Archive for January, 2009

San Cristóbal de las Casas

san cristobal

Traveling from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to San Cristóbal de las Casas takes less than two hours, yet it’s a fantastic journey winding up and over mountains, through cloud forests, at times with near zero visability, then descending back down into the broad Jovel valley where San Cristóbal lies.  Here the clear highland light illuminates the surrounding countryside creating bold, richly colored landscapes that are hard to forget, and an overwhelming feeling of anticipation and excitement sets in as the mountains finally give way and the town comes into view.

At an elevation of 2,100 meters, this Spanish-colonial town is chilly year-round and significantly cooler than many of the towns along the coast.   Surrounded by mountains, San Cristóbal’s narrow cobblestone streets are lined with snug, brightly colored buildings that house a cosmopolitan array of shops, cafés and restaurants.  A variety of accommodations, travel agencies and language schools add to the towns’ appeal and several interesting museums, cinema houses and artisans’ markets round out the mix.  With so much going on it’s hard to stay less than a week and quite possible to hang around for much longer without becoming bored or running out of things to do.   

Several blocks of andadores, or pedestrian walkways, extend through the center of town and converge on the central plaza, or Zocalo.  Lined with benches, they’re the perfect place to spend an hour, or two, or three taking in the sights and savoring a cup of organic, fair-trade Chiapas coffee before perusing the crafts at one of the local artisans’ markets or embarking on a day trip or guided tour to one of the outlying villages to experience first hand the indigenous way of life.  Despite all its modernity, San Cristóbal de las Casas is located at the heart of a region with a unique indigenous character and the town remains deeply embedded in the world of the modern Maya.

A well-known tourist destination since the 1970’s, San Cristóbal has been gaining in popularity ever since, and was catapulted onto the International radar when, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista rebels choose it as a base from which to launch their revolution.  Planned to coincide with the initiation of NAFTA, the EZLN occupied San Cristóbal for several days before being pushed out by the Mexican army.  Today their fight to improve the lives of Mexico’s indigenous population continues and their presence is visible throughout the region, especially in outlying villages, as well as in the form of propaganda via the internet and as t-shirts, crafts, dolls and the like, most marketed to tourists on the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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poco a poco

Andador

Andador Turistico, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.  Suddenly you are five years old again.  You can’t read anything, you only have the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life.  Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.  -Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There (1993)

As expected, learning to communicate in Spanish is proving to be both the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my experiences in Mexico thus far, even amongst all the other challenges and rewards of traveling and adapting to a new culture.  And I’m beginning to catch on, poco a poco, or little by little.

Now that we’ve settled into our apartment (temporarily, of course) in San Cristobal de las Casas, I’m preparing to to spend the next month working to improve my Spanish at Sol Maya Language & Arts School.  Wish me luck!

Cañón del Sumidero

cañón

Located just outside Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the town of Chiapa de Corzo is the magnificent Cañón del Sumidero.  The canon walls reach amazing heights of as much as 800 meters over head.  The Rio Grijalva flows through the canon and from time to time it’s possible to spot crocodiles, several species of birds and the occasional monkey.  To my disappointment there weren’t any monkeys hanging around on the day we visited but we were able to spot a couple of crocodiles.  You can see one of them in this picture, just behind and to the right of Carlos.

Tuxtla Gutiérrez

tuxtla

Tuxtla Gutiérrez is the state capital of Chiapas and a fairly modern city with a population of around 500,000 people.  The main tourist attraction in Tuxtla is the Zoológico Miguel Álvarez Del Toro.  Its unique jungle setting showcases many of the states native creatures in their natural habitats.  The life’s work of pioneering conservationist founder Dr. Miguel Àlvarez del Toro, ZooMat continues to promote the conservation of Chiapas’ natural environments and to protect the states’ vast array of wildlife species, many of which are currently facing extinction.

zoo funnyThis display consisted of an empty enclosure, reflective glass and the following message in both Spanish and English, “Here you can see the most foolish and destructive species, that even threatens to annihilate itself”…

Puerto Arista

puerto arista

After traveling most of the night by bus and arriving ahead of schedule we spent the remaining part of the early morning in the Tonalá bus station,  finally arriving in Puerto Arista around 7 a.m.  

An infinite expanse of beach that stretches as far as the eye can see, Puerto Arista is a small, sleepy beach town and the perfect place to end our first tour of the coast.  Other than the beach itself, the primary tourist attraction is the Campamento Tortuguero.  Here volunteers work to protect the sea turtle population and visitors are welcome to tour the facilities as well as to assist with the releasing of hatchlings into the ocean and to return as volunteers themselves if they so desire. 

We were fortunatesea turtle enough to arrive when a new batch of hatchlings had just been born, despite the fact that we were completely out of normal nesting season.  Once hatched, the babies are entirely independent and ready to be released into the sea within 24 hours, sometimes sooner.  Sadly, out of the hundreds of hatchlings born at any given time only one or two will survive into adulthood.  Once grown however, these giant creatures can live to be up to 80 years old.

Puerto Arista has also served as our first introduction to Mexico’s southern-most state of Chiapas.  Sharing a border with Guatemala, the state of Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest and home to many of the countries indigenous communities.  Like many border regions, this area of Mexico struggles with illegal migration issues.  However, the small population of Central Americans currently calling Puerto Arista and other parts of Chiapas home may not be hanging around for long as many are simply passing through on their way north to find work in the United States.

Touring the Bahías

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The Bahías de Huatulco are made up of nine bays strung along nearly 20km of coastline and backed by forest.  Each separated from the next by several kilometers, the bays can be dificult to access by land.  A full-day boat tour is one of the best ways to visit the bays and gain some valuable insight into the history and dvelopment of Huatulco.  Here are a couple of the highlights:

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Bahía Santa Cruz is the principal bay with beaches, the harbor, and cruise ship pier.  Easily reached by car from La Crucecita and the airport, it’s the jumping off point for visiting the other bays and beaches.

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Located within the boundaries of the Parque Nacional Huatulco, Bahía Cacaluta is the beach where scenes from the movie Y Tú Mama Tambíen were filmed.

La Crucecita

La Crucecita

While in Huatulco we’re staying in the town of La Crucecita, 1km north of Santa Cruz and the beaches.  The service town for the resort, La Crucecita is where the bus stations, internet cafés, the market and virtually the only budget accomodations are located.  Collectivo taxis are available to shuttle people to and from the beaches for about $0.50.

We lucked out and found a nice little room at Posada Lido that’s well within our budget.  Located right in the center of town, less than a block from the Zocalo, we have our own bathroom and cable television.  Although, as it turns out our ceiling leaks whenever the people upstairs shower, which is kind of amusing and explains why the friendly owners keep the bed positioned in the center of the room, something I had wondered about when we first arrived.

La Crucecita would be an interesting place to visit even if the beautiful resort and beaches weren’t located just a kilometer away.  The people here are friendly and welcoming, much more so than in Puerto Ángel.  In the evenings the Zocalo comes to life with crowds of locals and tourists showing up to listen to live music and peruse the stands of the numerous street vendors.  It reminds us of what we’ve been missing about city life while beach hopping down the coast these past few weeks.

The town is also home to the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a modern church with a giant image of the Virgin painted on the ceiling (pictured here) as well as several other interesting paintings throughout it’s interior.

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