Thursday, 21 April 2011

benemerito de las americas.

This unusual yet incredibly-cited and used expression in Mexico may be unknown to many, if not most, of the readers of this post. Although the name may not necessarily refer to what/who I am about to share with you, as, for example, the town in Chiapas - Southern Mexico -, while spending time anywhere in Mexico it tends to only be associated to one person: Benito Juarez, who was a former Mexican president (19th century), lawyer and one of the country's most famous politicians. Before getting into his story and why he seems to be so relevant in Mexico, let me tell you that here thousands of places, areas, buildings, etc. are named after him, to name a few: Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juarez (Mexico D.F.), Hemiciclo a Juarez (Monument in downtown DF), Oaxaca de Juarez (Oaxaca, city in which he was born) as well as the many streets, parks and other public buildings across the country. He is also depicted on the 20 peso bill (c. USD 2). He is most notably remembered for having lived and played an active political role during one of contemporary Mexico's most important periods, known as "La Reforma" and which came directly after the Guerra de Independencia against Spain (1810-1821). Aside from being a firm promoter a the division of power between the State and the Church (Leyes de Reforma), and the first Mexican president of indigenous descent, he devoted most of his political life to fighting against foreign-imposed governments and occupation. He fought incessantly against the French army and the French-backed Emperor, Maximilian I of Mexico. Due, in general terms, to this political legacy, and, in particular, to his dedicated fight for and defence of the freedom of the Mexican people and state, he was proclaimed Benemerito de las Americas, a title recognising him as one of the most relevant political statesmen in contemporary American history.

... And so my round-the-world (from now on rtw or RTW) adventures began in Mexico. After a c. 12 hour flight from Madrid, I landed in Mexico D.F. (from now on DF) last Wednesday (13th April) at c. 6pm local time. After getting my bag and getting some local pesos, I took the metro/tube (called here Sistema de Transporte Colectivo) to downtown DF where my hostel (Hostel Amigo, yes... that was actually the name of the place!) was. Although the airport is somewhat close to city centre, it must have taken me close to 1 hour to get to my destination... that just gives all of you a glimpse of the magnitude of this city (c. 20 million live in the city and its surrounding municipalities). After getting to the hostel and settling in, I met a very friendly Austrian guy who had spent the last 4 months backpacking around South and Central America. We were both pretty done but still decided to go out to a lively area close to our hostel to have a few drinks. The next day we both went on a hostel-organised tour to the close-by ruins of Teotihuacan (for those of you also on Facebook, the latest profile picture I uploaded was taken there!) - - which is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Mexico and Latin America and which mainly consists of a truly exceptional pre-hispanic pyramid complex. On the tour, which latest most of the day, we also went to a local mezcal/tequila production and artisan site situated close to Teotihuacan as well as to the Basilica de Guadalupe and the downtown Aztec ruins of Tlatelolco. After an exhausting first full day in DF, it was a pleasing surprise to see that the hostel was hosting a "beach party". Even though I was dead tired after a full day of site seeing... what the heck! and the festivities lasted well into the night. Special mention goes out to my buddy the Mexican street performer, Jorge, with whom I chatted extensively and who played some of the best versions of Pink Floyd I have ever heard! ;)

Day 2 started early with a planned visit around some of DF's largest and most famous markets. 4 hours later and after having extensively covered some of the most fascinating intertwined mixes of culinary, religious, textile and, in general miscellaneous produce, my Austrian buddy and I stopped for lunch and a breather at a local restaurant where we had a succulent 3-course "Ejecutivo" meal for under 40 pesos (c. USD 4). After, we walked around the city and visited the Palacio Nacional Museum, the Cathedral (both of which are right on the Zocalo - or main square) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Later that day, I returned to the hostel and decided to go out with some Aussies, Swedes and a Hong Kong-er (is that how it's meant to be said?) to a wrestling match/fight/combat. Although I am not a huge fan (to say the least...) of such a "sport", I though it would be interesting to check it out, particularly in order to compare and contrast versus what's typically shown on TV in Spain and in the US. We got general entry tickets for c. 35 pesos (I think I can refrain from doing the fx conversion as by now all of you should have picked up the USD, EUR, GBP, etc. equivalence. hehe) and, to be honest, were not really aware of what we were in for... The "event" lasted almost 3 hours so it was a bit much. Nevertheless, what was reassuring was that I paid less for a ticket than for a large (c. 600ml) beer inside the arena. That's always good news! :) It was still truly intriguing to find how many people packed the arena (capacity: c. 15,000-20,000) and how much people were into the "show", although it was blatantly clear all the punches, kicks and jumps were fake. Also, one could see entire families attending the event, small children included. Not my cultural cup of tea but cheers to local tradition (I guess?). After getting back to the hostel, a couple of Uruguayans, two Aussies and myself set out to discover the world-famous nightlife in Colonia Condesa (which is meant to be the most "branché" part of town and where many artists and musicians live). Not disappointing!

After an early-morning (or at least as much as I could given the outing of the previous night) wake-up and after having sketched out my preliminary route around Mexico, which was meant to take me to the South and on the Pacific Coast, I headed to TAPO bus station (Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros de Oriente) to catch a bus to Puebla (or Historica Puebla de Zaragoza, which is one of its many official names), which is located about two hours South East of DF and is famous for the Battle of Puebla of 5th May 1862 ( in which the Mexican army were victorious against the French. After arriving in Puebla, I had to bear with a c. 1.5 hour walk from the bus station to my hostel (Hostal Santo Domingo). I did get to city centre just in time for the Semana Santa festivities and witnessed some really cool fireworks and street performances along Avenida 5 de Mayo right by the Zocalo area. I ended up calling it a night after a quick bite close to the hostel and left most of the site seeing and wandering around for the following day.

The following day, I visited most of Puebla (although, as I would later find out from a local I would meet in Oaxaca, I missed out the "must-see" / "must-enjoy-the-nightlife" area of Cholula) in just under 4 hours. The city is well-know, aside from its historical relevance as pointed out above, for the beautiful architecture, the great local cuisine and the hundreds of churches one can find in the city. During my visit to the city I even sat in for a few minutes to a "Domingo de Ramos" (relevant Semana Santa day for Roman Catholics) service in the Cathedral which, interestingly enough, was being translated into sign language as the priest and his gang were speaking/singing. Never seen that before! After lunch I went to CAPU (Central de Autobuses de Puebla), this time in c. 45 minutes as I took some shortcuts, and got on a bus to Oaxaca. The bus ride took about 4 hours and I got to the hostel (Casa Angel) at c. 9pm. After getting settled in my dorm, I went upstairs to the rooftop terrace where the hostel staff was hosting a BBQ. There I met a Pueblan (to whom I was referring above) and a Honduran, with whom I would end up hitting some of the local spots that night.

The next morning, the three of us took a bus to Monte Alban to spend a few hours visiting this smaller-than-Teotihuacan but yet as impressive archaeological site. I pulled off the "I am a student" card (not sure I told you, but before leaving Madrid I got my hands on a International Student Card which is getting me tonnes of discounts so far!) and got in for free (vs. 51 pesos general entry). Truly fascinating site (picture below) but it was extremely hot so we ended up "only" staying c. 3 hours. In the afternoon, and after lunch at a "Torta" (Mexican sandwich) place, I set out to visit downtown Oaxaca on my own as the guys I was with had already done so the previous day (they got into the city a day before me). General impression was that it was a much more touristy city, particularly non-Mexicans. The zocalo area was packed with "Plaza Mayor" (Madrid, Spain) style restaurants for tourists and you could hear a lot more other language than just Spanish. The city is beautiful though and a lot of the city centre is pedestrian only, which was a pleasant surprise! I particularly liked the Santo Domingo de Guzman church which has an entrance preceded by a huge square where street vendors and food carts are based. I actually had dinner at one of these local food carts with my buddies from the hostel. We were all catching a night bus (at c. 11pm) to the Southern coast (they were going to Puerto Escondido and I was going to Zipolite - via San Pedro de Pochutla) so decided to have a traditional Mexican dish - a Tlayuda - ( before heading out to the station. It was a delicious torlilla filled with avocado, tomato, lettuce, frijoles and cheese, topped with chicken or "carne de res" (beef) - I had the latter. After we parted ways at the station I boarded my 7 hour bus to Pochutla.

I got to Pochutla very early in the morning, at c. 7am, and took a "Colectivo" (c. 20 person "bus" used for local transportation which consists of a metal cabin set atop an SUV trunk) for c. 10 pesos. The journey to Zipolite took c. 1 hour as I had to change colectivo (according to a local I spoke to/got directions from, the local colectivo groups have been fighting for a while and as a sign of protest, the Pochutla-Zipolite route is no longer direct). I got to Zipolite at c. 8am and my first impression was that of one of the most beautiful places (let alone beaches) I had seen in my entire life. Set right on the Pacific Coast, the Zipolite coastline is about 2km long and, according to some, is one of the most dangerous beaches in the world (someone I met there claimed that in the last few years, on average, 1 person has drowned there every month). It is also a marvellous beach where mostly locals go and which is also famous for having historically been a popular hippy hang-out spot. After a walk along the beach early in the morning and after declining to accept a room for 400 pesos a night at a spot that one of my friends from home had recommended, I settled in a nearby hostel consisting of wooden shacks/compartimentos right on the beach and with a great bar and stunning views (Hostal Brisa Marina). I took a c. 3-hour nap (I was unfortunately unable to catch much sleep on the bus down to Pochutla) and then met a group of backpackers at the hostel bar (two Canadians, one my dad's age - lol -, two Italians, one welsh-man and three Swedes). Our afternoon and evening activity mainly consisted of enjoying the Pacific breeze/view and talking about our preceding/following travel plans at the bar. In between a chat and a beer here and there I also went in for a swim (swimming in the Pacific Ocean... check!), although not very far in as the see was quite rough and the red flag must have been on display across the coast for a reason. We then enjoyed a dinner at a local food shack by the beach and partied on the beach by a few bonfire-lit music scenes well into the night.

The next morning (this was yesterday!) I woke up late and was taken back to Pochutla by one of my Italian buddies by car (which he had borrowed from a local store clerk he had met a few days earlier) - he also needed to get into town to go to a cashpoint. In Pochutla I got a ticket back to DF on a bus which wasn't departing for a couple of hours. Given the time difference, I was hoping to spend that time watching the Real Madrid-Barca game at a local bar. After much hassle in trying to find it I finally did... "La Iguana Rajada", where I enjoyed the game with c. 100 locals which. I would say were c. 50:50 split between Barca and Real Madrid. Tragic night in the end for the Barca crowd in the bar, but definitely cool to enjoy the game and the magic of football with locals. The bus 17-hour bus back to DF left at c. 6pm and the journey was relatively uneventful. I was seated, though, next to an Australian girl who had been travelling across Mexico for the past 2 months with her surfboard. She had just spent 2 weeks in Puerto Escondido and was going back to DF to catch a plane the next morning to Baja California. We had a lengthy conversation on just about anything but both ended up passing out at c. 11pm. Arrival into TAPO at 11am and after a 3 hour tour of Colonia Condesa (this time by day! hehe) and while I wait to head to the Airport for my Mexico-Lima flight later today, I walked into a "wifi-enabled" bar to share my first thoughts of my rtw trip with y'all.

Next up Peru and Colombia... if you found the above a little bit interesting, let's hope my coming adventures don't disappoint you. I'll try my best. As has become a tradition, I will leave you with a few snapshots of Mexico.

Hasta pronto!