MEXICO DOUBLE, 2006

(the National "speed-bumps" Capital of the World)
Globus

Part 1: HEA(r)T OF MEXICO

This is a similar trip to what I had planned last year - Mexico's Colonial Cities - but that one is not offered any more. This one is similar although it goes to different cities.

Flights are booked through travel my agency rather than Globus since they don't have a good schedule available (Houston to Smog City via Denver, and Cancun to Houston via Chicago). All 4 transfers included (extra charge).

Day 1, Saturday, March 11 Arrival In Smog City, Mexico

Continental CO 4241Houston-Smog City9:15 - 11:352:20

Up fairly early to drive to the airport - it's not that much more expensive than cab/shuttle since I would have to take a taxi the whole way this early in the morning. When we were boarding the plane in Houston, a family ahead of me were all trying to find their boarding passes and passports to go through the check in - oops, the teen-age girl couldn't find hers … then remembered that she had put then down while using one of the restrooms much earlier - but which one. They didn't make the flight.

Fly from Houston to Smog City - included transfer (after a 35 minute wait for a Globus (slow-bus?) representative to show up) to the hotel. Because we were all coming in at different times, we have a 'private car' transportation (my driver has her young daughter along, probably since it's Saturday) rather than trying to get enough people together for a bus. I've heard about Smog-City traffic: had a taste of it while trying to get out of the airport parking garage: one fender-bender and two near crashes. It's much safer appearing when out on the highways.

Of course the room wasn't ready until later in the afternoon. Nice room on the 34th floor - would have been a great view except that about all there is to see is smog. Weather forecast (via internet yesterday) is good - cooler (60s F) early mornings, warm to quite warm in the afternoons). This evening meet my fellow traveling companions at a WELCOME RECEPTION. (R) Hotel: President Intercontinental for 2 nights. Tour director Fran Russell. Bus driver, Daniel, Mexican guide: Edwin. 25 on the tour.

Note: This is the only (spring) departure of this vacation to "make." Not enough people signed up for the other (spring) dates so they have all been cancelled. Some of the people on this trip had to change their plans from their original booking.

Day 2, Sunday, March 12 Smog City. Excursion to Teotihuacan
Excellent breakfast, then first an hour delay due to a Marathon being run. The bus can't get here. Schedule re-arranged. (My third Marathon delay: here, Greece, Budapest.)

We drive through Chapultepec Park for a visit to the world-renowned NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY. Then leave bustling Smog City (8 million people in the city itself, 15 million more in the suburbs in the valley) to visit TEOTIHUACAN, "the place where men became gods." While visiting this major archeological center and one of the best preserved in the country, see the main landmark, the Pyramid of the Sun, built around 100 AD. For an impressive overview of the city, a steep climb of 242 steps will take us to the top (never mind - see note below) where a temple once stood. There's also time to visit the Pyramid of the Moon, the Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly, and the Palace of the Jaguars, named after its feline mural painting.

We went in through the Palace of the Jaguars - no cane with me today - bad mistake - very sore right knee due to a mis-step on one of the high steep steps. No pyramid climbing for me this trip. Then down to 'ground level' to see the Pyramid of the Moon, walk the "Street of the Dead", end up at the Pyramid of the Sun. At least I have my cane for the rest of the trip, but the damage is done.

On the way back to Smog-City we stop at "The Shrine of the Guadalupe". Very historic church with an interesting history of how/why it was founded.

Located at an altitude of 7,556 feet, Smog City is large and exciting, the people are friendly, and adventure seems to linger on every street corner. (B,L,D )

When I was in Mexico for the Copper Canyon trip last February, it was quite cool. Now it feels like summer (and it's going to be much worse on the Yucatan part of the trip.) Between the altitude and the smog, this isn't a great start to the trip.

Note: Speed-bumps. There seems to be a ratio of one speed-bump to every 100 people in a town. When going through the smaller towns, it's drive 100 yards, stop for a speed-bump, drive 100 yards, stop, etc. They call them "reductors."

Day 3, Monday, March 13 Smog City - Cuernavaca Area
This morning is NOT at leisure as originally planned; due to the schedule re-arranging (which was a very good idea - we couldn't have done everything on yesterday's original schedule), we do lots of yesterday's original schedule.

This morning's city tour will travel along the famous boulevard of Paseo de la Reforma to the main square of Zocalo. We visit the CATHEDRAL and the NATIONAL PALACE before seeing the famous Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) where many of the city's best restaurants and shops can be found.

Later today, travel to Cuernavaca (elevation 5308'), known world-wide as "The City of Eternal Spring (make that early summer)" due to its excellent temperate climate. (Fortunately our bus is a bit more modern than in the photo.) Both Mexicans and foreigners come here to enjoy the clean air, beautiful gardens, outdoor activities, and many fine restaurants.

It's VERY noticeable - once we got out of Smog City Valley, my sinuses started clearing up.

Tonight stay just outside Cuernavaca at the charming Hacienda Vista Hermosa aka "sweat hotel". Relax at this beautiful resort (it actually is beautiful and has fascinating architecture) and enjoy 20 acres of tropical gardens. It would be a great place to spend a half-day looking around at the architecture and the plants, trees, birds, etc., but the rooms are (censored). The 3 lights are 1 or 2-candle-power each, there's no air/conditioning, no cross-ventilation, and the "thrashing machine" on the ceiling is doing a very poor imitation of a fan. As it turns out, I go about 65-67 hours without sleep: I have to get up every 20 minutes or so to go stand by the window for the 2 feet of cooler air (its cool outside, but it's not getting far into the room).

Dinner is good, but not fantastic. There are so many birds around in the trees, etc. that it's VERY noise almost all night. Between the birds and the roosters, we don't need an alarm clock (assuming we were able to sleep anyway.) (B,D) Hotel: Hacienda Vista Hermosa for 2 nights.

Most times when we have a lunch on our own, the tour director has made arrangements for us to eat at a specific place - offered but not required. It's usually VERY good food. This is particularly true on the 2nd half of the trip … except for one stop.

Day 4, Tuesday, March 14 Cuernavaca Area. Excursion to Taxco
Nice buffet breakfast this morning. Today travel to the beautiful colonial city of Taxco, known for its red-roofed, white-washed houses and winding cobblestone streets. Our walking tour includes the Plaza Borda, the main square, with a visit to the pink stone colonial church of SANTA PRISCA. Since Taxco is famous for its silver, make sure to spend some time shopping for souvenirs at the over 300 shops selling some of the finest silverwork in the world. I pick up a couple of 'certified' silver pieces here for myself and for gifts. The town is nice, beautiful Cathedral, and a nice included lunch. Later return to the Hacienda Vista Hermosa with the rest of the day to swelter. More misery - and we don't even get dinner; fortunately I bought some snacks at an Oxxo market. (B,L)

Day 5, Wednesday, March 15 Cuernavaca Area-Cholula-Puebla de Los Angeles
Served breakfast rather than a buffet this morning: small plate of fruit and a plate of greasy-runny eggs - I pass. So breakfast is fruit, one roll, and water (back in the room.) Bad deal here.

This morning travel to Cholula, "the city of churches." According to legends, when the Conquistadores arrived they thought they saw a great number of towers and domes and exclaimed to have seen "as many as the days in a year." Hence the myth that Cholula had 365 churches, when in reality it has only 39. We visit the CONVENTO DE SAN GABRIEL, the most impressive, and the CAPILLA REAL, which was inspired by the great mosque of Cordoba in Spain. We also visit the GRAN PIRAMIDE, the largest pyramid ever built in Mesoamerica.

Very late lunch between 3 and 4. Late this afternoon arrive in Puebla de Los Angeles (back to higher altitude: 7106'), declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Puebla de Los Angeles has preserved part of its old character and possesses some of the most important colonial works of art in Mexico. Our city tour includes the majestic CATHEDRAL, the second-largest in the country and regarded by some as the finest in Mexico as well as a visit to a TALAVERA POTTERY FACTORY. This is where they make (very expensive) "world famous" pottery. Too expensive for me, and the pieces are generally large - hard to get home. I skip the included dinner tonight - too tired to eat. (B,D) Hotel: Hotel NH Puebla. Nice hotel, and it's air-conditioned. I can start trying to catch up on my sleep.

Day 6, Thursday, March 16 Puebla de Los Angeles-Oaxaca
After another quick trip through Puebla de Los Angeles, travel through the mountains and the beautiful Tehuacan Valley to the state of Oaxaca, ("only" 5100') famous for its beautiful architecture, rich cultural traditions, wide variety of food, and spring-like weather throughout the year. Excellent lunch included! Stop along the way to see some large Saguaro cactus.

Upon arrival enjoy a walking tour, including the attractive Macedonia Alcala Street (a pedestrian walkway), the public library, the Contemporary Art Museum, and Benito Juarez University. There's also a walk through a market - one interesting stop is to see how Mexican chocolate (candy, etc.) is made from the raw beans. When we try to get to the hotel, the road is blocked due to construction. The hotel has to send a couple of mini-busses down to get us - they can get through the maze. Dinner isn't included but we had a great lunch, so I don't need anything else. (B,L) Hotel: Hotel Victoria (AIR-CONDITIONED!!) for 3 nights. Very nice. My favorite hotel of this part of the trip.

Day 7, Friday, March 17 Oaxaca. Excursion to Mitla and Monte Alban
Another re-scheduling (same stops, but a different order). The first stop today is to visit MONTE ALBAN, which was established around 500 BC and is situated on a (artificially) flattened mountain top overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. We enjoy stunning (?) views of endless mountain peaks and valleys. The most intriguing features are the danzantes, marvelous carvings of human figures with several theories as to what they represent. One of Oaxaca's natural wonders, NEAT!! This is one of my three favorite "ruins."

Next is MITLA (so-so), once a Zapotec ceremonial center. Its name means "Place of the Burials." It is famous for exquisite architecture and distinguished by the finely carved and inlaid stone that forms intricate geometric patterns. After a late, poor lunch (I guess I made a poor selection from the menu), last is a quick stop at "The Tule Tree." It measures over 130 feet tall, weighs 509 tons, and is approximately 2,000 years old. HUGE!!!

Tonight after a very poor dinner, enjoy a lively show with dances from the 7 different ethnic Indian groups in the Oaxaca region. FANTASTIC!!! I wish there had been more light so I could have gotten some decent pictures. Oh well, I have memories. Back to the hotel at 11. (B,D)

Day 8, Saturday, March 18 At Leisure in Oaxaca
Originally scheduled as a "free day", Fran and Edwin set up a 'private' tour for us out to some of the smaller villages to visit the homes/workshops of some of the master artisans. Also things are much cheaper buying direct at the shops rather than through stores in the cities which have an 'overhead' to pay. It turns out to be my favorite day of the entire two-week trip!!!

At San Bartolo Coyatepec, we see how the black pottery is made (and a chance to purchase very inexpensive pieces). The craftsman does a demo, assisted by his cat who only comes in to help when there are visitors present - wants to play and be petted.

Next is San Martin Tilcajete where we visit two workshops of master wood-carvers. The first is younger and has been in several exhibits in the US - I get a couple of nice carved cats and coyote. The second craftsman is an older master carver where I get a leaping jaguar and order an eight-piece animal orchestra. It will be shipped to me in two weeks.

The last stop is Santo Tomas Jalietza where we see women weaving on back strap looms. After a quick stop in Ocotlan, back to town. It was originally scheduled as a 4 hour trip (9-1) but ended up 9 - 3+. Fantastic day. Super! Wow! Globus should include this as an option for all of these future trips

. Tonight join in a festive FAREWELL DINNER to celebrate our Mexican holiday. (B,D) (Globus' Optional extension to Hualtulco on the Pacific coast NOT taken; I'm not that interested in beaches and related 'entertainment'.)

Part 2: TREASURES OF THE YUCATAN

(or if this is spring, I wouldn't want to be here for the summer)

Day 9 (1), Sunday, March 19 End Part 1; arrival in Cancun
The (first) tour ends this morning with guests departing on individual schedules. Good timing - last day here is arrival day for the second part. Transfer included. Up at 5; leave the hotel at 6:30 for the drive to the airport. We are supposed to get our included breakfast at the airport, but due to (another passenger's) ticket mixup, we're late getting into the breakfast area. It's another fruit, roll, water breakfast - no time for anything else - off to the gate area to wait and wait and ...

Mexicana MX 214Oaxaca - Smog City8:30 - 9:351:051:10
AeroMexico AM 907Smog City - Cancun10:45 - 12:401:554:10

Four of us from the first trip also continue to this one. Roni and I are on the earlier flight; Emily and Rip are on another flight an hour later First a Mexicana flight to Smog City. There we are given about 6 or 8 different instructions as to where to find our gate - up, down, back, up, down again, etc. and find the gate 'just in time', then an AeroMexico flight to the Cancun International Mad-House at Cancun (elevation. 27').

On arrival, we get through customs and wait and wait and wait and wait and … for a Globus representative to show up. Nothing. Finally one of the airport personnel pages for the Globus rep. After another 10 minutes, someone from "Funjet" shows up and claims that "Funjet" is the local sister company to Globus - just follow him - for about a half mile it seems, out of the indoor madhouse, through the outdoor version, and down a long way outside to the "Funjet" parking area. There after a while, the stuporvisor decides that we don't belong there, so back toward that madhouse. On the way we notice someone standing by the curb with a Globus sign by his feet - just standing there, apparently not looking for anyone, just standing there. Finally. Eventually a van shows up and takes us and two others (including the Tour Director who has finally arrived) on a long drive to our hotel - renamed El Gougo de Americanos. It's oversized, overbuilt, overdone, overpriced, and doesn't look Mexican at all - just - yuck. (It wasn't even open a month ago when the first tour came through - they had to go on out to Eet-sa Chee-kin and stay at the MayaLand there (lucky!!!). We weren't told where they stayed when they came back to Cancun. When Emily and Rip get to the Cancun International Madhouse an hour later, they also get 'shanghaied' by "FunJet" and are told to start signing papers - when they notice that the names on the papers aren't theirs. Some of the tour members never even find a Globus rep and have to make their own way to the hotel ($40 taxi ride.)

This could be interesting - I wonder how much damage will still be visible after the hurricane last October that went right over Cancun. Supposedly all the hotels are cleaned up. Not! As it turns out, several are still stripped out undergoing slow repairs, a couple of the hotels were torn down as unsalvageable. Cancun is still short of its necessary hotel rooms. We don't see any half-destroyed buildings, but there is still a lot of broken-off brush/trees/etc. It will probably be another couple of years before they get back to what they were at one time. The airport will probably take about 3 years - the 'international' terminal was basically totally wiped out resulting in everything having to go through the (smaller) domestic terminal.

The weather is warm, but its VERY 'breezy' since we are right on the coastline - helps keep things cool as long as we aren't in the direct sun, but its humid.

This evening there is a (un-?)WELCOME DECEPTION (was to be a reception but too noisy - cut short - and minimal refreshments - bad deal) and I meet my second group of traveling companions. The tour director was 10 minutes late for the meeting which didn't help any. (B,R) Hotel: Hotel El Gougo de Americanos Too large, too commercial, overdone, overpriced, "this" is Mexico??? Not! (Tour director: Patrick Niellson from Chile/Florida, Mexican Guide: Humbarto. 22 tour members) Rating: Bah! Humbug! Between the International Mad-house fiasco and then this, can it get worse?

Day 10 (2), Monday, March 20 Cancun - Tulum - Coba - Chichen Itza
After a good breakfast, first visit the beachfront ruins of TULUM. This stunning 12th-century site, once inhabited by the Mayas and Toltecs, is set atop coastal cliffs overlooking the Caribbean. Nice stop, and since its right on the coast, we still have a great breeze to keep us from sweltering and a couple of chances to have good views of the ocean and the reefs. Lots of iguanas around.

From here it is a short drive to COBA, an important Mayan city during the 8th and 9th centuries with an estimated population of 50,000, but abandoned for unknown reasons. The present-day village straddles Lago Coba and is surrounded by dense jungle. It's just getting restored/set up by the scientists, so will take a while to be something special. The souvenir sellers have found it though. Lunch is nearby and fairly good.

Unfortunately Patrick wants Humbarto (Mexican guide) to do all his talking while we are doing our walking tours, not on the bus. Patrick monopolizes the on-bus talk. Not good - it's hard to hear/understand Humbarto while in crowds; if he could have talked while on the bus using the microphone it would have been much better.

In the late afternoon, arrive at Chichen Itza (Eet-sa Chee-kin), where the renowned / infamous Mayaland Hotel which is to be our home for the next two nights. However the nights can be dangerous - the grounds are huge, lots of rambling walks and almost no lights. It's extremely easy to get lost. I find out the next day that there is supposed to be a flashlight in my room, but it's gone and the hotel staff won't give me another one. Beautiful place, nice rooms, a/c, good food, etc. And CI is right across the road - we can see the 'observatory' right out the front door. Somehow we also get an 'upgrade' from the main building to the bungalows - which is the reason we need those flashlights. (B,L,D)

Day 11 (3), Tuesday, March 21 EQUINOX. Chichen Itza
A full day to explore this important ancient city. CHICHEN ITZA was built by the Maya between 600 and 900 AD; abandoned by the end of the 10th century; and re-established in the 11th and 12th centuries, possibly by the Toltecs. The site is amid three miles of cleared forest scrub. Visit the BALL COURT, site of many human sacrifices; EL CASTILLO, a formidable building dedicated to the high priest; and the CENOTE SAGRADO, the sacred well once filled with priceless treasures offered to the gods. The main tour is in the morning (we start it at 8 AM in order to beat the heat and the many, many busloads of tourists coming in from Cancun, Cozumel, etc.)

Back to the hotel, then to Piste for lunch - already crammed with busses and lots more tourists and locals walking in for the festivities. Lunch is supposed to be a buffet, but the tour director changed it to a fixed menu - soup (good), guacamole (ok), small unidentifiable piece of chicken (in-edible), stale desert … and we had to pay buffet prices for *this*.. Then back to the Mayaland.

WE REALLY, REALLY LUCKED OUT!!! It's the EQUINOX. If we want to do so, (I do,) we can next walk across the street about 3 PM for the start of the equinox - which runs until about 5. Yes we, all 65-70 thousand of us, get to see the 'serpent.' I tried some pictures, but the postcard photo is MUCH better.

Back to the hotel for a while. At 6:30 off to the flash-and-noise show. (I'm tired, I skip this one - there's a better one at Uxmal.) Late dinner at 8:30. I'm tired. (B,L,D)

Day 12 (4), Wednesday, March 22 Chichen Itza - Izamel - Uxmal
Today drive to Izamel-a charming town that was once a classic Mayan religious site, later a center of the Spanish attempt to Christianize the Maya. Excellent lunch - 'meal of the day' which is what we've gotten at a couple of places. Usually better than somewhere that has a menu…the chef can concentrate on one set of dishes.

This afternoon we arrive in UXMAL, built during the classic period; Uxmal is the most famous of the ruins in the Puuc region. Its architecture is considered a masterpiece of the old civilization. I would have enjoyed it much more if it hadn't turned so extremely hot. The tour director reports that the temperature today: 47C (116F) When he came through about a month ago, it got down into the 30s (F) at night.

The hotel is a/c, but the staff have disconnected the controls on the thermostat. There are two settings: off, and not-quite-as-hot. The fan also has two settings: off and noisy (though not as noisy as at the Hacienda near Cuernavaca.) This hotel is part of the Mayaland group.

There's a (reportedly) great flash-and-noise show tonight at the ruins, but I'm told that there are lots and lots and lots … of steps (in the dark) and my right knee is still giving many problems from those steps at Teotihuacan and all the walking around CI yesterday - I have to 'pass.' Darn. This had been very highly recommended. Blasted steps! Now I've missed BOTH the flash-and-noise shows. (B,L,D) Hotel: Hacienda Uxmal

Day 13 (5), Thursday, March 23 Uxmal - Kabah - Merida
This morning visit KABAH, a small but interesting archaeological site famous for its PALACE OF MASKS. If only it weren't so hot. This is mostly just a driving day. We then journey on to Mérida, the capital of the Yucatan State and its colonial heart. (B,L) Temperature today 45C (113F) At least it's a couple of degrees cooler than yesterday. (Hotel: Hyatt Regency for two nights.

Day 14 (6), Friday, March 24 Merida
Conquered in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo, Merida remained under Spanish control for the next 300 years. This morning's city tour showcases a variety of European architectural styles by visiting the CATHEDRAL, the zócalo (main square) and the elegant boulevard Paseo Montejo. Later we visit the MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY AND HISTORY, with excellent displays of Mayan artifacts from various sites in the Yucatan. Another walk through a market, then after a very late lunch, enjoy some leisure time this afternoon to relax in our centrally located hotel. It's too hot to do anything else though a few people give it a brief try. Nice city at least and the morning tour did have some interesting places to see. Another of the meal of the day lunches. (B,L)

Day 15 (7), Saturday, March 25 Merida - Ek Balam - Valladolid - Cancun
Today we visit the enormous, elaborate, acropolis pyramid located inside the Mayan site of EK BALAM. Meaning "black jaguar," Ek Balam was at the height of its importance as a Mayan city during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD). When the Maya abandoned the site, it went under cover as the dense low-lying jungle of the Yucatan engulfed it. Found by archaeologists and adventurers, its restoration has been ongoing since 1997. One of the neatest things about Ek Balam is that the site / pyramid is/was a 'university.' There are lots of rooms built into the sides of the structure - not just a solid platform with lots of steps to the top. One of my favorite ruins for this reason - it's different.

Next we visit the small but charming town of Valladolid for lunch (another nice one), before making our way back to Cancun and the El Gougo de Americanos. When we get there, some of the tour members are on the 7th floor of the "Moon" tower - and the elevators aren't working. Only one is working in "my" "Sun" tower - but at least there's one - fortunate since I'm also on the top (7th) floor. This evening our Tour Director hosts a festive FAREWELL/Welfare he calls it, DINNER. (B,D) Hotel: Hotel El Gougo de Americanos again (fortunately only 1 night)

Day 16 (8) Sunday, March 26 Back to Home
The tour ends this morning with guests departing on individual schedules. Transfer included. (B) (Optional extension staying in Cancun NOT taken - I'm not that interested in beaches and related 'entertainment'.) It's an afternoon flight so I actually get the 'included' breakfast this time. Even though the flight isn't until 2, we have to leave the hotel at 10:30 in order to have even a slight chance to get through the Cancun International Mad-house. No lunch, micro-snacks on the plane.

Continental CO 465Cancun - Houston2:20 - 5:002:40

$96 needed to 'get my car out of hock!' - taxi/shuttle would have been $85 + tips total. Home about 6:30 to 3000 emails to get through.

VERY interesting trip, but I'm not likely to repeat it, at least not any time soon. At least I got to see what I really wanted: small towns, ruins, craftsmen, Mayan area, etc.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge




AIRLINES:
1Continental CO 4241Houston-Smog City9:15 - 11:352:20--
2Mexicana MX 214Oaxaca - Smog City8:30 - 9:351:051:10
3AeroMexico AM 907Smog City - Cancun10:45 - 12:401:554:10
4Continental CO 465Cancun - Houston2:20 - 5:002:40--

OPTIONS: none - except for the special one Fran and Edwin set up for us - only $18.

MEALS: Breakfast 15/15, Lunch 8/15, Dinner 9/15 plus any airline snacks.

Currency approximately: $1 = 10.7 Pesos; 1 Peso = $0.09

HOTELS:
Mar 11-12 SMOG CITY Presidente Intercontinental (MD) ok+
Mar 13-14 CUERNAVACA AREA Hacienda Vista Hermosa (F) ---
Mar 15 PUEBLA de L.A. Hotel NH Puebla (ST) +
Mar 16-18 OAXACA Hotel Victoria (F) ++
Mar 19 CANCUN Hotel Fiesta Americana (MD) -
Mar 20-21 CHICHEN ITZA Hotel Mayaland (F) +
Mar 22 UXMAL Hacienda Uxmal (F) ok
Mar 23-24 MERIDA Hyatt Regency (D) +
Mar 25 CANCUN Hotel Fiesta Americana (MD) -

Next year it's back to Mexico for the third year in a row, probably the "Sea of Cortes" (probably without the "Cloudy Rainy Valley" extension) with Cruise West.

Central & South America trips:
2004: Cruise West - Panama / Costa Rica
2004-5 Chile, Antarctica, Argentina
2005: Brendamn - Cloudy Rainy Valley (Copper Canyon)
2006: Globus (2) - Heart of Mexico & Yucatan
2007: Cruise West - Sea of Cortes
2007. Globus - South American Odyssey