Chichen Itza & Piste 🇲🇽

So, for those of you that are still following, I guess we owe you all an apology! Life on the road our way in Latin America has been a little crazy, adrenaline packed and for us, we have always been true believers in living in the present moment (particularly when it comes to travel and exploring new countries), therefore we have been struggling to find the time to unwind and have some writing downtime! Nonetheless, we are currently on a bit of a break, so we will try our best to update you as fast as possible and get our story back on track where it belongs. Once again, apologies for the delays, but can you really blame us whilst on the adventure of a lifetime?

Back to our travel narrative, back to our time in Mexico and onwards to the sleepy town of Piste and its nearby tourist attraction – one you most definitely will have heard of and associate entirely with Mexican tourism: Chichen Itza. Not entirely sure of what to expect from Piste, we just knew it was a jumping off point for those wanting to stay in town and see one of the new ‘Wonders of the World’ and do some cenote hopping. Most people do day trips and tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, yet as we were passing through and wanted some advantage to hopefully get to the ruins before the rush of tourists or midday heat, we decided to stay in Piste and plan to head to the ruins the following day, staying two nights in total. Arriving in the mid afternoon, we had a quick wander and soon discovered that although there were plenty of accommodation options, there really wasn’t much to the one road town – it featured some tacky looking souvenir stalls, a couple of local food places, convenience stores surrounded by plenty of hotels, guest houses and hostels. Our accommodation was a well-priced new establishment, featuring amazing air-conditioning (well needed in the crazy heat!) and a cute little swimming pool in the centre of all the different rooms and villas – however if you know us well, you know that we’re not ones to just sit still and relax by the pools, so almost instantaneously, we were scouring the internet with any sort of activity we could use to fill in our afternoon and hopefully see a bit of what Piste and its surrounds had to offer, thinking it surely couldn’t just be limited to Chichen Itza.

The internet provided exactly what we were searching for – Cenote Yodkzonot. After a short taxi ride from our place to the cenote, we arrived toward the end of the afternoon and found out that we only had just over one hour until the place closed. For those of our readers who are unaware what a cenote is, or why these things are so damn marvellous and draw in large crowds of tourists to the peninsula region of Mexico every year, a cenote is a natural sinkhole resulting from the collapse of surrounding limestone bedrock that expose the groundwater below and result in a type of natural swimming pool. These places were significant to Mayan history, as they were places of worship, places to communicate to the gods and even occasionally undertake a human sacrifice ritual. These days, they are commonly places for people to cool off from the harsh sun, take a dive in the crystal water and create some Instagram worthy content – however, there is no denying there is a sense of feeling like you are going back in time and are lost in a hidden, remote location as you float amongst the fish and vegetation in these natural pools, particularly true at Cenote Yodkzonot.

As we paid the entry fee and rounded the top of the pool, we’re not sure what fact was more astonishing – the fact that we were metres and metres above this almost perfectly circular pool, which we were going to descend down to via a rickety little wooden staircase, or the fact that we were the only tourists or even people in the area, bar one lonely local young boy, doubling as the lifeguard. We smiled to each other and knew that we were incredibly lucky, we had probably found our very own little slice of heaven and we had the next hour to ourselves. Yodkzonot is relatively rare, in the fact that it has been left almost entirely natural (if you don’t include the manmade staircase and swimming platform to the water’s edge) and is one of the least busy for tourists. The water was completely still, the only tiny movements on the mirror-like surface were that of the hundreds of fish swimming just below the water’s edge and the vegetation growing off the rocks around the edges hung down like a green curtain of some sort, shielding you from the outside world. Birds swoop down near the water and sit perched high up in trees surrounding the crater of the cenote, singing their happy songs and dragonflies were skimming the water’s edge, somewhat dancing to the songs of the birds. Yes, our memory of this place really is this lucid and vivid – but how could it not be? It really was majestic, a nature lovers paradise and probably the most unique natural place we were yet to see.

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I was slightly more hesitant to get in the water than my counterpart, Blake. He seemingly has very little fear, is an incredibly brave travel partner and is always urging me to try new experiences, so it’s not hard to tell that he was straight into the water and already swimming around the centre of the dark hole before I was even down the ladder! I’m not entirely all that great with deep water where the bottom is not able to be seen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a super confident swimmer, but the thought of the unknown just isn’t all that grand to me and so it took me a little coaxing to get into the water. But boy am I glad I decided to join Blake – there is something so magical about these places and their water, it is so cool and refreshing and like no other swimming pool you will ever encounter. After an hour of paddling, jumping off the platform, taking loads of pictures and conversing in very broken Spanish to the lonely lifeguard sitting with us, our time was up and we had to bid the magical place farewell. If you are ever in the area, please go visit Cenote Yodkzonot. You may not hear that much about it, you may not find that much information online, but it truly is one of the Yucutan Peninsula’s hidden gems.

The next day had arrived and it wasn’t exactly the happiest day of the trip so far – I had been up sick for large portions of the night and weren’t feeling too crash hot. In a bit of a shock yesterday at the cold water, I had accidentally swallowed some cenote water as I jumped in, which I think was to blame for an upset stomach however as we were due to go to Chichen Itza that day, one of the new ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ there was no way I could pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately our plans to arrive nice and early before the heat and the crowds were thrown out the window, so our new plan was just to survive the day and try and enjoy this Mayan site as the best to our abilities. There must be someone looking over us this trip, because as we arrived mid morning we were blessed with the beautiful sight of clouds and an overcast sky. That’s not to say that we missed the tourists, because boy, were there tourists! Tour group upon tour group clambered out of buses within the huge carpark and we honestly had never seen anything like it at any other ancient ruins site we had visited to this point, it was like the Disneyland of the ancient world.

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We didn’t get hire a private guide as they were not so budget friendly and the amount of information on the site online or in guidebooks is extensive enough to our belief, so we took our time wandering around the ruins across the course of the next few hours. It definitely required a few hours minimum – Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities in its day and the site it encompasses is very extensive and quite large to walk around. We were really impressed by the mere size and enormity of the ball court as it became visually evident that this would have been the site where the really important matches took place; almost all of the ruins we had visited to date featured much more miniscule versions of the same layout.

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El Castillo (‘The Castle’), the postcard perfect 30 metre high pyramid does live up to its expectation, but possibly is even more grand in real life with all the space it occupies in the centre of the main plaza. It would be even more incredible to see during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when a series of shadows are cast upon the pyramid on the north side during the late afternoon evoking the image of a serpent wiggling down the staircase – unfortunately we will have to rely on our imaginations for this view, but can imagine the spectacle would be incredible and the fiestas surrounding such times are highly significant and full of life. Also in the site of Chichen Itza are two cenotes, the most notable of them being the ‘Sacred Cenote’, known for its history with human sacrifice and rituals. This wasn’t all that good to see, as it’s not entirely well preserved, is a little overgrown with greenery and the water has taken on quite a green colour due to algae presence but knowing its rich history couldn’t help but leave you with goosebumps around the site.

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In all truthfulness though, we would almost go as far to say that it was a slightly underwhelming experience. You expect grandeur, history and incredible stone pyramids as high as the eye can see for a ‘Wonder of the World’, however we weren’t truly satisfied that we had seen anything out of the ordinary or anything that we felt we hadn’t seen on a lesser scale at other ruins sites. Sure, the ruins were incredibly well preserved, intricately detailed and they were beautiful in their own rights, however maybe the immense amounts of tourists and gringos alike really put us off as we couldn’t see entirely what the hype was. All in all though, it was a great experience (I honestly think we would enjoy just about anywhere that’s foreign and exciting for us) and definitely not one to miss if you are ever that side of Mexico.

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Our next step was the cenote that goes literally hand-in-hand with every Chichen Itza tour, Ik-Kil. Sure you may not know it by name, but we have no doubt that you have all at least seen a photo of it on any aspiring travel bloggers page or anytime you Google search things to see in Mexico. Once again, there were tourists literally as far as the eye could see and it was hard to walk anywhere without bumping into the person next to you, but to see that iconic instagram famous shot was something we had both truly looked forward to seeing and definitely put a smile on our faces. It most certainly didn’t have the natural, magical feeling of the Yodkzonot Cenote – it was more like an actual swimming pool, with jumping platforms, strategically built viewpoints and concrete paved around the edge of the water itself, however we can’t help but feel some pull towards these incredible places, probably due to their spiritual history with the Mayan people. At this point in the day, I wasn’t feeling too crash hot so I was more than happy to take a few pictures, hand Blake our Go-Pro and wish him the best of luck, whilst taking a seat around the side and watching Blake and the rest of the holidaymakers jump, leap and splash off the diving platforms and laugh their way around the water. The greenery around the edge of the cenote is probably what gives it that picture perfect look and it did not disappoint, it was entirely like the photos depicted and we enjoyed it for what it was – a touristic swimming hole with a whole lot of beautiful history.

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Our time in surrounding Piste was done and the tourist sites completed, so satisfied with our time well spent we embarked on our journey to our next destination, Playa del Carmen. Being the thrifty, but not so wise travellers we were at this point, we had booked a second-class bus through our trusty ADO. We shall leave you on this note and probably fill you in on our bus journey and the not so class experience it was in our next chapter, so definitely stay tuned.

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Agua Azul, Misol-Ha & Palenque 🇲🇽

After a bit of research and some hard thinking, we found the most time efficient and interesting way to make our way from San Cristobal to Palenque was to complete a day trip via some natural sites and end our day at the Ruins, to be dropped in Palenque town and so this is exactly what we booked. The trip itself would take several hours, so to see a few more incredible sights and get our transport thrown in too was a great deal and off we headed at 0500 that morning. As mentioned previously (in our San Cristobal de las Casas post), our hostel worker had a real thing for security, so when our van pulled up, not only twenty minutes late, it then took us about another five to ten minutes to solve the locks on the front doors from both inside and out, fumbling around in the dark and telling our driver in broken Spanish that we were sorry and we were coming, we were just incredibly locked in!! We bustled ourselves onto the bus as our huge backpacks slid under the back seats and settled in for the rest of the pick up around town. He was a truly peculiar driver – San Cristobal (along with most Central American cities actually) was filled with tiny little cobblestoned one way streets, so when attempting to pick a group up from a house down one of these said streets, he decided to take a Mexicano short cut. We reversed around ten blocks total, nearly the entirety of the one way street, dodging parked cars and stray dogs in the dark, rather than go the long way around and attempt to come the right way. I have honestly lost track of the amount of times we have said to each other, ‘It’s Central America, anything can happen!’.

Once pick up of the others was complete, off we went to a small place up in the hinterlands, high in the mountains amongst plenty of farm land for a quick breakfast stop (pre-packed in true backpacker fashion!) and I think it honestly came at a great time for us. Blake’s patience with the seemingly useless speed bumps literally every twenty metres down the road was wearing thin and we had driven for kilometres under these crazy, speed hump riddled conditions and had barely travelled all that far for the amount of time it had taken. It was a beautiful break stop, despite the stray dogs everywhere trying to steal your food, and incredible to notice due to our elevation we were actually eating breakfast just above the clouds.

We hit the dodgy roads again and finally came to our first natural stop – Agua Azul. Agua Azul in Spanish literally translates to Blue Water, and to say that the water was blue is actually an incredible understatement. It is a series of natural swimming pools and falls, formed out of a large limestone ridge (the reasoning behind the intense blue colouration of the water), all linked together by the cascading river rushing from the top, flowing down through each level and finally arriving into the riverbed at the very bottom. We arrived at this bottom river point and were told we had over an hour to explore, so we made the most of it and climbed all the way to the very top, making sure to get plenty of snaps along each vantage point before reaching an incredible series of natural swimming pools that were mostly uninhabited – probably due to the need to climb the immensely long staircase in the heat to reach them. We went for a quick swim, jumping off the rocks and into the incredible turquoise waters and before we knew it, it was time to head all the way back down the path and stairs and hop back on the van to our next destination: Misol-Ha.

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Misol-Ha was only an hour or so drive away and was only a viewpoint destination meaning our swimmers dried and our walking shoes were back on by the time we pulled up to the car park of the waterfall. Misol-Ha is a thirty five metre waterfall that comes down from over a cliff side into a beautiful, almost perfectly circular, natural pool that is incredibly deep – I don’t blame the patrons for all wearing life jackets to be honest! It had a small cave system behind it (warning: extra entrance fee required which seemed to be taken just from random locals giving unofficial tours with iPhone torch lights) and a walking trail behind the waterfall so you could witness the power and force of the water up close and personal, hearing the loud rush and feeling the water mist over your face. We’re both real suckers for waterfalls and natural sights, so this was a buzz for us and a contrast to the more shallow, but swifter moving falls of Agua Azul.

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It was then time for the main event and our entire reasoning for even heading to Palenque – to see the Mayan Ruins and witness the incredible jungle temples first hand. I can’t say this disappointed in the slightest and was well worth our hype. The ruins we had so far visited had been excavated as entire sites and were completely clear of any greenery and devoid of any plant life, bar some grass or a couple of trees, so to see this ancient Mayan city still half surrounded by jungle, in which people can see howler monkeys (we didn’t at this point, but have on our trip!), large green iguanas and multitudes of bird life was truly incredible. The structures were beyond huge, the staircases thin and narrow and before we knew it, we were running up and down them, scaling these temples and undertaking an immense lower body workout without even noticing! Unfortunately our tour was only offered with a Spanish guide so we opted to look at the ruins by ourselves and undergo our own private tour, educating ourselves with the signs written in English and following the popular worn in track in the grass.

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At this point in our trip, reflecting on a couple of ruins we had seen so far, Palenque had quickly stolen number one spot. It is incredible to be able to climb the structures here, they were definitely some of the tallest we had ever seen and some you could even enter inside – talk about feeling like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft! Although it felt like we were witnessing an entire city, it is estimated to this date that less than ten percent is explored, and potentially up to a thousand structures lay still buried beneath the forest canopy. The Temple of Inscriptions situated within the complex, contained one of the only crypts ever found to this day in a temple in Mexico – giving it almost Egyptian vibes, with the discovery of crypts and sarcophagus’, jade masks and obsidian knife offerings to the gods and human remains. It was a hot, sweaty humid day amongst the jungle and although we both just about nearly died scaling up the incredible thirteen level Temple of the Cross, the day was over before we know it and we’re sure we could have spent much more time within the incredible complex, exploring the museum and wandering through the structures at a much slower pace, potentially even monkey spotting!

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Honestly this day trip was incredible, breaking up our travel day with different stops as it meant we were only travelling for a couple of hours or so at any one time and we were constantly exploring new things that we wouldn’t see otherwise, so would definitely recommend to anyone travelling this route. This tour was also available as a round day trip from San Cristobal itself, but as we were only dropped in Palenque around 6pm and the group still had another six hour drive to get back to where we had started, we probably wouldn’t recommend that one unless you were on an incredibly tight schedule and were desperate to visit the incredible Palenque Ruins.

San Cristobal de las Casas 🇲🇽

The distances between our destinations were growing further and further apart and the need for longer bus travel was becoming more imminent, the further east we travelled in the country. Our next destination was San Cristobal de las Casas and was unfortunately a solid eleven hour bus ride away from Oaxaca, up into the Chiapas and Central Highlands region. It was also our first experience braving an overnight bus ride in Mexico (and for me, ever!), but thanks to ADO it was nowhere near as horrible as we were imagining!

ADO runs either their local bus, second class Oriente services overnight or the GL or Platino first class services and as we weren’t too eager to catch our first ever second class bus (that experience was yet to come in the trip) as an overnight trip, we decided to splurge a little and book onto the ADO GL service. Now don’t get me wrong, the regular ADO buses are a first class option in their own right – but man, was this a whole other level of service! As we were handing over our tickets to the driver, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had a choice for a drink to take with us, choosing between either a soft-drink, water or juice. Making our way to our seats midway down the bus, we also were presented with headphones on our seat to watch the bus movie with – our first Mexican bus that didn’t feature the main movie blaring in your ears, as everyone around you watched on eagerly and you tried to take a nap. The male and female toilets were segregated and quite spacious for bus transport, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that the leg room was much greater than even airplane economy travel and the seats reclined nearly entirely horizontally. The temperature of the bus was quite cold, but we had done our online research and rugged up appropriately, the lights were dimmed and the mood to sleep was infectious! At least, it was for me – I suffer from motion sickness at the best of times, and had been informed that it was a terribly windy and bumpy drive, complete with hairpin curves on the edge of cliffs and too many bends to count – so I had decided to take my very strong anti-nausea tablets that subsequently also make me very drowsy. Within an hour of driving, I was quite asleep and Blake unfortunately was probably incredibly bored and cannot sleep on transport no matter how hard he tries, so stayed up playing Pokémon for a few hours and witnessing firsthand the ridiculous curves and bumps of the road (but thankfully, no sickness for him!).

0700am arrived, we had made it safe and sound and comfortably to San Cristobal de las Casas, and I’m sure at this point Blake had been awake for nearly twenty four full hours and I had probably slept ten out of eleven hours on the bus. But he is an incredible travel buddy and never one to let no sleep stop him, so we decided to trek on leg to find our hostel and plan our day of exploring ahead of us. Booking.com has been such an incredible resource for us in our travels thus far, as it features an extremely diverse range of levels of accommodation, across a variety of different price points and many reliable reviews and ratings so we can know exactly what we are booking before we arrive and this experience was no different. There was only one small point that let us down – the hostel address was entered as number 13 on the website – and after about twenty-five minutes of walking up and down the same street, asking locals in broken Spanglish for directions, we finally wandered far enough down and realised that it was not quite house number 13, rather it was 31 and a fair few blocks down from where we originally looked! Our hostel was more a small budget homestay named Casa Monad and was run by a small Mayan lady, who wore traditional colourful dress and spoke absolutely no English and had a tendency to lock each and every single window, door or fire escape promptly around 0930pm and offering no way to get out or escape the establishment, which we found incredibly strange – however she did cook mean pancakes and omelettes for breakfast!

There was one must-do/must-see attraction we had planned for San Cristobal, and that was to undertake Cesar’s tour to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, both two local regional towns that host Indigenous populations and still live an incredibly traditional lives. If you research small group tours to these two towns online, you will see Cesar and Raul’s names appear everywhere besides glowing reviews and this was definitely something we wanted to experience during our stay. As we had arrived earlier than expected and wanting to seize the day as much as possible, we headed to the main square to see if we could find this famous Cesar and Raul tour and possibly join onto today’s tour. The only instructions given online were to head to the main cathedral in town and you will see Cesar outside and that the tour left at 0900am sharp. Given that we had no idea what this Cesar character even looked like, we thought this would be an almost impossible task – however, we must stand out in a crowd of Mexican’s as incredibly enough, he found us! We were initially going to say to him that we weren’t interested in whatever he was selling, however he pointed to his flyer, and we saw the names on the top and couldn’t believe this was exactly what we were looking for. As they receive such incredible reviews online, we were expecting a busy crowd and lots of people on the tour – however as we left for the small towns, it was only a tiny group of five providing a very personal experience.

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We arrived by minibus only thirty minutes down the road, into a town named San Juan Chamula that felt like it was entire worlds apart. It was like what you could only imagine stepping back into time in Mexico was like – a small cobblestone, tiny village with people wearing their Indigenous traditional dress and colours filled your sight everywhere you turned. These villages are only accessible on a tour, as the Chamulan populations want to preserve their culture and prefer not to allow outsiders to live in the village, however they were incredibly friendly and very eager to share with you their ways of life. We arrived at a viewpoint, overlooking their cemetery and immediately noticed that each headstone bore a cross, some featuring a bold bright colour. The colours, we were told, were representative of the age of the person at the time of their death; it was confronting to see just how many were blue, indicating that it was a child or baby who had passed away.

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Upon arriving into the village, it was probably the first destination within Mexico where we blended into the background and weren’t stared at with watching eyes, wondering what the hell we were doing so noticeably far from home – interesting as it was the first place where we most obviously did NOT fit in! Kids approached us in the streets by the half dozens, wanting to sell handmade goods and tiny souvenirs, smiles stretching wide upon their faces as they’ve probably worked out the cuter and friendlier they appear, the more popular they are with Western tourists. Women adorned the traditional dress of fluffy furry skirts and vests all in black with colourful blouses beneath, whilst the men were clad in all white, white trousers and white button up shirts with a large cowboy hat placed upon their heads – an interesting yin and yang, the two genders wearing opposing colours. The prestigious leaders of the town, volunteer spiritual leaders and their elected mayor have to wear immense numbers of colourful ribbons and large headdresses, similar to those of American Indians, yet more colourful and made of textiles – whilst their wives wear their own symbols of power, large colourful necklaces that must weigh over a kilo each as they are so well decorated and huge!

It soon became clear that this community, who was so interested in self-preservation and the preservation of the Indigenous cultures and way of life, were also such a tight-knit family oriented community. They share the belief that if one member of the community prospers, the entire community shall prosper and were very honest peoples. There was only one tiny prison cell in Chamula – rather than an entire prison block, and when we visited it was currently empty. The prison cell faces outwards on the side of a main building in the town, putting the criminal entirely on display – but also free to receive drinks and food from caring family members or friends during their imprisonment. They believe that putting the criminal on display does the job, as shame and dishonour amongst their fellow community members is more effective than actual punishment, and prevents reoffenders in the Chamula community. Don’t let this kind nature fool you though – just last year, the citizens of Chamula had learned that their current mayor was being dishonest and corrupt, and was embezzling the towns money for his own personal gain, so they took matters into their own hands, called a town meeting and ‘lynched’ him – which we later learned meant they had shot him in the head. Cesar went on to tell us that they have no problems lynching citizens that act way out of hand and commit serious offences, to which our stomachs turned a little and we thought maybe they weren’t as peaceful as we had originally assumed – he did also reassure us that there would be less lynching going forward as the people were happy and loved the new mayor, and the arrival of the Mexican state police who had set up camp within the town had significantly quietened any major activity.

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The most interesting part for us in this quirky little Indigenous town was the church. The church looks like a Catholic church from the outside, however when the Spanish settled and moved priests in, the Indigenous Chamulan citizens didn’t want to practice Roman Catholic conventions and wanted to preserve their own religious practices, so overthrew the church and kicked all the priests out of the church and even further out of the community! The church to this day practices a mixture of Catholic and Indigenous religion and was the most incredible church we entered on our trip thus far. No pictures were allowed to be taken within this church, so let us break it down for you. There are no pews for seats, rather pine needles scattered everywhere on the floor. Mini candle altars are placed throughout the church, on the floor and on tables – each candle representing a different point of the cross, corresponding to a primary colour – green, black, red, white and yellow. Incense of wood sap is burning and looking around the church, there is a slight haze forming in front of our eyes, obscuring a vision if we try to look further than a few metres in front. Statues of the Saints line the walls in glass boxes, like a few churches we have attended – however these Saints are slightly different to the traditional ones we have seen, as they are adorned in beautiful coloured ribbons draped around their bodies and clothes and feature glass mirrors over their chests, to reflect their spirits and allow you to see yourself within their spirit too. It was quite clear that this is no regular Catholic church and they’re not practicing traditional religion within these walls.

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Shamans are perched on the floor, next to these candle altars, providing advice and healing services to the church attendees and this is when our visit became truly spectacular. We were able to observe a little old lady Shaman, with wrinkles a plenty on her face and long silvery hair trailing down her spine, tied back in a ponytail maybe to avoid a potential fire hazard and in her hands was a black chicken, she was holding rather straight and flat like a board, stretched out and by the neck too. This chicken would be waved in clockwise circles above the flames of the candles and then precariously rubbed across a small child’s head, neck and face and then repeated over and over again. The chicken was screaming, squawking in fear and probably pain from the heat of the flames and the lady was praying and chanting in native tongues during the procession. The child’s family looked on, eyes wide observing this shaman’s every move – this was clearly very important to them and imperative for this medicine to work.

Then the unexpected happened. The shaman waved the chicken one last time over the candles and swiftly snapped its neck, leaving its head to hang limp and the medicinal ritual complete. It was hard not to break out into a gasp or a look of horror, we had just witnessed a LIVE chicken sacrifice, but for respectful purposes we kept our cool and waited to discuss our reactions outside of the community. We later learned that this was a common practice for babies or children whom the parents believe have been given the ‘evil eye’ from westerners or foreigners looking upon their babies and passing on the curse – I have honestly never looked at Indigenous or local children the same way ever again, as I am now afraid that they will have to endure this shaman ritual all from my gaze!

The tour then continued to a spiritual leader’s house and it was intriguing to visit – but not quite chicken sacrificing intriguing! His house had an altar and to the Saint of his choice – where he would store the Saint’s statue and regularly burn incense and candles to keep the Saints happy. The candles were white, representing tortillas or food for the Saints and the altar featured an immense amount of greenery, leaves and branches of trees draped all amongst a large wooden frame in his house. More pine needles scattered the floor and we couldn’t help but ask, surely weren’t these a fire hazard with all the candles burning? Funnily enough, Cesar answered our concerns by saying it was the spiritual leader’s job to change all the fauna over regularly as the fresh plants don’t burn, and the costs of this and also the candles and the incense constantly burning were a responsibility of the spiritual leader. It was also the spiritual leaders responsibility to buy alcohol – this type of alcohol was called ‘pox’ and is a traditional drink of this community – upon tasting, Blake informed me it tasted of a combination of both tequila and turps! This was a huge financial burden and we couldn’t really understand what the reasoning behind this role was, however Cesar explained to us that this was not for personal gain and more a sense of pride within the community, and commonly the man who was undertaking the role of spiritual leader had had a family member before him, maybe a father or grandfather, also complete a year in the role. These people had so much to offer for the sake of their community, for very little personal gain and to see some individuals put the wellbeing and happiness of an entire community before their very own needs was just incredible to witness.

Our trip rounded out in the small neighbouring Indigenous village of Zinacantan – which was similar to Chamula, but a lot more understated, less colourful and busy and much more secretive and quiet. The church was nowhere near as bizarre, rather more traditional in its ways and still aligned to the Vatican, yet the Jesus statues were all adorned in rainbow ribbons and were all much more colourful – different to the pain and anguish depicted on the rather graphic statues we had been exposed to in the other traditional churches in Mexico. We visited a small weaving family and watched their practices of weaving traditional clothing, blankets and items such as bags and wallets available for sale. The intricacy of their craft was insane and to learn that these items can take months upon months for completion was just beyond comprehension – I don’t think either Blake or myself have the attention spans or patience for such a project! The girls in this family learned to weave as a rite of passage and when they turn twelve they begin the art, following in the footsteps of their family members before them.

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Our day had been totally immersed in foreign cultures, Indigenous history and crazy rituals and returning back to the heart of San Cristobal, we felt a new found appreciation for the Indigenous population and how desperately they were trying to preserve their way of life, traditions and customs from getting lost within the busy hustle of modern day life and technology. We cannot recommend Cesar and Raul’s tours any more – they were culturally sensitive and incredibly knowledgeable, something that is entirely important when visiting Indigenous populations that face extinction due to pressures from Western or outside cultures and religions. Having grown up in the region, Cesar has lived to see these people thrive and build relationships with people within San Juan Chamula and his first hand knowledge would be incredibly hard to beat.

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We decided to head to lunch and treat ourselves to some hamburgers (there’s only so many tacos you can eat before you start to go a little loco…) with our new friends from the tour, a Canadian and an Australian – before parting ways and wishing them all the best on their trips! The people you meet on the road and the memories you share together, albeit sometimes too short, really do make your trip something special – uniting people from all walks of life, all ages, all nationalities and all different interests and we only wish we had more time with each of the friends we have made along the way. Our next day was a short wander through the rest of San Cristobal and the sites on offer, mostly churches and Zocalo’s, a recurring theme we were beginning to notice throughout Mexico, before spending a day catching up on life admin and planning the rest of our route through the country, to ensure we could make the most of our time left. We went out and had some tacos, guacamole and enchiladas for dinner from a local place ‘El Tacoleto’ and before we knew it, our time in San Cristobal had come to an end. We really enjoyed this beautiful little cultural hub of a town, hidden within one of the most notorious states in the country, but we were headed onwards towards the jungle ruins of Palenque and our next destination in Mexico.

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Oaxaca 🇲🇽

Lucky for us, our next stop Oaxaca was only a four hour bus ride away and thanks again to ADO, we had a comfortable and safe ride and arrived in the late afternoon, as dusk was beginning to settle. We quickly dropped our bags off before doing a lap of the main town, taking in all the main sites and attractions on the Zocalo and beyond. Oaxaca is a real mix of colonial-style buildings, combined with native Zapotec and Mixtec cultural and archaeological sites, and is a perfect blend of ancient and old Mexico, as it is rich in both culture and history. Within the first hour of our stay we had ticked off seeing the main Zocalo right in the historic centre of the city, the Church of Santo Domingo and its ornate decorations that took over two hundred years to construct, the main Cathedral of the city and we had roamed the cobblestone streets, photographing the beautiful coloured buildings.

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The next day was to be a half day wandering and exploring the ancient Zapotec capital which now lies in ruins, 9km west and above the city of Oaxaca named Monte Alban. Its proximity to the city meant that transport was super easy to organise and a round trip shuttle was an inexpensive option. Monte Alban is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as it holds significant cultural importance to the local communities, who are now facing the challenge of trying to stop urban development from encroaching on this archaeological site. It is one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities and the oldest Pre-Colombian site we were to witness on our trip. If you put all of its history into perspective and just think of the mere age of this ancient place, the fact that we were able to not only visit it, but climb all (most of) the ruins and scale these structures to the very top, is actually incredible. The fact that these temples are even still standing is phenomenal, let alone standing enough to let modern day patrons walk on them is beyond belief and a fact that we still struggle to comprehend.

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As Monte Alban lies on a mountain ridge at over 1940m above sea level, it is safe to say there was zero cloud cover for the day, a massive need for SPF 50+ sunscreen and boy was it HOT! Being from Australia, most would assume that we are used to some level of heat and sun exposure, but I think because there was zero shade cover and we were scaling these ancient buildings, with their tiny little steps and great heights (a true workout for anyone looking to get in shape fast!), it was an exhausting day and sweat was pouring off us by the end of it. Combine this with the fact that as budget backpackers, we had decided to pack our own strawberry jam and some bread to make sandwiches for lunch, which soon found us with these wasps/bee-type insects upon us, and we had a bit of a shocker between flying insects and ridiculous heat.

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Despite these minor annoyances, you can tell by the photos that we had an incredible day and the size of our smiles relays exactly what an experience was had. We both love a good active adventure, and spending the day kicking up the dust, roaming through the ancient ball-court, past the old astronomical tower and scaling both the north and south temples was like nothing we had both experienced before. Not even the little old men in cowboy hats and traditional Mexican attire, constantly trying to sell us ‘real and authentic’ masks that were conveniently ‘found within the temples of Monte Alban’ could get us down. Compared to Templo Mayor, the Aztec site we visited in Mexico City that was nearly entirely destroyed, these ruins were a total next level experience and we were really enjoying the ancient history this country had to offer.

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The following day, we decided to see what modern Oaxaca had up its sleeve and once again throw ourselves into the chaotic and loco experience that is a Mexican mercado (or market). Benito Juarez Mercado is located centrally within Oaxaca city, and has an extensive history as the place to get anything you could possibly need; from a cheap souvenir, to a pet iguana, bottles upon bottles of mezcal and tequila, a chicken for your family dinner with its head freshly chopped off, a whole tuna fish that has not been sitting on ice and is definitely smelling off and spices upon spices with chilies and cooking supplies being sold by the pound. Small market vendors tap you on the shoulder, point you in the direction of their stalls and constantly tell you they have ‘cheap price for you’; we both remember being totally and completely overwhelmed by how forward they are and how personal space does not exist in a mercado. We stumbled upon some ladies selling that fine Mexican delicacy I spoke about in the Puebla post; chapulines. If you have ever smelled fried grasshoppers before, particularly in Mexico with the spices they toss them in, you will know exactly what I’m talking about and I’m sure it will never leave your nose. It is everywhere you turn in the markets in Mexico, a strong, almost burning smell, combined with roasted spices and spicy chillies. Having been in Mexico a total of seven days now, we were feeling much more confident and decided to indulge in this fine cuisine. I made Blake purchase a chipotle seasoned bag of grasshoppers, with some fresh squeezed lime to go and we took them back to our hostel – sadly without the addition of a pet turtle, iguana or bunny rabbit.

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Being the soft, scared, weak girl I am of course I made Blake go first – and filmed his reaction so that we could later post it to Instagram (check out the video, if you haven’t already!) and I think its fair enough to say that his facial expressions tell the entire story. I didn’t quite realise how spicy the chipotle ones were and they definitely weren’t Blake’s favourite culinary experience in Mexico. I was ready to sit this round out and avoid this completely, but after much hesitation and Blake forcing me, I can proudly say I conquered a fear and ate one. I can’t say I entirely enjoyed it however – but when else are you going to eat a fried grasshopper that is seasoned and topped with lime and feel its tiny little legs get stuck between your teeth? I think it was at this point it was beginning to sink in that we were being presented with so many incredible opportunities on this trip, and so many fun and brand new experiences like nothing else we had ever come across before. We were really seizing each and every opportunity that came our way and enjoying the learning and life experience we were gaining from this adventure.

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Mexico City 🇲🇽

Four and a half hours in the air and it soon became very apparent from the plane window that we certainly were not in the United States anymore. Initial impressions lead to disappointment, as we viewed the city from the sky just around dusk. Clouds drifted over the top of the city, as we questioned whether these clouds were weather or pollution related – unaware we were soon to find out that air pollution is a hugely relevant problem in Mexico City, with the city even experiencing a time only a few decades ago where birds would drop dead out of the sky, due to the poor quality air! From the sky, most cities look incredibly similar – however Mexico City seemed to notably have a lot less skyscrapers, but definitely remained developed and probably even more so than we expected.

Our Spanish was incredibly limited, as I had only taken maybe two months of classes and had only just mastered basics such as numbers, hello, goodbye etc. And Blake had little to no exposure to the language pre-travel – so let’s just say our initial conversations with customs agents and airport workers were more than interesting and a huge eye-opener to the next six months that lay ahead! Nonetheless, we had done our research and already knew what taxis to take, where we were headed and approximately how much we were expecting to pay and managed to avoid being either A) in a dangerous situation or B) severely ripped off. We arrived to our hostel after dark, Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral but were super impressed with the first impressions of a crazy good location, right on the Zocalo or Main Square of Mexico City. As it was already late, dark and we weren’t yet entirely aware of our surroundings, we decided to ask the hostel receptionist for a suggestion for any quick eat within a few streets from the accommodation. He seemed entirely unenthused, yet pointed out a location on a map. “Open all night, cheap place to eat” sounded good enough for us. Little did we know, this guy had pointed us in the direction of a Pizza Hut – hardly the first Mexican cuisine experience we had envisioned or planned! Once again, our language skills (or lack of) let us down, but thankfully sign language and a few ‘gracias’ went a long way and we had successfully ordered our first dinner in very limited Spanish. We went to bed with full stomachs, smiles on our faces and the excitement that we had arrived in Central America beginning to sink in.

That excitement nearly wore off, as we realised our hostel was terrible for echoing and full of loud drunken Americans trying to find their dorm room at 0230am – but we were determined to let nothing bring us down, Mexico had been a dream for so long and we had a long full day ahead of exploring. We are big lovers of local food and always try to investigate where we should be eating and what local dishes we should be trying – so after discovering a popular place to try Mexican food, conveniently named ‘Cafe El Popular’, we headed there for an early lunch and to get our first Mexican dishes. Ordering tacos seemed to be a safe option, so we ordered one lot of chicken and one of beef and eagerly awaited our food. Before the main dish arrived, the waitress dropped us about five different varieties of bread rolls, and a stand containing five different sauces and condiments – the puzzled expressions on our faces were probably priceless! Running through our heads, we were thinking ‘Do we get this for free? How much extra does this cost? Do we wait and use this with our main dish? Is this a starter?’, and quickly observed the tables around of us locals to determine that the bread did seem to be complimentary and we could eat before our meal or together with our meal. What arrived next was not what we had ever considered tacos before, but boy were they delicious! Instead of the classic hard corn taco shell, or even soft corn tortilla with some fillings, what arrived were crispy, rolled corn tortillas that were hard and fried in a cylindrical shape, filled with the meat of choice and some cheese – simple yet effective, and incredible with the addition of some salsa picante (hot sauce)!

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Full of energy we headed to our first sightseeing stop in Mexico, after a quick wander around the Zocalo and gathering our bearings. Templo Mayor, translation: Main Temple, was one of the most significant temples of the Aztec people and was the centre of their capital Tenochtitlan – now the modern capital, Mexico City. The site is UNESCO World Heritage listed and literally sits right in the centre of Mexico City, just off the main square and in between contemporary buildings. To see such an ancient site and our first Aztec ruins, literally surrounded by the everyday buildings of the capital city was truly bizarre and like nothing we had ever experienced before. The ancient city fell to the Spanish and unfortunately was partially destroyed and covered over with the new city, however what laid buried was incredibly intact by the time it was discovered and it was amazing to take a step back in time and see their beautiful inscribed carvings and paintings in the stone, able to still be admired over six centuries later. The House of Eagles was our favourite part of the site and definitely the most intact and detailed. Yet on the other hand, it is not entirely that well preserved as the main pyramid of the original site stood at over 60m high in its day, but the leftover ruins would only stand a couple of metres maximum. With excavation only commencing in 1978 upon the discovery of a large Aztec monolith in a construction site, it is crazy to see excavation still continuing in modern Mexico City to this day and to think that the Aztec capital lies buried under the chaos of city, still waiting to be fully discovered.

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If you have been to Mexico before, you know that their culture is all about mural art – so it wouldn’t be a trip without witnessing some of their incredible artwork in person. We went to a museum, operating out of a university and got to witness some of the man of murals himself, Diego Rivera’s art displayed on the walls in front of us. Unfortunately we were unable to take photos of his mural works, but did get a chance to also photograph some other legendary mural artists masterpieces.

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To balance out all the Mexican history we had absorbed in our first day, we decided to indulge in one of the most modern aspects of Mexican culture and take a trip to see the one and only, Lucha Libre. Mexico’s very own answer to the WWE, Lucha Libre means ‘free fight’ and is a form of professional wrestling that operates out of Mexico City at Arena Mexico on a Tuesday and Friday night. Being a Friday night, our hostel was running a cheap group tour to the wrestling and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to witness the chaos in person. A few tequila shots later, we had met some awesome new people and were ready for the main event – there truly is nothing like it and is probably the most insane thing we have ever experienced. Friday nights are their largest nights, hosting the ‘CMLL Super Viernes’ or ‘Super Friday’ for gringos, and is even broadcasted across cable television countrywide. The music is loud, the crowd absolutely screams, laughs, boos and jeers at the wrestlers and at one point, people were aggressively throwing coins at a midget wrestler in a mask. Vendors come along, shouting to sell you popcorn, chicharrones, beers or waters and the atmosphere is incredibly electric. There was one flamboyant luchador named ‘Maximo Sexy’, who featured a bright pink mohawk and a tank top saying ‘Kiss Me’ and at one point, the crowd was shouting at him, ‘BESO! BESO! BESO’. We looked at each other, confused as to what this could possibly mean, until our new Costa Rican friend Fabian turned to us and said, ‘They’re saying kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’. Sure enough, Maximo Sexy’s finishing move was to grab the giant, muscly luchador in front of him and smack a huge kiss on the lips! As the fights went on, it soon became apparent just how important a luchadores mask is, as one fight featured an unfortunate wrestler become de-masked and have to leave the ring in shame and embarrassment – only to come back later, reclaim his blue mask and win the final round of the fight! The fights could last up to three rounds, and it was great to see every single fight be taken to round three, with each team always ending up one round apiece heading into the last – the crowd favourites always coming out on top and defeating the bad guys.

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The night was a blast, full of cheap entertainment, beers and new friends but before we knew it, we were back in Mexico City and it was already 11.30pm and we were yet to eat any dinner. With our new friends Fabian and Jorge, we were taken to a great little taco vendor only a few blocks from our hostel and experienced our very first Mexican street food. There we fell in love with tacos, done proper street Mexican style with pastor (marinated pork) meat off the spit-roast, coriander, hot sauce and a tiny slice of pineapple – safe to say, our home tacos will never be cooked the same again! Jorge was an incredible guide to this local gem and also a great translator. At five tacos for forty peso (approx $2USD), this was heaven to us and I can honestly say, we returned the next day for lunch. Lucha libre had inspired Blake for his first souvenir from Central America, and after wandering the entire city the next day, we finally found what he was looking for, before our time in the capital came to an end and we were headed onwards to our next destination: Puebla.

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