A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

No tiburones ballena pero muy bonita playas

Playa del Carmen and Tulum

We left Merida early in the morning on Friday. We had all decided to stop off at Chichen Itza, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World on the way to Playa del Carmen. We left at 7am for the 2 hour journey. We knew it would be packed with tourists and stifling hot so wanted to make it there before it got too unbearable. With a few hundred thousand visitors each day we were somewhat prepared for the crowds as we entered the site.

We hired a local guide Carlos who showed us around the site for the next 2 hours. It is a really large complex made up of many temples. The main sight is El Castillo temple. The most fascinating thing about this is the staircases are built so that during the spring and autumn equinoxes the shadow of the staircase forms a serpent shadow which links up with snake head statues on the bottom of the temple. Unfortunately we weren't there during an equinox but the temple itself was still pretty impressive to look at.

Chichen Itza has the largest ball court of the Mayan kingdom as well. It was a huge field topped with viewing platforms. There were interesting friezes on the side of the court which depicted ball players using racquets and even some gruesome pictures of decapitated players with blood spurting out. Apparently sacrifice was part of the game played here. It is still debated whether it was the winners or the losers that lost their lives though. We wandered through the rest of the complex seeing Grupo de las Mil Columns, the great plaza, Templo de los Guerreros, Carcol and Edificio de las Monjas while Carlos told us various theories.

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By the time we finished it was so hot and humid we made our way back to our air conditioned van in delight. Our next stop was for a swim in another cenote. Ikil, unlike the other cenotes we visited was packed with tourists. While it was pretty it had a very public swimming pool feel about it. It was lovely though to be able to cool off in the water. Once we were all done we headed to a restaurant for a buffet lunch. We then had about a 3.5 hour drive along the Pan American highway to Playa del Carmen.

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We arrived there early evening and had about an hours free time before we had to meet for our farewell dinner. About a month ago one of my friends went snorkeling with whale sharks just off the coast of Playa del Carmen, so I knew that it was a must do activity for the spare day we had there. I had done a lot of research so Alex and I rushed off to a dive shop to book a tour in for the next day. It wasn't going to be cheap but would definitely be worth it to be able to swim next to the largest fish in the world.

The Central America tour we were doing is made up of 3 shorter tours so unfortunately we had to bid farewell to 5 of our travel buddies as Playa was the end of the 1st leg. We had a stroll along 5th avenue a hugely touristy shopping street and got to experience the extreme tourist side of Mexico. We then went to an amazing restaurant, Ajua. The food and service was amazing. Cocktails and drinks were delivered balanced on the top of the waiters head and they gave us puzzles to work out while we waited for our food. I had a delicious mixed fajitas with juicy prawns, beef and chicken. We all chipped in for a Mayan Coffee mainly for the show which consisted of 3 waiters, cascading layers of fire and a very tasty but alcoholic coffee. After dinner we headed to one of the many bars on the beach for a few more drinks. There was a live band and the place had a great atmosphere. As Alex and I had a very early start the next morning we headed to bed after a few drinks leaving the rest of the group to party.

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We were up at early for our 6:20am pickup on Saturday morning. We got picked up in a minivan and driven for an hour or so north to Puerto Juarez near Cancun. We arrived and had some coffee and cake while we waited in the queue to check in. Just as we reached the front of the queue the lady asked us to wait a minute. Then came the bad news. The port had been closed due to rough seas and no boats were going to be let out today. The seas didn't look too bad but with hurricane Irene off the coast of Florida apparently further out the waves were pretty bad. So bitterly dissapointed we had to hop back on the minivan for the drive back to Playa.

The dive shop was excellent and did a full refund on our tour. We had some breakfast and then went back to bed to catch up on some sleep. We then had a relaxing afternoon having fish tacos for lunch before going to the beach for a swim.

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That night was the official start of the next leg of the tour so we got to meet the 3 new people who would be joining the remaining 5 of us. We had a nice meal at a taco place across the road from Coco Bongo, where the famous dancing scene from The Mask was filmed. We then headed down to another beach bar for some drinks. Part of the bar was closed off for a wedding party but we got to see the couples first dance and enjoy the Mariarchi band that played. We then headed up the road to a small bar for some beers. We ended up with buckets of beers but the beers were Coronitas, tiny bottles of Coronas. Yes they were small but at least they remained cold while you drank them in the heat of Playa.

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On Sunday morning we had some free time. After breakfast and some coffee we just had a wander around the town and beach. At midday we walked across to the bus terminal where we caught a local bus down to Tulum. It was only about an hour away.

Our hotel was just on the side of the highway across from the entrance road to the ruins. After everyone got settled in we headed to a local restaurant for some lunch. Here I got nachos, the first I had really seen on a menu in Mexico. They were quite nice and the restaurant was fun with the owner giving us sombreros and a gaint Corona bottle to take photos with.

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Our guide had found us another whale shark tour leaving from Tulum which would give us another chance to go swimming with them. The weather was apparently better and while it meant another really early start we were ready to give it another go. So we booked it in and got all the details we needed for pickup.

We then headed down to the Tulum ruins. The site itself wasn't very big or as impressive as the other Mayan sites we have visited but what made it spectacular was the views over the Caribbean. From the cliff tops there are old temples perched overlooking the aqua green water and white sands. It was really a beautiful spot. After exploring the site we headed back to the hotel for a swim before we all caught a collectivo into the town of Tulum, 15 minutes down the road.

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In town we found a great little restaurant. Once again we were given somberos to wear. I guess it is something to do with being in a super touristy part of Mexico. We had a great piece of fish and delicous stuffed pepper with a few cocktails before heading back to bed.

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On Monday morning we left our hotel at 5am. We had to catch a taxi to a resort further up the road for our tour pickup. Now our pickup point was just really a bus stop next to the side of the highway. We arrived early and sat down to wait. After about 1/2 an hour we started to worry but in Latin America, sometimes they are late. After an hour we had almost given up hope and after 2 hours we knew our chances of swimming with whale sharks were over. The transfer just didn't come to pick us up. We didn't have a phone with us and the reception of the hotel was a few kms down a long drive. So we caught a collectivo back to our hotel. The tour agency wasn't open yet so we headed back to bed for some sleep.

We visited the tour agency and luckily the guy that booked our tour was not there. Not very impressed we spoke with the manager and got a full refund. I was really pissed off at their incompetency but all they did was apologise. I guess something in the universe was really telling us that we shouldn't go swimming with whale sharks. I'll just have to leave it on my bucket list for another time.

After our disappointing morning we didn't want to spend our last day in Mexico on a negative note so headed into town for some lunch. We got some fish burritos and fresh limonadas. We then headed to a beach not far from the ruins. It was a stunning postcard beach with white sand, palm trees and crystal blue water. We setup under a palm tree and spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing on the beach. With a few super strong margaritas we had soon forgotten about the mornings troubles.

That night we just had a local meal with various dishes made of tortillas, meat and salad.

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We had an absolutely amazing time in Mexico. The people, sights, food, drink and vibe was amazing and I would totally recommend it for people to visit.

Next stop Belize!

Posted by SamJohnston 09:01 Archived in Mexico Tagged tulum cenote playa_del_carmen chichen_itza whale_sharks ikil Comments (0)

Magical Merida

On Wednesday we left Palenque and the Chipas region of Mexico and headed to Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. Even though we left early it was about an 8 hour bus trip so we arrived in Merida late afternoon. We went for a walk around town which had a beautiful square and then had dinner with everyone before heading to bed.

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On Thursday we had decided to do a tour with the rest of our group to a few of the local cenotes. There are thousands of cenotes or sinkholes located in this area formed when it use to be covered by sea. The Mayans saw the sinkholes as a passage into the underworld so they used it for religious ceremonies and for offerings to gods. So after breakfast we headed about an hour out of town.

We arrived and then boarded our transport to the cenotes. This consisted of a horse pulling a cart on rails. It was quite a fun ride but you really needed to hold on as we built up quite a bit of speed and there were a few sharp corners during the journey. After about 20 minutes we reached our first cenote. It had a big cave like entrance with a set of stairs leading down into it. We got ready and dove into the crystal clear water. With the lighting the water looked deep blue. We swam around for a while before going up the back of the cenote to have a look at the opening to an underwater cave. Unfortunately we couldn't go in as it is only for qualified divers but it was still a beautiful place to experience.

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We then hopped back on to our carts for the ride to the second cenote. This cenote had more of a closed entrance of about 5m in diameter. We were able to look through the hole to see the water about 10m below before we climbed down into it. Once again it was a stunningly beautiful place. We were enjoying swimming around when a couple of the boys decided to jump off the top of the cenote into the water below. Hosea went first and as soon as I saw the local guide swimming over to where he landed in the water I knew there must be trouble. He had dislocated his shoulder as the impact of the water threw his arm up and out of place. We helped get him out of the water where Diana inspected his arm. Luckily we had a doctor on our trip! It was decided to take him to hospital where they could get pain medication for him. So Hosea, Diana and our tour leader headed off to hospital.

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The injury put a bit of a dampener on everyones spirits but we still headed to the 3rd cenote. This one had a very tiny hole to enter, just big enough to fit through. It had about a 15m ladder to climb down before you reached a small platform. It was much darker in this cenote as there was only one small hole in the roof besides the entrance hole. But the shaft of light provided an eerie ambiance. We stayed in there for about 20 minutes until it started raining.

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We then headed back to the van and picked the other 3 up from the local clinic. Luckily Hosea's shoulder was back in place and they managed to get so pain medication for him. We then headed to a local hacienda for lunch. Hacienda's are traditional houses on agricultural estates. The one we visited was very beautiful. We sat in a big dining room overlooking the property. The specialty was rabbit so both Alex and I got it for lunch. It was really delicious. Afterwards we had a walk around the property which included a tour of the rabbit hutches where they farm rabbits for use in the restaurant onsite and to also to sell meat. It was a bit morbid looking at all the cute rabbits after having them for lunch but I guess that is the circle of life and they are so damn tasty.

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On the way back into town we drove down Paseo Montejo which was filled with stunning mansions.

That night we opened a few bottles of the Mezcal we had all bought in Oaxaca for some pre drinks in the hotel. We had our very tasty passion-fruit Mezcal and some of David's normal Mezcal with the worm. And yes I ate part of the worm! Alex also brought out one of the cigars we had from Cuba to smoke. We then headed out for another walk around town. While exploring we got to see the local souvenir of choice, highly decorated live beetles. Apparently you buy then to wear as a brooch! None of us were that hungry as we had a big lunch so just got gorditas which are tortillas stuffed with different fillings and sat in benches in the park and ate them. We then had a marquesitas for desert which was like a hard crepe filled with nutella. A perfect end to a wonderful day.

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Next stop the Caribbean beachside paradise of Playa del Carmen!

Posted by SamJohnston 16:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged merida cenotes gorditas Comments (0)

Ruins and Waterfalls in Palenque

We left San Cristobal on Monday morning and had about a 6 hour drive to Palenque. We arrived late afternoon to a very hot and humid climate. We checked into our hotel and then found a rooftop bar where we all cooled off with a few beers. For dinner we headed to a nice local restaurant where I had enchiladas for dinner.

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On Tuesday morning we set out for a day trip to visit the areas archeological site and some waterfalls. We started off at Palenque, a beautiful Mayan site located in the middle of the jungle. We hired an excellent local guide who lead us around the different areas explaining about the city, its rulers, religious ceremonies and the Mayan way of life. He really was a wealth of knowledge and was so passionate so I learnt a lot about the Mayans. We got to see inside the living quarters which even had toilets with running water and stone beds.

I asked about the end of the Mayan calendar which some people say when it ends on the 21st December 2012, the world will end. There really is no absolute proven theories but our guide believes that it might correspond with an astrological event with the alignment of the Milky Way. Nowhere in any of the Mayan literature that has been discovered does it talk about any disaster or end of the world, so I think we might all be safe. We did learn about the Mayan calendar which rotates in day cycles (Kins), then 20 day cycles (Unials), which then form 18 x Unial cycles (Tuns)which is kind of equivalent to the Gregorian year except there are 5 days left over. For the Mayans these days are unowned and is when bad things can occur. 20 Tun's then make a Ka'tun (7200 days) and finally 20 Ka'tun's make a Bak'tun (144000 days). The 21st December is just the end of the 13th Bak'tun and the end of the Mayan calendar. We also learnt about Mayan horoscopes and found out what we were and the characteristics of someone in that sign. I am Yax, which like my normal horoscope is a water sign and related to Mother Earth and the colour green.

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The site contains lots of inscriptions which archeologists have been able to decipher to understand in-depth information on the Mayans that lived here like rulers names, birthdays, marriages, wars. The greatest ruler here was Pakal and was where the debatable frieze depicting him riding a rocket ship was discovered.

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After exploring the beautiful site and climbing to the top of the temples for a great view across the jungle we headed to Misol-Ha. It is a huge waterfall that you could walk behind. We had a quick walk around the back of the fall before going for a refreshing swim in the lake below it. We then had lunch in a restaurant at the falls before returning to Palenque.

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That night Alex and I had a wander to the new part of town where we had some margaritas before joining the rest of our group for dinner at the same restaurant as the previous night. I chose chimichangas which were nice but a little too greasy for my liking.

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Next stop the Yucatan Peninsula and the White City of Merida!

Posted by SamJohnston 16:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged palenque misol_ha Comments (0)

Spiritual San Cristobal de las Casas

To reach San Cristobal de las Casas we had caught a 10 hour overnight bus from Oaxaca. Alex and I traveled with our guide and one other girl on our trip, Anita on the regular bus while the others on our tour had upgraded to a more deluxe bus. We had figured that with some of the buses we had caught recently through South America it couldn't be that bad so just stuck to the normal bus. It turned out that it wasn't too bad except for the 45 minute stop in the middle of nowhere at 3am in the morning.

We arrived in San Cristobal around 7:30am and made our way to our lovely hotel. Our room was available so we were able to shower and get changed before having a great breakfast of Heuvos Rancheros. We then headed with our group to Sumidero Canyon for a boat ride along the river. We hadn't been told too much information about the canyon or boat trip except it would be a relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

We arrived at the pier, put on life vests, boarded our boat and set off down the river. The scenery was amazing with steep sided walls of the canyon plummeting down to the river below. We cruised along in our jet boat for a while until we saw the first of many crocodiles. We stopped to snap off a few photos before continuing further down river. We stopped off at a small cave that had a virgin statue in it and beautifully coloured rock. We then went past a waterfall that looked just like a Christmas tree starting narrow at the top before widening towards the bottom. We were also very lucky to see some monkeys and lots of bird life along the river. One really thing that really amazed me was the amount of rubbish floating around. Apparently it washes in whenever it rains and they have crews of people cleaning it up but in such a beautiful place piles of floating rubbish really ruined it. We ended up at a dam before turning back around for the 15km return journey. It was quite a enjoyable day out not requiring too much effort considering we were all pretty tired from our overnight bus rides.

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That night we had a walk through town which was another one filled with beautiful colonial architecture. For dinner we diverged from the typical Mexican food and had Thai with the rest of our group.

On Sunday we had breakfast and then walked through the town to the collectivo stop. From here we caught a collectivo for about 10 minutes to the town of San Juan Chamula. It is a little town that fills with indigenous locals on Sunday for market day. We wound our way through the crowded markets to the towns church, Templo de San Juan. While it is officially a Catholic church it is allowed for the locals to practice their own traditional religion in it. It is strictly forbidden to take photos inside so we stored our cameras away before crossing into the church. It was truly an amazing sight to see. The floor was covered in pine needles which made the whole church be filled with a rich aroma of pine and incense. All around the church individual groups were performing rituals which involved lots of candles, offerings of food and drink and prayers. There was a Catholic priest at the back performing christenings for babies clad in white outfits while at the front a full band played to celebrate some event. It was very strange to witness such a mix of traditional religion and practices with modern religion and practices. It is also known that some locals perform sacrifices inside the church. While I didn't get to see any, I did see live chickens lying inside bags just with their heads poking out ready to be sacrificed. The strange thing was that they were alive but were just laying their peacefully ready for what was coming to them. Our guide told us all about the locals religion which provided a really interesting insight into their beliefs. It really was a mystic and spiritual place to visit.

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Afterwards we wandered through the markets looking at the mix of things that could be bought. There was plenty of fruit and vegetables, clothes, shoes, chickens (both alive and dead) and lots of souvenirs. It was interesting to see the local dress which women wore black shaggy woolen skirts and men wore either black or white shaggy woolen jackets. Once we were done we caught the collectivo back to San Cristobal where we had lunch in a restaurant run by the Zapatistas, a revolutionary group. After some tasty tamales we explored through the markets in town. At one point it started to pour rain so we had to find a cafe to hide out in for a bit. That night we had dinner at an Argentinian steakhouse where we had tasty steak and red wine.

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On Monday morning we returned to the Zapatistas restaurant for an amazing breakfast. The blue corn tortillas they served were mind blowing. I had Mulitas which were tortillas topped with eggs, tomato salsa and served with fried plantains and avocado. It was definitely up there with the tastiest breakfasts I have ever had. After breakfast we made our way to the bus station for our ride to Palenque.

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Next stop Palenque for some more ruins and waterfalls!

Posted by SamJohnston 16:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged san_cristobal sumidero_canyon san_juan_chamula Comments (0)

Sampling some of the best food and fireworks in Oaxaca

As with Puebla, Oaxaca (pronounced wah-hah-kah) has long been on my places to visit for its food. I love Mexican food and had heard that Oaxaca was the home of some of the best dishes and of course Mezcal!

It took us about 5-6 hours to reach Oaxaca on a local bus from Puebla. It was late afternoon by the time we had checked into our hotel. We were about a 15 minute walk from the main plaza but all the surrounding streets were all filled with people, shops and restaurants so it wasn't a bad walk. We explored the city and its colonial streets and I instantly loved it.

We walked past a church and our tour guide got really excited about something. He pointed out a structure lying in front of the church and said that there must be a celebration on that night as the structure was for fireworks. After asking the guys setting it up they confirmed that it would start at 9pm. So we set off for a quick but so delicious dinner in a taco shop.

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At 9pm we all headed out from our hotel just down the road to the church which had a big group of locals and a band pumping out festive tunes. The structure had been erected and stood about 15m high. First of all it started off with some standard fireworks shooting up into the sky. Then they placed some paper mache bulls with three wheels of fireworks on them. Each wheel set off at a time accumulating in a huge bang at the end. They set off about 3 of these on the road before chaos broke out. One of the locals picked up one and started running down the street towards us. I panickly looked at our guide who just yelled "run", so I did just that jumping over a wall avoiding narrowly the fireworks shooting out in every direction. The guy continued to run up and down the street swinging the bull to cause fireworks to go everywhere.

They set off another bull and then some hats with fireworks and birds with fireworks while we watched and ran for cover whenever they came close. It was quite scary but also fun and exhilarating. The structures weren't the best built things in the world either as on at least 2 occasions a wheel broke off and skittered off in all directions along the ground.

Once they were all done with almost killing us it was time for the main event, the firework structure. They set it off down the bottom where a wheel started turning causing a flower to appear that moved. Then there were birds and bulls that spun around followed by an angel and turning wheel that spelt out 'La Asuncion'. All components of the tower were made up of fireworks and moved and was an amazing sight to see. To finish it off a wheel broke off the top and spun up to the heavens symbolising the asuncion but looking like a UFO. We then had a series of normal fireworks just to finish it all off. Now I have seen a lot of firework displays in my life but this was by far the best I have ever seen.

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We then all retreated back to the hotel sharing our experiences over a few beers. Luckily the worse injury was a burn mark through a shirt. These Mexicans really are crazy.

On Thursday we headed out of town to Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec town. We walked down to the bus station via the food market where we got to sample some of the local delicacies, grasshoppers. Not perfect for breakfast especially considering the ones we tried were covered in chilli and garlic but not too bad and really just tasted like grass. We then hopped onto the bus for the hour or so journey to Monte Alban.

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We hired a local guide who was indigenous to the area called Coyote who showed us around the site and explained the history and facts. There were a number of phases of Monte Alban but they believe it was occupied since 500BC. We got to see lots of friezes which showed medical procedures like cesarean sections. It was amazing looking through all the different pictures which depicted things still used in modern day. It was their medical library and showed really interesting things.

We also got to see one of the five Juego de Pelota (Ball Courts), which was built around 100 BC. It was interesting to find out about the game they use to play which was like an ancient version of basketball where players would try to get a ball in a ring not using their hands, just their hips, elbows and knees.

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After exploring the site we purchased some hats from some of the vendors outside and at $30 pesos were an absolute bargain. We returned to town and had lunch at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Alex got chorizo con frijoles and I tried a tlayuda, which is a giant tortilla covered in frijoles, meat, cheese, tomato, onions and avocado. Both were delicious. We had a look around the city and then enjoyed a hot chocolate. It was really tasty but different to the ones I'm use to. It wasn't very sweet but was flavoured with spices like cinnamon and came with a sweet bread like brioche to dip in it. The guy in the shop showed us how they crushed the cocoa beans and we got to try a bit of the bitter paste from freshly crushed beans. While we were out we also grabbed some of the famous Oaxaca cheese which is a bit like mozzarella.

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That night none of us were that hungry so just returned to the awesome taco restaurant for some more tasty tacos. We then went to a bar and ordered some Mezcal to try. My shot of Mezcal came out but it was more like 100mls and almost filled an entire glass. Definitely no standard measures here. It started to pour rain while we were in the bar so we had a beer before heading to one more bar for some more drinks.

On Friday we did a tour of the surrounding area including petrified waterfalls, an ancient site, textile factory, Mezcal factory and a very old and big tree. First up was Hierve el Agua. Unfortunately just before we arrived it started raining, getting quite heavy just as we reached the falls. We managed to see the great formations just before the clouds closed in. We hid out from the rain in one of the little food stands at the sight and had hot chocolates, quesadillas and a tlayuda.

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We then moved onto Mitla which is an ancient Zapotec site. It was only a small site but was interesting to have a walk around. One of the most impressive things was a few tombs that you could climb into. So Alex and I did some tomb raiding crawling through the narrow entrances to see the tombs inside.

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From Mitla we moved onto a Mezcal factory. Mezcal is a spirit made from the agave cactus. The factory we visited makes it the traditional way. Alex was able to help stack the agave plants onto the fire where they are left for a few days to smoke. From there the crystallized plants are mashed, fermented and distilled before being aged. We were able to sample a wide range of the different ages and flavours of which there were dozens to try from including the one with the worm or Gusano de Maguey which is a larvae from a moth that lives on the agave plant. Of course we supported the local economy and bought a few bottles for ourselves!

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The next stop was a textile factory where we were shown how rugs are made in the traditional way. The wool is made by hand and dyed only using natural dyes. It was interesting to see the process and the beautiful finished products. I was certain that we wouldn't buy anything but once we found out the very reasonable prices we did splurge and buy a small rug. Our final stop was at El Arbol de Tule. Some people say it is the biggest or oldest tree in the world. Whether that is true or not I can't really say but it was pretty impressive. On the way back to Oaxaca we had an interesting drive back through the flooded streets.

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We had just enough time in Oaxaca to grab some dinner and taking a few photos of the awesome artwork on the building near our hotel before heading to the bus station. I tried the Mole Rojo which was actually really tasty and much nicer then the Puebla Mole. Then it was time for our overnight bus to San Cristobal.

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Next up the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas!

Posted by SamJohnston 07:57 Archived in Mexico Tagged fireworks oaxaca mexican_food mitla monte_albán Comments (0)

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