Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chichi: an impressively colourful market!

Chichicastenango (a town in the El Quiche' department of Guatemala) means "Tenango"= the place of "Chichi" = nettles, a very flowery tree. In fact the town is known just as Chichi. El Quiché is mainly populated by a large community of indigenous Maya who leave all over on the mountains surrounding Chichi. The visit of this town is definitely worth it only on its market days: Thursday and Sunday. It starts very early in the morning between 7 and 8 am and lasts until 4 pm when the stalls slowly start to get dismantled. The market stalls, mainly hand-made with wooden sticks and ropes only, are found along both sides of the back-streets and the biggest section is found in the main plaza between the two white churches facing one another (see picture of one church below).


The best time to shop is in the afternoon after 1pm when the majority of the tourists, who arrive with an organized tour, have just left and therefore it is easier to get better deals :o) . Bargaining is part of the game and the latest you'll do it better prices you'll get! 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Quetzaltenango, so called Xela

Xela was my first stop in Guatemala. The idea was to go directly to Chichicastenango, very famous for its Sunday-market, just after crossing the Mexican border but it was already quite late in the afternoon. After 5pm is difficult to find direct buses and travelling in the dark can be dangerous. Anyway I definitely recommend Xela as a first stop after crossing the border and it can also become a stationery point for exploring the surrounding area where various outdoor activities can be practiced: rock-climbing, volcano hiking, mountain-bike and more. Xela is surrounded by few volcanoes and if you are interested to explore them I suggest you contacting the following organization: Quetzaltrekkers. They offer very interesting and adventurous activities for a very reasonable price while at the same time they financially support the instruction of local kids.

Border crossing Mexico-Guatemala

An easy way to access into Guatemala from Mexico is to take a public bus from San Cristobal de las Casas (Chiapas) to Cuahtemoc for about 90 pesos. Once the bus leaves you at the border, get your passport stamped and then the only way to cross the border is to catch a taxi (ask to wait until it gets full so you will share the cost of 50 pesos between others). The taxi will take you to the city of La Mesilla in Guatemala about 10-15 minutes drive. Here you will get a bit shocked! La Mesilla is an extremely chaotic town (as many other Guatemalan towns): there is loads of traffic on the main street with taxies, buses, tuc-tuc, carretas (mobile bistros) and bicycle. All along both sides of the road is packed with market stalls selling all sort of things. Walking up the street to get to the bank first and then to the bus station, you will notice that they ALL sell the SAME thing in gigantic amount! Remember that once you have left Mexico you won't be able to use pesos because no one (not even the buses) will accept them . So make sure to withdraw some money at a bank and if you can DO NOT accept change from the people on the street: 1US$ is about 12.9 MX$ and in Quetzal (the Guatemalan value) is about 8. They were offering 5.5 Quetzal!!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

CHACAHUAAA... The Paradise on Earth!

Chacahua has been the HIT of my journey to Mexico and the most chilled-out, relaxing and free place I have experienced so far! It is located on the West coast in the Oaxaca State (Northern from Puerto Escondido). It is a small "island"-village placed between the Pacific ocean and a lagoon of mangroves and crocodiles.

From Puerto Escondido it is a bit of a treck: 1h30 by bus, then 15mins by minivan, then 15 mins by boat, then 20 mins by truck/pick up to arrive at the paradisiacal destination of wooden and straw cabanas, sandy floors everywhere, no hotels or high-end services... here dominates the silence of the nature and the relaxation of mankind! Again, it is an amazing place if you are not looking for comfort but ease, not expecting high standards but basic services... all you have is freedom from what modern society has created: stress, progress and success!
Chacahua is the place to escape the system in which we are stuck daily. To experience a real life-style of a surfer, to chill-out in hammocks hanging under straw roofs over-looking the ocean. To enjoy freshly cooked tasty fish in an authentic Mexican style. It is suggested a minimum of a 4 day-stay... if you have more time of course longer! Once you arrive just ask around for a cabana and almost every family offers a few places to sleep. The prices in general are fixed and are almost the same everywhere.

If you are willing to learn surfing ask for Tim & Dalila. They are very nice people and have great capabilities to teach you. Their son is Sebastian who is 9 years old and is one of the best youngest surfer on earth... looking at him surfing is an amazing show you can offer your self early in the morning when weather permits it!
Curiosity: the majority of the local people are black whose ancestors settled down about 200 years ago when their slave ship coming from Africa sunk off the coast.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gorgeous colonial towns: Morelia & Patzquaro

Morelia is the capital of Michoacán and it was the first city that the conquistadores had built after they conquered Nueva España. It is a very well preserved small colonial town of about 110 Thousand inhabitants and it is dominated by a marvelous twin-towered cathedral of a very pleasant light antique pink colour. Next to it, it is placed a spacious plaza filled with big tall trees which offer shadow to the numerous long stone benches where loud Mexican families and kissing couples like to chill out during their free time. I was amazed about these wide plazas which are present in every colonial city and represent the heart of the city as well as a meeting point for the locals.

Catedral de Morelía
El mercado de dulce (market of any kind of sweets) as well as casa and museo of José Morelos (from which the town was named). Morelos was a prest who strongly supported and helped the revolutionaries for the independence of Mexico. If you feel having a drink go to the bikini bar and try a michelada (tipical Mexican drink: beer, tomato juice, Maggie sauce, salt and chily... quite particular!), but if you prefer something sweeter get a tasty Orgasmo cocktail (Kalhua, Baileys, white cocoa powder, milk and brandy).

Colonial Houses

The second colonial town which I completely fall in love with was the fascinating town of Patzquaro (about 30 mins by car from Morelia). It is very well preserved as well but in 
comparison to Morelia, its dusty streets emphasize even more its characteristic Latin flair. If I will ever get married, Patzquaro have to be the place where I will spend my honey moon :o) !

The centre of the town is again a spacious squared plaza with trees and benches surrounded by charming arched edifices. The rest of the town is formed by cute tight streets and very low buildings of the same antique look with old wooden doors, small balconies and courtyards.

A few kilometers from the centre of Patzquaro there is a brown-colour lake (not very attractive) where I caught a boat to reach the cute, tiny island of Janitzio. On the top of the hill stands the tall monument of Morelos with one of his feast in the air (it looks a bit like the Statue of Liberty in NY but the Mexican version :o). It can be climbed from inside and from the top you can have a wonderful view of the lake and the mountains. It is a lovely trip that takes you out of the town to see the surrounding green landscape.

Isla de Janitzio
About Food

The best torta (basically a Mexican sandwich) that I have ever tasted so far in Mexico is in the famous bistro "Torta Patzquaro" located on the side of the road before entering into the town of Patzquaro. The torta I had was a tasty crunchy loaf of bread with bean paste, adobera cheese, tomatoes and big chunks of avocado... a real delicacy!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Fauna of Pilateno

Pilateno is habitat of various giant insects some with a beautiful aspect like the orange butterfly below or the green and noisy cicada above, others with a monstrous look like the spiders or the horrible creature called "vinagrillo" (or vinegaroons in English). For a European used to tiny innocent insects it is a futile battle acclimatizing to their omnipresence in the forest (especially when braving the midnight torture toilet run ... wondering which insect species will be dining on ones delectable white bottom flesh

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The remote community of Pilateno

Pilateno is a small indigeneous community Nahuatl of about 800 inhabitants of which the half are kids and is situated in the middle of a beautiful valley of humid forest about 40mins by car from the town of Xilitla. Pilateno will be the place where I will spend the next 3 weeks working as a volunteer for an ecotourism project. The group of volunteer is formed by 5 girls: me, my sister Clary and her friend Virginia and 2 other girls from Barcelona (Claudia - 35 & Monica - 44). So far we went on quite well and we can organize each other without problems.

You have to imagine that the community of Pilateno is a village of mostly wooden houses spread all over the valley. Some family could afford more luxus and did build their house with cement and brakes. There is only one main road for the camioneta (private pick-ups which are the only public transportations for the locals to get out of the village) and the only way to reach the single houses is by footpath up and down the forest. In this village don`t exit sinks, showers and bathrooms. Toilets are situated a few metres away from the houses and they consist of a hole, a bucket with water to flush and a small bin for the used toilet paper. To wash clothes and to have a shower there are springs placed all over the village. Each family do also collect rain water from the house roof in big tall containers to wash dishes and for other general uses. Electricity was introduced in 2000 and some houses possess electric coffee and mais mill as well as stereo and TV.

The Indigeneous Host Family
Each volunteer will spend the first week of the workcamp experience by a local indigeneous family in order to get closer to the culture and slowly adapt to the new life-style as well as be part of the daily activities of each family member. My host family lives about 15 mins by foot from the centre of the village which is the "cooperativa" of Pilateno where the only mini shop and the meeting point of the community are situated. The area next to the mini shop (which is formed of 3 walls and a roof all made by hands by the locals) will become our dormitory or house for our 2nd and 3rd week.

The only way to reach the house of my host family is a very tight footpath through the deep green forest. The family is formed by the fairly young grand-parents Camerina (a lovely woman of 54 years) and his husband Thomas. They are both pentioned but still have a lot of work to do. Both very healthy and full of spirit with not a wrinckle in their face. In the house live their son Luis with his wife Lorenza (27) and the two little girls Ceiline (9) and the noty but adorable Anelise (4). The house has 2 bedrooms which are placed on the two opposite sides of the living room that includes kitchen and sitting room. The house is a ery simple house made of wood with a few fornitures; two double beds (the girls sleep each in one bed), one table, another table for various kitchen tools, four chairs (of which three are half broken) and a very simple fire-kitchen (see picture).

I slept in the bedroom of Camerina and Thomas (the grand-parents). My bed was placed next to their one and a provisory courtain was deviding the room into two. Thank God this time I didn´t have to sleep on the floor! Each volunteer received a foldable bed which will be used for the whole duration of the workcamp in Pilateno and it was far better than sleeping on hard soil.

Anxiousness of Insects in the Night
The good point was to sleep on a decent bed but the critical one was to be sleeping in a wooden house with an open section inbetween the walls and the roof and doesn´t have any proper doors. This means that any kinds of insects and bugs are welcome in the house unexpectively. I don`t have a mosquito-net and so my first night in the wooden house in the middle of the forest was a NIGHTMARE!! While I was preparing my bed with the 2 girsl I couldn`t stop looking around my self to check if any horrible animal was wondering around the house... and why have I ever done it?? I kept seeing little ugly creatures of any sizes and shapes appearing and disappearing from every corner and hole such as enormous spiders, cockroach, weird beetles and God knows what else! Hundreds of mosquitos and moths were flying around the house. While I was lieing in my bed I was horrified by being even touched by any of those animals and with my super tiny blanket (that I have stolen from the airplane of Iberia on the way here) I was trying to cover my self from head to feet. When Camerina switched off the light and everybody was in bed sleeping, I could hear millions of noises without knowing where they were coming from and especially how close to my bed they were. I tell you guys I was paralised! I couldn`t move a muscle and my body was like an extremely rigid wooden stick. Finally around maybe 3 or 4am I fall asleep and slept until 9:30am without getting up from the numerous singing gallos (cocks) in the night and in the morning. After this dreadful night I decided not to be too scared because at the end of the day these insects won`t be able to eat me anyway. The following 3 nights weren`t so stressful but still I didn`t feel 100% safe.

Shower and Clothes-Washing at the Spring or at the River
Initially it was kind of hard to get used to live without a sink to wash my teeth, my hands and my face. To live without a shower means never give a good clean to the body being sweaty half of the times and especially not having a proper toilet. Clothes-washing became here a new activity of my life with my local family. In one of the pic you can see the toilet in the middle of the trees. When I needed to go to the toilet in the middle of the night I would rather wait until the morning. There is NO WAY I would go out of the house with a light when it´s pitch black... you never know what could happen! In the other pic you can see el pozzo (the spring) where I would have my shower using a container to throw fresh water on my body and where I would wash my clothes by hands. Near el pozzo there are Lorenza (the mother) and her little girls Selina and lovely Aneliz.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The town of Xilitla - San Luis Potosi

My stay in Mexico city came to an end and it was time to head towards the state of San Luis Potosi, in Xilitla, North of Mexico city where my 3-weeks volunteer workcamp of an ecotourism project will take place. I took a night bus at 9:30pm which drove in 8h directly to Xilitla (a small town in the South -East of the state). Sleeping on a seat wasn´t easy so I had a broken sleep of maybe about 3h. Around 2am the bus stopped for 30 mins. The driver didn´t inform us of anything and apparently the road was blocked by a car accident. Fortunately it didn´t take too long and the journey continued safely.

The bus arrived around 6am at Xilitla where Norma, the coordinator of the workcamp, welcomed us and brought us to the "El Cafe´de las Flores", a restaurant run by a community of women. The main coltivation in this region are coffe and mais and thus are part of the local culture. So I ordered a good cup of coffee with leche... it was DELICIOUS! My perfect type of coffee: not bitter at all, very light and with a bit of sugar, WOW! While enjoying the coffee of my life Norma told us a bit about the project and the programme appeared to be very flexible and changeable if wished. The activities are varied from creating and promoting tourist attracions to sensibilize the environmental conservetion within the locals and playing with the kids. The 3 main activities regarding the ecotourism theme are 1. the creation of a book with local recepies and traditions, 2. paint a map of the village with the main natural attractions and 3. help women in the creation of jewleries made of local seeds and other manual activities. It sounded super interesting and hopefully us volunteers will be able to succed the project!
An hour later we went for a walk into the centre of this tiny town which is basically dominated by the main plaza with the church (see picture) and one main street packed with fruit stalls and shops of any types. Sunday is the day of the market in Xilitla. It gets super crowded with people of the communities selling and buying any sort of things. In the plaza there are guapangos (Mexican folcloristic band) playing and loads of people dancing away with the rythm soave (see picture).
Since I didn´t have any cash left I had to find a bank to be able to change my Traveller Checks and had to go all the way to Ciudad Valles, the closest big city about 2h away from Xilitla. After queueing up for about 20 mins and waiting for the long process (from Traveler Checks into cash) to get going, I finally have been told that in my case wasn´t possible because the signature on my Cheques didn´t exactly look the same as the one on my passport... ?!? Gulp! Great, so I went all the way there for nothing!
Once I was back in Xilitla, we moved our staff into the dormitory... and what a freaken dormitory! It was a 10 square metres room with beach mats placed all over the floor tile on which 7 people had to sleep for that night... I couldn´t believe it! This dormitory called the "Cooperativa" of Xilitla has to be shared between our project group of 5 people and the other one of about 5 people as well plus the coordinator for the next 2 week-ends. Also the only toilet in the cooperativa doesn´t flush properly which meant that if I need to have a number 2 (the solid version) I have to run out on the street to look for a toilet in a restaurant or an internet point!
My first night on the floor (see picture), after a night sleeping on the bus-seat, was absolutely AWFUL! I kept turning around trying to find a comfortable position that wouldn´t completely distroy my bones. I was extremely exhausted that I fall asleep anyway but woke up thousand times and got up at 8am with broken neck and back, puffed eyes and scared of thinking to sleep for the rest of my 3 weeks in similar conditions! NO WAY! The only moment of relief was a bowl of fresh tropical fruits (mango, papaya, pineapple and melon) with natural yoghurt and the so called granola (cereals) for breakfast... yumme!

Xilitla will be our place of resources for food, water, any sort of material for activities and any other essential needs which have to be purchased over the week-end (our time off). The project it self will take place in Pilateno, about 40mins by car (or so called "camioneta") from Xilitla.
By 12.30am the camioneta was waiting for us. Shortly a camioneta is one of the few private pick-up vans of the indigeneous of Pilateno that runs about 2/3 times a day and leaves whenever is full with people or with material. So there isn´t any fixed timetable... it leaves when it leaves. The camioneta doesnt have any seats for the passengers so we had to stay stand up holding eachother to the sides (see picture).
The way to Pilateno is for a small part of concrete road but most of it is pure soil with stones and when it rains of big maddy water ponds. The landscape in this area is a paradise of heavy green mountains and valleys. After climbing a bit we kept going down and down until we reached the community of Pilateno hidden in the middle of a humid tropical forest.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mexico city; once the Aztec empire of Tenochitlan

I have just spent 5 days in the huge city of the Mexican capital and you will be surprised but I have never felt unsafe; in fact I have been told to travel in day light and stay in the touristy area. Once I arrived in the city and started cruising around by metro (which is the best, cheap and easy way to get around) I did not realize how big was the city until I have climbed the Mirador Torre Latina which offers a spectacular view of the metropolis and gave me the big picture of Mexico city. Regarding the people, they are amazingly friendly and so lovable!!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The remote Islands of Scotland: Islay & Lewis-Harry

Scotland, part of the United Kingdom, has nearly 800 islands including the Hebrides (Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) and the Northern isles (Shetland and Orkney) – see map. The Inner Hebrides which are a group of small islands located off the west coast of Scotland are subgrouped into the Northern Hebrides (isle of Mull, Iona, Cool, Tiree and the Slate Island) taking part of the Argyll and Bute council. Whereas the Outer Hebrides archipelago (or the Long Island) in the northwest of the Highlands encompasses the main islands Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist and Barra.

First of all I would like to talk about the “Queen of the Hebrides”: the ISLE OF ISLAY. It is the most southern island of the Inner Southern Hebrides and it is famous for its rich smoky-peaty Malt Whiskies worldwide. It is said that the production of Whisky in Scotland started on this island in the 14th century by some Irish monks. Although it is a small island of about 600 m², it has 8 distilleries which some of them are very well-known. The reason why the Whisky on Islay possesses a smoky flavour is because peat is used to dry the germinated malt. Peat is a local natural resource and it is a mixture of decomposed plant material that has accumulated in a wetland. Most part of the Highlands is covered with peat which is commonly used for combustion like firewood (in fact peat is the earliest stage in the formation of coal). So by drying and roasting the malt in the fumes of the burning peat for days, the Whisky will develop a smoky-peaty character. The smokiest single malt Whisky are Ardbeg (50 ppm), Laphroaig (30-40 ppm) and then Lagavulin (25-30 ppm) ppm = Part Per Million of Peat. The other 5 less peaty Single Malt Whiskies of Islay are: Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and Kilchoman. My favourite Whisky is definitely Laphroaig. I have visited the distillery and the very friendly local staff gave a true experience through the world of Whisky production... brilliant and very interesting!

The inhabitants on the island are approximately by 3400 where 50% still speak Gaelic. Besides Whisky the Islay isle offers birdwatching, fishing and romantic natural scenery: low smooth hills, few trees, isolated villages and a varied fauna and flora. A cultural attraction is the Kildalton Cross which is the ringed Celtic cross dating back to 800 AD. The natives are absolutely easy-going and warm-welcoming as in the whole of the Highlands and islands. Absolutely you can’t miss out of a delicious home-cooked fresh roasted venison or roasted lamb with a creamy mint sauce. Recommended restaurant is at the Bowmore Hotel; a kind of old ugly looking house but offers a relaxed, family atmosphere with friendly staff and outstanding food for a good quality-price relationship.

After describing a bit about one of the Inner Hebrides Island I will give you a few information about another amazing place: the OUTER HEBRIDES ARCHIPELAGO. The largest island is composed of Lewis, the Northern part, and Harris, the Southern one. The other major islands are North Uist, South Uist and Barra.

Lewis is a flat treeless desolated area mainly covered with peat but it offers outstanding cultural attractions, all located on the West coast, encompassing the museum and a real reconstruction of the Black House in Arnol (typical thatched-roof stone house used by the locals until 1930), the impressive Carloway Broch (a 4-story drystone fort built in the 1st Century BC), the mysterious arrangement of the 50 Callanish Standing Stones dating back 5000 years and the Iron Age house next to the gorgeous Bostadh beach in Great Bernera. In terms of landscape the Southern part of Lewis is definitely worth it with endless small nooky places hiding stunning corners at the edge of this world!! The most amazing paradisiacal bay is Uig (see pic) where the famous 78 ivory-carved Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 (in exposition at the British Museum).

Harris, in comparison to Lewis, is very rocky and mountainous and the beaches are wide and open with white sand and turquoise water. Luskentyre beach (see below pic) is one of the most famous white-sand beach in the world on which is nice to go for a walk (don’t forget to wear gloves, a scarf and a heavy jacket... it can be very windy and cold!). Harris also offers challenging mountain-bike tracks like the 20km-Reinigeadal tour. A highly recommended restaurant is at the Hotel Hebrides in Tarbert where you can enjoy a tasty local beef burger and lamb shank (and so cheap as well!!).

In general all the islands of Scotland have something unique to offer that you will hardly find anywhere in the world. If you have time I would highly recommend visiting the remotest British island of St. Kilda. It lies 66 Km west of the Outer Hebrides and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I did not have the time to visit it but I would have loved to. The history about the natives who were evacuated in 1930 and the seebird breeding is incredibly fascinating! Before visiting the islands, especially during the low season, have a look at when organized tours take place. I am sure you will love it!