Monday, December 20, 2010

Corner of Chiapas

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.

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