Mexico

Mark outside the Cathedral. In just a couple weeks Pope Francis will be here!

Mark outside the Cathedral. In just a couple weeks Pope Francis will be here!

A five hour bus ride took us from Juchitan to San Cristóbal de las Casas, our first stop in the state of Chiapas. Wow – what a city! If the goal of our travels is to get to some of the less-traveled parts of the world, this was what we were aiming for. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of tourism here; it’s one of the city’s major industries. But until we started looking at going overland from Puerto Escondido to Guatemala I’d never heard of San Cristóbal, a city of nearly 200,000 people that is the cultural (though not political) capital of Chiapas. What a shame it would have been to have missed it.

Scrubbing down the cross outside the Cathedral, just one piece of the Papal Preps

Scrubbing down the cross outside the Cathedral, just one piece of the Papal Preps

It’s worth noting that while we hadn’t heard of San Cristóbal, and we suspect that most American tourists haven’t been here, it’s not entirely a secret. In just three weeks the Big Guy – Pope Francis himself – is coming here for a day. He probably won’t have the same experience we did, but the city is already getting excited about his visit. Pictures of him are popping up and the Cathedral is getting repaired and painted. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to get a sense of how big a papal visit is to a city like San Cristóbal.

In our travels over the years we’ve been to several great, beautiful old Spanish colonial cities: San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca in Mexico; Antigua, Guatemala; Cartagena, Columbia; Granada, Nicaragua; and Cuzco, Peru come to mind. Now we add San Cristóbal to that list. Red tile roofs, cobblestone streets, wrought iron adornment, and vibrant colors. Then add to all that the pedestrian ways lined with cafès, restaurants, bars, mezcalarias, and shops and you have a pretty great set up. I told Mark the next time he wants to stop for a few weeks to study Spanish this is where we’re going.

Now admittedly, there’s not a heck of a lot to do in San Cristóbal. The pedestrian streets are fun, and there’s a great market next to the Santo Domingo convent. Some churches worth poking around in and a few cute little parks for sitting and reading and people watching. But everywhere you walk it’s just pretty. And – this is key for us, of course – the restaurants were little short of amazing. One meal in a Neapolitan restaurant where the owner was indeed from Naples and (except for one unfortunate dish) the food was every bit as good as you’d get there. Dinner at a tapas bar whose owner was from Barcelona – and whose wife was from Basque Country. They knew a thing or two about tapas! A Thai restaurant where the food really could burn the hell out of your mouth. And of course great Mexican food everywhere.

Entering a great market in San Cristóbal

Entering a great market in San Cristóbal

The market had beautiful fruits and vegetables. The most beautiful radishes ever, though we didn't get great pictures of them.

The market had beautiful fruits and vegetables. The most beautiful radishes ever, though we didn’t get great pictures of them.

Just one more, this some of the spices in the market

Just one more, this some of the spices in the market

So we loved San Cristóbal. Getting there, on the other hand was hell. As I mentioned earlier, Mexican buses can be extremely comfortable. I just don’t understand, though, why they have these crazy loud obnoxious movies blasting, the bane of my bus-riding experience. You can be on a long bus where everyone is trying to sleep and they’ll be blasting some slasher movie at insane volumes. Maybe three or four people at most watching it, but – for me at least – utterly impossible to read or listen to my own music because of the blaring volume. I can’t fathom why people don’t complain; I did, but either the driver didn’t understand me or chose to ignore me. There are times when the bus ride can be pleasant, relaxing, and a great way to get around. But you never know if you’re going to end up on some hellish ride with an excruciating soundtrack of exploding bombs, crashing cars, and slashing sword fights.

We didn't actually eat here, but it's a beautiful example of dozens of great cafés, bars, and restaurants all over the city

We didn’t actually eat here, but it’s a beautiful example of dozens of great cafés, bars, and restaurants all over the city

And we made one rookie mistake. If you look at a map and find San Cristóbal down near where Mexico meets Guatemala, you’ll see that it’s way far south, as far south as you can get in Mexico. And Mexico is warm. So, we figured San Cristobal was warm, too, right? Oh, wait – we forgot to check the elevation. Turns out the city sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level meaning that year round the average daily temperature is in the 50s and 60s, with January (not surprisingly) at the low end of that range. Once the sun went down the temperature would quickly fall into the 40s which is cold for us these days.

Interestingly, though, the locals make almost no accommodation to the weather. There appears to be no such thing as indoor heating. All the restaurants and cafés had outdoor seating that was in constant use, all without the outdoor heaters you seen all over Europe. And if you go into the restaurant? Doesn’t usually do much good since there’s no heat there, either, AND the doors and windows are wide open. So we were dressing in our full winter clothes to go out. As for sleeping, though, it was heaven. Of course, it didn’t hurt that our all nine rooms in our little hotel had their own fireplaces. So every night wen we’d come back from dinner they’d make a fire in our room. Maybe that’s why I loved San Cristóbal so much!

Mark on the stairs up to the Church of Guadalupe, with a great view over the city

Mark on the stairs up to the Church of Guadalupe, with a great view over the city

The view from Guadalupe

The view from Guadalupe

The Church of Guadalupe was on a hill east of the city, while the Church of San Cristóbal was on a hill west of the city. Naturally, we had to climb them both. This creative graffiti was on the steps up to the latter.

The Church of Guadalupe was on a hill east of the city, while the Church of San Cristóbal was on a hill west of the city. Naturally, we had to climb them both. This creative graffiti was on the steps up to the latter.

Jesus is always a little more intense in Latin American churches than the Protestant churches I remember (from my very, very distant past)

Jesus is always a little more intense in Latin American churches than the Protestant churches I remember (from my very, very distant past)

Another church, this one in evening shadows. Part of what I like about this is the background; it reminds me that San Cristóbal is in a valley, surrounded by big hills. Something I observed the day I rented a bike and tried to ride out of town. Yikes!

Another church, this one in evening shadows. Part of what I like about this is the background; it reminds me that San Cristóbal is in a valley, surrounded by big hills. Something I observed the day I rented a bike and tried to ride out of town. Yikes!

There are a lot of churches in San Cristóbal and, unlike the churches in Europe, these are always in use. This was the particularly beautiful San Lucia.

There are a lot of churches in San Cristóbal and, unlike the churches in Europe, these are always in use. This was the particularly beautiful San Lucia.

OK, one last church. I don't even remember what church this was, I just loved all the banners and colors.

OK, one last church. I don’t even remember what church this was, I just loved all the banners and colors.

San Cristóbal's main square, just outside the Cathedral. A great place to sit in the afternoon with a good book...

San Cristóbal’s main square, just outside the Cathedral. A great place to sit in the afternoon with a good book…

Dinner one night in this tapas bar with live music

Dinner one night in this tapas bar with live music

And one last picture of beautiful, fabulous San Cristóbal.  We'll be back!

And one last picture of beautiful, fabulous San Cristóbal. We’ll be back!

One of many fine beaches around Huatulco in the late afternoon shadows

One of many fine beaches around Huatulco in the late afternoon shadows

These two stops were a continuation of our overland trip across the state of Oaxaca en route to Chiapas and then on to Guatemala. First stop was Bahías de Huatulco, Mexico’s newest planned tourist development area. Unlike Cancun or Ixtapa, though, Huatulco is still pretty low key. The tourist area spans nine bays along the Pacific coast with lots of undeveloped space between them. There’s a relatively local town known as La Crucecita where we could go in the evening for mescal and some decent food. And to watch the end of a painful Green Bay Packer playoff game.

While much of the tourism here centers on big all-inclusive resorts, we stayed at Villa Fa-Sol, a little place with maybe 15 or 20 rooms built up on hill over a tiny private beach. It was a pretty space, though our room suffered from one of the great sins of beach resorts. Our room had a big sliding glass door with a view of the sea, but even though we were on the second floor it opened onto the passageway that others would use to get to their rooms. So yes, there was potentially a great view, but you had to keep the shades fully drawn if you wanted any privacy at all. Just one of those “what were they thinking?” moments.

One of the great things about the hotel, though, was a big breakfast table where you would sit with other guests and chat, get to know them, talk about what to do and what to see in the area. Definitely leads to a more social atmosphere than separate tables for everyone. One of the things we learned our first morning there was that the best beach in the area was in a private residential development just down the hill. You could get a day pass that covered your lunch costs and use their beach all day, so that was how we spent our two full days in Huatulco. It was apparent, though, that this new development had blocked the sea view and access for most of the local community. Allegedly, former Mexican President Vincente Fox gave development rights to a friend on his way out of office. Sad.

The little private beach at Villa Fa-Sol was a great place to sit and read

The little private beach at Villa Fa-Sol was a great place to sit and read

After three days in Huatulco it was off to Juchitán de Zaragoza. Since we’re working our way down to Guatemala I always want to say we were going south to Juchitan, but because the coast here runs largely east-west, we really headed northeast to get there.

Bus rides in Mexico are interesting. The buses, so far at least, have been genuinely comfortable – big and cushy – but there’s always something. Speed bumps, for instance. Apparently Mexico just loves speed bumps and in some places, particularly in built-up areas, they’re just one after another, with the bus and pretty much all other vehicles slowing to all but a full stop to get over them. One report I saw said that there are 200 speed bumps on the route form Acapulco to Huatulco, seriously inhibiting the kind of domestic tourism that would fill the resorts down here. And the temperature. You can never tell if the bus for any trip will be warm or have the AC blasting. The bus to Juchitán was the latter; arriving there I was wearing a heavy sweatshirt and still pretty much freezing.

One of our favorite sites - Absolut Vodka with a little fresh lime squeezed in. We liked this restaurant, but unfortunately I'm pretty sure the vodka was watered down, and not just by the ice in the glass.

One of our favorite sites – Absolut Vodka with a little fresh lime squeezed in. We liked this restaurant, but unfortunately I’m pretty sure the vodka was watered down, and not just by the ice in the glass.

Next up, Juchitán de Zaragoza. It’s a city of 70,000 in far eastern Oaxaca, and we figured it would be a decent way to break up the trip to San Cristóbal. It’s not at all a tourist destination and in fact there is really limited tourist infrastructure. Our hotel, for instance, was as nice as anything in town, and the room cost $25. (If you’re wondering, that’s the second-cheapest hotel we’ve stayed in. The cheapest was a two-night stop in Stung Treng, Cambodia in November 2013 where we paid $17 a night.)

Never heard of Juchitan? Neither had I, but a few years ago Mark had read an article about the town. While for the most part there’s nothing noteworthy about the town it is unusual, perhaps even unique, in one way. The city is known for its muxes – openly gay, often cross-dressing men – who are fully accepted in their communities. And apparently Elle magazine once wrote an article about the city calling it “the last matriarchy.”

A friendly local bar in Juchitán. The sign above the door translates something like "For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same thing." Works for me!

A friendly local bar in Juchitán. The sign above the door translates something like “For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same thing.” Works for me!

It turns out that arriving at 7:00 PM and then leaving the next morning at 9:00 AM doesn’t give you much time explore that unusual aspect of local culture. At our pre-dinner stop for a couple shots of mescal at a typical local bar, though, we were nearly certain that the woman making our bar snacks had been born as a boy. We’re intrigued to find these little oases of decency in a too-often hostile world. Intrigued and curious, of course. Why here? Why here and not everywhere?

We’ll keep looking for answers. Meanwhile, after our quick one-night stop in Juchitan it’s off on a long bus ride to San Cristóbal and then eventually to the Guatemalan border.

Mark & Silvia, his lovely Spanish teacher

Mark & Silvia, his lovely Spanish teacher

After two weeks we’ve left Puerto Escondido. For the most part it was a great stop, the second-longest (after Puerto Vallarta last January) since we left Boston well over two-and-a-half years ago now. There’s definitely something to say about stopping for longer periods like that, though in practice there’s so much of the world still to see that it’ll probably be a couple years before we start slowing down significantly.

Puerto Escondido is a pretty sleepy, quiet place, particularly up in the area where we were staying. Thus we had a pretty standard routine: Mark had to get up by 6:30 to have time for coffee & breakfast before heading off to his 8:00 AM class. He wasn’t real fond of that early morning schedule. I had more leisure, and better breakfasts: a little restaurant five minutes from our hotel made the world’s greatest cheese-and-chorizo omelet (seriously – it was amazing) but it didn’t open until 8:00 so Mark only got it on weekend mornings. You could get that great omelet and a nice little bowl of fresh fruit for a little under $4.50. Just one reason we love Mexico.

Adelina, who owns our hotel with her brother, drove us to the bus station on our way out. A new mother - her baby was just seven weeks old when we arrived - they own two little hotels in Puerto Escondido that they built from the ground up, and that are at the top of TripAdvisor's list here. And they're building a third hotel down the beach an hour or so. And her husband has a chemical business in Mexico City. So yeah, they're a little busy.

Adelina, who owns our hotel with her brother, drove us to the bus station on our way out. A new mother – her baby was just seven weeks old when we arrived – they own two little hotels in Puerto Escondido that they built from the ground up, and that are at the top of TripAdvisor’s list here. And they’re building a third hotel down the beach an hour or so. And her husband has a chemical business in Mexico City. So yeah, they’re a little busy.

Then it was beach, lunch on the beach – typically ceviche as an appetizer and then some cooked fish, all very fresh, maybe listening to some Canadian at the table next to us explaining to his Canadian friend how American politics works. (He wasn’t as smart or insightful as he thought himself to be….) Then back to the hotel to rest from all that excitement. We found three or four restaurants along the five- or six-block strip near our hotel that we liked and would bounce back and forth from one night to the next, typically with our sociologist friend Scott and always after a pre-dinner drink at Revolucion.

I did manage to get some errands done, the kind of stuff that you need to be settled a bit to take care of. I got new lenses for my glasses (at about a third what it would have cost in Boston), we both got our teeth cleaned (at half the cost of a cleaning in Boston), replaced some shorts that had too many holes even for me. And we got all the SIM card stuff working on our phones which has made a huge difference for us. Now our phones are online pretty much all the time and – this was a surprise to us – the phones work as wifi hot-spots for our iPads, meaning they’re online too. SO much better service than we had with AT&T when we were paying four or five times as much.

Our last night in Puerto Escondido at Revolucion, the little bar where we'd start the night with a little glass of mezcal. The woman on the left was the owner. Next to her is Scott, who's spending a couple months down there on sabbatical, and Fani, our favorite bartender.

Our last night in Puerto Escondido at Revolucion, the little bar where we’d start the night with a little glass of mezcal. The woman on the left was the owner. Next to her is Scott, who’s spending a couple months down there on sabbatical, and Fani, our favorite bartender.

Now after a lovely two weeks meeting fun people and hanging out at the beach we’re moving a couple hours down the coast on our way overland into Guatemala. First a couple days on another beach and then we head inland toward San Cristobal and some Mayan ruins. We see a lot of ruins…