When I finally landed in Mexico City at eleven pm, some nine hours after my scheduled arrival, my stomach was in knots. Mexico City was one of those places I had heard all kids of stories about. Glorified drug lords, horrendous corruption, unsuspecting tourists and kidnappings all too common. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, I had no way of contacting the company arranging the driver to inform them I was horribly delayed. I had a piece of paper with the name of my accommodation on it and all the good intentions in the world. I just had to hope that someone showed up to meet me.
Sure enough, they did. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see my name written on cardboard. I wanted to hug the driver when I saw him standing there. However, my joy was short lived because as I followed him obediently through the airport I soon realised I was entering a car park devoid of other vehicles (unusual for a city of nearly nine million people). My heard sank as I saw a single white van with heavily tinted windows. I seriously considered running. Every conversation I had ever had with my parents abut hopping into vehicles with strangers as a child played through my head but I also realised my plan B (hopping in a taxi, alone as a female tourist, who didn’t speak the language) was seriously cautioned by nearly all travel websites.
I said a prayer (ironic for someone who isn’t particularly religious) and hopped in. At that point, I remember two hands around my mouth and…No, just kidding. The drive was fine. It was long, and I was scared in parts as we drove through the dark alongside flaming trash cans and some favelas four around 45minutes but I arrives safely at my accommodation before having a stern talking to myself about the dangers of believing stereotypes.
From Mexico City I made my way to Puebla to see the Capilla del Rosario, a beautiful baroque chapel I had heard about from my cousins and was eager to see first hand. The chapel really is a perfect example of why one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The façade gives no clue as to the opulence within. Ornate sculptures, gold leaf and paintings cover every centimeter.
As beautiful as it was, it wasn’t to be my most memorable experience of worship in Mexico. Some 8 days later, en route to Playa del Carmen, I stumbled upon the village of San Juan Chamula, in the mountains of Chiapas. It was here that I had a truly memorable day.
San Juan Chamula is one of the only remaining Mayan villages full of traditional customs, rituals and a constant military force. Initially Chamula, appeared to be just like any other mountain village, people selling goods, children playing in the streets and dogs roaming aimlessly. If you did not enter the church, you would leave non- the wiser. It is illegal to take photographs in the church (if caught tourists can go straight to jail) which is why non appear but you will have to take my word for what occurred inside.
Unlike Capilla del Rosario, the church in San Juan Chamula has no pews, there is no alter and there are no ornate statues. Instead, the walls are lined with glass cases, each housing a saint representing Mayan gods. The ground is alight with a thousand flames as rows and rows of candles burn. Praying with candles doesn’t seem particularly unusual but what is more surprising is that worshippers often bring bottles of pure spirits (often mixed with Coke) and proceed to drink to the point of intoxication. I’m told that people, albeit irresponsible, are often more honest when they are drunk and thus praying when drunk ensures the saints are only privy to honest prayer. As I hold my breath, it is pointed out to me that each of the saints, to whom the individuals pray, has a mirror around their neck. My new friend/village guide informs me that this idea goes hand in hand with being intoxicated. It is said that we can often lie to others but when we are unable to lie to ourselves and thus when individuals see their reflection in the mirrors of the saints must only speak the truth.
I must admit I left the church before any chickens were slaughtered (on many occasions chickens will have their necks broken as an offering to the saints). They will then later be removed and eaten by the family who made the sacrifice. Instead, I wandered around the village with a newfound respect and appreciation for those who lived there.
My visit to San Juan Chamula only enhanced my time in Merida (Yucatan province) where I was desperate to see the famous Chichen Itza and explore Mayan ruins. So much has been written about Chichen Itza and one can only marvel at the architecture and the impressive engineering of the indigenous civilisation, thousands of years ago.
It really does take your breath away. What is equally impressive though are the Dzibluchatun and Champeche runis. These impressive pyramids stand amongst thick scrubs and “mountains” which I later learned were actually pyramids that due to “lack of funding” had not yet been explored. One literally did not know what treasures lay within.
Being in Yucatan, I felt I really should visit Cenote Ik Kil, natural swimming holes formed thousands of years ago. To be honest, they were well worth a look and the water is incredibly refreshing but they were a little two crowded for my liking and so I didn’t stick around too long.
Having explored the cultural side of Mexico for weeks now, I decided to end my trip with some quality beach time. Again, in an effort to avoid the crowds, I made my way to Playa del Carmen (the lesser occupied cousin to Cancun). I hate myself a little bit for saying this, but I can see why tourists flock to this region. For one thing, look at the water.
For another, look at the sand.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived up to so many tourist cliché’s in three days but if there was a sail boat, I was on it, if there was a sun bed under an umbrella, I lay on it, if there was a cocktail to be consumed at sunset I ensured I partook in the drinking of it.
My time in Mexico was coming to a close and I would thoroughly recommend spending time there to anyone who was keen. I will state that you do need to exercise caution, as my trip was not incident free. I was held up at gun-point (as a means of encouragement to acquire some fresh bananas) and there was more than one incident of paying an individual more than perhaps I needed to in order to travel from A-B. I would also suggest that speaking Spanish would be a distinct advantage. In terms of running away though to a place with adventure, relaxation, history, culture and colour Mexico meets all of the requirements.
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