FIRST ANNUAL TRAVEL ISSUE: TOURING SOUTHERN MEXICO

We have just returned from a two-week, 2,000-mile trip during which news-avoidance was the modus consciencium: no newspapers, little tv, computer left at home.

Our timing was in itself interesting, coming as it did in the period immediately preceding the so-called “certification process” in which Mexico’s anti-drug efforts were being judged by the same arrogant hypocritical government whose agencies import drugs and whose failed anti-drug policies have made us the largest single consumer of drugs in the world.

The Mexican Army was out in force. In our 2,000-mile journey we encountered at least 20 roadblocks, where we were stopped, and politely requested to get out of the van. We had to open suitcases and boxes for inspection, while heavily armed patrols with weapons at the ready looked on. In a few cases, there were armored personnel carriers with 50-caliber machine guns. One time Dan moved too quickly, and several young men with automatic weapons visibly tensed up. These guys were taking this seriously; this was not just an exercise.

At first, we were told that they were looking for drugs, but after a while they got tired of the pretense, I guess, because the subject became weapons and explosives. Being a cynic about the whole issue of drug interdiction, particularly from the Army, who are said to be major cultivators, I was not surprised. This was anti insurgency work, under the pretense of anti-drug activity. They are looking for weapons, propaganda and fugitives. They are controling the movements of their citizens, by setting up checkpoints at key highway intersections. Because they do move around, it is possible, as happened to Laurie Loeb during the same period, to travel all the way to San Cristobal without encountering a single checkpoint — but don’t count on it.

During the trip, we drove past several Army posts, and all were more beefed up than I had noticed in previous trips: more firepower, deeper bunkers, more of an “alert status” look.

Our friend Dan McWhethy took us in his Chevy conversion van, and he believes in preparing for all contingencies. Thus we had a detail map (Cruz Roji, highly recommended) and a macro map (AAA, adequate), and several guidebooks: Berkeley’s Ruta Maya, Lonely Planet’s book on Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan, Knopf’s Route Of The Mayas, and Ulysses Press’ The Maya Route. The last two are most useful as historical/archeological guides, and the Knopf book is especially rich in pictures, layout, and that most useful of all tools, a cloth strip to mark the place you’re in at the moment.

The Berkeley and the Planet sell themselves mainly as guides to where to go, where to stay, and where to eat, etc. Each has a distinct approach to the task: the Berkeley to find the best cheap spots, and the Planet to concentrate on value for money throughout the spectrum. Neither does a bad job in general, but each is woefully lacking in some particulars. Which brings me to my sermon on guidebooks.

Guidebooks are to be used as pointers to lodging, food and entertainment, and not as authority. No matter what the date is on the edition you buy, they are not up to date. There is no way they can be, unless they have a person stationed in every town of any significance, and publish updates constantly. Furthermore, they are not objective. Aside from the editorial policy, they are filtered through the eyes and palates of folks who have the same kind of hangups and prejudices we all do. Don’t believe anything you read until you see it. And remember that guidebooks only feature a limited number of choices.

Books like Lonely Planet are nice because they have detailed maps which can help you find the area containing hotels in your price range. Once you get there, look around. We rarely stayed at the hotel in the book, but almost always found our hotel by first checking that one out and then walking around the block until we found the one we wanted. Usually the difference was ambiance, although sometimes it was money. When I say “that” hotel, I generally mean the first one in the guidebook’s “moderate” section which was located among a concentration of hotel markers on the map.

We stayed in a variety of places, from a plaster-covered bamboo and thatch roof (where the monkeys scampered) cabana with two beds and a concrete floor, to a luxury tower with air, cable tv, parking garage and bellhops. The cabana was not the cheapest we had, but the tower was the most expensive. It is hard to explain why some places charge more and others less, but it probably has to do with location: the cabana was in an area south of Tulum dominated by gringolandia style resort hotels, and the tower was in a large city with generally high hotel prices.

All in all, we stayed in about 12 hotels in 15 days, and most were adequate, a couple were horrid and many were delightful. Mostly they were just a place to clean up and get some sleep, but occasionally they were the centerpiece of the experience. That’s one of the wonderful things about traveling: you just never know what may come next…

My biggest gripe about guide books is quoting prices in u.s. dollars, and then excusing it by pointing to the unstable peso. This is akin to doing a hit-and-run and justifying it by saying you don’t want to tie up the police filling out accident reports. It seems to me that, given the changing value of the DOLLAR relative to Mexican pesos (it is Mexico, after all, and the peso is the local currency), prices should be quoted in pesos. Then, after finding out the local exchange rate, most of us who are intelligent enough to read a guidebook can probably figure out how many dollars that is. Alternatively, if they want to quote dollars, let them at least give the tipo de cambio (exchange rate) at date of listing, so we can figure it out for ourselves. None of the books I have seen offers a tipo…

My next biggest gripe is not keeping up. I know it’s hard to do, but when a book tells me, for instance, that Parque La Venta in Villahermosa is swarming with mosquitos, awash with guides outside the front gate who will descend on you in hordes begging to serve you, and that maybe you should go ahead and hire one because the signage is not in English, then I take umbrage after discovering that there are no mosquitos, only one very polite and unaggressive guide is on hand, and signs in front of the very impressive Olmec heads are in Spanish, Mayan and English.

Mostly, with the exception of Merida for shopping, our tour was divided into beaches and ruins. Starting with Palenque, which for my money is the most impressive of all the sites due to its’ setting in the jungle, we toured Kohunlich, Tulum, Chichen Itza and Uxmal. This is probably the last time any of us will visit Tulum, Chichen Itza or Uxmal, as the tourism and commercial exploitation were real day-spoilers for us. Contrary to what the guidebooks tell you, there are no “off hours” for tourist buses anymore. They are waiting in the lot when the gate opens, and others who come later are there until closing time. Hordes of French, German and U.S. visitors looking for new photo opportunities. In Palenque a French group yelled at us to go back inside the pyramid so they could take pictures. Often, the climb up a steep temple would be blocked by a flock of casually draped tourists who had to be climbed over.

Many of the buildings previously open to tourists are now closed. This is especially annoying at Tulum, where you used to be able to climb up a small corner temple and be rewarded by a magnificent view of the surrounding jungle and the white sand caribbean beach below. No more. Also, many of the paths to “satellite” complexes at major sites have been closed to visitors. As the crowds increase in size and in shortness of stay (no time to dawdle on a bus tour), and the maintenance costs increase therefrom, the guards just don’t have time to police too large an area, and so only the “photo-op” central structures are maintained open. About a year ago, the Mexican government announced that they intend to “improve” the site at Palenque. My advice: if you want to see it, go soon. And don’t skip the museum, it’s a gem, not only because of the exhibits, but because of the commentary. In fact, the museums at most sites are well worth the time — unlike the overpriced and aggressively hawked doodads along the paths: “puro Maya, my fren'”, made in Guerrero and Michoacan.

Although we didn’t get to them, in addition to Kohunlich (ko-oon-LEECH), there are many new sites being opened in more out-of- the-way places such as the area of Xpujil (shpoo-HEEL), west of Chetumal. Kohunlich was in a beautiful jungle setting, and abounded with butterflies, birds and exotic flowers, as well as the Cohune palm for which it was named.

Which brings us to beaches. Actually, not just beaches: we swam in cenotes (deep freshwater pools, one in a cave), inland lakes, secluded coves, off of a boat over the reef at Isla-che, and at the grandest and most elaborate swimming hole I’ve ever floated in: Xelha (shell-HA), just south of Playa del Carmen. At 70 pesos (less than $10), it was a little steep, but I thought it a reasonable value.

Probably the most enjoyable day for me was the day trip from Isla Mujeres to Isla Contoy, a 45-minute boat ride with a couple of stops to snorkle the reef, a beautiful bathing beach on Contoy and a fresh-cooked fish comida. The seven hour trip cost N$160 ($23 u.s.) and included snorkling gear and great rum-and-cokes coming back.

Finally, a word about hotels and food in gringolandia: the carribean coast of Quintana Roo (KEEN-ta-na ROE). Towns like Playa del Carmen are a challenge to your resolve not to be fleeced. A sleepy village with sand in the streets eight years ago, Playa now boasts seven blocks of brick-paved pedestrian shopping mall and sidewalk restaurants that charge eleven pesos for a beer (six is the most expensive in the zocalo in Oaxaca; four and a half in the best hotel in Valladolid — which, by the way, was our favorite city on this trip). Nonetheless, we found an acceptable airconditioned room in a rundown hotel for N$180 for three, and comida coridas for as little as ten pesos.

Isla Mujeres ranked right up there with us, and frankly we were surprised. It’s a package tour destination with a fair amount of development, and we expected to spend a fortune, but once again perseverance paid. Our clean, well-designed fan-cooled room in the heart of town cost us 90 pesos — the best bargain of the trip; and the huge grouper we were served for around 35 pesos at one of the beachside restaurants was fresh and delicious. While the hawkers were noisy and ubiquitous, they weren’t all that aggressive. Best of all, it was six blocks from our hotel to the sunset beach — and four blocks to the sunrise.

So, like the song says, it goes to show you never can tell. And speaking of telling, it’s time for another of STAN’S FEARLESS PREDICTIONS:

The Oaxaca Guerreros, the local franchise in the Mexican Baseball League (class AAA) will lose their Grand Opener (Mar 14) to the visiting team, because of fielding errors. We will of course be on hand somewhere on the first base line to cheer our team on to defeat. Even if we didn’t like beisbol we would go just to see Armando the Mime fly down the wire from the bleachers to the second base with the opening ball…

EVANGELIST ALERT:

However it started out, and whatever good it does (and I think it does a whole lot of good), the organization known as Manos de Ayuda, located outside Tlocolula, appears to be doing a lot of preaching on the side. As part of its’ program of sheltering, feeding educating and clothing poor and homeless children, it offers Bible lessons in the New Testament. While it does not appear to discriminate against non-protestant patients in its’ eye surgery and burn repair programs, it nonetheless does proseletize.

Founded by a group in Portland Oregon called the North-West Medical Teams (bankrolled originally by an evangelical), Manos also has established programs in water purification, human waste management, and nutrition. These are serious dedicated folks, and I can’t fault their work, but I do think it’s important for people who donate, to know that they are to some degree supporting a program of evangelical teaching, so that they can make their charitable choices conscientiously.