We took a charter-like bus from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, with a transfer of buses in Tuxtla, Chiapas, Mexico. The overland travel day took about 7 hours total. Being the day after the U.S. Presidential Election took place, we were in a state of shock upon learning the result and as we went about our travel day, still trying to comprehend what had happened and beginning to process the new, unexpected reality that Donald Trump would be our next president. Aaron travel journaled as an outlet for himself. I felt hyper self-conscious being out and about, especially when we were waiting at the bus station for our transfer in Tuxtla and there was a TV screen with media coverage on display for passengers waiting for their ride, covering the post-election aftermath; I perceived people must have been looking at us assuming we support him, since he won, and I’d wished I could somehow make it known, just by laying eyes upon us, that we don’t. If engaged in conversation about him, we are quick to share that we are afraid of what will happen during his presidency and think it’s horrible, showing we clearly didn’t support him in the election; this topic comes up less frequently now, but leading up to the election and immediately following it, when people, primarily locals, found out we are from the U.S., it was very likely to be the focal point of the next comment or question they had for us. I wonder what their reactions would have been like (but am glad we’ll never know) had we expressed our support for him instead? In a majority of the cases, probably awkwardness and potentially the end of friendly conversation. There was always this moment after the comment or question was out there, the air between us hanging on a moment of uncertainty, and then a sense of ease after our response. We did encounter a couple of people who were indifferent or thought either choice wasn’t good, but overwhelmingly, and unsurprisingly, Mexico is not in support of a Donald Trump presidency. Check out our Mexico City blog post for photos from a protest against him during his campaign.
Anyway, this leg of overland travel to our final destination in Mexico was our last comfortable ride in a charter-like bus until a couple of months later towards the end of our overland travel from Flores, Petén Department, Guatemala, to Rio Dulce, Izabal Department, Guatemala. I can tell you now, having experienced both of those trips and the unpredictable, and often times challenging, overland travel in Guatemala in-between them, I soaked up those comfy, plush seats, ample leg room, and smoother ride on the Rio Dulce-bound bus like the luxuries they are, fondly remembering our overland travel days in Mexico, like this particular ride to San Cristóbal de las Casas!
Immediately, we welcomed the cooler weather in Chiapas in contrast to the strong, humid heat in Oaxaca. We often wore our long sleeves and pants, windbreaker/light rain jackets, gloves (me), and beanies [me, and Aaron finally bought one from at outdoor market toward the end of our stay in preparation for continued cold weather in Quetzaltenango, Quetzaltenango Department, Guatemala, or Xela, our next destination] for the first time in our long-term travel journey. The nights were chillier than the daytime temperatures, which were also cool for the most part, and bouts of rain came and went throughout our stay, which made the narrow, cobblestone sidewalks very slippery, so we (especially, I), traversed them slowly and cautiously when this happened. We found our hostel, Posada Qhia, on hostelworld.com. This was my first experience staying in a hostel environment, and it was mostly positive. Our host lives onsite and is thus available 24/7. He was a younger guy, very helpful and gracious in engaging with us while we practiced our Spanish, which was continuing to improve, both in our abilities and confidence to speak and interact; we later realized he spoke enough English (which made us appreciate him conversing and transacting with us in Spanish even more). Side-but-related note: The interactions we’ve most enjoyed in Spanish are those where the person we communicate with understands we’re learning and is patient while we figure out what we’re trying to say, and is helpful by correcting us (in a natural, well-intentioned way) as a part of the verbal exchange. We also find we learn new words regularly through just talking with fluent, and usually native, speakers. At the hostel, we had a modest, private room and 1/2 bathroom (toilet only), and a shared shower stall outside of the room in an outdoor space (an area which we used to work out in on a couple of occasions) that separates our room from the 4-bed dorm (although no one stayed in there throughout our stay, so we had it all to ourselves). It was basic but comfortable and met our needs, and it felt like a welcome upgrade from staying at the school in Tehuantepec, which was even more modest and less private. We also had shared use of the kitchen and breakfast was included, which consisted of 2 slices of toasted, bun-like bread with jam and butter to spread onto it, and coffee or tea (which we were grateful for, but got old after 11 days there, so I improvised with Nutella and hummus, on separate occasions, to mix it up a bit). I remember struggling a bit with the lack of nutritional content and knowing I would not make these choices back at home, but I also realized, this is life on the road. We eat what is available to us, and we make smarter, more healthful choices when we can. There’s no use in feeling bad about it. This hostel had few guests throughout our stay, which made it much more enjoyable for us, having more space and privacy than we likely would have had otherwise. The last night of our stay, occupancy picked up and we moved to another private room with shared, outdoor bathroom and shower stalls, which was a bit cheaper and no big deal since we were leaving early the next morning. We had WIFI upstairs in shared indoor and outdoor hangout areas. During our stay, we met a couple of really nice, young ladies from Canada who spoke French, enough English, and (I think) a little bit of Spanish. They were traveling for 6 months after finishing school. We enjoyed swapping information and tips when we encountered them. We cooked for ourselves on a couple of occasions in the shared kitchen, making a pasta dish, sautéing zucchini, and enjoying wine and fresh-baked baguette with charcuterie and cheese from shops nearby. A highlight was the garlic cheese spread!
My only gripe about our stay at the hostel was that someone stole (and ate!) my rich, chocolate dessert I had picked out from a French bakery, Oh La La Pastelería Artesenal Francesa, and had been saving to enjoy! I was looking forward to it so much, up until the moment I was about to eat it, when I found it missing from the refrigerator and its container in the trash can nearby! Needless to say, I insisted to Aaron that we go to the bakery I bought it from, and we enjoyed that same, decadent dessert with lattes later. 🙂
Oh, actually, one more (small) gripe about life at the hostel: There was a HUGE, black spider in our room the night of our final stay that emerged which I moved my backpack, which I jumped back from and squeeled and Aaron took care of getting him out of our room. Not the hostel’s fault, it happens.
There are a couple of ways to get to the hostel, and one of the ways, at night, aroused my internal paranoia, as the streets were dark, short, empty, and graffiti adorned the walls. Again, this is where I remind myself that things are not always what they seem by U.S. standards, especially when the area is seemingly safe otherwise, in attempt to help calm my nerves. It was fine, and I think of it more as a fear I actively worked through, though walking quickly, with purpose, through this area to unlock the front door to our hostel’s courtyard as fast as I could every time. I also took another route I felt more comfortable with more often if I was on my own, which passed through an open square with a church and had more people around with better lighting, I perceived. It also happened to pass a cafe that sells a moist, rich, platano (a type of banana) and chocolate, vegan muffin that was hard to resist passing on all the time. 😉
One of the fondest memories I have of our hostel stay was meeting and interacting with Maya, the owner’s small, shaggy, black doggie! She had her moments of wanting to be around us hanging out, letting us pet her, and being mischievous! For example, more than once, she got into the shared bathroom trash bins (remember, in Chiapas, toilet paper is thrown into the trash bins and not into the toilet…). I hope to have a dog like Maya someday (except for the part about getting into the shit-covered trash). 🙂
The beginning of our time in San Cristóbal felt nice and comfortable. We had just wrapped up a week of volunteering, which we were connected to through HelpX.net for the first time, where we assisted in teaching English to Spanish-speakers in Tehuantepec as a part of an after-school and after-work program. While our host, the owner, was well-meaning for us to get the most out of our experience, both inside and outside of the classroom, very hospitable, and enjoyed sharing his pride for his hometown with us through exposing us to food and activities he likes, it felt like the time was right for us to get back to making our own decisions about what to do with our time and when, as well as what we’ll eat and when, as opposed to someone else making these decisions about scheduling and food for us. We were also sleeping at the school, our bedroom separated by a door and curtain from the classroom, which we needed to walk across to access the bathroom, which is usually where our host lives but was staying with his mother nearby for the week we were there. The experience was a uniquely enriching and rewarding one culturally and we’ll always be glad we did it; we were just feeing ready to continue in our diverse travel experiences, and San Cristóbal had the promise of providing us with what we were hopeful to find!
San Cristóbal is very walkable. There are a few main streets in town, parts of them pedestrian-only, lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, and outdoor vendors selling their products. The infrastructure is nice. It seems well-touristed without being overly so, although we were there during their slower season. The Zócalo, or main square, and surrounding area is quite lively. We encountered Cervantino Barroco, a cultural performing arts festival, and an Electronic Dance Music (EDM) event, among other street performances, during our stay. There are some good food options, many healthy ones we sought out that felt both tasty and nourishing to our bodies, and including some typical dishes the locals eat. We enjoyed a wine and tapas bar, La Viña de Bacco, on a couple of occasions at night, one which had live music from a 2-man band covering English rock songs.
We initially only booked 2 nights at our hostel, but we extended 2 more nights at a time again and again (travel hack: outside of Booking.com, so for a cheaper nightly rate without the fee for working directly with the owner). This is the beauty of long-term, unplanned travel: Having the ability to extend, or end, our time in a place based on how we’re feeling. And San Cristóbal was the first destination in our long-term travel journey that we did not plan in advance, and where we did not have somewhere else to be by a certain time (other than Greece, by April 2017). The highlight for us was really just chillen’ out! There are a lot of day trips that can be done from San Cristóbal as a home base, but we went with how we were feeling each day and generally took it easy, only seeking out the few of interest. Partially this was because of recurring diarrhea problems, but partially our mood. For us, just being in San Cristóbal itself, casually walking along the streets and exploring within town, relaxing at cafes in-between, was good enough for us.
There are a lot of churches in San Cristóbal! There are viewpoints from two churches up on hills on the fast east and west sides of the main part of the city, both which require climbing a fair amount of stairs (but one way more than the other). On the longer, more challenging journey up to Iglesia de Cerrito, there were a couple of local guys playing the drums, and I focused on the sounds of their drum beats to motivate me as I heavily breathed and lifted each leg up onto the next step (there is an elevation increase to adjust to in San Cristóbal, which I never fully acclimated to, which I read is actually normal for visitors).
As far as other day trips, we took mostly taxis (which we, but mostly Aaron, bartered with the drivers for the lowest price), but sometimes collectivos, or public, local transit vans that stop along the way to a final destination before turning around to return to its starting one, to surrounding areas. We hiked through Huitepec Ecological Reserve and visited a market and church in an indigenous village, San Juan Chamula. This church is not Catholic, but a mix of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs. Photos were not allowed in the church, but inside were statues of their saints, pine needles covering the floors, and no pews; families were kneeled on the floor sticking vertical candles into it in front of them with wax. It was interesting to witness this faith we hadn’t been exposed to before and is worth reading more about it to better understand their beliefs and traditions. We also visited Rancho Nuevo, walking around the property, exploring a cave and taking a tour into deeper parts of it, and horseback riding for 1/2 an hour (my first time doing it, of which I was nervous and cautious for most of the time, but glad I did it in spite of my uneasiness). We took a boat tour with a dozen or so other passengers through Sumidero Canyon. The “typical” backpacker crowd was on it, and drinking, which I can’t understand because it’s a 2-hour tour and there are no bathrooms (yes, I’m an old soul at this point in my life). But anyway, it was naturally beautiful. I saw crocodiles in-person for the first time, and up close, which was a bit unnerving yet also very cool from the safety of our boat. I soaked up the experience being in the moment, acknowledging to myself that this isn’t something I, or most people, see every day, working full-time in an office environment year after year. I like to remind myself in moments like these about what I would otherwise be doing, and it’s usually that I’d be in my office at work, boxed in from the vast world outside that I haven’t yet explored but strongly desire to and have yet to break out of my comfortable, secure work-life routine in order to kickstart. It’s this type of thinking that keeps me mindfully appreciative for these types of experiences, which gradually become normal aspects of living life on the road (mixed in with its challenges and less-desirable encounters, of course), but I know they won’t last forever.
A HUGE highlight for me was taking fitness classes at SC Fitness. As I usually had in most cities we visited in Mexico, I searched for fitness facilities and classes online and kept my eyes open when walking around locally. In this case, I found SC Fitness’s Facebook page, which listed their class schedule. I walked by it with Aaron on a Sunday, when it happened to be closed, to check it out, so I would know where it was if I went back on my own and feel comfortable walking there. I ended up taking a Step Aerobics class one morning, then three evening Zumba® classes for only MX $60 per class (which is equivalent to about $3 USD). The Zumba® classes were co-taught by two very talented, fun instructors, Freddy and Darren. They were so welcoming and friendly towards me, and upon finding out after the first class that I am also an instructor, they invited me up on stage to dance with them for the next 2 classes! I did my best to quickly learn and follow their moves and routines and keep up my stamina while exuding my big smile and energy (remember, I was not fully acclimated to the altitude, which made working out much more challenging). I had a BLAST! They introduced me to their students and I even got to teach one of my own songs! I was on Cloud 9! This whole experience is without a doubt at the top of my fitness class experiences during our long-term travel journey so far. Gracias, otra vez, a Freddy y Darren!
San Cristóbal has a great coffee culture, which was a pleasant surprise! Notable is that the establishments serving specialty espresso drinks differ from the typical coffee houses in the U.S. in that they offer meals, too, which were all good! A couple of my favorites, which we returned to more than once, are Sweet Beat and Frontera, which are a convenient, a 5-10-minute walk (or so) from our hostel.
Aside from enjoying lattes and dining, we also enjoyed reading, I colored (in my Spanish coloring book I’d bought in Guanajuato and had been working my way through), conversing with one another, and just hanging out the environments. Popular in Mexico are outdoor courtyards, which a door from the street opens up into and the indoor spaces boarder in, which is how many, though not all, of these cafes are designed. I can’t tell you how many times, in the U.S. in my every day working life, I’ve thought to myself how nice it would be to just sit and enjoy a cup of coffee at the coffee house, not in a to-go cup after waiting impatiently in line and hurrying to go somewhere I needed to be by a certain time. And how I used to notice people in coffeehouses hanging out with their coffee and baked goods and wonder what they do to be able to be there in the middle of the day doing that, how I felt like I wished I could do that, too. Well, doing just that throughout our travels makes me feel grateful to be able to and makes this experience even more fulfilling to me, as simple as it may seem. It’s a luxury of living life on the road that I never take for granted and make a point to enjoy every time I have the opportunity to seek it out. I hope this practice will spill over into my life back at home when we return, that I will make a point to incorporate it when I can.
One experience we had of “you know you’re in Mexico when…” in San Cristóbal was when we were near the main square, meandering through an outdoor book event in the midst of other outdoor performances, when fireworks, like, fireworks show-type, went off nearby and their sparks flew into the air and descended, showering over us and the vendor tents set up around us. In Mexico, people set off fireworks in the streets at all times of day and night, sometimes in honor of church celebrations, but seemingly most often just because, especially young boys and teenagers. This came to be normal, even an expectation, to us, although I can’t say it ever got to the point where I wasn’t occasionally startled by one and jumped inside my skin. But this was different. I had a mild, internal scare moment of, are these going to hit us, and are they going to set these tents on fire? We ran, trying to escape the blanket of lights that were falling over and around us towards the ground. I will never forget this moment visually. At the end of the day, we were fine, but it was striking that few people seemed alarmed at this, although there were some that appeared uneasy about it, so maybe it was a normal occurrence, too?
I met Lena, a nineteen-year-old from Germany, in the fitness classes I took at the gym. She had returned to San Cristóbal to pursue in a six-month volunteer project within the indigenous community, and to be with her boyfriend she had met on a prior trip. She is very active and it sounds like a good part of her time is spent in the gym taking classes and working out otherwise. She was actually in the first class I took, the Step Aerobics class, but we only exchanged a few words after the instructor pointed out our names were similar. I later thought I saw her across the room at the wine bar Aaron and I went to during the night of a live performance, but we didn’t interact then. After I had been introduced as a Zumba® instructor in one of the Zumba® classes, she approached me after class and we struck up a conversation from there. We walked out together and partly home, and she invited me out. On our last night in San Cristóbal, we met her at a restaurant in the same building where she works, along with her roommate and her roommate’s friend, for some tasty lasagna while she shared more about her volunteer project with us. Her boyfriend met us there, and we headed to an oven-baked pizza spot they like. We were supposed to meet up with other friends of hers, some from the Zumba® class, but it ended up being just us (I got the impression that perhaps we were too late in getting there, or that plans had changed, or that no one who said they were coming actually showed up, which she said sometimes happens in her experience in Mexico, where people say they are coming and they just don’t). Her boyfriend speaks only Spanish, so we practiced in talking to him and in playing Monopoly in Spanish, too. Lena has embarked upon abroad travel at a young age and reminded me fondly of my friend Ina, who was a German foreign exchange student at my high school in my senior year that I quickly became friends with. I hope to visit them both in Germany when we get to that part of our travels later this year!
There are quite a few places to drink cacao or Oaxacan hot chocolate in San Cristóbal. I bought a few cups from Cacao Nativa, a local chain, and one from a cafe. The ones from Native Cacao were too bitter for my taste and I’d wished they were sweeter, and the one from the cafe was too grainy, a similar texture to the straight chocolate I’d tried in Oaxaca City. I’m glad I tried them for the experience, but I still prefer my dark chocolate bars with 72% cacao that I get from the Co-Op in Sacramento. If I’m going to eat chocolate, I want to really enjoy it!
Spending so much time together, side-by-side constantly, on the road, I’ve pointed out before that it’s important for Aaron and I to have separate experiences from time-to-time. It gives us a break from each other to come back refreshed from personal time spent however we each want to spend it. Since we were in San Cristóbal for awhile, there was time for me to get to know certain streets and surroundings and feel ready to navigate them on my own. I wanted to spend some time moseying around, stopping occasionally to peek into shops when I felt curious, enjoying a longer amount of time at a cafe to my heart’s content with a warm drink, reading and coloring materials, and WIFI access from my old iPhone that is now just an iPod with apps on it, besides attending fitness classes. I ended up doing this and treating myself to a pedicure, a rarity in our long-term travel journey since we’re on a daily budget, although it costs way less than what it does in the U.S. While it was mostly relaxing, towards the end of it, a middle-aged guy walked in with his wife and two kids. They left him there while they went off to do something else and meet him later. He struck up a conversation with me and I learned that he and his family are from Canada, traveling long-term together. I was surprised, and also found it inspiring, that he and his wife are doing something similar to what Aaron and I are, but a bit differently and with two young boys! They, too, have stayed in hostels, but they are primarily looking for a longer-term volunteer opportunity at some point. They have done WOOFing, which is essentially working on an organic farm for a certain amount of hours per week in exchange for room and board. They had taken Spanish classes as a family and were soon headed to visit a family member abroad for the holidays. It seemed to be his first pedicure, and he was not enjoying it when his feet were getting scrubbed of dead skin and callouses! He asked me if it was normal, LOL. In any case, I enjoyed meeting him. Aaron enjoyed a day hike on his own for his solo activity, as well as watching a soccer game at a bar and just hanging out at our hostel.
Our time in San Cristóbal came to an abrupt ending. Our shuttle was supposed to show up at 7:00 a.m. to take us to Quetzaletenango (Xela), Guatemala, so we set our alarm close to 6:30 a.m. for just enough time to pack away the little we had left to, brush our teeth, use the bathroom, and be on our way. At 6:30 a.m., just as I had gotten out of bed, there was a knock at our door: It was our hostel host telling us that our shuttle driver was there and ready to go, half an hour early! We asked for more time and scrambled to get out the door. He said the driver would wait 5 more minutes, as he had other passengers to pick up (as if we were late for the scheduled time and making him wait), after he went to talk to him on our behalf. The driver ended up leaving and coming back to get us. While we didn’t like being in this unexpected hurry and had prepared to get up and ready at a time that would give us time to spare, we had to laugh at the irony that this was the first time in all of our time in Mexico where someone was early, rather than late!
Until Next Time,