Souvenirs, Souvenirs

In case you didn’t know: Playa del Carmen is a metropolis. And like any other metropolis, we, too, have a 5th Avenue that is our main shopping area, only that we call it Quinta Avenida. Which is a good thing for not everybody fancies getting spat on by people trying to pronounce “fifth”.

Lately, this area has changed a lot. We got a somewhat fancy new mall with stores like “ALDO”, “Forever 21”, “The Body Shop” and whatnot. All of a sudden, we also got MAC, BOSS, ZARA, and Armani Exchange, so we do not have to drive to Cancun all the time we want to shop something other than beach wear or souvenirs.

Look at that! Those are refrigerator magnets mostly. Almost a work of art.

Look at that! Those are refrigerator magnets mostly. Almost a work of art.

Already, I heard people complain about Playa losing its charms. Well, I am not so convinced it was the least bit charming before with nothing around but touristy knickknacks and beer bars for miles. Luckily, though, for those people who consider this kind of shopping experience desirable, they will still find what they are looking for.

Last week my in-laws were visiting and during our many strolls I came up with a list of what I’d consider the most worthwhile souvenirs (apart from a large variety of STDs and party drugs that you can both get on every corner if you are interested… just sayin’…):

1. T-Shirts with silly messages. Always a big trend. See, what I found:

I pooped today. - Really?

I pooped today. – Really?

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“May I suggest the sausage?” – How terribly polite. I also like the numbered stuff, like “Bitch 1 – 4”. It’s a good thing to let people know what they are dealing with.

P1050705 2. Bracelets with your name. Always comes in handy when you had too much tequila.

3. Temporary tattoos. So venturesome.

4. Hair braids. Honestly, who doesn’t look good with those? Around the corner, there is a family business of hair braiders. In the evenings, I can see how they are checking each other for head lice. Sounds promising, right?

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Hair braids, tattoos, bracelets – what more could you wish for?

5. And my absolute favourite: Wrestling masks. I actually see people buying those and I cannot help but wonder: Do they use those in the bedroom? Or when driving too fast so nobody can prove it was them? Or is Playa just THE holiday destination for wrestlers?

In this case, these are also suitable for children, but they were the only ones I found that were displayed on dummies. I was actually tempted to get a spiderman mask for my godson... yes, yes, I admit it!

In this case, these are also suitable for children, but they were the only ones I found that were displayed on dummies. I was actually tempted to get a spiderman mask for my godson… yes, yes, I admit it!

Have you ever bought some silly souvenirs? Do you like getting souvenirs? 

Oops, how did we end up in Guatemala?

After the most lovely time in San Cristobal, it was time to hit the road again. This time we wanted to drive further south to the city of Comitan. Hoping that our GPS might actually show us the correct way this time, we typed in “Comitan, Chiapas” and were surprised to see it wanted to direct us to the very opposite direction, towards Tuxtla Gutierrez.

We decided to be smart and follow the signs rather than our GPS, after all, it didn’t prove terribly reliable when we arrived to San Cristobal… It took us a long time to get to the outskirts of the city as it was market day everywhere. Finally, we found the highway towards Comitan – only that it was blocked that day and there seemed to be no alternative route. So we didn’t have much choice but to eventually follow our GPS that would surely lead us some loop road somewhere.

Only it didn’t. We ended up in Tuxtla Gutierrez where we turned around again to head back to San Cristobal. That little detour took us 3 hours, yet we hadn’t gone anywhere really. By that time, we had realized that there were several Comitans, and the one we wanted was Comitan de Dominguez. Petty but important details…We consulted our old fashioned road map and found a countryside highway in order to avoid the downtown traffic of San Cristobal. What should have been a 90 minute drive at most turned out as a 5 hour trip, but never mind, in the end we made it to Comitan. De Dominguez.

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Hardly anyone ever mentions the city of Comitan but it was actually quite beautiful, and we found an extremely nice, extremely cheap hotel downtown. We also found the said to be “best restaurant in town” where we had a mediocre dinner at best, while 6 waiters were eyeing us curiously from behind a column. Every now and then, one of them got pushed forward by his colleagues to approach our table and see how we were handling the pasta. At 9pm they started their live music programme which seemed weird since we were the only guests, and it got so noisy that we finished our dinner in sign language.

The next morning we started off early because we wanted to see the Lagos de Montebello National Park, before we would drive all the way to the border of Guatemala where we intended to spend the night. This time, we didn’t bother to use the GPS, we just followed the signs that luckily were everywhere.

When you drive through Mexico, you will always encounter numerous police and military posts. At the Riviera Maya, where we live, they always exclusively stop Mexicans, tourists (or expats) never get checked which I always found highly unfair. In Chiapas it is the other way round, not a single Mexican needs to undergo a screening but we did every single time. That day I believed we might have gotten our fair share. I was wrong, there was more to come on the last bit of our trip.

I am not sure what those guys are looking for as every checkpoint does different controls. Some just ask you where you are from and where you are headed to, some will check your papers, some will note down your license plate, some the serial number of your car which seems a silly thing to do as they have no computers. I am sure they hand their handwritten papers to someone like once a week, and that someone throws them away immediately. But maybe it is to practice calligraphy.

And then there are those who let you get off the car and search for God knows what. They even check under the vehicle floor and under the car mats. One of them very seriously asked me to hand him my bag which he searched thoroughly. Thank goodness, there was nothing embarrassing in it! Nevertheless, an airline refreshing towel aroused his suspicion, but he just couldn’t figure out what it might be. Uh, the misteries of foreigners! This very determined search process lead to my belief that we must look like real European criminals trying to smuggle their grandma tied to the vehicle floor cross country. Or German potato dumplings. Another guy, though, was checking for something else: He asked us how to say “God” and “Jesus” in German. Maybe that was a test to see whether we were real Germans and not just mental patients talking in some funny accent.

Anyhow, after passing several stops we didn’t really pay attention anymore so we must have missed a crucial detail somewhere… I got a little suspicious because I thought we should have arrived at Lagos de Montebello by now, so I got out my iphone to check my GPS. I didn’t have network anymore and was informed, I should enable roaming services. Seemed a little odd to me, so better consult the map. And who would have known: We were in Guatemala already!

We turned around, found the junction that we apparently had missed earlier due to a missing sign, and finally arrived at the National Park. On the road leading to the park, we got stopped like every 10 minutes by someone who offered his services as a guide. Since we didn’t want a guide, we drove on. Then we passed the first stall to pay an entrance fee and more guides waiting for work. After a while, we passed the second stall to pay another entrance fee and even more guides who tried to stick their hands and heads into our car. After a while, we got stopped by an old man who showed us ancient, possibly inherited postcards of the park to prepare us for the stunning sights (maybe he thought we might collapse out of joy otherwise?) and who wanted to convince us to take his young colleague as a guide. By then, we were rather annoyed. We drove on a little and stopped to take a look at the map – but the minute we stopped the car, someone started running towards us waving a screaming – another guide.

Lagos de Montebello

Upon leaving the car at the first lake we encountered, we were surrounded by helpful guides and an old gentleman who insisted we took a horse ride. I told him that Mr. R. was allergic to horses, but he probably had never heard of such a fancy thing as an allergy. Finally, we got rid of all the people and could admire the lake.

However, all this brash behaviour had dampened our spirits a little. We drove to a few more lakes and then decided to continue our journey towards the little border village of Frontera de Corozal which turned out to be a wise decision as it got dark soon. The last few miles to the village, we had to drive on dirt tracks full of potholes. I felt literally shaken when we arrived at our destination. The village of Frontera de Corozal was awaiting us in complete darkness, but luckily we found the hotel very soon.

It was 8pm when we received the keys for our hut and were informed that the restaurant was closed already. However, they’d be happy to prepare a little something for us. We ordered two surprisingly delicious quesadillas (for our anniversary dinner, by the way!) and got out our torch lights to search for our hut in the jungle. It was very simple, just a bed under a large palapa, the toilet was missing its seat, the shower had no walls, but well, it would be enough for a night. However, we slept miserably. A thunderstorm was shaking our hut, and we could hear the howling apes really loud. On top of that, I was worried that a tarantula or a scorpion might enter our room through one of the many gaps in the wood.

I was relieved when the alarm clock indicated 5am and I could get up to start into a new adventurous day!

A long winding road into the great cold…

After visiting Palenque, we set out for San Cristobal de las Casas in the Central Highlands of Chiapas. It is not too long a drive, about 300 km / 220 miles, but… Oh geez, that was one winding mountain road! Picturesque, yes, but winding…

You need to know that I get motionsick very easily, and so I spent those looong hours that it took us to get through the mountains clinging to the next truck’s bumper with my head out the window praying it may soon be over.

A typical village in Chiapas

Mexican friends from Chiapas had warned us in advance about people in that area “having very bad habits”. The bad habits show in mild roadside ambushes which you should be prepared for. Whenever you enter a little village, there will be plenty of speed bumps next to which there are people (very often women and children) waiting to sell their goods. They tend to tighten a rope over the street hoping you might slow down and buy some oranges or pineapples. If you actually stop, they will jump on you, trying to get their hands inside your car, but if you just keep on driving, they will most likely let go of the rope and you can continue on your journey. Nevertheless, this is quite a peculiar situation.

A typical grocery store

Of course, you feel sorry for those people who are so obviously poor. However, I read (and believe that it also shows) that these Indians (mostly Tzotzils) do not have the slightest desire to be like us. Our possessions don’t seem tempting to them, nor does our lifestyle, and the closer you get to a city, the more independent those people strive to live. Quite a comforting thought, I find.

Phew, finally, we arrived at San Cristobal. Here, our GPS gave up. And I don’t blame it, it is too painful to find your way around town. We are used to numbered checkered streets, right? I had forgotten what it’s like to have curvy streets with actual names! And then there didn’t seem to be a system as to what street you can enter in which direction. We drove around and around, hit dead ends, entered the pedestrian zone, got lost again, until we finally found our very charming little hotel.

Upon leaving the car, something very unfamiliar hit me right in the face: Fresh, cool, crisp air! What a treat! The air actually smelled fresh, unlike here where it is just very humid and sticky. I just had wished I had brought a little vial to bottle the air!

San Cristobal

And then we went for our first walk through the city. Oh, how charming it is! All those beautiful old buildings, the colourful fronts, queer little shops and cafes – if it hadn’t been for all those indigenos wandering the streets in their colourful dresses, I would have believed to be in Europe.

In the evening, it appeared to be freezing – we hit the 50 mark (10 degrees celsius)! For the first time in months, I put on jeans and a sweater and socks and shoes other than flip flops, but nevertheless, my teeth started chattering. Needless to say, that our hotel room wasn’t heated. Nobody prepares for some silly people who are used to be sweating all day long. And then the next morning, we didn’t have hot water, uh, what a nice surprise!

San Cristobal’s main cathedral

Nevertheless, I loved being cold, and I loved the fact that we could actually walk around for hours without getting all sweaty and tired. We did a tour of the city in a lovely little tram, we climbed the stairs to the Iglesia de San Cristobal, we enjoyed plenty of coffee for which Chiapas is famous, found a quirky little Indian restaurant run by two Americans who served us the best Baba Ganoush I ever had and enjoyed every minute of our stay.

San Cristobal at Night

The second day, we drove to the remote mountain villages Chamula and Zinacantan. Chamula is a very poor village famous for its unique church. You cannot enter Chamula by car, but you have to leave it in a parking lot by the village entrance. Of course, you have to pay a parking fee that is higher than anywhere in Playa del Carmen, and on top, you have to pay someone who will make sure “nobody scratches your car”. Right. Upon getting out of the car, we were again surrounded by people trying to sell us highly desirable objects such as embroidered ballpens and crocheted bracelets. One little girl was exceptionally persistent and followed us all around town.

The church of Chamula

The church wasn’t hard to find since there is not much to see otherwise, however, it was very hard to get into. We had to find the tourist information to get a permission (and pay an entrance fee), then we were allowed in. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any pictures, but I have never seen anything like it in my life. The floor is covered in pine needles, and there is no electric light but only candles everywhere. Does that sound a tad dangerous to you? Yeah, to me, too. But anyway. On the walls, there are mannequins incorporating saints and you see people kneeling in front of them praying. Otherwise, people are sitting everywhere on the ground, chatting and praying. I read that very often shamans are present who will crack eggs over sick people’s heads, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any. Also they still do offerings of either living or dead chickens. In this case, I wasn’t sad I didn’t see that either, I only was aware of some chickens kept in plastic bags outside.

After leaving Chamula, we drove to  Zinacantan, a wealthier village – if you want to use the word “wealth” here. Again, we had to pay an entrance fee, then we were allowed to park downtown. It is prohibited to take any pictures in this village much to my disappointment. Zinacantan is famous for its embroidery, and everywhere you will be approached by people inviting you to their homes to show you their craftsmanship. You are not bound to buy anything, they are just a very friendly people. Unfortunately, Mr. R. wasn’t up for this kind of adventure, so we just had a look around and drove back. I have to admit that for us it is quite a strange situation to have people clinging on to you all the time begging you to buy something, but hey, different countries, different customs, right?

We spent another night at our beautiful hotel La Casa de Guadalupe before we made our way to the city of Comitan. But that’s another story for another time!

Palenque: Meeting King Pakal

So, hmm.. I am back! Back from a relaxing, interesting, inspiring, and adventurous vacation in Chiapas. But where to start? Maybe the beginning would make for a good…err…beginning. Right?

So on our first day, we drove all the way to Palenque which is about 500 kilometers or 300 miles southwest from Playa del Carmen. Our numerous travel guides informed us that the city itself wasn’t worth visiting, but I actually found it quite charming. Maybe I am just very easy to please. Or have a weird taste. Who knows? But a little Mexican city on a Saturday night is just buzzing with music and laughter and fun, it is impossible to not like it. But the deafening music and cheap beer were not the reason for our trip, we wanted to explore the ruins!

Isn’t it stunning?

We arrived at the site as early as 8 o’clock in the morning which I would recommend to everybody. The minute you enter the parking lot, you are surrounded by helpful (money expecting) Mexicans. One will hold out his hand for finding you a parking spot, the next one for guarding your car while you are visiting the ruins, the next 10 or so want to be your guides, and then there are all the boys and girls who offer you little bracelets and good luck charms and whatnot. If there is one thing that you need when travelling this country, it is change. And hand sanitizer.

Once you enter the archaeological site, you leave the vendors behind (for now) and immerse yourself in tranquility. Early in the morning, the ruins are still covered in mist, there are not many people – it is a magical place!

The palace.

King Pakal

Despite the fact that Palenque was discovered already in 1773, it was only in the 20th century, that the excavations got started. Everything was covered under a jungle canopy, and still there must be many buildings hidden in the jungle. Palenque is very well kept, you feel like walking in a beautiful, sunlit park. And the ruins are just stunning. First you get to see the temple of inscriptions where King Pakal’s crypt was found. Palenque was founded around 300 A.D. and became a flourishing Maya hub. However, after some military defeats, it was King Pakal who made the city regain its wealth in 700 A.D. That’s probably why you see his (not so attractive) face EVERYWHERE.

Next to the temple of inscriptions, there is temple 13 where they just recently discovered the remains of an apparently rich guy together with a female and a child. When you walk further, you get to the very impressive castle, the temple of the sun and the temple of the cross from which you have a wonderful view of the site. But make sure to bring some decent hiking shoes – I saw a lady on wedges, it wasn’t my favourite sight of the day, I can tell you.

Between the ruins, there are a lot of vendors setting up their little stalls. Well, maybe not stalls, they present their goods on blankets, and you can get some very pretty things there if you are in the mood. We weren’t, but they also were not chasing us around like we experienced it in other parts of the country…

Misol Ha

Not far from Palenque, we visited the waterfalls Misol Ha and Agua Azul. I believe, that Agua Azul is the more famous one, at least that’s the one I had heard of before. However, I found Misol Ha so much more impressive! Again, there are not many people (unlike at Agua Azul), and you can walk all around the waterfall amidst the dense jungle. Due to the humidity, it is quite a sweaty activity, but when you walk right behind the waterfall, you get a refreshing spray of water all over you!

At night, we found a very unique little Italian restaurant (since we live here, we don’t feel the urge to always eat Mexican food…) hidden in the jungle. It is called Monte Verde and it feels very remote. When you feel like you have reached the end of the world already, keep driving. Of course, there are no lights on the way, so the ride gets a little bumpy, but the experience is worth it! We sat outside on the terrace and were the only guests after a most suspicious little group of people, consisting of one guy and three ladies whom he all kissed and caressed equally, had left. Uh, well, those Mexican machos, they seem to do something right with the ladies… But anyway, the food was really good and cheaper than cheap – a perfect end to a beautiful start of our vacation!

Sounds all lovely and cosy, doesn’t it? Well, it got all rougher and more adventurous afterwards, you’ll see!

Do you need anything? Customs regulations for Mexico

Sign No. 392 – customs. Passing without stoppi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever people announce a visit, they are so kind as to offer to bring things that are hard to get by here. However, there is a lot of confusion in terms of what is allowed and what not. So here’s the deal:

You are allowed to bring gifts up to a value of 300 USD. Yayyy! But don’t bring too many cameras or recorders – you are only allowed one piece each. (I haven’t read any regulations regarding jewelry… or fabulous bags… just saying.) Whatever exceeds 300 bucks, I always remove all signs of it being new (or a gift), so who could know? (By the way, I read that you can carry up to 10,000 USD in cash, just in case you were wondering. I guess, that should be enough for a short vacation.)

Most websites claim that you must not bring food whatsoever, and when you fill out the customs questionnaire that you get prior to or on your flight, there is a section where they ask you whether you carry any foods. If you want to go through immigration in one swift swoosh, don’t pack food and tick off “No”. But giving in to my many cravings, I was brave enough to carry food on various occasions – sometimes facing difficulties when passing customs, sometimes not.

Of course, you must not carry any fresh food – but honestly, who would do that? Yes, I would love to take some lobster home from Seattle, but I somehow sensed it might not be the smartest thing to do… I once brought something like 20 lbs of German marzipan (OK, it was slightly less… but only slightly!) and got stopped when passing customs. I had to open my suitcase, present the sweets and was good to go. My heart was pounding, though, since I had checked “No” on my customs form in response to whether I was carrying any food.

So next time, I honestly answered “Yes” on my questionnaire. After all, who would like to be on the black list for “Threatening and Food Regulations Violating Tourists” (or expats, in my case)? When you answer “Yes”, you have to turn to the customs office upon arrival and present the food that you intend to get into the country. Normally, those guys are very friendly and helpful, always interested in the exotic stuff that you carry, and then they might accompany you to the bio scan machine and wave you good-bye.

One time, though, I got a little stuck. I had bought couscous (a coarse kind of couscous that I haven’t found here, yet) that had been packed at the store, so it was just in a clear plastic bag with a handwritten label. I shouldn’t have done that! After explaining everyone what it was and how to prepare it, where I had bought it, what Seattle was like and whether I liked Mexican food, I was told I couldn’t import it, since it wasn’t safe. Only food that comes in its original package is allowed into the country to make sure you don’t schlep any germs into the country. Makes sense, I guess.

After I had given all proper cooking instructions to the nice lady, she took pity on me, though, and let me keep my precious couscous. Taking the above-mentioned regulations into account, it didn’t make sense, but who was I to complain?

So if you want to bring food, I would recommend to be honest about it, claim it on your customs form, and normally, you should be allowed to keep it. If you are a cissy like me, it saves you a lot of sweat and keeps your blood pressure at a normal level, even though as a result the customs may take longer. But who knows, you also might gain a new friend!

To wear or not to wear

Until yesterday, my brother in-law was staying with us for a few days which gave us an opportunity to (again) do all the fun tourist stuff. On those days when it wasn’t raining buckets. So once again, I felt like a tourist and got to all the tourist watch hotspots. (Some of you may remember that I LOVE to watch tourists!)

And it crossed my mind: Why are tourists so prone to bad choices when it comes to their holiday outfits? It seems that they like to buy anything that appears to be funny. Possibly only after a couple of drinks at the beach bar. Yes, we all like to spend more money when travelling, but the vacation taste level is something that often leaves me in awe.

To be honest, I too stumbled into the same pitfall once. I was 15 and on a summer vacation with my best friend in the north of France, when I discovered a super hot black and white stretch dress that made me look like a sad cladded stick. On top of that, I fell in love with a silly something that was supposed to be a hat. It was made from red and golden brocade, and I still have no idea what was with its shape. It was just sitting on my head like a frisbee and the minute I moved my head, it slipped off. Really bad. I put it in my suitcase and looked at it from time to time proud of my daring purchase. After that, though, I never managed to come home with something REALLY stupid.

Stuffed tiger wearing a sombrero

Stuffed tiger wearing a sombrero (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I am not alone. Hats are very popular amongst tourists. Of course, hats come in handy at the beach, but a lot of tourists who normally never dare to wear a hat like to go overboard during their vacation. They like to put them on with a big gesture as if trying to say: “I know it looks silly, but it is my holiday!” while inside they hope everybody will notice how cute they look.

It seems that people on vacation like to buy things they consider funny. I mean, honestly, ladies, would you ever consider wearing a long stretchy cross-striped dress at home? (And I am not talking to the Kate Mosses amongst us. THEY can wear anything anyway.) No? Why? Because it makes you look bigger? Guess what, same rule applies during vacation but nobody seems to care at a beach resort. And only because you make a funny face for the camera, your body doesn’t look smaller.

What’s with those funny pictures anyway? People like to put on silly hats, stick out their tongues, give the photographer a cross-eyed look – while at home they always try to sit pretty for the picture. Do they truly believe their colleagues will get jealous when they see them pulling faces in really bad clothes?

Tattoo in progress

Tattoo in progress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And what happens to their purchases after their holidays? Do they throw them out or do they keep it like I did back then? Some souvenirs, though, are hard to get rid of anyway. Since sometimes, strange looking clothes are not enough. People like to go wild on vacation. The accountant sips a margarita and decides to go for a tattoo or a piercing or both. At home, she will only show that to her best friend and they will both giggle a little. But who knows, maybe when she is 90, she will still look at that little heart and sigh and think of her wild vacation…

I really have to have a look now whether I still kept my red and golden thingy somewhere… Man, those were good times…

Say Hello to Rain Season

So there we go again. The rainy season has started. Right on time, may I add, for the arrival of my brother in-law from England. At least, he won’t get homesick, I guess.

And while I hear all the summer-sunshine-ice-cream stories from home and read the summer-is-beautiful stories from my fellow bloggers, the water level in our pool is undeniably rising, in fact, wouldn’t our pool guy take out some water once in a while, our whole garden would be flooded by now. And it’s for free, that’s the good news.

Some of you might remember my struggles with a local newly designed outdoor swimming pool on the parking lot of our supermarket and my good intentions when it comes to rainy weather. And yes, I have managed so far to not get annoyed by all the water, only my dog Mrs P. sadly refuses to leave the house. Well, she is a princess.

Rain here is a funny thing. You cannot put on your rainboots, since it is too hot. Same goes for rain jackets. Often you cannot take an umbrella, because it is too gusty. But nobody really seems to care. Water is getting in everywhere, into every house, every shop, every restaurant. (Which can be helpful when being househunting.) People spend more time in shopping malls. It rains through the roof there, too, but you have enough space to move around all the buckets. A clear advantage to their tiny homes.

On the streets, the water rises so high that you can sometimes just pray that you may float in the direction you want to go. People who only have a scooter have to take the little public transport vans. Or they just stay at home, which is the more common thing to do.

Rain is a perfect tool to spot newly arrived expats. They are the ones who look at all the buckets and indoor puddles in astonishment, shaking their heads, while the rest of us just go on about their day without even noticing those minor details.

Rain is also good for downtown bars. Frustrated tourists seek shelter and get drunk. Maybe it is easier to tolerate the wet surrounding when it all becomes blurry.

No, I cannot say that I have been particularly looking forward to the rainy season, and I hope that we will get some nicer days soon so we can show my brother in-law around. If not, well, then at least he knows what summer is all about on the Riviera Maya!