Mexico City, Teotihuacan and the House of Frida Kahlo

Mexico City is a large, sprawling metropolis with plenty to occupy oneself with.

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The Cathedral is absolutely huge. One of the major sights in the city, the structure is built atop the old Aztec settlement known as Templo Mayor, and you can also walk around a raised path to see the ruins. Housed in the cathedral is the painting Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Indeed this image was present in pretty much every church I visited in the country.

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Cathedral in Mexico City

The Zocalo (Main Square) was home to a market/stage whilst I was there, and it was very pleasant indeed to walk around and be given tasters of traditional foods. There’s also a large pedestrian street stretching away from the Zocalo towards Palacio de Bellas Artes. The palacio is a strange gallery as the main paintings housed here were large murals depicting bloody and surreal scenes. I didn’t have to pay because my student card is still in date though!

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Zocalo

One of the highlights of Mexico City for me was a visit to Frida Kahlo’s house. One of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, Kahlo grew up in the neighbourhood of Coyocan, a metro ride from the centre. The metro in Mexico City is wide stretching and very well-functioning (though it does get a bit busy at peak, as normal) and only costs $5 pesos (about 25p) per ride (you hear that Transport for London, 25p instead of £2.40!). After marrying fellow artist Diego Riviera, the two made the house their home.

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Metro of Mexico City (notice the young couple embracing – this was an unusually common sight on the underground, it seems the city Metro is the place to go for a hot date.)

It was a little hard to find, not least because some of the Mexicans I asked seemed to think it was helpful to give directions even if they had no idea where it was. I arrived all the same and after a quick stop at the market a couple of streets south (tasty spinach and mushroom tortillas!) I got into the museum, or La Casa Azul, again with student prices.

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La Casa Azul

The museum houses several famous works by Kahlo, notably Viva La Vida and several of her famous self-portraits. There’s also a number of photos on display and plenty of furniture and trinkets owned by the couple. Interesting points I found were the bedroom in which Trotsky stayed when he was exiled to Mexico and also Frida’s day and night bedrooms and studio, both of which featured mirrors the artist used to paint with. Furthermore, there are two clocks housed here with inscriptions by the artist which show the dates of the break-up and reconciliation of her marriage with Diego after his affair with her sister.

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Viva la Vida, by Frida Kahlo, not Coldplay…

Further artifacts included braces used by Kahlo who had been detrimentally injured in a bus accident when she was eighteen. Together with contracting polio aged six, Kahlo was left disabled for much of her life and also unable to bear children – a theme which is present in a lot of her works.

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Two clocks inscribed by Frida Kahlo

The house is very peaceful with a nice garden, but probably not somewhere one would care to visit unless they were a true fan of the artist and role in communism as I am.

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Garden of La Casa Azul

I spent Friday night at the very surreal event of Lucha Libre – Mexican wrestling. The whole thing is honestly quite fascinating; very muscly man dress in tight, sparkly suits and brightly coloured masks wrestle one another to the ground in a display which appears incredibly homoerotic. Dramatic drops and somersaults were witnessed – these guys are very agile it must be admitted. There’s generally more than two people in a ring, meaning that several people team up against one another and at one point two people with dwarfism began wrestling – very weird indeed.

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Lucha Libre Wrestling

A must-see for anyone visiting Mexico City, however, is the Mesoamerican ruins of Teotihuacan. I went here without a tour, taking the metro to “del norte” and then catching a bus from the station there. Transport and entry included cost $170 pesos.

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Carving at Teotihuacan

The city is thought to have been established in 100BC and fell around 600-700AD. The name Teotihuacan apparently means “birthplace of the Gods” in Aztec, and the two pyramids – one dedicated to the sun and one to the moon – are certainly gargantuan and god-like in proportion. You’re able to climb to the top of both, giving excellent views of the surrounding landscape and site.

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Me on top of Piramide de Sol

The main avenue “Avenue of the Dead” (a little eerie, I know) stretches east to west along the centre of the site, the levels rising and falling due to different temples, squares and market places being built along it. I thoroughly enjoyed this site, even though I had been in a proper mood that morning.

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Sun pyramid from the ground

A funny thing also happened when I somehow managed to find myself at some trendy recording studio party. It was an odd night, one that ended in a taqueria talking to a native Venezuelan about the sad situation in his country. Only in Mexico!

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Puebla, Mexico

Puebla is a larger colonial city than I expected. Again set on a grid, the heart of this city was at the Zocalo with the touring city cathedral just behind.

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Cathedral in Puebla

Puebla is famous for the Battle of Puebla, the aforementioned reason for the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Taking place in 1862, the battle marks an important victory for the Mexican army over the French occupation. The battle site lies a little walk out of the town, and up a hill… But a nice park now resides there which is well worth an amble.

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Memorial to the Battle of Puebla

Also present in the town is the oldest library of the Americas – Biblioteca Palofoxiana. Various museums and a market serving Cemillas (essentially a sandwich with most of the bread taken out) is also in the town.

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Cathedral at night

I’m going to be honest with you now and tell you that Puebla wasn’t one of my most favourite towns. Indeed it is not somewhere I would visit again – I found it lacked character and was far too big for its own good. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many colonial towns to appreciate it. In any case, I moved on quick.

Oaxaca, Mexico

Another night bus, another colonial city in Mexico.

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Zocalo in Oaxaca

Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ca, which I embarrassingly found out inquiring about tickets at the bus station) lies in the Central Valleys of Mexico, surrounded by beautiful natural scenery including some impressive petrified waterfalls.

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Inside Cathedral of the Lady of the Assumption

The city has a nice atmosphere, especially in the Zocalo, or main square, where music was playing both evenings I was there and people gathered to socialise and sip frozen fruit juices. The imposing cathedrals of Santa Domingo and Cathedral of the Lady of the Assumption are also fantastic buildings to peruse over.

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Santa Domingo Cathedral

But the real star of Oaxaca is the cuisine. Considered by some as Mexico’s culinary capital, all the food I had here was delicious and very cheap. I would definitely recommend a visit to the eclectic and varied markets just south of Zocalo. The first is dedicated mainly to fruits, flowers, some open meat counters (I have to admit that as a squeamish vegetarian these did make me squirm a bit….)

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Market stall with different flavoured mezcals

You can buy interesting looking cellophaned balls of white Oaxacan cheese as well as chapulines; chillied grasshoppers which are a delicacy in the region. Furthermore, a fair few stalls sell mezcal, a white spirit which, like tequila, is made from agave. Mezcal is thought to have originated from Oaxaca.

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Mini bananas at the market

But head down to the second market and you are first greeted with a wealth of bakery stalls. The main bread on sale here is a mildly sweet roll called yema (also known as “egg bread”). Get three for five pesos, or choose from other sweet pastries and artisan breads on offer.

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Panderia section in the second Oaxacan market

Just down from the bakery section and you enter a zone which was probably my favourite part of the town; the market becomes a kind of cosy food hall with different vendors serving up delicacies, locals taking their time to relax and chat over good foods and the occasional Mexican busker adding to the atmosphere. It was here that I sampled one of the most notable of Oaxaca’s cuisines; black mole. Mole (pronounced mo-lay) is a special sauce created using mixtures of chillis, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, nuts and even chocolate. A lot of the stalls were offering with rice and chicken, but I asked the kind lady at mine if there was a possibility I could get it without meat. She offered a mole with enchiladas and my word it is the best meal I have had out here – so tasty and full of flavour, and so cheap; the entire plate of food cost me 35 pesos (or about £1.40).

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Delicious black mole enchilada with Oaxacan cheese

I also sampled quesadillas, and it is recommended to also try tlayudas; tortillas piled high with different meats, vegetables and sauces.

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Quesadilla

Another food Oaxaca is known for is the chocolate. Chocolate has had a big influence on the region since before the Spanish Conquest, with cocoa being used in medicines and the seeds even being used as money! Today the chocolate is just as rich and flavourful and is most commonly sampled as a kind of hot chocolate drink. Many of the vendors offered drinking chocolate with yema for 25 pesos, which came in a bowl without a handle and tasted deliciously rich.

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Oaxacan chocolate and yema

My boots heavily loaded, I suppose it’s time I head on further north and discover what the mountain city of Puebla has to offer!

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Botanical Gardens behind Santa Domingo

San Cristobel de las Casas

After a hefty night bus journey from Merida, I finally arrived in San Cristobel de las Casas.

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Busy Street in San Cristobel

Set in the central highlands of the Mexican state Chiapas, San Cristobel is a delightful city featuring cobbled streets and lots and lots of churches. The city reminded me very much of Antigua in atmosphere, though perhaps not quite as big or busy. It is cold here though – I actually had to bring out the jeans and jacket. This is when I realize how much I adore blue skies, sun and hot weather.

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View from one of the hilltop churches

I attended a free walking tour here which I found included free samples of the region’s coffee, soup and mezcal – a Mexican drink very similar to tequila, though perhaps more lethal if such a thing is possible.

Some of the churches are worth a browse too. Two of them require walking up a number of steps, but I thought the view worthwhile and it was very nice to get out of the city centre to far quieter climes.

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Main Square in San Cristobel

I would hate this blog to turn into a rendetion of me drinking in different Central American cities, but what with it being Cinco de Mayo, a holiday celebrating the Mexican army’s defeat against the French in the Battle of Puebla, I felt it a must (although Cinco de Mayo is not actually very well celebrated across Mexico apart from in Puebla and is more an American holiday, I still needed some excuse for my Friday night drinking).

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Street art of San Cristobel

As most of the people I went out with from the hostel returned home and I was still feeling energetic, I entered a random nightclub just off the main park alone for ashamedly not the first time in this trip. There I found some very lovely Mexicans who seemed to think it was their duty to always keep a drink in their hand and we danced the night away to a mixture of Reggaeton and club classics.

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Tourist “train” in San Cristobel

Returning back to the hostel early in the morning, I ran into a Dutch girl I had met in the bar the night before who had gone to bed early to catch an early bus. “Is it four o’clock already” I tipsily asked. She laughed at my amazement.

So much for having a quiet two weeks and working on my novel! Onto Oaxaca by yet another night bus where I might hopefully be more productive.

Valladolid, Chichen Itza and Merida

Travelling inland from Cancun and I came into contact with several gems of the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Valladolid is an adorable little town which makes a great first stop away from Cancun. Refreshingly Mediterranean in atmosphere, the town has a number of nice churches, a pleasant square and several museums around which to wonder. The market is also worth a look too, with an array of fruits and snacks cooked on the street and considerably cheap in price.

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Perhaps the highlight of Valladolid is Cenote Zaci. There are many different cenotes dotted around this part of Mexico. They are essentially a series of collapsed caves and caverns filled with fresh water and connected by a delicate web of underwater streams. The Mayans apparently considered these pools entrances to the underworlds and they were treated very seriously in the Mayan society.

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Me at Cenote Zaci

A lot of cenotes are located bus rides away out of towns and cities. Cenote Zaci, however, is situated right in the centre of the town, just a few streets away from the market in fact, which makes its breath-taking appearance all the more surreal.

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Cenote Zaci

The water is beautifully clear and little black fish come and nibble at your legs if you’re not careful! There’s also a 20ft ledge which you can jump off – it took me a while to gather up the courage, but the thrill of the jump was well worth it!

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Me in front of El Castillo

About an hour along from Valladolid is the famous Mayan site of Chichen Itza. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mayan ruins are probably best known for the distinctive and well-preserved El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan); the first and most iconic temple you see as soon as you enter. The shape and position of the temple is very important for the spring and autumn equinoxes when the sunrise causes a particular triangular shadow to be cast along the balustrade – creating the effect of a feathered serpent slithering down the temple steps.

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First settled in the early classic period of around 400AD, the city was built near the site because of the presence of two cenotes. The Sacred Cenote lies a couple of hundred metres away from El Castillo and was thought of as “the well of the Gods” by the Mayans. Human sacrifices used to be thrown into the pool so as they could use the cenote as a passage from this world to the next.

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Furthermore, a grand pelota court stands near the centre of the city – pelota being one of the most popular sports of the Mayas. Comparable to football nowadays, professional pelota was taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously as the captains of losing teams could very well face human sacrifice (at least professional football isn’t quite as tough on its players…)

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Entrance to the Pelota court in Chichen Itza

Ruins of the observatory, market and the nunnery (basically a university) are also in very good condition. Some have beautiful carvings showing  sacred Mayan animals such as serpents and jaguars, but also weird faces with eclectic expressions.

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Two and a half hours more on the bus from Chichen Itza and one reaches the capital of the Yucatan peninsula; Merida. Merida is a beautiful colonial city, with a similar Mediterranean feel as Valladollid. The beautiful square sitting in the shadow of the cathedral is the focal point of this town and is very atmospheric in the evenings when bands are playing and people are singing and dancing. As with many colonial towns, a rife of street food is available and the city also has several museums including a Mayan Museum.

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Central Square in Merida

Cancun

I don’t know what I was really expecting of Cancun. I had heard such mixed reviews from other travelers coming down from the resort town that I was really unsure of what I might encounter.

Seared in my brain as the place of Spring Break parties since my mid-teens, Cancun is definitely equipped for sun, sea and clubbing. The huge stretch of beaches, bars, resort hotels and night clubs lies on a strip some way out from the town of Cancun, and buses run regularly to and from the zone.

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One of the few (blurry) pictures I have of the Cancun nightlife

If I’m being perfectly honest, the town of Cancun isn’t great. Busy roads and large shopping centres hardly create a picturesque and cultural feel that can be experienced in other towns of the country. Going clubbing there is expensive too, with some of the top clubs charging $65 for entrance on big nights. Although this includes an open bar, I know that I won’t be able to drink back my money’s worth. I spent one day with a huge hangover and the next leaving – there’s not actually much to do here apart from partying.

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The ‘real’ Cancun…

So I tried it once, had a good night out, probably wouldn’t return, but at least I can say I have stepped foot in the famous Cancun. Now it’s time to explore some more of the real Mexico away from the resort-lined east coast.

Best Travel Music

So I’ve been thinking about doing a post about this for a while. Music is something very important to pretty much everyone on the planet, and given that I spend a lot of hours alone on buses, my iPod has been one of my best friends this entire trip.

Before coming out here I uploaded a fair few songs which I thought would be uplifting to a solo traveler. A lot of them are classics, but I’ve thrown some of my random favourites in – I should add the disclaimer that I have what I would call a very “unique” taste in music.

On the Road Again, Willie Nelson

I’ve Been Everywhere, Johnny Cash

I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), The Proclaimers – I absolutely love this song, not least because it reminds me of How I Met your Mother when it gets stuck in their car record player. So very uplifting!

Forever Young, Alphaville – I get unreasonably emotional when I listen to this; it reminds me how the present is fleeting and something I have to appreciate now in all its entirety, whether good or bad.

The Cave, Mumford and Sons – quite a recent song and not particularly related to travelling, but it reminds me of the philosophical problem of Plato’s about – when prisoners inside a cave think that shadows they see on the cave wall are real and only when they are released are they able to understand that reality is far more complex beyond the cave. Dare I employ a parallel between coming out of a cave and leaving one’s country to experience the many different realities which are lived by people all over the world?

Don’t Look Back in Anger, Oasis – I had to include it; I am one to ruminate and forever regret my past choices. Travelling is a very personal time where you are able to put at least some things in your mind into perspective. This song reminds me that I needed treat my past self with anger – it can’t be changed and maybe it really was the best decision for myself at the time.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Greenday – I cannot explain how important I feel it is for one to understand themselves and be connected with themselves before they can connect truly with other people. A quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray which I have been reading whilst travelling explains this beautifully – ‘ This song is great for reminding me that it is ok to be alone, that it isn’t strange that I’m halfway across the world without friends or a boyfriend and that understanding oneself is something hugely important.

Leaving on a Jet Plane, John Denver

Sweet Disposition, The Temper Trap – I will always associate this with wide spanning movie shots of a sunny open road, I don’t know why.

Fast Car, Tracy Chapman – A classic, I remember listening to this trying to get to sleep in my dorm room in the first year of university. It always reminds me what it’s all about.

I Miss You, Blink-182 – just reminds me of my friends and how much I miss them sometimes – and how that is good because it means they mean a lot to me.

Pure Shores, All Saints – This song will forever remind me of The Beach, how much I love Leonardo DiCaprio and how much I want to go to Thailand.

How Far I’ll Go, Auli’i Cravalho – another cheesy one from the recent movie Moana, but this song has a depth to it about following your heart even if everyone around you is telling you not to.

A Horse with No Name, America – Just reminds me of GTA

The Day we Caught the Train, Ocean Colour Scheme

Livin’ on a Prayer, Bon Jovi

Dog Days are Over, Florence and the Machine

When You Were Young, The Killers

Mr Brightside, The Killers – one of my favourite songs of all time

Every Breath You Take, The Police

Creep, Radiohead – cannot explain how much I empathise with this song!

Youth, The Naked and Famous – A bit random, but I find this song always puts me in a good mood.

Closer, The Chainsmokers – I got addicted to this song travelling through Croatia last October, it always reminds me of travelling ever since.

Get Lucky, Daft Punk – Likewise, this song was all the rage back in mainland Europe 2013 when I was interrailing with school friends. It has reminded me of that time in my life ever since.

Hurt, Johnny Cash – Again not particularly applicable to travelling, but I truly identify with this song and feel it has been so important for me to listen to out here on my own for my personal growth

The Zephyr Song, Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Just because sometimes I really wish I had a zephyr to carry me away

Demons, Imagine Dragons – Again, not really about travelling, but I identify so much

Bailando, Enrique Iglesias – reminds me of a summer I spent in Spain between my first and second year of uni and is always guaranteed to get me in a party mood, even if that means getting up the courage to go to a bar on my own…

Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush – I adore Kate Bush, make of that what you will…..

Cake by the Ocean, DNCE – reminds me of one of my best friends from uni, and of being by the ocean

Life Itself and Youth, Glass Animals – always upbeat and these songs never fail to cheer me up

Have Love, Will Travel, The Sonics

Don’t Stop Believin’, Journey

Big Jet Plane, Angus and Julia Stone

Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper

I’d better stop now, I could go on forever. The take home message is that music can be very personal to a traveler, especially when you are on our own and it is the only one who can keep you company on a cramped shuttle bus from Lago de Atitlan to Flores. One can find meaning in songs far deeper than they ever supposed and this in itself can be rewarding and very fulfilling.

Oh but wait, just one more thing! In case anyone is interested in getting a taste of the music in Central America, please give the following a listen – they play on repeat ALL the time, EVERYWHERE you go…

Despacito, Luis Fanis & Daddi Yankee feat. Justin Bieber

Adios Amor,  Christian Nodal

Reggaeton Lento, CNCO

Dile tu me Quieres, Ozuna

El Amante, Nicky Jam

And now I really must stop, because alas, the Cancun nightlife is calling me.