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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Diving with Sharks


After the cavern dive, we hung around in Tulum enjoying the beach, doing a salsa lesson, eating some great sea food and so on. From here we were heading out to Cozumel, one of the best dive locations in the world according to Jacques Coustea the legendary french documentary filmmaker. We were too close not to be tempted.

We woke early, took a collectivo to Playa de Carmen, jumped on a ferry and were in Cozumel by 9am, and at the dive shop by 10. We checked out our equipment, set it all up, and were headed out on our dive boat by 10.30.

It was a very different dive from the few we had done before. The current was strong and so we drifted along doing very little swimming. Anu had a problem equalising while because of the drift the rest of us were drifting away from our guide,  so Nu had to abort her dive. It must have been a heartbreaking hour for her on the boat!

Anyway, we continued drifting until we reached the reef. The reed wasn't quite as abundant or alive as the ones in Roatan but it wa still quite beautiful. We did a swim thorugh which was amazing. To be in a tunnel of coral is quite some visual experience. We came out of the tunnel and traight into a shark! Took my breath away. She was about 2.5m long, grey and very ominous looking. A few minutes later as we swam with her we spotted another shark, but this one was a baby. Beautiful, the way they cut through the water lazily , slmost seeming like they were aware that they were special! We saw a barracuda, an electric sting ray , many groupers including a black grouper, lobsters, and a bunch of other beautiful fish.

When we came back,some other told us they had seen a turtle. I've been dying to swim with a sea turtle, maybe a little too much, and as is with wanting something too much, I've missed every turtle that others have spotted.

Our second dive was less spectacular than the first in terms of the quality of the reef or the under water life we saw but it was great that Nu managed to equalise and do the dive with us this time.

That night we stayed in Cozumel. Cozumel, playa de Carmen, and Cancun are all places I would normally give a miss if not for the diving. They are too touristic, have no local flavour to the point where the local currency is the US dollar, expensive, and far too loud and noisy to be relaxed.  Actually the Yucatan peninsula was far too touristic for my liking. Sure it is beautiful but sometimes tha is just not enough.  I did enjoy the food, the sights, and the diving was exciting but selfishly I wish it had more travellers and less holiday makers.

The Chiapas and Tobasco were also touristiic but continued to retain its local flavour, which was really nice.

A quick stopover in Cancun, and we flew out to Mexico city, the last stop on our Latin American sojourn. It is difficult to describe how I was feeling at this point, and it only got more confusing as each day passed, but I'll try and put that into words in another post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cavern Diving



We thought long and hard about diving in the Cenotes beacuse (1) we are really inexperienced, (2) have never dived in sweet water where the bouyancy can be tough to maintain, (3) Anu's ears which were not doing too well after our last outing, and the general fear of being in caverns where the exit would not be visible as we enter the tunnels. We hadn't really thought about it until one of the dive shops mentioned it, but being inexperienced we could be a danger to the formations in the cavern, and that we definitely did not want to be.

We researched hard, met a bunch of dive shops, and finally decided to do the dive, and do it with Paolo who ran his little dive shop from our hostel. We were a bit worried about the quality of his equipment but felt that it would be far more personal doing the dive with him than with a big shop. It also helped that he was always around the hostel so we could keep going back to him with our questions. He has a nice calm temperament which was key to us. With Paolo, we could go to the Cenotes after all the tours had finished their dives which meant we had the cenote just to ourselves.
Early in the day we checked our equipment. Yannick had a tough time finding gear that fit him but finally we managed. The water is cold so we had to get 2 wet suits each. We drove out to Dos Ojos around 2 pm in the afternoon. The first sight of the cavern is stunning. The cave is like an open mouth. The water is aquamarine and transperant. It is inviting although cold. We jumped in and it took a little while to figure out what weight we needed as we were wearing 2 wet suits each and were in sweet water. Finally we were set to submerge. I was a little worried about Nu's ears so seeing her get comfortable was comforting. Yannick is like a pro. He really is a fish so no worries there.

We began to explore the cave following a line called the barbie line. No idea why, but at one point they have a croc trying to eat a barbie doll strung on the line!

Finding our bouyancy was a bit tricky but once we had worked it out, the diving was easy. The formations were stunning and because the water is so calm and transperant I felt I was kind of hung in space. The tunnels can get dark and even though we were carrying torches it can still be intimidating. Exiting a tunnel, we were suddenly faced with a cavern where the light was bursting through. It was ethereal! The formations were glowing in a blue green hue, and the light played with them creating some amazing effects on the bottom.

The dive was quite long and so we did not have much time for the 2nd dive. It was a short dive where we surfaced in a Bat cave. I'm not a big fan of bats especially when they huddle together like a mass of bodies. They remind of rats, who I don't particularly fancy.

The dives were great! I think all 3 of us prefer reefs over the subterreanean dives but its definitely an experience we'll all cherish.

TULUM


We got into Tulum and went straight to the hostel that friends had recommended. Lobo Inn was really basic, but Tulum is expensive because of the large number of American tourists here, so even though it wasn't the best, we took the room. The room was large but on stilts which means the room is not very stable. Everytime a semi trundles down the highway our room shakes like it is in the midst of an earthquake. Not  a huge shudder but a mild tremor. The first time it happened, I thought we were in the middle of an earthquake ! I guess its a bit like a tree house.  The best part of this hostel is that they give you free bicycles.

We took the bikes and headed to beach straight away. The water looked beautiful, crystal clear, aguamarine, and set against the white sands with coconut palms, it makes a pretty picture. Enroute we saw a dead snake on the road. It has been run over. Huge Iguanas were everywhere along with beautiful blue birds. This stretch looked really inviting and we began to wonder if we should change hostels but then decided against it, as it was super touristy and expensive. Taking these decision and wondering if we made the right choice have been really painful, one of the things I won't miss about traveling, once we get back.

We found some good food in the village and figured that we could base ourselves in Tulum to explore the area instead of moving around with our bags. We ended up staying here for a week.
The ruins in Tulum are small but are located on the beach which is a nice change from the other ruinas. You can see the principle ruin from the beach. Its nice but like I had said earlier we were all ruined out so did not go in to explore.

Around Tulum are hundreds of cenotes. Basically caves with subterreanean water bodies. These caves are filled with beautiful formations of stalactite and stalacmites. Generally there is an opening to the sky and from there the cavern makes its way underground into other interconnecting caverns. The light shining through the cavern openings makes the entire place look ethereal.

We chose to dive in Dos Ojos, the largest of these cenotes.  I'll write about the dive itself later.

Tulum was fun. We met a really fun German foursome and hung out with them for a couple of days. Hanging out meant we went for a free slasa lesson on the beach, drank a lot of beer, ate some great tacos and tortas, and laughed a lot. Joachen, Maria, Peter and Anna were fun. We also met a French mother daughter,  Aurelie and Nykita, who want to move to India, an Argentinian couple trying find a place they want to call home, a panamanian traveller, and many others. Its been relaxed, and fun.

Friday, August 19, 2011

CHI CHI


Chichen Itza is a wonder of the world and so like it or not, since we were this close we had to visit. Friends of ours who had been there a few weeks earlier gave us the best advice we recieved, and that was to get there really early before the tours from Cancun descend. We left Merida on the 6.30 am bus, and go to Chichen around 8.15. We were amongst the first visitors, probably the most important factor in making the experience enjoyable.

The park is very well thought out, from a traveler point of view. They have free baggage storage for our back packs and a bus ticket vendor on site, so we did not need a hostel and could leave for our next destination as soon as we were done visiting the ruins.

The ruins are impressive. The main pyramid, El Castillo,  is first on view. It is huge (25m tall) suberbly restored on two sides while left unrestored on the other two giving us an understanding of what it might have looked like when they found it. A total of 365 steps run up the pyramid, each step for one day in the year. On the solstice, twice a year the sun makes its way up one set of steps. Impressive, given a lot of the ruins are over 2000 years old. The sculptures on the panels are quite beautiful and descriptive. Jaguars, and Eagles with human hearts in their claws, stories of how the beating human heart was removed and then sacrified to Chac Mool etc are etched on these panels. The Mayan relationship with the underworld is fascinating. Everywhere you see images of skulls and skeltons, supposedly the guardians of the underworld. The ball court here is the biggest we've seen, just as everything else is. The Iglesia, and the palace are almost Indian temple in design. The market place, and the the hall of pillars, grupo de mil columnas, that were probably areas where the public got together is impressive. Carving out cylindrical pillars with no machinasation and that too by the 100's is quite amazing. El carasol is the observatory. It has a cylindrical top with windows that are laid out to see particular stars on particular days.

All this would have been more interesting were we allowed to actually interact with some of the ruins like in Palenque. I understand why we are not, but I think this is primarily why I prefer palneque to the rest of the ruins we visited.

The cenote called the Cenote Sacrada is a huge hole in the earth about 25 m across where tons of Mayan artefacts were found including 29 skeletons of children who were sacrificed. It is after this find that they realised that the Mayans did not descriminate between girls and boys when it came to the sacrifices.

Chichen Itza and Palanque show how develped the Mayan civilization was when compared to the Incas, who seemed far less evolved at least architecturally.

The setting is once again a forest and so naturally there is an abundance of wildlife in huge Igaunas who stand around like guards, and a snake that glided past Yannick once again. This is his 3rd snake in close proximity experience ... Yannick thinks the Iguanas believe that their King is buried somewhere here in the ruins which is why they are guarding it against us.

By 11 am the tours descended!! In a few minutes there were a few thousands of loud tourist everwhere we turned. Thankfully we were done and headed out.We took 2nd classe buses to Valladolid and another bus from there to Tulum.

Monday, August 15, 2011

PALENQUE


Palenque is about 2 hours drive from Villahermosa in the Chiapas district. The town itself is not much, basing its existence on its proximity to a beautiful archeologial Mayan site.

We got into Palenque town, picked up ticket for the late night ADO primera classe bus to Merida, left our back packs in storage at an exhorbitant price of some $0.50 per bag per hour which meant we had to shell out some $15 later that night, and headed out to the ruins. A park forest entry of 25 pesos per person and another entry fee of 52 pesos per person for the ruins themselves was unexpectly low for a site of such importance. The best part was that Yannick did not have to pay an entry at all.

Not connected to Palenque in any way but I really like the fact that in Mexico the first class buses charge kids half price. This really makes a diference to families, and because of this you see a lot of families on these buses.

Anyway, back to our main story. The Palenque ruins are set in a beautiful, thick, green jungle. The setting makes the experience the best I have had while visiting ruins. Add to that is the fact that the ruins are actually in pretty good shape, and they allowed us to climb up and even into some of the templos. For me personally, Palenque has been the most impressive ruinas we have visitied so far. Much more impressive than the Mayan ruins in Copan, or Tulum, and as ruins go, far more impresive than Machu Pichu. Having said that, the setting for Machu Pichu is hard to beat, and it is the location that makes Machu Pichu a wonder of the world. I know a bunch of people who would jump at me right now and ask about the spirituality of the place. I admit that too is a huge factor in Machu Pichu.

As we entered the complex , we were suddenly faced by a huge complex of temples. The temple of insciptions, the huge palacio and the temple where the red queen was found or the Tumba de la roja reina. We could actually enter the tomb, which is nice, because its only then that you get a real feel of the compplexity of the pyramid. This particular pyramid is in pristine condition and therefore more impressive than the ones where you need your imagination to really understand the structure. Being built with no machanisation of any sort or even the wheel is impressive. Walking around the Palacio where King Pakal and his ancestors lived is quite an experience. Interesting stucco tells you stories and so imagining the Mayan royalty stay here is easy.

We climbed the tall structures and even though the pyramids and temples in Tulum are much larger, these were more interesting for me. Some of the temples we really wanted to visit were shut to visitors but even then, walking around the jungle that was still overgrown and experiecning the ruins within these jungles was quite exhilarating. The setting and the light tickling through the huge Cieba trees was magical, and felt right out of a fantasy film. Tulum is where Luke skywalker opens the Star Wars and Palenque is where you'd expect stange medievial creatures to emerge from the forest.

Waking around the park we encountered the small but beautiful waterfall that continues to become the Bano de la Reina, or the bath of the queen. This is a set of small crystal clear pools created as the water flows down from the waterfall. The pools are a miniature version of Semuc Champey in Guatemala. The water fall isself is beautiful as the rocks behind the water form a wonderful picture with caves and little pillars cut into the rock face.

Three and half hours later, we were done with the ruins and headed back to palenque town in a collectivo. We hung around, ate tacos, I drank some beers, we hung out at a local music session at the main square and passed the next 6 hours until it was time for our bus to Merida. While we waited, I ate the best Torta of my trip so far. A torta is a mexican sandwich, made with a hard crusted bread with the insides dug out and filled with an assortment of meat, chopped onions, tomatoes, a local cheese, and chillis. I chose the Longinizas and it was a good choice.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Villahermosa, Tobasco


We got to Villahermosa in Tobasco state the next morning. (No, Tobasco doesn't come from here). Tobasco has more water than land and so they often pay the price with huge floods devastating the state every now and then. Hurricanes too make a habit of visiting these parts quite often. Apparently the hurricane season is end Aug to Nov.

Villahermosa was on our map primarily because we were meeting and staying with a couch surfing couple Daniel and Lorena. Villahermosa is a large, very wealthy town with beautiful parks and lagunas, huge shopping malls and everything from Burger King to Dairy queen to walmart. Would not have been the most interesting town to visit, but we were not counting  in the Daniel y Lorena factor! They made our stay here outstanding.They made a huge effort to introduce us to their friends, show us around (drive us around town after a full hard work day), took us to the beach, and just sat around chatting sharing stories. Lorena is vivacious and full of energy while Daniel's calming presence and information on everything Mexican perfectly compliment each other. Nu cooked an indian dinner for them and their friends and the next day Sandra, another friend of theirs, invited us to the beach. It was a fantastic day on the beach Even though the beach was no carribean beach, the company more than made up for it.

La Venta, the national parque in the middle of Villahermosa, is a beautiful setting for the Olmec archilogical findings including the huge Olmec heads. The huge Cieba trees contiue to stoke your imagination. An interestingly laid out zoo makes the park even more interesting. A huge aviary means you get to interact with Toucans, macaws,and other beautiful birds.

The food, and in Tobasco, where it is 40C during the afternoon, the refershing local drinks were fatastic. Orchata, a rice and cinnamon mixed in with water or milk was my favourite refresher. Jamaica, made from a dried flower imported from Africa, and Posol, a cocao and maize drink was fantastic. The Panuchas and Sabutes were forms of Taco that was spendid. the Sabute taco is like a puri, deep fried and fantastic.

Sunday was time to go to Palanque. Daniel and Lorena were awesome and decided to drive us out there. Daniel had a new camera and wanted to shoot pictures but unfortunately Lorena fell ill with a bad stomach. Even though we offered to take a bus, Daniel refused, and drove us 2 hours to Palenque. I hope they come to India so we can try and return the favour at least some what.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Gastronomica Mexico



From San Christobal we got to Oaxaha (ohaka) after a rather comfortable 12 hour overnight bus journey. The Oaxaca bus terminal is swank, much like an airport. We took a taxi into the city centre and started our search for a hostel. For low season, every hostel seemed surprisingly full and bloody expensive. After our longest search up until now, we finally found Dona Mario.

The city is a beautiful colonial city but unfortunately we've done too many now to be over excitied by it. We walked around for a few hours but the heat and midday son was really getting to us. Nu is on antibiotics and a decongesant tablet, both of whihc were making her really sleepy and tired. The long bus ride didn't help either. We got street tortilos for lunch that were decent but not exceptional.
We had heard so much about Oaxacan cuisine that we were definitely going to try some of it. One of their specialities is grass hopper or Chapulinas, sometimes fried to crisp with chillis on top, sometimes steamed, and apparently sometimes even live. The fried ones seemed ok except for the smell of dried fish. I thought about it long and hard before deciding not to try it.

Mole is another Oaxacan speciality. It is a paste made of chocolate, chillies and other spices which is then used in curries or as a marinade. It comes in a few forms Mole Negro, Mole colarado etc. We tried the mole negro and it was definitely interesting, like nothing I have tasted before. The chocolate was strong and chilli added a slight zing. I think they could use some more chilli to balance the chocolate but then who am I to play with tradition. The sauce is thick and a dark black. It reminded me of chywanprash if you know what that is. Definitely a new taste for us. We also tried a refresco made of rice powder and milk or water, spiced with cinnamon, called horchata, again interesting. It did seem like it could ferment into alcohol, a little like the first tapped toddy.

Today we continued our gastronomical journey at the Mercado 20 Novembre. It is an interesting market, with vendors selling you everything from fried grasshopper, to clothes, to fresh meat and fruit. We had the tortilla con chorizo, and consalchicha oaxaquena, very nice and then we had the Tlayudas con asiento, a taco based sandwhich filled with all sorts of vegetable, oaxaca queso or cheese, and meat...fantastic!!Some churros, and a street side pastery and our 3 course lunch was a hit.

Zocalo, the central plaza in Oaxaca is lively. A live orchestra plays on the band stand in the evening and it is a good orchestra. Streets are filled with ballon sellers, and comedians doing their act, and vendors with all kinds of fruit , potato chips, and other foods. It is very touristic but not in a bad way.

It was a beautiful sight to watch the older generation (60 to 80) dance their woes away to the live orchestra. Touching, when you notice the effort they have made to dress up to enjoy their evening. The highlight for me was the look on the face, and the brightening of the eyes of a septugenerian when his daughter arrived late, but just in time, to partner her father for his first dance.