Monday, November 28, 2016

Zapotitlán The Directors Cut

 Every sunset gives us one less day to live but every sunrise gives us one more day to hope.
-- Ritu Ghatourney

Zapotitlán Salinas is a small highway town 45 minutes from Tehuacan that is in the heart of The Biosphere Reserve of Tehuacan-Cuicatlán. Last weekend I found myself walking in the desert heartland of the reserve in San Juan Raya and today it was a return to The Botanical Garden Zapotitlán Salinas with the Biosphere. I was here in June on an organized tour with the school and knew that there was more to see. With that in mind Keane, Lucy, Eric, Wendy and myself met downtown with packs filled with a days supplies for the local bus to explore the valley.

1 litre of  fresh pressed orange juice for 15 pesos
 I can not think of a better way to start a journey then with a litre of fresh pressed Orange Juice for $1. If you think Tropicana or whatever other store bought brand is fresh squeezed then you are sadly mistaken. It  is crazy what we are marketed into believing what is real food and I am as guilty as the next person in bowing down to all the bullshit.

The ride out was uneventful with the exception being a huge boulder that was parked on the roadside along the way. Lets move beyond huge and call it massive. As is the case most of the times these tumblers of death release themselves from their perches on the surrounding mountains and spring free crashing down towards the fairly busy roadway below. It was not there last weekend when I came out this way so this was a new roadside attraction.

Image result for boulder on the side of the road zapotitlan

The 13 Peso combi dropped us off at the side of the road in front of the park and with a few hop on and offs along the way we were there in 45 minutes. This road is beautiful no matter how many times you travel along it. The park cost 40 Pesos without a guide and we were all good with that. We knew the standard tour and we would blaze through that for Keane and Lucy as it was their first time here. We were breaking Keanes cactus cherry so that was that.

Lucy: Keane, welcome to the cactus park, the biggest in the world
Keane: Wow there are allot of cactuses here, or is it cacti...who cares there are allot of them-
Lucy: Your a genius, thank god you pointed that out.

 And there they were in all their glory, cactus as far as the eye could see. Up over mountains, down through the valleys, towering in front of and behind me and not just the tall ones that are easy to spot in the photo. There were so many varieties of shapes and sizes that although I have been in this desert oasis a number of times now I still get put into a state of awe, as in "ah shit, I better not trip and fall into any of these brutes".

The main walking trails are clean and well marked with access to so much. As you climb higher the pictures you take seem to occur faster knowing that no two would be the same. The first part of this trip was fun and it was good to be back but the reason we came today without a guide or the  organized school trip was "what was beyond the touristy trail." There was a car access road that we had easy access which led down into the valley. We could see tall cliffs looking down into the dry riverbed and a few observation / fire towers that were great markers to head to. Off we went not really caring where we were going but knowing it was going to be interesting.

As the area leveled off we stumbled across the camping and cabin area which I had forgotten that was possible here. Modern cabins, what looked like a party bungalow, a restaurant and a few other out buildings all scattered over a wide area which allowed for all the personal space anyone could ask for. What a sight the stars would be here on a moonless night or how brilliant a full moon would be illuminating the desert below. No peyote for me, thank you very much, with with all these cactus soldiers guarding the fort and dancing in the moonlight.

Further along we broke off the road to a side trail that lead to the lookout towers. Once on top we could see the entire dry river bed that was surrounded by steep cliffs, tall trees and eroded side banks. They could only be compared to giant ant hills or termite nests which led to insane and somewhat scary conversations about giant termites climbing out all around us and devouring our scared, trembling bodies. Screw the giant termites there was climbing and exploring to do. There had to be a way into the valley from where we stood. When climbing the Giant Termite Home I was more concerned about the dirt giving way into crevasses that ranged from a metre to five or so metres. You could disappear rather quickly if you were not careful.

Giant termites could be anywhere as Keane suddenly realizes
There was a riverbed and I was going to find a way down. We were now challenged by the fear of being eaten in a Stephen King novel, deep crevasses that could open up at any time, the 40 foot drop that originally looked climbable from a distance and the determination to find a way a down, what could possibly go wrong?

I will find a way down to the damn valley below
Ever the billy goat and while walking, tripping, stumbling, bleeding, shaking hands with thorny cactus and a little bit of luck brought victory. A steep and hidden gully showed itself as a gift for our hard work. It's bark was worse than it's bit but careful navigation was still the rule of the day. A twisted or worse broken ankle, although not life threatening considering we were in a national park, would have been a situation we were probably not fully prepared for. Who am I kidding, we were fully not prepared for it.

I was exploring ahead of everyone and when I came across it there was only one thing to do, so off I went and there I was on the valley floor looking up. I love those proud outdoor discovery type moments where you feel you have just done what nobody else has ever done, regardless if it's the truth or not. It is the feeling that is important. After a bit of wandering I called out to everyone from below like I had just discovered the Fountain of Youth and not some dried up and stinking riverbed. I climbed back up and showed them the way down during which time it was decided that Gully was a great name for a dog

Lucy and Keane carefully climbing down the gully
The day was getting long and with our valley victory behind us it took no convincing at all that it was time for a beer. Eric knew of a great place in the town of Zapotitlan where the beer was cold and the food was good but a bit unusual. We hiked back, piled into a cab which was just some guy that the park attendant called and 20 minutes later I had a cold beer in my hands, Mexican Style as 1.2 litres of Victoria disappeared pretty quickly. Lucy, Wendy and Eric dug into a plate of fried grasshoppers while Keane and I just looked on in disgust then ordered the only thing we thought edible, another beer.

I thoroughly enjoyed relaxing and talking about our adventure watching the sunset over this small Mexican highway town with Lucy, Eric, Keane and Wendy. The entire day was positive and recharged my drained batteries. There were a few shenanigans on the bus ride back to Tehuacan but that is for another day.

A well deserved 1.2 litres of Victoria

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

San Juan Raya

The countdown is on. There are now 33 days remaining in my time here in Tehuacan and as is the norm, time has begun to fly by. Mexico has won me over and without fail the kindness of the people and the unexpected experiences continue to occur almost every time I leave the house. Today's desert adventure experience went smoothly with the help of 2 students, Elizabeth and Ramses. I am confident I could have pulled of the remote transportation and details of getting to San Juan Raya but having two native speakers with us sure helped..and Ramses's mom packed us sandwiches.

Elizabeth and Ramses

The Combi that we needed was parked at a random corner that would have been a difficult to find but Ramses scouted it out the night before and at 8:00 we met him and Elizabeth in the Zocolo for the short walk. This was going to take about an hour passing through Zapotitlán with the spectacular  highway views of  the Biosphere that is The Botanical Garden of Zapotitlán Salinas which I wrote about a few months ago. 

We jumped aboard and set off. There was one stop along the way to pick up a few others and when Elizabeth spotted what turned out to be an old German she let out an excited gasp and smiled at me. Her enthusiasm for another white person to climb aboard was so spontaneous she quickly recognized how silly it was. Silly quickly turned to funny and we teased her relentlessly for the next 15 minutes.

The Long Walk Begins with Elizabeth, Ramses And Lucy With Her Hat
The Combi's final stop was the tiny desert town of Santa Ana where would have to walk the 4 km to San Juan Raya which is a small community in the Biosphere. The end game was to see ocean fossils, yes ocean fossils and Dinosaur footprints. One hundred million years ago, or the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, this entire region was once a deep ocean. It then evolved into a lush tropical oasis, where Dinosaurs thrived, and ultimately the dry desert that it is now.

The hike should have taken about an hour but Mexicans are not known for their speed walking. I love hiking with people who embrace the experience with humor and positive attitudes. That is one of the primary reasons I find myself with Lucy on every trip I take. We found ourselves pointing out spectacular cacti, various birds of prey, scampering reptiles and even colorful bugs. The landscape was worthy of too many photos but as I have said numerous times, these photos would never do the experience or views the justice it deserved.

One Picture with 8 Different Type of Cacti
Although remote there were random vehicles that passed us and also a tour bus that lumbered along carefully. We were fairly safe in case of an emergency. (always thinking like a Boy Scout). About half way we stopped for one of what turned out to be incredibly delicious ham, cheese and chipotle sandwiches. It took one final chug on my water bottle to realize that I need lots more water and I was confident that the town would have a vendor or shop as after all this was considered a tourist type destination. It is also a zone where students and scientists of every type come to do research. At the very least and this being Mexico there would be a cold beer at the end of the road.

Arrived Alive
Bienvendios San Juan Raya, we arrived alive after our arduous trek through the desert. Well not so much arduous as it was a bit of a Sunday stroll but it was hot and sunny and there might have been snakes stalking us, we would never know because they are so sly. We came to the town which was a few sporadic buildings we looked at each other and agreed without really speaking "OK now what?" I mean this was as rural a village that I have ever stumbled into.

We found our morning beer to wash down the trail dirt and found directions to the Museum where we would book a walking tour. The museum as it turned out was new, modern and completely out of place in this dusty outback part of Mexico.

We chose the fossil and dinosaur hike and for 30 Pesos. The tour included a very knowledgeable guide who had lived illegally in New York City for a couple of years before being found out and deported. It is so odd to hear Mexicans talk about being illegally in the United States and then getting deported like they were out having a cup of coffee chatting with their friends about the latest Soccer/Futbol scores.

The well groomed and marked trail was dominated by a variety of Cactus some of which rose to 60 feet. As with so many nature guides I have met along the way we were shown where the cactus stored water which was a primary water source for the indigenous through out the years. There were also small plants whose flower pods held drops of water.

The guide was explaining things to both Lucy and I while we stood staring and shaking our heads like we understood everything he was saying. Ramses and Elizabeth stood back and I noticed they were giggling. Then Ramses smugly said "so, did you understand anything?" Off down the trail the two of them skipped laughing and giggling knowingly.

Dinosaur Tracks
The fossils themselves were awe inspiring. You could have been walking on your local ocean beach and the sea shell would have looked exactly the same. However the jewel in the tours crown were the dinosaur footprints as they were very distinguishable. A trail of 3 clawed feet on the way somewhere 50 million years ago. The guide then pointed to large indentations beside the well marked foot prints.
"Mama walking with her baby". Holy crap there it was, a huge foot print riding shotgun to the little ones. It was explained that no excavation with tools takes place, it is all done by the rains of July and August. "Mother natures does the work here so we let her as we have lots of time". A very logical approach to a very slow moving village.

As we sat eating our second round of sandwiches it finally occurred to us that we did not really think about our exit strategy. We were 4 km from Santa Ana and then another 8 - 10 km to the main road so our best chance to catch a ride back to Tehuacan was to walk up to 14 km in the dusty desert. Well of we went into the desert cauldron

I am blocking the road, go around bitches!
What could possibly bother us as we walked 14 km through a hot, arid and dusty desert? Apparently lots of things such as thirst, heat stroke, sunburn and snakes just to name a few. Ramses and Elizabeth started walking a bit slower then Lucy and I which was fine. There was lots to see and view, photos to take and water to drink. Lots and lots of water.

It was when we stumbled around our snake friend that we all realized that this was going to be a long walk. Ramses suddenly became a typical spoilt 19 year old with his " I am so tired, sooo tired" but naturally got no sympathy from any of us. More than a few cars passed us going to the other way and the one car that was going our way the driver was staring into his phone pretending not to see us. Then as if on cue a small pickup rolled by and a friendly voice with smiling faces said, "jump in". It took no convincing and we had no idea where they were going, we just knew walking was no the answer.

As it turned out this young couple were from Puebla and were just on a road trip to the desert. They agreed to drive us back to Tehuacan. I love the randomness of travelling!

This was a stroke of luck and it was going to get better. We stopped at the Botanical Gardens to pick up a guide for what reason we had no clue. We drove down the highway for about 20 minutes and turned off onto a dusty side road (like there is anything else in the area) where we stopped to overlook a nice valley and what turned out to be salt pools. Yes an actual salt mine in front of my face.

With a bit of explanation and photo ops we hopped back into the truck and drove down a steep and windy road that lead to the pools which sounded like a fun side trip. Near the bottom we stopped and found 3 large holes in the side of the mountain. I immediately thought "sure a bit of cave exploring sounds fun". Nope, wrong again. What I thought was a cave turned out to be an old and abandoned underground church dig into the side of the mountain. "Whaaat".

Excitedly and a bit confused we hopped out and sure enough there it was, a church built into the side of the mountain. Based on the beauty of the paintings I could only imagine how gorgeous this church was in it's day. There was a main alter room, a few dormitories and a storage room. The walls as it turned out were made of pressed salt and they were adorned with ornate painted pictures that were all complete by the children of the time. That was quite a statement. This country is filled with small stories and interesting moments in time.

The guide was speaking quickly so I could only pick up on bits of the conversation but our new friends (whose names I have already forgotten) filled me in with their perfect English.

I do not stand in awe of a church any longer having seen so many spectacular churches  throughout Latin America but this one was special. Deep underground it held the same reverence as any ornate cathedral splashed with gold and polished wood. This was catholic worship at its most simple and most stunning.

The carnival ride was not over yet. We wandered down to the salt pool and learnt how nature was used for both production and purification which was interesting enough and information I will soon forget. As with so many things in Mexico it is the simple of designs and use of natural elements that works. We then came upon a random door which peaked my interest and I was not disappointing.

Inside were small artifacts that have been dug up over time in and around the salt pools. These were Aztec (not Mayan) and Popoloca (my favorite indigenous name). This was insane. Ornate carvings so small they fit into the palm of your hand. There we also bowls, fossils and the one that caught my attention, a huge molar from what must have been a large scary animal, probably a carnivore I was told. OK then who am I to no believe that. This is dinosaur country after all.

Random happenings, my favorite thing in the world based on a decision to do something as "see what happens". Sometimes nothing and sometimes the oddest of things. We went from walking in the desert to seeing dinosaur footprints, then back through the desert a bit exhausted, to seeing miniature Aztec relics all because we said "YES, lets do it". It is never a competition with me but it saddens me when there is so much to explore and fellow teachers were sitting home counting there Peso's and worried how devalued they became because of the American Election. This entire day priced out was about $240 pesos, $16 Canadian including our final beer and dinner.

Back in Tehuacan we hit up Cerezos for a well deserved and I cold litre of beer and a 1/2 kilos of tacos. A well deserved rest from an eventful and exciting day including the 45 minute drive down the highway in the back of a pickup truck, transportation Mexican style and I would not have it any other way.

Great Travel Partners

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Ruins Of Cantona

How do you start an all day road trip that will give you the opportunity to walk among Ancient Ruins that are so off the beaten path that very few tourists go there. You stop and pick up bread shaped like a turtle for breakfast, that is what you do. 

Today we were off to Cantona which are located about 2 hours north of Puebla. Aside from being off the beaten path and not a " touristy site, Cantona is one of the largest Ancient sites in all of Mexico. What I found interesting was that limited archaeological work has been done at the site, and only about 10% of the site can be seen. (There are opinions that only 1% has been uncovered). The happy road trippers we my partner in crime Lucy and the subtly funny Ashlynn. The best of the best as far as I am concerned when it comes to an adventurous spirit with outstanding attitudes. They make up for my grumpiness.

Non Meat Eater Turtle Bread

The trip itself, although a bit complicated, was easy enough. Starting with the 8:00 ADO bus to Puebla (140 Pesos) we changed to a VIA bus to Oriental (70 Pesos) and from there were found a Combi that took us the rest of the way for 180 pesos. The day started with a hiccup as we agreed to a 7:30 start but Lucy and I lolly gagged a bit and missed the bus, Ashlynn did not. We had a half hour to kill and after giggling a bit about Ashlynn looking for us we crossed Independencia Street to a small Torta restaurant that locals have said is arguably the best tortas in town. We were not let down with the sandwich and coffee (or fresh squeezed juice) costing 30 pesos. After devouring breakfast we climbed aboard the bus and two hours later we pulled into CAPU station to the smiling Ashlynn. Smart girl that she is was calmly waiting for us to arrive.

Double Trouble on the Combi
The trip itself was Tehuacan to Puebla, to Oriental to Tepeyahualco to the Ruins themselves. Tepeyahualco is the last small town before the ruins and although the town itself was grey and drab it surrounded a gorgeous yellow and orange church that might have been worth a stop but our destiny was Cantona.
As an aside there were various locals who wanted to know where we were going because this was definitely not Gringolandia. They were not being intrusive but curious and as we pulled into Oriental one generous guy not only told us where to get off, he left the bus with us and walked us to where the Combi's were making sure we were good to go. Mexico you continue to win my heart. As I said we could have taken a Combi to Tepeyahualco then changed to another but we over paid a bit to have a direct ride, and by overpaid I mean $2 each.

Free Admission
Free Admission is always a good thing. As teachers in the State of Puebla we receive free admission with our teachers card to any archeological site, museum and any other "Educational Exhibits in the State of Puebla", hurray!! I was half expecting a run down little caddie shack type entrance because of the remoteness of the site. I was slightly shocked to see a huge modern facility complete with an impressive museum, standard gift shop and thankfully after 2 large coffees and a litre of water, modern clean restrooms. Not knowing what to expect we entered the first "road" into the site and with each step we grew  excited and became chatty as myna birds.

Ken: Look a small tour group with a guide, lets go hang our near them and listen.
Ashlynn: We can go stand near that information plaque and speak English so they don't know.
Lucy: I like it, lets go.
Ashlynn: Or Lucy can try to speak Spanish and they will think for sure that we will not understand them.
Lucy: Heeeey, WTF!

First Climb
 The entrance to the ruins are a series of high walled "trading roads" that  were impressive in both there existence and what must have been serious planning and construction. This was no "drunk Mayan development" , these boys had skills.

I have been to quite a few Mayan and Inca sites including Chitzen Itza, Palenque Tikal, Copan and Machu Pichu but however Cantona was different both in feel and design. This was not a site with temples and structures laid out over the ground, there were designed walking "roadways" that led up to the first level of the site and we were not going to be disappointed. 

After a short first climb we came upon the first view of the Temples and Ball Courts which at first glance if you have been to other sites might not seem impressive. Then you stop and look around and the reality of the size and scope of the place hits you. Then you realize that only 10km has been uncovered and you look to your right and can see large mounds that are obviously temples and structures. The enormity of it is a bit over whelming and suddenly the adrenaline kicks it. It was time to explore.

Holy Crap! Where did this come from? Cantona is not only enormous but as I said before unlike other ruins sites I have been to, with maybe the exception of Cholula near Puebla. All the the temples, ball courts, alters, housing areas and other building are inter-connected by walled roadways and it is massive. It is protected on one side by a high steep mountain and over looks vast open plains which gave them what must have been a superior security advantage.

What is missing from any of these photos? Other people, tourists, hikers or even workers (they were there but they blended in). We stayed about 3 hours and counted 22 other people.

Ashlynn: This is incredible, there are no other people here.
Lucy: Your right, now both of you f**k off.

This is not a lack of tourism issue, this is a lack of knowledge issue. I have 52 students in 6 classes and not one of them have hear of Cantona let alone visited it and we are 3 hours away. This was the same for Eric, another teacher, who came later in the day. None of his 50 students have any knowledge of Cantona's existence. There must be funding from other sources because this place was immaculately preserved and maintained.

Wandering to take it all in there was information plaques located throughout and one caught my attention. Cantona was abandoned 500 years before the arrive of the Spanish. There is no evidence as to why but many thoughts having it run in parallel to the abandonment of Easter Island. Who knows and it did not matter but it keeps you wondering about these past civilizations and what they were up to.

After our time the girls headed out and I took about 15 minutes to sit quietly atop one of the tallest temples and quietly took it all in, as I do. It was peaceful and if I can say, spellbinding to think that over 90,000 people use to call this place home and only 10% of it has been unearthed, maintained and on display. There is just to much information to share about the life and times of Cantona which was enhanced by an interactive museum near the entrance. Mayan and Aztec societies must have been incredible...well except for all the human sacrifices and bloodshed.

Now the journey home. We headed out and of course realized there was no public transportation per say. We had asked our Combi driver if he would come back for us and after contacting him he said it would be an hour or so. Ashlynn asked a guide if he could help and of course he did. He called his friend who called a friend and a half hour later we were picked up and taken directly to Oriental by a random couple in an oddly out of place brand new car. It was so nice being in a car again. A chaotic ticket buying spree in Oriental and 10 minutes later we were on our way just as the rains came. Thank you Mayan Weather God. The trip home was broken up by a return stop at the CAPU station in Puebla and the McDonalds Mcflurry counter which seems to be my post hike snack of choice.

Next up for me is Tulum, a return to Chitzen Itza (1982) and if possible Teotihuacan near Mexico City. Two of my favorite things are climbing volcanoes and hiking ancient ruins. Mexico is the place to be.

As you can suspect photos do not do Cantona justice especially photos from a quick shot auto everything camera. However as long as there is one photo of Lucy's great hat then all is forgiven.
The greatest hiking hat ever!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

San Gabriel Chilac

San Gabriel Chilac is a town near Tehuacan that has held the traditions of the Day Of The Day close to the core. It is famous as one of two towns, the other being Oaxaca, where people travel to for this important festival in the Mexican calendar year. Every cemetery in every Mexican town would be having celebrations on November 2 which is the actual Day of the Dead. We were heading to Chilac on the night of the first for the spooky night time experience. Panteon Cemetery is where it all goes down, or in the case of the spirits, they all rise from their deathly existence. I love fantasmas.

Light reflections or spirit orbs? You be the judge
The spirit world was working with us this night as our guide Alma arrived a little over an hour early and we did not miss out on the opportunity to leave school by dumping off students into classes with teachers that were not coming or had other plans to arrive later. Thanks suckas!! Oh, I mean yes it was an inconvenience for the students to have to move to other classes and not be with their teacher or continue with existing lesson plans. Yeah, that's what I meant.

We all piled into the crowded and cozy combi with lots of excited chatter. There were the exception  that appeared to have anxieties about not having a cold beer right after work. They just stared eerily and quietly out the window. We roared through the city down Reforma south and once we left the city boundaries were greeted by the scents and aromas of the county side. I had been eating beans and rice for the better part of a week so this gave me a chance to "blend in aromatically" with my surroundings or so I thought. It did not work.

5 Members buried in the same plot
There was quite a bit to learn and experience to be sure. One of the first things I noticed was multiple crosses on various grave sites. In Mexico they do not have a plot for each family member. As another person dies they bury that body on top of the previous and so on. I do not know where it stops though as I did spot graves with 11 crosses that included small crosses for children. What I did notice was the grave was not flat and even but a mound of earth which is what you would expect when there are multiple burials in the same plot of land.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated by creating an offering alter at your families site. Offerings include fresh fruit and vegetables, candy, the deceased favorite food and beer. These items are placed in and around the grave as an honor to their memory. Families stay at the grave and literally party with their dead ancestors with roving live Mariachi Bands. The flowers are spectacular and the occasion is quite joyous.

There was a carnival atmosphere that was suppose to surround the entire experience of our night time visit but to our regret we arrived early, much too early. Vendors were just setting up, tents were being erected, no bands were warming up but there was beer to be found and our lost soul soon disappeared only to reappear shortly with a smile and a few tall cans of Corona.

We wandered around the cemetery and it was quite eerie even with the building crowds of families with skeleton face painted children. Many graves appeared freshly dug and the dark night was only illuminated by the glows of sporadic candles. Somewhere in the distance a few dogs howled as the do here adding to the growing nervous feelings. That did not really happen but it sounded good in my head.

As with most Latin American cemeteries there are also countless vaults some of which have the clean appearance of small bachelor apartments. Most vaults have doors to lower levels which house both historical and the evenings offerings. Wrought Iron gates give way to that end at candle lit lower rooms that are well maintained. Graves and Cemeteries are a serious family tradition here both because of pride and the kinship of family. You could go down into the vault but nobody dared. It was safe to observe from solid ground. None of us were "scared" and nobody believed in spirits or ghosts but none of us were taking any chances.

No trip is ever complete without conversations and a little fun with random people. This couple were selling various oils and our conversation went from teaching English (both her and I) to my destroyed left shoulder that needs some doctors TLC when I get back to Canada, to smoking pot, to massages and happy endings to me deciding that I wanted to now live in Chilac forever. Lucy walked by and heard parts of our random musings, stopped and asked "are you talking about happy endings?". She then laughed her great "Lucy Laugh", shook her head and walked away.

Starting in a cemetery during the Day of the Dead celebrations and finishing with a Mexican English teacher talking about smoking pot was not what I was expecting that's for sure. However when you smile, start a conversation with random people and act a little silly you never know where it can lead. In this case all roads certainly led to hell.