Monthly Archives: March 2015

Cusco, Peru. Monday 30/03/15

It was a brief affair with Mexico and I did not do or see all that I wanted, but I had some strange and wonderful experiences there. 

In Mexico City I went to two extraordinary museums. The first is the museum of folk art, which is full-on from the moment you walk in. Kites and enormous  creatures,(Alebrijes), are strewn all over the central atrium.  

They have fun with Devils  

 And the ubiquitous skeletons  

 There are videos of extremely colourful festivals with mad masks and crazy dances.  

Display cards explain about the local beliefs in Nahuales, totems which help you change into an animal, and the Tona or totem animals. There are tales of mermaids, (interestingly also true in South Africa), and beautiful works of art.    

 I was quite dazzled. 

The Museum of Anthropology is the premier cultural attraction and is like entering another world. I thought I knew a little about South American history, but it is vastly complicated.   I only visited the ground floor and not the first floor which deals with present day culture, but it took me hours. 

I particularly liked the fact that the earliest cultures produced many simple pottery figures of women with children.  

 Things soon changed with the arrival of the Toltecs and the Aztecs and the rise of the priesthood. Later masks and sculpture are incredibly elaborate.  

It was my first encounter with this character.  

 Chac-mool, an intermediary between the physical world and the gods, used as a sacrificial altar. He was associated with Tlaloc, the rain or Thunder God and he more usually looks like this – 

 I also found out a bit more about “the ball game”, of which more later. 

On to Oaxaca, where I passed a thoroughly enjoyable day thanks to a chance meeting with a young Mexican woman, Elena,  in the hostel bathroom. I told her I was planning a trip to Monte Alban, a pre-Columbian pyramid site nearby, sacred to the Zapotec. She invited me to join her and her boyfriend, Alessandro, as they were driving out there that same day. I readily agreed. 

We spent an hour or two wandering around the wide open site among the mountains.  

   We then moved on to Matatlan for some serious Mezcal tasting. Thanks to Alessandro we found some very rustic and authentic Mezcal distillers. 

 We finished the day at an excellent restaurant where I tried three different types of “mole”, each of which contains over twenty ingredients.  

 I confess my preference for the “mole negra” with chocolate. 

The next day I spent wandering the streets of Oaxaca.  

 I bought some chocolate and visited the museum at Santo Domingo, an old monastery.  

    Though I had hoped to visit San Cristobal de Las Casas, everyone’s favourite town it seems, and Palenque, Mayan ruins in the jungle, time was running out for me, so I headed for Merida and Chichen Itza.  

I managed to get to Chichen Itza before the hordes of tourists, but not before the lines of hawkers. Unlike Palenque, it now sits on arid land. 

This great pyramid is aligned with magnetic north and at sunrise at the equinox a snake-like shadow runs up the side. 

There is a ball court, with stone circles set high up on either side. 

There were two teams of seven a side and the object was to get a solid rubber ball through one of the circles, probably using only the hips to direct the ball, (I saw a video of people playing like this in the folk art museum in Mexico). There was great spiritual significance to this game, which dates from around 1,400 BC. 

 This stone sculpture at the base of the wall appears to show “the man of the match” being beheaded, with blood spurting from the neck.  

 Facing him is the leader of the opposing team, who is holding his severed head, which you can see at the bottom to the left of the large circle. There is still some debate as to whether it was the winner or the loser who was decapitated, though knowing the Maya’s I would think it would have been considered an honour. Either way, they were playing for very different stakes than today’s football “heroes”.  

I had a plane to catch on 16th March, so on to Cancun. I don’t have anything good to say about it. It was “spring break” and thousands of students from the USA descend on the hotels and beaches to “party”. I met a writer for Trip Advisor who took me and a couple of friends of his to experience the clubbing phenomenon for free. Anthropologically speaking, it was something to see, but in the end I was glad to leave. I still have good memories of Mexico, but my next post will be about my adventures in Peru.

Oaxaca, Saturday 07/03/15

I have thoroughly warmed to Mexico now and that’s not just down to the Margaritas and Mezcal. 

Mazatlan is relatively user-friendly, with little stores selling a large variety of fresh foods, large supermarkets, a long beach and attractive buildings in the old quarter.

It’s very spread out, though, and hard to work out the buses, particularly as the bus stops are hardly identified. I have a limited time in Mexico, so moved on to Guadalajara. 

The coaches in Mexico are great. You don’t need to book, as there are very regular services going practically everywhere. This is a good thing, as the coach companies do not except payment by foreign credit cards so I could not book online. Public toilets are clean and well equipped, though you do have to pay. Also, many of them have floor to ceiling turnstiles, which entails contortions on my part when carrying my backpack and daypack. 

For me, Guadalajara won’t do. Again, some beautiful buildings.

I enjoyed the sculptures and some of the art work. Though  some of it is very dark, some is fun.

There’s a lively night life, families strolled the streets and I even watched some fireworks from outside the faded beauty of my hostel. Still, it lacked something for me and I was happy to proceed to Mexico City. 

Coming in to Mexico City from the West, you pass over a high flyover and get a good view of the many different districts. When I arrived, however, I wasn’t feeling so good. I have developed a sore throat that still hasn’t gone, over a week later. I took a day of rest, but there was still something I really wanted to do and time was running out.  

Since Tucson I had met people talking about the Monarch Butterfly and their hopes of being able to visit them while they are still amassed in their winter residence in Mexico. I had checked this out and discovered that there are very few places where you can go to see them in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, North-West of Mexico City. Literally millions of them arrive there annually in November and the females depart again after mating in late March. A chance of circumstance not to be missed, so I bought a bus ticket, booked a bed at one of the three hotels in Angangueo mentioned on the Internet and set off just after midday. 

I arrived four and a half hours later- there was a demonstration in the city, (there is always a demo somewhere), which caused a traffic jam. Also the bus doubled for the school run, so let children off every five minutes along the final part of the journey. I asked a local for the hotel and was told to take a little bus, which was free. 

People on the bus told me where to get off and I expectantly looked around for someone to check me in. When I found someone to come to Reception and gave her details of my booking, she said she had no record of it and there was no room for me. Well, she spoke no English and I speak no Spanish, but it was clear what she meant. I showed her the confirmation email from, but she said that as I had no confirmation directly from them, this did not count. So I was in a very remote part of Mexico, with no bed for the night and no bus back to the city.

To cut a long story short, after discovering there was a room, but they wanted to charge me much more for it, I started a half hour walk uphill through the village to another hotel, carrying my backpack and daypack on a very hot day. I had almost arrived when a car drew up beside me. Inside was a local guide, Oscar, and the woman from Reception. As I had been writing the name and number of the other hotel, she had noticed his name in my little gold notebook. She had tried to call him earlier, while I was with her, but only got hold of him after I had gone. He sorted the whole thing out for me, got me the room at a reasonable price and agreed to take me to see the butterflies the following morning. He would even drop me off at the bus stop on the main road to catch my ride back. 

After I eventually installed my bags in the room and had taken a cold shower and changed, I was offered a glass of wine by the couple in the next room, which we took out on the veranda. Disaster averted and it turned out well in the end. 

There are differing estimates of the altitude of the El Rosario butterfly reserve, but it is around 3,000m above sea level. Oscar drove me up a winding mountain road to a lookout point.

Though it would have been possible to visit El Rosario without Oscar, I was glad of his help and his company. He is a kind and sensitive man and we talked easily. When you get to the reserve entrance there is a small fee to pay and you have to be accompanied by one of the official “guides”, who are really there to ensure you do not disturb the insects and keep to the regulations.Then there is a steep climb up to where the Monarchs gather. It takes about 45 minutes, but I admit I had to stop several times to catch my breath, because of the altitude. At least I wasn’t the most affected, though. 

On the way we stopped at a flower-filled glade and watched butterflies and humming birds flitting here and there. As you approach the sanctuary, you start to walk among the butterflies and see them dropping to the ground as they mate. 

There were only about twenty people at the top and they ask everyone to keep quiet, which is a relief. I spent about one and a half to two hours just watching the millions of Monarchs. They hang in clumps that resemble wasps nests and as the sunlight reaches them through the trees they begin to fly. Early in the morning I was able to watch whole clusters suddenly break away and the air is simply filled with thousands of the little creatures all at once. My mind just drifted away and I stood entranced.

So many tiny lives, yet each has made an incredible journey and each fragile spirit is there for a purpose.