Looping back up into Peru, I arrived in the beautiful town of Arequipa. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains and with a delightful centre square, cathedral and being home to the 16th century Santa Catalina monastery, the place is picturesque to say the least.
It is a good town to base yourself if you wish to visit Colca Canyon – the world’s deepest canyon about 150km north of the town, and companies run regular tours ranging from multiple day hikes to a day trip.
The market here is delightful with a range of traditional foods being offered, such as ceviche, the vegetarian option of some layered potato thing (it was actually very tasty!) and also stuffed peppers which unfortunately had meet in them. The juice here is great to try too.
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.
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…
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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!).
Mexico City is a large, sprawling metropolis with plenty to occupy oneself with.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Travelling inland from Cancun and I came into contact with several gems of the Yucatan Peninsula.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.