James Collenette

Joined August 2018
  • Day29

    Days 29 & 30: back to Mexico City

    March 6 in Mexico ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Leaving Tlaxcala takes a climb up a flight of 200 steps so I need to get my breath back before arranging the next and final leg. The bus to the nation's capital takes an easy 2 hours to the eastern terminal. The metro to Sevilla station is anything but easy however; due to delays it's a 15-minute wait to get on the train and the nine stops take a further 45 as more and more people try to pile in. Never again!

    It's a relief to make the short walk from Sevilla back to Any's. Sadly I don't get one of the rooms in the old block but the bonus is that Alfonso the proprietor is back from a business trip. He offers a wealth of information on things to see in this Roma district. And it's not hard to find quirky sights such as this charming statue amid the urban bustle, and how they advertise a burger joint while the lights are red.

    With my final full day in Mexico City, I'm headed for the Mercado Merced, a covered market three times the size of a football pitch. Everything imaginable is available here and the sweet tooth is indulged with a honey stall and sweets sold in 100 gram measures. I can't resist the chocolate---after all, it was first cultivated in Mexico by the Aztecs as "xocoatl". Everything is arranged with meticulous precision. And three football pitches aren't large enough to accommodate it all, spilling out into the surrounding streets all the 15 blocks to the Zocalo.

    After an enquiry of Alfonso about Mexican female singers, he has recommended six, some no longer with us but others very much so. None of his names coincide with another six singers listed in the Rough Guide, so entering a record shop on the pedestrianised Avenida Madero, I am in a quandary. After an hour I find a double CD of a concert performance by three of them (Tania Libertad and Guadalupe Pineda (Alfonso's list) and Eugenia Leon (mine). AND it includes a feature-length DVD. Perfect!

    On the final day I walk to another of Alfonso's suggestions, the Mercado Medellin, less frenetic than the Merced but with a local neighbourhood flavour. After lunch at a Sanborn's in the city centre, I hike down Reforma, a multi-lane avenue shaded by trees and punctuated by pompous statues and monuments. At the last one I run into an all-female demonstration and remember that it's International Women's Day.

    It's a pity to be leaving Mexico City but it's been a hugely satisfying trip. What would be the high spot? Maybe the Oaxaca carnival but there would be many other candidates. The overnight flight to Heathrow isn't the most comfortable and I'm relieved to get home. Waiting for me is a postcard from my brother of the Yucatan site of Chichen Itza, but it's probably only because he posted it from the USA that it's got here. My own postcards sent from Mexico City at the start of the trip still have nearly a month to go!
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  • Day27

    Days 27 & 28: Tlaxcala

    March 4 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    It's a shame to be leaving Oaxaca but I hope to return one day. The road to Puebla passes through some arid landscapes, the hillsides cloaked with huge cacti. When I did this route many years ago, it was by train and I could enjoy the scenery at leisure due to a derailment and it took several hours to get the train moving again. The trains have been run down all over the country and are used only for freight; what a contrast to many Asian countries where the lines are flourishing.

    At Puebla there is a change and a shorter run to Tlaxcala. Less well known than Puebla or Oaxaca, it's a city of about 100,000. The first picture shows a detail at the charming guest house where I'm staying but Tlaxcala is also known for its Colonial monuments. It's a steep 20 minute walk up to the Basilica of Ocotlan; the street is lined with ceramic tiles depicting Biblical scenes so it feels like a pilgrimage. This is one of the finest churches in all Mexico; I haven't included photos of the church itself because it's covered with scaffolding but these images show the unusual brickwork and extravagant art work inside.

    Another reason for my visiting Tlaxcala is its Carnival, one of the closest to Mexico City where I must be in a couple of days. There are dancing displays in the spacious main plaza both afternoons I am there, plus a parade with a multitude of floats. It's also an opportunity for protesters, in this case university students and teachers, to voice their opinions on the local government. Rain eventually stops play but this being Shrove Tuesday, there will probably be some sore heads tomorrow. As the Seekers once sang, the carnival is over.
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  • Day25

    Days 25 & 26: Cuilapan and Tlacolula

    March 2 in Mexico ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Oaxaca lies in such a fascinating part of the country that one could spend the best part of two weeks doing just day excursions. Features of New World architecture are "capillas abiertas" which besides ordinary churches, are roofless extensions built hurriedly in the 16th and 17th centuries for the mass conversions of indigenous people. Sadly the Spanish conquest caused the death of millions from European diseases so these monuments soon became redundant, but they remain as romantic ruins resembling ancient abbeys from the Old World. One of these is at Cuilapan, an easy 20-minute bus ride from Oaxaca. I watch a marching band leaving the main church, commemorating the life of a friend who died 10 years ago.

    The state of Oaxaca is not shy either when it comes to street markets and quite apart from the cavernous market in the state capital, there is at least one for every day of the week. They have specialities such as pottery in one, cheese in another; the mainly indigenous population dress up in traditional costumes. Sunday is the turn for another "Tlackers", Tlacolula, about 45 minutes south-east of Oaxaca. Tens of thousands of people gather to browse among the grocery stalls; there are also rugs, crafts and ceramics. The 16th century church has some of the finest gold-leaf covered carvings to be found anywhere.
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  • Day22

    Days 22 to 26: Oaxaca again

    February 27 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    I'm back in the state capital, after another roller-coaster ride with a driver who thinks he's Lewis Hamilton. In the morning I ditch the huevos for a day and have a superbly healthy Herbalife breakfast. The evening meal is not so successful---chicken tikka masala, would you believe---and I resolve to go back to Mexican the next day. Which is a blow-out with chilaquiles---tortillas stuffed with chicken and cheese, not forgetting the picante sauce.

    The never-ending circus in the Zocalo ramps up around sunset and tonight they invite dancers to take the floor to the sounds of mariachi (northern music with lots of strings and sometimes an accordion) and cumbia (a characteristic Afro-Latin beat imported from Colombia and very popular here). Carnival season is getting properly under way and while I had considered staying in Veracruz for its famous one, I'm getting to enjoy the more folksy processions elsewhere. Rather than performing on a large stage, the revellers parade the city streets to make you feel part of the jollifications rather than a spectator. The costumes are fantastic and many people wear masks, often representing death or the devil, to frighten evil spirits. Then those incredibly good people, the giant puppets, come on as late substitutes. It's been a satisfying day.
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  • Day18

    Days 18 to 21: Mazunte

    February 23 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    I arrive on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca state. The roads are too narrow and twisting for full-size buses but there's a regular minibus service. Because of the winding road, some of my companions, medical students at New Jersey who stayed up till 3 this morning, are decidedly queasy. I wouldn't swap their condition for mine, Mexican flu or Mexicold as it is. Also the minibus is cramped; if this were a prison, 6 hours of knee-to-chin seating would have me confessing to anything within minutes.

    No matter: my lodgings are run by a delightful Italian couple. Marco speaks English; Roberta only Spanish (apart from Italian) but they both like my public school accent. A French couple have just arrived from the Yucatan and weren't very impressed; I hope it hasn't changed too much since my visit 2 years ago.

    Oh well; the beaches of Mazunte and San Agustinillo are pleasant enough. Unusually, the Pacific actually IS Pacific here and it's good for swimming. I get a "girl from Ipanema" photo and one showing an itinerant beach vendor, a thankless job in this 30C heat. And---pure joy---cacti! These specimens can reach 20 feet and are a reminder that the dry season in much of Mexico is long.

    Mazunte is a town of a few hundred inhabitants. Beach supply shops mingle with general stores (abarrotes). Access to one of them is via steps leading over a wall; there must be flooding threats sometimes. The VW beetle picture shows how supplies---tortillas here---are transferred. Mazunte's chilled out vibe attracts all manner of beads, beards and braids. Hangouts have names like Dharma and Siddhartha and I wonder why people into alternative cultures don't seek out some indigenous Mexican ones. After an unsuccessful first evening chewing on an "artesanal" (craft) beef sandwich, I breakfast the next morning at the nearby Cafecito. It's an unassuming, almost apologetic place that's much more than a cafe. The huevos rancheros fill me until dinner and the bistec milanesa napolitana, while steeped in mozzarella, has a Mexican twist with spicy tomatoey sauce and if necessary would last 24 hours. Including a couple of beers for £5. I'm not likely to lose weight here!
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  • Day16

    Days 16 & 17: Oaxaca

    February 21 in Mexico ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    I'm up before dawn for the taxi to the first-class bus terminal. The taxi driver jumps all the lights but Veracruz is quiet at 6 a.m. The bus takes a roundabout route to avoid the highest mountains but suffers a puncture on the motorway. Fortunately ADO does a good job and the driver contacts some other services to offload the passengers and the net delay is only an hour.

    Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaca like the restaurant chain) unlike Veracruz, IS pretty and is popular with tourists and expats alike; I see more gringos in an hour than in the 3 days in the Gulf port. But besides its beauty, Oaxaca enjoys a pleasant climate, still hot (up to 30C) by day but fresh at night.

    Oaxaca lies in a more traditional part of Mexico and there is a large indigenous population, some of whom speak the original languages. It's also the quintessential market city with covered arcades, some of which have performing musicians inside. The street stalls spill on to the central plazas (two for the price of one, corner to corner by the Cathedral). The colours are extraordinary. A bit surprisingly for a country where the mural was perfected (Orozco, Rivera and others) there's less street art than in some Latin American cities but the hotel where I'm staying boasts a pretty one.

    On my second afternoon while stopping to buy a snack, there's a commotion outside of drums, brass and cheering. I rush outside to witness a street parade, one of many in the run-up to the pre-Lent Carnival. In 3 minutes it's all past but I look forward to more later, and wonder if the dancing girl was the model for the painting in my hotel.
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  • Day13

    Days 13 to 15: Veracruz

    February 18 in Mexico ⋅ ☁️ 25 °C

    The ride to Veracruz is a straight 3 hour shot. The city. 500 years old this year, is called "heroica" after surviving numerous pirate attacks over the centuries. Francis Drake was here, so they say---also for different reasons, Alexander von Humboldt the polymath. Veracruz is not pretty but a modern, working port and I like it that way.

    The waterfront seems to have been cleared of clutter and offers impressive views of the harbour and I'm pleased that pedestrians are allowed to wander along the mole. As the pelican flies, San Juan de Ulua fortress is less than a mile away but a taxi ride the long way round is five times that. The 19th century statesman Benito Juarez was imprisoned here before he became president. Not sure about Otis Redding but to sit on the dock of the bay, there are few better places.

    Elsewhere the backstreets lie in pleasing decadence that would give Havana a run for its money. But instead of ancient Oldsmobiles and Buicks, you may come across a beaten Beetle, a survivor from the Volkswagen factory in the city of Puebla.

    Like so many places in Mexico, Veracruz has a lively market and I update my wardrobe with a T-shirt simulating a "guayabera", the cotton shirt with pleats, pockets and lapels so popular on the Gulf coast---and that includes Cuba as well.
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  • Day10

    Days 10 to 12: Catemaco

    February 15 in Mexico

    The short journey to the lakeside town of Catemaco leads me to the Posada Bugambilias. It's not very conveniently located, outside the town centre and away from the lake but Chepina the owner gives me a warm welcome. She knows a lot of local people and sets me up with a trip to a nature reserve, the Benito Juarez, named after the 19th century Mexican president. We stand by the roadside and presently the transport she has ordered rolls up. It's a "rural mixto", a small truck so-named for carrying goods---on the roof---and people. There are two rows of seats in the cab but I sit on one of two inward-facing benches in the trailer. I haven't much clue where this is heading but after following the lake for a dozen miles, the road leaves the shore and rises to a small village where they let me get off. There a man walks me to a house where my guide (on the right in the picture) takes me to the reserve. She leads me through some fields and then the foliage closes in until we're in the last swathe of jungle in these parts. The atmosphere becomes sticky and oppressive but is easily compensated by the beautiful waterfalls. I'm pleased not only that despite the dry season the water is running, and I can hand hold the camera for 1/8 of a second.

    Catemaco is quite popular with visitors at weekends so it's no trouble to join a boat party on the lake. It's not short of wildlife and swimmers must take care because of crocodiles. Their usual prey however are birds, other reptiles and mammals like the spider monkey if they fall in!

    In the continuing weekend euphoria, a threesome (two pictured here) serenade the tables where I'm having dinner. Music while you eat!
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  • Day8

    Days 8 & 9: San Andres Tuxtla

    February 13 in Mexico

    Once again the bus service on the ground exceeds that predicted on line and I am on a single stage service to San Andres Tuxtla. This is another place little known outside Mexico. The town itself is not particularly remarkable but its chief interest is its lying in a tobacco growing region. So if Cuba is inaccessible, SA Tuxtla is a substitute. The Santa Clara factory offers free tours, showing a fascinating display of how the cigars are hand-rolled. Founded in 1830, Santa Clara strangely shares a name with a cake shop chain (founded 1924) which also serves fantastic chocolate milk shakes. You can either get a smoking habit or boost your waist inches---take your choice!

    SA Tuxtla is as good place as any to observe traditional Mexican practices. If you hear a high pitched whistle in the street, it may herald the approach of a knife sharpener (see below). A harsher whoosh sound may denote the presence of the man selling sort of roast chestnuts, the noise emerging from the chimney.

    A team of musicians is tuning up in the plaza. They are delighted to pose for me although I realise later that they're heading a funeral procession. But in Mexico the lines between the living and the departed are more blurred than they are here and it's not the mournful occasion that one might expect. And to finish on a happy note, the 14th February is approaching and gifts, toys etc. marking the big day are everywhere!
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  • Day6

    Days 6 & 7: Tlacotalpan

    February 11 in Mexico

    It's Monday morning and I'm on the move again, to Veracruz. Here the first- and second-class bus stations are side by side so it's easy to transfer to the service to Tlacotalpan. What's not always easy however is to find out in advance about local routes but my fears are allayed by a plentiful service to Tlacotalpan. It's often the way with accommodation as well, and some people---even young technocrats---rather than prebooking, prefer to seek lodgings when they arrive, claiming that lots of it isn't on line. However my prebooked hotel is one of most charming of my stay in Mexico.

    Tlacotalpan---shall I call it Tlackers?---is a sleepy, lazy town of about 10,000 people. Lying on the equally hard to pronounce River Papaloapan which is 200 m. wide here, it was once a significant port until superseded by a railway and then the roads. A few boats chug contentedly across the river but it was largely forgotten until becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. The colourful, colonnaded houses are reminiscent of Cuba which perhaps isn't surprising given that the land of Castro is just across the Gulf. The swampy locality suggests mosquitoes---worryingly, there is a town nearby called Mosquitero---but these are combated by a man with a roaring insecticide pump who patrols the town centre in the evenings.

    I have arrived just before 6 p.m. to enjoy the "golden hour" of mellow late afternoon light washing the buildings with a much softer glow than the harsh overhead conditions of midday. Tlackers boasts no less than 4 attractive plazas and one of them has 2 churches. And one of these carries the message "You don't need a mobile (cellphone) to talk to God". Absolutely!

    Tlackers is small enough to enjoy without excessive walking. In the morning a group of men are raising small flags, Iwo Jima style, denoting other UNESCO towns in Mexico. Most of these---Guanajuato, Zacatecas and others---were not ports but mining centres in Colonial times. And later I come across some people who have found a snake, possibly a python, in the grass. Maybe the dogs in the town are nervous but I hope the people will give Monty a safe home somewhere.
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