Agua Azul – Indigenous Zapatista Supporters Jailed in Chiapas for Opposing Ecotourism Project

John and I spent several weeks in Chiapas, so I wanted to share this story on our blog. I learned about it via Kristen Bricker’s blog, My Word is My Weapon.

The article reports on the Bachajón 5, five men who are in prison after a dispute over who controls the tollbooth to Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas. It’s pretty complicated with all the parties involved, including: supporters of the Other Campaign (Zapatistas), Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Agua Azul Tzeltal Indigenous Ecotourism Cooperative (Ecoturismo Indígena Tzeltal de Cascadas de Agua Azul S.C. de R.L.), Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Peasant Rights (OPDDIC).

The government claims that state police intervention and occupation is now necessary to keep the peace, but other groups claim that the conflict between indigenous groups was actually manufactured by the government to make acquisition and control of the area easier for the plans to build a highway and a multi-million dollar ecotourism hotel on indigenous land.

Read the full article here.

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Giving Thanks

We didn’t want to leave. We looked forlornly out the window as we drove down the street. We knew we would miss speaking Spanish, eating tacos and laughing at those little jokes the universe tells you when you’re on the road. We left a bag of produce and some other items we didn’t want to cross the border with at what appeared to be somebody’s camp site in an empty lot under a few trees. We got out our passports. We tried to prepare ourselves for an abrupt change in culture and language.

Reaching the easternmost border crossing in the state of Baja California was an adventure in and of itself. Border towns must have a rule prohibiting any type of signage or directions that lead to the actual place to get across. We could see the fence, and drove along it up and down the main road about four times before we stopped to ask for help. A man gave us wonderful directions and didn’t even laugh at us. We fondly remembered all of the kind strangers who had helped us along the way.

After crossing a military checkpoint in Sonora, successfully passing through U.S. Customs at the Algodones crossing, telling a man at the phytosanitary checkpoint that we’d ditched the previously mentioned fruits and veggies in Mexico, and getting the “go ahead” wave at two U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints in California, we realized this particular adventure in Mexico was actually over.

We had returned to the land of safe and smoothly paved highways, roads with shoulders, and freeway exit signs that actually tell you when and where to anticipate your next turn! It saddened us to think these were the most exciting things we could think of upon returning to America.

We don’t want to call it the end of the journey. We’ll never stop exploring, but for now we’ve said, “hasta luego.” Being back in the United States for the Thanksgiving holiday, we are so grateful for the opportunity that we had to travel over the past year. We hope that if you were ever inspired to travel from reading this blog that you will make the time and space in your life for it to happen. It’s more possible than you think, and it is one of the greatest gifts you will ever give yourself.

Stay tuned for more posts on Mexico and upcoming travels in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Perspectives from the desert

The desert is dry and boring, right? Take a closer look.

The Wild Coast – Baja Sur

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The Surfer’s Guide to Baja describes our current location as a legendary string of point breaks, and during our visit it has lived up to its reputation. Breaking on southerly swells, we found the most consistent surf and the most comfortable climate in Mexico. It’s also the most expensive camping you’ll find in Mexico, with an asking price of $150 pesos per day, per person – that’s over $10 per day. This doesn’t even include a hot shower, which is $50 pesos extra. I never actually experienced one of these four-dollar showers, choosing instead to be “invigorated” by rinsing off with cold water after surfing.

Despite the high camping fee, it’s worth it because the desert weather is warm and sunny, with dry air to keep your surf gear from stinking. With no insects like horseflies or mosquitoes, it’s a welcome change from our last surf camp in the sticky tropical weather and flesh-consuming bugs of Oaxaca. Afternoon offshore winds can crank up and drive dust over the cliffs, but it eventually dies down. Cool evenings are perfect for driftwood bonfires and admiring the moonrise. Mind the occasional tarantula, centipede, scorpion and stingray and you’ll be fine. Other non-threatening wildlife we’ve spotted includes eagles, roadrunners, kangaroo mice, owls, seals, dolphins, pelicans and very tiny lizards.

The town next to the surf spot is a laid-back place with primary and secondary schools, some vacation houses on “gringo hill,” a few little tiendas (stores), a farmacia, a gasolinera and a couple of places you can check email very slowly. The main employment for people here is fishing, construction, and tourism. There is major development planned but right now there is just a campground, a few palapas for rent and some trailers parked around the point. While it appears muy tranquilo to the untrained tourist eye, apparently there is tension (and legal battling) around development plans and rights to seaside land. The cantina at the campground was burned down this summer, with the arsonists giving a two-hour warning for the resident-caretakers to vacate. Rumors abound about what will happen to the land next to the wave. Will the government require the current owners to sell the land back to the ejido? Is it possible to save the site and turn it into a national preserve?

We got a chance to have a few drinks with the mayor and ask his perspective when he visited our neighbors’ campsite. He explained that the locals support development of the tourist industry because it brings jobs and improves quality of life in their town. Some long-term resident gringos, however, don’t want an influx of newer gringos to ruin their little piece of paradise. In any case, he said it will likely be about five years before the planned condominiums are constructed. We suspect it may be a lot longer unless somebody finds a new source of water. Currently all water used at the campsite is trucked in from the well in town.

Not everyone in town plans to line their pockets with Los Cabos-style development in the future. With the tough conditions of survival in the desert, there are some community-development oriented people working on sustainability projects including affordable solar panel construction and community agriculture projects. Look for a post on greening Baja coming soon!

Rainbow Trout and Macadamia Nuts – We love Uruapan!

All of our Mexican friends told us adamantly not to miss a visit to Uruapan. Escaping bad weather on the coast, we headed back inland and up into the mountains to reach the city in the central part of Michoacán. We ended up “camping” in the parking lot of Hotel Mansion del Cupatitzio, the fanciest hotel in town according to our Lonely Planet travel guide. It’s located right next to the beautiful national park complete with waterfalls and lush tropical vegetation. I was worried about the hotel not permitting overnight parking, but the night watchman assured us it was a safe place to park and nobody would bother us. In fact, he asked us to move our spot slightly so it would be easier for him to keep an eye on our bicycles hanging on the front of the truck! The hospitality south of the border never fails to amaze me when I think of the countless “no overnight parking” and “no camping” signs dotting the coastline in California.

Since we parked for free for three nights, we felt it was the right thing to do to dine in the hotel’s restaurant each night. Prices were surprisingly reasonable for the level of service and quality of the food. I can’t tell you the last time a waiter handed me a steaming towel to clean my hands and placed the napkin in my lap for me. We loved the Rainbow Trout with Macadamia nuts so much that we ate it two nights in a row. There is nearly a whole page of the menu devoted to trout, and they even do the work of removing those pesky bones. For dessert, try the flan. A fine meal for two at Mansion del Cuptatitzio, including wine, runs $30-$40 USD including a tip. Quite a deal when you consider it includes a night of sleeping peacefully to the rushing sound of the waterfall below.

Besides the great tasting meals at the hotel, it was one of the first times we’d seen local food promoted on a menu. The trout comes from a farm right next to the park, using fresh water diverted from the river. Macadamia nuts also grow here, in addition to coffee and avocados. The regional liquor, a type of rum called Charanda, is made from Uruapan-grown sugar cane. Apparently everything delicious can be found in Michoacán.

The next morning we strolled through the Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruiz. For 12 pesos ($1) you can enjoy a clear, blue spring (named the Devil’s Knee), rushing waterfalls, bird songs, orchids, giant banana trees and ferns; not to mention the craziest caterpillars we have ever seen. Any fan of intricate hardscape (rockwork in the landscape) must visit this park. The creators of this park took an arroyo that bisects their city and made it into a unique attraction enjoyed by both visitors and locals. Besides the lush flora and diverse fauna, we were most impressed by the manipulation of the flow of water through the park. It begins at the spring at the top of the park. From here the water has been diverted into a multitude of channels, which run along the stone foot paths. These channels deliver the water to rock gardens, fountains, a trout farm, and back into waterfalls and rapids at the bottom of the arroyo. The entire park is irrigated without use of pumps or electricity – all gravity flow!

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San Cristobal de las Casas

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Where can you find tasty cappuccinos, buttery french pastries, great pizza, lots of dreadlocks, ginger kombucha and vegetarian food in Mexico? San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas! Here you can also find piles of amber and silver jewelry, beautiful textiles, and adorable little animals sculpted from clay or hand-sewn with felt.

The recent history of San Cristobal de las Casas includes the January 1, 1994 occupation by the Zapatista rebels. This date marked the inception of the NAFTA agreement, and part of the Zapatista rhetoric is a rejection of exploitative globalization and the capitalist system. Signs such as “Muere la sistema capitalista” (death to the capitalist system) dotted the countryside. Driving east and south from the city, we passed many Zapatista signs declaring the area an autonomous zone from the Mexican government.  How often do you get to see that in the U.S.? We embrace their slogan, la tierra es de quien la trabaja, meaning the land belongs to those who work it. It’s the Mexican equivalent of “use it or lose it.” The area is also well-known for the indigenous communities that surround the city. We visited two of them with a guide and have plenty of interesting customs to write about on the next post.

San Cris felt like the Santa Cruz, California of Mexico. It’s an easy town to bike and walk around with pedestrian malls, organic produce, and cool weather (including plenty of rain). We spent nearly four weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas, with a break in between to visit ruins further south and east in Chiapas. We unexpectedly found old and new friends in San Cristobal, including Dave and Anika who are also driving around Mexico and blogging about their trip, and our friend Hillary who invited us to a 24-hour experience at an artists’ collective, Edelo. Our neighbors at our campsite were fun to spend time with as well, and we passed rainy evenings in front of their fireplace making pizzas. Jason (from the U.S.) and Elka (from Cuba) were just two of the many artisans who sell their wares at the market, and I was lucky enough to receive a beautiful handmade copper and jasper necklace in trade for a hula-hoop.

Our favorite restaurants here don’t have much Mexican food. Good eats can be found at Punto Pizza Lounge, the Horno Magico (a french bakery), and the Parrilla Argentina (the one on the corner). La Casa de Pan Paplotl also does a lovely buffet lunch including California-style salads with beets, quiches and vegetable soup. Pozoleria La Molcajete has tasty pozole starting at only 20 pesos, but otherwise much of the Mexican food we’ve had here has been unexceptional. On one occasion our taco plate at Emiliano’s Moustache included some plastic wrap, a fact which did not seem to bother our server in the least. Luckily there is a mini-farmers market on Wednesdays and Saturdays featuring organic produce, locally produced coffee and cocoa, and blue corn tortillas (we learned that one way to avoid GMO corn is to buy blue corn). If you have access to a kitchen, buying food at the many produce stores is definitely the way to go.

After visiting Palenque, Yaxchilán and Bonampak to the southeast, we headed back to San Cristobal from in mid-July to meet John’s mom, Peggy. In honor of her visit, we stepped up the accommodations from campsite to our very first hotel room with a fireplace at Hotel Diego de Mazareigos. Named after the founder of the city (who changed its names several times before finding one that stuck), this hotel is located in two different 18th century mansions with beautiful courtyards and fountains. While $75 USD seems like a fortune to spend on a room as compared to camping for less than $10 per day, we’ve finally found a place to stay that offers good service and hospitality for the money, a sometimes challenging feat in Mexico. Our room comes complete with toilet seats, hot water and a roof that doesn’t leak. Previously, we camped at Rancho San Nicolas for 100 pesos per day on the east edge of town. This campground and RV park does have a pleasant lawn surrounded by hills and trees, but the cabins and rooms for rent were pretty dismal. We would recommend staying at one of the many hostels in town instead if you don’t have a tent.

Yaxchilán

The ruins of Yaxchilán along the border of Guatemala are probably John’s favorite. We felt like explorers arriving by a 45 minute boat ride down the Usumacinta River,  passing crocodiles and giant Ceiba trees along the way. We were alone nearly the entire time in the ruins site, climbing up and down steep forest trails and peeking inside excavated ruins.

We camped at the riverside in a park near the boat launch across from the Escudo Jaguar boat cooperative and inn. The hotel made a surprisingly delicious arrachera (skirt steak) and we spent as long as we could staying cool under the ceiling fans. That night we invited a couple of other travelers to share a boat with us in the morning. The next day we were up and ready to go around 8 am and they were nowhere in sight. We became impatient as the temperature rose. We struck a deal for 500 pesos (the normal price is 700 for 2 people) and ended up with a private boat to the ruins. For another 100 pesos, our new amigo agreed to wait an extra hour for us. We always take more time than the standard allotted, first because we take a lot of photos and second because we rest a lot.

Yaxchilán has well-shaded trails compared to other ruins sites that we’ve visited, but it’s still extremely hot and humid. Swarms of mosquitoes inhabit the area along with plenty of other wildlife including monkeys, bats resting inside buildings, skittish lizards, butterflies, giant blue hornet-like bugs and grotesquely fat caterpillars. Yaxchilán is unique for its several large stelas (free-standing, carved reliefs with historical references) as well as some enormous and beautiful trees within the ruins. Since visiting I’ve read that the site is also unique for its depiction of important females in Mayan history. Apart from the stelas, we found most of the artwork here to be on the underside of the door beams (lintels) – the only pieces that prior looters couldn’t carry away.

When visiting these sites I always try to imagine all of the excavation work it took to bring it to the form that we get to see. At Yaxchilán, much remains unexcavated and that is part of the magic of the place. One of the stelas we saw laid horizontally instead of vertical. We learned that it had actually been removed from one of the temples up the hill and a failed attempt was made to bring it down to the river for transport.

After visiting Yaxchilán, we had officially hit the furthest point south in MesoAmerica that we would visit on this trip. If you make it this far and have not yet had your fill of ruins, once you’re in the Yaxchilán area it is easy to find guides who will take you across the border to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. If anyone has visited Tikal, we’d love to hear about it. We passed up the opportunity to make the trip, and I’m now left wondering what we missed.

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Holy Pozole!

Pozole (pronounced po-zo-lay) is my favorite Mexican stew. It can be made with either pork or chicken, and you can even make a vegetarian version using sprouted wheat berries. When our friend Rosie offered to teach me how to make it, I was so excited!

First we headed to the grocery store to pick up some maiz nixtamal, also known as hominy. This is corn that has been treated with a weak lye solution. This treatment increases the availability of nutrients from the corn and also makes it very tasty.

Start with the biggest stock pot that you own. First rinse the corn, then cover with water in a large pot and bring it to a boil. Then drain that water, add more to cover and bring to a boil again. Keep adding water to the pot and boiling for several hours, until the kernels are nice and tender and look fluffy.

From the carniceria (butcher shop) across the street, we picked up the following:

  • a piece of kind of dried out pork skin – the same kind for making chicarrones. We asked for pork rinds without a lot of fat. Go figure.
  • soup bones
  • two pork ribs cut into pieces
  • a nice hunk of pork leg, no bones, probably about a pound

This little piggy went to market

I threw it all in the pressure cooker and filled it about halfway with water, and cooked for 25 minutes. When the meat is finished cooking, make sure to pull out any hairs that were left on the pork skin – yum. Drain the corn and add it to the pork stew.

Then add the following chile and tomato mixture.

     

  • Guajillo chiles, about 6 good sized ones. Pull out the stem and shake out the seeds, then cut into large pieces and soak in water. If you want to remove all spiciness, you can also remove the veins of the chiles.
  • 3 or 4 plum tomatoes

Throw the chiles, their soaking water, and tomatoes in a blender with enough

Los ingredientes

water to blend and puree until completely smooth. Add this mixture to the corn and pork. Then add:

  • A whole onion, with a cross cut in the bottom
  • Cloves of garlic to taste
  • Salt to taste

Bring it back to a boil for about 15-20 minutes to combine the flavors.  At the VERY end of cooking, throw in a small handful of oregano and cook for 2 more minutes. Then turn off the heat. When dishing up the pozole, make sure each bowl has a good combination of corn, pork and broth.

Serve with small dishes of the following garnishes. The garnishes are very important and are what really make the pozole experience come together.

  • Cabbage – sliced very thinly and treated with Microdyn
  • Minced onion (and I mean tiny – Rosie re-chopped mine to be smaller!)
  • Minced hot peppers – any kind will do: jalapenos, habaneros, etc. Use a plastic bag or a glove to protect your hand if using very spicy peppers.
  • Sliced radishes
  • Lime wedges (very important)

What is Microdyn, you ask? Since coming to Mexico, Microdyn is our new best friend for disinfecting vegetables that you intend to eat without cooking. It is an ionized silver microbiocide of 0.35% concentration.

A little help in the kitchen

I don’t know if this is bad for me to eat or not, but for the moment I’ll assume it is better than getting amoebas or diarrhea from salads. While this wonderful tool is cheap and available in every supermarket, not every cook uses it. We still avoid raw lettuce and cabbage in most restaurants unless they specifically tell us they’ve washed things carefully.

Buen provecho!

The pozole turned out delicious. I ate it for lunch, then dinner and breakfast the following day! It is a great food for hangovers, by the way. I can’t wait to try making it again in the states to see if I can get the same results.

~ Amy

Fine Dining at Casa Oaxaca

Casa Oaxaca is a candle-lit, cloth napkin, jazz in the lobby and tiny-plants-on-your-table kind of place. After weeks of camping and street food we were a little surprised by the high prices, but we quickly decided to dive in and enjoy the rare opportunity for gourmet food, a glass of wine and fly-free dining.

Bread and blue-corn totopos (a kind of slightly crispy tortilla) arrived accompanied by pickled onions, salsa verde and guacamole. The latter were served in bowls made from the shells of a local fruit which in turn were balanced on tiny woven rings, which were further supported by a metate (a traditional grinding stone). Someone had obviously spent a long time planning all of this presentation and we had quite a challenge trying not to knock it all over while trying to serve ourselves.

The house Chilean cabernet did the trick and soon we were eagerly anticipating our meals of duck tacos with mole coloradito (amazing) and steak with mojo de chapulines. Yes, that is steak with grasshopper sauce. Chapulines are a regional food in Oaxaca and we felt it wouldn’t be right to visit and not at least taste the flavor of the little insects. We figured a sauce would spare us the crunchy part. Honestly it tasted a little shrimpy, and didn’t add much to the very tender and delicious steak medallions.

This is probably the best restaurant meal we’ve had in Mexico. Our meals were good enough that we decided to go for dessert. “Taquitos de chocolate” meant two rolls of chocolate delicately embracing a mousse filling – one of chocolate and one of guanábana. Wild cherries adorned the plate and I nearly picked it up to lick it clean.

Palenque

Our first visit to Mayan ruins was to Palenque, probably the most popular ruins site in Chiapas. We camped at the nearby Mayabell where we enjoyed a swimming pool with hummingbird sightings and the songs of the howler monkey.

Palenque has a combination of large temples in a well-maintained open area, and other excavated smaller ruins along shady forested paths. The climb up to the top of the temples rewards you with stunning views, and you can explore inside many of the buildings. There are also many more less-excavated ruins deeper in the jungle which you can explore with or without a guide. Admission to the park is 51 pesos per person and includes entrance to the museum. The diversity of life in this region of Mexico is amazing. Sitting in one spot outside of the museum we observed six different types of ants, including leaf-cutter ants! On other parts of our hike we saw centipedes getting frisky, giant caterpillars, and large, flat spiders that can glide and jump across the water with frightening speed.

Palenque was the most commercialized of all of the ruins we have visited so far, with vendors lined up throughout the park selling souvenirs. Official and un-official guides offer tours of the ruins, as well as “psycho-tours” or “spiritual tours” into the jungle that include a taste of local mushrooms.

How to survive Palenque: Be prepared to drink LOTS of water and stay hydrated with enough electrolytes. Amy felt sick after about an hour of walking each day and it took her about 3 days to figure out how to deal with the extreme heat and humidity. Vendors sell Gatorade at the entrance to the park, and we brought packets of rehydration salts with us. You can also use a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime juice into your water bottle. Another important item to pack is insect repellent. In the moist and shady rain forest there are plenty of hungry mosquitoes looking for an easy lunch. We used a DEET formula to spray on our clothes and then applied a non-toxic formula to our skin. We recommend starting early in the morning to see the main ruins and the walking back toward lower park entrance in the shade as day gets hotter. One afternoon we thought we’d seek refuge in the museum. Much to our dismay, most of the museum is not air-conditioned. There is one new exhibit, however, that contains an amazing burial chamber and short videos in a blessedly dark and climate-controlled environment. Other interesting exhibits include photos and illustrations of the excavation process, jewelry and pottery from the ruins and some preserved reliefs.

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