Lake Titikaka, Copacabana and La Paz, Bolivia

Lake Titikaka is enormous and stunning. By sheer volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America and forms part of the border between Bolivia and Peru.

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I went to Copacabana from Cusco ny night bus, passing through quite an easy border control to find myself in the small Bolivian town. My main reason for visiting Copacabana was to head to the Islas de Sol y Luna – two islands which were beleived by the Incas to be the birthplaces of the sun and the moon.

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The boat out of Copacabana was cheap and very rickety. There are waves on this lake, and big ones, so it’s probably not advisable if you get sea sick. Honestly, the islands are just islands, but it was nice having a walk around them, especially when it was sunny.

 

Back on mainland and I took a collectivo from Copacabana to La Paz.

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Once again I have to be honest with you here; I did not like La Paz. The highest recognised capital in the world, the Bolivian city’s altitude made me feel quite dizzy, the weather was so grey and horrible that I was unable to see the famous Mount for the time that I was there. Perhaps a trip down Death Road would have cheered me up, but with the trusted tour guides charging over $100, such a thing wasn’t possible.

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So I was cold and grumpy, and thought I would cheer myself up by going to the curious sounding “Witches Market”. But, oh god, there were dead llama foetuses hanging off the walls!

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It could probably go unwritten that I got out of there as soon as I could.

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Cusco, Ollataytambo and Machu Picchu

A night bus from Nazca and I arrived in the old Inca city of Cusco. Now the place is a sprawling metropolis, with busy roads and industrial block buildings on the outskirts. The old city, however, was a very pleasant place to spend a couple of nights and was always buzzing with activity.

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Anyone making the visit to the world-renowned Machu Picchu will probably stop here for a day or two. The place is close to a number of Incan ruins, such as Saqsaywaman (I thought some guy was saying “sexy woman” to me when I first heard this…) sitting high up on a western hill. Furthermore, though the centre is now full of colonial buildings constructed as a result of the Spanish, there still remains some examples of Incan architecture. The town is also said to have been built in the shape of a jaguar, which I was sceptical about until I saw a birdseye view showing how the two rivers of the city and the great hill of Saqsaywaman form the body and the head respectively.

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The San Pedro market is worth a look. Stalls and stalls sell “real” alpaca wool jumpers, cute llama keyrings, shot glasses, and every other souvenir which you may desire. I was quite proud of my jumper that I bought with llamas on and ended up wearing it for three days straight. Furthermore, the food hall part offers a chance to sample local foods at very reasonable prices – I forewent my full vegetarian diet for the first time in months, reverting back to my pescetarian state to sample some local ceviche, which was very tasty.

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You will randomly see women dressed in colonial clothing holding tethers to alpacas or even lambs on the cobbled streets. On Sunday too, in the Plaza de Armas, there was a great display of masked men and women dancing which was very interesting to watch.

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An hour and a half collective ride and I found myself deep in the midst of The Sacred Valley in a sweet Incan town called Ollataytambo. The scenery here is stunning; epic green mountains rise either side of the road and village, acting as huge, natural walls against the outside world. Be careful of stray dogs in this town – one certainly took a liking to me and followed me wherever I went, which wouldn’t have been so concerning if other dogs weren’t growling and the issue of rabies wasn’t constantly alit in my mind. Ollataytambo hosts its own Incan ruins and is also a place to get the railway train to Agua Calientes and on to Machu Picchu.

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I had a massive debate with myself about getting to Machu Picchu. The train tickets can be purchased through two companies; Perurail and Incarail. Both, however, are extortionately expensive, with one way tickets costing $50 and up. Purchasing such a ticket would be such a detriment to my budget, and I was even considering walking the railway tracks as some other blogs suggest until I came across one where a lady had been bitten by a dog. Being on my own, and not the best at dealing with blood, I’m not sure how I would have coped!

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Some people from my hostel in Cusco had opted for 3-4 day treks, a lot of them alternatives to the Inca Trail. Again, guided tours are not cheap, and although some people made the journey on their own, the thought of hiring camping equipment, being alone and therefore quite vulnerable if anything happened to me and the fact that my hiking experience only stretches to the Welsh and English countrysides – very different from the high-altitude trails I would have to tackle – I was put off.

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So train it was, although I felt then, and still now, a wimp for taking the soft and easy option. I did forgo the $9 bus from Agua Calientes up to Machu Picchu though, meaning that I got some walking done by scaling the stone steps about 1000 metres or so.

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Anyway, on to Machu Picchu itself.

The Inca Citadel is certainly breathtaking to behold. Balanced precariously on the mountainside with the imposing Huaychina Picchu mountain rising beyond, the place feels almost mystical and unreal to view.

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The site is so well-known because, unlike other Incan strongholds, the citadel was left untouched by the Spanish, who pretty much ransacked and destroyed every other part of the civilisation when they colonized. Sources vary as to whether the Spanish knew Machu Picchu was there or not, but if they did then they never reached it.

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The site was first brought to the attention of the Western world when American explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham (he now has a special route on the Perurail railway named after him) ventured to Peru in 1911 and was shown to the site by a twelve-year-old farmer’s son for 1 sol.

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Further expeditions were made and over the 20th century the place was awarded the title of “One of the Seven New Wonders of the World” and also hyped up to be the tourist destination it is today.

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Entrance tickets themselves cost around $40 and can be purchased online at the Ministerio de Cultura. The code you receive upon purchase can then be exchanged at the ticket office in Agua Calientes for a ticket.

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The site has a number of trails you can follow, one around Machu Picchu mountain and also another leading to the Incan drawbridge – a set of wooden planks indented into the side of a sheer mountain-face. The latter walk takes around 15 minutes, but is not advised for those scared of heights as sheer drops and narrow paths are present along the way. The track does give a spectacular view over the mountain. Likewise it is possible to scale. Huayna Picchu, though the number of people allowed each day is limited and must be bought well in advance. Looking two weeks ago at the beginning of May, I saw that it was booked up right to September. Similar occurrences happen with the Inca Trail if you are in a more fortunate financial situation thatn me and are able to fork out the $400 for the trail permit. Watch your step on all trails and places around the site – especially if it’s raining like part of the day which I visited on – they become very slippy.

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Obviously the place is a great site for photo opportunities and there are even a number of resident llamas who are happy to say hello.

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The city itself consists of a main plaza, some beautifully preserved residential houses, a number of temples and sprawling steps of land spilling off the mountainside which was used for agriculture. Interestingly, as I overheard from a tour, most of the seed remnants were recovered on the Eastern side of the mountain, where the crops would have got the maximal amount of sun for them to grow properly.

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There’s also the Sacred Rock right at the other side of the site – a huge rock thought to have been used for religious purposes and flanked by two roofed huts (one which even has a bench!) which makes a great dwelling for when it rains. The large rock is shaped like the mountains beyond it and is said to give you energy if you touch it – something I sadly forgot to do when I was having an energy dip.

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So all-in-all, although it ruined my travel budget and my pride as a hiker, I am glad to have visited this magnificent site, a true lost city touching the clouds. And after all, in fifty or so years time, it won’t be the money I spent that I will remember, it will be that beautiful light which illuminated the stunningly placed sharp rock above some of the sole in-tact ruins of a great society of humanity, just as the rain clouds cleared and the bright, dazzling and much-appreciated sun appeared.

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Viva Peru! Lima, Huacachina and Nazca

So, after a pretty uncomfortable night spent sleeping on the floor of Mexico City airport, I got the six hour flight I had booked a month and a half ago to Lima.

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I only spent one night in Lima; I will be passing rough here to go to Colombia in two weeks so I figured I could get a better taste of the city then. From what I saw though, Miraflores was a very nice, happening place, especially around Parque Kennedy. There are a lot of bars and restaurants and a nice buzz at night. Or maybe I was just influenced by the fact that the supermarket close to there sold super-cheap focaccia…

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Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, Lima

Anyway, I managed somehow to take public transport to the Cruz del Sur terminal in the city. The receptionist recommended me this company, and although it’s cheap with a good service on the bus, I had to wait 50 minutes in the terminal just to book my tickets! Also, the cheapo in me wouldn’t mind taking more Soyuz buses to save that all-important cash.

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View from the bus

Huacachina is an oasis town just outside of the city of Ica. To get there, one must take the bus to Ica and then go by taxi or motortaxi (motortaxi is cheaper, and quite a fun ride!).

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To be honest, I’m not really sure what to think of the place. Climbing the sand dune was an experience, and you are able to book dune-buggy and sandboarding tours (though thanks to the little-known site of Machu Picchu draining all my funds, I had to give these a miss). But apart from that, the place lacked atmosphere for me and I couldn’t really have stayed there more than the one night. I guess it was good to get a look at the oasis though, and it might sound stupid, but I really didn’t expect Peru to have desert.

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View out into the desert 

Anyway, another day, another bus, this time arriving in the southern town of Nazca. Again, the town itself lacked an atmosphere for me which I have appreciated in a number of other places through my travels, though the central square is nice to sit in and have a muse.

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Central Square in Nazca

The real draw to the town of Nazca is the famous Nazca lines. Around 80 of them are depicted as artistic shapes representing animals and religious emblems, such as trees, carved into the dry desert terrain between Ica and Nazca. Thought to have had some spiritual significance, maybe even corresponding to constellations, the lines were thought to have been made around 540AD and have been preserved so well as a result of the climate and stable conditions in the area.

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El Arbol Nazca line
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Me at the top of the viewing tower

If you have el dinero, one can participate in an aircraft tour; where a lightcraft plane gives you the best views of the spectacular works. I, however, sadly on such a strict, peasants budget, opted for the viewing tour, or mirador, which costed 3 soles (1 dollar) to ascend, with the bus two and fro also being three dollars each time. You get a good look at el arbol y los manos, so I would say it was worth it, especially as the place was crowned a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 (a fact a purely remember because it also happens to be the year of my birth!).

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The mirador for viewing

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!

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.