Let's be clear about this from the start. I love shooting digital and I wouldn't trade my Canon 5D MkII for a boatload of film.
Friday, December 31, 2010
Let's be clear about this from the start. I love shooting digital and I wouldn't trade my Canon 5D MkII for a boatload of film.
Monday, December 20, 2010
travel [trae vel] vt or n 1. leave home, bad beds, ill-fitting sheets, diarrhea, constipation, topes( aka - speed bumps), insipid coffee, 4:00am fireworks 2. amazing countryside, vibrant fiestas, new friends, unforgettable moments, return home
Recently, my good friend Cecil asked why anyone who reads our blog, would think we’re not on a permanent vacation. I responded that it was because we never write about all of the hours of planning, editing and captioning, writing, rewriting, or meeting with lawyers and accountants and that we don’t mention the other perils of travel.
Those of us who travel for a living endure definition #1 so we can experience definition #2. Often, you only hear about #2. But, this essay includes both.
We started the trip with a plan to visit some of the lesser-know Mayan ruins in Campeche and Chiapas before and after our two-week Spanish intensive class in San Cristóbal, Chiapas. Earlier posts cover the trip to Chiapas, a day trip from the city and reviews of a few of our favorite restaurants and cafes.
It has taken a few days away from class to think about the whole “immersion” experience. We had individual sessions with our own teachers, since we are on different levels with Spanish. We met (and shivered - there were no heaters) from 9:00am until noon, five days a week. They were both good teachers. They were in tune with our fluency levels, and worked with us to give us the tools to become more proficient. We would recommend them if you are headed to San Cristóbal.
But the homestay part? Our living with a family experience turned out to be a living with a grandma experience. No aunts, uncles, husband, sons, nieces or cousins. On top of that, the conversations consisted of, “we are having chicken stewed with vegetables” and “what time do you want lunch, señor”. The conversation wasn’t particularly fluid. We’re not very fluent and she didn’t seem to want to fool with a couple of people at our level. Perhaps when the price per day for a room and two meals for two people comes to US$20, you get what you pay for.
So, the attitude of our host, the unheated room (40 degrees at night), the bare concrete floors, the hot water heater inexplicably turned down during our showers and the sheets that didn’t fit meant we were ready to leave before the two weeks ended. But, despite the annoyances and the aforementioned stomach problems, we stuck it out. Our Spanish is better, but I don’t think the Señora deserves any credit.
After classes ended, we headed south to Comitán, a small city 90 miles southeast of San Cristóbal. A 16th century church and modern sculptures in the immaculate zocalo were the backdrop for the unexpected arrival of Santa Claus in a beat up blue VW bug pulling a trailer with a wooden sleigh and four equally wooden reindeer. You had to be there.
The next day we continued our trip through a little traveled area of Chiapas that borders Guatemala. Driving into the highlands, we pass beautiful lakes and pine forests. Even though there is a steady drizzle and low clouds when we pay a toll to drive through the Lagos de Montebello park, a man comes up to the car and gives his pitch for a guided tour around and on the lakes. No sun means no good photos. We decline.
A quick detour into the town of Tziscao reveals a lovely setting, if it were summer. Unfortunately, it’s December, cold and, like I said, wet. The water level in the lakes was so high, several buildings that were along the lakefront beach, were now submerged in the lake.
The detour wasn’t a total loss, since Jennifer has become obsessed with orchids. She bought two lovely plants about to bloom at a small shop in town selling orchids, chocolate and coffee.
We continue through a lush, green landscape, with the misty mountains of Guatemala to our right most of the time. Because of the highway’s proximity to that country, the military checkpoints were the most thorough we have encountered. We answered lots of questions about our destination, where we came from, where we lived, our professions, and then were asked to get out of the vehicle so it and our luggage could be searched. Since we aren’t smugglers, we were eventually sent on our way. I highly recommend not carrying contraband (drugs or Central Americans) along this road.
Because of the unknown quotient of curves, topes and traffic, you can never be sure how many miles you can cover in a day. You can be sure that you want to be off of the Carretera Fronteriza before nightfall.
A couple of hours before dusk we decided to stop at an interesting “eco lodge” owned by a community that started a scarlet macaw reserve, Las Guacamayas. We heard howler monkeys at dusk and saw the large, colorful macaws flying near the Río Lancantún.
The next day was an easy drive to the village of Frontera Corozol, which would be our base for visiting the Mayan ruins at Bonampak and Yaxchilán. Not exactly the sites that people come to Mexico to visit. That is probably due more to their remoteness, rather than their magnificence.
There were less than 10 visitors at Bonampak, which featured the most amazing frescoes inside the Templo de las Pinturas which dates from the 700s. Lonely Planet says that they are the finest known murals from pre-Hispanic America, and I can’t imagine that they aren’t.
Part of the attraction of Yaxchilán is the 40-minute boat ride up the Río Usumacinta, with the shores of Guatemala sliding by on the right. If you’ve spent the night in Frontera, you can book an early departure, enjoying the mist rising from the river, crocs sunning themselves on the banks and arriving before the package tours from Palenque.
We shared the boat with Emilio and Veronica, two actors from Mexico City on holiday. For 90 minutes, we had the place to ourselves. Yaxchilán sits on a bluff overlooking the river in an amazing jungle setting. Upon arrival and for the first hour, we’re greeted by howler monkeys.
The incredible steles and the intricate carvings on the stone lintels makes this site different from the other sites we have seen. Perhaps the fact that the underside of the lintels are not exposed to sun and rain explains why they are in such good shape. Once again, amazing art from the years 700 - 800 AD.
As we were finishing our visit, we could hear the boats arrive with more visitors. Even then, there were never more than 40 people while we were there.
We had a nice drive from Frontera to Palenque, mostly because Emilio and Veroníca came with us. I think the two week class must have helped, because we had conversations in Spanish. I understood most of it. It certainly didn’t hurt, that they both spoke very distinctly and slow enough for the gringos to keep up.
A decent meal, a comfortable hotel room and good coffee the next morning put us in a good mood for the nine-hour drive to the Cozumel ferry. As always, it’s good to be home.
There are more photos from this trip in a private gallery on my web site. If you don’t have the password, please send an email and I’ll be happy to give it to you.
Also, check out the blog post on the Fiesta de Virgin de Guadalupe. It was going on for 12 of the 14 days we were in San Cristóbal. Which meant loud, fireworks that would begin about 4:00am and finally subside around midnight or 1:00am. On the eighth or ninth day, I barely noticed them.
Happy holidays and check in often.
One of the attractions of a Spanish class in San Cristóbal, Chiapas during the first two weeks of December was the celebration for the Virgin de Guadalupe.
The fiesta runs from December 1 - 12, and, we were told, would feature many events, including processions of indigenous people going to the Iglesia de Guadalupe.
The church, which was begun in 1834, has a commanding location on a hilltop to the east of the historic center. The story of the Virgin de Guadalupe is an important part of Mexican history. Her appearance to an indigenous peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531, and her subsequent image on his cloak created the legend. Thus began a religious symbol that has seen the Virgin become, in many ways, more revered by Mexican Catholics than Jesus.
Mexican novelist Octavio Paz wrote that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin de Guadalupe and the National Lottery”.
In addition to the hundreds of local church members who make the daily walk up the steep steps to the church, are thousands who come from the surrounding towns to pay tribute to or seek blessings from the statue of the Virgin inside this church.
Indigenous people, young and old, make up a significant number of people visiting the hilltop. Many of them run and walk from their villages, some barefoot, carrying torches and banners to show their devotion.
Everything was remarkably unscheduled. Our classes and our favorite cafe were both on Real de Guadalupe, which is a pedestrian mall for several blocks and leads to the church from the zócalo. At any moment, honking horns, chanting, or blaring trumpets would announce the procession of a group from Palenque or Tuxtla or San Juan Chamula. It could be teens in t-shirts with the Virgin on the front, Aztec dancers, or Tzotzils in traditional dress. At times, it felt more like a pep rally or a political group chanting slogans. But like much of life here, religion isn’t always quiet and polite, it is, at times, noisy and showy.
On Friday, two days before the day of the Virgin (December 12), parents dress their boys up in peasant clothes and paint on mustaches to honor Juan Diego, who was made a saint in 2002. Little girls are dressed in different native dresses. A procession on the Real de Guadalupe to the church is led by the parachicos, a traditional dancing group from Chiapa de Corzo.
The streets at the foot of the steps fill with food stands, children’s rides and other merchants, providing a carnival atmosphere to the celebration. Surrounding the church, the presence of parents and children brings out the balloon and ice cream vendors and the fiesta feels like it has reached critical mass.
Through the week as each group approaches the church, one or two of the men are in charge of sending rockets into the air. Unfortunately, they aren’t the kind that create a visual show when they explode. They are simply, really loud. Which means there use isn’t limited to evening hours. So, for two weeks and twenty hours per day, it sounds like the city is under artillery attack.
You can see more complete coverage of the festival in a private gallery on my web site. If you don’t have the password, send an email to me and I’ll provide it.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
La Viña de Bacco
Here is the simple recipe for a successful restaurant: small tables, low light, great music, glasses of wine ($1.50 to $3.00) from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Spain and a free bocadito with every glass you order.
Want more food? How about a dozen different small plates of cheese, olives, meats and spreads? Salads? Baguette sandwiches? Pasta? Yes to all, from a kitchen smaller than most restaurants baños.
I especially liked the chiapaqueño chorizo, the olives and the blue cheese.
On top of the vibe, the selection of wines by the glass and the small plates, there is a large list of wines by the bottle, beers and some foreign spirits. Tequila, too, if you need it. It’s no wonder this place is packed every night.
Sometimes, simpler is better.
2:00 - Midnight
#9 Real de Guadalupe
One of SCs hot spots, it never seems crowded, rushed or touristed. A classic cafe, yes, you can order a cup of coffee or glass of wine and sit and use the free wi-fi for hours (we have), although you probably won’t stop with just one cup or glass.
After days of looking for another place (just for variety) where we could do homework, check email and have a coffee or glass of wine, we decided this place was simply unbeatable. The atrium has plants, comfortable chairs, chill music and shops surrounding the central area that sell Zapatista-sympathetic items, fine weavings and a few other counter culture goodies.
The service is impeccable. The barista has won regional competitions, the pizza man has studied in Rome and the prices are more than fair. The breakfast waffles and huevos motuleños were terrific. And the pizza with real jamon serrano was one of the best pizzas I have had outside of Italy. The pizzaolo came over when he saw three pieces that weren’t finished and wanted to know if there was a problem. Sure, we didn’t have enough room to finish it all.
But, we’ll have the rest tonight.
8:30am - 11:00pm daily
#24 Real de Guadalupe
The choices of Italian restaurants in San Cristóbal are a little overwhelming. They are only exceeded by the number of Mexican places, with Argentine parillas taking a close second. We didn’t eat in all of them, but we had one of our best Italian meals in memory at Trattoria Italiana.
The small place exudes warmth, both in ambiance and in the personality of the mother and daughter who do the cooking and serving. From Northern Italy, they put together a daily menu that makes you feel like you are in Italy. Vitello tonnato, bruschetta, five kinds of ravioli, rabbit, menu items with porcini. Got it?
The menu is recited in English, Italian or Spanish. We go for the bruschetta, wonderful slices of bread with ripe tomatoes and perfect olive oil. We settled on the salmon ravioli with a butter, olive oil and rosemary sauce. The quattro formaggi and arugula raviolis were in a tomato sauce that was light and rich at the same time.
A couple of glasses of Spanish cabernet later, we waddled out the door, both saying aloud, “Wow, wish we had leftovers”.
#8B Belisario Dominguez
Monday, December 6, 2010
After a week of hard study, itermittent rain and mostly chilly temperatures, we took a road trip to the popular villages north of San Cristóbal. San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán are both small towns primarily populated by indigenous people who speak Tzotzil. Each village has a unique, traditional way of dressing, their markets are busy on Sundays, and both places are firmly on the tourist map.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
A ferry ride and two full days of driving will take you from Cozumel to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. But, with so much to see along the way, why hurry? We decided to take three days and two nights, which would give us time to see the lesser known Mayan ruins in southern Campeche and in the mountains of Chiapas.
It was time for breakfast when we got to Tulum, so we popped into Don Cafeto’s on the main highway through town. It was just a good guess, but we thought that one plate of chilaquiles would be enough for both of us. The waiter brought a large bowl of vegetables en escabeche to the table. Marinated in a mixture of sugar, vinegar and chiles, the carrots, onion and garlic were sweet, sour and spicy. The perfect pickle!
Chilaquiles, a mix of stale tortillas, sauce (red or green), onions, cheese, and either meat, chicken or eggs all topped with Mexican crema (like creme fraiche), is a favorite breakfast dish of ours. The Don Cafeto version came with thin strips of carne asada and was definitely enough for two.
The first Mayan sites were along the highway about an hour west of Chetumal. I had driven by them two previous times, either not having or not taking the time to stop and see them. We stopped at the jungle cabañas called Rio Bec Dreams, about 4.5 hours from Playa del Carmen and got good directions. There were three sites within 10 miles of them: Becán, Chicanná and Xpujil. All are sites that were inhabited around 550 - 1000 AD.
The highlight at Chicanná was the structure with the entrance that had the face of a fanged serpent or dragon. Plus, we had the site to ourselves, something that never happens at Chichen Itza or Tulum.
The next site was Becán, which we had to share with two other people. An amazing 30 meter long covered walkway and a couple of tall temples with intact sculptures kept us busy until the afternoon showers set in for the rest of the afternoon.
A nice greek salad, a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc and a good sleep under a mosquito net can be had at the Canadian-owned Rio Bec Dreams.
Calakmul was an important Mayan city (250 - 695 AD) that had fought with Tikal in Guatamala for supremacy among the southern lowland Mayans. South of the highway, down a paved, but winding and sometimes potholed road, Calakmul is the only destination at the end. Blue morphos butterflies, wild turkeys, forest rodents and deer crossed the road during the 80 minute trip. Jennifer even spotted red chanterelles along the road.
Once there, you walk for another 20 minutes before arriving at the first structures, sitting in the dense forest. Climbing the tallest structure gives you a view of the area. Although there are dozens of structures, the forest is so thick, we can only see two others from the tallest pyramid. There were ten visitors, including us. We were outnumbered by the colorful wild turkeys.
We didn’t quite make it to Palenque town for the evening, stopping instead at Emiliano Zapata, on the banks of the wide Rio Usumacinta. We had decent tacos al pastor in town and a good rest after a full day of driving and walking.
Breakfast the next morning was at the Cafe de Yarra in Palenque. Good coffee, eggs divorciado and chilequiles are on the menu. This version came with a red sauce and strips of thick, bacon-like pork. It was good, but I could not finish it.
We had nice weather for one of the most scenic drives in Mexico, Palenque to San Cristóbal, winding through small towns in the Chiapas mountains. We arrive in Ocosingo around 11:00 and drove out to Toniná, a town that was a rival to Palenque and that was the site of the final days of many captured rulers from rival towns. That usually meant beheading, and there were several alters still in place where the whacking took place. The structures were notable for the different construction style, since we were no longer in an area with ample amounts of limestone like the cities in southern Campeche. And the pyramids here are steep. Going up is much easier than coming down.
We arrived that afternoon in San Cristóbal during a deluge. And, it has been more rainy than sunny the past few days. All the locals say that December is usually dry and sunny. Let’s hope that comes true.