Travesía Panamericana
Week 5

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Cristina, Joel and the kids at home


Our enriching experiences during this week were the indirect result of the connections that our encounter with Lola in Huamantla unleashed. She was determined to help us , so she contacted us with her cousin Adelina (and her husband Michael) in San Cristobal de las Casas, who in turn contacted us with their friends Cristina and Joel. We were very fortunate to meet these excellent people. They showed us a very important part of Mexico with more detail and depth than it would have been possible had we been by ourselves. Besides the information that our new friends provided us, simply their company and hospitality made it difficult for us to leave them and continue our trip. That has been a constant in Mexico: planning to spend x amount of days in a particular place and end up staying longer because we could not leave.


May 6-8, 2002

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Odometer: 201,320 miles

Written by: Barbara

Staying with Adelina and Michael allowed us, among other things, to visit San Cristobal and surrounding areas without having to worry at all about the car (since we left it at their home). San Cristobal is not only interesting because of its attractive colonial architecture and vibrant food and handicraft market, but because of its socio-political history. This is one of the cities where the presence of the Zapatista movement has been influential, leaving an imprint. At a more superficial level, the presence of the Zapatismo can be felt in the main plaza where, among the handicrafts for sale, you can find key holders and dolls representing Subcomandante Marcos, Comandante Ramona, and other members of the Zapatista Army. At a deeper level, we felt its impacts on Mexican politics when observing how members of different organizations in San Cristobal discussed the discrepancies between a law affecting indigenous people (passed by the Mexican parliament recently) and political agreements in which representatives of the Zapatista Army took part. Being with Adelina and Michael (both working in Human Rights organizations) allowed us to learn a bit more about the Zapatistas, the unfulfilled claims of indigenous peoples (despite president Fox's attempts to show that their case is mostly solved), and the continued abuses against indigenous people and those who actively support them. We were fortunate to participate in a workshop about Ley Indigena (law affecting indigenous populations), to which Adelina was invited as a speaker. In this workshop we listened more about the situation of indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Two other interesting visits during our stay in San Cristobal included the Museum of Mayan Medicine and the village of San Juan Chamula. The museum, managed by the Organization of Indigenous Healers of Chiapas, gave us a general idea about a system of medicine that is very different from the Western system. The knowledge about medicinal plants, religious rituals that integrate aspects of the Christian and indigenous legacy, and healing practices developed overtime are intertwined in this system. During our visit we had the opportunity to see a ritual of healing, even though we could not understand the details because it was conducted in an indigenous language. The only words we could understand were the names of the saints, which were mentioned in Spanish. The man conducting the ritual was, apparently, praying in front of the statues of the saints and several rows of candles on the floor. Then he touched the images of the saints with some branches, and  did the same on the body of the man who seemed to be the beneficiary of the prayers. The person conducting the ceremony broke an egg inside a glass, and showed it to the group attending the event and made some comments while looking to the egg with attention. Later we found out that the egg can be used, among other things, to diagnose the patient's problem.

In the museum we also saw a very interesting video about the work of indigenous midwives and the traditional birthing process in indigenous communities. The pregnant woman gives birth on her knees and her partner helps in the process giving her physical support and company. After giving birth, the placenta is buried inside a hole in the couple's home. The midwife's work include practical activities related with the birthing process, and the mother and baby's care, as well as prayers and other religious rituals, all important aspects of the process.

Close to San Cristobal there is the village of San Juan Chamula, where we saw a church like none we had ever seen. On the outside, this white building painted with colored flowers was nice, but nothing extraordinary. It is when you enter the building that you feel being in a unique and sacred space. The church's walls contain a variety of statues and images of virgins, saints, Christ, and other icons of Catholicism, but this is not what is different either. The Church of Chamula doesn't have rows of seats to pray like other churches. Instead, people can seat or kneel wherever they prefer. The floor is mostly covered with pine needles and there are great quantities of candles that the indigenous people lighten in order to pray. In this church there's a great deal of activity. In every corner you can see someone placing white and thin candles in rows; you can hear prayers in indigenous languages, the whispers of tourists observing the rites, and every now and then a deep whistle (as if coming from a horn), and the scratching of a spatula withdrawing the melted wax of the candles. Most of the light in the church comes from candles or sun light filtering through the windows high on the wall.

Some of the prayers we observed integrate several ritual elements like the use of candles, eggs, chickens, and even, the popular Coca Cola. Many of the religious ceremonies in this church require the use of this beverage, apparently to facilitate burping and in this way expel bad spirits. Being in this church was a very special experience for us. Following the example of the many people there, we sat on the floor in front of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and lit a candle to remember the life and death of Cris' grandma (who unfortunately passed away recently). We stayed there until the candle melted completely.

We took a dip in the Aguas Claras river

May 9-11, 2002

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Odometer: 201,460

Written: Barbara

The road from San Cristobal to Palenque is relatively short, but difficult because of the proliferation of  topes (speed bumps, which are very popular in Mexico). If one is not very careful and goes too fast over a tope, it is possible to break the car. As we descended from the highlands in San Cristobal to the rain forests that surrounds Palenque, the temperature and humidity seems to increase every second. When we were close to Palenque we did not know what else to do to refresh ourselves. The windows were wide open and we had sprayed ourselves with an atomizer many times, and we still were overheating. When we were on the brink of desperation, we saw far away a river with the most turquoise water imaginable. No, it was not an illusion. As soon as we saw it, Cris mentioned that our objective for the day should be to get to that river, which later we found out it is appropriately named Agua Clara (clear water). We got to the river with the last lights of the day. The area to access the water seemed to have been taken directly out of a tale, as if it was suspended in time. Close by, the river waters were as turquoise, clean, and transparent as we saw them from the road. Next to the access we saw an old white house. A sign read "Hotel," but it seemed to be abandoned. Moments later we realized that that was not the case, as we saw a few women that calmly lit the cool gallery's lamps. We submerged in the river, Chance included, absorbing the soft sunset sun rays titillating on the water.

We arrived to the city of Palenque at night, and we were received with great hospitality by Cristina and Joel, in their home. We shared impressions, laughter, and information while dinning the delicious quesadillas that Cristina prepared for us. Both Joel and Cristina are doing work with great social relevancy: He is a doctor working in the area of community medicine, and she is working with several indigenous communities in the field of communication. Both of them were sources of information that one could not normally obtain as a tourist.

Camping next to the Palenque Archaeological site

We dedicated the next day mostly to visit the archeological site at the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. The pyramids, temples, and other buildings are located in the middle of dense jungle, and they are breathtaking (both because of the marvelous construction, and because the weather is so extremely hot!). Very close to the archeological site there's a camping place called El Panchan. Given the temperature, the best we could do after visiting the ruins was to set a hammock in this place and stay immobilized, observing the one thousand and one plant species, and listening to the jungle sounds. At night, the bichitos de luz (bugs with light) illuminated the darkness with florescent dots, while the rest of the insects gave us a concert.

Cristina convinced us to stay in Palenque one day more, inviting as to go with her to a fiesta in an indigenous community (Tzeltal), in Patatel. We were very  happy with the idea. The people of the community received us with many smiles, and even though we could not communicate verbally with many of them because they speak Tzeltal, there were several welcoming gestures that made us feel very good.

Some of our hosts in Patatel

We spent most of the day in the waterfalls of Patatel, which until a few months ago where known by very few people. We thought it was incredible to be swimming and refreshing ourselves in such a pristine place. When we were back, the food for the fiesta was almost ready: mole with chicken, rice, and tortillas. The chicken was so tender that it seemed to melt in the mouth, and the tortillas were warm, just out of the comal. Several women were preparing the tortillas in the communal kitchen with such dexterity that they made the process look very easy. After attentively observing, I tried to make a few tortillas myself. It was a complete failure. The four tortillas I made were a disaster, reminding me once again about the talent that the work done by indigenous women in Mexico requires. Besides being good cooks, many of these women are expert weavers and embroiders. The traditional clothing that many of them wear require work of many months, with attention to detail, patience, and skill. In many parts of Mexico we saw indigenous women doing multiple kinds of work: selling handicrafts or food in the market, carrying very heavy loads of wood, working on the fields while carrying a baby on their back, harvesting parts of very tall cacti with a very large pole, washing clothes in the river, weaving or embroidering, and carrying diverse loads on their heads.

May 12, 2002

Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Mexico

Odometer: 201,880 miles

Written by: Cris.

The Chichen Itza archeological site is as big as impressive. Our strength and time was barely enough to get to know the complete site, walking under an intense sun. We had the wisdom to arrive very early, avoiding the heat and the loads of tourists. As it is now customary in every archeological site that we visit, we left Chance tied to the car, with a big container of water. He usually goes under the car and nobody notices him.

Once at the site, we visited the main pyramid, the Temple of the Columns, the ball court (the biggest we've seen so far), the Observatory, and other buildings. We also went into an extremely small  passage inside the main pyramid that took us-after climbing a never-ending stair and sweating our hearts out-to an altar which had a jaguar statue. Inside the passage it felt like a sauna, and there was no fresh air, but it was worth the visit. We later walked to the nearby Sacred Cenote, which had practical and spiritual uses for the Mayas (including sacrifices). The city of Chichen Itza had, among other amenities, a system of roads that reminded me of the ones I've seen in Pompeii and Machu Pichu. We also saw the remains of an aqueduct system.

Exhausted but satisfied with our visit to Chichen Itza, we continued our journey, this time in search of the Caribbean sea, a place that we were really looking forward to be in, after all the hot and humid weather. Our first experience, Cancun, was a bit disappointing. We could not believe how different from the Mexico that we had been for the past month this place is, it looks like a piece of Miami Beach built in the Yucatan peninsula. The signs were in English, luxurious cars, mega hotels next to each other for miles and miles, neatly landscaped expressways, US fast food, etc. The contrast between Cancun (the resort area), and the nearby city of Cancun (where the Mexicans live) is huge, in many ways. We asked ourselves how many Mexicans can afford to visit this place, located in their own country

Disappointed, we chose to battle the heat and kept going south next to the ocean with the hopes that things would change. This didn't happen for a while, since south of the resort area we found dozens of Eco-Parks, apparently destined to foreign visitors, some of them with a day entry fee of U$S 50 per person. In some of them, we were informed, you can even take a swim with dolphins. In many cases, these eco-parks have opted to get rid of the native vegetation in order to create grassy areas, artificial beaches, and swimming pools. Oh well, we carried on, without having touched the sea yet. Finally we reached Playa del Carmen, a place that until not long ago was a fishing village with limited tourism. Nowadays it is on its way to uncontrolled growth. We found a parking lot right next to the beach. The location couldn't be better. After a dip in the sea,  we cooked in the Westfalia and enjoyed a meal at the beach. A great ending for such a long day.

Barbara trying to make tortillas...

The jungle in Patatel

Patatel Falls



Agua Azul Falls

Week 6