I spent two days in Mexico City. My last evening there was a delight, the buzz of being on the road beginning to kick in as I scaled the Torre Latinoamericana for a remarkable skyscraper view of the lights of the city coming on as the sun set. Just as fun, if not more, was the walk back to metro station, for no particular reason other than the feel of the life of the centre in the thousands of people on the wide pedestrian street, the taco stands and busking jazz groups, counterpoints to the vast museums and palaces lighted up on every corner.
My first stop, Taxco, in the neighboring state of Guerrero, was a complete change. A rural town of maybe forty thousand, it is built into the sides of a valley that for hundreds of years provided the town’s wealth through recently-exhausted silver reserves. The centrepiece was a colonial church that towered above the regulation one- or two-story buildings, the pink walls and ornate facade adding to the contrast, especially striking in the afternoon as it remained in the sun long after the shadows had lengthened over the rest of the town. Having resolved to move away from jewellery of the cheap-and-cheerful kind, I spent an afternoon browsing the dozens of shining shops and came away with a ring and a bracelet that, I hope, will be mementos of Mexico for a long time. The town, with each building legally obliged to be painted white with a brown roof, reminded me of a kind of bleached Guanajuato, steeper and smaller, but postcard-picturesque. The streets were really exceptionally steep – there was a moment in a taxi when an uphill road and a downhill road ran parallel to each other, and as I looked out of the window I was alarmed to see a small car apparently at ninety degrees to mine.
I spent two days in Taxco, the first mostly spent in the “grutas,” one of Mexico’s largest cave sites, and the afternoon of the second taken up by a trip to the very top of the hill to see a statue of Christ that overlooked the whole valley. The grutas were impressive, at least in scale, but the obligatory tour guide stretched my patience by stopping at virtually every rock formation and pointing out its shape before fondly telling us its nickname. The Christmas tree, Pope Jean-Paul II, the howling wolf… The Mexicans I was with ooh-ed and aah-ed for the whole tour, genuinely, as though in a pantomime, and I wondered why our reactions were so different. Does the western world, with its Cartesian love of objective analysis, inevitably make its people cynical? Or is that too glib a conclusion?
The next evening, an earthquake shuddered through the whole of Guerrero state, knocking out power for around twelve hours and ending my stay on a low note. For me, the biggest problem was having to go to bed early instead of going to see a concert in the town square, but I learned later that the quake had reached as far as Mexico City and there were even two or three fatalities. As the sad news was filtering through, I was spending a long day on buses, and I arrived in Oaxaca late that night.
I know Oaxaca is a special place because every single Mexican I speak to about it, regardless of which state they are from, smiles and says, “aah, Oaxaca.” The city is famous for its hot chocolate, and they go well together – rich, warm, reassuring, civilized, lightly spiced. I embraced being middle-class and spent the first day in the numerous museums and art galleries, churches and coffee shops, enjoying the sun and the peaceful atmosphere. Mexico’s hostels began to work their magic as I made my first friends of the trip, and I spent the rest of my time in Oaxaca with wonderful company. We wandered through markets, ate well together, drank coffee in the afternoons and cold beers in the evenings. Whether it was natural springs in rockpools in the hills outside the city, or just sitting between the Mexican families and broad-leaved red flowers in the zócalo, the time sped past and three days were over like that. I was planning my trip around a week in advance, and I calculated it was time to move on to Campeche.
Campeche, located at a strategic point on the western coast of the Yucatán peninsula, retains most of the castle-like walls and forts that were built around it in an attempt to fend off raiding Spanish conquistadores. Today, the walls seperate a run-down, frenetic urban disc from its tranquil, Disney-like centre, the cobbled streets lined with sugary pastel-coloured houses and cafes. For the first few hours I was content, wandering up and down the perfectly-gridded roads and enjoying the novel sight of the sea, but by the evening I had run out of walk. My enthusiasm waned as the evening passed with nothing to do, nothing to see apart from the city itself – and I had all the next day to plan for as well. It’s always easy to plan a better trip in hindsight, but I regretted not spending an extra day in Oaxaca and only leaving one for Campeche. I made my way to a fort the next morning, spent a lot of time sitting in the plaza watching a variable succesion of bands play on a well-amplified stage, but for the first, and, actually, only time on the Mexico part of my trip I was bored. I found myself, much to my surprise, looking forward with curiosity to a day in the infamous Cancún.
Cancún, Mexico’s very own Las Vegas or Ibiza, I found to be exactly as its reputation suggests. I got off the nightbus, scrubbing my eyes, at around five thirty in the morning, and upon leaving the station was greeted by the muffled thump thump thump of discos, and attractively dressed young people wobbling down the street, or smoking unsteadily against lampposts. I imagine I appeared as strange to them, with my huge backpack and map in hand, as they appeared to me. By the time I had found a hostel I had already been offered a stick of weed and two young Mexican men, and I was not quite so happy to have left Campeche. A few hours’ sleep, a reasonable breakfast and some reassuringly friendly Australians cured the slightly unnerving sense of lawlessness that my arrival had given me, and I escaped to the beach in the afternoon – or so I thought. Cancún’s Hotel Zone is a long, very thin isthmus of perhaps fifteen kilometers, with the road on one side, the beach on the other and the hotels and resorts in the middle. Three times, looking as un-Mexican as I could, I attempted to swagger through a hotel lobby to get to the beach. Each time I was foiled by polite security guards, who told me the beach was owned by the hotel, and were all equally unmoved by my best “me no hablar español, me uncle guest here” routine. Eventually, after walking for half an hour and asking several shop assistants, I found a public access route hidden between a police station and a real estate site, and reached the beach. It was, in the end, a gorgeous beach, and being the first one I’d seen since leaving Roatán two and a half years ago, I was especially impressed. My good mood enabled me to enjoy the irony of the multiple bilboards announcing the beach was public, and the hotels could accept no responsibility for any accidents or losses that may happen there.
The hostel that night revolved around rum and fireworks (“What’s the big one called?” “La Bazooka. Six hundred pesos,”) in between conversations about US politics – the hostel owner expained patiently and rationally how eugenics and population culls were the only hope for his country – which, I won’t deny, was fun, but I was not sorry to sneak off to bed when most people were gearing up to go clubbing. I woke up early the next morning and made my way to the airport.