© 2015 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
The countries are listed in the order in which I first visited them.
Official Name: United Mexican States; Capital: Mexico City; Language: Spanish; Country Code: MX; Currency: peso (MXP)
My first foray into Mexico was a day trip to Tijuana from San Diego, California. I parked my rental car at the border and walked across into a town full of shops and restaurants. I made the obligatory visit to a liquor store to see the dead worms in the bottles of tequila. I spent an interesting evening watching jai alai, an indoor game played by two or four players.
From a trip to the capital and to the Caribbean-coast state of Vera Cruz in 1994:
My first impression of Mexico City was its pollution. As my plane descended, we flew through thick, brown/yellow clouds. At the airport, I phoned a young woman who was a member of a hosting organization to which I belonged. She was most generous and told me to "stay right there" while she drove across the city to pick me up, to find me a hotel, and to take me there. The next day, she and a friend picked me up and took me on a city tour.
After a few days in the capital, I headed southeast to the state of Puebla to see some of its earthen step pyramids. From there, it was on to the Caribbean coast and the state of Vera Cruz. Six weeks earlier, I'd written letters in English and Spanish to six different hosts in Mexico. I got no replies and those I contacted once in-country said they hadn't received them. Of all of them, there was one family with which I really wanted to stay, and that actually happened. They were a young couple with two kids, who ran the family dairy farm. When I phoned from their local village, they said they would be delighted to have me stay, and if I could wait a couple of hours, they'd come to get me. I stayed with them for three days. There was one situation, however, that made me feel quite uncomfortable. As I was a visitor from the US, the husband seemed to hold me personally responsible for political actions being taken by the California state government with respect to refusing to provide education to the children of illegal immigrants.
Throughout my travels, I'd heard about a quirky place to visit in the jungle to the north and west, so I decided to take a look. I took a bus to the town of Xilitla (where the letter x is pronounced as an h). If one was very wealthy, fed up with English society, heard voices in one's head telling one to get away from it all, one could do like Edward James, and go to a remote jungle in Mexico and build huge, surreal sculptures and a gothic-style mansion. A young American couple has recently taken over his house, and were in the process of renovating it as a hotel. Although they were not yet open for business, some rooms were ready and they were happy to rent me one for a couple of nights
From a trip to the Yucatan in 2007:
[Diary] At 6 pm, my bus pulled into the bus station at Tulum. I chatted with a young couple from Berlin, and we agreed to share a taxi to the hotel area on the beach some distance from downtown. The driver was very friendly and spoke basic English, which he had learned in Texas. The place where the Germans were staying had no single rooms available, so I had the driver take me to some other places nearby. I soon found a room and checked-in for two nights. Check-in consisted of my writing my name and nationality in a ruled schoolbook, and paying cash for my stay. Then I got a tour of the share toilets and shower rooms out under the trees. I was also given a strong padlock and key to lock-up my room.
On seeing my room, my first reaction was that it was the house of sticks, straight from "The Three Little Pigs". The walls of the room were literally large round sticks, going from floor to ceiling. The breeze came right on between them, as did the humidity. (Hopefully, the Big Bad Wolf wouldn't come huffing and puffing!) A double bed was fixed to one wall and was suspended from the roof on new strong ropes. It had a big mosquito net, a pillow, and a bottom sheet only. Also provided was an electric fan on a stand. The room cost 300 pesos ($30) per night. Not cheap considering what I got, but it wasn't very far from the ruins I'd come to see and it was right on the beach. It was also really quite quaint. The waves crashed all day and night outside my window and off the small restaurant patio.
[Diary] I woke feeling refreshed. It was then I discovered that the electricity was off. On inquiry, I was told it was on from 6 pm to 6 am only. I also found that the hot water came from solar panels, so the shower might be lukewarm at best. But that's okay as I'm on vacation and it's warm out.
Mid-morning, I packed my daypack with the essentials: water, leftover breakfast, first-aid kit, toilet paper, novel, and Spanish vocabulary book, among other things. Then I applied a liberal dose of suntan cream, and put on a light long-sleeved shirt and floppy hat. Then I headed out to walk to the main attraction.
The Tulum ruin comprises a wall on the north, west, and south sides, with the sea being the natural barrier to the east. The interior part was at least twice as long as it was wide, and was very nicely preserved with lots of cordoned-off areas to protect the ruins themselves. In fact, tourists can't walk on or in any ruins. There were quite a few iguanas sunning themselves on rocks, in the grass, and on the ruins. Some were quite large. The coastline there is very rugged with well-worn cliffs. There was one small horseshoe-shaped beach, although that was closed. A steep set of wooden stairs allowed visitors to get down to another small strip of beach, so I went down to have a look. Well what can I say; there were all shapes and sizes of human-like creatures sunbathing and swimming, quite a few of whom should never have been allowed out in public dressed as they were. There was plenty of shade and seats or rocks on which to sit, so after I walked all around, I sat and people-watched for quite some time. Since I had nowhere to go, I went nowhere. Mission Accomplished!
[Diary] At the bus station, I negotiated the purchase of a round-trip ticket to Coba. Although the walk to the ruin site was 2 kms in and 2 more back, it was all in the shade. However, I perspired a lot. The Mayan city held 50,000 people at its peak, and was spread out around several lakes. There were quite a few near-complete buildings and then there was the main pyramid. Its steps went all the way to the temple on top at an angle of 45 degrees. I climbed it in three stages with breaks along the way … during which I put my heart back in my chest. At the top, there was a small room, which was very cool and dark. The view went for miles with only the top of a much smaller temple to be seen in the vicinity.
I spent 2½ hours seeing the site, and then happily slumped in the shade with a tall bottle of cold grapefruit soda. I looked over the touristy trash in the souvenir stalls, and left with nothing but a postcard.
[Diary] We pulled into the new bus station in the middle of Valladolid, and I struck up a conversation with a woman from Quebec City, Canada. She recommended the hotel El Mason del Marques, which was only a few blocks away facing the large park in the center of town. It had a very nice looking restaurant and swimming pool, air-conditioned rooms, and even TV. A bank and post office were nearby. Oh, did I mention the book exchange? I asked if I could see a room, and a bellman took me on a tour. Bellman, you say, what kind of budget hotel has a bellman? While it was much more upscale from my previous very humble abode, it cost only 550 pesos ($55) per night, and I didn't have to haul my valuables with me when I went to the toilet or shower as the rooms have en-suites.
Here's what my guidebook had to say about the town. "Valladolid combines distinguished colonial architecture with the easygoing atmosphere of a Yucatan market town. Whitewashed arcades and 17th-century houses surround the main plaza, and among the town's many fine churches is a fine Franciscan monastery. Right in the middle of the town is a huge cenote (sink hole), which once provided all Valladolid's water, and nearby at Dzitnip are some of the Yucatan's most spectacular cenotes for swimming." While the essence of this likely is true, it conjured up a far more romantic picture than what I'd seen so far.
[Diary] The hotel restaurant was under a verandah, in a square wrapped around an open courtyard garden. A large cascading fountain splashed in the center, and some flowering plants, trees, and vines added contrasting colors to the cream and white plastered walls that lined the courtyard. The walls were lined with large paintings, large ornately carved furniture, clay pots, big brass light fixtures, including a big chandelier. From my table, I could see out the huge wooden double front doors to the plaza across the street. There, the craft markets had been in full swing for several hours. And if all that wasn't enough, the sound of Spanish guitars was piped in to soothe me as I ate my toast and honey. All this and more for a $5 breakfast! I could get used to this.
[Diary] Chichen Itza is by far the best known of the Mayan cities, and its main pyramid is recognized around the world. I started with some of the lesser buildings and temples. The observatory was impressive, and the Maya had an excellent understanding of the seasons. Their calendar was very accurate. They studied Venus and the sun, and like numerous other peoples around the world, constructed buildings aligned with the sun on equinoxes.
The main pyramid has been closed to tourists for some years, since one fell from the top. It was in a very good state of repair, and some people were working on it during my visit. There were several cenotes, the main one of which was open to the sky. The Maya played a ball game, and here was the largest arena in the Americas. On occasion, the losing team, or at least its captain, was executed. There was a large temple with two long sets of columns going off in different directions. Many of the columns were covered in elaborate carvings. A prominent figure carved all over the site was a serpent's head. At 6:30 pm, I returned to the ruins to see the light show.
[Diary] I rode a bus back to Cancun where I boarded the high-speed catamaran to la Isla Mujeres, "The Women's Island", a couple of miles off the coast. I soon found a hotel.
[Diary] Late morning, I ventured out from my air-conditioned cocoon. It was hot and more than a little humid, so I kept to the shade as much as possible. I went north along the waterfront. Some fishermen were stacking nets into a small boat, the dive and boat tours people were busy, and people were lazing in the sun on the beach. Once I got to the north coast, the hotels went a bit up-scale, with nicer beaches and deckchair and umbrella rentals. I came across a topless bathing area with more than a few women airing their differences. Over on the east coast, which is open to the Caribbean Sea, the waves were much stronger, and large parts of the beaches had been washed away. Some reclamation was underway. On the way back to my room, I paused for a treat, frozen mango juice covering vanilla ice cream.
Official Name: Republic of Costa Rica; Capital: San Jose; Language: Spanish; Country Code: CR; Currency: colon (CRC)
I was impressed with the idea of a country that had no army, navy, or air force, which certainly keeps defense spending low! So in 1992, I decided to go visit. I stayed one night in a youth hostel in San Jose, and shared a room with three guys from various countries, one of whom was Norwegian. (He'd just come from Spanish-language training in Guatemala, and passed along information about the place he'd stayed and the woman from whom he'd had private lessons. See the Guatemala entry later.) The next morning, we all headed off in different directions, and by some fantastic coincidence, three days later, we were all back sharing the same room.
I started out my tour by riding a bus to Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast. From there I went south not far from the Panamanian border to a town I'd read about in a Lonely Planet guide. Although the hotel I'd heard about was booked, they referred me to Ms. Mary nearby who sometimes rented a room to tourists. I stayed with her a couple of nights. She had a dog called Rex, and she wouldn't believe me when I told her that was also my name. Even after I showed her my passport, she kept on saying that Rex was a dog's name!
Next stop was La Fortuna where I wanted to see the Arenal Volcano erupt. While it did rumble several times each day, and actually erupted on a daily basis, the rain and fog kept me from seeing anything. Fortunately, on the last evening, the skies cleared and I went with a group to sit downwind of it and watch the fiery rocks shoot into the air and to feel the fine sand blast on my face.
I ended the trip with a 2-night stay with a retired journalist who lived in the heart of San Jose.
From a family trip in 2004:
[Diary] In San Jose, we boarded an express bus to the Monteverde Cloud Forest off to the north east. The bus was more comfortable than when I had traveled this country by bus 12 years ago, but legroom was still minimal. After five hours through the countryside with frequent stops, we arrived in Santa Elene, just as light rain began to fall. As we got off the bus, a young mother, Marlena, was soliciting customers for her hotel, "Cabinas el Pueblo". She seemed to be an interesting character, so we set off with her to check it out. Our room had two bunk beds and a double bed, with en-suite bathroom, all for about US$25/night. Marlena directed us to her mother's "soda" (a small restaurant), where we had a delicious dinner of local food.
[Diary] A bus picked us up for our evening expedition. We joined our guide, and set off into the forest. We saw tarantulas, sleeping birds, two porcupines up in a tree (they really are tree porcupines that live in hollows high up), a raccoon, butterflies, and some frogs. We even got to see the Southern Cross although we were not in the southern hemisphere. The hike took two hours.
[Diary] We were booked for a day of Eco-tourism in the cloud forest. From 8:30–10:30 am, my son, Scott, and I took 13 zip-line trips across the ravines. We were rigged up with safety helmets and harnesses, which were attached to each wire. The longest wire was 400–500 feet, and with the thick clouds in the forest, we often couldn't see our landing spot until we raced close to it. I braked too hard several times, and had to pull myself in by hand the last 30 feet. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) After lunch, we enjoyed the huge indoor butterfly garden dome, insect displays, and a hummingbird garden.
[Diary] Originally, we had planned to take the long bus ride to Arenal, but decided it was worth the extra cost to more than halve the trip time via an alternate means. At 8 am, a Jeep arrived to take us down the winding mountain roads to a lake. At 9:30, we began the boat ride across Lake Arenal. Our next accommodation had been arranged by Marlena, and so we were met and taken by Jeep to La Fortuna, the town at the base of the active Arenal Volcano. We checked into the "Pura Vida" (Good Life) B&B where we spent a quiet afternoon.
[Diary] There was still no sign of the volcano as it was covered in clouds. We took a taxi to the Arenal waterfalls. Our driver was quite a character, and agreed to pick us up later and then take us around the area. Scott and I walked down the narrow steps to the base of the falls. After half an hour there, we climbed back to the top. (When I did this 12 years ago, I rode from the town on horseback, and there were no tourist facilities or steps down.)
In the evening, we went to the "Baldi Termae" outdoor hot springs for an evening soak. (They are heated by the volcano, and most were way too hot for us to enter.) Despite almost constant rain, this was quite an experience. There was talk of being able to see a volcanic eruption, but we didn't see any activity.
[Diary] Back in the capital, our hotel was a beautifully restored coffee plantation house in the university district, out of the downtown area. From there, we took a local bus to an old city that had been the capital many years ago. We enjoyed wandering around the city and through the markets and stalls in the city square, as well as the never-completed big church that was ruined by an earthquake.
Official Name: Republic of Guatemala; Capital: Guatemala City; Language: Spanish; Country Code: GT; Currency: quetzal (GTQ)
As I wrote above, I was in Costa Rica in 1992, where a Norwegian had recommended a place in Guatemala to stay and learn Spanish. While I took down the particulars, going to Guatemala was not on my radar at that time. However, 12 months later, there I was in the old capital, Antigua, knocking on the lady's door. I stayed for two weeks paying $5/night for my Spartan room without meals. I also took private Spanish lessons at $2/hour. The woman worked, but each afternoon when she came home, we'd drink coffee out in the garden and I'd tell her what grammar I'd been working on that morning with my books. Then depending on our moods, we had a lesson from one to three hours. It was all very civilized and beat the boring language classes I'd attended in the past. Each morning, I'd visit my local bakery for a breakfast of empanadas and café con leche, and to practice my Spanish on the unsuspecting owner.
The weekend between those two weeks was Todo Santos (All Saints Day, after Halloween), and I rode a bus out to the famous town of Chichicastenango to see the big religious procession. I stayed overnight at Panajachel.
After two weeks of Spanish immersion and covering all 14 tenses, and then promptly forgetting all but the two I'd arrived with, I flew on a light plane up to Flores from where I toured the Mayan ruins at Tikal.
I've always found Latin Americans to be very friendly and helpful, and more than willing to tolerate my bad Spanish. I do enjoy much of their simple style of food, and I'd be happy to visit new places or to revisit some places in this region.