Sunday, October 30, 2011

On The Road


After one month on the road and it appears I've traveled about 3000 miles along this route. This line looks pretty straight, but believe me there have been a thousand twists and turns along the way. Sometimes it seems like it was only yesterday when I started, but there have been some long days too. I've had some amazing rides and some that I'd rather not have endured. I think that my little accident slowed me down for a week, but I'm almost fully recovered now. What lies ahead...Guatemala.

Adios Mexico...Hola Guatemala


It was time to leave San Cristobal and Mexico and move on to Huehuetenango and Guatemala. I headed south on Hwy 190 which turned into CA1, the Pan American Highway. This road would take me across the border and into my next country, Guatemala.

The border town in Mexico is called Cuauhtemoc and the border town in Guatemala is called La Masilla.

When i arrived in Cuauhtemoc, I went to the Banjercito (bank) first to clear my motorcycle permit. I passed by Aduanas (Customs), but they waived me through. Finally I passed by the Migration (Immigration) to clear my tourist visa. I was the only one in line and it probably only took 10 minutes total.

Then I went La Masilla and the Guatemala border. I had purchased Guatemalan Quetzals the day before. I went to the Migration first and got my passport stamped. He didn't charge me anything. I passed by the Aduanas and completed some of the motorcycle paperwork. The officer created an invoice that I took to the bank next door to pay. After getting the receipt, I went back to the Aduanas where he completed the paperwork and provided me a temporary license and registration sticker. It took maybe 30 minutes total. Again, I was the only one in line. I looked around the town of La Masilla for a motorcycle insurance office or salesperson, but everyone kept telling me that insurance was not needed. I'm a little reluctant to ride without it, but I'm on the road.

Travelers

Traveling can be very an introspective thing when traveling alone. Or it can be a very social thing when traveling with others. Along the way I meet lots of people. Here's a little bits about travelers.
In San Cristobal it just so happened that I met a number of people and it was a good time to be social.

There was Gloria, a homeopath psychologist from Guadalajara that was vacationing and exploring the spiritual side of life. There was Lukas, a guy from the Check Republic that was heading to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to study Spanish for a number of months. There was Sue, a Korean German girl that was taking time to travel between jobs and going to explore the ruins in Palenque and Tikal. There was Amaya, a Dutch girl that was studying in San Miguel Allende but taking an excursion to San Cristobal. There was Christian, a local social anthropologist and instructor at a local language school that gave me a tour of the city, introduced me to a really great huaraches restaurant and screened some documentaries for me about Chiapas. There was Art, a guy from Hawaii that works half of the year to save enough money to travel for the other half. There was Candy and Arecelli, two local girls that while working would joke and sing and just have a good time.

I may have spent a few days or a day or an evening or a meal or maybe just an hour with each of these folks. But the time was sweet. I think that I learned something from each person and encounter. I hope that I may have enriched their lives in some way.

It's funny how people from all over the world can be so different, but when put into the right circumstances can share so much in common... travelers.

Palenque, Mexico... Day Trip

While staying in San Cristobal I decided that I would check out some ruins in an area called Palenque. The site was about 5 hours away. I didn't really feel like riding there, so I did the more typical tourist thing and booked a day tour.

The tour minibus picked me up at 6am at my hostel. We rode for 3 hours and stopped at an area called Agua Azul.
I was first greeted by this large blue green pond.
As I walked up the path there were some limestone rock formations forming small water falls.
And still higher the rocks formed shapes. Can you see a turtle?

Back in the minibus and we rode for another hour and stopped at a cascada (waterfall) called Misol Ha.
Pretty stunning.
I suppose the fun thing to do is walk underneath the waterfall.
Don't think for a second that this was a private area. This site draws quite a few tourists.

We arrived at the ruins of Palenque after 5 hours of winding roads in a minibus.
I hired a guide named Victor to lead me around the ruins. Victor is a historian that has been leading tours for some 40 years. He was very knowledgeable and spoke various languages. If you visit the ruins ask for him by name, everyone knows him.
This first temple is called the Temple of the Dead. Fitting that there would be this death mask etched at the top.
This temple housed three tombs and the tomb of the red queen/king. There is a debate on the naming. First it was thought that the tomb held a female mummy, but DNA test indicate that it may be a male mummy.
This temple housed the tomb of King Pakal and is closed to the public.
This was the Palace.
And here is a panoramic of the sight taken from the tallest structure called the Temple of the Sun. It is part of the area called the Groupo de las Cruces (Group of the Crosses).
Victor pointed out that there are a number of carvings that appear to be related to Asian images like this dragon...
...and this lion head.

There were also carvings that have elements of Egyptian, Indian, Hebrew and alien design.

What's amazing is there are supposedly only 18 ruins excavated of a possible 1000 plus.

At the end of the tour, Victor mentioned that he was recently interviewed by Telemundo for a documentary on the sight called El Fin de las Proficias de las Mayas (The End of the Prophecies of the Mayans) that will be shown in November.

After visiting the ruins it was a long and winding roadtrip back in the minibus. I was missing Emi and could only wish that I was riding with the wind.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico

I'm not really sure what to make of San Cristobal de Las Casas. It's a town nestled in the highlands of Chiapas.
There is colonial architecture...
A zocalo and cobblestone streets...
A modern alameda (shopping and dining area)...
A fairly large indigenous artisan market...
A bustling produce market...
There is the indigenous population...
The hip ladino population (this is salsa concert in the plaza)...
Tourists, students, activists and nuvo hippies.

It really is a mixture of things.

San Cristobal and the state of Chiapas were off the radar for many years. It was an area with a large indigenous population that was pretty much left out of much of the modern diaspora of Mexico. There had been researchers, anthropologists and archeologist in the area studying the culture and Mayan ruins. There were some development agencies working in the area. There were occasional protests and some small armed conflicts. But socially and politically it was largely isolated.

Until about 1994, when the Zapatista Rebellion and a mysterious Sub-commander Marcos made Mexican and world news. The details of the Zapatista Rebellion can be read on the web. The end result was that there was eventually an unsettled signed accord. But the rebellion attracted world attention and many socialists and left leaning politicos migrated to the area. With all the foreigners and foreign money in town the locals started renting out housing... building hotels... opening restaurants and cafes...started language schools... created non-profits... and developed some infrastructure.

Now there is this interesting mix of the indigenous, ladinos, foreigners, traditionalism, tourism, capitalism, post-modernism, socialism and an undercurrent of the Zapatista movement.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Ride Along the Coastal Road

Although Puerto Escondido was relaxing, I wasn't really feeling the vibe. It seemed like a bit of a tourist trap. There's the beach, fishing, restaurants and all of it at tourist prices.
I decided to head back to the interior and take the coastal road to San Cristobal de Las Casas. The trip would take two days of riding so I'd need to find a place to stay somewhere along the road.
The road from Puerto Escondido to Puerto Angel was straight and flat. It cut through some tropical areas lined with palm trees and papaya farms.
After Puerto Angel the road turned inland and began to wind through some hills. The weather was warm, but the wind from the ocean created enough breeze to make the ride enjoyable.

As I neared the town of Salinas Cruz there was something obstructing the road. There was a line of trucks backed up quite a distance. I gave one truck driver the lifted and twisted hand signal which is generally the signal for what's up. He signaled backed with the same signal, meaning he didn't know. I waited a little while and observed the situation. I noticed that there were some local cars turning around and making a detour. I thought that it might be a good time to do as the locals do.
I followed a group of cars down a cobblestone and dirt road. After about 15 minutes we emerged back near the highway and had averted the blockage.

I continued on to a town called Juchitan (pronounced kind of like Hoochie town). I checked into a hotel that had a garage for Emi called the Victoria Yan. The hotel was near the central market so I went out to get a bite to eat. I found a taco comedor and had a light dinner. I passed by the market and picked up some bananas for a late night snack and early morning breakfast. I went back to my room, ate some bananas, watched some National Geographic Channel in Spanish and feel asleep.

I got up the next morning and headed out on the what I thought was Hwy200 to San Cristobal. The road turned from asphalt to gravel to dirt. No problem, I enjoyed the dual sport riding. Asphalt, gravel, dirt, gravel, dirt, asphalt... Emi was loving it.

There were large sections of the road that were under construction. The oncoming traffic would often jump into my lane to avoid the construction. At the last moment they would jump back into their own lane. I also learned to play this game. Kind of like playing chicken, but it only works if everyone understands the rules. Everyone played along and we all lived another day.

I followed the road into a small town, where it abruptly ended into a T. I could go right or left, but not straight as my GPS indicated I needed to go. Okay, I wanted to get off the beaten path so I turned left. I followed the road for a while, then it ended. I turned left again. Followed the road for while, then thought that I should ask directions. For some reason this town was swarming with three wheel motorcycle taxis. I don't know what they call them in Mexico, but I've always called the tuk-tuks. I pulled over one of the tuk-tuk drivers and asked him how to return to the highway to San Cristobal. The pointed north... so I went north.
I followed a dirt road for a while and came across this windmill farm. Nice!

I eventually found the highway. As I cruised down the highway the wind was really whipping from the left to right and pushing my bike. I decided to use the technique I call the chicken wing maneuver. Since the wind was blowing across the road from the left to the right, I would stick out my left leg. My leg acts like a sail, catches wind and pulls me straight. It worked great on the straightaways.
The sign is indicating a Zone of Clouds.

As I neared San Cristobal I needed to pass through some mountains. The road began to wind, the weather got cooler and the clouds rolled in. It's nice riding in the mountains, but not in the clouds. At times my visibility was about 50 feet. I slowed down, put on my blinker so the car behind me could see me and pushed on.

There was this incredible moment when the mountain peaked, the road started to descend, the clouds broke and I was greeted by the sun and some warm air. I took a deep breath and just thought to myself. This is amazing. It was one of those times my life that I needed to capture in my mind. It wasn't about a visual image, there's no picture... it was sensory and being "in" the moment.
As I neared San Cristobal de Las Casas the scenery was beautiful.

I arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas and found a really nice hostel called Rossco's Backpacker Hostel. I figured that I'd stay a few days.

Puerto Escondido, Mexico

It was time for a little rest and relaxation. I headed south and west to the pacific coast. Over the Sierra Madre Mountains, through the cloud forrest, past the pine forrest and to the tropical coast. The first stop was a town called Zipolite.
Zipolite is a fishing village, turned surf destination, turned beach town, turned hippie hangout.
As one French traveler told me, the west end is chic, the east end is boheme. Or the west is for tourists and the east end is for those seeking an alternative lifestyle. I didn't quite feel the vibe of either side of the town, so I stayed the night then headed off to Puerto Escondido.
Puerto Escondido is about 60km west. There are two main beach areas in Puerto Escondido.
Zacatela has is lively beach with breaking waves and is principally a surfers beach.
La Playa Principal is a calm beach with mellow waves and is primarily a swimming, fishing and basking in the sun beach.

I stayed in Zacatela at a hotel called The RockAway, but spent time on both beaches. I didn't feel like my leg was strong enough to tempt the surf of Zacatela. However, I did feel up for a little fishing off the Pacific coast.
I chartered a fishing excursion out of La Playa Principal with a captain named Rudolfo for 800 Pesos (US$60). Rudolfo told me that he was born in Puerto Escondido, had lived there all his life, learned fishing from his father and had been fishing these waters for some 40 plus years. Two Aussie guys joined me on the charter.
I just asked him to find me some fish.
And that he did.
We hit some bonito, skipjack and yellowfin tuna. In total we probably pulled up over 30 fish. We kept about 20.
I took two of the yellowfin tuna for lunch and left the rest for the locals.
A restaurant near the beach prepared it for me and I ate well.

I stayed a few days in Puerto Escondido. Even watched an Italian film called Puerto Escondido by Gabriele Salvatores that was filmed there.

My leg was feeling better, so I thought that it might be time to move back to the interior.

Crossing the Sierra Madre Mountains to the Pacific Coast



This is a short 3 minute video documenting my motorcycle ride from the interior of Mexico, Oaxaca, to the Pacific coast, Puerto Escondido. It was beautiful day that was mostly sunny and a few clouds. It seemed like I traveled through a number of ecological zones such as highlands, pine forrest, cloud forrest, desert, jungle and coastal plains.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Oaxaca and San Bartolo Coyotepec Barro Negro Pottery

One of the places in Mexico that I have been looking forward to visiting is Oaxaca. Oaxaca is known for it's artesania (artesian work) - from pottery to textiles to tin shaping to wood carvings. Many years ago I came across some barro negro (black clay) pottery and have always wanted to pick up a piece.
It turns out that this little village 10km outside of the town of Oaxaca called San Bartolo Coyotepec is considered the birthplace of the barro negro style of pottery.
And this Alfareria (pottery workshop) of Dona Rosa (Rosa Real Mateo) is considered the place where it originated.
The clay is collected from around the area of San Bartolo. The pulverized clay, quartz and water are combined to create a workable clay. Then spun into the desired shape on a simple potters wheel made of two plates. The traditional style was plain and utilitarian. The modern style may include elaborate designs and carvings.
The formed shaped is baked in an earthen furnace. An intense and longer baking time results in a more brilliant shine on the pottery.
A skilled potter will create something like this...
...or this.

Finding this workshop and learning about the pottery process was amazing for me. I picked up a few pieces and will be sending them home.