Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Chicken Pizza?

A rather poor title, being a play on words with the name of the latest ruins I visited; namely Chichen Itza. Chichen was one of the last great Mayan cities and its claim to fame lies in its grand pyramid (Palacio Grande), which, in actual fact, is a building version of the Mayan calendar. It is also so designed, that at every equinox the shadowy outline of a snake is cast upon one of its staircases (an event that attracts upwards of 80,000 spectators each time). The ruins, probably due to their younger age (only around 1,000 years) are very well preserved with particularly clear and complete murals. The backpackers' grapevine helped me out whilst visiting Chichen: in Creel I had met a Singaporean couple who told me of a section of ruins that were off limits to visitors but could be reached without much difficulty. So with their makeshift map I sneaked down an innocuous little path with a no entry sign and after a mile or so of dense jungle I came across a group of buildings that were still being excavated and reconstructed. Although not as complete as the main ruins, the absence of busloads of Yanks and Italians bawling at each other made it that much better. Whilst there one of the workers came up to me, and I thought I was in big trouble, but instead he offered to show me some more ruins hidden deep in the jungle. So i was pretty chuffed, and it also made me realise how much bigger these ancient cities were than the few paltry ruins that are put on show to the public.

Well, my time here in Mexico's drawing to a close, and I'll be sad to leave but I'm excited that in a week I'll be in Peru and, for the first time in my life, in a country where the water goes down the plughole the wrong way.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Beach Bum

I can definitely see the attraction of beach holidays after spending a lazy day yesterday just sitting around in the shade and swimming in the sea. Today was equally languorous, although it involved an early start to see the sun rise out of the Caribbean (unfortunately marred by clouds) and to see the nearby ruins of Tulum. The ruins themselves are nothing to write home about, but their location, perched on cliffs overlooking a pristine beach, is tremendously beautiful. Another geographical peculiarity of the Yucatan is the abundance of so-called cenotes, which are underground cavernous lakes or sinkholes. Today Tom, Julian (an Israeli and German who I've been staying with here) and I rented some snorkels, masks and flippers and spent a couple of hours checking them out. I was perhaps a little disappointed, although that is probably because I was expecting a lot, but still enjoyed myself. The water is very clear, and you get to swim between stalactites that pierce the water, and swim to air pockets in the caves (rather scary at first because you're not exactly sure where the air pockets are and you don't know if you can make it). There were also plenty of little fish and even some bats flying around in the caves. Not only that, but I also learnt a very important lesson of cave swimming: always keep your hands out in front of you whilst swimming (as can be testified by my rather prominent, yet temporary, cranial swelling.

However not all can be perfect, and that is abundantly demonstrated by the aforementioned mosquitoes, and their friends the sand fleas. Although luckily for me I had a decoy in Julian, who suffered considerably more than me!

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Anopheles v. Mephistopheles

Alluding to the title of my post, I would much rather sell my soul to the devil than have to live with mosquitoes. Yesterday I counted 10 bites on each of my feet alone, and a couple of days before that I had 17 on just my left arm. But I'm not here to gripe about my hardships; these are all sacrifices I willingly take to discover the world for you people sat at home, going to work (ha ha ha!).

In the course of my aforementioned research, I have come across an amazing discovery, that, I'm sure you'll agree, will have profound repercussions on Mexican archaeology. And that is, that the ancient Mayans were, in most probability, either aliens or mutants. How so? you might well ask, when so many people have been studying them for so long. Well, it's quite simple really, and anyone who has visited any Maya sites will corroborate my evidence. You see, all the stairs in the Mayan pyramids and other buildings are both ridiculously high and narrow, especially if you look at the modern day descendants of the Maya, who are generally on the short side. Therefore the ancient Mayans must have had disproportionately long legs and small feet, or they walked on stilts, or they just had a hell of a lot of trouble climbing their own buildings. Anyway, I'm beginning to babble, or have been for some time. It would be better if I actually talked about Palenque, which is a really impressive site, with many ruins, oxymoronically (if such a word exists), in a rather good state.

The Mayan civilisation was one of the most important of the Americas and predated the Aztecs (who lived mainly around central Mexico) by about a millennium. They were quite advanced, making discoveries in mathematics, astronomy and had the only pre-colonial writing system (which was subsequently lost and is still being laboriously pieced together) in all of the Americas. Their civilisation had largely dwindled from its zenith (around 900AD) before the coming of the Spanish, although their language, ancient beliefs and traditions still live on to this day, though in altered forms. The ancient cities were also largely lost to the world as they became engulfed by the forest and weren't rediscovered until the end of the 19th century. In fact many of the archaeological sites have only been partly unearthed, with large sections still overgrown by trees and thick undergrowth. Palenque was also submerged in a green shroud, but many of the buildings survived incredibly well and you have to marvel at the feats of engineering that have survived, trying to guess at their way of life and trying to imagine the majesty of the giant palaces and temples during their heyday.

But Palenque isn't just old ruins. There is also much natural beauty in the surrounding countryside, and so many tours will also take you to several nearby waterfalls as well. One, called Misol-Ha, was an archetypal waterfall where you could walk right behind the curtain of falling water and feel refreshed by the invigorating spray, and another was a long series of cataracts spread over 2km with many ideal spots for sitting down and having a picnic (or even having a dip, if you hadn't forgotten your swimming trunks that is).

At the moment I am staying in a cabaña on the beach in a town called Tulum on the Caribbean coast, which has very little going for it except for the beach and (another) Mayan ruins right by the ocean. Anyway, I think it's time I had a little R&R.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Ruinous Habit

Hi there, sorry to disappoint those of you hoping for my colourful demise, you'll have to wait some time yet. Actually, despite some scare stories (mostly from sheltered locals who have become paranoid from the scare stories they hear on the news) I find Mexico to be a very safe place to travel, and the only disagreeable event to have happened to me being the theft/disappearance of a bag of 3 plums and a bunch of grasshoppers from the hostel where I was staying in Oaxaca.

Back to the story in hand though. For the past 3 days I've been travelling along the border between Mexico and Guatemala so that I could see some rather out-of-the-way sights. (Oh, before I carry on, I have some more praise for Mexico's public transport system. Even when travelling between some rural backwaters over here, the frequency of buses, or colectivos, is surprisingly high, so you don't have to wait for ages, or plan your day around departure times, like you do in most of Europe.) First off were the Lagos de Montebello (Montebello lakes), each of which is famed to have a different colour. It may or may not be so, but they were pretty, usually a rich, clear blue or green, and it was even possible to go swimming in one that was formed in the extinct crater of a volcano.

The night was spent close to the lakes (taking great care to apply lashings of insect repellent, as I had now descended into midgie-land) in a rather rustic guesthouse. The next day started early as I woke to catch the 6am bus (actually it started an hour earlier as I forgot that this insignificant rump of the country doesn't bother with Summer time!) for the 6 hour trip to Frontera Corozal, which, as the name suggests, is a border town between Mexico and Guatemala on the Usmacinta river. From there a 1 hour boat trip along the border is the only way to access the haunting ruins of Yaxchilan, deep in the heart of the jungle and hidden from civilisation. However, due to the late time of my arrival, I was afraid that I'd be the last person to arrive and would therefore have to pay for a boat just for myself. Luckily I arrived just in time to tag along with a group of Lithuanians (why not?). It was definitely worth it as we were the only people there, and I soon peeled off from the group to go and explore by myself. You would think that in a place like this it would be very quiet, but in fact the opposite was true because of what sounded like a rally of Harley Davidsons, which in fact turned out to be howler monkeys living up to their names with their raucous growlings from the treetops.

The next day I popped over to a nearby indigenous village in the Lacandon rainforest where I managed to hire a guide for a trip into the forest. Now for years I have wondered what could possibly attract people to botany, when you can study animals, which are far more exciting and do stuff, instead, but on this little sortie I finally understood, as the little buggers kept running away, whereas the trees behaved themselves and stayed put so that they could be inspected. Nonetheless I saw a whole bunch of weird and exotic animals and plants as well as some supremely well-hidden Mayan ruins (the damn things are everywhere). However there were 2 things that really fascinated me whilst I was there: the first was a monstrously huge spider (about 15-20cm) catching and packaging an unlucky fly; and the guy sitting at a shelter in the forest collecting a small fee for visiting the reserve and writing your name in a log book. Now the latter event in itself is not particularly interesting, but what intrigued me was the fact that the previous visitor to arrive before me was there 5 days ago, and I was just wondering whether he goes out every day to his shelter in the forest and just waits. And waits. And waits. And maybe, one day, if he's lucky, someone might turn up so that he can write their name in his log book. And then he waits some more.

Finally I arrived at Palenque and tomorrow I will visit the ruins here, which are said to be the most spectacular in Mexico, so I'll pass my expert eye over them and give you my verdict.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Trigger Happy

No, don't worry, I haven't gone on an anti-US shooting spree (although it does happen to be one of my favourite recurring dreams!), instead I visited the nearby Cañon de Sumidero, a little known natural wonder, and shot off nearly a whole role of film. The trip involved a boat journey along the Rio Grijalva between cliffs up to 1000m high towering on either side and with the river reaching depths of over 200m! You truly feel dwarfed by the power of nature as you glide under the rock walls. But the landscape wasn't the only amazing thing about the canyon: it also has an abundance of wildlife that is remarkably accessible due to the topography. Therefore you could see, on the same, tiny spit of sand sheltered under a cliff face a group of roosting cormorants, a handful of basking crocodiles and a family of squabbling spider monkeys. The canyon was also particularly popular with vultures who would float on the rising thermals between the cliffs.

Tomorrow I'm off on a bit of an adventure as I plan to visit some lakes close to the Guatemalan border and then take the carretera frontera (border highway) which hugs the border between Mexico and Guatemala to the ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak, which, due to their out of the way location, are seldom visited by tourists. So if you don't hear from me after this you'll know that I've been kidnapped by either drug smugglers or bandits.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Coke, Hippies And Chickens

Eeek, it's been a few days since I last posted and so I might have a bit to write today. I spent another couple of days in Oaxaca visiting a place called Hierve el Agua (the name means boiling water, a bit of a misnomer really as the water from the springs isn't really hot but it just effervesces due to the dissolved minerals), which has some beautiful rock formations that look like petrified waterfalls (by petrified I of course mean turned to stone, and not scared, although I'd quite like to see what scared water looks like). And from there I stopped off at a town called El Tule, which claims to have a tree that is the largest living biomass in the world. I'm not too sure about that claim, but it certainly is a bloody big tree! My final day was spent in the main market in Oaxaca (not the one selling touristy crap, but the one where locals come to shop), where it is ridiculously easy to get lost among the maze of covered stalls selling everything imaginable under the sun: from food and spices to bridal wear and cheap plastic sandals.

At the moment I'm in San Cristobal de Las Casas (SC), a pretty town in south east Mexico in the state of Chiapas and home to the Zapatista movement. Luckily for me Lisbeth (a Mexican ex-flatmate of mine) has a couple of good friends (Tammo and Luz and their beautiful little girl Paulina) here in SC who were not only kind enough to welcome me at the bus station and show me around a bit, but also gave me a great deal of information about the indigenous peoples (Luz works job is to help with their economic development, sort of like the Gramin Bank) and Tammo about the wildlife (as he is a conservation co-ordinator in El Triunfo bioreserve). Anyway, not only does Chiapas have the best preserved Mayan ruins and the greatest biodiversity in Mexico, but the indigenous people have preserved their cultures more than most. And so with a view to seeing this first hand I went on a tour of a couple of local villages.

The first one I visited was called San Juan de Chamula, which is a very singular place because it remains autonomous from most of the federal and state laws and they have their own traditional justice system. Policemen have no powers inside the village boundaries and instead justice is dealt by a group of elected villagers armed with big, heavy-looking, sticks. Not only is their status within Mexico unique, but so is their religion, which they call "Traditional Catholicism", which is a very strange syncretism of Catholicism and Mayan pre-Hispanic beliefs. The only parts of their beliefs that would seem familiar to European Christians are their acceptance of baptism and the saints, other than that it is completely foreign. They have no priests, instead they commune directly with the saints; they carry out shamanistic healing rituals in their church (many of which include Coca Cola as an integral part of the ritual!) going so far as to sacrifice animals (to my great disappointment, while I was there I didn't get to witness any); they include many Mayan religious symbols (e.g. instead of Jesus on the cross they have a corn plant); and they hold John the Baptist in much higher esteem than Jesus himself. So understandably the church is quite a chaotic place with literally thousands of candles all on tables, on chairs and on the floor and pine needles strewn all across the floor, unfortunately, however, you can't take pictures (due to them thinking that it steals power from their guardian angels, and you'd be in physical danger if you tried) inside or of the people themselves, although I was able to find this site with some pictures from the outside along with some of the Authorities (local police) in their white woollen ponchos.

My visit to the second village of Zinacantan was cut short by a couple of Dutchmen in the tour group who complained that it was going on for longer than advertised (heaven forbid) and that they urgently needed to get back to SC for important business (which turned out to be the visiting of a church). This has made me decide to try and cut down as much as possible on organised tours where I am at the mercy of other peoples' fancies. If I'm going to suffer from whims they may as well be my own.

I'd like to finish today's post with a small(ish) rant about hippies and gap-year travellers. Now it may seem odd for me to lump these two, seemingly disparate, groups together, but there is a reason. You see I don't understand them. The hippies get up at midday, smoke some weed, play the guitar, talk about the deeper meaning of life, and never leave the hostel. Gap-year students, on the other hand, head down to the coast and just get hammered every day. Both of these activities can so easily be done back at home; you don't need to be here in Mexico to do it. On the other hand there's such an amazing country out there to be discovered, with an incredible diversity of wildlife, peoples, cultures and traditions. It just seems to be an amazing waste of a golden opportunity. Initially I thought that 7 weeks would be too much for Mexico and that I'd get bored, and now I'm having to rush to fit half of what I want to see into my schedule, and I just know that I'm going to have to come back at some point to finish it off (and pop down into the rest of central America).

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

It's Just Not Crickets

You'll have to bear with me today as I have quite a few disparate ideas running around in my head and I'm going to try and get them all down.

I'll start with the easy task of recounting what I've been up to since my last post. I visited the legendary ruins of Teotihuacan close to Mexico City (it took me this long to go there because of the time it took me to learn how to pronounce it so that I could buy the bus ticket! ;-P). The amazing thing about Teotihuacan is the sheer size of the ruins and the pyramids. The Piramide del Sol is the 3rd biggest pyramid in the world after Cheops and Cholula and the city ruins cover an area of some 30 square km. Perhaps most fascinating about the site is the mystery surrounding its founding, its inhabitants and its abrupt decline and abandonment. For reasons still unknown some time in the 7th century was abandoned and the civilisation that flourished there disappeared. The site, with its ritual processional way and its two gigantic pyramids remained a place of pilgrimage for the civilisations that followed (like the Aztecs), and it is easy to see why just from the monumental layout of the place. The setting itself leaves something to be desired though, as the modern day town of Teotihuacan is right next to it and dispels some of the magic of the place. It was also the first tourist place that I've visited where the foreigners outnumbered Mexicans (as most foreigners don't bother heading north and stick to southern Mexico).

The next day I headed south-east to Oaxaca (pronounced wahaka) through some of the most gorgeous landscapes that I have ever seen (so gorgeous that I would love to have the time, and Ray Mears survival skills, to just head off into the wilderness for a week or so). Here I visited Monte Alban (White Mountain), so-called because of the whitish colour of the local rocks, an ancient Zapotec city (the oldest city in the Americas). Although not as grand as Teotihuacan it is very well-preserved and therefore retains a charm missing from the former. But probably more exciting for me here in Oaxaca is one of the local delicacies that I have been dying to try for some years now. Here they call them chapulinas, but you would call them grasshoppers. They are a very odd taste sensation indeed; there are 3 different types that you can get: pequenos (small, about 2-3mm long), medios (medium, up to 1cm) and grandes (large, about 2cm) and you can have them with chili or without. The small ones are so small that it's almost like eating some sort of powder (until you look closely that is) and taste like an Iranian dish called ghormeh sabzi (for those of you who don't know it, it's like salty oregano). The other two are more similar and are more lemony in taste, although I prefer the larger ones as they are crunchier (actually I've got a small bag of them in front of me now and am munching away as I'm typing). Tasty!

The other thing I wanted to write is more of a rant, although I hope I don't sound patronising. When I was in the Copper Canyon I couldn't help noticing that there was a fair amount of litter strewn about and it made me rather angry to see that people had so little regard for a place of such beauty (because for me untouched and unspoilt nature is the most beautiful thing in the world, no matter what it is, and anything that people do automatically detracts from it, and so all we can try and do is minimise our impact). Now initially I thought it was just tourists, but then I went to a place where tourists would not go and it was just as bad, and so it had to be the people living locally. The thing is that poor people who live in places of such natural beauty rarely have an incentive to protect it as it doesn't bring them as many material gains as exploitation, and of course they have as much a right to a decent life as anybody else. It's really important that such people are educated and adequately remunerated to preserve their surroundings, otherwise they'll go down the same route as western Europe, where the areas of unspoilt nature are so pitifully small, and we are the worse off for it. This idea was reinforced when I visited Teotihuacan, where the foreign tourists were by and large OK, but a number of Mexicans were clambering over walls and I even saw one guy pissing against one of the ruins, even though there was a toilet not 200m away. Now I don't have any solutions or answers, but it's important that we do something soon before we really kack this place up beyond all repair. And the West ought to be proactive in funding and promoting the clean up, otherwise it just smacks of hypocrisy.

OK, that's about it, apart from a small request. I was wondering whether those of you who read this blog could, every now and again, just let me know what is going on, etc, etc, with a short e-mail, as they are very much appreciated. Now I know that my Dad is going to say that this is karma and poetic justice because I never write to him and he'd be right, but still... Anyway, I'd better stop there and save the rest for another day.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Miscellaneous Mexican Musings

Well, I've been back in Mexico City at my cousin's, just chillin' for a bit before I head off south. In the end I didn't visit Mazatlan or anywhere else on the coast, as I really couldn't be bothered and I was beginning to smell and my clothes needed washing (for those unfortunate enough to have lived with me before, they will know that things must have been getting pretty malodorous for even me to notice that). So instead of regaling you with my exploits, in this post I shall talk about things that I have noticed here and thought somehow odd or different or unexpected.

First of all, I have come to the conclusion that Mexico is a nation of hypochondriacs. How come? I hear you ask, surely it must be the Yanks that are the world's master pill-poppers. My conclusion stems from the incredible profusion of pharmacies. Almost every other shop here in Mexico is a pharmacy, it's ridiculous; I don't understand how they can all make a living. I mean, having lots of food stalls, restaurants, etc. I can understand because everyone needs to eat, but not everybody is ill (or they might just be sick?).

Secondly I have had the dubious pleasure of watching a bit of Mexican TV, and even after a short while something becomes quite apparent: almost everyone on TV (from the actors in the execrable telenovelas to the kids in adverts) is pure Caucasian (i.e. only of European descent), whereas about 80% of Mexico's population is actually mestizo (i.e. of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) and only 10% Caucasian.

Then there's change. Well actually there isn't. Nobody ever has any change and people in shops seem particularly insulted if you happen to only have large denominations. So quite often I'll have to ask taxi drivers before I get in whether they have any change. Though this can sometimes work to your advantage when, for example, paying for a museum entrance. Sometimes the person on duty just can't be bothered running off to his neighbours to see if they have change and may let you in for a rounded-down fare.

And finally for those of you back in Blighty who drive and complain about traffic calming measures, well you ain't seen nothin yet. Although here they are generally confined to the main roads. It seems as if the authorities couldn't be bothered with traffic lights, and so just put sleeping policemen before junctions and let the people sort it out themselves (the apparent philosophy being that if/when they do crash, then it will be at a slower speed and so it won't matter as much).

That's about it, and I'll probably be off south in the next day or two, as I find it difficult motivate myself to do anything constructive when I don't have to pay to stay the night.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Beanless In Mexico

I've finally managed to tear myself away from the Barranca del Cobre, even though there were a few things that I wanted to see (ah, the sacrifices I make in the name of exploration and the advancement of human knowledge). I caught the Copper Canyon railway (or the Chepe as it's known locally) from Creel to a suitably awful town on the coast called Los Mochis (stopping to catch a view of the actual Copper Canyon itself, and going a bit trigger-happy with the camera as a consequence, at Divisadero on the way). The railway really is a feat of engineering as it winds through the least railway-friendly territory known to man. What's more, when they were building it I think they were given all the reject track pieces from the Americans after they had built their own railways, because there is not a single piece of straight track on the whole line! Not only that, but there are some incredibly tortuous meanderings and doubling-backs to accommodate the ever-changing topography. Not only is their track-laying incredible, but the speed and and punctuality must be the envy of Virgin Rail: with an average speed of under 30km/h and a delay of just under 3 hours, it's a record Mr Branson would be proud of! (For those of you (luckily) unacquainted with the British railway system, this final remark will probably be rather obscure.) However all that can be forgiven because of the stunning scenery through which the railway passes, which must surely rank it alongside one of the rail journeys of the world.

I arrived at Los Mochis at 2:30am and decided to save money on a hotel room by getting a bus to the town of Alamos and sleeping on it instead. Alamos itself is a small town, with charming colonial architecture that reveals its important history (another mining town, and also an important stopping point on the Camino Real). But more important to me is the fact that Alamos is the epicentre of the breeding range of the small moth Carpocapsa saltitans (again ex-students should note the italics, capitalisation for the genus name but none for the species name) that lays its eggs in the seeds of a local shrub. When warmed the larva pulls on threads that it spins within the seed, causing it to move around. That's right folks, they are Mexican Jumping Beans, and unfortunately this year's crop was a complete failure and so there are none about, and consequently I am not a happy bunny. Ah well, some things are just out of our hands.

The next couple of days are going to be a bit bus intensive as I return to Mexico City via Mazatlan, each time taking the night bus to save money on accommodation. But since I'm not much of a beach bum I doubt I'll stay long on the coast.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Goodbyes And Penises

One of the great things about travelling alone is that you have to actively go and speak to people and interact with them, otherwise you just become a wandering hermit. And this allows you to meet lots of different and interesting people, and perhaps share part of the journey together. 5 days ago I met Karla, una chica muy chida (and not a little brave to go travelling with a nutcase like myself), and together we visited a bunch of places around the Barranca del Cobre and had a lot of fun. Not only that, but she also helped me immeasurably with my Spanish by persevering with my butchering of her language and correcting me whenever necessary, as well as teaching me the many diverse meanings of chingar and the difference between cargar and cagar (which can help avoid many an embarrassing situation). But unfortunately, as many times as you meet wonderful people, you also have to say goodbye, and so we parted our ways when she took the train for Los Mochis earlier today. However hopefully we'll be able to meet up again some day.

Well, that's enough of me maudlin, I'm sure you've probably had your fill of that and so I'll continue by recounting today's occurrences. I decided to rent a bike and discover the surrounding area, which is home to many weird and wonderful rock formations. Among these are the Valley of Mushrooms, the Valley of Frogs and the Valley of the Monks. The latter being by far the most impressive, with pillars of rock reaching up to 20 metres in height. In the local Tarahumara language, however, their name for the Valley of the Monks actually translates to "The Valley Of The Erect Penises", which I, personally, think conveys the image of the rock formations much better (and would draw many more (female) tourists without a doubt). But I suppose the conquering Spaniards must have been rather prudish. Pity really.

P.S. For any of my ex-students who might be reading this (heaven forbid) I especially recommend the Valley of the Monks as it is a fantastic example of primary succession.

Sunday, October 03, 2004


Karla and I set off from Creel on the Guachochi bus (another reason why I like this place is that the place names are so cool) in a bit of a hurry after a bit of a mix-up regarding departure times. But we got it in the end and got off at Samachique hoping to hitch a ride to Batopilas, some 65km away and at the bottom of the same named canyon. We thought we might as well start walking in the general direction to see some of the countryside as well. 5 hours later, in the middle of nowhere, with only 2 cars going in the right direction (although there were plenty going the other way) we had just about given up hope of getting a ride to Batopilas when along came our saviour in the form of a pick-up going all the way there. So there we were, standing in the back of this pick-up (well, I was standing, Karla didn't feel too great standing up whilst going over one of the bumpiest and twistiest roads on earth). The descent down the Batopilas canyon just took my breath away: you start at over 2400m and within 30mins you are under 500m after the most fantastic ride of your life (beats any roller-coaster any day) with sheer drops on all sides. It can also be a bit of a brown pants time as well, especially when you see the abundance of crosses littering the wayside, indicating sortie de routes, but luckily our driver was a local and so has survived a sort of Darwinian natural selection process. (Actually, thinking about it, I'm not sure whether I'm insured for hitch-hiking, I'll have to look up the small print of my policy.) For sheer size the Grand Canyon is king, but for beauty and diversity Batopilas sure gives it run for its money. When you start at the top it's quite chilly with hardy pine forests, but at the bottom you have a subtropical jungle with cactii and sweltering heat.

The next day we decided to visit a church close by (7km away) that's called "the lost cathedral" because it's built in the middle of nowhere with nothing close by, and no-one even knows why it was built there as it was so long ago. Although we made the mistake of leaving a little to late, so we got absolutely roasted in the midday heat, luckily it's also possible to swim in the river close by. Unfortunately the river was barely more than a foot deep, but at least it cooled you down somewhat. We thought it might be better to wait until the late afternoon before returning and so spent the rest of the day hanging out in the shade of the church, playing cards, getting annoyed by the local kids and getting scared shitless by a big tarantula. I can easily see why the stereotypical Mexican is always having a siesta because it really does get far too hot to do anything meaningful. Upon getting back though, we got a nasty surprise when we inquired about buses back to Creel (where we had left our bags) for the next day: it being Sunday there are no buses, so we'd have to hitch-hike back (the old lady at the hotel was very encouraging: "you'll never get a ride, not on a Sunday."). But in fact it only took an hour and a half to get a ride out of town.

Given the splendid natural beauty of the Copper Canyon area I'm surprised so few people know about it (including me before coming). It just goes to show that most of us are very ignorant about the incredible diversity of landscapes that there are in the world. And as well as being an amazing natural spectacle the area is also enthralling because of the local indigenous people, the Tarahumara (although they call themselves Raramuri), who remained isolated from Western influences until very lately. They are unique in that they are incredible long-distance runners, who think nothing of clocking up distances of a hundred miles in a 24 hour period, and this just with a pair of sandals made out of discarded car tyres!

Friday, October 01, 2004

Hot Springs

Today I went on a small tour to some nearby hot springs in which you could also bathe. Very relaxing and just what the doctor ordered after the past few days on the road without a shower. The setting was absolutely gorgeous, deep within a canyon and surrounded by pine forests. Actually I didn't need for it to be at the bottom of a canyon as it entailed a tiring slog back up a steep hill to get back to Creel (perhaps during the course of the trip I might get better at the whole walking thing) Tomorrow I plan to set off into the Copper Canyon national park for a couple of days with a Mexican girl I've met here called Karla, who has been helping me with my Spanish and teaching me the multiple meanings of the word chingar, a staple of the Mexican vocabulary. However there's only one bus into and out of the canyon every day, so it might be some time before I'll be able to get back to civilisation so don't worry if I don't post for a while.