Week seven of my Central American overland journey finally takes me back to Mexico. A country I know well. But things have changed and I’ve certainly never been horse riding in Chiapas, so some of this will be virgin territory. As always, Mexico never fails to deliver plenty of new and exciting experiences.
As a young and impressionable youth I spent a year living in Mexico. When I left it was fully my intention to get back there as quickly as possible. But as so often happens, life got in the way and I never made it back. Until now.
I loved Mexico, as anyone who’s met me since might have gathered (apparently I ‘go on’ about it). It was an incredible place – the food, the people, the colours, the sunshine. But most of all it was the freedom. There were laws and rules but no one really paid that much attention to them. As long as you weren’t bothering anyone else, you could pretty much do as you pleased.
But that was back in 2002 and since then a brutal and terrifying cartel war has ravaged much of the country. Tales of mass killings and corrupt cops have scared off tourists and damaged the country’s reputation. So I was intrigued to see what had changed.
Crossing the border from Belize there’s an instant change. The ramshackle Caribbean charm is replaced by modern and slick bureaucracy. You instantly know that Mexico is a big country, in every sense of the word. It might share similarities with the rest of Central America but Mexico exists on a completely different scale.
After a six hour bus journey (modern, comfortable and air conditioned at last) I arrive in Campeche. A jewel on the Gulf of Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its centre was protected from pirates by a vast 17th century wall. It’s a beautiful place, all colourful single story colonial buildings on a classic grid pattern.
It’s spotlessly clean and a world away from the chaos of Nicaragua, Honduras et al to the south. A few days here is a nice way to ease into Mexico. It’s familiar but somehow more upmarket than I remember.
After another fourteen hours on a night bus (more air con and comfy seats) we arrive in the hippy hang out of San Cristobal. This is more like the Mexico I remember. Streets are lined with taco stands, market stalls and street hawkers selling anything they can get their hands on. It’s noisy, brash, dirty and beautiful, all at the same time.
I check in to the laid back and lovely El Mañanero Hostel, with genial host Miguel offering the warmest welcome. Located a few blocks from the centre and next to the lively artisan market, it’s perfect for exploring the town.
The following day, in keeping with the overlanding theme (I feel guilty about the luxury buses) I decide to go horse riding in Chiapas. Heading up into the hills the destination is the indigenous village of San Juan Chamula. Judging by the huge amount of tourist tat on sale, I’m not the first to visit.
But this is more than just a place to come and gawp. The Church here is still a sacred place for the many indigenous people who combine Catholicism with their own ancient religions. This unique fusion is about as close as the Church ever got to full conversion so they decided to let it go more or less unnoticed.
For a few pesos you can go inside but there are stern warnings not to take photographs and to be respectful. It’s not a joke either. In the past tourists have been beaten and even killed for not respecting the rules. Well, they had been warned.
Believers come from all over to make offerings (which include soap and even Coca Cola) to the various saints. There are no chairs, just curious and slightly creepy statues displayed in wood and glass boxes. Tens of thousands of candles are alight. Then a band marches in at the head of a procession.
It’s by far the most unusual church I’ve ever been inside but also one of the nicest. Despite the severe rules, this is less formal than the religious buildings we’re used to. People stand and chat, sing and pray, more like a busy community centre. No wonder they don’t want outsiders to spoil it.
I leave and climb back on Dobbin the horse (my choice of name, obviously). It’s fair to say I’m not a natural and the ride back to town becomes increasingly painful, my cowboy dreams in tatters. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Mexico’s excellent bus network. A few weeks ago I would never have complained.
From here it’s off to Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaka, but you knew that already), the food capital of Mexico and a place I’ve been wanting to visit since I missed out the last time. I hope the buses are nice.
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