More Ancient Ruins And Colonial Cities

Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
Trip End Nov 19, 2007

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Flag of Mexico  ,
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

After Mexico City/Teotihuacan, we decided to pick up the pace and over the last few weeks we have probably covered as much ground as we had the previous 2 months. I say probably because the fact is we have no idea how much ground we are covering on the trip: the odometer on the van stopped working somewhere in southern California.

From Teotihuacan we headed due east to Puebla, Mexico's fourth largest city. Puebla saw witness to a new low in frugality for us, as we paid only $14 a night for a hotel room that was worth half the price. We then blew the day's budget anyways by having an expensive dinner so that we could sample moles, the local specialty. I opted for Poblano Mole, a chocolate-based sauce, and Ades went with Pipian Mole, a green sauce which tasted like an Indian curry and which was excellent.

After 2 nights in Puebla (the second was a cold and rainy Vancouver night) we continued east. At just about the border between the states of Puebla and Veracruz, we descended from the plateau on which Puebla (and Mexico City) are located, and at this point the dynamic of the trip changed. In short, it has been sweltering hot, sometimes unbearably so, ever since (we long for the old days of Puerta Vallarta and Manzanillo where, in hindsight, we only thought it was hot).

The temperature is now consistently in the low 30s but with the humidity it feels at least 10 degrees hotter. This presents daily "challenges" for us - we are less patient with each other, we are less interested in the sights, etc. - and at times it has caused us to re-think the duration of the trip.

For now, however, the plan is to "battle on" (our rallying cry - our life is tough we know) and we are relying on the following to keep us going: somewhat counter-intuitively we like driving during the middle of the afternoon in a van that doesn't have A/C because the wind coming through the windows provides some relief; we camp at places with pools, be they for ducks or for humans; we take lots of cold showers, and; occasionally we stay at hotels that are more expensive but that have A/C.

We spent only 1 night in the "steamy and sultry" port of Veracruz before continuing southeast to Lake Catemaco. The scenery on this part of the drive was some of the best yet. At first, we hugged the turquoise waters of the Gulf Coast, and then we headed inland a bit to a sparsely populated area with rolling hills and banana plantations that was covered in palm trees as well as the tree we have fallen in love with, the Royal Poinciana tree (also known as Flamboyant Trees), which has beautiful orange blooms on wide-spreading branches.

We stayed in tiny Lake Catemaco for 1 night, just long enough to sample the food at Los Sauces, a local restaurant (see below) and long enough to get used to camping again (it had been over a month).

From Lake Catemaco we drove to Villahermosa, and camped in the parking lot of a water park (a "balneario"), which made for an amazing way to end a hot day of driving. The next day we hung around Villahermosa just long enough to visit an outdoor museum - Parque-Museo La Venta - where there about 30 stone figures carved by the Olmecs some 3000 years ago.

From Villahermosa it was a long day of driving to reach the Palenque ruins in the state of Chiapas. Chiapas was of course the site of the Zapatista uprising in the early 1990s and it seems like the government is determined not to let it happen again. As soon as we entered into Chiapas the number and intensity of the military/police checkpoints on the highway increased. And then a few days later, on our way out of the town, we literally drove through dozens and dozens of armed soldiers who were conducting an aggressive, Iraq-like, door to door search of the neighbourhood while a helicopter circled low above. It was all a little intimidating but we were continually assured that the road was safe.

We camped just a few kilometers away from the ruins at a place - Mayabell Campground - that had a cool, travellerish feel - and we could hear the howler monkeys howling throughout the night. This also allowed us to get to the site early the next morning.

The ruins themselves were one of the highlights of the trip so far. Like Teotihuacan, the public is allowed to climb all over them but unlike Teotihuacan - which was stark and dry - they are nestled in a small, remote and lush location. As we sat atop the Temple of the Cross - the temple that offered the best view of the site - we could again hear the loud holws of the howler monkeys that populate the area. It's clearly a sacred place.

Highlights of the last 2 weeks or so:

- after dinner in Veracruz, we stumbled on a small plaza that had a band at one end, packed tables on the sides and an area to dance in the middle. The music could have come from the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack and the people dancing - mostly in the 60 to 80 age range - were dressed to the nines with the men in fedoras, slick shirts, and dancing shoes. These old-timers could party and dance better than Candians half their age. We grabbed a seat at the last available table shortly before 2 elderly women joined us. It was a riot watching these two dancing ladies in action: they would coyly try to attract the boys, then flirt a litte, and finally get up to shimmy & shake with the best of them. At one point, one of them leaned over to Adrienne and complained that "there just aren't enough men here tonight" before asking me to dance. To Adrienne's disappointment, I declined.

- Earlier on the trip, we had bought a cookbook/travelogue, My Mexico, by Diane Kennedy, an American who has lived in Mexico since the 1950s and who is considered the authority on Mexican cooking. In the book, she describes her travels throughout the various regions of Mexico and then sets out the local recipes. We have been eduated a lot by reading it. Los Sauces was her favourite restaurant in the Lake Catemaco area and although it was in a small and non-descript building the food - particulalry the seafood - didn't disappoint.
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