. A fertile land, a tropical sun, blue skies and the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Enjoy the services of a first-class destination. This is Tabasco, its friendly and hospitable people welcome you with open arms.
GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION
Location in region called the Mexican southeast, Tabasco is a warm plain surrounded by rivers, lagoons, swamps, and lush vegetation with 25,267 square km and fertile soil for cultivation. It is adjacent to Chiapas and Guatemala to the south, Veracruz to the west, the Gulf of Mexico to the north, and Campeche to he eats. Tabasco makes up a spectacular natural patchwork where joyful and welcoming people proudly show the nobility of their state.
TABASCAN CUISINE
It is not too far-fetched, particularly in view of the richness of this region and the ancient culture that flourished there over two thousand years ago, to think that the culinary art of Tabasco drew on freshwater fish and seafood, as well as seasonings that are still used nowadays. Hearings some of the names of the plants, fruits and animals that form part of the gastronomic culture of Tabascans, such as rattlepod, spurge nettle and eared piper leaf; animals such as the gopher, armadillo and gar; fruits such as the star apple and sweetsop, confirms our belief that Tabascan cuisine is linked to a magnificent past and a bountiful landscape.
Although modernity reached Tabasco some time ago now, its inhabitants have nonetheless managed to keep many of their traditions alive, one of which, food, occupies a special place in our everyday lives.



Official name: Estado Libre y Soberano de Tabasco / Free and Sovereign State of Tabasco
Short-form names: Estado de Tabasco / State of Tabasco; Tabasco.
Location: Coastal Mexican state located in the south-East of Mexico. South-West of the Yucatan Peninsula. It neighbors the States of Campeche (NE), Chiapas (S), Veracruz-Llave (W), and Guatemala (E) and the Gulf of Mexico (N).
Area: 25,267 km2
Municipalities: 17
Population: 1'748,769 inhabitants (2000)
Capital: Villahermosa (Pop.: 330,846)
Statehood: October 3, 1824
Arms adopted: Unknown date



MORE ON TABASCO
Welcome to Tabasco, a tropical land with exuberant vegetation, and a land of history, rich in traditions. It sa the flowering of one of the most ancient and important Mesoamerican civilizations, the Olmec, and later the Maya dominated the region.
The State of Tabasco is located to the southeast of Mexico and occupies a surface of 24,475.24 km2 with a population of approximately 1'891,829 inhabitants.
In the past local people earned a living from farming, cattle ranching and trade and during the 19th and 20th centuries, the city became an important distribution center for tropical crops such as bananas, cacao and hardwoods. However, the oil boom changed the face of the city, since it drew people from all over the country, which in turn required the construction of new housing developments.
Tabasco limit to the north with the Gulf of Mexico, to the northwest with the State of Campeche, to the southwest with the Republic of Guatemala, to the south with the State of Chiapas and to the west with the State of Veracruz. Has 17 municipalities understood in 4 zones (The Chontalpa, The Center, The Saw and The Rivers).
The nahuas were calling to this Mayan territory ONOHUALCO, when was governing by Taabz Cobb and the powers were residing in its capital Comalcalco.
The word Tabasco is derived from the voice Tla-uash-co, that in Mexican language means "Place that has owner", though some translate it as "waterlogged Earth". 27 of March of 1519, Taabz Cobb swear obedience to the king of Spain.
Due to Tabasco location and to its scarce increase on the level of the sea, the climate is warm with maritime influence, being registered a minimal temperature of 15º to 20º C., of January to February and a maxim of 40º C., of April to June. The annual average is greater to 26º C.



The state of Tabasco is located in the southeastern portion of Mexico, bordered by the state of Campeche (east), Chiapas and Guatemala (south), Veracruz (west) and the Gulf of Mexico (north). The geography of the state is largely lush, humid lowlands and fertile river plains and jungles. It is home to a great variety of plant and animal life. Mexico's longest river, the Usumacinta, traverses the state, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The average temperature is 27º C with an average annual rainfall of 2,000 mm.
With it's fertile soil, Tabasco's agricultural resources are many. Commercial crops include cacao, corn, beans, rice, bananas, coconut and sugar cane. Also important to its economy is the raising of cattle, tropical hardwoods and petroleum extraction.
Villahermosa is Tabasco's capital and largest city. This modern city is located on the banks of the Grijalva River
Recreational activities include scouting the archaeological zones of La Venta (Olmec) and Comalcalco, Pomoná and Reforma (Mayan) as well as eco-tourism tours and excursions including caving, hiking and horseback riding and white-water rafting on the Usumacinta.

REGIONAL CRAFTS
Villahermosa.area in the central area of the state is known for it's wood and stone carving, pottery and embroidery as well as regional candies and preserves.
Cárdenas, Comalcalco and Conduacán are known for their chocolate, fruit liquor and ceramics
Huimanguillo, Jalpa de Méndez, Nacajuca are known for their wood and stone crafts, palm-fiber crafts and ceramics
Balancán, Cental, Emiliano Zapata and Jonuta are known for their saddlery, dairy products such as butter and cheese.
Tenosique.- Saddlery, wooden masks and furniture.
Jalapa.and Macuspana are known for their wooden boats, sweets, saddlery and other leather work
Tacotalpa. and Teapa are known for their willow furniture, basketry, hats, wooden crafts



Story by tabasco travelers
A little sleep was caught on the bus during the night. At 06:15 we pull into Villahermosa, Tabasco, bus terminal. Monica comments on how nice the city looked coming in. It even has a Sanborns' (a popular restaurant chain in Mexico City).
Not sure what to do next, we sit down with the guidebook. The city center seems relatively close by, so we set off walking, ignoring the "Taxi?!" calls. After a few paces, I check the 'toy' compass on Monica's backpack. Oops. We're walking the wrong way. Great things compasses.
After walking about 1km with all our gear, we catch sight of the river, indicating that we're more or less in the downtown area. We both hot, sticky, and starting to ache! We start looking at hotels. Seems like budget accommodation shouldn't be a problem.
Spying a 'VIPs' (another popular, and clean, restaurant chain), Monica suggests we have breakfast, then one of us can wait with the bags while the other looks for a hotel. Deal.
After eating Monica goes out to hunt. She returns with news of a $17 hotel she likes. One interesting feature of hotels here is that they advertise having cold water just as much as hot water! The guidebook says it's horribly hot here, all year round.
The room is pleasant enough, with a huge ventilating fan hanging from the ceiling. The idea of sleeping under an old, rotating, helicopter blades is a bit intimidating but I reason the chances of it falling tonight are pretty slim.
We decide to spend today exploring Villahermosa's attractions and to go early tomorrow to the ruins of Comalcalco. A taxi takes us to 'La Venta' - a large, open air, museum full of relics from an nearby eponymous archaeological site. The museum features various Olmec statues and monuments, including some famous boulder-sized carved stone heads. There is also a zoo area with bored jaguars, snakes, monkeys, etc. One nice part is a large, walk-in, aviary with tame exotic birds.
The heat is quite intense, and, after walking around for a while, we're starting to feel a little light headed. We share a half liter bottle of water which disappears in a single slug each. A combi (VW minibus) takes back into town where we plan to visit the local anthropological museum.
The combi drops us off in front of a nicely designed, modern glass building. Even though it's not the museum we're looking for, we step inside as it looks like it might have air-conditioning. It's like walking into a refrigerator - beautiful. It seems to be an art exhibition center. We slowly share a soda in the café, to cool down a bit.
Outside, it's like stepping into an inferno. We need to take another bus to the museum. The route follows the bank of the river - it's tempting to get off the bus and dive in!
The museum looks like it was the pride of the city in the 70's and hasn't been updated much since. Nonetheless there are some interesting pieces from many of the major archaeological sites in Mexico. If nothing else, the collection strikingly demonstrates the amount of diversity in pre-hispanic art and culture.
Again, leaving the museum is like walking into an oven. We take the bus back to our hotel and take an early siesta. I wake a couple of hours later at 4 pm. Seems like it might have cooled a little.
We decide to go back to 'La Venta' to take more pictures in the softer, afternoon, light. The ticket office is closed but a small payment ($2) to the guard gets us in. The park seems to harbor quite a lot of wildlife. After most of the visitors have left, a number of unusual animals come out to play.
Tourist information has been hard to come by in Tabasco. The anthropology museum had a good guide but it was for 'viewing' only. We're close to the big hotel zone so we figure we can probably find a rack of leaflets in one of the major hotels. No such luck. We do, however, get to enter air conditioned lobbies and gaze longingly at the pool. I even consider pretending to be a guest and diving in!
The travel agent in the Hyatt is at least able to give us a tourist map which marks the general location of some of the places we read about in the museum. According to the same guide, there are a few 'eco-tourism' parks that have camping facilities.
Now soaking in sweat (I know, sorry, 'too much information'!), we head back town. In an attempt to re-grasp our budget, dinner is bought in a supermarket.
Back in the hotel room we instinctively strip off and enjoy dinner in our underwear - try that in a restaurant, no matter how fancy it is!
Insect repellent is applied before bedding down. We're probably in a malaria area and have already experienced some voracious biters. As additional, flimsy, protection, we use a mosquito net as an over-sheet.
Loud music enters our room from the bar/restaurant downstairs. With the temperature, I'm not sure closing the window is an option. Compared with cooking alive, music is probably the lesser of the two evils.
The heat is insufferable. I rise to soak my body in water. The evaporation provides temporary relief. I muse on a device to gently drip water on me during the night. Monica can't take the music anymore and closes the window. Eventually we drop off around midnight.
Awaking, tired, at 8 am, we realize that it's too late to make a morning trip to Comalcalco. Ah well, I guess we needed the rest. It's important not to over-exert ourselves if we're to stay healthy and enjoy the trip.
After a leisurely breakfast, etc., we wind up at the bus station at 12:00. The idea is to visit Comalcalco today and then travel south to a 1000 hectare eco-tourism park called Agua Selva ('Water Jungle'). Apparently camping is available at the park.
Camping. Right now my thoughts have turned to dumping our camping gear in a bid to save weight. Lumping three heavy backpacks around is becoming less and less fun! The heat and humidity make all the difference. I don't like to think how much fluid my body is losing every hour - it feels like liters!
Arriving at Comalcalco bus terminal, I go off in search of a hotel. We've no special desire to stay here but the idea of walking around with our bags is equally unappealing! The hotel across the road is $10 and the room looks fine to me - tidy with a re-assuring whiff of chlorine.
When Monica sees the room, it's hate at first sight. She says it's obviously a prostitutes' hotel and makes a face like she'd rather sleep in the street. Okay, so the christmas tree lights around the bed are a bit weird but overall it still seems acceptable to me.
A short taxi ride takes us to the ruins. There is a relatively large pyramid (built from bricks - very unusual) with a number of interesting buildings surrounding it. This is first Mayan site I've been too. There is a rush of excitement as I walk down a corridor in the highest building, overlooking the jungle on all sides. Suddenly it's like I've traveled back in time and caught a glimpse of the vibrant ancient civilization. Must remember to drink more liquids.
While walking we are accompanied by a squadron of dragonflies. One is accustomed to think of dragonflies as beautiful, benign, flying works of art. When one is amongst hundreds of them, dotting the sky like small birds, one isn't so sure! Fortunately steamed human doesn't seem to be on the menu today.
The park is closing as we leave. We start to walk back in the direction of town. We'd like to see one of the cacao (principal ingredient in chocolate) farms that this area is famous for. The best we manage is a house selling homemade, traditional, chocolate. We buy a bar of almond flavor. It tastes quite different to the European chocolate most of us are used to.
A passing bus takes us back to town where we wander around for a few hours. Anything to avoid going back to the hotel says Monica. By asking around (detailed tourist information seems to be non-existent) we find a Cacao farm that is apparently open to the public. The only indication of this, at the entrance, is an old, half hidden, sign that says 'Wolter Chocolate'. We plan to return in the morning.
The heat and humidity continue to pound us long after the sun has set. I feel like I'm walking around with an open tap under my hat! The city is full of ice cream sellers, peddling their wares (literally!) on tricycle mounted coldboxes. The power of the market - services arise to meet needs. It's difficult to imagine central planning anticipating the increased need for ice cream in Comalcalco!
Back at the hotel, Monica seems to relent a little in her feelings towards the room. A terrible band plays loudly nearby - what have we done to deserve this! I'm tempted to head into the jungle tomorrow to get away from 'civilization' for a while. Monica is tempted by a nearby beach.
Concerned about bites, we hitch up the mosquito net for the first time ever. It fits the bed surprisingly well. To combat the heat, I wet a small towel and lay it over my torso. It has the opposite effect of a warm blanket. Perfect.
We wake just before dawn to the pleasant sound of tropical birdsong. By around 07:30, the birdsong has been replaced by loud music, and we decide to get up. The mosquito net appears to have done its job.
Bags are packed and left in the room as we walk off to the cacao farm. The 'farm' is a white house with about a hectare of cacao trees. The owners greet us at the door. There is no tour today but they invite us to look around. Although not in season, there are a number of trees with the large cacao pods hanging from them, and we wander around.
Returning to the house, the owner shows us around the processing area - one room to grind the beans and another to pack them. The family is obviously of relatively recent European descent. Both mother and daughter have blue-green eyes, and 'Wolter' is not your average Mexican name.
For breakfast we try to buy milk for our cornflakes. It seems that fresh milk is simply not sold in Comalcalco (even in the large super market) - in fact we get strange looks when we ask for it! So we settle for Hershey's chocolate milk.
After checking out, we catch a bus to a nearby beach, Paraíso (paradise), 20 minutes north. Unfortunately the beach isn't that nice - a place where nearby city-dwellers go to sun and swim. And drink. And eat. And leave garbage on the beach.
Monica goes for a swim while I watch our stuff. When she returns we order a sea-food lunch. A couple of local men in the next table start talking to us. By the end of our meal they insist on taking us back to the town center (a $5 taxi ride away) to catch our bus.
As we pile into the back of a VW beetle (the old style), I wonder if we're being wise. My uneasiness is hardly helped by the 'DIY' tinted windows and stereo that is played at ear throbbing volume! It turns out that my fears are completely unfounded and, after a quick tour of the local oil port (the main source of income in the state), we are dropped off safely with addresses exchanged.
We're not sure where to go next. The eco-tourism park 'Agua Selva' sounds interesting but we haven't been able to find out the slightest bit of information. The bus from Paraíso to Villahermosa, passes the 'crossroads' town of Cárdenas. From there we'll make a final decision about where to go next.
The sunset as we head out of Paraíso is beautiful - a bright, pastel orange disc, pasted against a neutral colored sky, partially obscured by palm tree silhouettes. Unfortunately a moving bus is not the best platform for taking artistic photographs.
Somehow, as night falls, we feel less optimistic about Agua Selva, and decide to head on to Palenque, a Mayan site, in the morning. In light of this new plan, we stay on the bus all the way back to Villahermosa.
At Villahermosa we make the trek to the city center on foot once again; saving a long wait for a $1.50 taxi ride (and, more importantly, burning a few excess calories).
We check into a $13 hotel. The room is at the back of the building and nary a sound can be heard - peace at last! The bed has the consistency of a sponge cake - lying down it feels a bit like a hammock, with the sides rising way above the center. It will do.
Despite rigging up the mosquito net, I receive a painful bite that wakes me up in the night. The mosquitoes here are pretty determined; despite taking precautions like using insect repellent, and the net, we've still managed to receive almost a dozen bites each - some of them visible from space.
It's 10:00 before we get to the bus station - we're going to have to try and start getting up early! Of course sleeping in an oven doesn't exactly help.
The next bus to Palenque leaves at 11:00. An unsatisfying supermarket breakfast is consumed as we wait.
The two hour bus takes us into increasingly green countryside as we approach our destination.
Arriving into Palenque bus terminal, small hotels line the roadside. No shortage of tourists here - in fact the bus is full of them. Beyond the hotels, nothing is visible except palm trees, fields, and jungle.
For $4, a taxi takes us to 'the best campsite' close to the ruins. We're told to pitch our tent anywhere 'green'. We select an RV site (with power point) that happens to be green. The campsite is only about half full so I don't any problems with robbing an RV slot.
The weather is warm but not suffocating. To allow ventilation in the tent, I decide not to bother with the waterproof flysheet. The main body of the tent is nylon mesh, so hopefully it won't get too hot inside. I've some reservations about leaving my laptop in a 'see-thru' tent but calculate the risk to be minimal. The crowd is mix of RVing Americans and European 'peace & love' hippy types - both hopefully harmless.
We head off in the direction of the ruins. A combi passes by and takes us all the way for $1.
The cost of a guide is $35 for up to 7 people. Unfortunately we can't see anyone around to share with, so we go it alone. The time is 14:15 and the tour will take 2 hours.
The guide is extremely interesting and well worth the investment. Draped around the ruins are scores of dreadlocked tourists, apparently trying to pretend they've just 'discovered' the ruins and therefore have the right to scale the ancient, unprotected, walls. It is little wonder that the site is in a constant state of deterioration. It is also hard to understand the mentality that can treat a site as ancient (zenith 600AD), and as beautiful, as this, with so little respect. The irony is that the clamberers probably feel like they're becoming 'one' with the ancients and absorbing their 'vibes' or energy. The guide doesn't see it that way. Nor do we.
All around is the chatter of birds. We are fortunate to see a few bright yellow toucan beaks streaking the sky, as birds return to nests.
At the end of the tour the weather has cooled slightly and drops of rain start to fall, building up to a tropical downpour. Refreshing and welcome. Until Monica remembers our open tent! (And I remember my laptop inside the open tent!)
A mad dash is made for the exit. An empty combi is waiting outside. Unfortunately the driver can't be persuaded to move off till he's broken the record for 'most people in moving VW camper van'. It's about 15 minutes later before we get back to the tent. Mercifully, a tree has protected the part of the tent with our bags, and no damage has been done.
Five minutes later, the tent is secure and we're in the campsite restaurant, both famished after an exerting day with little food. The meal is good and we're able to take stock of our beautiful location. The site is completely surrounded by large trees and undergrowth. We're now truly in the jungle. Exciting. After dinner we explore a little.
The rain continues on and off as we busy ourselves lying outside our tent. The gravity is strong today.
As the sky darkens, we climb inside the oven. That is, our small tent. Despite stripping off, we feel like we're on slow broil. When the rain stops the temperature rises.
To make matters worse, somebody is enjoying 'the great outdoors' by playing their drum at full, monotonous, wallop. More irony from the 'back-to-nature, peace, love, and harmony' set. So much for listening to exotic jungle sounds - maybe the call of a jaguar on the prowl - a lousy night club is closer picture!
When the drumming finally stops, it turns out to be nothing more than an intermission before a session of 'Mr World Music gets wild on the digeridoo'! Then back to drumming. Now, while it's quite possible that the ancients were amused, for a month or two, by a drum going 'Do-do, do. Do-do, do. Do-do, do. Do-do, do', us westerners have been 'poisoned' by millennia of musical evolution. Sorry friends, but the old, repetitive, drum solo with random chanting is back there in history, along with the dinosaurs.
No sooner do I write these words, when a a cappella rendition of "Don't let me down" drifts our way. Hey, progress!
Luckily the music dies down and the temperature drops a little, allowing odd moments of sleep. The rain comes and goes. The noise of jungle surrounds us - insects, toads, monkeys, and who knows what else. At one point I'm aware of new mosquito bites on my feet. Strange. I check the tent door. Slightly open. Damn!
We wake to an overcast sky. The showers, like our previous two hotels, are cold water only. One way to conserve water I guess!
Our camper-driving neighbors try to convince us of the merits of a camper van -v- a tent. They're canadian (now that's driving!). Their van is of the compact type, and the idea of being able to pull up anywhere, to sleep, certainly has it's attractions. I probably wouldn't have a sore neck either! I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that carrying both camera gear and camping gear just isn't feasible!
We head into town to find about tours to Agua Azul, a waterfall, and Bonampak - some jungle ruins. The town is like a tourist services market, with tour operators and hotels making up almost every second business! Everything is named 'Maya this' and 'Maya that', with a couple of 'Eco's thrown in for good measure..
After some research, we book a 2 day tour to Bonampak for $75 each. At 12:00, a combi will take us to Agua Azul and back for $8. In the meantime, we head to an Internet cafe.
The bus tour takes us first to Misol-Ha, a waterfall with a powerful jet of water falling 40 meters into an idyllic pool. After an hour there, we drive on through the lush jungle to Agua Azul.
Unfortunately Agua Azul ('Blue Water') is more a murky brown color today, thanks to recent rains. Of course the color doesn't take away from the magnitude of the place. A huge torrent of water cascades down the mountainside; resembling more a hydro-electric project than a natural wonder.
The weather is cooling and soon it begins to rain in spurts. Luckily this is little more than an inconvenience as we walk along the banks of the river. We pass on taking a swim, however. The rain reaches storm grade during the drive back to Palenque.
I want to back up my photos before heading off on the 2 day jungle tour. Problem is, the power point near our tent is outdoors, a few meters from the tent, and it's raining! Monica thinks it's hilarious because she thinks my, weight saving, cable shortening tricks mean the cables won't stretch to the tent. Little does she know that what I actually did was replace three long cables with one long cable! Even so - it's quite a stretch to get to the tent, and the ends of the cables only just make it inside. It's quite fun having a laptop inside a tent - I feel like a scientist working in a remote outpost.
The jungle noise outside is incredible - maybe the equivalent of being able to hear every phone conversation in a city. Or a multiplied version of a bar in Ireland, where everybody shouts to be heard above everybody else shouting. It would be nice to be able to identify all of the sounds - if only for reassurance!
For the first time on this trip, the night gets cool enough to unpack our sleeping bags. Of course we wake feeling hot and sticky!
The tour van will pick us up after 06:00 so it's a bit of a panic to try pack everything up in the dark. Deep, loud, growling sounds emanate from the surrounding jungle as we pack. We're leaving most of the stuff in a campsite locker.
The tour van is almost full with six other thrill seekers. The van drives in convoy with a few other tour operators. For some reason, all the tour companies seem to offer exactly the same tour - same pick up time, same restaurants, etc. Maybe they share space or something.
We stop for a buffet breakfast in a 'tropical' style restaurant, with rustic, outdoor, decor, surrounded by trees. Also enjoying breakfast are a number of men with automatic weapons.
Before leaving, we are asked to put our names and passport number on a sheet. Military controls apparently. Chiapas is the home state of the 'Zapatistas', a group of armed rebels fighting for indigenous rights. Or so they say. Until recently, foreign visitors to Chiapas required a special permit.
After getting back in the van, we wait until a police car (with two armed breakfasters) leaves ahead of us. It looks like we have police escort! I'm not sure if it's pre-arranged but it is definitely deliberate. Following us, also from the restaurant, is a large tour bus of well-to-do Mexicans.
As we drive past very simple, one room, houses, the young children wave at us.
An hour later, we reach a military checkpoint and the name list is handed over. On the other side the police car waits until the tour bus passes through. Looks like the escort is no accident. This is proved beyond doubt when Monica asks to make a pit stop. We are told we have to travel with the police. When we finally do stop, at Monica's insistence, the police come back for us to check if everything is all right. Our driver tells us that there are a lot of bandits in the area.
Bonampak is a beautiful site (and sight) - much of it still under jungle. The main attractions are three small chambers, with murals completely covering the internal walls and ceiling. For me it's nice to see some ruins in their unrestored state - somehow it's more exciting to come across ancient stone structures that have been untouched for hundreds of years!
We only have an hour at the site which is not really enough. One of disadvantages of an organized tour. Before boarding the van we are offered water from a big plastic cooler. When everyone declines, we are told "Don't worry, I filled it fresh from the river this morning"! Humor typical of the locals when dealing with tourists.
The next stop is Yaxchilan, another, larger, Mayan site. To get there, we drive to the Usumacinta river which separates Mexico from Guatemala. Another military checkpoint is passed on the way.
At the river we board a long, narrow, boat, with outboard motor. The river is wide and fast flowing. Thick vegetation lines the banks. It's clear that the high water mark is several meters above its current level. Scary. The journey takes about 45 minutes.
Arriving at Yaxchilan, we climb up the bank to the entrance gate. At the top of the bank, there is a jetty for use in the wet season. It's hard to imagine so much water. It seems like the site is only accessible by river.
The first building we see is built into a bank and has three inviting doors. Entering the first chamber, an unlit corridor is visible. Now this is explorer action! I turn on my torch and start to follow the tunnel. The small, yellow, beam from the torch reminds me, once again, that I really should get a new battery!
A sound in the ceiling alerts me to a family of bats. They hiss and squirm as I shine my light on them. Maybe I should have got the rabies vaccination!
Exploring further, I'm led for about 5 meters down a winding path, passing around four small rooms with stone beds. Cozy. Returning, there is a small stairway leading out the back of the building and into the main plaza.
The site is quite large. There are various clusters of restored buildings, separated by long, steep, paths through the jungle. There is a constant sound of loud growling from the trees surrounding us. Seems almost incredible that it comes from a small, harmless, monkey. Sounds more like something out of Alien.
The exciting thing is that we are well and truly in the jungle, exploring ancient ruins: A longheld fantasy of mine!
The return boat trip, against the current, will take around 2 hours (over twice as long as getting here). The air is quite cool and misty now, with odd bursts of rain. We wrap up in plastic ponchos provided by the tour company. They work pretty well - must try to get some. Poor Monica packed for tropical heat and now has arms like a plucked chicken (with a tan).
Tired from the early start, I fall fast asleep - seated in a wooden boat (now if I could just perform the same trick in a comfy bus!). Every time I open my eyes, the scene is the same - broad river stretching into the distance with green banks partly concealed by mist.
After what seems like a life-time, the 'harbor' comes into view. Trance-like, we climb into the van and allow the driver to take us where he will.
We've opted for a 2 day tour that includes 'rustic' accommodation in a Lacandón community and a guided walk through the jungle the next day. This means we'll be dropped off, along with two others, while the rest head back to Palenque.
The tour van stops at a small town called San Javier. Stepping out, we see a small crowd of backpackers, a decorated combi van, and a long haired 'Lacandón' man rushing around purposefully. The Lacandón are the indigenous people from this area, said to have descended from the Maya. The men have very characteristic features: Large eyes and nose, robust frame and face, head set forward over body when walking. The traditional male dress, which many still use, is a long white shirt. The women wear colored dresses.
An exchange of backpackers occurs as some us get in the colorful combi, bound for the jungle lodgings, and others get in the tour vans, bound for Palenque. We drive off in the combi at a fair pace. Watching the foliage flash past, in last remnants of daylight, reminds me of a sci-fi worm hole sequence.
At our first stop we drop two of our companions. Wearing new backpacks and hiking gear, they look a bit lost and bewildered amidst the Lacandón 'village' of small streams, rustic tin-roofed huts, and jungle growth all around.
A women approaches the van and peers inside, as if she's never seen a crowd of pale skinned tourists before. She steps back and starts yelling at our driver. It's not really clear if she's angry or just highly animated. She's ranting in the local dialect, which bears no resemblance to Spanish. The driver lets her scream for about five minutes, calmly placating her every now and then with a few words. The rest of the van occupants are giggling almost hysterically at her sweeping gestures and rapid fire speech. She continues shouting as we move off, then stares after us open mouthed, apparently stunned that we could leave her mid-conversation.
On the way out of the village we stop where an ass is grazing by the side of the road. The driver gets and starts yelling and throwing stones at the poor beast until it moves to the other side of the single track road. Maybe he's letting out what he wanted to say to the women.
We drive off at a ferocious pace. Looking back, I see the ass crossing back to his preferred side of the road.
A few minutes later we arrive at our camp. There's six of us - two french boys, a retired french-speaking swiss couple, and us. We'll be sleeping in a star-shaped, two story, 'palapa' (palm thatched hut). Each couple has their own triangular-shaped 'star point' to sleep in. Simple but acceptable. The only running water are streams and rivers that criss cross all over the place. Dinner is at 8.
We relax, while waiting, balancing ourselves in a hammock. A huge moth, the size of a small bird, flutters by. The night is cool and fresh, with a light breeze.
Dinner is served in a communal hut. The food is very good and well appreciated after our active day.
Bellies full, we prepare for bed. Cool air is blowing in through the large mesh window at the foot of our 'room'. Rather too cool, in fact, so we do our best to block the wind with bags and spare clothing. The mosquito net is called into service once more, giving a fairy-tale look to our bed.
Awaking from a solid nights sleep, it turns out we both dreamt it was christmas and snowing. I guess it's colder than we've become used to.
We wash as best we can on the river bank. Neither of us is about to brave the cold water at this hour!
After breakfast, we wait for our Lacandón guide who will take us on a 4 hour walk through the jungle. A man, dressed in traditional white shirt and sandals, appears. He's walking at a fast pace. He keeps walking as he smiles at us and says "Vamonos" ("Let's go") with a point of his machete. The group, startled at the abrupt introduction, hurries to catch up.
The 'jungle walk' feels more like a 'jungle march' as our guide tears along the path as if he's late for an appointment. Doesn't look I'll be taking many photos.
The sights, smells, and sounds of the jungle are magical as we trek along paths, across slippery tree trunk bridges, and up and down steep banks. We pass a sleeping wild butterfly with a wingspan of about 15 cm (the size of man's hand!).
The guide stops occasionally to hack a piece out of a tree or bush to demonstrate its useful properties. I wonder how 'eco-friendly' the practice is as we walk past trees scarred from previous tours!
After an hour we arrive at a small Mayan building with a huge tree growing on the roof and surrounded by thick vegetation. It is almost mystical to come across an ancient building in this concealed state - like re-discovering a lost temple. The temple is in quite good condition, with some original paint still visible.
The guide offers to take us to some other, larger, ruins in exchange for a tip. Tantalized, we accept.
The next ruins are indeed larger. Scattered all around are carved stones with Mayan glyphs, etc. The mystery of the Maya's demise becomes more poignant as one walks around discarded stone manuscripts and other remnants of a once advanced and knowledgeable society.
Walking on, unusual sounds surround us. Every few minutes there is a call sounding something like a whistle blown underwater. The guide says it's a bird. We'd probably never have guessed.
After half an hour or so, we arrive at a waterfall with a pool for swimming. Feeling a little chilly in the morning, we didn't bother bringing bathing clothes. Now, feeling hot and sweaty, we regret our decision. Monica rolls up her trousers and wades around while the French guys don shorts and dive in.
The walk back crosses a couple of rivers. Misjudging the depth of one of the rivers, I didn't bother taking off my boots and so end up with two squelching wet feet! I'm not too bothered because I'm kind of curious to know the drying time for my boots in any case. Squelch, squelch, squelch.
Arriving back at the Lacandona community, we are given the opportunity to buy some arts and crafts. Monica, as ever, is tempted but weight considerations reign.
Lunch is served and we wait for 16:00, when we'll drive out to meet the tour vans for the return to Palenque. Time is passed talking with the retired Swiss couple. This is their second trip to Mexico and they've been bussing around independently like us. Brave folks!
The drive to the rendez-vous point is at a calmer pace than yesterday. Our driver, the owner of the center, says the tour vans always arrive late.
He's right. As we stand around waiting, we chat about his business - now in its 21st year! He feels a bit abused by the tour companies - that they don't pay him enough to improve the facilities, etc.
The tour vans (three of them) arrive only 30 minutes later. This time we have no police escort. Let's hope the bandits don't go for the motherload of three packed tourist vans.
Arriving in Palenque, we're the last to be dropped off. We chat with the driver about the tour. Predictably, he feels that the Lacandón are paid well. He does acknowledge the need to improve the facilities. However, he explains that as the site is used by several tour companies, it's difficult for his company to assist directly.
It's dark by the time we're dropped at the campsite. As we set up the tent I manage, by a freak combination of my flip-flop falling off and losing my balance, to tread on a tent peg. The pain is horrible as the star shaped head of the peg gouges the sole of my foot. Looking at the resulting wound I suddenly recall how I obtained a similar cut on our last trip. Damn flip-flops! Fortunately the hole is only skin deep, and more a nuisance than a problem.
Continuing with the tent, Monica spots something scurrying in the darkness. A small white animal, looking something like a guinea pig, approaches us. It seems to be accustomed to humans, and hence ignores us. I wonder if it's really a wild animal or an escaped pet. It's soooo cute!
Tired after the day's activities, we promptly fall asleep to the noise of the jungle.
We arrive at Palenque ruins shortly before opening time at 8 am. We want to get a few visitor-free pictures before the crowds arrive.
The sky is a beautiful color, with a few clouds dotting a deep blue sky. The morning light illuminates the buildings with long shadows, bringing out textures. I rush madly from vantage point to vantage point snapping away before people start clambering over the beautiful stonework.
Around 11, after taking some great pictures, we give up and go to seek permission to visit the tomb. The administration offices are at the museum, a 400 meter walk away. On the path, Monica spots a perched toucan not 3 meters from us. The bright yellow beak flashes like a beacon as it flies off in front of our eyes.
Our efforts to the see the tomb of Pakal are frustrated - apparently 'the person' who issues the permissions is not at work today. This is typical Mexican bureaucracy - only one person has authorization to do a particular job, and that person only shows up when they feel like it.
We take some refreshments in the museum café, then look around. The museum has some fantastically well preserved relics.
Returning to the campsite, the sun is gloriously shining down on us - a change to the overcast weather of a few days ago. We empty our damp-smelling backpacks to air everything out and take the opportunity to wash our clothes.
The heat is pouring down, so I find myself a nice spot in the shade. After a while, Monica appears carrying a huge water melon - just the thing to combat the sun! They're selling them at the campsite entrance for 80 cents each - a bargain! We cut some huge slices for ourselves and share the rest with our fellow campers.
In the afternoon, we return to the ruins to get some more good shots in this great weather. We arrive at the park an hour before closing and move swiftly around, snapping away. A small group of people are stretched out on the roof of a temple - right where I want to photograph! Sometimes I think there should be a rule against staying more than 5 minutes in any one place when visiting sites of photographic interest! In the end I have to wait till closing time, when everyone is shooed off, before taking a couple of shots.
The last combi to Palenque leaves around 6 pm. This gives us only 30 minutes or so to break camp, and head into town to take the bus to Mérida - our next stop. Relying on the information provided by our Swiss friends from yesterday, the bus to Mérida leaves at 21:00.
Somehow we succeed in packing everything up in time, and catch a combi just after 6 pm. At the bus station, we meet the Swiss couple. They are taking the same bus to Mérida. Monica chats and chats with the women, eventually receiving an offer to use the couple's Swiss Alps chalet, whenever we feel the urge!
Interesting how people seem to drop their normal barriers when traveling, and make close friends with anyone they meet. Perhaps friendship is more highly desired in a foreign environment. Of course, if we showed up on their familiar doorstep one day, they'd surely wonder why they ever offered their holiday home to a pair of perfect strangers!
The bus sets of, on schedule, at 9 pm. It's not particularly comfortable and we're kept wide awake for most of the journey.
We arrive at Mérida bus terminal at the ungodly hour of 5 am. I can't even remember what we're doing here. I find a seat and wait for something to happen. After a few minutes, Monica says we could take a bus to nearby Chichen Itza. Ah. Now I remember why we came. Chichen Itza is one of Mexico's most famous Mayan sites, and is relatively close by.
According to the guide, there's camping at Chichen Itza, so we plan to spend a day and a night there. The bus leaves at 06:30 and will arrive around 08:00.
As we wait, I attend to the wounds inflicted by mosquitos during the night. Even though I'm wearing socks and long trousers, I have about five bites. I can't believe how hungry they are. I guess I'm going to have to start wearing repellent even under clothing!
Aboard the bus, the video starts off with a message saying "Public broadcasting of this video is strictly prohibited. For domestic use only.". Then again, the film's title, 'Earthquake in New York', and subsequent bad acting, suggest it might be a bigger crime to pay for it.
About two hours later we stop at Piste, the small town near the Chichen Itza ruins. Monica spots a sign that says "Camping". It's the Pyramid Inn hotel - the same place that's mentioned in the guidebook. Great - it still exists and we know where it is! About 2 km further on, we're dropped off, with all our bags, at the ruins. It's coming up to 08:30.
The entrance fee is a huge $8 each. I wonder if the fee reflects the size of the ruins, or the amount of tourists that come here (Chichen Itza is a day trip from Cancun - Mexico's main, and expensive, beach destination). At least they have a place to store bags - and it's free!
The ruins are almost deserted when we enter, and we manage to fire off some great morning shots of some of the main structures - the pyramid, the ball court (largest of its kind), and surrounding palaces and temples.
By 11:00, the place has filled up with bus-loads of tourists, so we retire to the restaurant for breakfast. Surprisingly, the food is reasonably priced and quite good.
After eating, we figure the best plan is to head to the campsite/hotel, check in, relax, then return in the afternoon to take more photos. There doesn't seem to be any bus or combi service to Piste, so the only options are taxi or walking. The taxi wants to charge $3. For a 2 km ride in Mexico, this is outrageous - and again a function of the kind of tourists that come to Chichen Itza. We also find it hard to understand why the taxi drivers prefer to sit around doing nothing (there are about ten of them sitting under a tree) rather than accept a lower fare. So we walk.
The going isn't too bad - we seem to be getting used to carrying our stuff! About half way a taxi offers us a lift. For $3! Monica looks ready to strangle the man. Eventually he negotiates to take us the rest of the way for $1.50. We accept, not really sure how much further it is. In fact, the hotel was already in sight (just).
The hotel charges $8 for camping. It's more than we're used to but it does include use of the pool! We camp in the hotel's gardens. The place is like a little oasis with shady 'palapas' (palm thatched huts) for resting, beautiful gardens, the pool, deck chairs, etc. We pitch our tent and dive into the icy water.
Refreshed, we dry off on the toasty hot, painted-concrete deck-chairs. I buy a bottle of water at the bar. $1.50 for a 1 liter bottle. It's amazing how many different price points the same product can be sold for. In Tabasco we bought a 2 liter bottle for $0.70.
In the afternoon we walk back to the ruins. The number of visitors has started to die off and we wander around the places we haven't seen yet, like the 'Caracol' which is believed to have been an observatory. We also visit the sacred 'cenote' (a lake that is fed from an underground river - usually formed when part of the ground over the river collapses). It's believed that humans were sacrificed at the cenote.
There is a tomb inside the pyramid, with a steep, narrow, stairway leading up to it. There are around sixty steps and sweaty people are climbing up and down all the time. Ascending the staircase in these conditions is an act of heroism in itself. Only the feeling of excitement overcomes the revulsion of the cramped, hot, damp conditions.
I make it to the top by moving slowly and breathing as little as possible. There is a 'Chac-mool' in the tomb - a reclining figure with a flat stomach on which to make offerings - and a black jaguar, formed from stone with jade eyes.
Turning around, the tiny staircase descending steeply down is a little intimidating. Seeing the narrow tube squashed with scrambling people makes it close to terrifying! One couple are frozen near the top, unable to bring themselves to enter the fray. I follow a bigger man down, confident that he'll make more than enough room for me! Just hope he doesn't get stuck.
Outside the pyramid, the fresh air is like breathing honey. Monica is there, waiting. She had tried to come up with me but couldn't bear being pressed against so many sweaty bodies.
We climb up the outside of the pyramid and enjoy a great view of Chichen Itza. It is magnificant to think of the ancient priests peering out over their huge and beautiful city. Games played in the ball court could be seen from here. So could offerings made on the Chac-mool atop a neighboring temple.
As the park closes, all the visitors climb down from the pyramid to the sound of whistle blowing. We take some human-free photos before being hurried along.
There is a light show in the evening, where the buildings are lit in different colors and, we suppose, set to music. The time of the show is 19:00 winter, 20:00 summer. We decide it's summer and plan to return for the show at 20:00. The ticket office is closed right now, so we have to buy tickets when we return.
We're getting used to walking at this stage as we return to the hotel. Hopefully the exercise is doing our bodies some good - our feet are certainly complaining! We dine at the hotel before heading back to see the light show. As we're leaving, the hotel staff happen to mention that the show starts at 19:00! It's now 19:15, and we're 2 km from the ruins. Oh what fools - why did we think we were on summer time?! Monica really wanted to go and now wears a glum face.
Our evening suddenly free, we wander around and think about our next steps. There are a two factors driving us:
1. We need to withdraw cash (there are no ATMs within 10 km from here).
2. We need to get a second dose of a vaccine.
We decide to take the bus tomorrow to Tulum. I have the idea it's a big city and we might be able organize our vaccines. If not, it's close to Cancun - the nearest big city in our general route. Tulum is also the site of some famous coastal ruins.
We wake to loud, exotic, birdsong. It feels like the garden of Eden to be camped on the green grass, surrounded by palm trees and colorful birds. I'm in no hurry to move off early.
We swim in the morning and generally relax. The next bus to Tulum leaves in the afternoon.
The bus is boarded just next to the hotel. At the first stop, Monica suggests trying to withdraw cash. We've got 10 minutes. I get off the bus to look for an ATM but am told that the nearest is three blocks away. I return to the bus, not too worried as I'm sure we'll be able to get cash in Tulum.
I explain the situation to Monica when I get back on board. She's surprised I didn't go the three blocks to the ATM because she's not sure there will be an ATM in Tulum. She tells me there's almost nothing in Tulum apart from the bus stop!
Whoops - major misunderstanding. I had the idea that Tulum was a big city. Unfortunately the guide confirms what Monica says - a few hotels, nothing more. Oops, oops, oops. We only have about $50 left and will need to buy bus tickets, hotel, ruins entrance fee, etc.
When we do finally arrive in Tulum, it seems fairly large and touristy. On each side of the bus station are 'Casas de Cambio' (Money Exchange). Looks like there should be an ATM here.
We unload our bags onto the sidewalk and I wait while Monica asks about an ATM. The bad news is there's no ATM in Tulum. The good news is there's one a 15 minute bus ride away. We catch the bus to a small, shiny, complex containing shops, hotel, and restaurants. Monica is a little embarrassed to walk in with our backpacks but we have no option. We follow directions to the ATM. There's a sign over it saying "Out of Order". The feeling is like trekking for days through the desert towards an oasis, only to finally arrive and find it empty! Now we've wasted $3 on bus fares for nothing.
A combi takes us back to Tulum. The 'combis' here are quite luxurious - new air conditioned vans - and relatively inexpensive for the distances they travel (up to 30 km). We get off in Tulum with no idea where to turn. We find a supermarket that accepts credit cards and buy food for dinner. Now what?
Walking around we see a sign to some $12-a-night cabins. When we arrive, carrying all our gear plus food, there's no-one around to ask if there's anything available. Looking around, it seems pretty full, so we go off in search elsewhere.
The next hotel we find is $35 a night but they've no space in any case. Next we find more 'cabins'. They're also full but the owner shows us a room he could rent us if we were interested. It's a bare concrete room with no windows. It does have an ensuite bathroom of sorts. Frankly anywhere horizontal would suit me at this stage but I'm afraid that Monica will either start crying or kill me!
We walk back to the first cabins. This time we find someone and they do have cabins available. Talk about the sun shining through on a cloudy day. The cabins are very rustic but relatively clean, and will do the job. The attendant tells us that the shared shower has hot water - that will be a novelty for us!
A feast is prepared with the supermarket food and all is good in the world once more. I string up the mosquito net and we climb into bed.
Almost immediately I have a sinking feeling, and I'm not talking in metaphors! For some reason my side of the bed is subsiding. It slopes at such an angle I feel like I'm going to roll out. The mattress feels like it's stuffed with straw or something. The only solution seems to be to sleep diagonally across the bed and let my legs droop down the incline. At this stage I'm so tired, I'll sleep anywhere.
Getting out of bed, the reason for the droop on my side of the bed is obvious - the mattress is hanging of the edge of the base of the bed! Somehow in my tired state last night, it didn't occur to me to investigate the problem to see if there was a solution!
No matter. The mosquito net did its job. A good nights rest was had. And now I'm about to enjoy my first hot water shower in days. The attendant said it was necessary to wait about 5 minutes for the hot water to come through. I'm standing outdoors, buck naked, and after several minutes the water is still freezing. Was the hot water story the young man's idea of a sick joke?!
But no! Lo and behold, the water starts to run a perfect temperature for showering. Now this is luxury.
We take a taxi to the ruins, keen to arrive before the crowds. The taxi drops us at the entrance at 07:45. The walk to the ruins is about 1 km. There is a 'tractor train' that leaves at 08:00. We decide to walk, with all our stuff, to try and get at least a few people-free photos. The entrance sign says that the park now opens at 7am - not 8am as indicated in the guide - Arghhh!
The walk isn't too bad - the day hasn't heated up yet. At the ruins, we leave our bags with the bathroom attendant.
The ruins are indeed quite interesting. A small city with several fort-like buildings built on top of a cliff, facing the sea. The sea is a sparkling, transparent, green. There are a couple of small beaches at the bases of the low cliffs. The city has a wall around the perimeter - not a common feature in pre-hispanic cities.
The crowds show up pretty quickly, so only a few decent shots can be taken. While the tourists in Chiapas were almost exclusively European, it seems we're now moving away from the 'Euro-tourist' zone, and into US vacation territory. Most of the many tour groups are Americans.
A group of Japanese visitors are climbing on one of the temples, despite the area being roped off, with a clear "no climbing" picture. I try to talk to them but they just look at me and nod, with no intention of moving. I wonder how they'd feel if a group of Mexican tourists started climbing over the Emperor's palace in Japan. A little incensed, I report them to the wardens who promptly attack the group with whistles and hand movements.
I haven't seen Monica for a while and start to look for her earnestly. The small site is now full of people so it's hard to spot an individual. I walk hurriedly around the perimeters and between the buildings searching for her. I'm running around for over 30 minutes, ever more frantic, before I hear her voice calling me. Thank God - I was starting to fear the worse. Apparently Monica had seen me rushing around but thought I was just taking pictures!
The next stop in our rough plan is 'Xel-Ha', a lagoon, turned nature reserve, turned major tourist attraction. The many pamphlets and billboards show amazing snorkeling. It's only about 15 km from here.
The walk back to the main highway is a bit uncomfortable in the sun but we manage. A passing combi picks us from the highway and drops us off at the entrance road to Xel-Ha.
The start of the entrance road is lined with bright green, irrigated grass banks. We walk in the path of the water sprinklers to cool down. The walk from the highway to the park entrance is another kilometer. Iguanas scurry as we trek along the path. A tour van whizzes past every couple of minutes.
At the gates, Monica spies what has become our holy grail - an ATM! Greedily, we crowd inside the small booth and withdraw all the cash we can. The powerful, refrigerator-like, air conditioning enhances the experience considerably!
Much happier, we pay the $20 per person entrance fee and enter the park. We're clearly in gringo territory now, with nary a penny-watching European in sight! Everything is clean, tidy, and well organized with helpful little signs.
There are pools with dolphins. Visitors can swim with them for only $65. We decide to give it a miss today, and instead head to the lockers to dump our bags.
Problem. The lockers are about the size of a high school locker, and not really designed for two backpacks! The staff offer to keep them in their office. It seems like our lucky day.
Snorkeling gear rental costs $8 per person - about normal for tourist areas - and includes a free, new, snorkel. Monica loves this, as the thought of using a second hand snorkel fills her with repulsion!
There are huge quantities of fish, and the underwater camera comes into service. The fact that most of the other visitors are busying themselves with splashing loudly is a bit annoying. Fortunately the fish seem used to it and go on about their business as usual. Swimming away from a small island we spy an incredible fish almost a meter long. Monica takes a few shots before it slowly cruises off.
On the other side of the bay, more wonders await us, including a huge ray gliding along the ocean floor. I'd seen lots of TV programs about rays but never imagined I'd be sharing the sea with one. The feeling is magical.
After half an hour, the cold starts to bite. We head for the sun of the shore. As we prepare to climb the wooden steps out of the water, I suddenly become aware of something in my pocket. A small square which can only be one thing: My wallet!
What a fool! But what luck it didn't fall out. On shore, I open it all up and lay out the bills to dry. In the bright sun this doesn't take long.
Time to upload the camera's memory card so we can take more pictures. Transfer complete, I power up the camera again. Something strange happens; the camera doesn't turn on normally, and gives a cryptic "E18" message on the screen. We try a few times, replace the batteries, etc. but get the same error message. Oops. Just hope it's a temporary, self-curing, problem.
After an overpriced lunch, we follow signs to "Start of the river". We gather it's possible to swim or float down the river, into the lagoon. On the walk, we pass through wooded areas with the odd pretty bird. There are also a few jumping points where the brave can dive 10 meters into the river. We're surprised at the daring of the young children that are jumping repeatedly from the cliff-top, then climbing back up on a rope ladder. Hot from the walk, the clear, green, water of the river looks very tempting!
There is a warning sign next to the jumping points which helpfully states "Do not jump into river if you are unable to swim".
At the start of the river, they have a great system for your belongings. You put everything in a locked bag, which they then transport to a pick-up point near the lagoon - ready for when you arrive. An excellent idea. We pile almost everything in the bag and hand it over. Valuables - cash, credit cards, and two camera memory cards - go into a small waterproof bag to take with us. The waterproof camera still refuses to turn on.
The river water is ice cold and we swim quickly to stay warm. There are a quite a lot of fish in the river but the experience is at best 'nice' rather than 'amazing'. We stop half-way down the river. There is a path leading to two 'cenotes' in the park. A cenote is a lake fed from the clean water of an underground river. They often make great swimming pools and I've previously promised Monica we'll go swimming in one.
I check my waterproof 'wallet'. It's full of water. Terrific - the second soaking my poor pesos have had today. I hope the memory cards will still work. I place each bill, credit card, and memory card between my fingers to try and let them dry out a little as we walk.
The cenotes are quite small and shallow, with green-slimed walls, and home to duck populations. Unfortunately it doesn't look possible (or desirable) to swim here.
Cutting our losses and moving on, I put everything back in the waterproof bag and do a better job of sealing it this time. It seems to work and, after swimming a few meters, the bag is still dry. It also floats - handy should it fall out of my pocket. On the hand, it also tends to float out of my pocket! I decide to hold the bag in my hand instead.
By the time we get to the lagoon, a few minutes later, we're losing interest in swimming. I persuade Monica to at least visit the 'Mayan Cave' at the lagoon's edge. We've seen it noted on the big park maps that are dotted all over the place.
The Mayan cave is a short underground loop that one can swim through. The entrance hole in the lagoon's bank is a few meters across. We swim about 10 meters underground before exiting through another hole in the bank.
The walk back to the main area takes us over a 'floating bridge'. The bridge crosses the mouth of lagoon and ripples up and down with the waves. The shaking takes a bit of getting used to as we wobble the 30 meters across it. At the other end, the staff are throwing dead fish into the water, one at a time. The dash towards the bait is impressive. Maybe fifty half-meter long fish speed directly, from all sides, towards a single point. The movement is faster than the eye can follow. There are few people swimming in the water. Brave folks; those fish look mean and hungry!
We continue walking towards the place where we can pick up our locked bag. I put a hand in my pocket and the bomb drops. My plastic 'wallet' is no longer there. I can remember feeling it in my pocket in the Mayan cave, it must have floated out shortly afterwards. How could I have been so stupid as to leave it in my pocket?!
The next hour or so, before the park closes, is spent searching for a floating plastic bag. It doesn't show up. Worse yet, I lose Monica! In my confused state, I reason that she must have started walking back to the pick-up point for the bag, expecting me to catch up with her. I run off in the same direction but don't find her. I return to the Mayan cave but she's nowhere to be found there either. I feel a panic rising. What if something has happened to her? She's dressed only in a bathing suit - not even shoes.
It's drawing up to 5 pm. We have to collect all our things from the locker office before 5. Monica knows this, so I hope to meet her either at the bag pick-up point or the locker office. There's no sign of her. I pick up the locked bag. Fortunately I had the key around my neck and not in the lost plastic bag!
To save carrying it around, I return the snorkeling gear. Monica still hasn't returned hers. More panic. I head for the lockers - my last stop. Once I claim our bags, I'll have no choice but to wait and pray.
Monica's not there. With a heavy heart I collect our stuff and wait. I sit on a bench like a lost child and pray that God has protected her. It's the longest 15 minutes of my life before Monica comes into view, apparently fine. The relief is enormous.
It's not exactly clear how we lost each other but Monica ended up swimming across the lagoon, while I walked across the bridge. Monica thought it would be quicker to swim than walk but unfortunately it meant our paths never crossed.
We ask at the information office if anyone's handed in my plastic bag wallet. I feel sure it must have been found because it doesn't seem to be in the water. No luck. They give us a phone number to call back in a few days.
We have some urgency to get to a phone/internet service in order to cancel my credit cards. There is a crowd of taxis sitting idly so we ask the price to take us to the edge of town where we saw an internet service. $6. For Mexico, this is really expensive - especially considering the air conditioned combi costs about $1. We walk the kilometer to the highway to take the combi instead.
We're picked up promptly and 15 minutes later arrive at the hotel that offers internet service in big letters. We walk inside the empty bar/reception and ask about getting online. Turns out the service is no longer offered. In fact, looking around, it doesn't appear that much of any kind of service is offered any more. There are some pay phones in the hotel across the street with credit card slogans on them (I still have a couple of credit cards stored in a different bag - the sign of an experienced loser).
I dial the 1-800 number to make the call. An operator answers. I ask how much it costs to make a credit card call to the UK - the location of my bank. They ask for the number. I'm told the number is invalid. They read the number back. The number is correct but their system says it's invalid. I hang up angrily.
Monica, meanwhile, has found a yellow pages that has local numbers for American Express and Visa - the cards I've lost. Great. We call the number for American Express. They give us another number for reporting lost cards. We dial. The person that answers says that the lost card reporting service has closed for the day, and we should call again in the morning! This is unbelievable!
Most worried about the Amex card, which has no spending limit, I call the UK using a $5 phonecard. I just have time report the lost card before the phone card runs out. That's one relief. Now for Visa. The local number asks me to enter the card number. I do so. A recording says "You can cancel this card by dialling the UK on...". So much for a local number.
Monica says that this hotel has internet service for $4 for 1 hour. Although expensive compared to other places, it will work out cheaper than calling the UK. Plus we get to check our mail.
The internet access turns out to be the personal computer of the owner's son (or so we guess). Luckily the passwords are saved, and so we're able to dial up. The connection is horribly slow.
It takes about 15 minutes before I'm able to enter my bank's website and report the lost card. At last it works and now both the lost cards have been reported. We can relax a little.
On Canon's website we report the problem with the camera, which is still refusing to power-up properly. Hopefully we'll get a quick response, with a solution, so we can continue to use the camera on the journey.
Once the hour online is up, we head outside to wait for the bus. Monica had told me earlier that there was a bus to Chetumal, on the border with Belize, at 19:45. I try to re-confirm this with her but she says she doesn't remember. The information came from some guys at the bus stop in the morning.
Rather than wait hopelessly in the night, I suggest she call the bus company. We're undecided between going to Cancun, to the north, or Chetumal, to the south. Cancun is good because it's bigger, more prosperous, and therefore more likely to have a vaccine we need. On the other hand, it's an expensive tourist destination. After today I feel like I've had my fill of expensive tourist destinations!
Monica returns from making the call. The next bus to Chetumál is at 11 pm. There is a bus to Cancun in 5 minutes. We decide to go to Cancun. As we wait, several buses whiz past on the highway. None seems to show any sign of stopping at the small bus terminal we're waiting in.
Monica calls again. The buses don't stop at this terminal after 6 pm. Now they tell us. The main terminal is about 2 km away. There doesn't seem to be much option but walk. There is another bus for Cancun in an hours time.
"And the water...?", Monica asks as we head off. Somebody else's half-empty bottle sits on the wall.
"I have our water".
Monica looks worried. "Then who's water is that?!".
"I don't know, it was there when we arrived".
"But I drank from that bottle!!!"
At least the bottle looked clean (though it's difficult to tell in the dark!).
The walk is tough going. The night air isn't too hot but our stuff weighs a ton. Now we've got two free snorkels to carry too! A road sign on the two-lane highway says "Tulum 2km".
By the time we come to a sign that says "Tulum 1km", we're practically dying. We've done a lot of 'full-load' walking today and now my back feels ready to break. A taxi passes by and pulls up about 30 meters in front of us. We wave wildly and make towards it. The taxi sits there motionless for about a minute as we catch up, then speeds off. The abuse we yell at the driver doesn't bear repeating!
Plod, plod, plod. We continue, trance-like, along the dark highway, nervous that we'll either be hit by a speeding car, or fall into some deep, unseen, hole. Or attacked by a snake. The only way to keep going is to turn off the brain and concentrate on marching. Plod, plod, plod.
The edge of Tulum looms, with it's bright lights. We recognize the supermarket we bought food from yesterday. It can't be far now. We keep walking, feeling a bit embarrassed, in a town, to be suffering under our heavy loads.
After transversing several street blocks, we still haven't seen the bus terminal. We must have gone past it. We ask a local. "About five blocks further on". Groan. Keep walking. Plod, plod, plod.
We've long missed the bus we were aiming for but they seem to be fairly frequent - Cancun is only a couple of hours away.
Finally reaching the bus terminal, we throw down our packs. I don't feel well. My body is completely enveloped in a thick layer of sweat. I've GOT to change my shirt; I don't care if the last bus this year is about to leave. Monica gets the message as I head to the bathroom, clean shirt in hand.
Splashing cool water over my torso, and donning a dry shirt, feels marvelous. My body no longer feels like it's going to break up - just exhausted.
Back outside, Monica says the next first class bus leaves in 1 hour. Second class buses pass every 15 minutes. I don't fancy the idea of standing in a crowded bus that stops every few minutes, so we wait for the first class bus. Meanwhile I head for snacks.
A block away there's a small store that has some of our staples: Hershey's chocolate milk, biscuits, drinking yogurt, etc., and we gorge on these. Feeling better already. Just think of all the calories we burned.
A second class bus pulls up. It's going to Cancun and doesn't seem too crowded. We hop on. $4 each - not much cheaper than the other bus but this one leaves now!
The bus journey is mostly straight and we sleep a little on the short journey.
As we pull into to Cancun, it feels a bit startling to be in a big city again. Bright lights, crowds of people, everyone moving in 'fast forward'. We hardly know where to turn. The crowd moves us outside the terminal building, where the taxis are picking people up at high speed.
Monica stops to pull out the guide to find a cheap hotel. I opine that we should just ask a taxi to take us to the cheapest place he knows. Monica disagrees, saying the we'll just be taken to his brother's hotel. At this stage, if it has a horizontal bed it will suit me fine. Monica fuddles with the guidebook regardless.
A taxi driver comes over to offer his services. I'm surprised he bothers as there's a steady stream of customers and the rank is moving swiftly. He says he knows a hotel that sometimes has rooms for around $28 (a typical hotel room in Cancun costs over $100). He'll take us there for $2. Cool. We get in. The drive to the hotel is about 5 minutes.
We're in luck. The hotel has a decent room available and we check in. The taxi driver was very friendly and has done us a great service. Maybe Cancun isn't the monster of an expensive tourist resort we thought it was. The taxi drivers in Baja California wouldn't start their engines for less than $5.
The hotel has hot water. We take our second hot shower in two days - might get accustomed to such luxury!
The room is completely sealed for the air conditioning (another luxury), so no fear of mosquitoes (just stale air!). We collapse on the bed, bodies throbbing. The pads of my feet have a numb sensation, like they've received a local anesthetic.
The hotel serves a 'continental' breakfast of orange juice and two slices of toast. Not much but enough to start the day on.
We hit the streets in search of a laundry and a vaccine. A taxi driver takes us to a nearby laundry then on to the local health center.
The staff at the health center seem to do their utmost to be unhelpful. Eventually they suggest we go to a social security center, or a private pediatrician (vaccines are generally given to children). We walk to a social security center.
The social security center has an immunization office but unfortunately doesn't offer the exact vaccine we need, nor is able to help us in obtaining it. We start to feel that maybe we were hopelessly optimistic thinking we'd be able to just show up, order the vaccine, and have it applied.
Outside, sun shining down, we're not sure where to turn. Maybe the yellow pages to find a private pediatrician. I don't like this idea much as it's bound to mean a lot of waiting and a charge for two consultations - one to order the vaccine, and another to have it applied. Monica has the idea of checking if we can order the vaccine from a pharmacy - or if they can at least help us obtain it.
The first couple of pharmacies aren't able to provide any help. As we leave the second pharmacy, however, the manager very helpfully chases after us and advices us to go to a nearby private hospital.
We find the hospital and ask the man on reception. He says the hospital doesn't provide a vaccination service, and recommends that we try a private pediatrician. Back to square one. Monica happens to asks if there is a pediatrician in the hospital. Yes, actually, there is. We're invited to see if she can help.
The doctor is very helpful, and thinks she can get the vaccine for us. She knows somebody that's an expert at getting vaccines and leaves a message for him. We'll return in an hour to see if she can get it.
In the meantime, we meander around Cancun town, buying some supplies, checking out the prices of things to do. The town is certainly geared towards tourism but doesn't have the 'artificial' feel of some places. This is because the town itself is not an attraction, nor has many hotels. Rather, the town is like a support center for the 'hotel zone' which lines a 30 km stretch of pristine beach.
We see some car rentals for only $15 a day but it turns out that to get this rate you have to go and listen to some hard-sell time-share thing at a hotel. We don't like the sound of that. A VW beetle costs $40 a day, with insurance.
There's good news at the hospital. They can have the vaccine tomorrow at around 1 pm. We make an appointment for 16:30.
A public bus service runs between the town and the hotel zone. We take it to check out the beach. The bus runs down a peninsular, offering views of huge, expensive, hotels, occasional shopping centers, and odd glimpses of the sea. We take the bus to the end of the peninsular, where it turns around and starts to head back to town. We have to pay again ($0.50 each) to stay on the bus.
The driver drops us off at what seems to be the last remaining strip of public beach in Cancun. As we catch a view of the sea, the sight is almost beyond words. I feel like I'm in a psychedelic dream as I stare at the bright, clear, turquoise and blue colors of the sea. I've never seen such colors before - not even in a photograph. It's surreal. Unfortunately I don't have my camera with me, so I can't even try to capture the scene.
The beach isn't at all crowded, and we strip off on the pearly white sand.
The sea is shallow and we can wade about 10 meters out to sea. The waves roll with gentle undulations - enough to feel the bob of the sea, not too much that you're fighting against the waves. The water is relatively warm, and once in the sea, it's like an amazingly beautiful bath you don't want to get out of!
I feel like I'm swimming in an enormous turquoise jelly, such is the glazed appearance of the sea's surface; or maybe a creme-de-mente cocktail. Something sweet in any case. I have to resist the urge to sample this gigantic desert.
The water is completely transparent; wading chest high, I can see my toenails. Cupping the water in my hands, its crystal clearness looks good enough to drink. I've never seen sea water so clear. No wonder people pay so much to come here!
We feel a bit like stowaways, enjoying the beautiful beach and sea of Cancun while paying a fraction of what a Cancun vacation typically costs. We didn't even arrive in an aircraft for crying out loud!
On the beach we build pre-hispanic sand temples - an idea I borrowed from some other tourists at Tulum. Unfortunately the sea proves to be a powerful destructive force against our new civilization.
After repeating the swim/sun cycle a few times, we dry off, re-robe, and take the bus to one of the shopping centers. We want to get something to eat and also look into flights to Cuba.
The shopping center is quite nice and we eat in the food court. The travel agency only sells local tours, etc., so we continue into the town center to try our luck there. It's getting late (about 5 pm) and it would be nice to organize something before the end of the day.
The first travel agency we come across has terrible service but we do manage to find out that we can get a special promotional fare with Cubana airlines (Cuba's national airline) for $150 round trip. The cheapest fare with Mexicana (a more reliable airline) is $300. We decide to take the risk and go with the cheap Cubana flight. Besides, I'm curious to see just how bad it is!
To get the promotion fare, we have to go to the official Cubana agency, a few blocks away. It's open till 8 pm, so no rush.
A Cuban woman is on the agency desk. The special deal is for 15 days only. We had thought about spending more time but 15 days is probably enough to begin with. The promotion is also for payment by cash only - credit cards not accepted. This is a bit unsettling but we trudge off to an ATM to withdraw $300 for two tickets.
Leaving the agency, tickets in hand, we feel a little giddy at the thought that we're actually going to Cuba at last! We're also a little nervous about flying Cubana...
We head back to the hotel, with a pit stop at the supermarket to buy supper.
First order of business is to return to the Cubana office to get buy our visas for Cuba ($15 each). This is just a formality (or, more to the point, a tax) and doesn't take long. We try to make a reservation for our first night in Cuba. They say they have to fax the hotel with the request and wait for a reply. We arrange to return in the afternoon.
We're not sure what to do with our day. Our only commitment is to have the vaccines applied at 4:30 in the afternoon. We walk the street considering the options.
Monica stops at one of the many booths selling tickets to local attractions. They offer us a 'two for one' deal on the 'Sub Sea Explorer', a submarine designed for sight seeing. To get the deal, all we have to do is give up one hour of our time to allow a hotel to try and sell us something. Apparently the hotel gives a free lunch into the bargain. I'm wary - there's no such thing as a free lunch (!) - but Monica decides to go for it.
A taxi takes us to the hotel (for free). At the hotel, various people come and take our details and verify that I have an international credit card. A women introduces herself and says she'll be showing us around.
We spend the next hour or so looking at suites in two different hotels. All very luxurious. At the end of this, the woman asks us how much we earn. This is the kind of information I don't give out to anyone but the woman seems surprised by my reticence. She deduces that I must be embarrassed by how little I earn (not the case!), and starts talking about 'accessible' options. The trouble is, we still don't have the slightest idea what it is she's selling.
We're taken to some kind of conference room with lots of small tables and chairs. A lot of people are milling around. We're seated and a new face introduces himself and starts writing numbers on a pad. The woman disappears. It's all a bit confusing but it seems that we can pay about $10,000, then enjoy the luxury suites we've seen for "only" $400 a week, for a maximum of 30 weeks over a 30 year period.
We explain that we're not the kind of tourists that go to a place and stay for weeks at a time enjoying the beach. We like to travel around, mingle with the locals, go without a fixed plan, etc. They then offer us a deal for about half the price but over a 15 year period. We decline this too.
The salesman is replaced by another. The new man hastily crosses out the last figure and says "what if I can offer you 15 vacations for only $3,000?". We're confused about how the price has been halved so suddenly and refuse to be enticed into what we're sure must be some trap. The salesman asks "if I can give you a good explanation for the price will you accept my offer?". I don't think so. He irritably mutters "then why bother explaining?" and closes the pad. He hands us a slip for our Sub Sea Explorer tour and walks off.
The woman returns to help us redeem our tour ticket and take us on our free lunch. At the travel desk, we find out that the Sub Sea Explorer doesn't leave until 15:00 and takes two hours. This clashes with our vaccine appointment. We've been bullied by salesman for almost two hours for nothing!
We go for the free lunch regardless. The woman, to my surprise, accompanies us. She is unbelievably grumpy (presumably about not making the sale) and I feel like leaving as soon as possible. I feel mentally drained from the hard sell treatment we've received.
After the lightest of lunches, we say goodbye (the woman grunts in response) and leave the hotel. Looks like we have to make our own way back to town. We take the bus.
At the Cubana travel agency we ask about the hotel for our first night. They say they haven't got a response yet and now it's too late to expect one (there's a two hour time difference between Cancun and Havana). Great. They say we can ask at the Sol & Son office at the airport tomorrow.
At the hospital we find that the vaccine has arrived but it's locked in the pharmacy. The pharmacy doesn't open till 6 pm. Okay.
We kill time and return to the hospital at six. The vaccines are applied painlessly. The same cannot be said about the bill of over $100. However, we're extremely relieved to have got the thing over with - it had been a worry for almost a week.
There's an internet cafe close to the hotel boasting a high speed network. They allow us to hook-up our laptop and we spend a couple of hours responding to mail, etc. The speed is good. Maybe we should move to Cancun.
We leave the hotel shortly after eight, lugging all our stuff once more. I've shed a few things (spare sunblock, free snorkel from Xel-Ha, stained T-shirt) but the weight is still formidable. We walk towards the main avenue where the buses to the airport leave.
As taxis offer their services, it's tempting to ask how much. But no, we're trying to travel on a budget and every dollar counts. We expect the bus to cost around $1.
A bus is pulling up as we arrive at the avenue. After boarding, I pull out a twenty peso ($2) note to pay. The driver says "Eighty pesos".
"What?!". I look at the driver, sure he's joking. No trace of humor. He shows me some tickets that have '$40.00' printed on them. I pay, almost sure we're being tricked. There is only standing room available. How much would a taxi have been?
Monica asks one of the regular passengers what the fare is. "Six pesos for airport employees, forty pesos for tourists". Great. The twenty minute standing bus ride is the same price as the three hour ride from Tulum!
At the airport the bus stops a few hundred meters short of the terminal building and we have to walk, bags on back. Will the fun ever stop?
The check-in clerk barely says a word as he tags our bags and issues our boarding pass. The boarding passes are pre-printed sheets like the kind people hand out in the streets to sell pizza. It has advertisements on one side and blank boxes for seat number, etc. on the other. A serial number is pre-printed. Our names don't appear anywhere. The seat number field is left empty. First come, first served?
While waiting in the departure lounge, I go buy a snack to augment the morning's breakfast of two slices of toast. A medium sized bag of potato chips is $2.50 - about three times the normal price. A half-liter bottle of water is $2 - four times the price on the street.
At 11:00 we walk 50 meters to the plane. From a distance it looks like any other jet with fresh, clean, paintwork. Things aren't so bright closer up, however, as gentle bumps and dents in the body can be seen. The tips of wing aerofoils look more like a serrated knife edge than the sharp, smooth, line they should have. The boarding steps are badly buckled - the result of thirty years of use, no doubt.
Inside there are no preassigned seats (though we have to ask to confirm this). Some seats are doubled all the way forward as if braced for a crash landing. Hardly confidence inspiring!
I insist on sitting at the back - the statistically safest part of an aeroplane - and close to the rear exit. The seats are packed so tight together, my legs simply don't fit. I have to sit in an aisle seat with my knees hanging out.
The plane's Russian origins are given away by signs in cyrillic script. I wonder if one of the signs is a 'best before' date.
As the plane starts to take off, thick mist starts spewing overhead from the main air conditioning system. The upper third of the cabin becomes concealed in fog. It could be insecticide but, if so, the fly buzzing past indicates it isn't very effective. Water drips from the personal AC units. No-one asks us to turn off electronic devices - maybe there's no navigation system to interfere with.
Our wisdom in opting for the cheapest airline comes into question - it feels like "Half the price; thrice the risk". We've spent a few hundred dollars on vaccines; a couple hundred more on a decent airline might have gone even further to protect our health!
Trying to rationalize the risk, I consider that the stewards must make the air trip once or twice a day. Then I get to wondering just how long they've been in the job - they all look awfully young! Maybe they get a star or something for every successful flight.
The flight is short and after drinks are served we begin our descent. There is a lot of turbulence as we hit the clouds - no fun at all. The plane is thrown around like a fly in the wind. The passengers make a collective groaning noise.
The landing is equally heart stopping as we hit the tarmac with a strong thump on the left side, followed, a few seconds later, by the right side. The plane then veers off to one side before settling in a straight course. When the plane comes to a stop, everyone starts clapping; much to the amusement of the staff who obviously consider the flight to have been perfectly normal.
The airport building is of a newish, pre-fabricated metal design. Inside are about four queues for immigration and two kiosks with tourist information. They're selling maps of Havana for $3 - a bit of a contrast from Cancun, where free maps are printed on almost every pamphlet!
The immigration queue is incredibly slow. If US officers worked at this pace, they'd have a backlog down to Central America in a few days! Fortunately Cuba doesn't receive a huge number of visitors yet.
When our turn arrives, we're asked to pass one at a time. The first thing they ask for is a return ticket. I guess if you've created a utopian, socialist, paradise, it's natural to assume that foreigners will want to come and join the action illegally!
After customs, the airport is completely empty - not a single shop or anything. We were hoping to buy a tourist guide at the airport. No such luck. We were also expecting to hook up with the 'Sol & Son' travel agency to see if they'd gotten us a hotel or not. We understood they had a presence at the airport but it doesn't seem to be a very visible one.
Exiting the airport building - there's nothing else to do - we're immediately offered an official airport taxi. The young man tries, unsuccessfully, to find our travel agency. He even shows us the departure lounge, which is also completely uncluttered by shops or restaurants.
The taxi downtown will cost around $18 - and we thought the $10 the travel agency was going to charge for a shuttle bus was expensive! It seems that things aren't going to be as cheap as expected.
The taxi man offers to take us to a 'casa particular' (private house) that offers lodging for $25 a night for two. This quite a common form of accommodation in Cuba, and sounds more interesting than the cheapest hotel the travel agency offered for the same price (without breakfast). We decide to go and check it out.
Walking towards the taxis, the first car we see in Cuba is a Mercedes. So much for romanticized scenes of forty year old Buicks in perfect condition. In fact, as we drive towards town, it quickly becomes clear that the most common cars are Russian Ladas (made from Fiat molds). There are also quite a lot of new French and Korean cars, as well as a few private Mercedes. And, of course, every now and then a classic American car passes by.
A huge billboard welcomes the South African president to Cuba. Listening to the radio, it sounds like he's here now.
The roads are filled with cars. Forget any images of a country trying to make do with out-dated infrastructure, etc., the appearance from the road is similar to any Mexican city - a work-in-progress.
One of Cuba's quirks are the 'camels': a regular truck towing a trailer designed for passengers. The name comes from the shape of the passenger trailer which dips down in the middle, between the axles, thus giving a two humped appearance.
The most striking thing, for me, is that although Cuba is often portrayed at a place stuck in time, the reality seems quite different. There are brand new, machine made, road signs. Plenty of new cars. Lots of progressive-looking people. There are only a few signs of economic isolation, and no signs of cultural isolation.
The first indication of Russian influence, apart from the cars and a lot of strictly functional architecture, is a sign to 'Lenin Park'.
There is also a sign to the 'Plaza de la Revolucion' where a side of a building is covered with a huge wrought-iron representation of Che Guevara's face.
The taxi ride is about thirty minutes and glimpses of the sea can be caught between the houses. Hopefully we'll be close to the famous 'Malecon' - the wall and road that separate Havana from the violent Atlantic.
We pull into a residential cul-de-sac with colonial style buildings and, yes, an ancient American car parked out front! The taxi driver goes inside to make inquiries. While doing so, we're approached by a young man who offers us alternative accommodation. He has a strange way about him; I'm not sure if it's nervousness about talking to a stranger, or if he doesn't have purely good intentions. In any case the taxi driver appears and we enter the house.
The family appear very friendly. An elderly gentleman with a large white moustache shows us our room - all very clean and tidy. There is a bottle of water in the room, of the same brand I'd seen in the aeroplane. So bottled water does exist in Cuba - something I'd been wondering about!
The lady of the house, who seems to run the show, offers to serve us dinner at 7 pm. It's now three-thirty (thanks to a two hour timezone jump). We dump our bags (and cameras) and go out to explore.
A big modern hotel, the Meliá Cohiba, dominates the other side of the street. A line of taxis, many of them Mercedes, are parked nearby. We enter the hotel in search of tourist information. The lobby is of the sparkling luxury variety with marble decor, fountain, etc. The concierge gives us a free map of Havana but doesn't have any tourist pamphlets or anything. The map appears to be designed more for navigating than sightseeing, with no attractions pointed out with friendly icons.
We try hotel shop. There is a bookshelf full of English titles about Cuban-American relations and how the CIA is the root of all evil. Amongst this, we find something resembling a tourist guide. Most of the slim volume is taken up with directories of hotels and restaurants but there are at least ten pages dedicated to describing some places of interest. It also comes with a map with some functional (if not friendly) icons pointing out museum's and so forth. It's $5. Sold.
It feels a bit strange using US dollars outside of the states but I guess we'll get used to it quickly - we haven't seen any evidence of any other currency in Cuba.
There is a tour operator desk at the hotel. They don't have any printed pamphlets or anything but are able to show us a folder with details of about eight tours. The tours seem a little pricey but they give us some ideas as to what the attractions are. They also rent camper vans at only $160 a day.
Outside, the Malecon is just a few meters away. We sit on the sea wall and watch Cuban life pass by, trying to observe the secret rules by which this society lives.
There is a conspicuous absence of trade. No-one is selling anything in the street. There are no advertisements. The only billboards have government propaganda - usually some anti-imperialist (US) message.
It's very quiet. The only sound is the white-noise of cars passing and the incessant toot-toot sound of their horns. Cuban drivers seem to have gone to the same school as the rest of Latin America. There are a fair number of cyclists on the road but it's the cars that dominate the three lanes of traffic.
The quietness seems to be characteristic of the Cubans we've dealt with so far. The airline staff hardly spoke at all. There's no shouting anywhere.
Monica identifies a shopping center across the road, directly in front of us. It's a blue glass building with the word 'Galarias' above the door. There's nothing on display in the windows, or any other indication there might be shops inside. We go and check it out.
On the ground floor is a car dealership with a number of new cars on display. Prominent amongst these is an Audi A4.
There is a supermarket one level up. I'm dying to go inside and see what it's like - what better barometer of a society than what they buy day to day?
First appearances don't show anything out of the ordinary. There is a large, fancy, wine section - something of a surprise as the selection in the rest of the shop isn't great. There are products from all over the world - Mexico, Turkey, Belgium, ... as well as a few Cuban products. People seem to by buying freely, purses full of US dollars.
I buy a can of fruit juice for $0.85. I'm curious to see what change I'll be given - US coins or Cuban pesos. To my surprise, I'm handed Cuban coins with US denominations! The Cuban central bank must issue it's own US coins backed by genuine greenbacks (at least I hope that's the case!). Has the national peso has been abandoned altogether?
On the way out, a man checks receipts against goods purchased - not something I've seen in a supermarket before!
Downstairs there is a fast food restaurant filled with young people. So much for Cuban poverty. It seems incredible that the dollar, and private enterprise, was legalized just a few years ago. What will the place be like in 10 years? That's why we're here today - to catch it in the last vestiges of it's former state.
We walk down the Malecon. Nobody is leaping to sell us something at every (or, indeed, any) corner - something we've almost become accustomed too in Mexico's tourist areas.
The streets are generally free of garbage. We're not sure if this is because Cubans are especially conscientious people, or because they're too poor to throw anything away.
A few blocks away is an open air market with mobile food stands. Seems like street trade exists but only in designated areas. The market has leather sandals, and handicrafts. And more leather sandals, and more handicrafts. Some of the abstract wooden sculptures are actually quite interesting and way above the tacky tourist souvenir category. If we were going directly back home, I'd be tempted.
There's a stand selling pizza. Monica orders a 'single cheese' pizza for only $1. When the pizza comes out of the oven, I'm a little surprised to see only a sprinkling of cheese on top. Probably should have got the 'double cheese'! Ah well, what do you expect for a dollar?
We continue walking alongside the concrete sea wall. Locals tend to sit on the wall where square pillars rise up and provide some shelter from the strong wind. When we finally find an unoccupied pillar, we start to sit down for a rest. A man in uniform starts blowing his whistle from across the street. There is some official building on the other side of the road. Maybe they don't like people spoiling the view (or launching terrorist attacks).
At almost every street corner there is an armed policeman, standing with a stiff, military, pose. They seem friendly enough but it feels a little strange that such a presence should be considered necessary or justifiable.
Further on we sit on the wall again. No-one whistles at us this time. Two cuban guys ask us the time, in English, as they walk past. Monica answers in Spanish and they say something back. After some mental processing, Monica realizes they said "Espanoles?", i.e. "Are you from Spain?". The Cuban accent can be pretty strong and indecipherable to us poor foreigners.
The guys stop a few meters down to talk to some friends. They're facing our way. I suspect they're going to come back and talk to us - hope it's not going to be unpleasant.
Surprise, surprise, they walk down past us once more and this time ask for a light from a distance. At least they're predictable - should be easy to spot any games they might try to play. They come over and ask us where we're from, how long we're staying, where we're staying, etc. Both have quite badly scarred faces. When they hear we're staying in a private house they seem to lose interest and say goodbye. Who knows what they were looking for.
We head back to our lodgings, which we find after a few wrong turns. The short, closed, street is quite pretty. There seems to be a childrens birthday party going on at the end of it, with balloons and music.
The landlady's twenty-something daughter answers door. Seems like three generations share the house. She's watching a recent American movie on video.
A rich dinner is served for just Monica and myself. The family usually eats later, after the sun has gone done. Towards the end of the meal, the landlady opens the window to let the fresh air circulate.
The windows in this style of house have no glass - just wooden or metal shutters. The idea is to block out the sun during the day, and let in the air at night. It's quite pleasant and keeps the houses cool. Some insect netting might not go amis, however!
We're both exhausted - so much new information in one day - and, after a satisfying dinner, collapse on the mattress. The mattress, in turn, collapses into the bed stand. It's so soft and saggy it forms a crater that Monica and I roll into. The only way to sleep is to try and lie at the edge of the crater.
Breakfast is served at eight, Cuban time, which is six, Mexican time. It's an effort to get up - we're exhausted from all the new experiences yesterday.
The fried eggs are notable for their extremely pale yolks. It looks like the chickens have been on a low cholesterol diet or something. The taste is equally pale but perfectly edible. The freshly squeezed orange juice, by contrast, is delicious.
Over breakfast, the landlady explains some of the difficulties in Cuba. She says an average monthly salary is only $8! Eight dollars only just covers the bills and doesn't leave any change to buy food. On the other hand, she says that Cuba is a safe place to live, assaults are very rare, and medical treatment is free - though unreliable.
The landlady mentions that Cuba's economic problems are due to a lack of natural resources. Rather than get too involved, I simply mention that there are many other countries, with no natural resources, that do all right - Hong Kong being the prime example.
Stomachs full, we set off to explore Havana. Near the Meliá Cohiba hotel, there is a new, glass walled, 'communications center'. Its design is like a bus shelter and inside are four pay phones and a clerk selling phone cards. International rates are listed. $4 a minute to call Europe. The biggest card they have is $20 - 5 minutes.
I buy a card and try making a call. A recorded message plays: "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed at this time due to congestion of the lines". Ah well, I tried.
The next thing on the to-do list is withdraw some cash. We don't need it right now but want to know what's involved when we do. We ask at the hotel. The doorman tells us that the ATM in the hotel only has 'convertible pesos'. We'd prefer to get straight dollars, as we haven't seen pesos in use anywhere. We ask at the concierge and are directed to a bank at the nearby Hotel Riviera.
The Hotel Riviera is also a luxury hotel. The 'bank' is a wooden door, on the far side of the lobby, with a man outside. He says the cashier is occupied, and invites us to take a seat.
We wait a minute or two before the door opens and the customer walks out. I enter a tiny office with a glass screen and a cashier on the other side. To withdraw cash I have to hand over my Mastercard and passport. I ask for $100 to see what happens.
The cashier swipes my card in a normal store terminal. When the authorization comes back, I sign a slip - just as if I was purchasing a $100 item. The cashier hands over $100. As simple as that. Cool - it's some relief to know we can get cash whenever we need it.
Monica has fallen in love with the three wheeled taxis we've seen buzzing around Havana. She calls them 'Eggs', and it's not a bad name: The taxis are essentially a three wheeled motorcycle covered with a round, yellow, fiber-glass body. The driver sits on a molded fiber-glass scooter seat. Passengers sit on a bench behind the driver, protected by an egg-shaped hood.
An 'egg' to Old Havana, where the interesting buildings are, costs $4. We climb on board. Our legs stretch on either side of the driver.
As we take off, I feel like we're traveling down a main street in an electric wheel chair. The poor engine feels like it was designed for cutting grass, not carrying passengers. The fiber-glass hood effectively blocks off the drivers rear view, making pulling into traffic a lot of fun. She seems to use audio cues to determine if any cars are approaching.
We're told our vehicle is called a "Coco Taxi" because of the shape. We prefer "Egg". The Coco taxis offer a one hour tour of Havana for $12. It sounds reasonable, given the high costs of taxis in Havana, so we go for it.
Our trip is characterized by wild swerving to avoid pot holes, loud beeping from other vehicles (usually just after the wild swerving), and deep lung fulls of smoke and grime. A strong wind blows all manner of dust and muck in our faces, and we ride along with eyes half closed - eyelids on rapid blink.
Thanks to the strong sea breezes, air pollution doesn't seem to be a concern in Havana. Many vehicles belch thick, black, smoke, at a rate that would put a burning Kuwaiti oil field to shame. The sky, however, remains a charming blue color. Good job Havana isn't located in Mexico City's valley - the population would have died-off years ago.
There seems to be huge amounts of car rental offices in Havana. The country is obviously receiving a lot of investment to build a tourist infrastructure. I wonder where the money is coming from. Maybe Spain? There seems to be investment in skills too, as occasional signs of western, consumer-centric, business practices are spotted.
The first stop on our tour is Cuba's first hotel, the Hotel Nacional. A long line of Mercedes taxis are parked outside a beautiful old building. Inside, the original decor has been preserved and, apart from the air conditioning, one can imagine we're back in the early 1900's. We walk around and take a few pictures. There is a sign for a 'Business Center' with Internet access. Great, we'll come back later and check it out.
Round the corner from the hotel is 'La Rampa'. It doesn't seem to be anything more than a street with an incline but the driver announces it as a famous landmark. Driving up the street we pass a small park with long lines of people winding around it. They're patiently waiting to buy famous 'Coppelia' ice-cream. The park seems to be an outdoor ice-cream parlor. The driver says that, as tourists, we don't need to queue - we can go right to the front. I wonder about the work-ethic of a country where there are long lines to buy ice-cream on a week-day morning...
The taxi whines along bumpy streets to 'Plaza del la Revolucion', a landmark we passed yesterday. A tall, industrial, tower cum obelisk marks the site. A large statue of José Martí sits below the tower, looking out over a featureless carpark-like square. On the other side of the square is the building with the ironwork rendition of Che Guevara's face.
It's possible to ascend the tower to look out over Havana. We're told we have to buy a $5 museum ticket to do this. We ask if we can use the tickets later to return to the museum - right now we just want to climb the tower.
"No, you have to visit the museum first".
"But can we climb the tower and come back later to see the museum, without having to pay again?"
"You have to visit the museum to climb the tower".
It seems hopeless so we give the tower a miss, planning to return later on our own.
The next stop on the coco-taxi tour is a cemetery where a guide takes us around some impressive tombstones. She says there was inter-family rivalry to create the finest tombs and this explains the elaborate works we see, many of which are the size of a small room.
The guide shows us the highlight of the cemetery, the grave of a girl who supposedly performed miracles. The story says that the tomb was opened some time after the woman's death, to find her body perfectly preserved, and a baby in her arms. The woman continues to be revered like a saint in Havana, and a steady stream of visitors leave flowers, touch her statue, and ring a bell at the statue's base.
Returning to the cemetery's entrance, the 'free' guide asks for $5. This is in addition to the $1 entrance fee we both paid. We pay the fee, a bit annoyed that it wasn't announced up front. I wonder how it is that the guide can expect $5 for a 10 minute tour, if the average wage in Cuba is $8 a month?! Something doesn't seem to be adding up - one usually expects a low wage country to have cheap services but this doesn't seem to be the case in Cuba.
The taxi motors on to Old Havana, the only place we we're really interested in seeing. Here the driver drops a bomb: We've been 2 hours already and so the fee, so far, will be $24. She tries to persuade us to go for another hour. We get out.
"So that will be just $24".
"'Just' $24?" I respond, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Yes", she says simply, looking somewhat surprised, and perhaps offended, that I should consider $24 to be a lot of money. In Mexico you can rent a four-wheeled taxi all day for $24.
As we move around Old Havana, we have to field offers of taxis and cigars from all sides. I very quickly start to tire of the constant pestering. If I wanted a taxi I would ask for it. Do the drivers who hiss at us as we walk past think I'm too dumb to spot a taxi, or know that I need one? If we ignore them, they continue to shout after us, as if we really must need a taxi, even if we don't realize it.
We pass a cigar factory. It costs $10 to go inside and look around. We're really surprised at the prices everywhere. This is a third world country charging more than first world prices - and with an attitude that their prices are cheap!
There are some impressive, monumental, buildings in Old Havana, one of which contains 'el museo de la revolucion'. The entrance fee is $4. We're feeling drained and a little unwell. Once inside the museum we sit down to recharge a while.
The museum is a like big book, with the pages laid out on the walls. There are very few exhibits. It's quite interesting, however, to see events from a revolutionary's point of view. There are photos and news clippings covering about ten years before and after the revolution.
Some of the exhibits are torture implements apparently used by the Batista regime. The revolution suddenly seems perfectly just and necessary after seeing a contraption for slowly removing finger nails!
The best thing about the museum is that it offers some good vantage points for photographing street life in Old Havana.
Part of the museum is an outdoor exhibit of 'Granma', the yacht that Castro and his revolutionaries used to 'invade' Cuba from Mexico. The boat is not much bigger than a pleasure boat; it's difficult to imagine an army launching an attack from it! I think the fact that they were successful shows how much popular support there was for the revolution at the time.
Water in the museum shop is $1 for a small bottle. Let's try outside.
The first store we find outside also charges $1 a bottle. We resign ourselves to the price and quench our thirst.
Walking down the street, a woman asks Monica for soap. This seems in stark contrast to a taxi that charges $24. Could it be that there are two Cubas - those that have access to dollars and those that don't?
We wander aimlessly around Old Havana, taking pictures. There are lots of derelict colonial buildings with people living in poor conditions. Most Cubans look very healthy, with muscular physiques, but seem to lack the resources for anything but the bare essentials.
Everywhere we go people are trying to get a tourist dollar. One man is selling maps of Havana. They're of the style that are usually given away free at tourist information centers.
We find a shop with a relatively decent guide to Cuba. It's aimed at the 5-star hotel set, not us, but seems to contain the most useful information we've been able to find so far. We buy it for $21.
There is a museum dedicated to Alexander von Humbolt, a 19th century scientist who carried out some of the first scientific studies of Spain's new colonies. His story is an inspiration; he seems to have done more in his one life than most people could do in twenty. The museum only has about ten small exhibits. The rest is posters with text printed on them. A guide walks us around, reading from the posters. She has a lot of enthusiasm and seems to be proud of her 'great' museum.
As the evening draws in, we start to walk back along the sea front to our lodgings. About half way, we tire of walking and decide to take one of the taxis that have been offering their services all day. A strange thing happens. Not a single taxi is to be seen! We end up having to walk the whole journey. Murphy's law.
A hearty supper is served at our lodgings and we retire early to bed. My toes feel numb again from all the walking we've done.
and on and on and on ;)