Travels in Mexico
Nearly twenty-four hours after I had left Edinburgh, the plane descended into Mexico City from a hazy yellow sky. Shafts of sunlight, penetrating between afternoon rainclouds, illuminated the concrete expanse covering the flat basin of the Valle de Mexico. This valley was once filled with a shallow lake, the Lago de Texcoco. Now, the lake has been drained and replaced with a vast mire of humanity.
In general I dislike big cities, and this one - with fifty times the population of Edinburgh - is among the biggest on Earth. It was therefore a surprise to find that, in some areas, Mexico City is nice.The city centre resembles that of an old-fashioned European city, with spacious (albeit crowded) plazas and avenidas surrounded by some impressive Spanish architecture. High-rise buildings are few and far between. In some ways the city reminds me of Madrid, perhaps not surprisingly, since modern Mexico City was built as the capital of 'New Spain'.
The youth hostel in which I stayed was in the historic centre of the city, right behind the cathedral and just around the corner from the Zócalo, the huge central plaza. When I arrived I was slightly alarmed to find a huge mob of people gathered in the Zócalo. Banners were waved, people shouted through megaphones, and crowds of well-armed police looked on. Fortunately the event turned out not to be a riot, as I had feared, but preparations for the start of a big live music concert.
The next morning the sun was shining. I got the Metro to the Bosque de Chapultepec, a green and squirrel-infested parkland to the west of the city centre, where I visited the vast and very well-designed Museo Nacional de Antropología, and learned about the many sophisticated cultures that inhabited Mexico before the arrival of Europeans. Mexico City was built on the site of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, although the ancient city was almost totally destroyed by the Spaniards. Fortunately for archaeologists, the Aztecs had a habit of building new temples on top of older ones, like a series of concentric Russian dolls, increasing the size of the temple and warding off the effects of sinkage on what was then a muddy island. The older layers of Tenochtitlán's temples, buried beneath newer parts of the city, survived the ravages of the conquistadores, and parts have since been excavated. In the afternoon I visited this site, where the ruined foundations of temples now sit in a wide pit beside the Zócalo. The most striking thing about the temples is their colour - they are built of black volcanic stones, and look in many ways more like the alleyways of an industrial European city than the golden temples portrayed in pictures.
I also visited the Palacio Nacional, which features attractively-landscaped gardens and a courtyard surrounded by Diego Rivera murals portraying the city's history. Later I wandered the city's shopping areas, a vast and crowded labyrinth of shops and stalls selling the usual variety of dodgy-looking goods. "100% piratas!", claims one sign adorning a DVD stall.
The following day I went on a trip to visit the ruined city of Teotihuacán, to the north of Mexico City. Travelling out of Mexico City gave me a real sense of just how massive the place is. I travelled to the outer limit of the Metro, then caught a bus, which sped along a fast autopista for a full half hour before the city's suburbs were left behind.
Around 1500 years ago, Teotihuacán was the capital of an empire that stretched not only right across central and southern Mexico, but also across Belize and Guatemala and as far as parts of Honduras and El Salvador. What remains of the site today is dominated by two colossal pyramids - the Pirámide del Sol and the Pirámide de la Luna. The former is the third largest pyramid in the world, and after climbing the remarkably steep set of steps to the top I could see for miles across the flat valley bottom on which the ancient city was built. In its heyday, Teotihuacán attracted immigrants from far and wide, but its growing population put unsustainable pressure on the local environment. The resulting ecological damage weakened Teotihuacán's power, and probably contributed to the war and strife that led to the city's abandonment. Many ancient cities belonging to other great Mesoamerican civilisations - those of the Maya, for example - are thought to have collapsed for similar reasons. One can only wonder how long it will be before modern Mexico City suffers the same fate.
That afternoon I got the bus to the mountain town of Taxco, a couple of hours' journey south of Mexico City. After hearing old stories of long journeys in jam-packed train carriages swilling with shit, the quality of Mexican public transport has come as a pleasant surprise. The passenger rail network here collapsed during an economic crisis a decade ago, and Mexico is now served by a bus network that is far better than that in many 'developed' countries. 'Luxury buses' that are spacious, clean, efficient, and inexpensive by British standards, whizz between cities down smooth, well-constructed toll roads hacked ruthlessly through the mountains.
Taxco, an old silver mining town perched on a steep mountainside, is a picturesque place. The town comprises a labyrinth of cobbled streets and alleyways, lined by attractive whitewashed buildings lined with red bricks and draped with colourful flowers, and almost impossible to navigate even with the help of a map. (In fact, I think I remember a scene in the film Labyrinth that looked a lot like Taxco.) I eventually found my way to the centre of town by following the direction in which most of the vehicles seemed to be going, and there I met up with two guys who I'd been sharing a dormitory with in Mexico City (Toby the American student and Uri the Dutch backpacker). We went for a meal then found ourselves in a bar full of twenty-year-old American girls who were in Taxco on a language-learning programme. Most of the girls were pretty, but they were so apparently clueless and shamelessly American that they positively frightened many of the Mexican guys in the bar, who came across to chat to us instead.
Toby and Uri left early the next day. In the morning, I took a cable car ride up a nearby mountain, from which there were spectacular views over Taxco and the surrounding countryside. I then got the bus down to Acapulco.
The Pacific coast
The climate in central Mexico is very pleasant - tropical, but with the heat tempered by a few thousand feet of altitude. In Acapulco, on the Pacific coast, it's a different story. As I got off the bus, the heat hit me like walking into a wall.
Suffice it to say that after five hours in Acapulco I can see why the place would drive anybody 'loco'. I pity the thousands of American holidaymakers who go there. Acapulco combines the worst aspects of Mexico and the United States: it is crowded, noisy, dirty, bland, over-commercialised, and criss-crossed by multi-lane highways that are virtually impossible to cross safely. The one thing that was worth seeing was the famous cliff-diving, done against a backdrop of a warm Pacific sunset.
I decided very soon after arriving in Acapulco to get the bus out of there on the very same evening. I therefore spent last night on a viciously air-conditioned bus (thankfully I'd anticipated this and brought a fleece), heading south-eastwards down the Pacific coast. At one point during the night, several buses appeared to be travelling in a convoy, escorted by the police: banditry is still a problem in remote regions of Mexico. Sunrise found the bus travelling through an idyllic tropical landscape - verdant forested mountains interspersed with lush grasslands and rustic villages.
The bus took me to Puerto Escondido, a pleasant little beach resort made all the more lovely by the contrast with awful Acapulco. It is a small town, yet has a lively traveller's scene, set around a breezy Pacific beach. It's still intensely hot, but the climate feels less oppressive here than in Acapulco. There are sea breezes blowing through the wooden cabaña (beach hut) that I've rented for £3 a night, a cold shower is within easy reach, and there is a rustic little cafe nearby selling licuados (smoothies) and inexpensive home baking. The little town centre is a pleasant five minute walk away along the beach. Best of all, this is the first place I've visited in Mexico that isn't incessantly noisy.
I spent a very pleasant day 'chilling out' in Puerto Escondido, and was sorry to leave. The next morning I headed inland again, across the mountains to Oaxaca, the state capital. Oaxaca is famous for various cullinary specialities, including spicy chocolate, exotic moles (chilli sauces), and chapulines (fried grasshoppers). I bought some fresh bread and a bag of small chapulines from the local market and made myself a grasshopper sandwich, which tasted pretty horrible, although I think this may have been due to the spicy stuff that the grasshoppers were fried in rather than the insects themselves. I daresay it would have been OK if I'd had any ketchup.
Back to Mexico City
On my way back to Mexico City from Oaxaca, I stopped for a look around in Puebla, the "little place outside Mexico City" that Fer and Martha [two friends I met in Edinburgh] come from. Puebla is in fact a city of a million and a half people, with some stunning colonial architecture and an atmosphere quite different from that of other Mexican cities. It is a very Westernised place - not a tourist resort like Acapulco or Cancún, but a city where the locals themselves retain strong affinities with Spain and their colonial past. The beautiful European-like city centre is full of smartly-dressed businessmen and good-looking students, eating ice creams in leafy malls and wandering in and out of posh boutiques. The sun was shining, and I can appreciate now why Fer and Martha found Edinburgh's weather so harsh. Whereas Scotland often seems like the land of eternal winter, in Puebla the situation is the opposite: a tropical latitude and moderately high altitude produce a climate that is summer-like all year round.
The bus journey from Puebla back to Mexico City consisted of an hour travelling through a rainy and pine-clad mountain range with a distinctly Caledonian appearance, followed by nearly an hour travelling through the monstro-city's neverending suburbs.
That night I shared a bottle of cheap local tequila with some other travellers from the youth hostel where I was staying. The brand we got (on the recommendation of a local guy) was yellow and sweet-tasting, wonderfully different from the paraffin-like tequila sold in British supermarkets.
The next morning, feeling only slightly worse for wear after the tequila, I left Mexico City and flew to Cancún.
Cancún is the kind of impossibly sunny, ludicrously wealthy Californian beach resort that you see in movies and TV programmes. The fact that it's in Mexico is a minor detail, and isn't something that you'd readily notice while wandering around the air-conditioned shopping malls, restaurant complexes and gigantic hotels that adorn the zona hoteleria. This part of the resort is built on a strip of land several miles long that juts out into the Caribbean, bending like a number 7 so that it joins the mainland at both ends. This layout has made it easy for the city's planners to follow the American model of spreading the city's attractions many miles apart in such a way as to make it difficult to get anywhere on foot. On the seaward site of the strip is a white sand beach whose turquoise shallows graduate seamlessly into the deeper blue beyond. Cool breezes blow off the sea, and black frigate birds soar overhead. On the landward side of the spit is a shallow green lagoon.
Cancún's mega hotels and resorts are way out of the price range of backpackers, of course. I'm staying in a youth hostel on the mainland, in the city centre, which is itself a surprisingly attractive place (spacious and modern, very different from the crowded streets of downtown Acapulco).
Mexico in general suffers from an understandable desire to imitate its richer northern neighbour, and Cancún has succeeded spectacularly - the touristic parts of the city are flawlessly American, and for once I don't mean that in an entirely negative way. I have to admit that, from a Western perspective, Cancún is far more attractive than anywhere else I've been in Mexico. I can see why people come here and enjoy it - for rich young Americans and Europeans who like their paradise air-conditioned, Cancún has a lot to offer. (Char-grilling yourself on the beach then dancing and drinking the night away in a club that costs US$30 just to enter isn't my idea of a good trip, mind you!) The only question is why holidaymakers come all the way to Mexico when they could get the same attractions in Miami or Mallorca.
From Canún I travelled to Belize, where I spent the next couple of months helping to count frogs in the jungle.
This account of my trip is adapted from the various e-mails that I sent home.
Disclaimer - this is just my personal experience, it isn't a travel guide. Not everything I did was necessarily safe and advisable, and details of the places I visited may change over time.