Mexico and Guatemala, March 2010

Mexico and Guatemala

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The highlights of this trip were the ancient ruins of Mexico and Guatemala.

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  1. Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico. Hotel Juarez on Avenida 5 de Mayo, 1.5 blocks from Zocalo, 270 pesos for a double with two beds and private bath. Virgen Milagrosa (metro Division del Norte, calle Matias Romero) is a good specimen of modernist architecture, somewhere in between Brazilia and St Mary's in SAn Francisco. Universidad Nacional (metro Universidad) the Biblioteca is one of the modern wonders of the world,completely covered with Juan O'Gorman morales; the Refectoria has three-dimensional murales; Farmacia has another wall-size mural. The nraby Stadio Olimpico is shaped like a volcano. Santa Fe (metro Observatorio plus bus or taxi) is the neighborhood with the most futuristic architecture, notably the Conjunto Calakmul or "Lavadora", the "Pantalon" and the building next to it. There is also a modernist church next to the Lavadora. Museo de Antropologia (metro Chapultepec, NOM, 49P) is colossal and very well organized. The downtown square, Zocalo, is the second largest in the world. Catedral (Zocalo) is flanked by a pretty Sacristia. Iglesia la Profesa (Southeast of Zocalo on Isabel and Madero) is a good example of baroque. Tres Culturas (North of Zocalo, metro Tlatelolco) contains the ruins of the ancient city of Tlatelolco and the church of SAntiago of 1609. Basilica Guadalupe (northwest, metro Deportivo) is a vast ensemble of churches. The most visible is the modern one, built in the 1970s. Then there is a vast sqaure with the two oldest buildings: the sinking old basilica and its batisterio, that date from the 16th century. Behind them there is an Arabic-style church. To its left is the pathway that climbs to the Capilla de las Rosas, at the top of the hill, with great views of the square. Xochimilco (South, metro Taxena plus Tren Ligero to the end) is famous for the floating gardens but is now mainly a tourist trap. To get to Xochimilco take the metro to Taxena. Exit the station and turn right to the light trail. Xochimilco is the last station: 30 min 3 pesos. Walk to embarcadero if you want a boat. There is a pier specifically for the colectivo: 15 pesos 1h to the other side. At the other side you can take a bus diretly to Taxena 1h 5 pesos. But it might be nicer to just walk around the pathways.
  2. Cacaxtlan and Xochitecatl. Puebla 113 pesos, 2 hours from Tapo, plus a local bus from CAPU to Puebla's Zocalo. Cacaxtla Take Puebla to Xlotla but get off at the crossroad for Nativitas, then collectivo to Nativitas 5pesos then collectivo to Cacaxtlan 5 pesos. Cacaxtla 49 pesos closed on mondays, about 30 minutes from the bus terminal CAPU of Puebla.. Xochitecatl 49 pesos. To get there walk down the street from Cacaxtla to the main highway and take transportation that goes right to San Miguel. The turnout for the ruins (just afte the town) is marked by a colossal sign. Walk up that steep road 1.5 km. On the way back walk down to the same colossal sign and take anything that goes to the right to San Martin: 6.5 pesos 30 minutes. At the bus terminal of San Martin that are frequent buses to Ciudad de Mexico: 68 pesos 1.5 hours.
  3. Teotihuacan, Tepotzotlan and Tula. Teotihuacan is best reached from Autobus del Norte metro station in about 40 minutes. Entrance is 51 pesos. Tepotzotlan is closed on mondays and is reached from Autobus del Norte in about 1 hour. Tula is closed on mondays and is reached after Tepotzotlan by the same bus route (about 2 hours from Tepotzotlan).
  4. Templo Mayor and Xochicalco. Templo Mayor: one block north of Zocalo on Calle Guatemala, 51 pesos, closed on mondays. Xochicalco is closed on mondays and is reached from Taxena bus station. The nearest stop is at Miacatlan (91 pesos, 2 hours). Then i took a taxi for 25 pesos to the entrance of the ruins. The bus to Taxco goes by the nearby highway. I took a taxi for 50 pesos to the bus stop on the highway. From there it costs 61 pesos to travel to Taxco. Taxco is a city on a hill. The bus station is at the bottom. Nearby is the Hotel Anita (250 fr a double room). The other hotels and all the attractions are up the hill (very steep streets and stairways).
  5. Taxco, Mexico. Taxco to Taxena in Mexico City takes 2.5 hours 140 pesos.
  6. Palenque and Frontera Corozal, Mexico. Overnight bus from TAPO to Palenque: 6pm, 14 hours, 800 pesos. Ticket to enter Parque Palenque: 25 pesos. Luggage deposit: 15 pesos per piece. Collectivo from Palenque town to ruins: 10 pesos, 15 minutes. Entrance to ruins: 51 pesos. There is a suggested itinerary that works quite well and ends at the museum. From the museum it is a long way to walk back to the entrance,. or one can take a collectivo coming from Palenque town.. The bus terminal for Frontera Corozal is just before Palenque town. Buses leave every hour 100 pesos 2.5 hours, good road, almost no stops en route.. In Frontera Corozal the infrastucture is minimal. We heard of two hotels. One is four blocks from the bus terminal: Hotel Liz Beth (200 pesos for a large room with two beds and private bath). The other one requires a taxi but seems to have more varied accomodation and also internet (Escudo Jaguaro). The embarcadero for the boats is quite far from downtown. THe boats are big. Renting a whole boat for Yaxchitlan costs 800 pesos. If you put together a bigger group, the prices goes down significantly. (We found a school that is taking four boats to go there and the boat owner will charge us 150 pesos each to join that group).
  7. Yaxchilan, Mexico. Motorboat from Frontera Corozal to Yaxchilan 200 pesos for the roundtrip, 45 minutes. Entrance to Yaxchilan (that must be purchased in Frontera Corozal) 49 pesos. Motorboat to Bethel: 200 pesos for 45 minutes.
  8. Flores and Uaxactum, Guatemala. Boat from Frontera Corozal (Mexico) to Bethel (Guatemala) 200 pesos 45 minutes. 1$=8 quetzal. Immigration 40 quetzal (the visa is good for all Central America). Bus to Flores 80 quetzal. Hotel Continental in Santa Elena 125 quetzal. Roundtrip bus to Tikal 60 quetzal. Entrance to Tikal 150 Q or $21. Bus to Uaxactum 10Q only at 4pm takes 45'. Hotel Chiklero in Uaxactum 100Q. Visiting the ruins is free. Returning to Tikal the only bus is at 7am, which is impractical so one needs to hitchhike. In Flores a good restaurant is SAn Telmo (28Q for a pasta dish) and the most popular internet cafe is right across the street (8Q per hour). Overnight bus to Ciudad de Guatemala: 9pm, 200 pesos, 9 hours.
  9. Suchitoto, El Salvador. Flores-Ciudad de Guatemala 9pm-6am 200 quetzal = $25 Transfer by taxi to Melva bus station in zona 9 Ciudad de Guatemala - San Salvador 120 quetzal, 5 hours No visa needed if you are coming from Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua The currency in El SAlvador is the USA dollar San Salvador - Suchitoto from Terminal del Oriente $0.75, 1h Hotel in Suchitoto: Blanca Luna $7 per person.
  10. San Salvador, El Salvador. Hotel Custodio Internacional, in the center, $18 for two, very friendly.
  11. Ciudad de Guatemala. Hotel Fenix, very friendly and helpful.
  12. Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. Transmetro from Plaza Barrios in Guatemala City to Cenma: 1Q, 30 minutes. Downstairs there are several bus companies. To Tecum Uman: 5 hours, $7. The bus leaves you 1km from immigration. Hire a tricycle to the immigration post. Then another one to the Mexican immigration across the bridge. You can also walk easily but they know where to stop for the stamps. The Mexican side of Tecum Uman is called Ciudad Hidalgo. Hospedaje Suciate in Ciudad Hidalgo very friendly and helpful, 150 pesos for AC, tv, private bath, etc etc.
  13. Morelia, Mexico. Bus to Morelia from Observatorio: 360 pesos, 4 hours

Notes (2010)

Trip difficulty: easy
Length: 15 days
Season: before may
Approximate cost: $1,000
  • Pictures of this trip
    • El Salvador and Honduras have the highest murder rate per capita in the world
    • $1=13 pesos. Free visa at the airport. One hour internet is 8-10 pesos. Hotels are very cheap and transportation even cheaper.
    • Ciudad de Mexico is a fine city. I am impressed they manage to keep it clean, given its colossal size. It is also ten times safer than the average USA city. People are polite and friendly. No aggressive dudes with tattoos and stuff, like in the USA.
    • I was ashamed to hear that USA citizens cancel trips to Mexico for fear of crime. Mexican cities are much safer than USA cities. I have traveled to 128 countries of the world and i consider USA cities among the most dangerous in the world. There are police officers or traffic guards literally at every corner, and, unlike in the USA, there are not paid just to ambush and harass commuting taxpayers. And lo and behold the streets are actually clean (unlike in San Francisco or New York). And lo and behold there are no homeless on the sidewalk and nobody begging for money (unlike in San Francisco). Somebody from a USA city who won't travel to Mexico for fear of crime is like somebody from Baghdad who won't travel to Singapore for fear of suicide bombers.
    • Avoid mondays. Most monuments are closed on mondays (basically, everything except for churches) and the government has moved all national holidays to mondays. Things that you can see on a monday (if it is not a national holiday) in and around Mexico City: Teotihuacan, Cathedral and all churches, Xochimilco, Palacio Nacional.
    • Everything is huge. It is not only that things are far apart, but each thing requires a lot of time. A single murale may take 2 hours. Churches are huge, museums are huge, the blocks of the city are huge.
    • The crowds are sometimes overwhelming, but always polite and well-behaved.
    • Transportation to the suburbs and nearby cities is incredibly good and efficient.
    • A super-efficient metro (despite the age of its cars), a super-helpful police force and super-polite ordinary citizens make it easy to reach and visit places.
    • Overall the experience in Mexico is way more positive than expected, especially in the capital. People are super friendly and hospitable. Police officers treat us like kings. Ordinary people kind and helpful. If there is any crime, i didn't see it and didn't feel it at all. You are super safe in metros, museums, downtown and many other places because police presence is massive. People are so polite, well-behaved and well-dressed that i feel ashamed that i am richer than them. In an ideal world the pesos would be worth 10 times a euro and 5 times a dollar. I noticed a contrast between how religious ordinary Mexicans are and the almost hostile way in which the Church is depicted by the government. It is a subtle message, but is just about everywhere. Government offices emphasize the Inquisition and the exploitation of the indios by the priests, but then ordinary people still perform rituals that have long disappeared in Italy.
    • Signs of a superior civilization: 1. They use the metric system (the USA uses the old Roman imperial system as adapted by the old British empire) 2. Prices are... the prices (in the USA the price is never the price because somehow the customer is supposed to add the unknown local taxes)
    • Hotels downtown are cheaper than dormitories in the Condesa/Roma area. For example, the dormitory at Hotel Home recommended by the Lonely Planet charges 150 pesos for one bed, but the Hotel Juarez near the Zocalo on Avenida Cinco de Mayo & Isabel charges 200 pesos for a single room with all comforts and 270 for a double room with two large beds.
    • Autobus del Norte is the bus station for anything in the north (Teotihuacan, Tepotzlan, Tula). Observatorio is the bus station for Morelia. Tapo (metro San Lazaro) is the bus station for most of the rest. handles most bus companies.
    • Here is a list of the main attractions and when they are open (NOM means closed on mondays): Museo de Antropologia (NOM), Catedral (Zocalo), Palacio Nacional (Zocalo, monday to friday except holidays), Templo Mayor (West of Zocalo, NOM), Profesa (South of Zocalo on Isabel), Museo Rivera (East of Zocalo)(NOM), Ildefonso (North of Templo)(NOM), Secretaria (North of Zocalo, monday to friday except holidays only at 1|0, 12 and 14) (Mo'Fr), Bellas Artes (East of Zocalo) (NOM), Tres Culturas (North of Zocalo), Santa Fe, notably the "Lavadora" (Observatorio * bus), San Angel (South), Museo Frida (South)(NOM), Virgen Milagrosa (Division del Norte), Universidad Nacional (Mo-Fr), Xochimilco (South) , Xochicalco (South)(NOM), Taxco (south), Teotihuacan (North), Tenayuca (North)(NOM), Tepotzotlan (North)(NOM), Tula (North)(NOM), Basilica Guadalupe (northwest), Puebla (2 hours west), Cacaxtla and Xochitecatl (near Puebla)(NOM), Tlaxcala (near Puebla)(NOM), Cholula (near Puebla) (NOM).
    • Cacaxtla, near Puebla, is a 650-950 AD ruin on a hill. A bit of a hike to the ruins from the place where the bus left me, but nothing compared to the next one: Xochitecatl is on the hill across, but you have to retrace your steps, hitchhike or be lucky, and eventually hike up the hill 1.5 km. That is a much older ruin (800 BC). Near Puebla is also Cholula, the largest pyramid in Mexico and second in the world after Giza.
    • Teotihuacan (the most famous and oldest of prehistoric cities around the capital) represents the classic period of this lost civilization that was already lost when the Aztecs discovered it. The Pyramid of the Sun dates from 150 AD (and it is the third largest pyramid ever built after the one on Cholula and the one in Giza). Next to it there are very nice botanic gardens that nobody visits. The Pyramid of the Moon dates from 300 AD and is more graceful than big. It also surrounded by 12 platforms that enhance the aesthetics. The other end of the axis is occupied by the Ciudadela, that contains the temple of the plumed serpent, the only significant decoration of this site. This civilization collapsed in about 800 AD and nobody really knows why. The Aztecs thought that this was a giant cemetery.
    • Tepotzotlan is a small colonial town whose Museo del Virreinato contains two of the most baroque chapels of Mexico. You have to see the retablos to believe it.
    • Further north Tula was the capital of the Toltec civilization between 900 and 1150 AD. There is just one major attraction: the giant statues placed on the highest pyramid.
    • Rivera murales: Museo Rivera (closed on mondays, metro Hidalgo, 20 pesos); Secretaria Education Publica in Plaza Domingo north of Zocalo open monday-friday except holidays and only at 10am, 12pm and 2pm; Bellas Artes (near the Alameda Park, metro Bellas Artes) 35 pesos and no photo allowed inside (closed on mondays). Orozco's murales in the Colegio Ildefonso (closed on mondays, open till 6pm); Palacio Nacional in the Zocalo (closed mondays).
    • Xochicalco is one of the most impressive ruins i have seen in Central America. The city was a crossroad of civilizations. It has three football fields and a colossal acropolis. One of the best places where to study the cosmology of the ancient people.
    • The Templo Mayor is the main Aztec ruin in Mexico City (or better Tenochtitlan as the Aztecs called it). It is a good place to see the various layers of temples. To commemorate the seventh in 1487 the Aztecs sacrificed 20,000 people. Most people underestimate how brutal these Mesoamerican civilizations were.
    • Taxco is one of the best preserved colonial towns (narrow alleys, stairways, small squares, etc).
    • Yaxchilan used to be virtually inaccessible. Now there is a paved road to Frontera Corozal and fast motorboats take you there in 45 minutes. Worse: many agencies combine a visit to Palenque with a visit to more adventurous Yaxchilan. We were lucky in the morning: we got there before the tour groups and enjoyed the main square literally alone. The tourists started pouring in when we were almost done with all the ruins so most of my pictures have no people at all. Yaxchilan was one of the many city-states of the Maya empire. Its peak was about 600-850 AD. The place is well-preserved. There are four main groups: the main square, an imposing acropolis on top of a seriously challenging staircase (about 10 meter wide and 100 meter tall), a higher acropolis and a small acropolis. Palenque is slightly better but a lot more famous because it has been available to tourists for much longer. In terms of spectacular setting, Yaxchilan is not second to anything because you need the 45 minute boat ride and then you are literally walking in the jungle, with the big temples emerging slowly from the thick vegetation.
    • After Yaxchilan you can return to Frontera Corozal and go to the immigration post, and take another boat, this time to Bethel, the entry point in Guatemala, about 40 minutes in the other direction of the river. (There is also a small town, Tecnica, across from Frontera Corozal but i wasn't sure if there is a Guatemala immigration post and it looked like transportation would have been a gamble).
    • Bethel is quite basic. We had to wait two hours for transportation to show up and it was a rundown van that rapidly became overcrowded (i counted 28 people inside and three on the roof at the peak). We only got one flat tire en route and happily reached Flores in about 4 hours. Flores is the main launching point for a visit to Tikal, so we are suddenly surrounded by tourists from all over the world, including USA tourists who are easy to recognize because of their strong accent. And it was relatively easy to find an internet cafe open till late.
    • Tikal was considered for a long time the largest Maya city. There are literally hundreds of buildings that still have to be escavated out of the jungle. Every time that i have been here there was a new pyramid open to tourists. Alas, it will take centuries to dig up everything. In the 1970s the archeologists discovered a large area that might be an even bigger city. The locals call it El Mirador. The original plan was to hike to El Mirador. That plan is almost certainly aborted because 1. We are told that we would have to wait till thursday, and 2. It is raining. So i will try to do something easier before heading for El Salvador.
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