Mexico and Guatemala – Travel Review
By Grace Barnott and Robert Palin
Mexico has a reputation for being a perilous and daunting place. However, our trip there in the summer of 2012, proves to be quite the opposite.
We spent almost a month in Central America, visiting Mexico and Guatemala, beginning our adventure in the city of culture and excitement, Mexico City. After heeding advice to be cautious, which we strongly recommend for any Central American capital city (be very aware of taxis in Mexico City and do your research) we leave the airport wary of our surroundings but soon realise that we have plenty of reasons to relax. The manager at our hostel in Mexico City gives us a map and a list of safe areas in the city to explore.
Our first day trip is an excursion to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. This historic landmark is definitely worth the visit and gives you a taste of Mayan culture with a real sense of a world that existed long before our time. If you choose to visit here, make sure that you bring plenty of sun cream, water and a parasol. The heat and lack of shade makes for an extremely hot, but essential, day out.
“A natural calcium carbonate pool in the middle of the Mexican mountains”
As an extra stop when we visit the pyramids, we are shown the Guadalupe Basilica. Here, a sacred painting of Mary is in residence. What makes this place so unique is the passion and tradition that comes with it. Climbing to the very top of the steps is something spectacular to behold. On the way to Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wah-hack-ah’), we stop at Puebla for the night. This quaint town is bursting with unusual colonial buildings and colour. If you want to experience a real taste of Mexico, Oaxaca is a must-see place. On arrival we bask in the afternoon sun at Benito Juarez square, where locals spend hours amidst the many scents and colours of the market.
The next day we set out on another day trip. This includes a visit to Tule, a magnificent old tree with as many twists and turns within it as the lives of the many people who have sat beneath its shady branches. It is 2000 years old.
The next part of this journey is the geographical wonder Hierve el agua. This is a natural calcium carbonate pool in the middle of the Mexican mountains whose rocks give the impression of cascading water. To the left of these cascades, lays a pool so natural and fresh that people come from hundreds of miles to – so legend has it – cure their ailments or to simply bask in the water. Driving back in the tour bus from this memorable landmark we pass an indigenous village in the mountains where the locals still use traditional methods of living. Coming from our western society, this moment will stay with us forever.
“It could easily be mistaken for a prehistoric film set”
The next stop for us is San Cristobal De Las Casas. This town in the mountains is bustling and vast. Being so high above sea level, it is also a welcome break from the intensity of the heat. Our first experience in San Cristobal was a trip to Sumidero Canyon. It feels like we are travelling on a speedboat down the Amazon River. It could easily be mistaken for a prehistoric film set with the huge rocky tree-covered surroundings disappearing into the low setting clouds. Here we came face to face with crocodiles and are told stories about explorers who first discovered this glorious portion of nature. Plus the trials and tribulations they encounter. There are memorials left to them hidden in the depths of the coves.
The following day we visit the extraordinary Palenque Ruins, concealed deep within the jungle settings of Mexico. Here we see hummingbirds and howler monkeys amongst more Mayan wonders.
We then cross the border into the traditional and wondrous country of Guatemala. Straight away we are amazed by the sights. At this point we really begin to feel the spirit of travel. Whilst driving through you cannot help but stare out the window in wonder at natural and man-made features such as dramatic waterfalls tumbling down the rocks on the side of the road and huge lakes at the forefront of spectacular mountains.
“Deep, cool, crystal clear water surrounded by trees and caves”
Whilst in Panajachel we haggle for souvenirs at the street markets and eat fantastic local cuisine. Panajachel is a warm and welcoming place where many travellers decide to stay due to the atmosphere and friendliness.
We then decide to visit Antigua in the south of Guatemala. It’s a place of tradition and awe, where we spend our time exploring the covered markets brimming with colour and life. Here, merchants will call you into their stalls to gaze upon their crafts and workmanship. Make sure to indulge yourself in one of the many street food vendors and dare yourself to try something you never have before. It may even inspire your cooking back home!
On arrival back in Mexico, we travel across the Yucatán in order to explore the country’s beautiful Caribbean coast. Starting in Tulum, we venture to the white sandy beaches and are very impressed to see huge sea turtles and stingrays swim across our path whilst snorkelling in the warm, clear water of Akumal.
After travelling up to the more tourist-inhabited Playa Del Carmen, we are told by the hostel manager about cenotes. Curious as to what these are we decided to take a collectivo (safe mini-vans that pick people up from stops along the road) to the location of the nearest cenote.
When we arrive we discover deep, cool, crystal clear water surrounded by trees and caves. We feel brave enough to jump from a high ledge and have our feet pedicured by the fish that reside there. What a fantastic experience!
Many places that we visit will remain forever in our memories and we could not have chosen a better part of the world to spend our summer. Viva Mexico, hasta luego!
Advice for Travellers to Central America:
- Always talk to people. More often than not, residents and other travellers will know places that might not necessarily be in the guide books and you may discover something amazing as well as having a great opportunity to meet people.
- Be aware the Spanish in Mexico is spoken with slight dialectical differences. We thought that we knew the language but it turned out we did not know it as well as we thought we did. Some Mexicans we talked to also found it hard to understand British accents.
- Stock up on medication – it’s easier than describing embarrassing symptoms in another language.
- Bring plenty of mosquito repellent and after-bite treatment.
- Don’t forget to book an appointment with the doctor to find out what inoculations you may need.
- Stock up on sun cream.
- Do not over-pack before you go – the markets will make you want to buy everything you see and you will soon run out of bag space.
- You cannot go to Mexico without sampling the Mescal and tequila on offer – keep an open mind about local food and drink.
- Research into the place you’re travelling to.
- Bring spare money. And then bring more spare money on top of that. With the wonders and delights of a different culture, you soon spend more than you intended.
pictures © Grace Barnott and Robert Palin