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unURBAN

Family time in Yucatan

MexicoPosted by Espen Fri, April 08, 2011 00:44:25

The flight landed on schedule and our family got through the crowd of taxi drivers eagerly waiting by the arrivals exit. A small Dodge (with some suspicious Kia logos here and there) was collected from Hertz across the street, and off we went into the Mexican night. Around nine PM we drove into the parking lot at Acamaya Reef just south of Cancun. My younger brother with wife and two kids checked in to a small cabaña, my father got our roof top tent, and Malin and I pitched our mountain tent down on the beach.

It was great to wake up the next morning and walk 30 meters (100 ft) for a morning swim, especially for the folks coming over from Norway where the temperatures are still around 0 degrees C (32 F). Stayed on the beach for the full day (trying the get the other Norwegians acclimatized..), and then drove south the next day to find the house we rented over the internet. Exiting!

The road going south from Cancun is pretty boring. Fortunately we were lucky enough to have a few situations to break up the monotony… My brother in the rental car got pulled over by two cops on motorbikes that wanted to give him a ticket for driving on red at a light. We saw what happened in the rear view mirror, and I got out and ran back to explain to the guys that dollars was out of the question. They gave up after a little while when they realized that this wasn’t going to be easy money. It is kind of funny that they don’t seem to be interested in giving you a “proper” ticket at all. Could this be too much work for them, or what is the deal? Well, anyway, if you guys ever go to Mexico, please don’t have a twenty “ready”. This just makes the problem with corrupt police worse. It is actually really easy, just tell them “NO”! If you haven’t done anything wrong, that is….

We also had a flat on the rental car on our way south, but I guess this hardly qualifies for any excitement. At least we finally got to test out our new tire repair kit. First flat we’ve had in about 90 000 kilometers! And it wasn’t even on our car…

In Mahahual, almost at the border to Belize, we were approaching our rented home for the next 10 days. There was definitely some excitement in the air as we drove south along the coast from Mahahual. The house should be exactly 8,5 kilometers out of town. It looked promising. And we hit bull’s eye! “Casa del Cielo de las Estrellas” was fantastic!!

During our stay we had some trips into town for supplies and some restaurant visits. One evening we ran straight into the town's Carnival! A great experience!

Leaving Mahahual after the 10 days in the beach house was really sad. We’d had a really nice time there. Still, the sad part was quickly forgotten as new places and experiences came and went. In Bacalar we visited an old Spanish fort from the 17th century that was built in order to protect the city against pirates. In the old days it had been possible to sail from the ocean and all the way into the lagoon and to the town, but in later years storms have closed the opening so that it now is a crystal clear fresh water lagoon!

From Bacalar we drove north to Tulum and more beaches. The camp was set at Mariachi Beach, now with my brother and his wife in the roof top tent, the kids on a mattress in the back of the Patrol (with open back doors, mosquito net, and the annex in place), and then my father and us in two tents on the beach. It is actually possible to camp seven people out of a Nissan Patrol! (Even if it is some stress finding things as everything gets shuffled around all the time).

Overlander's lunch

Alex, our eight year old nephew, had read up on the Chichen Itza ruins, and after all of us picking up a nasty sunburn in Tulum we headed north. Along the way we stopped at a cenote for a swim. It was kind of different to climb down into a cave before jumping in the water. Really cool place! I’ll try to find a photo and post.

Chichen Itza has some great ruins, and is one of the nicest restored maya ruins in the area. Unfortunately it is also packed with tourists as it is so close to Cancun. Prices are ridiculous and there are people all over the place trying to sell you plastic souvenirs.

Ahead of the crowds….

The last night before our family was flying home we were back in Cancun. Here we reorganized luggage and tried to get unused gear and stuff back to Norway. I think they took almost 60 kilos of our stuff back home.

The plane wasn’t leaving until eight thirty in the evening, so we jumped on a boat going out to Isla Mujeres for a few more hours on the beach.

We had a really nice time with our family on Yucatan. It has been a while now without seeing friends or family so this was a real treat. The camp was almost uncomfortably quiet the night they left…

And now it is again time to head south! Can we do 5 countries within one week???

E&M

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Rain, Palenque and Chiapas

MexicoPosted by Malin Tue, January 18, 2011 01:11:52

After about a week up in the mountain we drove from Tlachichuca at 2700 meters where it was all dry and yellow, and got down on Mex 150 and continued to drive down and down. The landscape changed a lot with the altitude, and after a couple of hours driving were we at 100 meters and driving next to sugarcanes and lagoons in 34 degrees Celsius. It was amazing to suddenly be in the tropics and jungle, it was so green. First stop in the lowlands was Catemaco in the state of Veracruz. One day we drove out to have a look at the cost at the Mexican Gulf.

There we found some really nice beaches, but the weather was gray with a drizzle. Not so good for beach life.

During the night we learnt why this area is so green. Rain, rain and a lot of rain, so the next day was a good day to leave Catemaco. We decided to drive the road on the east side of the lake and not the normal one on the west, but 40 minutes into the drive it was full stop.

Because of all the rain, a river that was not marked on our map was flowing over the river banks and a bridge. If we really had to, we could probably have crossed, but thinking about the rivers that were marked on our map further down on this road, we decided to turn around so that we wouldn't be "trapped" between rivers if the rain got even worse. The whole drive from Catemaco to Palenque, about 460 km, it continued to rain.

In the Lonely Planet we could read that Palenque is “in an area that receives the heaviest rainfall in Mexico”.

After one more day with rain the rain god finally decided that it was enough and we could explore the Maya ruins in Palenque.

Palenque flourished from 600 to 800 AD and is known for its fine stucco bas-reliefs and inscriptions.

After exploring the nicely restored ruins,

we just had to follow a path out in the jungle to see if we could find the parts of the ruin city that are still covered by jungle.

From Palenque we wanted to drive 225 km further south in Chiapas to San Cristóbal de Las Casas. About 40 km south of Palenque we had to stop behind some cars that had stopped in the road in front of us. Then we saw that the locals, kids, teenagers, men and women, had put homemade spike roadblocks across the road in front of the cars, and they refused to remove them until a “toll” was paid. First they wanted 100 pesos to let us pass, then we saw a Mexican car paying 50 pesos and they were happy with us paying 50 pesos too. Then the spike roadblock was pulled to the side and we could pass. Chiapas style toll road….. After a few more kilometers we saw that a string was pulled across the road and we were thinking “oh no, not again”. Then we saw that a middle age women is using this trick to stop the cars to sell bananas. We did not feel the urge for bananas at this moment, so she let us pass.

We realized it was Saturday and the road between Palenque and Agua Azul is probably full of tourists so we’re guessing the locals use the opportunity to take in some extra money on the weekend. Chiapas is one of Mexico’s poorest states and about a quarter of the inhabitants are Maya. The Zapatistas are fighting for indigenous rights.

The major attraction along the road is the Agua Azul Waterfalls, and we had read that this tourist destination was run by the local people.

First we were stopped and had to pay 10 peso per person to the local Zapatistas, and then a bit further down the road 25 pesos per person as an entry fee for the area. And then in the end it was the boys that wanted 5 pesos to look after your car….

In the end we were able to have a look at the waterfalls, and they weren’t exactly azul because of all the rain, but it is a really nice waterfall and worth the stop. After a walk up to the top view point and some photos, we got some empanadas from a food stall, and continued on to San Cristobal de Las Casas.

From Agua Azul there were no more unexpected stops or fees (just an army check point). It had been a long day driving on narrow winding roads and we were pretty tired when we got to the campground. Interesting day, and now it is time to go to bed.

Goodnight!

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Pico de Orizaba

MexicoPosted by Malin Tue, January 11, 2011 17:52:51

After strolling around in the city and on the ruins it was time to turn up the action level a click or two. Close to our route to the east coast is the Peak Orizaba, the highest volcano in North America, the third highest mountain in North America, and Mexico’s highest point. Pico de Orizaba rises 5635 meters above sea level (18488 ft), and fortunately for us, it is the perfect time of year (! ;) ) for climbing it! We had already spent about two weeks at about 2000 meters (Mexico City and Teotihuacan is at about 2300 meters), so the acclimatization had already started and would give us and advantage when driving up to base camp.

We didn’t know too much about the mountain and the routes going up to the summit, but after doing a bit of research on the internet we had a fairly good idea. One detail that we really liked was that with a 4x4 you can drive all the way up to the basecamp, called Piedra Grande, at 4250 meters (13944 ft). Our map did not show the road up to Piedra Grande, but on the internet we had found a company called Summit Orizaba ( www.summitorizaba.com )in Tlachichuca that said they could help with everything needed for the mountain.

So on the way to the mountain we stopped by their place where we met a smiling and helpful Maribel. She gave us a description to find the road up to Piedra Grande and some info about the conditions on the mountain.

Then it was just to start the climb/drive up to Piedra Grande driving through a really nice landscape and forest with amazing views to the mountain. The Patrol definitely felt the altitude, and just before 4000 meters we had to engage the low gear. But we made it up to base camp at 4250 meters with no problems, and that is good when we know we are going to the Andes further south.

At Piedra Grande we found an almost flat spot and put up the roof tent and the annex so we had our base camp. While putting up camp we could really feel the altitude, and only small efforts (as putting some rocks on our annex (on the “snow valences”)) felt like hard work. Still we were able to eat a good dinner and have a good night’s sleep.

Since there is a road going all the way up to Piedra Grande, most people that go for the summit arrive there one afternoon, sleep in the basic hut that is up there, do an acclimatization hike the next day, go to bed early, and then get up and start the climb to the summit from the hut at 2-3 o’clock the following night. As we are not really short on time we decided to take it a bit slower and get better acclimatized.

Our first day in base camp we were reading books in camp, enjoyed the view which is just amazing, and towards the evening we did a short walk. When we got back to our camp we were invited to eat tacos and mole from a group of Mexican students that had parked next to us.

They were just up for a day trip, enjoying the views and had a picnic. While we were camping up at Piedra Grande, we saw several cars with Mexicans doing the same thing.

On our second day in camp we had a slow start, but at lunch time we packed up about half of our gear and hiked up to 4740 meters were we put up our mountain tent as an advanced basecamp.

When it was all set up we hiked back down to the car to sleep there one more night, and then move up the next day. But the next morning Malin did not feel ready to try for the summit, so we spent another day reading and relaxing in camp. The rest did good, and the day after we both felt ready to move up to our small tent. Well up by the tent we put on crampons and hiked another 200 meters up the hill so we had a better view of our route the next day.

Our alarm went off at 5 o’clock in the morning and even Espen managed to get up early. Everything is moving in slow motion at this altitude, so we weren’t ready to start the summit attempt before 6.45. The advantage at starting relatively late is that the sun is getting up at the same time, and it followed us the whole way up so we did not have to walk in the shade. This makes a big difference at high altitude as it is difficult to push on in order to get warm.

It was slow going up, and the last hill (at about 35 degrees) is a “monster”! You don’t really see the summit, and it feels like tis hill doesn’t have an end… The last 100 meters we were just able to walk 30-40 steps before we had to rest. But at 11.30 we were on the summit. And it was spectacular!!

It had a huge crater in the middle that is not visible before you suddenly are standing on the edge. Some years back we climbed Elbrus in Russia, witch is also a volcano, but there the summit is just flat. Not nearly as spectacular as the summit of Orizaba.

We were the only ones on the summit, and we were sitting there for 45 minutes at 5635 meters in sun with no wind.

The views in all directions are amazing, and we could look down on the town of Tlachichuca 3000 meters below us. Climbing the “monster” hill was worth it!

Walking down from the summit was so much easier. Back down at the small tent we had some food, packed up, and then continued the hike down. At 16.30 we were back down to the Patrol at base camp, and we made a quick decision to pack up this camp too and drive the 1 ½ hours off the mountain and down to Tlachichuca. A warm shower at the SummitOrizaba, dinner at their restaurant, and a proper bed, was more tempting than one more night in the tent in 0 degrees celsius.

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Teotihuacan

MexicoPosted by Malin Tue, January 11, 2011 01:04:15

We had decided to park our car in Teotihuacan Trailer Park while we went to Mexico City and then visit the ruins when we came back from the city. But with some time to spare on the Sunday we got to San Juan Teotihuacan, we walked to the ruins just to have a look because we had heard something about free entrance on Sundays. It was free entrance, but only for Mexicans.

From the entrance we could see a huge crowd of Mexicans had used this opportunity to visit the site. It was almost hard to see the top of “Pyramid of the Sun” with the crowd of people on top. We turned around and thought it was better to stick to our original plan and come back on Friday.

Friday morning we walked up the “Avenue of the Dead” to the Pyramid of the Moon almost by ourselves.

From the top of the Pyramid of the Moon is the best view down the 2 km long “Avenue of the Dead”, so named because the Aztecs that came to the site centuries later thought the platforms along the avenue was tombs. I heard somewhere that the avenue continues further on for 3 km more, but not enough research has been done on this part. Along each side of the “Avenue of the Dead” are houses for the priests and upper classes the common people lived spread around the city. Building of Teotihuacan started 100 BC and at its peak about 150,000 people lived in the city. The city fell in 7th or 8th century AD.

From the Pyramid of the Moon we walked down to the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world. After climbing the 248 steps we again had great views over Teotihuacan and the remains of the city is really impressive. What remain today are gray stone structures, but when one take into account that the whole city was painted red,

and with wall paintings as decoration, the city must have been amazing at its peak.

Our walk continued further down the “Avenue of the Dead” to the Citadel where we had a look at the “Temple of the Feathered Serpent” that is decorated with many stone sculptures and is a little different from the other pyramids in Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan and especially the size of the Pyramid of the Sun is really impressive and the site is definitely worth a visit.

After climbing the third largest pyramid in the world we were ready to try to climb the third highest mountain in North-America, the volcano Pico de Orizaba 5635 meters above sea level. Or maybe it is just that as Norwegian we miss the snow and ice so much that we have to look for it one of the few places where it is possible to find it in Mexico……?

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Mexico City

MexicoPosted by Espen Sun, January 09, 2011 05:27:55

For months we debated if we should go to Mexico City or not. Too big, too dangerous, too much police that will try to rob us, too polluted, and, of course, too urban for unURBAN. But now, when we are safe and sound back at the campground in Teotihuacan, it is hard to know where to begin writing about all those impressions a four days visit to Mexico City gave us.

We decided to leave the Patrol at Teotihuacan Trailer Park in San Juan Teotihuacan. It is a fenced in campground, and they let you park your car here for half price of a camp site. The next morning we arrived in Mexico City after a 55 minutes bus ride, and checked in to a hotel in the city center. We spent the day walking around in the Centro Historico, and walked all the way down to Zona Rosa, a kilometer or two further south, for dinner. To get back home, we used Mexico City’s excellent metro, and it took us right to the doorstep at our hotel.

The morning after we visited the museum of Frida Kahlo and the house where she and her husband Diego Rivera lived and worked. Their story is as fascinating as the city itself, and the place is well worth a visit.

In the southernmost parts of Mexico City we found a nice surprise. Canals!

We jumped on a local bus (with a huge stereo, and a bus driver that obviously was into techno…), and it took us all the way down to one of the embarcaderos were we hired a boat (in lack of a better word) and a “captain”. And as this was in the middle of the Christmas holiday, it was pretty busy, and we saw everything from family lunches to music bands playing to flower stores on the different “boats” on the channels. On our way back to the hotel, we decided to check out another area for a good restaurant. Ended up in Condesa where we had a great dinner at an “organic” restaurant called La Buena Tierra.

Mexico City also has an impressive number of Starbucks coffee shops. And to keep the pace up, we started the third day with a couple of double lattes, and headed for the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. This is a HUGE museum with fantastic displays of the Mexican and the Mesoamerican history and archeological artifacts. This is a must see if you stay in Mexico City, and a full day (or perhaps two halves would be better) is a minimum of time required. We’ll see if we are able to put some of the historical sites described here into our route as we travel further south.

And the last day was spent…………… SHOPPING! After eight months on the road we start to see some wear and tear on jeans, shoes, boxer shorts, sandals, etc. Stocked up enough to get us to Cancun.

We even had time to take in the view of the city from the 38th floor of the Torre Latinoamericano building before running for the bus back to the campground and the Patrol. The view point offers a 360 degrees view of the world’s biggest city, and believe me, it is BIG!

For the record: we had no bad experiences, and all the people we met were nice, helpful, polite and smiling. Even the police, and there is a LOT of them in the streets. I can of course not say that nothing bad will happen in Mexico City, but we felt safe and well within our comfort zone at all times.

And tomorrow: Teotihuacan ruins!

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